Brian Banks Movie (2019) Review | Screen Rant

Brian Banks‘ real-life story is one that risks coming off very badly in a movie. It deals with highly sensitive topics – specifically, a false rape accusation – that require delicate handling to avoid being problematic in their portrayal. That it also involves an innocent black teenager being coerced into accepting a plea deal (in order to serve a broken justice system) is almost a secondary issue. For his film adaptation, then, Tom Shadyac (directing his first non-documentary since his life-changing bicycling accident in 2007) takes an especially heavy-handed, but otherwise steady approach that allows star Aldis Hodge to do the heavy lifting. Good intentions and Hodge’s eloquent, stirring performance help to compensate for Brian Banks‘ shortcomings as a thinly-sketched inspirational biopic.

Hodge stars in Brian Banks as the film’s namesake, a Long Beach native and high school football linebacker with the potential to make it all the way to the NFL. Everything changes, however, when Brian is falsely accused of sexual assault by another student, Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore), in the summer of 2002. Despite having evidence that proves his innocence, Brian is advised by his lawyer to take a plea deal and assured that it won’t involve jail time. In reality, though, he ends up being sentenced to five years in prison and another five of probation while registered as a sex offender. Upon completing his time in prison, Brian subsequently reaches out to the California Innocence Project and its overseer, Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), in the hopes that they will help overturn the charges against him and give him back his life.

Rather than taking a strictly linear storytelling approach, Shadyac and writer Doug Atchinson (Akeelah and the Bee) wisely drop viewers into Brian’s life while he’s still on probation and – because of his past – struggling to find an employer who will actually hire him. This allows the film to frame the events of his past through Brian’s personal memories and recollections, and (somewhat literally) let him recount his own story. The problem is that Brian Banks tends to spoon-feed all these details to viewers through expository voiceover dumps, rather than finding other, more subtle ways of communicating this information visually or perhaps through less expositional dialogue. As a result, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of insight about the real Brian’s life that couldn’t be gained from merely reading his Wikipedia page or even one of the primary sources listed therein.

Information-laden flashbacks aren’t the only thing that Brian Banks goes overboard with, either. The film also relies heavily on montages to condense time and keep things moving at a swift pace, but at the expense of a deeper exploration of the legal obstacles that Brian had to overcome in his battle to clear his name (and what they say about the criminal justice system at large). Indeed, where something like Ava DuVernay’s recent Netflix miniseries When They See Us was a highly polished and thoughtful examination of a real-life miscarriage of justice involving young black men in America, Shadyac’s movie looks and feels like a more amateurish version of a similar project. Fortunately, Brian Banks is generally careful about treating issues like racism and sexual assault with the weightiness that they deserve, rather than exploiting them for dramatic effect.

That said, it’s Hodge who saves Brian Banks from mediocrity. A longtime standout in film and television, Hodge does a sublime job of capturing Brian’s determination and desperation with his performance, especially in the quieter or silent moments where he isn’t saddled with delivering voiceover narration. Thankfully, the movie further avoids rewriting history and makes Brian the real hero of his own story, rather than presenting the well-meaning CIP and Justin (brought to life by a capable Kinnear) as being his saviors. Melanie Liburd, by comparison, is good but partly underused as Karina, a woman who befriends Brian during his journey despite her own traumatic past. As for Roquemore as Kennisha: the story neither vilifies nor entirely humanizes Brian’s accuser, but instead paints her in a sympathetic – if, again, under-developed – light, leaning on Roquemore to fill in the cracks.

Overall, Brian Banks is a (mostly) non-problematic dramatization of the title character’s life story that narrowly avoids being a well-meaning, but middling biopic thanks to its main cast (including, an uncredited Oscar-winner whose presence here is complicated for real-world reasons). Banks’ tale is important when it comes to illustrating how race and class impact criminal allegations – specifically, those that involve sexual assault – and the way they are treated in the eyes of the law, but the movie about him is far more effective at bringing greater attention to his experiences than thriving as a work of cinema. Still, for those who are interested in learning more about, well, Brian Banks, this one is worth checking out at some point.

Brian Banks is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language.


2019-08-09 04:08:11

Sandy Schaefer

The Peanut Butter Falcon Movie Reviews | Screen Rant

There’s something deeply personal about Shia LaBeouf’s performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon. His character, Tyler, is in many ways a broken man; once a happy, clean-shaven lad who spent his nights bar-hopping with his brother (Jon Bernthal, always a pleasure, even in dialogue-free flashbacks), he’s a traumatized, scruffy crab fisher prone to violence by the time the film introduces him in the present. (The comparisons to LaBeouf’s much-publicized offscreen struggles in the real world write themselves.) It’s a testament to just how endearing the Peanut Butter Falcon himself, Zak, is that Tyler’s personal journey from whisky-swigging outlaw to nurturing and protective mentor never strains credibility in the movie, either.

Self-described as a “modern Mark Twain style adventure story”, The Peanut Butter Falcon – an Audience Award winner at the 2019 SXSW – is a part buddy comedy, part idiosyncratic, yet heartfelt, odyssey through the U.S. South that lives up to the promise of that description. The scrappy hero at the heart of its story is brought to life by Zack Gottsagen, making this a frustratingly still-rare occurrence where an individual with a disability – in this case, Down Syndrome – is allowed to portray a fully-developed character on the big screen. As such, there’s an authenticity and sincerity to not only the filmmaking here, but also its efforts to offer some good representation. Fueled by LaBeouf and Gottsagen’s screen chemistry, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes for a charmingly funny and often touching adventure.

Gottsagen, as Zak, has a rebellious spirit that would indeed make Huck Finn proud; left without a family, he spends his days either trying to escape his tedious life at a retirement house – with more than a little help from his fellow residents – or rewatching an old VHS tape featuring his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), and dreaming of attending his wrestling school. When he finally manages to break out (in naught but his underwear), Zak unexpectedly crosses paths with Tyler, who’s only recently gone on the run himself for reasons involving arson and an angry fellow fisherman named Duncan (John Hawkes). And as unlikely a duo as they might be, the bond that forms between them is genuinely moving and sweet without ever becoming saccharine or resorting to unearned sentimentality.

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (both making their feature debut), The Peanut Butter Falcon follows these “fugitives” on a journey that brings them face to face with an eclectic assortment of Southerners, even as they travel on foot or by riverboat. The film was heavily informed by Nilson’s memories and experiences living in North Carolina (though it was actually shot in Georgia), and it shows; far from feeling like a tourist’s guide to the American South, the movie’s setting is a rich and textured world of swamps, deltas, and tall grass painted in warm shades of green and brown by DP Nigel Bluck (who, as illustrated by his previous work on True Detective, knows this region all too well), and further enhanced by the beautifully rustic soundtrack and score from Zachary Dawes, Noah Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, and Gabe Witcher. As far as first time efforts go, it’s enjoyably assured and confident in its tone and general style.

That’s not to say the film is without its shortcomings; as much as The Peanut Butter Falcon is an offbeat work of indie cinema, it’s still drawing from the tried and true tropes of the road movie genre, and ultimately finds its way along a familiar path. Similarly, a number of the supporting players here teeter on the edge of being stereotypes – but come off as real people in the hands of such capable talents – and Dakota Johnson isn’t afforded quite the same amount of time and attention as her co-leads, even though her character (Eleanor, the gentle nursing home employee who’s tasked with bringing Zak in) is essential to the movie’s emotional core. Nevertheless, its overarching message about the importance of families formed, coupled with its sympathies for the plight of its marginalized and/or troubled protagonists, makes these flaws all the easier to accept.

In addition to being a warm-hearted and refreshingly personal alternative to the more generic and corporate-minded tentpoles of the summer, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes a star out of the delightful Gottsagen, and may even herald the beginning of the incoming LaBeouf-aissance (ahead of his already acclaimed autobiographical drama, Honey Boy, hitting theaters later this fall). The film’s lovely rural visuals and scenery alone makes it worth checking out on the big screen, but it’s also the sort of performance-driven offering that, of course, can still be appreciated at home by those who don’t get the chance to see it in theaters. Those who do, however, are encouraged to hop aboard this cinematic river raft and follow its heroes on their winding, wondrous voyage.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 93 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking.


2019-08-09 04:08:07

Sandy Schaefer

The Kitchen (2019) Movie Review | Screen Rant

The Kitchen is a decently enjoyable mob movie, with stellar lead performances, but a lackluster script from first-time director Andrea Berloff.

With the rise in popularity of comic book movie adaptations, Hollywood studios have snatched up the rights to titles that range from superhero epics to more grounded dramas. Falling into the latter camp is The Kitchen, a film adaptation of the same-named Vertigo comic book series created by writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle. The movie benefits from a great deal of star power in its three leads: Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish – all of whom have proven their acting abilities many times over already. The Kitchen is a decently enjoyable mob movie, with stellar lead performances, but a lackluster script from first-time director Andrea Berloff.

The Kitchen follows three wives of Irish mob members – Kathy (McCarthy), Claire (Moss) and Ruby (Haddish) – in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, New York, who must fend for themselves when their husbands are arrested by the FBI. Though the remaining mafia boss assures they’ll be taken care of, the three women quickly discover that if they’re going to provide for themselves, they’ll have to get much more involved with their husbands’ business. In a short amount of time, Kathy, Ruby and Claire build a small empire for themselves as the new bosses of Hell’s Kitchen. They run into some trouble with the old ways of the Irish mob, but the wives have an ally in hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), who helps them with the dirtier side of the job. But when it comes time for their husbands to be released from prison, it remains to be seen if Kathy, Claire and Ruby will be able to hold onto what they’ve built.

Berloff, who’s scripted Straight Outta Compton, Sleepless and Blood Father in recent years, makes her directorial debut on The Kitchen, for which she also wrote the script. Though Berloff’s direction helps to showcase both the intimate drama and tense action of The Kitchen, the script leaves something to be desired. Whether due to the adaptation process or other factors, the movie speeds through its plot points as if checking them off a list, leaving little time for viewers to learn much about Kathy, Claire and Ruby beyond their surface-level motivations, let alone become too invested in their lives. The Kitchen seems to be intended as a character drama set in the world of the New York City mafia, but it winds up feeling much too light on the actual characters.

Thankfully, the skillful performances of McCarthy, Haddish and Moss fill in some of the blanks, giving Kathy, Ruby and Claire more depth. But, again, they’re not helped by the script, which has McCarthy’s Kathy taking certain character turns that aren’t well enough established within the story. McCarthy works to fill in the gaps in Kathy’s emotional journey, but the arc still feels like it’s missing something. Haddish and Moss are similarly underserved by the script, with the former forced to play out a character arc that can’t make sense to the audience until it’s explained by a third-act twist, while the latter isn’t given enough time in the movie to truly dive into Claire’s transformation from a domestic abuse survivor into a mafia boss. So while McCarthy, Haddish and Moss do what they can with what they’re given and do elevate The Kitchen, they’re inevitably held back by the script.

Ultimately, The Kitchen had a great deal of potential as an examination of mafia and gender politics in 1970s New York City, with an incredibly talented cast, but fails to live up to that potential. What it may lack in character study, though, The Kitchen makes up for with an entertaining story told at a breakneck speed – and enough fantastic needle drops of classic 70s songs to keep music fans engaged. The Kitchen is certainly a much different mafia story than we’re used to seeing Hollywood, but it perhaps leans a little too far into that fact. The women of The Kitchen have no qualms about telling anyone who will listen how much they hate the way the men run things (or just how much they hate men, both in general and specifically), which can either come across as refreshingly honest or overwhelmingly pandering depending on the scene – and the viewer.

As such, The Kitchen is a fine watch for anyone who was already anticipating the movie, though they may want to temper their expectations. It certainly stands out as a much more grounded comic book adaptation, but even in The Kitchen’s strongest moments, it’s tough to ignore all the squandered potential of its premise and cast. Because of this, and a lack of spectacle – aside from the admittedly stunning 70s costumes – those interested in checking out The Kitchen don’t necessarily need to see it in theaters, and could wait for its home release. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss are a compelling team-up on screen, but The Kitchen is by no means the most satisfying comic book movie of the year.

Trailer

The Kitchen is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content.


2019-08-09 04:08:01

Molly Freeman

The Art of Racing in the Rain Movie Review | Screen Rant

Adapted from Garth Stein’s best-selling novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain naturally invites comparisons to Marley & Me; its poster even boasts that it hales “from the studio” behind that very book-turned film. But where the latter is a memoir that explores how a trouble-making dog becomes the grounding force for a family as life chucks one unexpected curveball after another their way, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a fictional narrative about the trials and tribulations of a professional race car driver, as seen (in the movie, sometimes literally) from the perspective of their unique pup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an approach that only partly works when translated to the big screen. The Art of Racing in the Rain‘s main conceit wields mixed returns, resulting in a family dramedy that’s whimsical and manipulative in equal measure.

The Art of Racing in the Rain plays out from the point of view of Enzo (whose inner monologue is brought to life via voiceover by Kevin Costner), a Golden Retriever who is purchased as a puppy by Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car instructor and driver with dreams of making it big as a racer. Enzo, however, is not like other dogs and is strongly attuned to the lessons he picks up about not only racing, but life in general from his owner and experiences. Complications eventually ensue when Denny meets Eve (Amanda Seyfried), a teacher whom he falls in love with and marries soon after, in spite of Enzo’s wariness towards her. In time, though, the latter comes to appreciate just how fragile life really is, and the ways that everyday existence is just like being on the racetrack.

Written for the screen by Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, War for the Planet of the Apes), The Art of Racing in the Rain carries over the broader narrative strokes of Stein’s source material – though, thankfully, it abandons the novel’s most problematic subplot (one that involves a teenaged girl named Annika) in favor of a melodramatic, but otherwise fitting substitute. Problem is, where the original book takes the time to fill out the smaller, but still important details of Denny and Eve’s lives in-between the life-changing events, the movie focuses more on just the “big” moments and comes off feeling all the more contrived for it. Meanwhile, Enzo’s narration can be hit or miss when it comes showing what their story is like when filtered through his eyes and voice; it sometimes adds a welcome touch of humor or sadness, while at other times it comes off as merely clunky and awkward. In fairness, though, it’s a tricky plot device and might be one that’s just better fit for the printed page.

Indeed, The Art of Racing in the Rain has a bad habit of violating that old show-don’t-tell rule of cinema and, as a result, all too often feels like a book that’s been turned into a movie. That’s not to take anything away from the work by Ventimiglia and Seyfried, of course; the pair help to elevate the soapy proceedings here and infuse Denny and Eve with greater depth (even if, at the end of the day, the latter functions more as a plot device than a person). The film’s supporting cast is equally sturdy in their parts, with Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker doing their best to bring some additional nuance to Eve’s wealthy, disapproving father Maxwell and kind, subservient mother Trish. All the same, “The Twins” (ask Enzo about that one) primarily serve as the antagonists in a greater story thread that only sorta earns its attempt at a heartstrings-tugging payoff.

There’s a similar sense of artificiality to the movie’s aesthetics. Director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin) and his DP Ross Emery (Woman in Gold) shoot The Art of Racing in the Rain in a squeaky-clean fashion and maintain an equally strict family-friendly tone throughout the story, even as its deals with some heavy adult issues and dilemmas. Unfortunately, this approach robs the film of much of its potential flavor, resulting in car racing sequences (yes, both in and out of the rain) that aren’t all that enthralling and imagined scenarios – where Enzo is either dreaming about being reincarnated as a human or, in one instance, hallucinating – that come off feeling a bit flat and uninventive in their staging. So, though it’s a perfectly handsome adaptation otherwise, the story’s fanciful moments especially might’ve benefitted from some bolder filmmaking choices.

When all is said and done, The Art of Racing in the Rain is simply another case of a much-celebrated book that makes for a just-okay film. Where there are instances where the movie matches the original novel’s peculiar sense of poetry, other elements really don’t resonate the way they do in literary form. Understandably, however, some viewers will find the film adaptation to be a highly effective tear-jerker, whereas others might be better off sticking with the version they envisioned in their mind while reading the novel (or just reading the novel to begin with). Still, in a year that has already seen a small handful of philosophical, if mawkish, tales about charming doggos hit the big screen, this might be the best of the lot.

The Art of Racing in the Rain begins playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, August 8. It is 107 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material.


2019-08-05 05:08:24

Sandy Schaefer

The Red Sea Diving Resort Movie Review | Screen Rant

The Red Sea Diving Resort blends war drama with spy thriller levity, making for an at times uneven, but enjoyable movie in which Chris Evans shines.

Earlier this year, Netflix acquired The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film about Israeli agents helping Jewish Ethiopian refugees flee from Ethiopia through Sudan to Israel. Because of the unique mission the movie recounts – in which the Israeli agents use a diving resort as a front to smuggle refugees out of Sudan – The Red Sea Diving Resort walks a thin line between light-hearted action-thriller and the more dramatic real world suffering of the Ethiopian refugees. The Red Sea Diving Resort blends war drama with spy thriller levity, making for an at times uneven, but enjoyable movie in which Chris Evans shines.

Evans stars as Ari Levinson, a Mossad agent dedicated to getting all the Jewish Ethiopian refugees safely to Israel, even if it means taking big risks along the way. However, when he’s arrested after escorting a group lead by Kebede Bimro (Michael K. Williams) to a refugee camp in Sudan, he’s sent back to Israel to report to his boss, Ethan Levin (Ben Kingsley). While is Israel, he devises a new plan: Use an abandoned resort in Sudan as a front to smuggle refugees onto covert Israeli ships just off the coast. There are a few hiccups along the way, including actual guests arriving at their fake resort, and the scrutiny of local Colonel Abdel Ahmed (Chris Chalk), but they’re more successful than anyone expected. As Sudan’s own political climate grows unstable, though, continuing with the Red Sea Diving Resort becomes much riskier – but Ari remains committed to saving as many refugees as possible.

Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff serves as writer and director on The Red Sea Diving Resort, which accounts for the film’s perspective. The film attempts to balance the narrative so that it’s not entirely about the Israeli agents, giving time to Williams’ Kebede and Chalk’s Colonel as well as a nameless young refugee. But The Red Sea Diving Resort is undoubtedly about Ari and his team: Rachel Reiter (Haley Bennett), Jake Wolf (Michiel Huisman), Sammy Navon (Alessandro Nivola) and Max Rose (Alex Hassell). Because of this, The Red Sea Diving Resort presents a white savior narrative, in which the stories of the white Israeli agents are more of the focus than of the Ethiopian Jews they’re saving. It’s undoubtedly a consequence of Raff focusing much of the narrative on Ari and his team, and even the decision to position Kebede as the narrator with opening and closing voiceover doesn’t detract from Red Sea Diving Resort being Ari’s story more than anyone else’s.

Because The Red Sea Diving Resort is Ari’s story, Evans is afforded the meatiest role in the film and he excels in playing another big damn hero type – one that isn’t too far off from the Captain America role that propelled him to action leading man status. Here, though, Evans plays a more roguish government agent, giving him a chance to be charming even as Ari sticks to his principles. What little depth there is to the character of Ari is provided in brief expository dialogue and Evans’ performance, but it feels like an entire subplot with Ari’s wife was cut. Instead, The Red Sea Diving Resort is rounded out by the cast playing Ari’s team, who work well together, particularly Nivola as Ari’s closest friend Sammy; Sammy and Ari’s dynamic works well to balance the action-heavy story in a human element. Williams and Chalk are also strong co-stars, but are given much less to work with. Altogether, it’s a solid cast lead by a good performance from Evans.

Overall, though, The Red Sea Diving Resort comes across like Raff wasn’t sure if he wanted to make an Ocean’s 11 style spy thriller or a more dramatic war drama akin to Blood Diamond. The result is an oddly light-hearted refugee action-thriller that includes both montages of Evans doing push-ups in short-shorts and closeups on dead Ethiopian refugees murdered by the Sudanese army. Somehow, it actually works better than expected. For the most part, Raff is able to tie all the disparate elements of the movie together for a thematically consistent story, even if sacrifices were made to do so. Namely, Raff uses dead or tortured Ethiopians to establish stakes for the white characters, but does little to truly develop the refugees as characters aside from Kebede.

While that was Raff’s choice as filmmaker, and may have made for a more succinct story, some viewers may understandably take issue with The Red Sea Diving Resort’s portrayal of its Ethiopian characters through a white savior narrative (as well as the Zionist messaging of the film). As such, The Red Sea Diving Resort isn’t necessary viewing for all movie fans, but should entertain those already keen to give it a chance. In fact, the movie may be most enjoyed by fans of Evans who want to see him in roles different than Captain America (but not too different) or those interested in the historical premise, but who know a movie can’t tell the whole story. The Red Sea Diving Resort operates in a weird middle ground between spy thriller and war drama that may be the perfect blend of genres for some, but may be the worst of each for other viewers. Thankfully, with The Red Sea Diving Resort releasing on Netflix, the barrier of entry is low, and if viewers aren’t captivated, they can easily turn it off.

Trailer

The Red Sea Diving Resort starts streaming on Netflix Wednesday July 31st. It is 129 minutes long and rated TV-MA.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!


2019-07-28 10:07:05

Molly Freeman

The Farewell (2019) Movie Review | ScreenRant

The premise for The Farewell – writer-director Lulu Wang’s Sundance Film Festival breakout success – is one of those that could lend itself to a familial tragedy just as easily as a situational comedy in the vein of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (but with a poignant twist). It’s to the movie’s credit, though, that it deftly avoids being either of those things. Instead, Wang draws inspiration from her real-life grandmother’s illness (her script is “Based on an actual lie”, as its tone-setting opening title card puts it), as well as her own history as someone who moved from China to the U.S. at a very young age, in order to tell a story that defies basic genre labels. Thanks to Wang’s deeply personal direction and Awkwafina’s subtly profound performance, The Farewell offers a touching and truly authentic experience.

Awkwafina stars in The Farewell as Billi, a young Chinese-American woman and wannabe writer who suffers a blow when she’s rejected for a fellowship – something she decides to keep to herself. Turns out, though, Billi isn’t the only one sitting quietly on some big news; as she soon learns from her mother Jian (Diana Lin) and father Haiyan (Tzi Ma), her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) – whom Billi is very close is – has terminal cancer, but her family has decided not to tell her. Instead, they’re going to pretend that Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend of only three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), are getting married, so that everyone can gather together in China and visit Nai Nai one last time before she passes. But can Billi (who joins them against her parents’ wishes) really avoid spilling the beans about a secret that huge?

Part of what makes The Farewell such an rewarding piece of storytelling is that maintains a delicate balancing act between comedy and drama throughout its runtime; in the end, it’s neither the farce nor the tearjerker that it could’ve been, but something more elegant and relatable altogether. Comparisons to My Big Fat Greek Wedding aren’t necessarily unwarranted either, even if The Farewell isn’t actually a rom-com or even a straight comedy. But where Nia Vardalos’ hit used popular tropes as a way of getting at deeper truths about the struggle of coming to terms with one’s heritage and cultural identity when you’ve long had to exist between two worlds, Wang’s script does so by rejecting conventions at every turn and finding ways to quietly subvert them instead. In doing so, it just about always embraces honesty over going for the easy laugh or punch to the gut, and winds up being all the more authentically funny and genuinely moving for it.

Awkwafina’s performance is also essential to the film’s success; rather than portraying the character as a sad clown or an excessively serious version of her comedic persona in other projects, she plays Billi as a real person with a sense of humor, but also one with deeper feelings that only bubble up to the surface every so often (like when she’s banging on the piano). Wang shoots much of The Farewell in wide shots and extended takes that allow the cast’s performances room to breathe and really highlight the difference between Billi and her family, when it comes to the way that they bottle up their feelings or insist on putting Nai Nai’s well-being ahead of their own. The movie finds other ways of showing that Billi always feels like an outsider no matter where she is, too; for example, in the U.S., she’s constantly speaking to Nai Nai in Mandarin over the phone, whereas in China she’s often reminded of her lack of fluency in the language. It’s a smart approach that gently illustrates her experiences as a Chinese-American immigrant without simply hitting audiences over the head.

But as strong as Awkwafina is during the scenes by herself, Billi’s dynamic with her family is equally important to the film’s themes and tonal juggling. She and Shuzhen, for example, have such an easy-going chemistry that one would be forgiven for assuming they’re a granddaughter and grandmother in real-life. The same goes for Lin and Ma as her parents and the way that they’re often at odds with Billi over her American sense of individuality and emotional outlook. Indeed, there’s nary a character who isn’t fascinating to watch as they try and deal with the extremely awkward situation that they’re in (the looks on Han and Mizuhara’s faces throughout everything that happens tell a story on their own). And of course, China is a crucial element of the movie in and of itself, thanks to the way that Wang and her DP Anna Franquesa Solano lovingly photograph everything from the interiors of Nai Nai’s home to the various locations around Changchun that Billi visits on her trip.

Overall, The Farewell is not only a great film, but also the perfect antithesis to the average summer blockbuster in theaters right now. It tells a very personal and culturally specific story, yet also one that offers humor and heartbreak for anyone (which is to say, everyone) who’s ever felt like they were out of place during an extended family gathering for, really, any occasion (even one far less dramatic than the case here). If there’s any justice, Wang film’s will both reach its audience and earn the recognition that it deserves for being one of the best movies to hit theaters in 2019 so far.

The Farewell is now playing in select theaters and will expand to additional markets over the upcoming weeks. It is 98 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.


2019-07-24 05:07:39

Sandy Schaefer

Avengers: Endgame Review – Marvel Delivers A Superhero Epic Like Never Before

Avengers: Endgame wraps up the story of the MCU so far, delivering an epic superhero adventure while honoring the past in a satisfying finale.

Marvel Studios kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe nearly 11 years ago with 2008’s Iron Man. Back then, they had a relatively modest vision of building to The Avengers by assembling a team of heroes from their respective origin movies into a single unit. In the decade since Robert Downey Jr. made his debut as Iron Man, the MCU has grown to include superheroes from all across the universe, from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, Avengers: Endgame marks the 22nd film in the MCU and sets out to achieve a feat Hollywood has never seen attempted before by ending the story that first began in Iron Man. And it does, in a spectacular accomplishment. Avengers: Endgame wraps up the story of the MCU so far, delivering an epic superhero adventure while honoring the past in a satisfying finale.

Avengers: Endgame picks up after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which saw the Avengers divided and defeated. Thanos won the day and used the Infinity Stones to snap away half of all life in the universe. Only the original Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – remain, along with some key allies in the forms of War Machine (Don Cheadle), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Each of the survivors deal with the fallout from Thanos’ Decimation in different ways, but when an opportunity presents itself to potentially save those who vanished, they all come together and set out to defeat Thanos, once and for all.

For Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios assembles its veterans behind the scenes as well, re-teaming directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who joined the MCU with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who’ve penned a total of six MCU movies since Captain America: The First Avenger. All that’s to say, Avengers: Endgame fits perfectly within the larger MCU in terms of direction and screenwriting because it was created by those who had a prominent hand in crafting the sprawling cinematic universe. And with so much experience under their belts, the Russos excel at balancing the superhero spectacle with human drama, while the more focused story of Endgame allows for the characters to truly shine. There are moments when the story gets a little unwieldy, suffering from similar problems to Infinity War in maintaining a consistent pace throughout the entire film. But Avengers: Endgame is meant to be a culminating epic and it’s clear that the Russos, Markus and McFeely took the care to make sure they got it right.

At the heart of Avengers: Endgame are the heroes we’ve been following since the very beginning. At this point in the franchise, there’re too many heroes for one movie – even a three-hour movie – to focus on all of them. Avengers: Infinity War undoubtedly struggled under the weight of balancing so many characters. With half the universe gone, Endgame is able to focus on the original six Avengers, who are the true center of the MCU (at least, so far). The film remarkably balances its character arcs so well it’s as if each hero gets a solo movie in Avengers: Endgame. There are certain character beats that may not work for all viewers, and even within the original six, certain heroes get more focus than others, unfortunately. To their credit, though, the actors give some of their best performances in the MCU, especially the original six: Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Ruffalo, Johansson and Renner. Even with future movies or TV shows already planned for some characters, this is the original Avengers team’s swan song, and the actors put their hearts and souls into Avengers: Endgame.

In addition to the character drama, Avengers: Endgame delivers superhero spectacle like nothing seen in the MCU – or any other superhero movie – ever before. With Endgame acting as the conclusion of the MCU thus far, it goes all in on action. There are times when Endgame falls back into Marvel’s old problems (hordes of unimportant villains, too much CGI and muted coloring), but they’re tempered with character-focused moments. While most of these are in service of the core six, each Marvel hero in Avengers: Endgame gets a moment to truly shine and join in on the superhero fun. Some of these moments are unashamedly fan service and, in fact, there’s a great deal of fan service in Avengers: Endgame overall. But after 11 years and 21 movies, Marvel has earned some fan service, and it all adds to the epic, event nature of Avengers: Endgame.

Ultimately, Avengers: Endgame is a whole lotta movie, but the filmmakers put every single second of its three-hour runtime to good use. Since Endgame concludes the Infinity Saga (the official title of the story thus far), Marvel and the filmmakers have the unenviable task of delivering a movie that satisfies all MCU fans. While there are bound to be aspects of Avengers: Endgame that don’t work for all viewers, for the most part the movie actually, truly offers a satisfying ending to the Infinity Saga. As a result, Avengers: Endgame is a must-see for Marvel fans, even those who have only a casual interest in the MCU. Because of the spectacle, it’s worth seeing Avengers: Endgame in IMAX, though it isn’t necessary to enjoy the movie. Marvel Studios’ latest faces the highest expectations of any Marvel Studios movie thus far and manages to exceed them, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Simply speaking, Avengers: Endgame is one of the best Marvel movies ever.

Trailer

Avengers: Endgame starts playing in U.S. theaters Thursday evening April 25th. It is 181 minutes long and rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!


2019-04-23 03:04:53

Molly Freeman

The Curse of La Llorona Review: The Conjuring Lite is Still Entertaining

First off, some clarification: yes, The Curse of La Llorona is a Conjuring movie. The film’s marketing has been relatively vague on this point, claiming that it simply hales “from the producers” of New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.’ popular horror franchise. However, following its premiere at SXSW in March, word quickly got out that the thriller exists in the same continuity as Valak, Bathsheba, and that trouble-making Annabelle doll. Whether that was always the case or not is open to speculation, but the connection ultimately makes sense… which is to say, the film draws so heavily from James Wan’s playbook on the original Conjuring that it might as well be an official spinoff. Despite a lack of originality and substance, The Curse of La Llorona makes for an entertaining funhouse ride of a movie set in The Conjuring universe.

The Curse of La Llorona director Michael Chaves has already been hired to helm The Conjuring 3 and it’s easy to see why, based on this film. Chaves shows a knack for crafting spooky set pieces and sequences here, using little more than a flickering light, a creaking door, or (in one memorable case) a transparent umbrella to build up tension before the inevitable jump scare hits. Naturally, some of these scenes are better executed than others, but Chaves does a nice job of mixing things up with his approach, as opposed to simply rehashing the same techniques or resorting to cheap shots. As with the other Conjuring movies, the sound editing is essential to The Curse of La Llorona‘s success in this regard. For the large part, the film relies on silence to create suspense, making it all the more effective when the eerie score by Conjuring 1 & 2 composer Joseph Bishara comes into play.

Occasionally, though, Chaves is guilty of cribbing from Wan’s bag of tricks here, especially when it comes to specific camera angles or pieces of visual storytelling (like a sequence shot that maps out the interior of the film’s soon-to-be haunted setting near the beginning). But then again, something similar could be said for The Curse of La Llorona at large. The screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart) is pretty bare-bones when it comes to plot and character development, doing little to distinguish the family in peril at the heart of the narrative – in this case, widowed social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) – from those in Conjuring movies past. At the same time, Cardellini delivers an engaging performance as the film’s lead and invites the audience’s sympathy, even when she makes a terrible mistake that’s responsible for La Llorona “latching” onto her and her kids in the first place.

Speaking of The Weeping Woman: those who’re fans and/or were raised on stories about the famous latino folklore specter may want to check their expectations. The character makes for a serviceably creepy villain in The Curse of La Llorona, but otherwise amounts to little more than a standard Conjuring movie monster. That goes double for the film’s central set piece and 1970s backdrop, which are equally acceptable in quality, but lack the rich sense of atmosphere and sinister production design that Conjuring spinoffs like Annabelle: Creation and The Nun had. And like the other movies in the franchise before it, The Curse of La Llorona ultimately gives up on trying to be low-key haunting in its third act, in favor of a finale that delivers louder thrills and action, but sacrifices the feeling of dread sustained throughout the film’s previous two-thirds.

Thankfully, Chaves never loses sight of what he wants The Curse of La Llorona to be (again, the cinematic equivalent of a scary theme park attraction) and keeps the story flowing at a steady pace, without getting hung up on the movie’s thinly-sketched themes about faith and personal loss. The supporting cast seems to be onboard with what the director’s going for here, as costars Patricia Velásquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Tony Amendola (who plays a familiar priest) all strike the right tone of seriousness without going too far or coming off as unintentionally campy in their performances. Indeed, one of the best parts of the film is Raymond Cruz as Rafael Olvera, an ex-priest turned independent demon fighter who brings a welcome touch of deadpan humor to the proceedings. It helps that Rafael’s an interesting character in his own right, and his mysterious backstory begs for further exploration. (Maybe in a future Conjuring spinoff?)

As far as Conjuring spinoffs go, The Curse of La Llorona is far from a mold-breaker, but it should get the job done for anyone in the mood for a fun, schlocky supernatural horror-thriller. The movie’s connection to the rest of the Conjuring universe is tenuous at best, so those who haven’t seen the previous films in the franchise (including, the mainline sequels and prequels) can feel comfortable about boarding the bandwagon here, if they’re interested. As for La Llorona: if the Annabelle movies – including this June’s midquel Annabelle Comes Home – have taught us anything, it’s that you just can’t keep a nasty demon down… assuming their films make big bucks at the box office, anyway.

The Curse of La Llorona is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 93 minutes long and is rated R for violence and terror.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!


2019-04-19 05:04:40

Sandy Schaefer

Someone Great Review: Gina Rodriguez’s Rom-Com Is A Win For Netflix

Someone Great puts a new spin on the rom-com genre with an entertaining romp through NYC as three friends reach turning points in their love lives.

Last year, Netflix found a great deal of success with their romantic comedy fare, and the streaming service responded to that success by upping the output of their original rom-coms. The latest to hit the streaming service, Someone Great, is a refreshing breath of air in the romantic comedy genre, focusing on three friends at a time of major upheaval in their lives. At the center is music journalist Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), who is broken up with by her boyfriend of nine years, Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), just before moving to San Francisco for a new job. She’s comforted by her friends Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) throughout one particular day and night in New York City, but Erin and Blair are dealing with their own relationship dramas. Someone Great was written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Sweet/Vicious), and is her directorial debut. Someone Great puts a new spin on the rom-com genre with an entertaining romp through NYC as three friends reach turning points in their love lives.

Someone Great largely focuses on the story of Jenny and her grief in the wake of her breakup with Nate. Through flashbacks, the movie explores various stages of their relationship, from the night they met through to the breakup. In present day, Jenny is reeling from the end of their nine-year relationship and trying to distract herself by spending time with her friends in one last hurrah before she moves across country. Instead of focusing on the start of a relationship, though, Someone Great goes a different rom-com route by detailing the end of a long-term relationship and depicting a woman trying – and sometimes failing – to move forward. The end of a relationship can be much messier than the start of one, and Someone Great portrays that facet of love and romantic relationships in an incredibly honest, realistic way.

But while Jenny is perhaps the main protagonist of Someone Great, Erin and Blair are also faced with their own important decisions with regard to their love lives. Erin has been casually dating Leah (Rebecca Naomi Jones) for months and must decide whether to commit or continue flaking out on someone she has real feelings for. Meanwhile, Blair is in an unfulfilling long-term relationship when her eye strays to a guy Jenny had a crush on in college, Matt (Peter Vack), who comes back into their lives. In these stories, which have almost as much focus in the movie as Jenny’s, Someone Great plays out two typical rom-com storylines – the romantic interest afraid to commit and the protagonist looking for someone more fulfilling. These arcs work to balance Jenny’s breakup with other tales of romantic love and depict different phases of romantic relationships, in similarly honest and realistic fashion, keeping Someone Great well within the rom-com genre.

But while Someone Great delivers the romantic storylines viewers would expect from a romantic comedy, the true strength of the movie is the friendship – platonic love – of the three main characters. And that’s undoubtedly thanks to the performances of Rodriguez, Wise and Snow, who portray these three friends’ relationship as complicated, but ultimately loving. Someone Great depicts a variety of love – self-love, platonic love, romantic love – in a way that feels much more true to life and revolutionary because of it, especially in a genre like romantic comedies that tend to elevate romantic love above all else. It helps to set Someone Great apart from other rom-coms, and the film ultimately delivers a much more honest picture of the lives of these modern women. A great deal of that is due to the performances of the three leads, but it also comes down to the film’s script.

Prior to Someone Great, Robinson’s main credit was the short-lived MTV drama Sweet/Vicious about a pair of girls who become vigilantes on their college campus taking down those who get away with abusive behavior. Like the TV show before it, Robinson’s Someone Great script features plenty of snappy dialogue and focuses on the bond of the film’s female characters, with their other relationships often taking a backseat to the core friendship. Robinson’s writing and directing on Someone Great elevates the film. And considering the well known hands-off approach Netflix takes to its originals, the quality of Someone Great is a testament to Robinson’s talent, as she once again showcases a unique and wholly necessary voice in Hollywood at the moment. Someone Great is further proof that we need more and different voices in a storied genre like that of rom-coms in order to keep it fresh and modern.

Ultimately, Someone Great is a wonderful addition to the romantic comedy genre, putting a new spin on the classic tropes and taking a look at a side to romantic relationships very rarely explored within films of this type. It’s a fun and enjoyable watch for rom-com fans, and/or those looking for strong female-fronted and female-created cinema. With the low barrier of entry that comes along with all Netflix originals, Someone Great has the potential for major success on the streaming platform. In the rom-com revival that we’ve seen over the last year or so – with Netflix as a major contributor – Someone Great fits well into the wave of new films that elevate the genre beyond (most of) the tired tropes of decades past, while still providing an entertaining romantic comedy experience.

Trailer

Someone Great is now available for streaming through Netflix. It is 92 minutes long and is rated R for drug content, drinking, sexual material and language throughout.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!


2019-04-19 05:04:16

Molly Freeman

Teen Spirit Review: As Simple But Delightful As a Catchy Pop Song

It’s a familiar tune: the small-town kid with big talent finally gets their shot at superstardom, assuming they can navigate all the potential pitfalls that come with it. Such is the basic premise for Teen Spirit, a music-fueled teen drama that features Elle Fanning as its onscreen pop star in the making, and serves as actor Max Minghella’s writing-directing debut. The movie earned a generally supportive reception from the journalists who caught its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and for perfectly valid reason. Teen Spirit is a simple yet exuberant coming of age story that, like the catchiest pop songs, successfully infuses an old formula with new life.

Fanning stars here as Violet Valenski, a 17-year old Polish girl who divides her time between going to school, trying to have a social life, and working to help her single mother, Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska), make ends meet in a small town on the Isle of Wight. She also daydreams of becoming a pop singer, and has the talent to make that fantasy a reality… if only someone would give her the opportunity. Sure enough, she gets just that when a world-famous singing competition called Teen Spirit holds auditions in her hometown. And just like in any other fairy tale, Violet get some assistance from an unexpected source in the form of Vlad (Zlatko Buric): a heavy-drinking local who, as it turns out, has some professional experience in this area.

Minghella’s Teen Spirit script follows a pretty clear-cut trajectory from the get-go and never really wavers from it thereafter; even the various obstacles it throws at Violet are typically predictable, as are the ways the film ultimately resolves them. Thankfully, Minghella doesn’t seem to have any pretensions about the narrative he’s weaving here, either, and spends most of his effort on infusing the formulaic proceedings with a real sense of panache, instead. At the same time, one of the movie’s best qualities is the way it takes pop music (however insubstantial it might seem to others) as seriously as its teenaged protagonist does, and never looks down its nose at her or her ambitions. Teen Spirit even manages to quietly subvert expectations at times, like the way its avoids painting Marla as a stereotypical nagging mother, and expresses real sympathy for her concerns about Violet’s pursuit of fame.

Stylistically, Teen Spirit often looks and feels like a music video (in a good way), between its energetic montages – some of which are set to toe-tapping instrumental versions of hit pop songs – and the scenes where Violet actually performs (and yes, Fanning can sing quite well). The movie was shot by cinematographer Autumn Durald, who draws from her experience working on music videos for real-life artists (like Janelle Monáe and The Arcade Fire) in order to express the passion and jubilance that Violet experiences when she sings through the film’s shiny and sometimes hyperreal visuals. Teen Spirit was clearly a low-budget production, but Minghella and his team nevertheless succeed in crafting some genuinely dynamic sequences here, and employ stylistic flourishes like lens flares and quick-cutting to help further spice things up.

For all its glitz and glamor, though, Teen Spirit still ends up telling a fairly basic story and never digs that deeply into its themes about the nature of celebrity (nor the questions that it raises about why Violet wants to be a pop star in the first place). Still, it’s elevated by a combination of Minghella’s direction and the cast’s performances, especially that by Fanning. In addition to her singing, Fanning paints a relatable portrait of an introverted teenager who expresses themselves through their art here, making it all the easier to cheer Violet on as she pursues her dreams. She has also a touching onscreen chemistry with Buric, whose character Vlad is very much the typical off-beat mentor, but a likable version of the archetype all the same. The other cast members (like Rebecca Hall as a music industry figure who immediately recognizes Violet’s potential for greatness) are far less developed by comparison, but are otherwise sturdy and make the most of the material they’ve given to work with.

At the end of the day, Teen Spirit isn’t trying to break the mold so much as it wants to prove that the mold doesn’t necessarily need to be shattered – if you have the right ingredients and enough creativity. In a way, it’s refreshing that Minghella doesn’t overstretch himself in his first-time directing and instead aims to deliver an enjoyably simple crowd-pleasing musical drama that has just enough meat on its bones to avoid feeling like a triumph of flashiness over substance. It might be not a must-see with everything else playing in theaters right now, but Teen Spirit is certainly worth a look at some point and suggests that we can continue to expect good things from Fanning and Minghella alike, on opposite sides of the camera. And yes, you’ll want to give the soundtrack a listen-to afterwards.

Teen Spirit is now playing in select areas and will expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks. It is 92 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!


2019-04-12 08:04:12

Sandy Schaefer