Missing Link Review: Laika’s Latest Has Great Animation, But a Thin Plot

In an era where the majority of mainstream animation is computer-generated and designed to have broad appeal, Laika has been content to dance to the beat of a far more idiosyncratic drum since it started making stop-motion features ten years ago. That more or less remains the case with Missing Link, their fifth offering overall and a comedy-adventure about an offbeat explorer (Hugh Jackman) and his newfound buddy, a Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis). Unfortuntely, while it marks their most impressive technical accomplishment yet, the studio’s latest lacks the personality and ambitious storytelling of their previous films. Missing Link is quite the visual feast, but its unremarkable narrative and characters (save for the charming Mr. Link) leave something to be desired.

Jackman lends his voice here to Sir Lionel Frost, an eccentric investigator of monsters and myths who’s determined to gain membership to Victorian-era London’s illustrious Optimates Club. Missing Link is the second recent time the ex-Wolverine actor has played a creative outsider whose obsession with social climbing threatens to be their undoing, following his turn as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. In Sir Lionel’s case, that drive comes from a desire to secure his legacy, having long been the black sheep in the eyes of his wealthy family and the unreservedly snooty members of the Optimates Club. Problem is, like Barnum, Sir Lionel is a far less interesting and charismatic protagonist than the characters he befriends (then exploits) for his own self-serving ends, over the course of his rather conventional personal arc.

In this case, that’s a reference to “Mr. Link” (Galifianakis), the eponymous Missing Link between humankind and their primate ancestors. Like a number of Galifianakis’ roles in the past, Mr. Link embodies a more sensitive form of masculinity and is not without his personality quirks, such as his tendency to be extremely literal minded. Overall, though, the character is pretty endearing and is responsible for many of the film’s biggest laughs, thanks to his childlike manner and general lack of self-awareness. At the same time, however, the script by longtime Laika animator-director Chris Butler struggles to present Sir Lionel and Mr. Link (or, as he comes to call himself, Susan) as flip sides of the same coin. Indeed, there’s a bit of a false equivalency drawn here between Sir Lionel’s desire to join the Optimates Club – a group that embodies everything bad about Victorian culture – and Susan’s wish to track down his relatives (the Yetis) in Shangri-La, so he won’t have to be alone anymore.

Missing Link‘s supporting characters are similarly rough in their presentation, beginning with Zoe Saldana as the movie’s female lead, Adelina Fortnight. Essentially the Marion Ravenwood to Sir Lionel’s Indiana Jones, Adelina ends up having little to do other than provide emotional support for Lionel and scoff at the idea that she’s a damsel… while constantly needing to be rescued, over and over. Saldana does perfectly fine voice work in the role all the same, as does Stephen Fry as the Optimates Club’s president and the film’s main villain, Lord Piggot-Dunceb. Missing Link is cheerfully satirical in the way it portrays Piggot-Dunceb and his peers as being comically regressive and conceited in their perspectives and manner, but for the most part the comedy feels pretty toothless. Basically, at this point, mocking Victorian Brits for being chauvinistic colonialists feels like an uninspired way to go about holding up a mirror to the problems in the world today.

Still, there’s no denying that Missing Link might be Laika’s most beautiful-looking film to date (which, after movies like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, is really saying something). Butler and his team of animators here bring settings as varied as smucky Victorian England to the wild Pacific Northwest and the majestic Himalayas to truly visually striking life, using an array of bold hues and intricately-detailed miniature sets. The studio’s stop-motion animation has never been more fluid and expressive either, even as they continue to eschew realism in favor of more stylized character designs and shapes/faces. On the other hand, it’s all the easeir to be frustrated by the film’s underwhelming plotting and character development when you consider how much time, hard-work, and passion was clearly poured into bringing this story to life.

All things considered, though, Missing Link is a perfectly sturdy film bolstered by its lovely animation. While it’s missing the emotional depth and rich themes of the studio’s better offerings, fans will no doubt appreciate Laika’s ongoing commitment to filling their movies with strange characters and equally weird humor (some more adult in nature than others). Those who are interested are encouged to see the film on the big screen, where they can really appreciate the sheer amount of detail that’s been poured into evey nook and cranny of its universe. After all, if the movie’s a success, then we may yet get another ten years of enjoyably oddball features from the studio.

Missing Link begins playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, April 11. It is 95 minutes long and is rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor.

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

2019-04-07 10:04:28

Sandy Schaefer

The Head Hunter Review: Medieval Creature Feature is Low-Budget Fun

With films like ThanksKilling and the Critters: Bounty Hunter short under his belt, director Jordan Downey is firmly in his low-budget wheelhouse on The Head Hunter. A mashup of medieval fantasy and monster horror, Downey’s latest movie has screened at a handful of festivals ahead of its release, and even won some big prizes at Portugal’s Fantasporto 2019 in February. While he clearly had limited resources to draw from here, Downey is nevertheless able to deliver a mean and lean tale of revenge with a surprisingly rich sense of atmosphere. Armed with a pulpy spirit and plenty of monster gore to go around, The Head Hunter makes for enjoyably gnarly fantasy horror B-movie entertainment.

Christopher Rygh stars here as “Father”, a medieval monster hunter who sets out to slay the creature that murdered his daughter (Cora Kaufman) some years before. The film’s opening alone invites comparisons to something like The Revenant, with its beautifully desaturated visuals and chilling shots of seemingly endless frozen woodland. Downey and his cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who cowrote the script with Downey) make similarly heavy use of natural lighting and shadows throughout the movie to give it an unexpected amount of texture. The pair also made the smart decision to shoot The Head Hunter in comparatively remote locations in Portugal and Mammoth Lakes, California. These vast and unspoiled landscapes help to create the feeling that this story really is unfolding in an ancient setting where all manner of monsters roam the earth.

The first half of The Head Hunter is something of a mood piece that focuses on the grimly monotonous rituals of Father’s day to day life (hunting creatures for money, making fire, cooking a mysterious substance that heals his battle wounds). Rygh does a good job of carrying the film on his shoulders in these scenes, even with half a dozen to a dozen lines of dialogue (if that many) to flesh out the character and his motivation. In a way, this portion of the movie feels like a weird version of Never Cry Wolf, only with fantastical monsters running amok instead of Arctic fauna. The pacing never drags, however, and these moments do a nice job of establishing just how unforgivingly brutal and dangerous Father’s world truly is.

As the second half gets underway, The Head Hunter evolves into a monster horror-thriller more along the lines of Predator (where it’s not entirely clear who’s really the hunter and who’s the prey). While the movie offers little more than fleeting glimpses of Father’s opponent (aka. “The Head”), it’s for the best, given the character’s low-cost design. Downey smartly sets the action at night to better hide the limitations of the monster, which is brought to life as a blend of practical and digital effects. This further gives rise to some tense sequences where Father must struggle around the natural barriers of the movie’s setting, in his efforts to find and execute The Head. If anything, this segment of the film wraps up too quickly and feels like it could’ve benefitted from some additional breathing room.

All in all, The Head Hunter makes for a pretty creative exercise in minimalism and genre moviemaking. Of course, there are times when the film’s low budget shows, and those hoping for lots of monster brawls will disappointed to know that most of the fights take place off-screen (again, for cost-reducing reasons). The story is a real meat and potatoes narrative too, and is overall lacking when it comes to substance and emotional impact. Still, Rygh has the screen presence needed to pass for a convincingly Conan the Barbarian-like brutish warrior, and his adventure at large has an equally dark and rugged vibe. That goes double for the world he lives in, thanks to a combination of the scenery and the intricately detailed production design of Father’s cabin and weaponry.

While The Head Hunter doesn’t demand to be enjoyed on the largest screen available, its visuals are surprisingly rich for such a low-budget film, and would mostly benefit from being seen in a theater. Then again, it’s all the easier to be forgiving of the movie’s flaws and (very) short runtime when you’re watching it for a lower price at home, so On Demand might be the better option anyway. If anything, this is the sort of B-movie that leaves you wondering what its director and crew could do with a proper studio budget (even a mid-range one). Until that happens, here’s hoping Downey continues to make fun, pulpy genre fare along these lines in the future.

The Head Hunter is now playing in select theaters and available On Demand. It is 72 minutes long and is Not Rated.

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

2019-04-05 04:04:57

Sandy Schaefer

Unicorn Store Review: Brie Larson Shines In Shallow Coming-Of-Age Story

Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut, Unicorn Store, has more style than substance, but a charming lead performance and important message buoy it.

The offbeat, whimsical coming-of-age comedy Unicorn Store first premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival before finding a distribution home with Netflix. The streaming service has made a name in Hollywood for its feature film strategy, releasing a variety of movies that range from high profile acquisitions like The Cloverfield Paradox to major fare of their own like Bird Box and Roma. However, while Unicorn Store is a relatively smaller movie in terms of Netflix’s release slate, it comes with a few big names attached. Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut, Unicorn Store, has more style than substance, but a charming lead performance and important message buoy it.

Unicorn Store stars Larson as Kit, an imaginative woman who fails out of art school when a minimalist professor doesn’t appreciate her overly colorful and vibrant work. Kit returns home to her mother and father – Gladys (Joan Cusack) and Gene (Bradley Whitford) – where she feels like a disappointment, especially as her parents rave about Kevin (Karan Soni), a man Kit’s age who works at their outdoor camp. In an effort to prove she can be successful, Kit gets a temp job at a public relations company. But Kit’s life is soon changed when she’s invited to “The Store”, where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who offers to sell her a unicorn – though there are a few requirements first.

Putting aside the overly ridiculous, though arguably necessary setup of an art student failing out of art school for being too creative, Unicorn Store’s offbeat premise largely works in terms of walking a fine line between reality and fantasy. Though, this line gets incredibly messy at times. The story manages to balance the more strange aspects of the story – Kit hiring a man, Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), to build her a unicorn stable – with a parallel arc of her life at the office. However, the movie works best when Kit is forced to confront the fantastical ideas of her imagination and figure out how they can fit into the reality of her life. The disparity between Kit working to achieve her childhood fantasy while also establishing her “grown up” life is where the film finds its coming-of-age story, though some of its messaging about growing up is a bit overly obvious.

Unicorn Store does a lot of telling, rather than showing, how Kit grows up and the lessons she learns along the way: you can’t buy happiness, failure isn’t a sign of immaturity, etc. Along those lines, Unicorn Store seems to have a great deal to say about growing up as an artist and not sacrificing your voice to appease those around you, but often it comes across as the movie being more focused on its messaging than telling a good, well-developed story. To be certain, the message of Unicorn Store is important, and with a script by Samantha McIntyre (Married), the film brings a much-needed female perspective to the coming-of-age genre. Kit is no doubt a character many women can relate to on some level, as she’s forced to give up the “girly” aspirations of her youth for a more straight-laced life. However, Unicorn Store is still incredibly superficial in its depiction of Kit and her coming-of-age story.

The main reason Unicorn Store works as well as it does is the performances of the main cast, Larson in particular. She manages to ground Kit in a way that feels realistic, even as it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto that suspension of disbelief that a grown woman could believe unicorns exist. Still, Larson is charming enough to get away with it, and she carries Kit’s arc well. Further, she works well across from each of her co-stars, Jackson in particular, who goes much more whimsical than usual as The Salesman. It’s an incredibly fun performance from Jackson and helps sell the movie’s more fantastical side. The Unicorn Store cast is rounded out well by Cusack and Whitford, while Athie is a wonderful match for Larson on screen in terms of charm.

Ultimately, Unicorn Store is far from a quintessential coming-of-age story, but it does offer enough of a new spin on the genre to be entertaining. Further, anyone who’s felt like they had to sacrifice creativity for success will find a relatable protagonist in Larson’s Kit. Unicorn Store isn’t likely to be one of Netflix’s breakout hits, but the low barrier of entry afforded to movies by being on one of the most popular streaming services will no doubt mean more people are willing to check it out. To be sure, Unicorn Store is worth seeing for those already interested, but its offbeat premise and heavy-handed presentation of a coming-of-age story mean it isn’t necessarily a must-watch Netflix movie.


Unicorn Store is now available for streaming on Netflix. It is 92 minutes long.

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

2019-04-05 04:04:06

Molly Freeman

Pet Sematary Review: Sometimes Stephen King Movies Are Just Decent

In the wake of the ongoing Stephen Kingaissance in film and television, it was probably inevitable that Pet Sematary – one of the author’s most popular and (in)famous horror stories ever – would eventually find its way back to the big screen. The book, which King wrote in 1983, is far from a stranger to cinematic interpretations, and was previously adapted by director Mary Lambert in 1989. Where that version was relatively faithful to the original novel, this new version takes some major liberties, for both good and bad. Pet Sematary captures the bruality of King’s source material, but its attempts to add shocking twists to the original narrative yield mixed results.

The new Pet Sematary starts off the same as previous iterations, following the Creed family as they relocate to rural Maine – on the outskirts of a small town called Ludlow – for their patriarch Louis’ (Jason Clarke) new job at a university hospital. Shortly after, their young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) discovers the existence of a nearby pet cemetery (misspelled “Sematary” on its sign), and befriends their kindly new neighbor, the widower Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Jud attempts to help Louis by revealing the dangerous truth about what lies beyond the pet cemetery in the woods – namely, an ancient burial ground with the power to resurrect the dead, but at a terrible cost.

Written by Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train) from a screen story by Matt Greenberg (1408), Pet Sematary allows Buhler to further explore themes about the horror of parenthood, much like his did earlier this year with his script for the evil child thriller The Prodigy. Those aren’t the only similarities between the two horror movies, either. Both Pet Sematary and The Prodigy knowingly attempt to subvert expectations; in the case of the former, it nods to infamous moments from previous versions of the story before taking things in a different direction. The trailers for Pet Sematary have already spoiled one of its biggest twists on King’s novel, but the film has other tricks up its sleeves, especially during the final act. Its conclusion aside (more on that later), these changes don’t necessarily make the movie better or worse than the book and Lambert’s adaptation – just different.

For the most part, however, Pet Sematary works as a streamlined retelling of King’s original story. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) maintain a study pace throughout the film, and are equally efficient in the way they build up to the more gruesome developments in the second half through a series of ominous and foreboding moments (in particular, a ghastly incident where Louis tries and fails to save a student who was hit by a car). The movie’s scary sequences are similarly sturdy in their construction, if not particularly ground-breaking, and are buoyed by the quietly unsettling colors of Overlord DP Laurie Rose’s cinematography, in combination with Sinister composer Christopher Young’s more overtly threatening score. Pet Sematary‘s cast, which includes Amy Seimetz as the Creed family’s matriarch Rachel, likewise inspire sympathy for the film’s characters (and their often ill-conceived decisions) through their performances.

Unfortunately, the movie stumbles when it tries to change things up (again) during the climax. In its efforts to deliver a gut-punch of a finale that’s even gloomier than the conclusion to King’s source material, the new Pet Sematary winds up sacrificing some of the novel’s thematic substance. While it doesn’t leave quite the nihilistic aftertaste of the ending to The Prodigy, Buhler’s script nevertheless loses track of the story’s overarching moral about the suffocating power of unprocessed grief and trauma in its final act. This, in turn, muddles Louis’ arc and lessens the emotional impact of subplots like Rachel’s morbid backstory (which involves the death of her sister Zelda, when she was a child). It doesn’t help that things get a little silly in the final third, making it all the more difficult to appreciate the gravity of what transpires.

At the end of the day, Pet Sematary falls somewhere in the middle on the scale of Stephen King movies. It’s effectively creepy and well-acted overall, but lacks the heart and substance of the best-received King adaptations in recent years (specifically, IT and Gerald’s Game). At the same time, some people will undoubtedly appreciate the way the film changes things up from King’s novel more than others, and should further enjoy the small references to King’s other major works included here (like Cujo and, yes, IT again). It might not be a must-see for general audiences, but horror buffs and King fans will want to give this one a look at some point. Sometimes dead is better when it comes to King’s properties, but this is one of the exceptions.

Pet Sematary begins playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, April 4. It is 101 minutes long and is rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language.

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

2019-04-04 07:04:21

Sandy Schaefer

The Highwaymen Review: Costner & Harrelson Hunt Bonnie & Clyde

Crime drama The Highwaymen, which chronicles Frank Hamer and Maney Gault’s pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, was in development for a number of years and was at one point envisioned as a potential vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Eventually, Netflix got their hands on the project and Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson signed on as the leads, finally giving the film momentum after lingering for more than a decade. There was certainly a lot of potential here for a gripping and captivating entry into this tried and true genre, but director John Lee Hancock and company don’t quite hit all the marks. The Highwaymen is a respectable tribute to the men who brought notorious criminals to justice, though it’s not always the most engaging watch.

With Hancock at the helm, The Highwaymen takes a classical dramatic approach to its subject matter, which is fitting given Hamer and Gault’s status as aging law enforcers wondering if they still have what it takes to get the job done. The end result is a handsome-looking period piece, complemented by the efforts of production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi. The Highwaymen captures a number of 1930s details, transporting viewers back to that era with style and sophistication. The cinematography by John Schwartzman is also a nice touch, giving the film the look and feel of something from yesteryear.

Unfortunately, this also works against The Highwaymen in some respects. While some viewers will appreciate its old school sensibilities, Hancock doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, handling the character building moments and occasional set piece with workmanlike proficiency. Despite the high stakes of pursuing Bonnie and Clyde permeating throughout the picture, The Highwaymen isn’t always riveting, which at times can hurt the pacing during the 132-minute runtime. This isn’t to say Hancock does a poor job directing the film – he more than gets the job done – but there isn’t anything all that memorable that’ll stick once the credits roll.

Some of the issues here can be accredited to John Fusco’s script, which is a little uneven. The writer deserves points for attempting to explore the effects of violence on a seasoned Texas Ranger, but struggles when it comes to painting a compelling portrait of Bonnie and Clyde. The Highwaymen does touch on the couple’s celebrity status within the eyes of the general public, but still takes a generally black-and-white approach to the core conflict. Hamer and Gault are definitely the “good guys” here, trying to bring down vicious cop killers. In some ways, this does work for the purposes of the movie (cutaways to some of Bonnie and Clyde’s evil deeds underscore the threat they represent), but the infamous duo are largely presented as faceless villains rather than intriguing characters in their own right.

In regards to the performances, Costner and Harrelson ably carry the film on their shoulders, delivering the types of turns viewers should come to expect. The former is a gruff and tough lawman who firmly believes in justice, while the latter is a bit more personable – but still has a no-nonsense streak when the time calls for it. Costner and Harrelson have easygoing chemistry with each other, convincingly feeling like two old friends banding back together for one last adventure. There’s a sense of real history between the two that comes through via their mannerisms, interactions, and extended dialogue passages. Sadly, many of the supporting players here (including Hamer and Gault’s respective families) draw the short straw and aren’t given much to work with. None of the performances here are bad, but outside of the two protagonists, nobody leaves a real impression and are just there to serve specific roles in the story.

All in all, Netflix seems like the proper platform for a mid-budget film like The Highwaymen, which easily would have gotten lost in the shuffle if it had gone against major studio tentpoles or even the incoming awards fare that’ll hit theaters later this year. It’s a fine, if largely unremarkable, film that will hopefully find its target audience on streaming. For viewers of a certain age, The Highwaymen will probably be worth a watch, but it’s far from the best original Netflix film to come out in recent months. Unless one is a serious fan of the genre, time period, or main stars involved, there frankly isn’t too much to highly recommend.

The Highwaymen will start streaming on Netflix March 29, 2019. It runs 132 minutes and is rated R for some strong violence and bloody images.

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

2019-03-28 01:03:39

Chris Agar

Shazam! Review: A Charming, If Uninventive Superhero Origin Story

Shazam! is a wildly fun superhero adventure, with plenty of humor and heart, but struggles at times to strike a good balance between levity and drama.

The latest entry in Warner Bros. and DC Films’ unofficially titled DC Extended Universe, Shazam!, introduces viewers to one of the sillier superhero premises in the franchise. A teenage boy is granted powers by a magical staff-wielding wizard, and in doing so, gives the boy the ability to transform into an adult superhero – fully equipped with a bright red suit and white cape. However, to avoid Shazam! veering too far into campiness, screenwriter Henry Gayden and director David F. Sandberg work to balance the silliness with a grounded backstory and an OK villain. Shazam! is a wildly fun superhero adventure, with plenty of humor and heart, but struggles at times to strike a good balance between levity and drama.

In a world where Superman, Batman and Aquaman are known superheroes, Shazam! introduces the 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled foster kid who spends more time looking for the mother who abandoned him than trying to acclimate to any of the foster families he’s been placed with. That all changes when he’s placed with the Vasquez’s, meets superhero buff Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and is turned into a superhero himself. After gaining godlike powers from the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) and becoming the hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), Billy needs Freddy’s help to figure out what abilities he possesses. It’s a fairly typical origin story as far as superhero movies go, though Shazam! has a new twist because we get to experience it through the eyes of two kids who are more full of wonder and excitement than responsibility.

But the movie also explores that aspect of Shazam!‘s origin in a compelling way, asking the question of what a kid would do if granted superpowers – especially one who has no loyalty but to himself. Billy and Freddy’s friendship is undoubtedly the heart of the movie, grounding it in a way the premise of Shazam! needs to feel believable in the real world. But the film never does shy away from poking fun at its own premise, typically through humor excellently executed by Grazer, Levi and Angel. The convenience store scene is a particular standout moment and exemplifies the uproarious fun Shazam! has with its premise. Where Shazam! struggles is in some of the more dramatic moments, particularly Billy’s backstory about how he became part of the foster system and his search for his mother. It’s all necessary to his character arc, but certain scenes feel more contrived to move that emotional storyline forward than provide any real pathos. Altogether, though, Billy is an interesting enough character who undergoes a fairly standard journey to becoming a superhero.

Like many superhero origin stories, too, Shazam! toils under the effort of developing its villain enough to be a compelling foil to Billy Batson. Shazam! does give Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) his own backstory in an effort to establish him enough, but the movie doesn’t quite get there. Although Shazam! reveals Sivana’s motivations to become a villain, he’s still rather one dimensional. On the script’s surface, Sivana does make an interesting foil to Billy, but Sivana never really becomes more than a one-note villain. In fact, he works best in humorous moments with Billy/Shazam when he’s positioned as the straight man in the superhero’s comedy schtick. Strong’s melodramatic performance, contrasted with Billy’s more grounded tone and humor, makes for some of the film’s most entertaining moments.

Since Shazam! focuses most of its time on Billy and Freddy, and to a lesser extent Sivana, the movie doesn’t quite have time to develop the characters of the Vasquez family. Darla (Faithe Herman) is a scene-stealer as the talkative youngest member of the foster family, and the rest of the kids – Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Keith Choi) and Pedro (Jovan Armand) – get moments to shine. Though they’re instrumental enough to Billy’s origin story, the movie simply doesn’t have enough time to spend with the other kids. That said, they do contribute to the overall theme of family in Shazam! and since this film is only an origin story, they are one of the aspects of the movie that has a great deal of potential to be further developed in a possible sequel.

Ultimately, Shazam! is a different kind of DC movie than those that have been released in recent years, but that derives from Sandberg and Gayden building the film from a character-focused standpoint. Because Shazam has a sillier origin story, it makes sense for the movie to be on the lighter, more humorous side. Though it still has moments of darkness and drama, they are mostly earned by the film, even if the balance isn’t always quite right. On the other hand, Shazam! isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel and largely sticks to a standard superhero origin story. The filmmakers have added a twist by combining superhero action with the dramedy of Big – and some meta humor in a similar, if PG-13 vein as Deadpool – to craft an entirely enjoyable experience in Shazam!, even if at times it feels more like a hodgepodge of other movies. Still, fans of DC and superhero movies will no doubt want to check out Shazam! for its action and heart, and a delightfully fun time at the theater.


Shazam! starts playing in U.S. theaters Thursday evening April 4th. It is 132 minutes long and it’s rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language and suggestive material.

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

2019-03-23 03:03:39

Molly Freeman

The Quake Review: The Wave Gets a Worthy Sequel

The Quake doesn’t break the mold for natural disaster thrillers but, like The Wave, its humanist approach to the genre is refreshing and engaging.

The Quake is the sequel to The Wave, a Norwegian natural disaster thriller that earned strong reviews and eventually became the country’s highest-grossing film in 2015. Director Roar Uthaug would go on to helm the Tomb Raider movie reboot in the wake of its success, and The Wave itself has since becomes something of the gold standard for its genre, thanks to its emphasis on grounded human drama over mindless CGI-fueled spectacle. For the most part, fortunately, The Quake lives up to the standard established by its predecessor. The Quake doesn’t break the mold for natural disaster thrillers but, like The Wave, its humanist approach to the genre is refreshing and engaging.

The film picks up in real-time after the events of The Wave. Geologist Kristian Elkjord (Kristoffer Joner), who predicted the Åkerneset crevasse would collapse and ultimately create a giant tsunami wave in the first place, is still haunted by what he went through and cannot stop thinking about all the people who died because he wasn’t able to warn them in time. As a result, Kristian is now estranged from his family – including, his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), and son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) – and lives by himself, far away from their home in Oslo.

However, when an old colleague is killed in (seemingly) a freak accident while investigating a tunnel near Oslo, Kristian begins to fear that a massive earthquake is about to hit the Norwegian capital. While his fellow geologist, Johannes Løberg (Stig R. Amdam), initially assures Kristian that his fears are unfounded, the latter soon finds proof to support his hypothesis… though, not before “The Quake” itself gets underway. Hence, it falls to Kristian and his former colleague’s daughter, Marit (Kathrine Thorborg Johansen), to reach and rescue his loved ones before it’s too late.

The Wave writing duo John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg returned to write the sequel, with longtime cinematographer John Andreas Andersen stepping in to call the shots in Uthaug’s absence. As a result, The Quake‘s script takes the same character-driven approach to its genre as The Wave, and spends much of its first act exploring the emotional fallout of the previous film (specifically, its effect on Kristian psychologically). The narrative settles into more of a familiar pattern from there and hits most of the expected plot beats – from Kristian gradually putting the clues together to his warnings of imminent danger being ignored by the authorities – before getting to the actual (earth)quake in its final third. Still, while The Quake struggles to offer much in the way of surprises or unexpected twists on the way to its final destination, its does a fine job of executing these tropes and building up to its climactic set piece(s).

Andersen and his team do an similarly nice job of bringing those set pieces to life, despite having a significantly smaller budget to draw from than that for the average Hollywood disaster tentpole. The Quake makes limited, but efficient use of CGI to portray the titular earthquake, in combination with practical effects and smart filmmaking choices that effectively disguise the project’s budgetary limitations. It helps that the film is sharply photographed in general, and no doubt benefits from Andersen’s experience as a cinematographer, in combination with The Wave DP John Christian Rosenlund’s clever shot choices and framing techniques this time around. Oslo itself is a big part of what sets The Quake‘s action and suspense-fueled sequences apart from those in related U.S. genre movies. The city’s unique architecture and layout naturally lends themselves to set pieces that couldn’t be staged the same way in your average American city.

As mentioned earlier, however, The Quake is as much a drama about Kristian being traumatized by the events of The Wave as it is a thrill ride – more so, in many ways. This allows Joner to really flex his acting muscles and dig deep into his character’s damaged mental state, as well as his struggle with survivor’s remorse and inability to let go of the guilt he feels. If there’s a downside to this approach, though, it’s that the rest of Kristian’s family are relegated to the background and The Quake ends up spending little to no time reflecting on their own survivor’s guilt and related problems. Still, the movie spends enough time developing Kristian’s relationships with Idum and Julia to get viewers invested in what happens to them, and even provides Marit with an arc of her own – allowing her to evolve from a grieving daughter to one of the film’s heroes.

While The Quake obviously requires some suspension of disbelief when it comes to the fact that Kristian has now foreseen two “unforeseeable” disasters, it still makes for a worthy continuation of The Wave franchise. Sequels in general aren’t exactly known for devoting much, if any, time to exploring how their protagonists have been traumatized by events in a previous film or films (with exceptions like, say, Iron Man 3), but that’s part of what makes this one such an unusual addition to the pile. The Quake is less groundbreaking than its predecessor in other respects – namely, the plot trajectory and, to a lesser degree, some of the technical elements – but it’s a notable franchise movie for that reason alone.

All in all, The Quake is a sequel that’s deserving of some attention, especially if you were a fan of The Wave in the first place. Of course, those who’ve seen that movie ahead of time will have a deeper understanding of Kristian’s backstory going in, but its sequel still (mostly) works as a standalone adventure, for those who missed its protagonist’s battle with a giant tsunami wave the first time around. The Quake will be playing in select theaters, but will be simultaneously available to watch at home – making it easily accessible for anyone who’s game to stay in and watch a foreign-language film this winter holiday season.


The Quake begins playing in select U.S. theaters and On Demand starting Friday, December 14. It is 106 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril and destruction, injury images, and brief strong language.

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

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2018-12-07 08:12:09

Dumplin’ Review: Netflix & Dolly Parton Deliver Fantastic YA Drama

Netflix’s Dumplin’ has an emotionally impactful message of self-acceptance, wrapped in a charming coming-of-age story & steeped in Dolly Parton music.

Netflix has found a great deal of success this year by releasing young adult book adaptations and producing teen-focused originals that appeal to viewers of all ages. The streaming service released both The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in 2018, with the latter becoming a massive hit for Netflix especially. It seems Netflix is now leaning into its newfound reputation for YA adaptations and teen dramas/romantic comedies, as the streaming service has yet another releasing before the end of 2018. The latest YA teen drama/rom-com to be released by Netflix is Dumplin’, adapted from Julie Murphy’s same-named novel that was initially published in 2015. Netflix’s Dumplin’ has an emotionally impactful message of self-acceptance, wrapped in a charming coming-of-age story & steeped in Dolly Parton music.

Dumplin’ introduces teenager Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), the daughter of local beauty queen Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston), who grows increasingly frustrated as her mother focuses more on their small Texas town’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant. Willowdean is seemingly self assured as a plus-size teenager thanks to her Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who also imparted a love of Dolly Parton’s music – and introduced a young Will to her best friend Ellen Dryver (Odeya Rush). However, with the recent passing of Lucy, Willowdean must face her mother’s pageant season without her aunt. But when Willowdean discovers an incomplete entry form for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant among Lucy’s belongings, the teenager decides to do what her aunt never did: enter the pageant.

When Willowdean and Ellen go to sign up, though, other atypical beauty pageant contestants decide to follow her lead, including Millie Michalchuk (Maddie Baillio), a pleasant if seemingly naive fellow plus-size girl, and Hannah Perez (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a standoffish radical feminist. With pressure on the girls to lead a revolution against the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant and increasing flirtations with her coworker Bo (Luke Benward), Willowdean begins to realize she’s not as comfortable in her own skin as she originally believed. With the help of some of Lucy’s friends, including Lee (Harold Perrineau), who share her love of Dolly Parton, Willowdean will have to discover who she is and be comfortable in her own skin if she plans on leading a revolution against society’s beauty standards – and she’ll have to decide whether to quit or embrace the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant after all.

The story of Dumplin’ is brought to life on the screen by director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Kristin Hahn. Though Hahn doesn’t have much previous experience in terms of screenwriting – she worked on the 1997 documentary Anthem and is set to write Disney’s Stargirl adaptation – she skillfully adapts Murphy’s novel into a compelling script that works for the screen. The movie labors a bit under the task of juggling all the various storylines playing out in different aspects of Will’s life. It’s no doubt a symptom of condensing down all the storylines of the book into a cohesive movie. But thanks to Hahn’s script, Dumplin’ always refocuses on the overarching story threads that are most important: the relationships between Will and her mom, and Will and herself. Further, the directing by Fletcher – who has experience in helming female-focused movies with 27 Dresses and Step Up – works to center Willowdean and Rosie in a way that feels true to life. This is a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, and the writing and directing help to portray Willowdean and her experiences in a way that’s incredibly relatable.

To be sure, the strength of Dumplin’ is very much in its true-to-life depiction of a plus-size teenage girl and how her self-image is both reflected in the way she views the world and her presumptions of how others see her. Willowdean is at the center of a complicated web crafted by society’s expectations for how young women should look – expectations constantly upheld by her mother Rosie, who spends much of her own life focused on staying thin – and the empowerment and self-love her Aunt Lucy tried to instill in her from a young age. Willowdean struggles to not be defined by her weight in a world where she feels constantly defined by her weight, and the insecurities that arise from that struggle inform much of her story and the actions she takes. As a result, Dumplin’ is one of the best coming-of-age films (if not the best) about a plus-size girl… though, frankly, very few such stories actually exist in Hollywood.

Dumplin’ wouldn’t be possible without the performances of Macdonald and Aniston, who excellently portray a multifaceted, complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s clear that their family dynamic was shaken up by the death of Lucy (Will’s aunt and Rosie’s sister), and their house is fraught with tension, which is exacerbated by the pageant season. But, the relationship between Willowdean and Rosie is one of the movie’s most compelling – second only to Will’s relationship with herself. The pair lead the film well, with Macdonald undoubtedly holding her own next to Aniston. As a result, though, many of the other characters in Dumplin’ fall by the wayside, with Benward’s Bo, Rush’s Ellen and Taylor-Klaus’ Hannah getting largely one-note arcs. There is more depth to Millie, but Baillio curiously plays the character like a slightly toned-down Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray, which is charming, but at times jarring in what’s meant to be a modern movie. Altogether though, the supporting cast works well to fill out the world of Willowdean, which serves the main story even if it’s not the most complex world.

To give Dumplin’ another layer of depth, the movie embraces Willowdean’s love of Dolly Parton. Her music is key to Willowdean’s character and as much a part of her journey as her friends and family. It helps, no doubt, that Parton provided the music for Dumplin’, re-recording some of her classic songs or writing new tracks for the film’s soundtrack. (Though, some of the new versions may not satisfy die hard fans of the music icon.) This music helps to ground Dumplin’ in the film’s Texas setting, and adds even more character to the movie. Though Dumplin’ may not be a musical or even a movie technically about music, it uses Parton’s songs to develop Willowdean’s character and further her story in an incredibly fun way.

Ultimately, Dumplin’ offers a charming and emotionally moving coming-of-age story, elevated by the performances of its two leads and given a great deal of personality thanks to the writing and directing behind the scenes. Dumplin’ is a great, entertaining watch for anyone already interested in the story, and it’s a fantastic adaption of Murphy’s novel, staying true to the source material but translating it (mostly) effectively to film. Further, those who’ve watched Netflix’s other YA-type content will no doubt find Dumplin’ to be compelling. While it may not quite reach the heights of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Dumplin’ is far and above a better teen-focused movie – with a much better message – than The Kissing Booth or Sierra Burgess is a Loser. To be sure, Dumplin’ is a fun and grounded coming-of-age story with as much flare for the dramatic as Dolly Parton herself.


Dumplin’ is now available to stream on Netflix. It is 110 minutes and is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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

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2018-12-07 05:12:49

Ben is Back Review: Julia Roberts Made a Drug Addiction Drama Too

Buoyed by the affecting performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back makes for a compelling (though uneven) exploration of addiction.

The new project by writer/director Peter Hedges, Ben is Back is the latest film or TV show to deal with drug addiction and recovery in recent months. Whereas Felix Van Groeningen’s movie Beautiful Boy tackles the topic in the context of a memoir and Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House explores the subject through the lens of supernatural horror, Hedge’s film examines the realities of how addiction impacts people (and those around them) through a mix of familial drama and, to a lesser degree, the crime genre. The end results are mixed, but otherwise commendable in their own right. Buoyed by the affecting performances from Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back makes for a compelling (though uneven) exploration of addiction.

As Ben is Back starts out, Holly Burns (Roberts) and her family – including Ivy (Kathryn Newton), her teenaged daughter from her first marriage, and Holly’s two young children with her second husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) – are preparing for their church’s Christmas Eve celebration that night. Holly is then shocked when she and the others return home to find Ben (Lucas Hedges), her 19-year old son, who has spent the last 77 days remaining drug-free in rehab. Ben quickly explains that he’s just there for Christmas Day (with the permission of his sponsor) and will resume his treatment right after.

When both Ivy and Neal make it clear that neither of them thinks Ben’s visit is a good idea, he agrees to head back to rehab early before Holly strikes a deal with him and the others: Ben can stay for the holiday so long as he remains under her strict supervision. At first, things seem to be working out, even as Ben’s presence opens up old emotional wounds in not only Holly, but also Ben himself and other people who were affected by his past drug use. However, before he knows it, Ben’s past catches up to him, leaving it to Holly to take drastic action, in the hope that it’s not too late to save her son.

The first half of Ben is Back bears a resemblance to something like Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April (or director Jonathan Demme and writer Jenny Lumet’s own drama dealing with drug addiction recovery, Rachel Getting Married), in that it focuses on family dysfunction and the maelstrom of emotions that Ben stirs up in Holly and the rest of her clan, upon his return. Hedges’ script work is strongest in this segment of the film, as it digs into the complicated and frequently conflicting feelings that Holly experiences, as well as Ben’s own struggle to be truly honest about himself and the effects that his actions continue to have on his loved ones (especially his mother). Roberts and Lucas Hedges’ performances are likewise the most moving during this portion of the film, as are those from Newton and Vance. Indeed, much of what the cast doesn’t explicitly say, but rather implies through their actions or references to the past, ends up being as important as what their characters do talk about directly.

While Ben is Back doesn’t fly off the rails during its second half, it does change gears, and not necessarily for the better. This is the section of the film that shifts into being more of a grounded crime drama, in the sense that it focuses on Ben and Holly as they deal with various shady people from Ben’s past. Problem is, along the way, the movie fails to develop the more important story threads from its first half (like the conflict within the Burns family or a subplot involving a death in Ben’s past) in a truly satisfying way. It seems that Peter Hedges’ intent here was to give the film’s overarching narrative a firmer structure by ramping up the stakes in its latter half, but the execution feels contrived and calculated, compared to the way the drama unfolds up to that point. Beautiful Boy also had a difficult time crafting a three-act story that shines a light on the realities of drug addiction and why staying clean is so hard for those in recovery, and it’s a challenge that Ben is Back doesn’t fully overcome either.

Hedges, as a director, nevertheless does a good job of drawing out captivating performances from his ensemble cast and keeps Ben is Back moving along at a steady pace (and even wraps everything up well below the two-hour mark). The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The PianoThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty) further serves to anchor the film’s story and character drama, making heavy use of handheld camerawork and intimate closeups in the process. Ben is Back‘s visuals are pretty unvarnished overall, but that allows it to paint a fittingly bleak portrait of its wintery small-town backdrop and, in turn, the troubled world that allowed Ben’s drug use to thrive in the first place. Less successful, however, are the film’s efforts to generate suspense with the editing and sequencing during its latter half; much like his work as a writer, Hedges the director is (understandably) better at handling the drama aspect, when it comes to drama-thriller storytelling.

For the large part, Ben is Back is concerned more with telling a meaningful personal story than making any kind of big statement with its up close and personal look at drug addiction. At the same time, the film does nod to the larger issues that it touches upon here, like the modern opioid epidemic in the U.S. and the social privilege that Ben is afforded as a young white male, but wouldn’t have otherwise. Still, it might be for the best that Ben is Back doesn’t go further than that (lest it wind up biting off more than it can chew), and is instead content to let its fictional narrative speak for itself, in that regard.

It may not be as strong as this year’s major awards season contenders on the whole, but Ben is Back is an otherwise perfectly respectable drama on its own terms – one that also makes for a worthwhile addition to the recent slate of films and TV shows that take a hard look at the tumultuous process of drug addiction rehabilitation and recovery. Roberts and Lucas Hedges (who, yes, is also Peter Hedges’ son) are equally good in their roles here and fans of either/both actors’ previous work may want to give this one a look in theaters, for that reason alone. With so many “big” movies coming out in December, something like Ben is Back could be a nice alternative for those seeking something a bit more intimate in scale.


Ben is Back is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to additional markets over the forthcoming weeks. It is 103 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout and some drug use.

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

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2018-12-07 05:12:32

If Beale Street Could Talk Review: The Poetry of James Baldwin

Much like his previous films as a director, Jenkins’ Beale Street adaptation is a richly layered and beautifully atmospheric work of cinematic poetry.

Two years after the release of his sophomore directorial effort Moonlight (a film that was crowned Best Picture by the Academy in 2017 and landed him as Oscar for his writing), filmmaker Barry Jenkins returns with another ambitious venture in the form of If Beale Street Could Talk. An adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale Street has been in development since 2013 and was actually written at the same time that Jenkins worked on the Moonlight screenplay with Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film has been widely celebrated throughout its festival run and (justly) continues to gain momentum in the current awards season race, ahead of its theatrical release. Much like his previous films as a director, Jenkins’ Beale Street adaptation is a richly layered and beautifully atmospheric work of cinematic poetry.

Set primarily in 1970s-era Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk revolves around Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). While Tish and Fonny grew up together as children, it’s not until they reach young adulthood that the pair come to realize how deeply connected – and romantically attracted – they are to one another. Upon recognizing their feelings, the two begin dating and, before long, are a proper couple sharing their own apartment, all while Fonny settles into his career as a self-made artist and Tish works a steady job at a department store.

However, their lives are forever changed when Fonny is charged with raping a woman named Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), after she identifies him in a lineup and a cop named Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) claims to have seen Fonny fleeing the scene of the crime. Despite having a strong alibi, Fonny is sent to jail and it falls to Kiki to clear his name, with the help of her mother Sharon (Regina King), sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), and father Joseph (Colman Domingo). If that wasn’t enough, Tish is also pregnant and desperately wants to clear Fonny’s name before their child is born… even as it becomes increasingly clear just how difficult that task is going to be.

If Beale Street Could Talk carries over prose from Baldwin’s source material in the form of KiKi’s narration and even opens with a text passage from the original novel, yet these elements never feel extraneous nor out of place in the film adaptation. It helps that Jenkins uses KiKi’s voiceover to compliment the narrative proceedings and provide important context for relevant subjects (like the history of Harlem and certain personal relationships) that would be near-impossible to explain otherwise, without the aid of clunky exposition. This allows Beale Street to smoothly translate Baldwin’s elegant writing into equally lyrical cinema, without losing its emotional potency or layers of meaning in the process. As a result, Beale Street feels like a book brought to life as a movie – in a good way – and serves to illustrate Jenkins’ continuing evolution as a filmmaker by providing a similar, yet noticeably different viewing experience than Moonlight, between its literary elements and non-linear narrative cues (the latter of which really benefit the film’s simple overarching story).

Of course, like Moonlight, Beale Street is a painterly work of cinema that would be enjoyable to watch even without audio. The movie was once again shot by Jenkins’ trusted DP James Paxton and draws from a distinct set of colors (blue, brown, and yellow in particular), in order to enrich its picturesque wide angle compositions and intimately filmed closeups with deeper layers of symbolic meaning. Beale Street‘s sound editing is similarly impressive in the way it juxtaposes ominously rumbling audial effects during its most intense moments with Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell’s orchestral leitmotifs and classic Harlem music during the movie’s warmer and/or romantic scenes. The aforementioned color scheme is further reflected in the film’s lovely period costumes by Caroline Eselin (another Moonlight graduate) and the native New York scenery that Beale Street photographs to bring its vision of historical Harlem to life.

The actors in Beale Street as as essential to the film’s success as its craftsmanship, with newcomer Layne leading the way in a breakout performance as the sweet and tender (yet strong-willed and savvy) Tish. James builds on his work in historical dramas like Selma and Race with his own performance as the gentle, sensitive, and otherwise thoughtful soul that is Fonny, making his love story with Tish all the more compelling and touching for it. As much as Beale Street focuses on their romance, though, it also take the time to develop the relationship between Tish and the rest of her family (especially her mother), with King, Parris, and Domingo all shining in their respective scenes here (again, King in particular). The film’s supporting cast is similarly full of terrific character actors who manage to leave an emotional impact during their comparatively brief appearances – though, if there’s a standout among them, it’s definitely Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s old pal Daniel Carty (a character who’s responsible for one of the film’s most powerful and quietly mesmerizing scenes, no less).

As much as Beale Street often feels like a film made by the director of Moonlight, it also demonstrates Jenkins’ newfound experience behind the camera and lets him explore themes and ideas from his previous work in engaging new ways. Beale Street is similar to Moonlight and Jenkins’ work on Netflix’s Dear White People TV series, in the sense that it’s the rare film to really examine black male trauma and how racism in America truly affects individual black people on an emotional level. Further, the film is largely told from the perspective of Tish and the women around her (even during its sex scenes) and paints an empathetic portrait of their lives in ways that bring to mind Moonlight‘s own moving portrayal of its queer protagonist. The end result: Beale Street feels at one with the rest of Jenkins’ work, yet shows that he’s far from done developing as a storyteller.

It might go without saying at this point, but If Beale Street Could Talk is very much a must-see for those who loved Moonlight (and, of course, Jenkins’ feature debut, Moonlight for Melancholy) and/or are fans of Baldwin’s literature and want to see it done justice on the big screen. The film is very much a worthy followup to Jenkins’ Best Picture Oscar-winning project and (deservedly) looks to gain more recognition as the current awards season trudges along. Still, whether you’re invested in all these Academy Awards discussions or not, you should take the time and pay a visit to Beale Street, when you have the chance.


If Beale Street Could Talk begins playing in select U.S. theaters on Friday, December 14. It is 117 minutes long and is rated R for language and some sexual content.

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

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2018-12-04 03:12:58