• Paddington 2 (2017)

    Paddington 2 (2017)

    Rarely does a film come out that can instantly turn a sour mood into a happy one, melting all the bad feelings away for 90 or so minutes. 2014’s Paddington is one of those rare cases where at one glance of the titular anthropomorphic bear cub can cure sadness, spreading happiness and a warm fuzzy feeling to anyone who takes a peek at the adventures the bear partakes in. The follow up aptly titled Paddington 2 does what the first one did while also elevating the source material as created by the late Michael Bond (who this film was dedicated to) into an even better sequel that delivers on the potential of the spectacle adapted for the big screen.

    It’s not every day that a sequel surpasses the first film in a franchise. But there are a few.

    Life with Paddington Brown (Ben Whishaw) in it is better than without. The sun shines a little bit brighter; the grass is greener, and people are friendlier, putting the best versions of themselves out there for the world to see. It’s impossible to want to see Paddington Brown (the surname coming from his adoptive family) fail at anything or wish any harm  – the bear cub is nothing less than a ray of sunshine, dressed in his signature old red hat, carrying around his tattered briefcase and wearing his blue duffel coat – stashing a marmalade sandwich or two away for safe keeping.

    The story picks up a bit after the satisfactory conclusion of the first film. First, briefly, returning director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby reintroduce Darkest Peru, a few short bear years ago, where Paddington comes from. Both Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) happily enjoy their homemade marmalade when they first encounter their adoptive nephew. And the rest they say was history. After that, Windsor Gardens comes back into focus having its mood significantly lifted from the Brown family adopting the adorable bear cub.

    From the opening montage, it’s clear that Paddington Brown has made a significant impact to the people who reside in the quiet town. Colors are more vibrant and pop in their cleanliness, spirits are lifted, trees are trimmed, and people are more optimistic and open to step out of their comfort zones. Offering one woman breakfast everyday so she has better production throughout, reminding another resident to bring his house keys before getting locked out, another gets help studying for a driver’s test and Paddington even has time to care for a stray dog. We could all benefit from the addition of Paddington Brown to our cities.

    The Brown family is also a direct beneficiary of Paddington’s assimilation into the family dynamic. Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) has hit a midlife crisis after not getting a big promotion – coloring his hair and taking up yoga classes, Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins) still write’s stories but is on her own path of adventure, Judy Brown (Madeleine Harris) has taken up an interest in journalism and even started her own newspaper and Jonathan Brown (Samuel Joslin) aka J-Dawg to his peers at school has found a passion for building steam engine trains. Though no one at school can ever find out about this hobby. It’s crucial to appear cool to others at that age.

    But not all in Windsor Gardens appreciates the addition of Paddington. King and Farnaby’s story begins to take shape when Paddington finds the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy’s birthday in Samuel Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop – an old pop-up book that also draws interest from a down on his luck actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Buchanan, an acclimated actor known for his talent and piercing blue eyes has been reduced to acting in dog food commercials to keep the money coming in, but reality strikes and Buchanan is broke.

    Like its predecessor, Paddington 2 connects the past to the present creating threads within the main plot that ties everything together. To afford the book for his aunt, Paddington decides to work – first unsuccessfully as a Barber’s assistant by way of a hilarious slapstick sequence and then finding window cleaning. One laugh-out-loud sequence after the other paired with the piano quartet and Paddington discovers an intruder breaking into Gruber’s antiques, falsely accusing Paddington of the burglary and landing the bear cub in prison with hardened criminals.

    Leave it to the sweet-natured, innocent attitude Paddington employs in a prison full of grumpy old men to completely change the atmosphere as soon as he arrives. Only Paddington voiced charmingly by Whishaw can see past the gruff exteriors and find the good in people regardless of their pasts. Specifically the prison chef Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson). Once Knuckles gets a taste of that sweet marmalade, his life was changed and so was the rest of the prisoners outlooks on life. Soon, Paddington wins the hearts of the entire prison, including the guards which transforms the dull muted gloominess to a bright and vibrant one.

    Visually, King elevates Paddington 2 to a new height – every frame is pristine as if ripped from the pages of Wes Anderson’s intrinsic symmetrical playbook. Miniatures are full of detail throughout, creating a pleasing on the eye production design. And though King rips a page out of Anderson’s book, Paddington 2 still has its own identity, not just copying and pasting one stylistic design and also a marmalade loving talking bear. When Paddington isn’t around, King juxtaposes the environment that’s devoid of charm and warmth making Paddington a necessity to the quality of life that the joyous bear brings to the screen.  

    Once again, Paddington 2 is led by an outstanding ensemble cast led by the soft spoken Ben Whishaw. Hugh Grant is delightfully devious as the villain with a pleasant surprise coming from all of the Harry Potter alum – mostly Julie Walters as the tenacious Mrs. Bird. After two films, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to wish harm on Paddington Brown whether physically or verbally and King delivers on another adorably sweet comedic adventure fit for all ages that captures the spirit of the Bond stories. One thing’s for sure, prisoners outfits never looked better than they do with a little pink added. For fans of the series, there’s enough marmalade to go around for all to enjoy, though it will go quick, so you better get in line early.  

    Screenplay By: Simon Farnaby & Paul King

    Directed By: Paul King

    Music By: Dario Marianelli

    Cinematography: Erik Wilson

    Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Imelda Staunton

    Edited By: Jonathan Amos & Mark Everson

    Release Date: November 10, 2017

    Running Time: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%

    Based On: Paddington Bear by Michael Bond

    Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Star Wars: Ranked

    Star Wars: Ranked

    The sentence “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is not only the opening sentence to every Star Wars film in the ‘Skywalker Saga’, but also a sentence that defines generations of fans who have all experienced the happiness and sadness George Lucas gifted humanity. In total 9 episodic films, consisting of three separate trilogies (prequel, original, sequel), 2 anthology films, and 1 animated film make up a fraction of the galaxy full of hope, tyranny, heroes, villains, droids, aliens, light, dark, conflict and ultimately a satisfying adventure through the stars. There’s plenty more stories out there consisting of novels, videogames and television series but the focus here is on the 12 feature films that tell a complete and overarching and sometimes frustrating story.  

    Depending on what decade you were born in, you most likely gravitated to a particular trilogy which would subsequently serve as your introduction to the galaxy. For this critic, growing up in the 1990’s my first theatrical experience came in 1999 with Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. That being said, it’s the original trilogy with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia Organa along with an Astromech droid named R2-D2, his humanoid robot pal C-3PO and a Wookie named Chewbacca that sucked me into the space opera as the heroes race against the evil empire led by Darth Vader to save the galaxy.

    For it’s time the formerly titled Star Wars was unlike anything else put on screen. From the scope and spectacle of it all to its relatable characters and their missions to the dazzling visual effects and production design, George Lucas unbeknownst at the time would change pop culture for decades to come. And then came the sequel The Empire Strikes Back with a darker tone and more mature themes – Star Wars invites you into a diverse galaxy and invites you for the ride full of unexpected twists and turns along the way. In a word, the original trilogy can be best described as magical.

    The other two trilogies – not so much, though they have their ups and downs respectively.

    While the original trilogy starts the story in the middle, literally episode 4, the prequel trilogy paints a bigger picture, bringing politics into the foreground, when in the original trilogy it was more of a footnote. At its core Star Wars is a political story, destiny a close second – it’s a balance of power and control. Some like Emperor Palpatine and his empire want absolute control using force (no pun intended) and aggression to achieve it while opposite them is the rebellion fighting tooth and nail for the freedom they deserve.

    One aspect the prequels gets right are the impressive lightsaber fights complimented perfectly by John Williams music. To this day no piece of music in the franchise is as memorable as ‘Dual of the Fates’ set to Jedi Master Qui-Gon Gin, his padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting the sinister Darth Maul. For how  spectacular the lightsaber fights are and the visual effects, the prequel trilogy doesn’t come close to the excellence of the original trilogy started with. Not until Episode 3 – Revenge of the Sith when Anikan, the ‘chosen on’ to bring balance to the force, turns to the dark side.

    But this is not an outline of the franchise – it has its peaks and valleys like all franchises do with the good far outweighing the bad. And now that the sequel trilogy (not everyone’s favorite) has wrapped up with its less than remarkable conclusion, the hope is to expand the universe. My gripe throughout all of the films and tv series now that Disney is owner of Lucasfilm has been the focus on one family – the Skywalkers. It’s time to move on and after the sequels who had no idea what they were doing and lacked a clear cut plan and identity to try something new – maybe explore the high republic or the creation of the Jedi and Sith, particularly the Sith and the rule of 2. The point is, Lucas created such a rich mythology taking inspiration from Japanese and other countries film cultures to create a franchise with such a cult following to only focus on one story thread.

    All of that being said, and its a mouthful, what draws me to Star Wars is the adventure the various filmmakers have taken us on. The music from John Williams, Michael Giacchino and John Powell tell stories in their own right with the crawl having the ability to instantly cheer someone up after a rough day. From the escapism to the legendary actors who lose themselves in their legendary characters to the hope being a rebel brings against the tyrannically empire, Star Wars is timeless – being passed down generation to generation for the next wave of obsessed fans to pour hours into.

    Whether you love them or hate them, Star Wars will always have a re-watchability to them, and within that finding new nuanced things to love and or dislike. But to get a more complete timeline of events, the tv series are a necessary watch and should be added to the queue. Hope can be found in the darkest of places, rebellions are built on it. Until the next trilogy is announced or even a film that gets released, below is my ranking for all 12 theatrical Star Wars films.

    12) Star Wars: The Clone Wars

    11) Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones

    10) Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace

    9) Star Wars: Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker

    8) Solo: A Star Wars Story

    7) Star Wars: Episode 3 – Revenge of the Sith

    6) Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens

    5) Star Wars: Episode 6 – Return of the Jedi

    4) Star Wars: Episode 8 – The Last Jedi

    3) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

    2) Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope

    1) Star Wars: Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

  • A Haunting in Venice (2023)

    A Haunting in Venice (2023)

    Venice Italy is a beautiful city, gently floating in place on top of the water and connected solely by bridges. Full of history, art, culture, and religion, the narrow pathways and old architecture hold so much life within its foundations that’s begging to be explored. If you’ve ever been, one of the downsides of being in Venice is the flooding that happens when it pours – the structural integrity of each building loses its footing leading to disaster throughout its many districts. But that’s what makes Venice an ideal destination and setting for a whodunnit – from the shadows and darkness hidden beneath the surface, the beautiful city on the outside becomes cursed.

    Modern whodunnits have been comprised of two separate franchises trading blows in their head-to-head bout – the wholly original Knives Out and its sequel by writer-director Rian Johnson and the adventures of Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) based on the popular Agatha Christie novels and directed by Branagh. One thing the two franchises have in common – their ensemble casts committing to the journey their respective directors take them on. For Branagh’s 3rd attempt, writer Michael Green adapts the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe’en Party and renames it A Haunting in Venice.

    Taking place in the historic city, Poirot has retired from his famed detective work. Every day as he leaves his residence, a crowd of people await him, bombarding the ex-detective with cases he should investigate and solve. Only for the desperate people to be stopped by Poirot’s hired bodyguard Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio). After solving the murders on the Orient Express and on the Nile River, Poirot’s life has become a quiet one – that is until friend and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) pays Poirot a visit and invites him to a Halloween party / séance at the palazzo of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to expose the medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) as a fraud.

    From my experience in my one trip to Italy during Halloween, the holiday isn’t as culturally significant nor celebrated in Europe as it is in the United States but people in Rome still dressed up and trick-or-treated.

    Since A Haunting in Venice is a Poirot murder mystery and to not give away all of the juicy plot details, as in the previous films, a dead body is found within the decorative walls of the palazzo in which Poirot locks all in attendance of the séance in so he can conduct his investigation. Even in retirement, the allure of solving a crime is too good to pass up for Poirot – the man can retire and settle down, but he never stops being a detective. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.

    One by one, Poirot and Oliver conduct their investigation of what Poirot considers the death a homicide. Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin), Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), Leopold Ferrier (Jude Hill), Nicholas Holland (Ali Khan), and Desdemona Holland (Emma Laird) are interrogated, often offering clues as to who the killer might be, but Green’s script keeps everyone guessing.

    Featuring a talented ensemble who each fit into their characters comfortably and the period of post war Italy, the real star of Branagh’s film is the created atmosphere the actor-director establishes within the opening frames. An atmosphere built for the unofficially titled ‘spooky season’ that keeps the tension high and the focus on things that move in the dark. Around every corner could be something waiting to pop out and scare the mustache off the famed detective. Maybe Poirot will become a believer after spending a night in a haunted palazzo. As for the jump scares, there are seldom few of them, but Branagh places them perfectly throughout the modest runtime – keeping you on your toes.

    To take it a couple of steps further, to keep the anxiety high, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos usus all of the neat techniques to turn the palazzo into a haunted house spectacle people flock to in the months of September and October – turning the setting into its own trippy character. At certain points, telling up from down will be even more of a challenge than the actual murder mystery. Complimenting the shooting style is a chilling score from Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl, Joker). Her talent in crafting music that fits the atmosphere, indulging the film in a darker tone that stays consistent throughout.

    In his third turn as Hercule Poirot, Branagh gives another sharply stoic lived-in performance. But again for the third time the perfectly manicured mustache steals the spotlight as the vessel for Poirot’s brains and Braun in solving the murders. A Haunting in Venice takes the hard knocks lessons its predecessors went through and applies what its learned to create a whodunnit worthy of the genre. The darker tone, creepy supernatural aesthetic and minimal lighting shine the brightest as Michael Green’s script offers plenty of twists, turns and unpredictable curveballs thrown. Your move Rian Johnson.

    Screenplay By: Michael Green

    Directed By: Kenneth Branagh

    Music By: Hildur Guðnadóttir

    Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos

    Starring: Kyle Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Ali Khan, Emma Laird, Kelly Reilly, Riccardo Scamarcio, Michelle Yeoh

    Edited By: Lucy Donaldson

    Release Date: September 15, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%

    Based On: Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

    Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

    Year 3 at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry takes a different approach in adapting the story of the same name by J. K. Rowling. Instead of there being a villainous character like he-who-must-not-be-named to thwart in a desperate return to power, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a murder mystery. But not in the traditional sense. We know who the murdered people are and who was behind the wand that cast the killing curse as fact but rather, who sold them out and who really remained loyal to the very end will be the source of the truth to be uncovered.

    The real villain of this film winds up being the wizarding justice system and subsequently the media outlet the Daily Prophet for how they skew the truth and withholding key information. About to start his 3rd year at Hogwarts School, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must first endure a visit from his Uncle Vernon’s (Richard Griffiths) sister Marge (Pam Ferris), in which Harry’s anger leads to him blowing up Marge into a balloon. Harry’s journey back to the wizarding world becomes an adventure, taking the knight bus from Privet Drive back to the Leaky Cauldron. “You hear that Ern, the Leaky Cauldron, that’s in London”.

    Once in safety of the inn, Harry gets reunited with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron’s entire family. Once again, Harry is told he’s in grave danger, but at least there’s no concerned house elf to stop the barrier at platform 9 3/4. The danger Harry learns about that he’s in once again is the result of a breakout at Azkaban prison by presumed death eater Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Black is the one the media and justice system blame for passing along the whereabout of Lily and James and killing former friend Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) in the process.

    All they could find of Peter’s remains was a finger. And that’s all it took for Sirius to be convicted and sentenced to Azkaban where he stayed for 12 years until his daring escape. Presumed on the run and looking for Harry to finish the job, Hogwarts becomes the host for several of the guards at the Azkaban prison – Dementors who take away all of the happiness and good spirits wherever they go. Early on in the first act of the film, their power is put on display during the train ride back to school. The air gets cold, room temperature water instantly freezes, and the air gets sucked out of the room as the dementor attacks Harry, causing him to pass out.

    Luckily, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) was there to cast a Patronus Charm against the dementor and offer Harry chocolate to aid in recovery.

    Both The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets displayed magic in a fantastical sense. The Prisoner of Azkaban takes a more grounded, realistic and practical approach. Spells are dazzling in their subtlety and specificity as red and white wisps shoot out of the tips of wands. Each spell has a purpose and they’re used at the right moments to increase the tension in the scene. Or sometimes a fist works when Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is being particularly malicious.  Leave it to a muggle born to land a satisfactory blow to the school bully – something we all wish we could do whenever Draco is on screen.

    Although Daniel, Rupert, and Emma are front and center, the full ensemble cast all give exceptional performances in their now lived in roles. Brief in their screentime, all of the younger cast keep the cohesive chemistry they have all built up over the course of 3 films. Foul characters like Draco are heightened by Tom’s performance portraying the bully but proving the character is merely a coward. But its newcomers like Gary Oldman David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, and Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney, the Divinations professor that compliments the older returning cast. Out of those four however, its Michael Gambon as Dumbledore (taking over for the late Richard Harris) that commands the screen.

    Gambon as Dumbledore is no imitation of Richard Harris’s version. Gambon brings a flamboyancy and conviction to the headmaster – you can feel his influence and prescense when he isn’t on screen. The creature designs are haunting, the stuff nightmares are made of, adding to the depressing nature these dementors use to attack their prey. Whereas Buckbeak is full of life and personality in every movement he takes.

    Since the famed sport of Quidditch is largely omitted aside from one remarkable sequences that ends in horror, the sensation of flying comes atop Buckbeak’s back. The sequence mirrors a rollercoaster ride, featuring exhilarating highs and lows soaring around the castle grounds. In that moment of trust between Harry and Buckbeak, we’re all Harry, letting the rush of adrenaline take over, screaming into the wind in delight.

    The Prisoner of Azkaban in its complexities of telling its story becomes a looser adaptation by returning screenwriter Steve Kloves. Whereas the first two films are more faithful, year 3 sets a darker tone, steeped in emotional depth and more mature themes that changes the order of events in some regard and gives different characters exposition that was in the novel. Both the production and costume design by Jany Temime and Stuart Craig respectively  are stylistically and aesthetically pleasing with the uniforms showcasing individuality as the younger cast gets older.

    Hogwarts has never looked more gothic in design and intricate with the many moving parts built into the magical walls. For as bright as the costumes are, the muted gray wash and minimal light sources cater to an authentic experience while complimenting the darker tone. John Williams provides the best score for the franchise, bringing the 3rd act to life with a constant ticking of a clock, making the urgency to save two lives feel like time is running out as its happening.

    From here on out, the series gets progressively darker in tone and theme but its Prisoner of Azkaban that kicks it off. Director Alfonso Cuarón in following what Chris Columbus establishes handles the mystery with ease, never losing the core development of his main trio but furthering it. Cuarón has total control over the source material which makes for a tense and unnerving ride through Harry’s unknown past. As the choir puts it best, something wicked this way comes.  

    Screenplay By: Steve Kloves

    Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

    Music By: John Williams

    Cinematography: Michael Seresin

    Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters

    Where to Watch: Max

    Edited By: Steven Weisberg

    Release Date: June 4, 2004

    Running Time: 2 Hours 22 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

    Based On: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Dumb Money (2023)

    Dumb Money (2023)

    All It takes is one person to spark a revolution. From an idea to an action being carried out, the world can change for either the good or the bad from the influence of one person over others. The events depicted in Dumb Money are revolutionary indeed and are based on true events, making director Craig Gillespie’s film historically influential. Those events happened 3 short years ago in the baron wasteland that was the year 2020. When the world shut down, masks were mandatory wherever you went, and people would consider themselves geniuses for wearing trash bags over their entire bodies at their local grocery stores. Forget about finding toilet paper or milk and bread during a global pandemic. One week’s time felt like a year passed with no end in sight.

    The most advanced cities full of tourists, commuters and locals became ghosts towns. Only those deemed essential to the government still went into their jobs and saved countless lives by their heroism and sacrifice. To think, 3 years later when the world is finally back to normalcy now that we actually endured all of that, that we had to stand 6 feet behind one another on checkout lines and there was limited capacities in businesses is still unfathomable and this is the type of world where Dumb Money takes place in. Future generations will think we’re all lying or it’s a conspiracy when the year 2020 is brought up.

    It happened alright and so did the revolution of the GameStop Short Squeeze. Now, I cannot even begin to explain or understand the inner workings of Wall Street, Hedge Funds and investing but having prior knowledge will not devalue the entertainment dramatization writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo spin out. In short, the definition of a short squeeze is this: “a situation in which the price of a stock rises to such an extent that investors who have sold short, purchase the stock in order to limit their loses, causing the price to rise further”.

    GameStop was one of the companies who benefitted from the short squeeze, AMC theaters was another when the world shut down and bankruptcy was on the immediate horizon for these companies. For the sake of Dumb Money directed by Craig Gillespie, the story follows Keith Gill (Paul Dano) aka Roaring Kitty on YouTube who invests in GameStop stock in the belief that Hedge Funds are undervaluing it. Every day in his modest Brockton, Massachusetts home he shares with his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley), Roaring Kitty would be an active member in the subreddit page r/WallStreetBets and go live on YouTube and talk about why he likes a particular stock – going so far as to share his balance sheets with the viewers.

    If you’ve ever owned a gaming console, GameStop was the place to be, and it still is thanks to the Keith’s convictions to bring value to the struggling company against the hedge funds who would see it fail and only get wealthier in the process. When the story starts, GameStop’s stock price was only a few dollars and by the climax of the film, the volatile stock soared past $347 dollars. This put Hedge Fund owners like Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) in the position to lose billions of dollars.

    Power to the people!

    It’s not just Keith speaking into the red blinking light of his webcam or showing his progress on the subreddit, several other people and their stories get featured throughout Dumb Money. People we can all relate to in one way or the other. They are Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera), a nurse, single mother to two boys and essential worker struggling to make ends meet, Marcus (Anthony Ramos), a GameStop store associate fed up with his dead end job, Riri (Myha’la Herold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), two college students with 6 figures in debt. Although these are the characters and their financial situations we’re introduced to, Blum and Angelo’s script can easily be interchangeable with whomever is going through a tough time.

    The message is simple – anyone can invest and make money with a little bit of luck and talent but it’s the story of the human spirit, of the underdog fighting back against the 1% to prove that no one person should be undervalued or have whats in their bank account determine their value.

    For 104 minutes, Dumb Money dismantles the hyper wealthy and those who benefit off of companies that fail. These people don’t care about the lives that get ruined or situations that become harder to bear, only how their pockets can be lined with more green slips of paper. One perfect example comes early on in an exchange between Ken and Gabe in which both one up each other in how they stayed open for business during the pandemic – neither caring about the lives they jeopardize or the inconvenience it causes.

    Cut between the collages of various social media videos, meme’s, and newscasts tracking the volatile stock’s price and whether the collective are holding out is a grounded story of family. It’s learned that Keith, his brother Kevin (Pete Davidson) and their parents suffered a devastating loss that stays with the brothers, keeping them close. Not just Keith’s family but Marcus’s family struggles and Jennifer’s are highlighted to further prove the point that these people can be anyone. Blum and Angelo find a harmony in their script between families and the audaciousness set to the soundtrack of modern hip hop.

    Whether we want to revisit the time in which Dumb Money takes place in or not, the story fires on all cylinders, giving the advantage to those who need it most in a fast paced blend of The Social Network, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. 2023 has offered a variety of biopics of everyday normal people hitting it big and making a remarkable impact on society and pop culture and Craig Gillespie’s film continues the streak. Led by the charmingly quiet confidence of Paul Dano, Dumb Money’s ensemble is stacked from top to bottom paired with a soundtrack that echoes this current generation and the idea of dismantling those in power who don’t deserve it. GME to the mooooooooon!

    Screenplay By: Lauren Schuker Blum & Rebecca Angelo

    Directed By: Craig Gillespie

    Music By: Will Bates

    Cinematography: Nikolas Karakatsanis

    Starring: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogen

    Edited By: Kirk Baxter

    Release Date: September 15, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

    Based On: The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Star Wars: Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

    Star Wars: Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

    Once the opening crawl of Star Wars: Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker begins with “The dead speak”, what has been speculated becomes true. There was no plan for this new trilogy, the first under the control of Disney after the acquisition of Lucasfilm. Spanning several decades starting in the 1970’s the saga does what it can under the tremendous expectation to land the falcon cleanly while providing all of the thrills that have come to be expected. But in the saga’s episodic 9th chapter, a clean landing is just out of reach as conclusions go – the landing gear is busted and instead of a smooth journey, the ride has been more turbulent than satisfactory.

    What I mean by the sequel trilogy having no plan compared to the original and prequel trilogies is this: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow survived the fallout of Return of the Jedi when the second Death Star blew up over the forest moon of Endor. How he survived after Darth Vader threw him over a railing while succumbing to a lightning strike is one thing but adding him into the final chapter that’s supposed to wrap all 3 trilogies with no prior involvement or mention adds to the frustration. Early on after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) finds Palpatine’s location on the planet Exegol by way of a Sith wayfinder, Palpatine confesses that he has been pulling the strings all along.

    From Snoke to Kylo’s turn to the dark side to Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) existence, it’s been Palpatine as the puppet master – building the Sith back up to control the galaxy once again under the guise called the ‘Final Order’. After The Last Jedi and the risks that Rian Johnson took with the franchise, The Rise of Skywalker plays it safe with a predictable finish, devoting most of the 142 minute runtime to cheap fan service and shallow character development.

    Written by Chris Terrio and J. J. Abrams, the latter returning to the directors seat, the writing duo add a lot of uninspired empty calories to their script, providing nothing new or significant to the mythology that George Lucas once created. Corners are cut, plot points that were started in The Force Awakens are given easy outs and character developments and relationships that had promise are abandoned. As Star Wars goes, TROS feels disjointed from the moment the crawl ends and we’re once again dropped into the vacuum of space.

    After Palpatine makes his presence known to the galaxy, its once again up to the resistance who have barely limped away after the events of The Last Jedi from the First Order to stop the reemergence of the Sith. To get there, Terrio and Abrams use many of the same plot devices that we’ve seen before. Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewy (Joonas Suotamo) are on a mission to retrieve stolen plans of Palpatine’s mission. From there, the resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher through repurposed footage) set out to find a second wayfinder to stop the former emperor from gaining control back of the galaxy, stopping once and for all.

    You know, for a second time. An explosion of a small moon and being dropped thousands of feet wasn’t enough.

    For the first time in the sequel trilogy, the 3 new protagonist leads are on screen together, carrying out their mission, and in true Star Wars fashion, failing as they go. Together, the trio of Isaac, Boyega, and Ridley have the same dynamic and chemistry as Ford, Hamill, and Fisher, without the burden of a romantic element involved. Ridley continues to be the emotional heart and soul of the trilogy while Isaac and Boyega are sparingly given their moments to breathe new life into the dying rebellion.

    All it takes is a little hope. Rebellions are built on hope and throughout, Poe and Finn never lose the hope that the galaxy is listening to their message and fight for freedom.

    As the story gets its legs underneath it, you can feel the creative struggle from too many cooks in the kitchen. What Rian Johnson accomplishes with his episode is swiftly undone by Terrio and Abrams. Characters that had major roles in the rebellion are shifted to the background while new and old faces are brought in, not adding much to the overall story. Specifically, what Johnson does with Rey is immediately erased – it was better off when Rey was just a nobody with unnamed parents. The switch to make her a Palpatine is unearned and subsequently her new name she gives herself after the galaxy is saved for good winds up being a disappointment.

    Among the disorder that is the screenplay, the action, more specifically the lightsaber sequences build all of the necessary tension that the franchise has always gotten right. Never has the fight for freedom of oppression and tyranny against the emperor has been so vital to the survival of the galaxy. Ridley is unrelenting and ferocious with that laser sword Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) left for her. Opposite her is the physically imposing Adam Driver – the two are choreographed like a dance – every swing or attack with the saber more crucial than the last. Rey has come a long way since we first met her scavenging on Jakku to taking on the supreme leader one on one and holding her own. The force is strong with Rey.

    Cinematographer Dan Mindel puts the camera up close between Kylo and Rey during their various duels with their final coming on a destroyed piece of death star recapturing the adrenaline, tension and magic the throne room fight in The Last Jedi delivered on. You can feel the struggle between good and evil and the conflict within both of them to pick a side. That’s why the jedi order failed – closing off all feelings, acting in self-defense, never opening up to the possibility of being vulnerable. The jedi had to be destroyed so a new order can be built off of the past.

    Visually, TROS dazzles with its seemingly infinite amount of special effects but its overly relied upon creating a suspension of disbelief in connection with a messy script. Bright reds, deep blue’s take over among the muted colors of planet atmospheres. The battles in space are full blown spectacle, creating an urgency to stop the final order once and for all. Flying from the POV of an x-wing cockpit has never looked cooler with Poe stepping into a role within the rebellion he earned through hard knocks.

    Though it may have deviated from the path with no set plan in place to drive the story from point A to B, the sequel trilogy ushers in a new generation of Star Wars. Finally the galaxy can get a touch more expansive and move away from the self-contained narrative that revolves around the name ‘Skywalker’ (please no more sand based planets). Overall, the sequel trilogy can best be described as divisive – with a promising albeit derivative beginning in The Force Awakens, it’s the imaginative Last Jedi that really pushes the boundaries, fully delivering on the potential of Star Wars while TROS caps things off as an aimless tonal effects heavy mess.

    Story By: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio & J. J. Abrams

    Screenplay By: Chris Terrio & J. J. Abrams

    Directed By: J. J. Abrams

    Music By: John Williams

    Cinematography: Dan Mindel

    Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo

    Where to Watch: Disney Plus

    Edited By: Maryann Brandon, Stefan Grube

    Release Date: December 20, 2019

    Running Time: 2 Hours 22 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 52%

    Based On: Star Wars by George Lucas

    Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

    Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

    Witch and wizard and yes, even us muggles are all happily welcomed back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with open arms for another year of sensational magic to be learned. But not all witches and wizards are treated the same – there are those generational purebloods with their elitist attitudes that believe anyone who isn’t pure doesn’t belong at school learning magic. And those discriminatory folks aren’t afarid to hide their cruel and vile remarks from those around them. But not all pureblood families are the same, and returning writer Steve Kloves emphasizes the differences in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

    Early on in Chamber of Secrets the villainous characters wear their discrimination on their sleeves – its painted on their face and can be seen in the way they hold their bodies and how they dress. Year 2 at Hogwarts for the boy who lived Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is filled with new challenges to overcome both personally and for the sake of the wizarding world at large. For one, when the Chris Columbus directed sequel opens up, Harry is once again isolated from the magic world by his bigoted Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), and cousin Dudley (Harry Melling).

    But that’s not the challenge – Harry is visited by a house elf named Dobby (Toby Jones) who warns Harry that Hogwarts will be in grave danger this year and that Dobby insists that Harry not return to his home. Dobby even goes so far to drop the dessert on the Dursley’s guests heads causing Vernon to barricade Harry within his room. Even Hedwig is trapped in her cage – unable to stretch her wings and deliver letters to Harry’s friends. Any sign of danger with the level of these warnings would make anyone listen but not Harry – Hogwarts is truly his home and being a wizard is a chance to escape from the harsh reality of living with muggles.

    Before getting back to the castle, the story takes a brief pause at the Weasley house after Ron and his twin older brothers Fred and George (James & Oliver Phelps) free Harry in the families flying car. Matriarch Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) was furious at the boys (not Harry) for empty beds and not leaving a note. Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams) on the other hand is fascinated by how the car handled the trip. It’s not the reaction to the car being temporarily taken that matters in the makeup of this scene, it’s the juxtaposition between the burrow and the Dursley household – one house being full of love, warmness and magic and the other devoid of happiness and comfort.

    Like Harry who wouldn’t see the brilliance the Weasley house possess? The practical effects of a cast iron skillet being magically washed or a clock that in lieu of telling time has its hands pointing to where each member of the family is at any moment (my favorite is mortal peril) creates the dazzling  display of magic that the mundane would instantly be envious of.

    However, being the title Chamber of Secrets, the majority of the plot takes place within the historic castles walls. Kloves screenplay follows the 1998 novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling faithfully, cutting a narrative corner here and there for the sake of the film and furthering the expansion of the mythology Rowling invented. Centering around Harry and his exploration of powers, the wizards popularity takes an unfavorable turn when it’s found out during a dueling club that Harry is a Parselmouth, meaning he can communicate with snakes. To Harry’s surprise not many witches and wizards can speak this language – only those associated with dark magic in the Salazar Slytherin bloodline can do so.

    The house-elf’s warnings ring true – the castle is under attack by an unknown monster who lives in the fabled ‘Chamber of Secrets’. Throughout the film, characters are petrified by the monster striking those who are enemies of the heir of Salazar Slytherin. Because Harry can speak Parseltongue, the entire school suspects him and professors like Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) fear the worst. Not to worry as long as headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) is around, Hogwarts has a fighting chance with those loyal to him.

    Following Sorcerer’s Stone, majority of the ensemble cast return, giving a sense of community and lived-in chemistry to this hidden world (even If some of them don’t like each other). After being stopped by Harry, the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts needed to be filled – in comes the arrogant and smug celebrity author Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) to fill the position. Branagh’s addition to the cast fits in like a puzzle piece while the returning cast are finding nuances in their characters personalities.

    While Chamber of Secrets color palate and tone are muted and darker, Lockhart’s personality brightens up the castle through Branagh’s performance. Elsewhere, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson continue to be front and center, fully capturing their novel counterparts – the three remind us why they were chosen for these prestigious roles and the latter two (Grint and Watson) look more comfortable in their second film. Another newcomer to the world and the cast is Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), father of school rival and bully Draco (Tom Felton) who takes on the elitist personification and runs with it.

    The Malfoy family and what they stand for is truly evil – especially how they view and treat nonhuman species.

    For all the melodrama playing out, Hogwarts is not without its main draw to the school year – Quidditch. The action sequence of Gryffindor versus Slytherin pushes the pace into high gear, dazzling dozens of feat off the ground. Columbus took the Quidditch scene from Sorcerer’s Stone and turned up the drama. Two rival houses fighting for bragging rights and with Harry playing Seeker for Gryffindor and Malfoy seeker for Slytherin, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Cinematographer Roger Pratt’s camera movements are smooth in their transitions from one player to the next as they zoom by in pursuit of the golden snitch.

    What Sorcerer’s Stone gets right; The Chamber of Secrets furthers the confidence in bringing the beloved book series to a new medium. The ensemble cast is truly impressive, John Williams provides another remarkable score, the practical and visual effects make the magic attainable for us nonmagical folk and the tone is darker, more mature and full of grave and dangerous stakes. Bravery in the face of danger and courage to do whats right remains the main themes of the series as it shifts into darker territory.

    Screenplay By: Steve Kloves

    Directed By: Chris Columbus

    Music By: John Williams

    Cinematography: Roger Pratt

    Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters

    Where to Watch: Max

    Edited By: Peter Honess

    Release Date: November 15, 2002

    Running Time: 2 Hours 41 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%

    Based On: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Inside Out (2015)

    Inside Out (2015)

    Humans are complicated creatures. And as a human, there has never been a truer statement said that can describe us. We’re filled with an enormous amount of different thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, dreams, likes, dislikes, motivations, and goals that we all have to balance on a day-to-day basis. From the moment we’re born, our thoughts, feelings, and emotions begin to mold who we are and shape our personalities based on our surroundings. Pixar’s Inside Out takes the concept of growing up and gives it an inventive twist – 5 emotions at the control center inside our head’s that decide every aspect of life – from what we say to what we eat to choosing our hobbies to the food we like and dislike and everything in between.

    Out of the 14 previous films Pixar has digitally brought to life, Inside Out perfectly sums up what it’s like to be human. Written by Josh Cooley, Meg LeFauve and Peter Doctor, the latter also serving as director, the story follows Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) from birth to age 11. In that span of time, Riley experiences Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Rage (Lewis Black). All normal emotions that we all live with every day.

    Over the years, Riley develops memories that begin to make up her personality. Some of these memories that are created are called core memories in which all will fundamentally define Riley as a person into adulthood. And the core memories are all pretty standard for an 11-year-old. But life changes and things happen that can severely impact a person. For example, Riley’s parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) decide to move from their hometown in Minnesota to San Francisco for her dad’s new job. For a kid whose entire life is in one place, uprooting that life can do some terribly damaging things like creating a sad core memory. The once joyful Riley who loves her family, being a goofball, playing hockey, spending time with her friends is no more.

    Desperate to keep Riley happy after an accident in headquarters, Joy gets stuck in the long-term memory section of Riley’s mind with the reluctant addition of Sadness tagging along, making things worse. With their absence felt, Disgust, Fear, and Anger take control, changing Riley for the worse – her entire personality shifts and snowballs. The moving truck gets lost, the closest pizzeria only sells broccoli slices, the new house is cramped and dirty and most importantly, Riley is far away from her friends and hockey.

    Life cannot possibly get any worse. Spoiler alert, it can. But life can also get better.

    Anyone who has moved to a new town, city or state knows how terrifying it is being at a new school with zero friends and busy parents. Doctor, Cooley, and LeFauve put us right into Riley’s shoes, staying with her through the hurt, making it easy to understand her pain, frustration, and sadness.

    But this is where Inside Out’s profoundly engaging themes begin to take shape. Split between Riley outward facing and inside on the emotions, forcing one emotion to overpower the others is just as harmful as losing pieces of yourself due to changing circumstances. Joy is desperate to keep Riley happy but fails to understand how different emotions blended together create a more complete outlook on life. We as humans need to feel sadness, disgust, fear and anger along with joy, otherwise life will be incomplete. Emotions are valuable to our DNA, making us who we are and if one or more are missing than the worst can happen – depression can take over.

    Pixar has always addressed mature themes and messages within its kid friendly films of imaginary and in adamant object characters and Inside Out is no different. Doctor, Cooley and LeFauve make that the center point of their screenplay crafting the film with sensitivity toward those who are going through a rough patch and staying true to their ambitious nature. The standard that Pixar sets out and revolutionizes the medium with their outstanding animation is the best it’s ever been – colors are vibrant and non-human character designs are stylized while human characters are full of little realistic details.

    For 95 minutes Inside Out is a journey of exploration on a deep emotional level. Not just for Riley as she copes with her new life and the growing pains but for the emotions as well. At the start, each emotion sees life as black and white. You can feel joy or sadness separately but as Joy and Sadness find their way back to headquarters, they come to the realization that these 5 emotions need each other to be truly happy. Some of the best memories can be sad ones or fearful ones that can be comforted by the joy someone else brings while the sadness or fear taking over.

    Inside Out boasts creativity in the design of the human mind. Sections of long term memory, the subconscious, dreams, and memory dump are sprawling and audacious ,putting imagination in the foreground with details upon details that make up how a mind works. From daydreams to imaginary friends and love interests, Pixar’s strength captures the spectacle of bringing all of these aspects to a more tangible reality. Riley isn’t the only one who’s controlled by emotions, both mom and dad have their versions of the 5 emotions that mirror their character designs. And the depiction of emotions are accurate to the stereotypical mannerisms of a family interaction.

    Easily, the best depiction comes at the end of the story, 1 year later when Riley bumps into a pre-teen boy whose only though is panic from all 5 emotions.

    Inside Out holds its own when it comes to the emotional weight it carries on its shoulders. One of Pixar’s best efforts throughout its groundbreaking history, the subject matter stands the test of time along with the gorgeous animation and messages of the human spirit. Funny and charming as it is thoughtful dense, there is something for any age group to get latched onto and engaged for the evenly paced runtime.

    Story By: Ronnie del Carmen & Pete Doctor

    Screenplay By: Josh Cooley, Meg LaFauve & Pete Doctor

    Directed By: Pete Doctor

    Music By: Michael Giacchino

    Cinematography: Patrick Lin (camera) & Kim White (lighting)

    Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan

    Where to Watch: Disney Plus

    Edited By: Kevin Nolting

    Release Date: June 19, 2015

    Running Time: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Bottoms (2023)

    Bottoms (2023)

    With nowhere to go and nothing to do during the height of the pandemic, the one solace people had was discovering new tv series and feature films that made their way directly to streaming services. One of those films was the debut hit Shiva Baby written and directed by Emma Seligman and starring newcomer Rachel Sennott. Seligman’s follow-up Bottoms reaffirmed the talent the writer-director possess in telling a story with characters that have relatable motivations within a tried and true subgenre. While at the same time modernizing the R-Rated teen comedy and satirizing it.

    If Bottoms looks and feels familiar, it is. A Superbad for 2023 mixed with the Olivia Wilde Booksmart flair for the theatrics. And the premise of Bottoms toes the line that Superbad also leaned in toward. Following queer best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) in presumably their senior year of high school, the two have never had sex and dream to hook up with Rockbridge Falls cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber) before going to college. PJ is the outgoing, talkative one and Josie would rather bury her head in the sand than start a conversation with Isabel.

    After the carnival night that kicks the events into motion ends horribly for Isabel’s boyfriend and star football player Jeff (Nicolas Galitzine), both PJ and Josie to protect themselves start a self-defense club after school. Or at least, that was the front for their reasoning for starting the club. Quickly, the self-defense club turns into a fight club with a touch of project mayhem thrown into the mix. Tyler Durden himself would be proud of this chapter even without the rules of fight club set in place as a guideline. As the fight club grows, so does PJ and Josie’s popularity – especially from Isabel and Brittany.

    But a fight cl—I mean a self-defense club cannot go unsupervised. PJ and Josie recruit one of their teachers Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch) to keep the club operating under the impression that he doesn’t even have to show up to a club session. But Mr. G’s hands off and questionable approach to teaching transfers over and PJ keeps a firm grasp on the reigns. All of this set up just to lose their virginities before college. And this is where the satire comes into full effect. After the big climactic fantastical action sequence finishes a character says, “you could have just talked to me”.

    Co-written by Sennott and Seligman and directed by Seligman, Bottoms packs a strong right hook. In today’s world people will literally do whatever it takes and commit the grandest of gestures to get the attention of someone they like minus the simplicity of saying hi and starting a conversation. In a way we all feel like a blending of both PJ and Josie wanting to do something impressive and over-the-top but also not bringing so much attention to ourselves in the fear of being rejected. That sums up what the high school experience is for most – being a teenager is plain difficult.

    Front and center are Rachell Sennott and Ayo Edebiri. Sennott reteaming with Seligman after her breakout performance in the anxiety inducing claustrophobic Shiva Baby gives the sense of being in a comfortable situation with her comedic timing being on point. Sennott has the talent to be a standout among the talented cast but its Ayo Edebiri (The Bear) who sits firmly in the driver seat with her performance – playing the insecure, charming and quietly confident role with subtle humor mixed in. The two together kick ass and take names as their popularity grows but like all coming of age comedies, being on top of the world doesn’t last forever.

    Like all that have come before it in the genre, Bottoms features the same plot structure and predictability as the story moves forward. At 93 minutes, Seligman keeps the pace tightly wound and on track, rarely slowing down but taking the punches and quickly getting back into the fighting stance. You can easily see when the downfall will happen and the plan blowing up in their faces, but the journey provides one laugh after the other. But Bottoms isn’t just fists of fury and sex jokes – Sennott and Seligman add a commentary about feminism, inclusion, representation and gender role dynamics into the mix.

    For the majority of the film, Seligman expertly balances the themes Bottoms conveys – all told through crude humor and sexual innuendo but it’s the heart that quickly takes over. On the satire aspect of it all, the football players are never without their uniforms, even during school and their first names appear on the back of their jerseys. Seligman makes a statement with her vision of jocks in teen comedies. The football team are treated like Greek gods – posters hang everywhere, famous paintings are parodied, they get away with everything, even faking a leg injury and acting abhorrently. Forget about serving something that a player is allergic to, all hell breaks loose, and the temper tantrum begins.

    2023 has reinvigorated and reinvented the R-Rated comedy – Bottoms is but the latest to create non-stop laughable moments blended with an emotional center that speaks to society and changing times and will cause a black eye. But this is one fight club you can and should talk about. Packed with hardcore action, Bottoms will guarantee a sense of empowerment and confidence. Confidence to step out of your comfort zone and do something that terrifies you. Backed by a hilarious ensemble, Seligman proves herself once again as a writer-director with something to say, bringing a fresh take on generic and overdone tropes.  

    Screenplay By: Rachel Sennott & Emma Seligman

    Directed By: Emma Seligman

    Music By: Charli XCX & Leo Birenberg

    Cinematography: Maria Rusche

    Starring: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Ruby Cruz, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Miles Fowler, Marshawn Lynch

    Edited By: Hanna Park

    Release Date: August 25, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone to those outside of the United States, India and the Philippines) brings an already global phenomena to life visually. The character designs, the look and feel of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the atmosphere of Diagon Alley you picture in your head as the pages turn all live up to the expectations that are placed when a film adaptation is announced. The only word best to describe seeing these people, places and things come to life is magical. I know, its cliché but the magic is everywhere imaginable, squeezing into every frame, filling up the many rooms that make up the different locations and making it that much more sensational.

    Like the novel for which it’s based on, the film version remains faithful to what author J. K. Rowling initially shook the world with. Of course, there are changes here and there but the overall story being told remains the same and accurately, I might add. The story follows the titular Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the ‘Boy who Lived’ sent away by the magic community to live with his muggle (non-magic folk) Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), and cousin of the same age Dudley (Harry Melling).

    After being left on the Dursley doorstep by Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry endured 11 harsh years with his aunt and uncle. On his 11th birthday, life as Harry would know it (or it being forced down his throat) would change. One day, a letter arrived specifically for Harry, even putting his bedroom (which is the cupboard under the stairs) on the address. Slowly Vernon and Petunia would lose their wits – shredding, burning, nailing the mail slot shut and finally taking a vacation to the middle of nowhere in a shack on an island.

    But still the letters came and finally along with them the half giant Hagrid, with a birthday cake and a revelation. “You’re a Wizard Harry”. And right there, the casting of Daniel Radcliffe was the right choice to portray Harry. Aside from nailing the look, with the famed lightning bolt scar, Radcliffe’s subtleties as an actor stand out. Once Coltrane delivers his line, Radcliffe’s eyes widen in disbelief. His entire life has been a lie including the death of his parents, which Harry was told was due to a car crash.

    It’s an outrage, a scandal!

    From that moment on, The Sorcerer’s Stone becomes an adventure of discovery. An entire world hidden to us muggles in plain sight. But some places like Diagon Alley need a bit of magic to appear. And Daniel Radcliffe becomes a vessel for us all who adore the books. His face says it all and the curiosity to explore takes over. With the revelation comes harsh truths that Harry’s parents were murdered by a dark wizard who lost his power when trying to kill Harry. This is where the theme of love is established. The love Harry’s mother had for him formed a protective barrier, saving his life and making him famous. Love for the source material is injected into the screenplay by writer Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus. There isn’t a witch or wizard who doesn’t know his name and all the passersby make sure to introduce themselves and give thanks to a boy who has no idea of the magnitude of his fame.

    But not all wizards and witches love and adore Harry Potter. Some like Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his goonies Crabbe and Goyle (Jamie Waylett and Joshua Herdman) and Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) cannot contain their disgust over Harry’s celebrity status. But luckily, Harry has Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) on his side as best friends.

    For its overwhelmingly lighthearted tone, both Kloves and Columbus balance out Sorcerer’s Stone  with the fear – so much fear that witches and wizards cannot bear to speak the villains name and when it is spoken aloud, there’s a hush that can be felt from all of the air being sucked out of the room. One minutes, the mood is all light and carefree and the next, our main trio plus Draco are swept up in a detention session in the Forbidden Forest. Not even Hagrid’s dog Fang can help protect from the dangerous threats the forest possess.  Harry surviving the murder turns Voldemort into a grotesque creature, a cursed being forced to live off someone else to survive without a body.

    To someone brand new to Harry Potter, Kloves and Columbus keep the villain close to the chest. Obviously the kids suspect Snape based on his cold and bitter stares and Alan Rickman’s performance will chill the bones in your body. Rickman is truly frightening, especially to an 11 year old but it’s his slowed, syllable by syllable speech that will terrify an older viewer. While we’re all distracted by Snape, the real villain of year 1 at Hogwarts School flies under the radar – the person least suspected that makes Voldemort’s followers so dangerous.

    During the 152 minute runtime Sorcerer’s Stone boasts, love is but one major theme. Courage, bravery, jealousy, and prejudice can all make their argument for the more prominent theme. One scathing look from pureblood Draco as he guesses Ron comes from the Weasley family or when Aunt Petunia purses her lips when the mention of her sister is brought up. Fiona Shaw’s performance in that moment exudes envy – deep down Petunia wishes she was also a witch.

    Year 1 at Hogwarts for Harry comes with a ton of discoveries – new friends, allies and knowledge but a lot of expectations. The boy who lived has more to live up to than he realizes and one of those things comes in the air, soaring above a stadium full of screaming students, professors and fans. Early on, Harry learns of the sport called Quidditch – a rather simple game played on broomstick. During one of his early lessons, Harry learns he has a knack for flying, mostly thanks to his father (who was also Gryffindor seeker). While Quidditch plays a more major role in the novel, the one match Kloves and Columbus feature comes against rival house Slytherin.

    The action is fast paced, and the adrenaline is high, easily becoming a standout sequence that thrills and chills. An energetic break in the investigation Harry, Ron and Hermione have been conducting. But it’s a sequence that also pushes the story forward, not completely derailing the momentum Kloves’s script slowly builds over the course of 152 minutes.

    What makes Sorcerer’s Stone a remarkable adaptation is the magic itself. From basic spells that repair a pair of glasses to magicked instruments to the sensation when a wand chooses its wizard or even flying and finally the few beasts that get introduced, Sorcerer’s Stone captures the imagination and makes the impossible feel real. Add in a one-of-a-kind score by John Williams and a gothic production design to round out the technical marvels that Columbus manages to lasso into one unforgettable experience. But the heart and soul of Sorcerer’s Stone belongs to Daniel, Rupert, and Emma. Their chemistry together feels natural with dialogue ripped straight from the pages. All the mannerisms and dynamics between the 3 leads are executed down to the letter. Sorcerer’s Stone lives up to the potential the wizarding world establishes leaving this muggle in awe of the spectacle.

    Screenplay By: Steve Kloves

    Directed By: Chris Columbus

    Music By: John Williams

    Cinematography: John Seale

    Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Warwick Davis, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith

    Where to Watch: Max

    Edited By: Richard Francis-Bruce

    Release Date: November 16, 2001

    Running Time: 2 Hours 32 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

    Based On: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Barry Lyndon (1975)

    Barry Lyndon (1975)

    Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) who later becomes Barry Lyndon is a liar, an opportunist, a thief, a coward, a con artist, a deserter and a scoundrel. He’s a vulture circling his prey until the very last moment and then he takes what he doesn’t deserve, reaching far beyond his station, pretending to belong when in reality those around Barry can see right through him. But still Barry doesn’t change his ways despite being caught repeatedly. That’s what makes the character so fascinating from when we first meet him early in life to his eventual death that is never shown on screen. Perhaps it’s for the better – there are very little who would show any sympathy toward Barry in those moments.

    There is one redeeming quality Barry possesses – he’s a good father. However, with the negatives far outweighing the positive, the character’s life is far more engaging than if he were a good person. And given the lengthy runtime and an excruciatingly slow pace that writer-director Stanley Kubrick utilizes, Barry Lyndon provides a satisfaction from the slow burn as the rise and fall of Redmond Barry plays out like the symphony that accompanies his life’s journey.

    Based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray and broken down into 2 parts, Kubrick’s adaptation encapsulates the full life of Barry as he swindles his way from his lower class to marry rich and proceeds to slowly lose it all over a series of misfortunes that catch up with his devilish ways. By the time Barry Lyndon loses his reputation, a limb and his son, he does so with the same blank expression as he had when he attained his societal status and success. In fact, rarely does any character in Kubrick’s film show any emotion – they all live in a constant state of dread.

    Set during the Seven years’ war and during the aftermath, Barry uses each significant moment as a steppingstone, or perhaps he’s at the benefit of being at the right place at the right time. And this plays into Ryan O’Neal’s performance. During part 1, when Barry is caught by captain of the Prussian Army Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger) and is forced to serve in the army as part of his punishment, there comes a moment when Barry has a choice. He can desert another Army furthering his cowardice or save a life. Barry makes the right decision but only for his own benefit down the road.

    Barry’s life is a selfish one – being selfless isn’t in his best interest. And not many initially pick up on Barry’s cruel intent. Only when the film shift from part 1 into part 2 and Barry marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), her son Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage as young Bullingdon / Leon Vitali as the adult) exposes Barry’s true intentions. “He doesn’t love my Mother” Bullingdon says expressionless to Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin). To prove that point, the previous scene shows Barry and Lady Lyndon in a carriage as Barry smokes on a pipe, some of the smoke blowing directly into Lady Lyndon’s face. She politely asks him to stop but Barry’s arrogance takes over and he blows smoke directly into his newly wed wife’s face.

    Children are far more observant and perceptive than they get credit for. None of the sophisticated, aristocratic, intelligent adults pick up on Barry’s intentions, unless they to share those same deceitful ways but leave it to a child to pick up on it and later be correct in his observation when Barry begins a life of lust and adultery.

    Bringing the novel to life visually for Kubrick’s film is cinematographer John Alcott. Every frame is pristine and picturesque, the color palette is gorgeous. The vast landscapes of the on location shoots in England, Ireland and Germany capture the beauty of the area giving us the scope Kubrick puts forth in all of his films. The horizon is never ending while the double shots keep the camera steady and focused on the subject matter. Whereas the interior shots are full of elegance from all of the floor to ceiling paintings,  tapestries and furniture that makes up a room that never ends. All that beauty aside, the best shots come by way of candlelight being the only light source when Alcott usus close up shots and the background is barely visible but full of people.

    From a technical standpoint, Barry Lyndon showcases a master at work. Costume designs from Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund are breathtaking and intricate and the sets transport us into a different world.

    Out of all of Kubrick’s skill and mastery as a director, my favorite aspect of his films that Barry Lyndon also incorporates is the score. Across several of his films, Kubrick looks to the public domain for symphonies to marry the characters to their journey. From Vivaldi to Bach and Handle and Schubert, these classic works have become a centerpiece, adding to the authenticity of the time this story takes place.

    Barry Lyndon is a work of art, a Shakespearean tragedy of a likable character with disgusting societal fantasies. Coming in at 185 minutes, the films pace makes the runtime seem double and will be the main reason some may not attempt a viewing. However getting all the way to the end, the finale moment doesn’t offer up any satisfaction or cathartic emotional sympathy but the journey of Redmond Barry Lyndon still deserves to be seen.   

    Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick

    Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

    Cinematography: John Alcott

    Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Gay Hamilton, Leon Vitali, Murray Melvin

    Edited By: Tony Lawson

    Release Date: December 18, 1975

    Running Time: 3 Hours 5 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

    Based On: The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Sanctuary (2023)

    Sanctuary (2023)

    Websters dictionary defines the word Sanctuary as this: a place of refuge and protection. In regard to the film written by Micah Bloomberg and directed by Zachary Wilgon, the title Sanctuary and its meaning treads into spoiler territory but leaving it to the vibe the film gives off, one can easily guess the context of the use of the word. Set in a singular location of a 70’s inspired décor hotel room suite, refuge and protection are absent, the characters are easily exposed to harm but as Wilgon’s film progresses, the word finds a deeper meaning by the end of the 96 minute runtime.

    Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbot) receives a visit to his hotel suite by Rebecca Marin (Margaret Qualley) there to conduct an interview slash background check for Hal’s new role as CEO of a company. The questions start innocent enough (though right away anyone can tell that these questions are off limits as far as hiring interviews go) and quickly transition into uncomfortable truths that have to be given. The next increasingly more disturbing than the last. And soon enough, Rebecca stops the questionnaire to reveal the script that Hal has written out line by line for this meeting.

    It’s learned by this script that Rebecca is a dominatrix and Hal is her client who has been seeing her for quite a while. Part of the script has some truth to it – Hal is a CEO of Porterfield Hotel’s, a chain he inherited from his father in which Hal shares several doubts whether he can live up to his father’s expectations. After their session is finished and Rebecca is paid a significant sum of money, Hal terminates the ongoing relationship. And once Rebecca walks out of the vintage styled hotel suite, Sanctuary becomes a tour de force rollercoaster ride led by its energic and engrossing performances.

    Together Margaret Qualley and Cristopher Abbot fill the room with an energy that brings you along for the ride. Once it starts, Wilgon rarely slows down for a break between the dialogue driven action. Qualley is coy and Abbot reserved. The two feed off one another as the night becomes increasingly more tense and the stakes of the characters encounters become something of a nightmare for either person. Bloomberg’s script does just enough to keep you guessing – is there really a camera in the room, has Rebecca really been taping sessions in secret? The truth is always masked by deception but it’s how Hal and Rebecca react to the circumstances that keeps the atmosphere suffocating, despite how spacious the suite is.

    For 96 minutes, the walls feel like their closing in, every interaction heightens the claustrophobic nature some get when in confined spaces. Think the Ryan Reynolds solo film Buried but with a damaging social status in jeopardy, blackmail and uncomfortable compromises.

    Adding fuel to the fire that rages within the walls is a pulse pounding score by Ariel Marx, complimenting Bloomberg’s screenplay and giving it a wordless voice. Both serenading during the quieter scenes and frantic during the many arguments the two share during the struggle for power. Cinematographer Ludovica Isidori puts the camera up close between the two squeezing the more tension out of the situation. During Hal’s urgency for locating the camera that may or may not exist, the camera pans, flips upside down perfectly with Hal as he shifts his focus, tearing the room apart. Glass gets shattered, lights go out, shelves become dismantled as Rebecca dominates Hal in every aspect.

    As the night begins to unravel, Bloomberg’s script begins to take control. It’s Hal’s game – he writes the script, sets the scenario and give Rebecca the keys to the car. After the supposed first transaction finishes, their personalities continue on. Bloomberg puts the pressure on the viewer to keep guessing what will happen next. The entire night could have been planned out. When Isidori closes in on the script after Hal’s script finishes, I couldn’t help but notice there were more pages left to go. I kept questioning whether all of the events that take place were supposed to happen however Bloomberg leaves it open to interpretation as there are several jaw-dropping moments that come to light in regard to Hal’s fantasies.

    While Sanctuary boasts sex positivity and promotes the openness of celebrating kink’s, the deeper themes of control, disappointment, pride and confidence balance the film on an emotional level. From the consistent tone, a fascinating score and two energetic and engaging performances, Sanctuary is sensual, disturbing, sweet and frightening, keeping you on the edge of your seat, unable to predict what curveball Micah Bloomberg and Zachary Wilgon will throw at you next. By the end of the film, the word ‘sanctuary’ envelops several meanings, saving its most poignant one for last.

    Screenplay By: Micah Bloomberg

    Directed By: Zachary Wilgon

    Music By: Ariel Marx

    Cinematography: Ludovica Isidori

    Starring: Margaret Qualley & Christopher Abbot

    Edited By: Kate Brokaw & Lance Edmands

    Release Date: May 19, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Paddington (2014)

    Paddington (2014)

    If I was given the choice to welcome a talking, lost, charming and polite bear into my home and allow it to stay for undetermined amount of time, I would immediately say yes. How could anyone not? Then again, we live in a fast paced modern age where getting from point A to point B is the focal point of our lives when not consumed by small computer devices that bathe our faces in distracting blue light. Yet, when the innocent and marmalade starved bear makes his way to London where all bears are welcomed with a friendly greeting, he’s ignored, hit with briefcases and bags and has to fend off a group of rowdy pigeons all looking for a piece of his emergency sandwich.

    Life outside of ‘Darkest Peru’ where this talking bear hails from is not what was promised however the bear that would go one to be named Paddington (Ben Whishaw), after the train station, is full of optimism that some family will happily adopt him and treat him like their own. But back in ‘Darkest Peru’, where this story by-writer-director Paul King begins, Paddington lives with his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon).

    Based on the popular book series and character by Michael Bond, Paddington opens several years prior on a jungle expedition led by Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie). On this expedition that includes a grandfather clock and a piano, Clyde discovers these intelligent bears with an affinity for marmalade. After the time jump, both Lucy and Pastuzo have put together an intricate method for producing the addictive food that can supply bears with enough vitamins and minerals for a day. And somehow these bears have created a massive amount of marmalade preserves in mason jars. In Peru.

    Never mind how the bears learned physics to construct  an assembly line in the middle of the jungle but where did they come across all of these empty jars? Its but one of many continuously hilarious moments that can be found throughout the 95 minute runtime as Paddington quickly learns to assimilate in a modern society. Giving Paddington that chance is the Brown family – Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Judy (Madeleine Harris), and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). Mary instantly agrees to take Paddington in while Henry cautiously remains skeptical about bringing in a wild animal into their carefully constructed home.

    Once Paddington crosses the threshold of the Brown family house, everything changes both for the individual members of the Brown Family and for Paddington. King’s script allows viewers both young and old to be completely engrossed in Paddington’s journey to a better life. A script filled to the brim of the jar with bear puns galore, delightfully heartwarming moments and witty dialogue – all balanced out evenly. There’s even a delightfully silly pun when a GPS says to ‘bear left’ and cinematographer Erik Wilson pans the camera over to capture a bear on the left hand side.

    But Paddington isn’t all fun, games and marmalade – though a majority of the film does feature all three of these things simultaneously and does it well enough to stay engaging for all age groups. Among the hijinks and shenanigans Paddington gets himself into, the bear also finds himself in a bit of trouble as often as he’s learning to fit in. After learning of his existence, a taxidermist named Millicent (Nicole Kidman) makes it her mission to capture Paddington with the aid of the Browns nosey neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi). Not to worry, Paddington is never truly alone when targeted by Millicent (nor is he in any real danger).

    As the story progresses and Paddington becomes more comfortable in his new home, King on several occasions catches us up with the Brown family, giving much needed depth to the supporting characters. And toward the end, what we learn early on, gets paid off by the end of the story. Paddington being around brings the best out of every member of the Brown family.

    To the younger viewer, the computer generated animation of Paddington and the sense of humor will be enough to keep their attention while King fills his script with plenty to make an older viewer more than amused at the lighthearted tone. Within Paddington are a multitude of themes – a sense of identity and belonging being the most prominent. King even casually throws in a sentiment on immigration and how foreigners from different places are treated. Even further for that theme, some locals are even treated how foreigners are – we all would rather be left alone than to have to fake being polite to a stranger.

    The ensemble cast supporting Whishaw are fully of energy but its Kidman’s devious villain who steals the spotlight during her limited screentime. Elsewhere, Hugh Bonneville has a standout moment while Sally Hawkins is a ray of sunshine.

    Paddington in one word is a delight. One of those rare gems of a story that doesn’t get told as often as it should, having a universal appeal from top to bottom – especially with its heartwarming tone and messages of belonging and family. As the lovable, fluffy bear, Ben Whishaw brings the essence of the beloved character to life with a soft spoken childlike innocence and wonder added to the character. The Brown home rips a page out of Wes Anderson’s playbook – colors are crisp, bright and the production design is so clean, anyone can enjoy a jar or delicious marmalade off the floors when the bathroom isn’t being flooded. Just don’t use the toothbrushes anymore, they’re for ear cleaning only.  

    Story By: Hamish McColl & Paul King

    Screenplay By: Paul King

    Directed By: Paul King

    Music By: Nick Urata

    Cinematography: Erik Wilson

    Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Peter Capaldi, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Nicole Kidman

    Edited By: Mark Everson

    Release Date: November 28, 2014

    Running Time: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

    Based On: Paddington Bear by Michael Bond

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Star Wars: Episode 8 – The Last Jedi (2017)

    Star Wars: Episode 8 – The Last Jedi (2017)

    Depending on who you ask and what era they grew up during, any given entry in the Star Wars saga will either be fiercely loved or passionately hated, and no amount of persuasion from the opposite side of the argument will change the others mind. And while for the most part depending on who you ask, the least liked Star Wars saga films will be the same across the board. That is until the release of Episode 8 in the Star Wars saga unofficially titled the ‘Skywaker Saga’ The Last Jedi, splitting the fandom young and old right down the middle creating a civil war type rift that will alter the franchise going forward.

    Age or era doesn’t matter when people vehemently express how they feel about The Last Jedi.

    Picking right up where The Force Awakens left off, writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad) steps right into the cockpit to take over control of this middle entry in this new trilogy of films. After the explosive burst of John Williams’ score paired with the familiar crawl finishes catching us up on recent events or better yet, outlining whats to come, Johnson drops us in on the sinister first order coming out of hyperspace to capture the rebel scum off guard. In doing so, The Last Jedi immediately sets itself apart from others in the franchise. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin captures the horror of seeing a star destroyer magically appear out of nowhere from the perspective of someone on a planet racing against time.

    There’s a sense of urgency to be had – time is of the essence as the chokehold of the first order is suffocating the resistance’s spirit down at an alarming rate. Rian Johnson’s skill as a director shines the brightest because the pace picks up and rarely slows down to let the heroes catch their breath. For 152 minutes, The Last Jedi becomes a story of survival by any means and the atmosphere (or lack thereof in the vacuum of space) from all angles keeps the thrusters at full power. In this moment, the only hope the resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has is to escape with as many people as possible.

    They are the spark after all.

    Once all surviving ships make it into space, the game is on – the resistance jumps to hyperspace only for the first order to follow right on their heels. They tracked them through hyperspace, something once thought impossible is now true, the first order is more dangerous than the Empire. The situation couldn’t be more dire for all involved and a simple game of cat and mouse subverts the expectations a Star Wars film carries on its shoulders making it the central plot device to push the story forward.

    But for some like captain Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), simply flying on auto pilot out of the reach of the First Order’s cannons is not good enough – precious lives and fuel are wasted while the resistance fleet gets picked off one by one. Only Poe fails to see the bigger picture and instead takes matters into his own hands when Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) decide to embark on a side quest to give the resistance extra breathing room. They’ll need it. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the remote planet Ahch-To that famed Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) self-isolated himself on fails to recruit him for the fight. Luke in his grief for his failing Ben Solo (Adam Driver) has shut off his connection to the force.

    Hamill and the late Fisher in their performances remind us all why they are the ones who started this franchise. Yedlin’s up close shots capture the emotions given through longing looks that stare into our souls. I don’t think I can ever get Hamill’s eyes out of my brain. If The Force Awakens was Han’s story to complete, The Last Jedi is Luke’s. Johnson writes Luke with added depth to him that only elevates the character beyond what has been done by the end of Return of the Jedi. This is a Luke who has let go of the all the anger and frustration of the past and instead reacts in defense – putting a stop to evil before it can fully take control. Luke in The Last Jedi is broken, willing to isolate to reduce the damage he caused. Tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder may have been a slick joke but its meaning goes way beyond our understanding of Luke’s frame of mind.

    In doing so, Johnson’s screenplay digs deep into the mythology George Lucas created – the age of Jedi are no more and Luke transitions into the role of Yoda (Frank Oz), training Rey to control her connection to the living and breathing embodiment of the force. In many ways The Last Jedi mirrors its fellow middle film Empire in that regard. Rey faces several trials in her search for answers on the remote planet that don’t get answered fully. And those answers don’t make or break the film. But then more questions can be asked – one specifically that keeps repeating on me. Why does Rey need to be special? What is the point for her to come from a known linage? Will it make the fight easier for her and the resistance as a whole?

    The question of who Rey’s parents are was first introduced in The Force Awakens which is her motivation for leaving Jakku in the first place. The last name of Skywalker comes with a lot of baggage. Kylo Ren is a Vader extremist, desperately clinging to living up to the name and those expectations of power and he fails remarkably every time he takes control. One family has been the center of this universe since the very first film in 1977 so being a nobody with extraordinary power is what will keep the franchise from getting stale. To Johnson’s point, the simplicity of Rey’s parents being Junkers who lived and died in the dessert of Jakku makes Rey infinitely more interesting as the lead heroine.

    It’s a risk worth taking that sticks the landing if it contradicts what Abrams has set up with his installment.

    The Last Jedi takes risks from a franchise that normally plays it by the book. For one, the way sound is utilized from a technical standpoint is outstanding. From the opening battle in which an expendable character barely does her job to the absence of it for a brief yet powerful moment during a turning point for the resistance gives the film that sense of urgency – this fight for control that has played out for decades has been full of sound. Taking the sound away and distorting it makes the impact of the moment when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes action that much more memorable.

    Anyone who’s anyone has an opinion on The Last Jedi. I for one see what Johnson does with all the risks as a step forward for the franchise, finding them rewarding while there are plenty who would happily disagree.

    Far from perfect, Johnson’s script becomes too convoluted in the films second act making the 2 and a half hour runtime stretch itself beyond its limit. Characters are undervalued and underused in an ensemble that expands and manages to shift focus away from those previously established to new characters. That fast pace that begins the film loses some edge to it needed to carry over into the third act on a brand new planet full of white salt and a breathtaking display of bright color and action set pieces. In my books, John Williams is 8-8 with his scores while Rian Johnson gets the credit for delivering a Star Wars story that defies expectation. Hope doesn’t belong to the Skywalker name; hope can be found in unexpected places by those willing to fight for their destiny and make a name for themselves.

    Screenplay By: Rian Johnson

    Directed By: Rian Johnson

    Music By: John Williams

    Cinematography: Steve Yedlin

    Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern

    Where to Watch: Disney Plus

    Edited By: Bob Ducsay

    Release Date: December 15, 2017

    Running Time: 2 Hours 32 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

    Based On: Star Wars by George Lucas

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Strays (2023)

    Strays (2023)

    There’s a reason that dogs are human’s best friend. Though a dog is only a small part in a human’s lifespan, making a tremendous impact regardless, for a dog, we as humans are their entire life – their forever attached to the people who give them a home, feed them, care for them when sick and protect them from danger. Unfortunately, not all human’s treat dogs the same or deserve dogs and the unconditional love they give to their owner’s – the same goes for all domesticated animals and as an animal lover nothing is more infuriating to witness.

    Writer Dan Perrault keeps things more on the conservative side when it comes to animal cruelty, putting the perspective from the animals point of view in Strays. Every trailer has already introduced us to the type of owner Doug (Will Forte) is – he’s detached, self-absorbed, irresponsible and unfit to be a dog owner yet Reggie (Will Farrell), a Border Terrier loves him unconditionally, especially all of the fun games they play. Like fetch and f***. You may ask why Reggie continues to bring the ball back to Doug, well it’s simple, It’s all Reggie knows. Since this game is the basis for the story to get going, the joke of it in the context of Perrault’s screenplay doesn’t have the same comedic impact you would expect from an R-rated comedy.

    It’s funny the first time but after that, the joke depreciates in value.

    Early on we learn why Doug hates Reggie and he never once changes – it’s always the dogs fault in Doug’s eyes with every string of bad luck that comes Doug’s way. Fetch & f*** is the best thing that happens to Reggie. During his first night as a stray, Reggie meets Bug (Jamie Foxx), an overconfident, self-reliable Boston Terrier who takes Reggie under his paw and shows him the way of the Stay dog lifestyle. Bug in his teachings introduces Reggie to Maggie (Isla Fisher), an Australian Shepard and Hunter (Randall Park), a Great Dane therapy dog. Together, the 4 hatch a plan too bite Doug’s private area off, setting out on a journey that will change their lives.

    Again, the joke, loses its value from being in every trailer and piece of marketing within the context of the film.

    But director Josh Greenbaum and Dan Perrault don’t give away the entire kitchen sink in the marketing – there are plenty of crude and raunchy jokes to be had throughout the 93 minute runtime. Another one of the jokes that made its way into every trailer is the mushroom scene. But Id argue that is the one moment that remains funny every time, from the trailers to the scene and the events that follow. But outside of this one sequence, Strays struggles to find its bark. The tone stays one note, and the jokes never stray off their path – having the same crudeness until the very end.

    In a year that has been generous with R-Rated raunchy comedies, the perfect record is no more. Both No Hard Feelings and Joy Ride offered more than their raunchy behaviors with a beating heart to them, and Strays does its best to go deeper but Greenbaum doesn’t give the emotion time to fully adjust within the setting. By the time, Reggie, Bug, Maggie and Hunter embark on their journey back to Doug’s house, the gimmick loses its steam, making the journey a forgettable experience and the destination a welcomed sight when the time comes to it.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of comedic moments not shown in the trailers and the laughs keep Strays interesting as a concept but that’s as far as Strays goes. Perrault wastes a lot of the films potential for cheap and easy sex jokes, recycling some of them over and over again, sometimes to the point of nauseam. There is a deeper message to be had and undervalued themes and it’s a shame there wasn’t enough time to explore those themes to balance Strays out and keep the film from being generic and simple.

    Full of A-list talent behind the precious faces, the dogs themselves are the stars of this film. Will Farrell doesn’t quite tap into his streak of early 2000’s raunchy comedies leaving Jamie Foxx to handles most of the comedy burden on his Boston Terrier’s bug faced back. However, Randall Park is an unsung hero as Hunter. Rounding out the core, Isla Fisher keeps the spirits high with her adventurous counterpart. As a collective, the ensemble that also features voices by Rob Riggle, Sofia Vergara, Harvey Guillén, and Brett Gelman all commit to the debauchery, making Strays a worthy but conservative, surface level comedy.

    Screenplay By: Dan Perrault

    Directed By: Josh Greenbaum

    Music By: Dara Taylor

    Cinematography: Tim Orr

    Starring: Will Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Brett Gelman, Will Forte

    Edited By: David Rennie, Sabrina Plisco & Greg Hayden

    Release Date: August 18, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 54%

    Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
  • Blue Beetle (2023)

    Blue Beetle (2023)

    The final days of the DCEU are rapidly approaching with new co-head’s James Gunn and Peter Safran set to reboot the universe that has been long overdue. With 2 projects remaining, the last handful of efforts have fallen short of the expectations set upon the decades long legacy, but the characters still manage to scrape a couple of blows together on their way out. Too little too late. In the grander scope Blue Beetle, the newest and penultimate effort put out by the DCEU represents a first for all studios that are in the superhero business – Blue Beetle is the first Hispanic superhero to lead a film in a franchise.

    Following in the footsteps of Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi, Black Panther and so on, director Angel Manuel Soto brings to life an unexplored corner of the world that superhero films haven’t touched upon yet. And Blue Beetle is filled to the brim with proud representation, a rich culture and heritage in every scene. While there is a lot to celebrate within, writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer includes some of the harsher realities and stereotypes that minority groups face – putting these stereotypical allegories at the forefront of these characters motivations, including the villain.

    At the center of Blue Beetle is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) fresh out of college with a law degree from Gotham University (the first in his family to attain that) returning home to Palmera City to give back to his struggling family. Jaime learns that his family has only 3 months left in their home before Kord Industries owned by Victoria (Susan Sarandon) gentrifies the small tightknit community – making living unaffordable for the Reyes family after Jaime learns that his father Alberto (Damián Alcázar) has lost the family business – leaving the responsibility solely on Jaime’s shoulders.

    There’s a quick shot of the inner-city set to be reconstructed showing closed business after closed business and a future Starbucks moving in

    Blue Beetle picks up steam after Jaime and his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) get jobs working for Victoria and Jaime meets Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece and the daughter of Ted Kord. Jenny sticks Jaime with a valuable artifact stole from Kord Industries known as the scarab which chooses Jaime as the host, thrusting conflict between Victoria and her henchmen Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo) against Jaime and the Reyes family. But this is where Blue Beetle begins to blur the lines with an original take and what came before it – just another generic superhero origin story where the muscle bad guy has the exact same power source as the hero and the villain has no motivation or empathy to their journey.

    From the trailers, Blue Beetle has the appearance of Iron Man, sharing stylistic similarities, just a blue version in a different universe. The heads up display, the scarab symbol infused on Jaime’s body and the little voice in his ear are all derivative. The difference arguably being the symbiotic relationship between Khaji Da and Jaime (Venom would like a word) immediately after connecting one another. Within that is a blending of genres that leaves Blue Beetle not knowing what it wants to be. Is it a comedy, sure, there are plenty of comedic moments all supplied by Jaime’s uncle Rudy (George Lopez), some of which land while the others fail to make their mark. The real humor comes from the nuances and subtle under the breath moments of realizations as Jaime learns to control his new abilities.

    Like all in the genre, Blue Beetle comes with a suspension of disbelief attached to it – centering around the matriarch of the family (Adriana Barraza). For example, during the climactic 3rd act of the film, with bullets and bodies flying around, Nana is able to fully handle a gatling gun (shown in the trailers) with ease as she sprinkles in some of her backstory and tough bravado. But it’s one moment within the heat of the battle that adds to the overuse of levity used by Alcocer and Soto. On the other hand, Nana is given a more meaningful moment that brings the main theme of family and culture together.

    As the film shifts into the second half, the Reyes family experiences a tragedy. To avoid spoilers, Nana takes charge of the situation – keeping the family together in their grief but focused on stopping Victoria Kord. When the family is the focus in Soto’s film, Blue Beetle becomes an engaging experience. The dynamic between every member comes across as organic and the chemistry between the ensemble cast leads the way for an attachment to the characters and their struggles as a minority group in a class driven society.

    But Blue Beetle is Xolo Maridueña’s big screen breakout. Known for his leading part in Cobra Kai, Xolo commands the screen as Jaime. He’s easy to root for as an underdog and become enamored with as soon as he steps off the plane with his giant optimistic grin – fitting right into the role with a natural charm and charisma. Throughout the 127 minute runtime, its Xolo carrying the film on his scarab infused back and I can’t help but wonder what if, if Gunn and Safran chose to keep Xolo going forward after their reboot – he has the appeal of a franchise leading man.

    Given the last few efforts put out by DC and Warner, Blue Beetle is a breath of fresh air. For representation, a celebration of culture and heritage, it’s a total knockout but the superhero of it all falls short of the potential, which the DCEU is known for and will be remembered by. Full of vibrant colors, a serviceable score from Bobby Krlic and an outstanding family dynamic, Angel Manuel Soto puts his heart and soul into his film. The effort and care is there and can be felt from the small ensemble cast. But like many, the pitfalls to a superhero story (overuse of CGI, muddied action, a poorly written villain) become the distraction.

    Screenplay By: Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer

    Directed By: Angel Manuel Soto

    Music By: Bobby Krlic

    Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski

    Starring: Xolo Maridueña, Bruna Marquezine, Adriana Barraza, Damián Alcázar, Raoul Max Trujillo, Susan Sarandon, George Lopez, Elpidia Carrillo, Belissa Escobedo

    Edited By: Craig Alpert

    Release Date: August 18, 2023

    Running Time: 2 Hours 7 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

    Based On: Jaime Reyes by Keith Giffen, John Rogers & Cully Hamner

    Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
  • Gran Turismo (2023)

    Gran Turismo (2023)

    When looking at video game adapted films, the results have been a resounding mixed bag when it comes to capturing the spirit of the game itself. And that’s the problem. Some of the adaptations that have been made for the big screen are already cinematic in their original medium and the translation to a film gets lost in the shuffle. But there’s hope – this year alone The Super Mario Bro’s Movie shattered expectations for what a video game based film can achieve. For that films sake, living and dying by the threshold of nostalgia alone. By itself, the nostalgia factor should not be a valid measurement for the success of a video game adapted film.

    Gran Turismo is a step in the right direction.

    If the name Gran Turismo sounds familiar, it most likely is if you’re a gamer. Double points if you own a Sony PlayStation. Don’t worry, Microsoft has Forza. Personally, as someone who has owned both PlayStation’s and Xbox’s neither Gran Turismo or Forza caught my eye – the more stylistic racing games like Need for Speed or Burnout was more up my alley. If I had to give a reason, the driving simulation experience wasn’t appealing – literally driving in one big circle, breaking and accelerating when applicable. And then there’s the lifelike gaming wheel.

    If I want to drive a car, I’ll get behind the wheel of my lease and hit the highway.

    I don’t need to experience some of these meticulously detailed tracks based on their pavement counterparts to get the sensation of driving a car. To be fair, the games themselves are breathtaking, from the actual exotic cars to the landscaped backdrops you catch a glance at down a long stretch of road. But this review focuses on the film version of Gran Turismo, not the popularized game. This is where the adaptation part becomes intriguing.

    Rather than making a generic racing film with the Gran Turismo and PlayStation logo’s plastered all over the screen for the product placement (and there are several nods), co-writer’s Jason Hall and Zach Baylin base their film on real life events. The event starting with a marketing ploy by a European Nissan executive to persuade people to buy more cars. Specifically the niche group of gamers who pour hours into a racing simulation. Not a bad idea from a marketing perspective. The marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) with a partnership with Sony created the GT academy – in which the winner of this grueling training camp would win a Nissan sponsorship and become an actual race car driver, competing with elite athletes.

    After a brief history lesson of the game’s origin that opens the film, Hall and Baylin’s story introduces us to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), an ambitious gamer with a passion for racing. His passion to become a race car driver began at 5 years old when his father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) took Jann to a racing event. And that’s where the ambition grew. Jann spends hours upon hours in front of his tv with his newly upgraded gaming wheel that simulates the act of driving a car. Steve, confused by his sons determination to focus all of his energy on chasing an unattainable dream, creates a conflict between the two, pushing Jann deeper into reaching his goal.

    For a dreamer like Jann, a regular 9-5 just won’t cut it. Early on Steve and Jann share a brief moment that essentially defines the point Jann is trying to make. Steve notices and asks Jann why he doesn’t follow the patterned lines on the display that give the fastest route. Jann replies that he looks for unconventional methods of racing that would put him in a better position. Success isn’t a straight line – Jann understands that and fully takes advantage of that when invited to compete for a spot at the GT academy.

    To get these gamers into racing shape, Danny hires Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former racer turned engineer for driver Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski). Reluctant to see Danny’s vision, Jack rejects the offer but quickly has a change of heart and agrees to train the recruits. Jack’s goal is to weed out the weak, the ones who cannot cut it by being strapped into a rocket and control it going 200+ miles per hour. Out of all of them Jann has the best instincts providing us with a thrilling finish over Matty Davis (Darren Barnet).

    Told with a 3 act structure, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret put you right into the heart of the action in the passenger seat as Jann climbs the ranking to obtain his FIA License. To achieve this, Jann has 6 races to finish 4th or best. With each failure comes a lesson and with each failure the doubt and questions cloud Jann’s mind. What if everyone was right? What If I can’t do this? Disappointment from anywhere including self is cruel but from a parent to say “I told you so” is even worse. The last thing Jann wants to do is disappoint his father and that’s where Hall and Baylin put majority of their emotional effort toward – the fragile relationship that Jann and Steve walk.

    Within this, Djimon and Archie nail the dynamic – you could hear a pin drop when the two butt heads over the dinner table. Blomkamp build’s most of the emotional tension between the two men where the solution feels satisfactory to their journey.

    On the other end, the action being up close and personal to the track and with the real Jann providing the stunts, Jouffret gets an authentic feel out of every race. The adrenaline is high, and the pulse is far above normal. Every turn and pass of a position comes with a silent cheer for Jann and a mini fist pump. Jann is the true definition of an underdog. Archie plays him with a reserved confidence, translating throughout the narrative.   

    One of the key moments for the film that works best in re-creating a high speed race comes about halfway through, when the narrative shifts into the 3rd act. With any race, at the speed these drivers are going, it’s almost guaranteed that something can go wrong. David Harbour’s Jack almost foreshadows it but when the moment comes, you can feel the air get sucked out of the room. You forget to breathe; the sound dulls and it’s this moment of truly terrifying fear that sticks with you for the remainder of the film. Archie’s face says it all.

    People don’t watch Nascar races because they love seeing cars turn left for 3 hours. There’s a thrill to these races and the risk factor that Blomkamp homes in on can be felt with unpredictability.

    Gran Turismo does not suffer from the many pitfalls that face a video game adaptation, though there are several generic tropes to be included, and a surface level character or two but it’s not a first place finisher either. It barely edges itself to the podium, delivering on the potential for future video game adapted projects. With a premise similar to Ratatouille in the sense that anyone can cook, Gran Turismo hits the gas hard, going full throttle when it turns into the home stretch and hitting the breaks to let the rest of us catch up.  

    Screenplay By: Jason Hall & Zach Baylin

    Story By: Jason Hall & Alex Tse

    Directed By: Neill Blomkamp

    Music By: Lorne Balfe & Andrew Kawczynski

    Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret

    Starring: Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Darren Barnet, Djimon Hounsou, Geri Halliwell, Takehiro Hira

    Edited By: Colby Parker, Jr.

    Release Date: August 25, 2023

    Running Time: 2 Hours 14 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score:

    Based On: Gran Turismo by PlayStation Studios

    Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
  • Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker Dynasty (Season 2 x 01) 2023

    Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker Dynasty (Season 2 x 01) 2023

    In all of sports history, only a few teams (probably can be counted on 2 hands) come with the recognizable reputation that can define the legacy of the respective sport. For example, baseball has the New York Yankees (my favorite team), American Football has the putrid New England Patriots, Hockey and their many Canadian teams and so on. But for the sport of Basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers comes with decades of standard excellence that has catapulted the franchise above and beyond the rest of the teams that play in the same league. The only rival is the Boston Celtics (If we’re strictly talking championships won).

    All dynasties have to begin somewhere and for the ‘Showtime’ Lakers, the dynasty began when Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) purchased the team in 1979 and drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). And in doing so, sparked a heated and historic rivalry with the Boston Celtics who went on to draft Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small). In his first year with the team, Magic dazzled the league with his namesake skills and fast paced play, propelling the older teammates including captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) to take special interest in Magic’s motives within the team.

    Season 2 picks up right where the first left off. The champs have arrived and they’re back to defend their earned title. Led by head coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and assistant coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), the 1980-81 season gets off to a slow start. Centered around the point guard Magic, the second year player suffers a leg injury that sidelines him for 12 weeks. The best hope for the defending champs is to get him back before the playoffs start. Off the court, on the personal side of the coin, Magic is facing some legal issues – his sex addiction has gotten a woman pregnant, and his advisors are suggesting a payoff.

    Throughout the episode titled One Ring Don’t Make a Dynasty, Magic juggles the options presented to him – be a father to this child or focus on himself and his talent on the court. On one shoulder, Magic’s most trusted advisors are telling him to be the superstar point guard and on the other his parents, Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) and Christie Johnson (LisaGay Hamilton), pleading for Magic to grow up and take responsibility for his actions. Written by co-creator Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes, the script focuses heavily on responsibility and power from the point of view of an athlete who has the means.

    From what we’ve already learned about Earvin Johnson Jr. over the course of this series’ heavily  dramatized retelling of events, being a responsible adult is not his forte. Hailing from Lansing, Michigan and transitioning into the bright lights of Los Angeles is nothing short of demanding – suddenly Magic is being pulled in different directions and all a young man fresh out of college wants to do is party. But it all comes back to respect and responsibility – something that cannot be half-assed, just look at Kareem; he has the respect of his team and coaches as a veteran of this league.

    Opening in 1984 during game 1 of the NBA Finals, season 2 promises to span the 4 years leading up to the eventual showdown between the Lakers and Celtics. Going back four years, the 1980-81 season lays the foundation for whats to come. But for the present, the center of gravity is a power grab between the two stars Magic and Kareem. In one corner is the levelheaded veteran Kareem slowly coming to the realization that his time is rapidly passing and in the other is the fresh legged Magic set to cause a disruption to the NBA, starting in the locker room.

    Loyalties among teammates are tested within every scene and its Quincy and Solomon as the respective superstars that build the tension through their interactions. The team dynamic is once again put in the foreground. Both actors have big shoes to fill bringing these larger than life personalities back down to earth, giving them a sense of unseen intimacy and they do it well. Quincy Isaiah has all the charisma in the world – exuding the confidence to play Magic Johnson believably with an award winning smile. Solomon is stoic and methodical, radiating cool – the two together when in agreement can conquer the world but when there’s a difference of opinion, the mixture is like water and oil.

    Picking right up after the events of season 1, episode 1 starts hot and only heats up further. With a lot of time to encapsulate, the on the court action comes second to what plays out off the court. On several fronts, the subplots begin to take shape. Jerry Buss is as confident as ever and no one other than John C. Reilly can fill the role. Going back to the Yankees, no one other than the Boss, George Steinbrenner wanted to win more – that’s Jerry. But Jerry doesn’t want to just win, he wants to beat his business rival Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis).

    In sports, there is nothing sweeter than defeating a rival, proving that you’re better than them.

    From the top down, Winning Time features a truly spectacular ensemble cast. Performances all around from leads like John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah to supporting roles like Hadley Robinson (Jeanie Buss),  Jason Clarke as the explosive Jerry West (current NBA logo) and Gaby Hoffman as the ambitious Claire Rothman are electric and full of energy. Whatever liberties were taken in the retelling of this generational dynasty story works to the shows advantage offering spectacle driven entertainment value. Intimate moments between characters builds tension that spills over to the next scene that only elevates it further to an eventual eruption.

    One scene in particular that exemplifies that happens during a game of monopoly at the Buss mansion (the game that ends relationships). Both Johnny and Jimmy Buss (Thomas Mann, McCabe Slye) work out a compromise for a few properties that both can build monopolies out of. In a moment of rage, John C. Reilly becomes a force of nature in his portrayal.

    Even amidst all of the tension built up around several fronts, the atmosphere remains high-strung yet relaxed. The music from Jeff Beal hits every beat and dribble, transporting us back to the early 80’s and the aesthetic still has the grainy feel to it. “My Favorite Mutiny” starts the vibe, alley-ooping it to the fast paced editing and stylistic vintage production design. Season 2 continues the trip down memory lane, dribbling the ball from half court, down into the paint. But the question is, will the points come by way of an easy layup or a posterizing slam dunk.

    Created By: Max Borenstein & Jim Hecht

    Episode Directed By: Salli Richardson-Whitfield

    Music By: Jeff Beal

    Cinematography: Todd Banhazl & Mihai Mălaimare Jr.

    Starring: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffman, Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, Hadley Robinson, DeVaughn Nixon, Solomon Hughes, Tamera Tomakili, Rob Morgan

    Where to Watch: Max

    Air Date: August 6, 2023

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

    Based On: Showtime Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 05) 2023

    What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 05) 2023

    Week after week the vampires that take up residence in the Staten Island home in What We Do in the Shadows take one little mishap and turn their world into an unhinged and untethered nightmare. And yet, week after week, a solution is found, the heat dies down, and everything goes back to normal (as normal as things can be living as a vampire in secrecy in a mundane world). For the series as a whole, now deep into its 5th season, this description sounds pretty familiar – we wouldn’t expect anything less from these strange, unpredictable and beloved characters. At least they’re consistent, right?

    Titled Local News, episode 5 fits the above description like a glove, firmly encapsulating our time with these vampires and once the mishap is shared to the greater household, the only reaction is for all hell to break loose. Opening on the local news, a water main burst causing massive flooding in which the reporter interviews Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) or for the sake of the viewers Nandor DeLaurentis. Nandor precedes to let slip that he witnessed a flood worse than this one in Staten Island centuries ago in 1892 before correcting himself to say 1992.

    Leave it to Nandor to slip up immediately multiple times and in fact expose vampires and their secrecy to local television viewers of the greater Staten Island area. As you can imagine, the panic sets in, the vampires once again overreact creating a hysteria within the walls of the gothic home. Energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) starts a rampage, setting up countless booby traps for potential mobs, Laszlo (Matt Berry) suggests kidnapping the reporters to brainwash her and of course Nandor supports the idea and finally Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) decides that running and starting over is the best course of action in which The Guide (Kristen Schaal) follows suit.

    But what about Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) during this crisis of exposure? Guillermo is on his way to his mother’s home to break the news that he won’t be coming around anymore more. Thanks to the documentary crew, a flashback is shown that Guillermo’s family are descendants of legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing and obviously, Guillermo isn’t going to kill himself for becoming a vampire. It’s been Guillermo’s ambition to become one way before finding out about his ancestor. And though he’s isolated from his housemates for the entirety of the episode, Guillermo still bears witness to the hijinks that play out on the news.

    Guillermo’s isolation also signals a change for the household. Since becoming a vampire, Guillermo’s absence has been felt each week. He’s avoiding Nandor at all costs, probably to lessen the blow when the secret comes out but still Nandor has walked in on Guillermo checking for fangs and hasn’t noticed or commented on the fact. Maybe Nandor does know more than he lets on which will lead to a major confrontation. If that were the case and the eventual conclusion for the 5th season, Guillermo’s fighting ability shouldn’t be discounted (remember the fight club and the time when Guillermo slaughters majority of the vampiric council at the end of season 2).

    Written by Sarah Naftalis, Local News departs from all the various plot lines and instead focuses on crisis the vampires are facing. All have their own method for a potential discovery situation and the one who is most in control of the house, is not there, witnessing the probable demise of his master on live television. I would suggest Guillermo has the tougher battle to wage – he has act like a human in front of 10 descendants of Van Helsing.

    Even further, in one of the more tense moments Local News provides, Guillermo is given a cross necklace to wear from his mother which as one of the vampire tropes lays out, the crucifix with contact to the skin immediately burns Guillermo. Harvey Guillén’s face says it all – in a moment of desperation, his acting stands out among the chaotic energy his vampire housemates jump toward at the first sign of real trouble of their secrecy being exposed. This moment is but one shining example in the sea of perfectly timed performances.

    Once again, Harvey Guillén brings out the vulnerability of his character when faced with his astronomical decision. As a mortal, the possibility never occurred so to see the difficult choice being made affects Guillermo on a deep level the other characters cannot relate to.

    Meanwhile, the vampires (apart from Nandor) fail to have everything under control, or even the appearance of it, at least each member will say what happened went according to their own plan. And like always the plans are spectacular and certifiably insane and Director Yana Gorskaya puts us right in the frenzy of Nandor getting various sized bags for a human body, Colin Robinson setting deadly traps and Nadja changing her hair color and name to Sally Rhubarb. At least Nadja pays attention to the finer details including a 3 day supply of blood and coloring her dolls hair the same shade of blonde.  

    Yet with all the chaos happening on screen and right outside the home, the endgame that the vampires always turn to when in a spot of trouble remains – hypnotizing. The entire episode builds up to its final moments that stick the landing for the time being – the vampires taking over the news station and delivering the remaining segments including sports from Laszlo and weather from Colin Robinson. I cannot speak for everyone but an episode where the vampires deliver the news for the entirety is exactly the type of humor the shows gimmick calls for. Especially Colin Robinson with his beige colored clothes that makes him blend into the interactive weather map.

    Overall, Local News doesn’t disappoint but the episode isn’t a home run either. Changes in the household dynamic are on the horizon with seismic discoveries. The question is how Nandor will take the news and what will he do about it because deep down he cares for Guillermo. Humans can only be patient for so long. With half the season left to go, it’s difficult to say if the landing will be stuck but at least the laughs will keep us all as young as the eternal vampires.

    Created By: Jemaine Clement

    Episodes Directed By: Yana Gorskaya

    Music By: Mark Mothersbaugh

    Cinematography: David A. Makin

    Starring: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Kristen Schaal

    Where to Watch: Hulu

    Release Date: August 4, 2023

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

    Based On: What We Do in the Shadows by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • The Nice Guys (2016)

    The Nice Guys (2016)

    Early on in The Nice Guys as co-writer and director Shane Black introduces his eventual buddy protagonists, one of them is hired by an older woman who is looking for her missing husband. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot pans the camera over to a mantle that prominently features an urn with the name of the missing husband. “When did he go missing?” the question is asked as we’re let in on the joke and the reply is given “After the funeral”. While this is one of the many jokes that Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi weave into their script, the two are laying the foundation for their not so nice guy protagonist antics because right after the camera cuts back and forth, the job is taken, and the money is exchanged.

    This job that Holland March (Ryan Gosling), shady and a poor P.I. is hired for isn’t a priority for March since the solution is starring at him in the face however, that doesn’t stop him from conducting a thorough investigation that ends up with a slapstick result. The real investigation begins earlier than that when adult actress Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) is found dead, but her aunt Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith) swears that her niece is alive. In March’s investigation, he comes across Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who hires Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to rough up March and get him off her back.

    After all the character introductions are made and March and Healy reluctantly become a duo thanks to Holly March (Angourie Rice), the narrative steps on the gas and Black thrusts you right into the heat of the action of finding Amelia before the bad guys do to silence an experimental film with a message of protest made against gas pollution. This leads to the observation by March that this experimental adult film’s plot is more important than the real reason adult films are made, and he has a point – the plot is never the focal point.

    It’s just another shining example of observational humor that Shane Black adds to his arsenal of jokes that are delivered by both Gosling and Crowe in tandem. Together the two form quite the team – bringing a certain level of charm to their on screen rapport. Gosling plays the loose cannon, or as his daughter Holly calls him, the worst detective in the world and Crowe plays the strong silent type. Together they’re a dynamic duo that pays homage to a long forgotten era of dynamic duos. They’re Batman and Robin but if the two were told that, i’m sure a fight would ensue over who’s who. Yet underneath the wisecracks and one-upmanship on display are 2 flawed characters just scraping by, wanting to do the right thing.

    For example, Holly is her father’s voice of reason, the angel on his shoulder – she is his crutch to lean on when times are tough and the two are trying to catch up after a tragedy. Angourie Rice holds her own against the prowess of Gosling and Crowe showcasing her natural acting ability. In addition to being a P.I, Holland is an alcoholic who blames himself for his wife’s (Holly’s mother) death due to a gas explosion inside their home. As March gives the explanation to Healy, Gosling does so with sincerity but never letting the power of his emotions overtake the moment. Given one side-splitting laugh out loud moment after the next, Black and Bagarozzi’s script hits a dense emotional level that balances the tone of the film while still keeping its edge to it.

    Throughout its narrative, Shane Black keeps you hooked into every detail that March and Healy come across. The result is an engaging, wildly original, genre bending trip offering non-stop action amidst a conspiracy level mystery. And at its heart and soul are Gosling and Crowe. Often Gosling goes full slapstick with his comedy – simultaneously trying to smoke a cigarette, keep a bathroom stall door open and pull his pants up; all with a broken arm. Another time sees Gosling trying to impress a party goer only to tumble down a hill and inadvertently stumble across a dead body that strengthens the case being investigated.

    But an argument can be made that Gosling hits the comedy jackpot with every high pitched yells while under duress. Goslings comedic timing only elevates the screenplay that Black and Bagarozzi put to screen. Let’s not discount Russell Crowe either, who gets excited over having a Yoo-hoo and cut to the next scene and Healy is carrying two full cases of the chocolate milk drink with a grin on his face.

    Point being, you’re never too old to enjoy the simple pleasure a Yoo-hoo can provide.

    Majority of the film focuses on the not so nice guys that the villains of this story become lost in the shuffle. About halfway through, we’re introduced to Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), a high ranking official in the Justice department and  Amelia’s mother. Judith hires March and Healy to find Amelia before the number of Bond like henchmen do and kill her. For a simple plot, The Nice Guys loses itself in its own web of intricacies. Anyone outside of March, March and Healy could be the villain – the problem is identifying them and their overall motive.

    Among all of the franchises, sequels, prequels and recognizable IP that are distributed to the masses, Shane Black provides us with a fresh and welcomed alternative. The Nice Guys has the ambition to turn into something with threads of continuity in a spin-off or sequel but has the sense to stay in its own lane and tell a complete and isolated story. There is potential for more exploration for these characters and this 70’s inspired stylistic world but that would be a disservice to the point and the landing that Shane Black sticks. Original and compelling storytelling will always come first to a franchise.

    Overall, The Nice Guys is a transportive experience. 1970’s Los Angeles is full of vibrant colors, a vintage aesthetic, juxtaposed with unhealthy addictions, toxic relationships and poor air quality. I can smell the smog from the comfort of my seat and feel it creep deep into my lungs – that’s just how methodical the atmosphere is built around the production design by Richard Bridgland. From a technical standpoint, The Nice Guys paints a vivid picture, highlighted by the era in which the story takes place in – an era full of possibilities.

    Screenplay By: Anthony Bagarozzi & Shane Black

    Directed By: Shane Black

    Music By: John Ottman & David Buckley

    Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot

    Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya Da Costa, Kim Basinger

    Edited By: Joel Negron

    Release Date: May 20, 2016

    Running Time: 1 Hour 56 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)

    Before diving into the New York City sewer system via a manhole cover to explore the living quarters of 4 teenaged, mutated turtles and their mutant rat father, I want to know what the music budget for Mutant Mayhem is because it passes the vibe check with flying colors. Full of early to late 90’s and 00’s R&B and Hip-Hop that are placed perfectly to where the tracks are used during a scene to immediately set the tone. These turtles have great taste in music if this is what they go out on adventures to. And then there’s the score by the Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who double down on a full musical emersion – when the music plays, Mutant Mayhem is the type of party you want to be at.

    Now back to the topic at hand, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and the 4 mutant turtles named after Italian renaissance artists Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.), Leonardo (Nicholas Cantu), and Raphael (Brady Noon). All of whom are adopted, fathered and overly protected by Splinter (Jackie Chan). No wonder they crave pizza every day. When we first meet the turtles they are on a very important mission, their eyes are whited out and self-proclaimed leader of the group Leonardo uses a mysterious deep voice to assign the nights grocery pick-ups.

    Batman voice aside, director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) establishes the one prevailing theme throughout his film – acceptance. From an early age Splinter has sheltered his sons from the world because mutants are not looked at favorably by humankind and in doing so trained the turtles in martial arts for protection – each turtle mastering a different weapon. This in turn causes the turtles to aspire to become heroes and assimilate in the world which would result in humans accepting the turtles for who they are not what they look like. 

    They are teenagers after all and what do teenagers do best when told not to do something that is unacceptable by a parent or guardian? They do the opposite, they rebel, sneaking out after dark to do exactly what they were told to avoid at all costs – curiosity gets the better of the turtles who attend free movie screenings in the park, practice their sick martial arts moves on the roof and record them, and daydream about life if they were accepted by society. One being going to high school and getting girlfriends.

    To become the heroes the turtles aspire to be, they come across beautiful human girl April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), aspiring journalist who turns the turtles onto a string of criminal activity around New York led by the mysterious Superfly (O’Shea Jackson Sr.). Soon the turtles learn that Superfly is also a mutant derived from the same scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) who created the ooze that mutated the turtles the gang that Superfly protects. For once, the turtles feel like they belong – they finally feel accepted after meeting this gang of mutated animals.

    In the sea of this truly remarkable ensemble cast that includes Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan (co-writer), John Cena, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou (kind of meta to have Natasia voice a mutated bat named Wingnut), Austin Post, and Paul Rudd, only a couple stand out among them all. Aside from the turtle actors, O’Shea Jackson commands the screen behind his powerful voice, adding in his California style and hip-hop jargon into the mix. Almost eclipsing Jackson is Paul Rudd who brings his own laid back surfer vibe as Modo Gecko (picture his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character Kunu).

    But all these talented names don’t hold a slice of pepperoni pizza to the turtles and their respective actors. Being that “teenage” is one of the very descriptive identifiers of these turtles, having actual teenagers provide the voices only elevates their performances. All four recording their lines together, feeding off each other’s energy jumps off the screen, the chemistry is organic and natural keeping you on your toes to hear every little nuance from their interactions and dialogue proving it was the right move to shift to a younger actor for these roles. Written by Rogan, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Sami, and Jeff Rowe, the dialogue pops, keeping a modern touch to today’s generation while featuring comedy that an older fan of the turtles can appreciate.

    There is one joke that repeats throughout that sticks the landing every single time. Mutant Mayhem will only further benefit from its diehard fans and a packed theater.

    Undoubtedly the comparisons Mutant Mayhem will get to Across the Spider-Verse will make some noise, though both share very similar animation styles, Mutant Mayhem feels very much in its own lane. Featuring a style that can be found in a high schoolers notebook, the animation has some shine and polish to it, despite staying on the darker side of the contrast wheel. Considering both films, animation has taken a giant leap forward for what the medium can accomplish but that’s where the comparison should stop. Mutant Mayhem looks clean with a grime and grit washed over it – colors bleed outside the lines and the design of the turtles are immaculate.

    At its core, the theme of acceptance is something we all experience in our lives. It comes at the same age these turtles are – grade school and continues from there. But countering the longing for acceptance comes the fear of rejection. Splinter holds onto this fear from his own experiences, projecting it onto Mikey, Leo, Donnie and Ralph which does more damage than letting the world take the turtles as they are. The writing team establish these themes early on giving weight to its relatability – we all cling to this feeling of being accepted by strangers despite our differences – the message is conveyed from all characters, even superfly who has a more negative view than Splinter.

    Overall, Mutant Mayhem packs so much up into a compact runtime. The lighthearted tone is given just enough emotional heft to its shell to balance the comedy and the four leading performances of Abbey, Brown Jr., Cantu, and Noon steal the show with their charm, nuance and humor. In the world of TMNT, Mutant Mayhem is a step in the right direction for a franchise that sorely needed a win, and it’s not just a win but a statement that the medium is big enough for more than just a multiverse of spider people.

    Screenplay By: Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit & Jeff Rowe

    Story By: Brendan O’Brien, Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg & Jeff Rowe

    Directed By: Jeff Rowe

    Music By: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

    Starring: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Jackie Chan, Ayo Edebiri, Giancarlo Esposito, O’Shea Jackson Sr.

    Edited By: Greg Levitan

    Release Date: Aug 2, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

    Based On: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 04) 2023

    What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 04) 2023

    Episode 4 of What We Do in the Shadows’ 5th season takes a step back from the main story thread it has been weaving since the finale of last season (and If im being honest the entirety of one characters existence in the vampire house) and instead follows up on the b-plot of last weeks Pride Parade episode. The episode, titled The Campaign written by David A. Makin for a majority of its sitcom lengthy runtime does more with less compared to other weeks, picking up right where the least effective subplot ends, giving it sharper fangs and a more pronounced bite mark.

    That’s all the vampire puns I’m making for this review.

    The Campaign starts with everyone’s favorite energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) taking over for neighbor Sean (Anthony Atamanuik) Comptroller campaign. The perfect setting for an energy vampire to drain multiple humans of energy is at a debate. That’s the only reason Colin stepped in for Sean, citing his disinterest in running and holding local office. All eyes and ears are on Colin, and he monotonously and gleefully spends his time droning on about his made up domestic life with emotional vampire Evie Russell (Vanessa Bayer) and their two kids – one definitely named Christopher.

    Elsewhere, Nandor (Kayvan Novak) decides to make Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) jealous once more by gaining new friends. But since Guillermo is avoiding Nandor as to not give away his new abilities, Guillermo is absent for majority of Nandor’s plot. The less of a familiar Guillermo is to Nandor, maybe the less punishment will be dished out from Nandor? A bit of a recycled plot but Nandor decides to join a gym (again) to meet new people. In his Easter Sunday workout, Nandor meets Alexander (Robert Smigel). And finally, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) reluctantly introduces Laszlo (Matt Berry) to her new Antipaxos family – mostly out of embarrassment that Laszlo is considered an outsider.

    Leave it to Laszlo to assume he knows everything about a specific group through arrogance and his ego, only to be proven wrong yet again. But it’s Laszlo’s ego that puts him in the funniest situations – Jackie Daytona human bartender for example. Throughout the episode, Laszlo does more damage to the group of locals as he tries to impress them through song, the way he dresses and finally insults. Yet the best representation of Laszlo is assuming the matriarch of the family is a cat during the introductions. It’s like Laszlo has learned nothing being married to Nadja for centuries. Self-consumption will do that to a vampire.

    Undoubtedly, the height of the episode, aside from the YouTube recap of the debate that  pauses at the perfect times to hear parts of his speech happens after the debate which sees Evie and Colin being vampire napped and brought to the energy vampire council. This sequence alone of constant distractions, monotone voices, and a PowerPoint presentation of 500+ slides has enough energy draining power to break down the great Colin Robinson and i’m sure a viewer or two. Regardless of its power, the scene is engaging and features several familiar faces residing on the council including Hannibal Burress and Martha Kelly.

    Identifying a regular vampire by their signature fangs and energy and now emotional vampires by their glowing eyes still leaves the impression since Colin rarely shows that ability off. he lets his dull monotone speech full of uninteresting facts do the draining.

    What keeps What We Do in the Shadows a show to keep coming back to week over week are the performances from the main cast. Mark Proksch, though technically in support majority of the time is given the keys to this week’s episode – stepping out of the shadows so to speak of his co-stars spotlight and proves how deeply comedic this ensemble truly is. But for this week in particular, the debate scene is where he shines brightest with the delivery and cadence of his speech and impromptu addition of Evie further draining these mere mortals of any emotion they have left.

    To avoid spoiling too many of the laugh out loud moments that this series continuously finds ways to keep the show fresh and inventive years after it has premiered, I’ll keep it brief. There is nothing worse than having a funny moment spoiled and anticipated only for it to not have the impact the writer and performers expect. Despite the derivative storyline or 2 that may pop up from time to time (It is still a sitcom, the last remaining of a dying breed), director Yana Gorskaya and her team show no signs of any dulling. I can forgive the derivative when it comes to this show because the writing team unlocks new levels of out of touch situational humor used to create these scenarios. That said, it is cause for some concern that the well may be drying up a bit. It’s only episode 4 – there is plenty of time to course correct and find the right destination.

    And just like that, I went and used another vampire pun when I said I was done at the beginning of this review. Sometimes, they’re too good not to be used, the vampires would all agree.

    Created By: Jemaine Clement

    Episodes Directed By: Yana Gorskaya

    Music By: Mark Mothersbaugh

    Cinematography: David A. Makin

    Starring: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Kristen Schaal

    Where to Watch: Hulu

    Release Date: July 28, 2023

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

    Based On: What We Do in the Shadows by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi

    Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
  • Haunted Mansion (2023)

    Haunted Mansion (2023)

    When it comes to the house of mouse, there are no shortcomings of recognizable IP that can be adapted into a different medium. For example a film version – One of which has become a global blockbusting franchise led by an eccentric ship captain making a living as a pirate in the seas of the Caribbean. Another ride that has tested the waters of the big screen is the spooky Haunted Mansion. For 53 years, the ride has operated consistently across 5 parks and is a staple for park goers to experience the horrors that await them down each corridor.

    Getting in the ‘Doom Buggie’ is the easy part, the rest of the methodically slow-moving ride is sure to create a scare or 2 given its dense mythology that has since grown and evolved as the decades pass. For the film version, I mean the 2023 version, not the 2003 Eddie Murphy starring one,  director Justin Simien off a screenplay written by Katie Dippold recreate the recognizable ride with non-stop thrills but Dippold gives a much needed layer or 2 of emotion to the inhabitants stuck in the grasp of the 999 other trapped souls’ tormentor.

    But during the 123 minute runtime, the sensation of being on the ride is not the main attraction – the ride’s purpose is mainly for providing the setting for this semi haunted disappointing story.

    Set in New Orleans, where death is celebrated just as much as life is and death is not a final destination as its made to be, Haunted Mansion opens on and introduces us to genius astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), inventing a camera to see beyond our reality on New Year’s eve where he meets Alyssa (Charity Jordan). Cut to sometime later and Simien drops us into a different world, one where Ben is now a paranormal tour guide around the bustling city. Throughout a tour, we follow a car driven by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) on their way to their new home, found on Zillow and most likely move in ready and furnished.

    Not even 5 minutes after they arrive at their new home, Gabbie and Travis are greeted with paranormal activity – a house full of trapped spirits, one of them being a full suit of armor appearing out of thin air. Maybe a vanilla candle by Yankee will warm the place up. “Will it though?” Travis asks skeptically. And the kid’s instincts prove right. As Gabbie and Travis soon learn, simply leaving the house won’t do the trick which is where Ben comes back into the picture. Gabbie hires Father Kent (Owen Wilson) to exercise the house who hires Ben to snap a few photos of any activity and soon both men became trapped by the mansion.

    As plots go, there’s not much to write home about nor is it a difficult narrative to follow. It is Disney which is automatically geared to a younger viewer. And for that younger viewer, there are plenty of laughs to be passed around from the talented ensemble cast. For the scare factor, Dippold offers the bare minimum when jumps are concerned – some of which can be seen a hallway away. The effects department create an abundance of well-done haunting designs that won’t cause any nightmares. Yet what will wind up being the main draw for the unexpected stay in the grandiose living room with an abundance of couches (and everyone snoring peacefully) are the themes Dippold attaches to her characters. Particularly Ben and Travis.

    Over the course of the film, both characters form a connection through grief. We learn truths about Ben and Travis that bring them together, united with the same emotion. Though grief can present itself differently in any given person, Ben and Travis’s grief stems from a similar situation. And when the film uses grief to drive their stories forward, Haunted Mansion becomes an unexpected but pleasantly surprising ride.

    Aside from the cast that includes performances by the comedic Danny DeVito as a historian and professor Bruce Davis and Tiffany Haddish as a medium named Harriet, grief and how it affects us and manipulates us to act unnaturally is the backbone of this film. It’s almost as unnatural as the 999 trapped lives that cannot be in peace thanks to the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto). Throughout the film, the group are thrust into a journey to banish the Hatbox Ghost from the house before he collects 1,000 souls and can be set free from the mansion.

    All he needs is one soul and he has his sunken raccoon eyes set on 2 people.

    With his performance as Ben, LaKeith Stanfield continuously proves he’s a leading talent. From his days of being a trio on Atlanta to Get Out, Sorry to Bother You and beyond, Stanfield’s value is skyrocketing. Several times Stanfield becomes the emotional center of gravity, giving resounding performance through his expressive eyes only to be outdone by Chase W. Dillon. Out of the entire cast, Dillon gives the best effort against the talent he shares the screen with. Bringing depth to his role thanks to Dippold’s writing of the character, Travis and by extension Dillion is further proof that kids are well equipped to handle as much emotionally as adults and do so with resilience and bravery.

    When it comes to capturing the spirit of the ride, Simien and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron utilize a found footage style for moving around the mansion thus creating the thrill of an unpredictable moving house. Twists and turns are around every corner with the use of forced perspective being the centerpiece for creating these effects. For what it amounts to, Haunted Mansion provides a serviceable experience with key high points centering around grief. There’s plenty to enjoy from this light-hearted fare for newcomers and fans of the famed spooky ride but don’t expect new ground to be broken.

    Screenplay By: Katie Dippold

    Directed By: Justin Simien

    Music By: Kris Bowers

    Cinematography: Jeffrey Waldron

    Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto, Chase W. Dillon

    Edited By: Phillip J. Bartell

    Release Date: July 28, 2023

    Running Time: 2 Hours 3 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 41%

    Based On: The Haunted Mansion by Walt Disney

    Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • They Cloned Tyrone (2023)

    They Cloned Tyrone (2023)

    In the wake of the mass hysteria that is the weekend of July 21st, 2023, also known by the masses and now the pop culture zeitgeist as Barbenheimer, very quietly and confidently Netflix also dropped the proverbial bomb with the wildly original film They Cloned Tyrone. Releasing the same day as the Christopher Nolan talkie character study and the Greta Gerwig meta self-aware comedy, co-writer and director Juel Taylor brings all of the spicy flavorings used in the chicken recipe that makes the film a deliciously entertaining fare if you want to wait until the Barbenheimer mania cools off a bit.

    They Cloned Tyrone follows John Boyega as a drug dealing hustler who goes by the name Fontaine. Day in and day out, Fontaine reflects on the death of his younger brother, hits the bench press, buys a 40 oz and some scratch offs and takes care of his mom, who never accepts his food offerings. Some may call Fontaine a creature of habit, living in a Groundhog Day like cycle. Occasionally, Fontaine will have to take care of business by roughing up a couple of rival drug dealers with his car and pop in on associates that didn’t pay their dues. That being Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) who as his name suggests, talks faster than a speeding bullet in the Glen (the fictional yet all too familiar setting).  

    Co-written by Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor, the narrative begins to take shape after Fontaine collects what he’s owed from Slick Charles. Fontaine in his beef with a rival a drug dealer falls victim to a retaliation, the only witness being one of Slick Charles’ girls Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris). After witnessing a bizarre event, Fontaine, Charles and Yo-Yo get sucked into a conspiracy that boasts originality in the science fiction genre while reigniting the 70’s Blaxploitation film mixed in with satire and social commentary and paying homage to what came before it.

    This is one ride that delivers on the spectacle of unpredictability seemingly around every corner.

    Just like its competitor Barbie, Rettenmaier and Taylor fills their screenplay with dozens of references to cinema whether it’s a pointing out similar characters to a film counterpart that reside in this retro futuristic world or taking classic cinema and giving it a 21st century upgrade. What the two films have in common however starts and ends with the greatest of all time Stanley Kubrick. Barbie of course opening up the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey opens with the hominins but replaced by children and Barbie being the Monolith and They Cloned Tyrone referencing A Clockwork Orange by name on more than one emotionally charged level.

    From the screenplay all the way down to the production design by Franco-Giacomo Carbone and the grainy, muted color palette setting the tone, They Cloned Tyrone features a very lived in atmosphere – the neighborhood, music and costume design highlights the retro flair mixed with today’s mainstream everyday life. The vibe catches the eye and the soundtrack, the ear, and as the film gets its legs, Taylor and Rettenmaier add unexpected curveballs that make you feel like you’re part of the experience.

    Anyone of us can be clones or plugged into the Matrix.

    At the forefront of the film, Boyega is full of raw emotion. In a way he’s the films version of the audience – experiencing these events play out for the first time with the disbelief powering him through to the next discovery and not letting the gravity of the situation stop him for too long. As Fontaine, Boyega’s natural charisma shines through as a sympathetic protagonist (even though he’s technically a bad person) – you feel for him because deep down, he is a good person who does what he can to survive. You’re drawn to him, and Boyega keeps you in his grip throughout the journey.

    Jamie Foxx hits the comedic mark with his fast paced cadence and dynamic timing with Boyega. And then there’s Teyonah Parris who holds her own against her co-stars. The three of them together make an energetic and dynamic trio among the craziness that is happening to the Glen and soon learned the entire country.

    One of the many themes presented surrounds expectation which leads into the social commentary aspect the film carries on its shoulders. Going back to the Kubrick essence that Rettenmaier and Taylor inject into their films DNA, the themes that A Clockwork Orange heavily feature are some of the very themes that Taylor plays on and gives a fresh coat of paint to. The entertainment value is through the roof and never does the gravity or suggestive implicative messages get in the way of the added charm or levity. But Taylor uses inequality to his films advantage – there’s a clear societal norm that Taylor focuses the lens on which in turn becomes a tool for empowerment. The message is loud and clear – always staying at the front of our thoughts.

    Overall, They Cloned Tyrone has an elaborate self-awareness to it while proving to be a fun ride featuring unexpected twists and turns around every corner with a ton of heart just beneath the surface, ready to be explored. And it gets explored, Rettenmaier and  Taylor don’t hold back for a second with a lot to say in 119 minutes. One doesn’t come at a sacrifice of the other and Taylor keeps the energy high, and the engagement dialed all the way up. For its genre-bending, Taylor provides a worthy addition into multiple genres that can be seen as a reawakening for Blaxploitation films in a modern world.

    Screenplay By: Tony Rettenmaier & Juel Taylor

    Directed By: Juel Taylor

    Music By: Desmond Murray & Pierre Charles

    Cinematography: Ken Seng

    Starring: John Boyega, Teyonah Parris, Jamie Foxx, Kiefer Sutherland

    Where to Watch: Netflix

    Edited By: Saira Haider

    Release Date: July 21, 2023

    Running Time: 1 Hour 59 Minutes

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

    Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 03) 2023

    What We Do in the Shadows (Season 5 x 03) 2023

    Everyone knows the classic vampire mannerisms. Quirky as they are, a vampire must always drop whatever task they are doing and give in to their natural instincts. These include but are not limited to, 3 sequential jumps in a row, flying up to the lowest cloud in the sky, following a sock down river and finally, if a bag of rice is dropped in front of a vampire, they must count every single piece. Vampires are also very group orientated – rarely does an outsider join the ranks and become a part of the group. These mannerisms are what consume the Staten Island vampires in What We Do in the Shadows season 5,episode 3 titled Pride Parade.

    I should correct myself, only a couple of the vampires partake is busting these so-called vampire myths, Laszlo (Matt Berry) after learning Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillén) secret has taken up to conduct vampire experiments on Guillermo in the name of science. Naturally Nandor (Kayvan Novak) becomes extremely jealous of the two spending time together but considers Guillermo merely fascinated with Laszlo’s intelligence. Who could have foreseen vampires to be jealous creatures? To win Guillermo’s affection, Nandor attempts to fly into outer space, proclaiming himself the so-called king.

    Elsewhere – Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and her human ghost trapped in an Annabelle like doll decide to switch bodies because the human ghost never took part in adult only activities when alive. The Guide (Kristen Schaal) assists with the switching of souls while energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) gets roped into said adult activities when he’s not reading up on future Jimmy Johns locations. And finally while all mayhem breaks loose (as it normally does within the vampire house), neighbor Sean (Anthony Atamanuik) is running for comptroller and decides to throw a pride parade (there’s the title) to gain support from a weaker point in his campaign, enlisting his neighbors in the cause.

    With all that going on in a half hour episode including setting up the Sean campaign, the subplots begin to steal focus away from the episodes 1 and 2 throughline – Guillermo’s slow transformation into a vampire. Sure, Laszlo’s experimentation on Guillermo takes up majority of the time with speed trials and wing flaps however, there’s a Ted Lasso season 3 effect happening – reoccurring characters are getting more to do within the confines of the episode which takes time away from the main cast and their vampire exploits.

    To play devil’s advocate against myself – it was only a matter of time that the vampires all took part in a pride parade. Something Laszlo is very excited about during Sean’s pitch to get them to choose the best shirt (the best is clearly “Yassss Sean”) that Laszlo takes on the burden of creating the float for the parade. A parade that happens after dark while no one questions the time. Going back an episode it’s amazing with how careless these vampires have become over the years that more people don’t realize vampires walk among them. But leave it to these vampires to be completely clueless about pop culture references or general 21st century terms but Laszlo still has the ability to recognize Blade and reference David Bowie.

    Every week the hijinks these vampires get into seems to outdo itself from the week prior. And through it all the gimmick never loses steam or feels played out – from the hilarious talking heads to their blunt and naive curiosities, there are numerous things in this century that can be explored and with the added twist that these are century old beings out of time, the laughs keep the show as entertaining as the film. There needs no comparison to its source material, the show has been on par with the film and there is no slowing down in sight.

    Within the episode, Laszlo and Nandor both conduct their own experiments to prove their housemates and vampire customs wrong. Director Yana Gorskaya gives us a lengthy POV shot while Laszlo has the idea to mix Guillermo’s sweat into a protective sunscreen that will allow him to walk outside in the sun. The absolute joy on both their faces as the two accomplish their goals is both priceless and precious given the childlike innocence mixed with raunchy dialogue and phallic behavior from Laszlo. Matt Berry can never get tired of making jokes about genitals on this show.  

    There’s still a majority of the season left to play out, no sense in hitting the panic button yet. And rarely does the series miss with providing a comedic experience balanced with emotional depth. Will Nandor find out that Guillermo was turned into a vampire and how will these newfound abilities shift the dynamic in the house? I cannot imagine Nador killing his familiar, because deep down there is an affection for Guillermo, Nandor comes from a period of time where any signs of opening up and expressing feelings. He is known as the ‘Relentless’.

    What We Do in the Shadows season 5 came out swinging for the fences with finally giving Guillermo what he desires most and so far, the season has lived up to the expectations, a misstep or two not doing too much to slow momentum down. 5 season in and these characters still find ways to surprise us, proving that there are deep layers to unpack within their complex personality types and a bottomless mythology to grab inspiration from.  

    My guess is, the vampires are still counting the grains of rice one by one, against their will because that’s just what vampires do.

    Created By: Jemaine Clement

    Episodes Directed By: Yana Gorskaya

    Music By: Mark Mothersbaugh

    Cinematography: David A. Makin

    Starring: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Kristen Schaal

    Where to Watch: Hulu

    Release Date: July 21, 2023

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

    Based On: What We Do in the Shadows by Jemanie Clement & Taika Waititi

    Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • Oppenheimer (2023)

    Oppenheimer (2023)

    In the months leading up to the next film by the extraordinary filmmaker Christopher Nolan titled Oppenheimer, most of the promotion surrounded the moment that changed the world. It’s the moment that ensured the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, but it was also a launching pad. I’m paraphrasing a bit but the moment to some wasn’t the end of WW2, but the beginning of the Cold War said one brilliant scientist to the next. That moment is the creation of the Atomic bomb and subsequent bombings of not one but 2 Japanese cities that killed thousands of innocent lives and would alter the course of history as we know it.   

    For in the context of the film both written and directed by Nolan, as is his usual M.O, the ending of the war is insignificant in the grand scope of the narrative. More about the man, Robert J. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) than the bomb itself, however, its creation and testing right before the Potsdam Conference is the subject that takes up most of the films first half. Nolan takes most of his inspiration for his version from the novel American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and fully encapsulates Oppenheimer’s adult life. Within that comes a frenzy of political accusations, questions of humanity and accountability and a thrilling ride of both objective and subjective reality.

    Another M.O of Nolan’s is fully engrossing the viewer in his vision. With frequent collaborator cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the pairing capture Oppenheimer in full IMAX and the film deserves to be seen in the large format. Nolan is one of the auteur directors and Oppenheimer is his symphony, the best representation of his style. 180 minutes of meticulous shots that express a wide range of emotion all funneled through Cillian Murphy’s performance. Out of the lengthy and expansive cast list, Cillian Murphy is the gravitational pull for everyone around him.

    The film follows Robert J. Oppenheimer beginning as a student, studying abroad under several physicists and earning a Ph. D. at the University of Göttingen. Oppenheimer travels back home to teach Physics at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. Told in same structure as The Social Network, Oppenheimer’s life is put under a microscope with every little move he makes, whether it’s his involvement with the Communist Party and relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) or his political influence pre and post bomb.

    What makes Oppenheimer special is how the events are depicted. Nolan himself proclaimed that the scenes in black and white are objective, meaning, they actually happened whereas the scenes in full color are subjective and open to interpretation. Early on, Oppenheimer is introduced to Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Their meeting is in black and white meaning it happened and then the two come across Albert Einstein(Tom Conti). Oppenheimer and Einstein share words and Strauss walks up to the two to join the conversation. To not go into too much detail, Strauss sees this as one of the acts that turns to humiliation at the hands of Oppenheimer. The other comes in a hearing, again in black and white where Oppenheimer openly mocks Strauss to the court.

    As the fractured, almost unreliable narrative progresses, Nolan engrosses us in the experience of character deconstruction. Much of the credit is due to editor Jennifer Lame cutting to the next scene when a certain expression is given, or a line of dialogue is delivered creating ambiguity withing the objective scenes. Knowing whats real and what is left up to the imagination is the tension builder that causes so much of the films anxiety outside of the Trinity test.

    Leading up to the moment of the test and its execution is all anyone could anticipate. Shot with no CGI, Nolan optimizes every frame with the spectacle of an old Hollywood epic. Obviously, there are special effects throughout, but they’re used rarely only to supplement what the practical effects couldn’t achieve. An example is detonating an actual bomb. During the creation of the bomb, the focus for Oppenheimer shifts to the toll of releasing a weapon of mass destruction on humanity. Cillian Murphy places all of the real Oppenheimer’s burdens on his back and conveys that fear through the expressiveness of his eyes.

    So much of Murphy’s performance is done through his eyes. What he’s experiencing on screen is exactly what the viewer feels in that moment. That existential dread and fear of the real possibility of having this type of weapon can do to a person. The beginning of an arms race with nuclear devises is more burden than anyone should carry especially the proclaimed “father of the atomic bomb”. Outside of Murphy’s award worthy performance, the entire ensemble devote their talent to a technical marvel. Robert Downey Jr’s quiet ferocity or Matt Damon’s urgency as Leslie Groves or Emily Blunt’s warmness as Kitty Oppenheimer. The list goes on and as each talented actor that pops up throughout, your subconscious goes “I had no idea they were also in this”.

    For 180 minutes Oppenheimer is devastating, haunting, tense, brilliant and beautiful. The runtime is rarely felt in the first half but once the second half begins there are several spots where an ending would make sense, but the film keeps moving along. It’s Nolan at his best, delivering a poignant experience that cannot be ignored.

    Oppenheimer is a work of art; every frame is its own painting of dark blacks and vibrant colors. After the misstep of Tenet that was rushed into theaters during the pandemic, Oppenheimer is the best representation of Nolan as a true visionary of our time. Speaking of frequent collaborators, returning  to offer a face melting score is Ludwig Göransson – creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of beauty and horror. Oppenheimer for as tragic as it is, is an important film for our understanding of the weight these world ending devices carry.

    Screenplay By: Christopher Nolan

    Directed By: Christopher Nolan

    Music By: Ludwig Göransson

    Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema

    Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh

    Edited By: Jennifer Lame

    Release Date: July 21, 2023

    Running Time: 3 Hours

    Rotten Tomatoes Score:

    Based On: American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin

    Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Barbie (2023)

    Barbie (2023)