Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Mellow Yellow

Minions: The Rise of Gru

by Hope Madden

Gru is back, which means more minions. As long as you’re not sick to death of either of those things, Minions: The Rise of Gru is fine, moderately enjoyable family entertainment.

If you are sick to death of any of the above, it’s probably because you are an adult. For you, this second installment of the Minions franchise, fifth overall Despicable Me project, hopes to keep your attention with loads of nods to the Seventies. This probably means they hope the kids are going to theaters with their grandparents.

Why the Seventies? Because we’re watching young Gru (Steve Carell) try to break into the super villain biz. He’s but a wee thing, not yet jaded. Rather than Farrah Fawcett or Starsky and Hutch posters on his walls, though, his bedroom is adorned with The Vicious 6 paraphernalia.

The Vicious 6 are the most notorious supervillains in the world: Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean-Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless).

Other newcomers to the series include Michelle Yeoh and RZA, joining returning performers Julie Andrews, Russell Brand and Steve Coogan.

Damn, that’s a lot of talent behind the microphone.

The animation’s great, too. This movie is gorgeous, especially the 3D rendering of San Francisco.  There’s an eye-popping Chinese New Year parade and a pretty great cross-country motorcycle ride a la Easy Rider that looks amazing.

Writing is a bit of a weak spot, though.

Part of the problem is that all that voice talent is given very little to do because Pierre Coffin (voice of the Minions en masse) gets most of the screen time.

You see, Gru is kidnapped and several of those little yellow pills set off to rescue him. They’re separated. One pulls a Nicholson to RZA’s Peter Fonda. The other three train in the art of Kung Fu with Master Chow (Yeoh).

Minions don’t make great primary characters. They are interchangeable and have no arcs. They’re wildly, suffocatingly popular, yes, but they can’t really carry a film. They’re a hell of a waste of a good cast, though.

To Have and Have Not

The Forgiven

by George Wolf

When we first meet the idly rich people that populate the opening minutes of The Forgiven, they seem laughably idle and cartoonishly rich, more fitting for a satirical comedy than a searing sociopolitical thriller.

But it isn’t long before you appreciate the purposeful precision in writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s bestseller. The excess is this wretched for a reason, as the contrast between privilege and honor takes on a classic, Hemingway-esque flavor.

Flamboyant couple Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) are hosting an annual weekend bacchanal at their lavish retreat in the middle of the Moroccan desert. As numerous Westerners are attended by a staff of native Moroccans, unhappily marrieds Jo and David Henniger (Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes) are making the long drive to the party.

The couple argues about which turnoff is correct, David takes his eyes off the road and strikes a Moroccan teen named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) – killing him. Richard helps to smooth things over with the local police captain (Ben Affan), but word spreads to the villagers, and soon Driss’s father (Ismael Kanater) is demanding that David follow custom and make the long journey to the boy’s burial.

David agrees, setting up McDonagh’s fascinating examination of worlds colliding.

Jo instantly indulges the attention of Tom, a playboy financial analyst (Christopher Abbot), which gives the servants yet another affirmation of their guests godless natures. The wealth of the expats guarantees a life free of consequence, but David is learning that the Moroccans offer no such promises.

McDonagh (Calvary, The Guard) is such an insighftul writer, and he’s able to turn shallow first impressions into complexities as skillfully as he brings authentic depth to what easily could have been the magic brown people.

As a director, McDonagh’s touch here can feel sluggish in spots, but this first-rate ensemble (also including Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui and an excellent Saïd Taghmaoui) always keeps things compelling. At the top, Chastain and Fiennes slowly craft competing moral compasses, and The Forgiven lands as an intelligent reconsideration of a seemingly timeless lesson.

They Don’t Like Me, They Really Don’t Like Me

Official Competition

by George Wolf

Who’s more full of it: The cinema snob who dismisses whatever’s popular, or the escapist fan wary of any whiff of highbrow? Awards shows, or those who protest them too much? Film festival agenda twisters, or film festival attention whores?

Official Competition is here to nominate them all. Co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (both also co-write with Andrés Duprat) come armed with plenty of knives, and their mischievous and wonderfully witty satire has them out for pretty much everyone involved in movie making.

When an 80 year-old millionaire (José Luis Gómez) decides his legacy should involve producing the film version of a Nobel prize-winning novel, critic’s darling Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) gets the call to direct. But Lola insists on adapting “La Rivalidad” with a unique vision, one that starts with casting polar opposites in the lead roles.

Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) is the worldwide box office star, while Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) is the legendary thespian. They will play warring brothers, while their own philosophical clashes grow more volatile – and more dryly hilarious – by the day.

And don’t bother looking to Lola for cool-headed problem-solving. She’d rather provoke the tension with a variety of creative exercises – such as wrapping her two stars in restraints and threatening to destroy their most prized awards right in front of their panic-stricken faces.

Subtle it ain’t, but funny it is.

And even when a joke or two lingers a beat past its expiration, this sublime trio of actors makes nearly every frenzied interaction a joy to behold.

Is Lola a motivational genius or a complete fraud? Does Félix have the chops to go toe-to-toe with the prestigious Iván? And does Iván secretly admire Félix’s success? Cruz, Banderas and Martinez are clearly having as much fun acting it out as we are trying to sort it out.

And like much of the best satire, Official Competition is talking about one thing, but saying something else. Its barbs aimed at the movie business may be silly, acerbic and insightful, but none can hide the respect this film has for the entirely mad nature of the creative process.

Call it a love letter, with a completely entertaining ‘smidge of hate.

Call Me Maybe

The Black Phone

by Hope Madden

It can be tough to turn a short story into a feature-length film. Filmmakers wind up padding, adding needless plotlines, losing the pointed nature of the short. And Joe Hill’s story The Black Phone is short and to the point. It’s vivid and spooky, and it plays on that line between the grotesque and the entertaining that marks children’s lives.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Dr. Strange), adapting Hill’s story with longtime writing collaborator C. Robert Cargill, has his work cut out for him.

The first thing he does is change up the villain, which is generally a terrible idea. It works out well here, though, because Ethan Hawke and his terrifying assortment of masks are the stuff of nightmares.

Hawke plays The Grabber. With his top hat, black balloons and big black van, he’s managed to lure and snatch a number of young boys from a small Colorado town. Finney (Mason Thames) is his latest victim, and for most of the film Finney waits for his punishment down a locked cement basement.

Not much else down there besides a filthy mattress and an old, disconnected rotary phone.

Derrickson does stretch the tale with the kind of secondary plot you might find in one of Hill’s dad Stephen King’s books. Back at home, wearing a yellow slicker and rain boots, Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) dreams of the missing boys. Her dreams are so accurate they draw the interest of local police.

This is not the film’s strongest element, but it doesn’t play too poorly, either. Derrickson understands that a film’s hero needs some backstory, some arc to make their journey meaningful. He gets heavy-handed with Finney’s family drama, but he doesn’t overwhelm the primary creepiness with it. And he links the two storylines together smoothly with a shared bit of the supernatural.

The phone.

Time period detail sets a spooky mood and Derrickson has fun with soundtrack choices. But the film’s success—its creepy, affecting success—is Hawke. The actor weaves in and out of different postures, tones of voice, movements. He’s about eight different kinds of creepy, every one of them aided immeasurably by its variation on that mask.

Derrickson hasn’t reinvented the genre. But, with solid source material and one inspired performance, he’s crafted a gem of a horror movie.

The Showman and the Snowman

Elvis

by George Wolf

If you’re looking for someone to bring a fresh perspective to the Elvis Presley story, Baz Luhrmann would seem like a no brainer. Though he can certainly lean too hard toward style and away from substance (Australia), he can also fill a screen with tremendous energy, visual pizazz and musical exuberance (Moulin Rouge!).

And by now, any by-the-numbers take on Elvis would just be silly. Think more Rocketman, less Bohemian Rhapsody.

Luhrmann’s Elvis succeeds – to a point, as inspired choices often push the film forward while others seem to hold it back.

At the top of the win column is Austin Butler’s mesmerizing performance as The King. Beyond capturing the smoldering good looks and iconic speech pattern, Butler finds power in the raw physicality of role, an essential part of believing how this one man’s sexuality shook the world. No doubt Butler will be remembered comes awards season.

And yet, this film is only partially about Elvis.

GD national treasure Tom Hanks – an awards contender himself under layers of impressive makeup and prosthetics – narrates the film as Elvis’s longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker. Ill and seemingly nearing his end, Parker wants to tell us his side of story, and why he’s maybe not as bad as we’ve been told.

And while focusing on the perspective of the “Snowman” (Parker’s term for a master of the snow job) without legitimizing it is an interesting approach, it also keeps us detached from the Showman.

Even when depicting Elvis’s childhood, Luhrmann (co-writing as well as directing) frames him as akin to a comic book hero. So as we follow the meteoric rise, the Hollywood floundering, the comeback and the Vegas rot, the film is more interested in holding Presley up as a mythical figure than holding him accountable as a mere mortal.

There are moments with show-stopping visuals and stand-up-and-cheer performances (especially the “If I Can Dream” sequence from Elvis’s TV special in 1968), but they never feel like enough. Luhrmann drops in occasional clips of the real King, and peppers the impressive cast with Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (as B.B. King), Gary Clark, Jr. (Big Boy Crudup) Yola (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jimmie Rodgers Snow) and more, gearing you up for a gloriously indulgent showcase that never comes.

Elvis is stylistic, well-performed and often highly entertaining. But with an overlong running time of 2 1/2 hours plus, you’d think there would be at least a little room left to go full Luhrmann.

In the Mood for Macabre

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

by Brandon Thomas

After inheriting a large castle, Dieter (Frederik von Lüttichau) and Margot (Luisa Taraz) head into the European countryside to assess the property’s worth. As the couple explores the empty castle, they begin to experience visions of ghostly figures. After an unplanned overnight, Dieter and Margot find their relationship succumbing to the influence of the old structure.

The above description comprises no more than the first 30 minutes of Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes. Going any further with story specifics would ruin the twists and turns the remaining 40 minutes will offer. Suffice to say, this isn’t your typical “Couple Explores Creepy Property They Unexpectedly Inherited” movie. 

Austrian filmmaker Kevin Kopacka jumps headfirst into 60s/70s Euro-horror that’s heavy on mood and style and purposefully light on narrative throughlines. The gorgeous colors that dance through the castle sets are reminiscent of the stylings of Mario Bava and Argento’s work in Suspiria. The early emphasis on style never threatens to turn the movie into a substance-lacking nostalgia piece. Kopacka and co-writer Lili Villanyi have far too much on their minds for that to happen.

Even at a scant 75 minutes, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes manages to switch gears three or four times. What begins as a focused homage to Euro-horror ends as an examination of the creative process and delicate male egos. The themes aren’t subtle but through smart writing and beautiful visuals, they land with ease. 

For a film that’s so heavy on ideas and atmosphere, it was quite shocking to see one particularly graphic moment. The overall lack of carnage in Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes makes this moment even more impactful as it shocks the audience out of the certain level the filmmakers have developed. The guys in the audience will find themselves squirming an extraordinary amount.

With a clever script and some top-notch visuals, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes earns a spot as one of the more intriguing horror films of the year so far.

Tears in His Eyes, I Guess

The Phantom of the Open

by George Wolf

Olympic ski jumping found its unlikely warrior in Eddie the Eagle. Championship golf has a similar everyman hero in Maurice Flitcroft, and while Maurice still needs a catchy nickname, his tale finally gets the big screen treatment with The Phantom of the Open.

Maurice actually made his name years before Eddie, when he qualified for the British Open back in 1976.

And?

Up until that time, Maurice was a crane operator at a British shipyard who had never played even one full round of golf.

Cinderella story, meet Cinderella boy.

Well, not exactly, as Maurice shoots the worst round in Open history and quickly runs afoul of the course director (Rhys Ifans).

But a legend is born, and right from the film’s storybook-styled opening, director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) and writer Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) adapt Scott Murray’s book on Maurice’s often hilarious exploits with a whimsical, endlessly optimistic treatment. It fits like a pair of plaid pants at the 19th hole.

And what perfect casting. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance effortlessly brings Maurice to lovable life as a gentle, indefatigable dreamer. He’s also a soft-spoken family man, devoted to his wife (an equally perfect Sally Hawkins), the older stepson who’s embarrassed by him (Jake Davies) and his twin sons obsessed with disco (Christian and Jonah Lees).

His wife supports him, so why shouldn’t Maurice take a stab at the Open? Why can’t his friend at the shipyard open that pub he’s always wanted? And who says his boys can’t be disco dance champions? The world is your oyster, go find that pearl!

The film may not always share Maurice’s grand ambitions, but it has plenty of good humor and nearly overflows with crowd-pleasing charm. An unassuming ode to staying committed to what – and who – you love, The Phantom of the Open plays to the gallery with an awkward, sweater-vested panache that makes one history-making slouch seem pretty tremendous.

Friend for the End

Revealer

by Hope Madden

The apocalypse really brings out the best and the worst in people, doesn’t it?

Take Sally (Shaina Schrooten), for example. She’s been waiting for the end of days for as long as she can remember, but now that it’s here, is she really happy?

And what about Angie (Caito Aase)? She was pretty angry to start with, working a peep show booth in a 1980s Chicago strip mall, dealing with leering customers, a cheap boss, and that judgy bitch Sally. You think she might embrace the end times.

Filmmaker Luke Boyce traps the two in the peep booth while trumpets of doom sound outside and they have to work through their nonsense, make sense of the situation and try to survive.

Tiny cast, minimal sets, distractingly fun set—the film has all the earmarks of smartly made low-budget horror. Solid creature effects help Revealer transcend financial limitations and a sassy turn from Aase elevates an often threadbare script.

Boyce co-writes, along with Michael Moreci and Tim Seeley, but they run out of things to say or ways to say them. A lot of time is spent with illogical action contrived to extend conversations. Those conversations unveil all backstory, context, character growth—and with few places for his characters to go, Boyce seems hard-pressed to invent ways to show us rather than tell us what’s happening.

What is happening is that two people rethink who’s really a saint and who’s really a sinner and whether it really matters while Chicago burns. There’s not a lot of subtlety.

Boyce shows instincts for making the most of the frame. His visual ideas pay off comedically, amplifying the frenemy vibe while creating a fun atmosphere. The time period seems an odd choice, given the actual apocalypse, but it’s executed well enough.

In fact, a lot of Revealer is done just well enough. It could have been a really fun short. But at feature length, Boyce’s film feels like a lot of filler.

Granada and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Granada Nights

by Isaiah Merritt

Summer in Europe – a classic setting for romantic rendezvous, self-discovery, the natural habit of the hopeless romantic – and the perfect backdrop for a quarter-life crisis?

Abid Khan, writer/editor/director, chooses Grenada, Spain as the romantic backdrop to his debut work Grenada Nights. It’s a film exploring the journey that is self-discovery and what it means to belong to something in the trenches of existentialism – better known as a person’s early twenties. 

The first act of Grenada Nights is very emotionally engaging, due in large part to the sympathetic turn of the film’s lead, Antonio Aakeel. Aakeel portrays Ben, an aimless, hopeless romantic, with such sincerity you can’t help but root for him.

The film takes a tonal shift to a brighter side when Ben meets a group of students at the local university (Oscar Casas, Julius Fleischanderl, Laura Frederico) who challenge his perspective and encourage him to learn how to stand on his own two feet. 

However, it is at this turning point in the film when the narrative becomes somewhat choppy with jumps in time that are not well connected. Which left me asking myself, “Did I miss a scene?”

This disjointed nature coupled with the conventional method in which the film is crafted, especially in the second act, made it difficult for me to fully connect.

Thankfully, with the help of a much-needed montage, endearing performances by everyone in the cast, and universal themes, the film recovers and finishes with much more fluidity. Thus, allowing for an emotionally and thematically impactful ending. 

Grenada Nights was overall successful in illustrating the journey of a young man finding himself and a community in a complex world with unpredictable human beings.

Plot Plop Fizz Fizz

Flux Gourmet

by Hope Madden

There is something so delightfully confounding about trying to review a Peter Strickland film. Even summarizing the plot is a walk into absurdity. For example, Strickland’s latest, Flux Gourmet, takes us inside a culinary collective institute. Here, sonic caterers and a man documenting them struggle with artistic authenticity.

What are sonic caterers, you ask? Maybe you didn’t, but I did. They are sort of performance artists whose medium is food.

Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed, The Lobster, The Souvenir) and Billy (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) are the collective who’ve earned this year’s residency. Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) oversees the institute. Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) documents.

Stones also narrates the film, and while his voiceover does help to articulate the plot of the film, his main focus is his own humiliating and painful flatulence problem.

The film often plays a bit like Strickland’s 2012 treasure Berberian Sound Studio, where an amiable outsider — a normal, nice guy — finds himself trapped with hedonistic, narcissistic artist types. Can he escape with his goodness intact?

Both films fixate on sound design, but Flux Gourmet settles into lighter, more clearly comic territory. And, at the risk of trying to read too much into Strickland’s absurdities, the film seems to say a lot about filmmaking as art versus commerce—the vulgar act of consuming and producing.

Which brings us back to poor Stones. Papadimitriou’s sympathetic performance delivers a nicely human counterpoint to the narcissistic, shallow characters that surround him. Christie, lavishly costumed and made up, is especially entertaining. Her patronizing sparks with Mohamed’s dictatorial Elle create absurd comic gold, only outdone by the self-impressed in-house medic, Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer).

Strickland’s carved himself a recognizable niche in modern absurdist filmmaking with his precise, eclectic visual instincts. Funnier than Yorgos Lanthimos, more biting than Quentin Dupieux, more accessible than Leos Carax, Strickland wallows in his own very specific preoccupations. But he does so with such panache that it’s tough not to let him convert you.

This story feels somewhat slight compared to the complicated plotlines of Strickland’s earlier films, especially his 2018 horror treasure In Fabric. But Flux Gourmet is the filmmaker’s funniest feature.