Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Lost, Not Found

The Lost Girls

by Cat McAlpine

After a whirlwind summer, Wendy Darling is too old to return to the lost boys again. So, what does poor Peter do? Simply waits for her daughter. And then waits for her daughter. And the one after that.

It’s easy to see how a classic, magical story is a nightmare in disguise. The Lost Girls explores four generations of Darling women and how a summer with Peter Pan impacts them for the rest of their lives. Based on the novel by Laurie Fox, the film has promise but drastically fumbles.

Adapting, directing, and starring in the film, Livia De Paolis has taken on more than she can chew. Weaving back and forth in time, while also capturing the stories of four generations of women, The Lost Girls fails to solidify any one character. Wendy is meant to be depicted as a dreamer, struggling between her imagination and real life. Unfortunately, she’s wholly irredeemable. None of Wendy’s experiences or actions endear viewers to her.

While the Peter Pan story is familiar, De Paolis would have benefitted from spending more time with Peter to show what has so enraptured four women across time. The fantastical characters are somehow the most believable. Both Louis Partridge as Peter Pan and Iain Glen as Hook are captivating on-screen. Unfortunately, they alone cannot carry the film.

There is a lot to be unearthed here. An immortal fae boy consistently grooms young women to adore him, only to abandon them as they age. Though each girl falls in love with Peter, he insists that their relationship remain chaste. His pirate counterpart, just as immortal and devious but in an older man’s body, pursues the girls and assaults them. That summer of whirlwind trauma haunts the Darling women for the rest of their lives. The results are muddy and inconsistent.

While The Lost Girls has opportunity to explore inherited mental illness here, it’s unclear if it is the source material or the adaptation that skirts the issue. Every Darling woman seems to present her illness differently, from flights of fancy to narcissism to suicide attempts. There is no clear source for their shared hallucination, or shared fantastical reality. There is no pattern to their illnesses or the consequences of a lifetime of disappointment after coming of age.

Bookended by bad CGI and a consistent lack of chemistry, The Lost Girls itself seems pretty lost.

The Pleasure Principle

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

by George Wolf

If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Nancy is our hero, and sex is her quest.

And she would like good sex, thank you, although she can’t quite bring herself to expect the elusive release that she spent decades faking for her husband’s benefit.

But now Nancy (Emma Thompson) is an aging widow, fidgeting nervously in a hotel room and second-guessing her decision to hire handsome young escort Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.

Thompson is, of course, glorious. And as much fun as it always is to see her command those in-charge characters spitting ruthlessly droll asides, Nancy reminds you how equally adept Thompson is with self-effacing humor, vulnerability and longing.

Writer Katy Brand’s script is filled with delightful wordplay, subtle wit and insightful details, one of the most resonant being Nancy’s history as a religious education teacher. We see her as a woman not only desperate to learn things she was never taught (and she has a list!), but also now regretting some of the lessons she passed down to young girls in her classrooms.

To Nancy, Leo represents more than just lust. He is the power of youth, and all the possibilities of a different generation that have long felt shameful to many from her generation.

McCormack is terrific, worthy of extra kudos for not shrinking from the prospect of simply being the “other half” of a two-hander led by a rarified talent. Leo has some issues of his own beneath his suave demeanor, and McCormack reveals them with subtlety and heart.

But back to our hero.

Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.

And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want. It’s funny and empowering, warm and touching, even heartbreaking at times.

Let’s hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Everybody Clap Your Hands

Cha Cha Real Smooth

by Hope Madden

Dakota Johnson is the unquestioned star of indie darling coming-of-age drama Cha Cha Real Smooth, but it’s writer/director/co-star Cooper Raiff who’s shining bright enough to blind you.

The twentysomething filmmaker, fresh off his tender and insightful feature debut Sh*thouse, spins another yarn defined by vulnerability.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in his little brother’s bedroom and working at Meat Sticks until he figures something else out. A surprising opportunity arises at a bat mitzvah he attends with his brother (Evan Assante). Andrew has a gift for making sure everyone has a great time—including lonely single mom Domino (Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The other moms are so impressed, they all hire him to host their kids’ events.

Sure, it pays, but it’s silly. Harmless. Pointless. How fun, and also tragic. It’s an apt metaphor for Andrew, who was so good at being young and is now a little lost. Gen X had Lloyd Dobbler. Gen Z has Andrew.

Solid support from Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett offers Raiff opportunities to subvert tropes with surprising compassion. There are also more than enough laughs to balance the drama.

Johnson’s greatest strength as a performer is the almost preternatural chemistry she shares with everyone else on screen. That connection with Raiff aches with human tenderness, as does the entire film.

As an actor, Raiff’s performance is open — a strength his direction capitalizes on with long, breathing takes and intimate close-ups. The plot isn’t rushed or forced. Raiff’s writing weaves through complicated situations and emotions without the need to tidy up. The anxiety and pathos feel all the more honest because no one is safe from them. But the film empathizes thoroughly with its characters, applauding every brave and awkward act of intimacy.

Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won Sundance’s dramatic competition this year, overflows with charm and warmth. More than that, it points to a remarkable cinematic voice that’s just getting started.

Lone Ranger

Lightyear

by George Wolf

Exploring new life in the Toy Story universe comes with benefits – and drawbacks.

Sure, you inherit the goodwill earned by four of Pixar’s best feature films. But then, those films cast a mighty long shadow.

Lightyear taps into the warm fuzzies early, by letting us know why Andy wanted a Buzz action figure so badly that Christmas back in ’95. It’s because he loved the movie so much. This movie.

But honestly, for the first sixty minutes, you can’t imagine why.

Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) blames himself for marooning his settlement on a distant planet. A return to hyperspeed could bring everyone home, so Buzz is determined to keep testing until he gets it right.

Trouble is, each test flight sends him into a time dialator where 4 minutes up in space turns into 4 years back at base. So before Buzz knows it decades have passed, and he must take an untested team (Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) and a robotic cat (Peter Sohn) into battle against Emperor Zurg’s forces for control of the precious hyperspeed fuel source.

That’s all fine, but that’s all it is. Director and co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) can’t find any way to make the toy’s story come to life.

Until Buzz comes face to face with Zurg (James Brolin).

Zurg has a big surprise for all of us, one that might as well send the film into hyperspeed.

Almost in an instant, the cinematography from Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben adds depth and wonder (that spacewalk – goosebumps!), MacLane quickens the pace while recalling both 2001 and Aliens, and backstories from earlier in the film pay off with gentle lessons on bloodlines, destiny, and what makes a life’s mission matter.

Stay for the credits and beyond to get two bonus scenes that bring a chuckle or two. But just make sure you sit tight for the final half hour. That’s when Lightyear delivers the kind of action and pizazz that just might make a kid change his Christmas list.

Cultural Echoes

Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan

by Tori Hanes

A thorough and colorful exploration of Mongolian history and culture, director Robert H. Lieberman’s Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan immediately astounds with breathtaking cinematography. That awe is transferred to the artistic animation as stories take shape, and is continued in every visual aspect of the film for its entirety. 

The documentary guides you from early Mongolian history to present-day culture. Lieberman’s visual storytelling almost does more to narrate the culture than the scattered interviews. Exploration into the fabric of early Mongolian society is where Lieberman excels. He details how fables turn into norms to connect the culture to an audience largely unfamiliar with the country.

First-person accounts from citizens raised nomadically (a fact touted in the film: nomadic citizens estimate approximately 30% of the country’s population) beautifully and effortlessly transcend the audience to the lush, rolling hills of farmers and livestock.

Unfortunately, an interest in both glossing over and thoroughly explaining the complex history of the country causes a bit of a pile-up. It’s understandable. Recognizing how the culture found itself in the present is paramount for the film’s ultimate point: that Mongolia is a rapidly evolving nation, shifting its position both in the world and internally. Knowing the past is important for expanding on the future, but a smoother structure would’ve made the information more digestible.

On the other hand, Mongolia’s constantly changing society remains under-explored. The choice to invest the audience’s time in the past without a significant payoff looking toward the future leaves the film imbalanced, slightly muddling the ultimate point. 

Echoes of the Empire is many things: informative, compelling, astounding, and sometimes, disproportionate. But the beauty of Lieberman’s vision tied closely with the captivating culture makes for a unique, lifted experience.

In This Housing Market?

Abandoned

by Hope Madden

Competently made and utterly unremarkable, Spencer Squire’s Abandoned still somehow managed to draw a top-notch cast. Huh.

Emma Roberts is Sara, a new mom battling post-partum depression. Her doting husband Alex (John Gallagher Jr.) thinks a change of scenery will help. Naturally, they purchase a beautiful, rustic farmhouse that was once the site of a massive family murder.

Will there be a creepy neighbor with intel on the crime? There will indeed, blessedly in the form of the always amazing Michael Shannon. Why he’s in this film is anybody’s guess (until you dig deeper into the credits), but he’s a welcome, fascinating presence.

Sara spends lonesome days alone with her baby while veterinarian Alex tends to the surrounding farms’ livestock. These follow sleepless nights, where creaking, stomping, and the laughter of children keep her awake.

Writers Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott conflate psychosis, post-partum depression and paranoia with a reasonable suspicion of a haunting. Is Sara overwrought from depression? Is the slain of the house trying to terrorize her? Is she actually just dangerously unstable from way back?

Options aplenty, none of them explored or particularly well established.

It’s a lot of weight on Roberts, who’s proven in films like The Blackcoat’s Daughter that an unbalanced horror heroine is well within her wheelhouse. Here she just seems lost.

Gallagher is wasted in yet another Good Guy Jim (Newsroom reference) role. But the supporting cast is excellent, beginning with Shannon. Kate Arrington (Shannon’s real-life wife who was so stellar in Knives and Skin) is perfection as the eager but judgy real estate agent.

Paul Schneider appears in an intriguing if underdeveloped role, one that appears to throw the entire film in a fascinating new direction. Sadly, Abandoned quickly reestablishes itself as the predictably middling supernatural thriller you knew it was from its opening minutes.

Shooting Blanks

Blowback

by Brandon Thomas

Rideshare driver Nick (Cam Gigandet of Twilight and The Magnificent Seven) needs fast money to help care for his hospitalized daughter. Thankfully in the world of Blowback, there’s a seedy criminal underbelly that rideshare drivers know about.

Nick gets hooked up with a crew that includes an ex of his (Michelle Plaia) and her new squeeze, Jack (Randy Couture of The Expendables). Like clockwork, Nick is quickly double-crossed after the heist and left for dead. What follows is a meandering, undercooked tale of revenge. 

First thing’s first: Blowback was a chore to sit through. It’s a movie completely devoid of clever plotting or surprises. Instead, the entirety of the film is built upon genre cliches that have been done better hundreds of times before. Cliches and tropes can be fun and entertaining, but it helps to have good writing, directing, and acting to support them.

Gigandet and Couture are the big “names” in Blowback, and I’m having a hard time thinking of two other leads more boring than them. Gigandet has turned in some okay work in bigger fare over the years, but he’s not the kind of actor that can take weak material and beef it up through his performance. Couture, on the other hand, has never turned in a performance I would call good. The majority of his line readings feel like they’re coming from cue cards.

Director Tibor Takacs has been steadily working as a director since the mid-80s. He’s responsible for two cult horror favorites in The Gate and I, Madman. While these two films aren’t bonafide classics, they did show that Takacs knew how to approach genre with some style. This is not the case with Blowback.

The film is competently made, but only from a point-and-shoot standard. Takacs’s vanilla directing style here does nothing to help the already cheap feel of the entire production.

Blowback offers 93 minutes of nothing new in the realm of revenge cinema. Save yourself the time and put on Point Blank again. Or maybe one of the John Wick movies. Maybe Kill Bill would scratch that itch as well. In fact, any other movie would work out better than Blowback.

Hot in the City

Cocoon

by Rachel Willis

Berlin, 2018 is the setting for writer/director Leonie Krippendorff’s coming-of-age drama, Cocoon (Kokon).  

Awkward, quiet Nora (Lena Urzendowsky) is our guide through this realistic, slice-of-life look at teenagers as the hottest summer on record sweeps Berlin. A follower, Nora spends most of her time with her older sister, Jule (Lena Klenke) and Jule’s best friend, Aylin (Elina Vildanova).

When Nora meets carefree, older student, Romy (Jella Haase), she explores a different kind of world – one apart from her sister. Where Jule and Aylin are obsessed with boys and their looks, filming the bulk of their activities on their cell phones, Nora is still finding her way. But it’s an innocent wrestling match in the pool between Nora and Aylin that makes Nora realizes she looks at girls “the way boys do.”

Krippendorff’s masterful take on the embarrassing and exhilarating moments of being a teenager, especially a teenage girl, is both observant and often subtle. Nora’s mother is rarely home, leaving Jule to take care of a younger sister, who is at times the more well-adjusted of the two. A misguided attempt of Jule’s to keep their mother home is met with a level-headed response from Nora.

Romy offers Nora a chance to separate herself from both her sister and the struggles of a home-life absent of parents. Nora is happiest when she’s allowed to explore a teenager’s life – one with adventure and joy and sexual experiences.

Though it’s never made clear how much older Romy is than Nora, there are a few scenes that highlight the age gap between the two. Often, Nora’s responses to Romy’s attentions come across as childish, making the pairing feel a little more awkward than is probably intended. However, it can be argued that Nora’s behavior in her relations with Romy serves as a contrast to the ways she has been forced to shed her youth at home in order to survive. It’s only with Romy that Nora is able and allowed to express herself fully.

In a strong film, there are still a few disappointments: a predictable turn of events during the film’s climax, the not-so-subtle sequences with a caterpillar, an ethereal plastic bag. (I didn’t like it any better in American Beauty).

Fortunately, in a film with so many wonderful moments, the minor flaws are easily forgiven and adolescence in all its incongruous beauty is put on magnificent display for us to either relive or relate.

Madness Rein

Mad God

by Hope Madden

You may not know Phil Tippett by name, but you’ve certainly seen his work. The monsters of his imagination were on the Dejarik board in Star Wars. They roamed Jurassic Park. They wrought havoc in Starship Troopers.

Now Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God.

It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.

Dense with grotesquerie and craftsmanship, the animated tale follows a lone figure across and through a noxious landscape bubbling with creatures large and small. Our hero has a map to aid him and a gas mask to protect him. His journey brings him in contact with violence of both the sadistic and thoughtless sort.

Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty. Then, just when you think his film speaks of war and commerce, the commerce of war, he turns focus.

We enter a hospital, witness a medical harvesting. And then suddenly, we turn to a series demonstrating ways in which history and societies have been built on sadistic entertainment.

Suddenly, a sequence full of day-glo colors and relative gaiety feels momentarily like a respite. Nope.

Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles, at least at first, a post-apocalyptic wasteland you might recognize. Tippett peoples this somewhat familiar landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.

Certain sequences and score sections recall Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, while others bring to mind Shane Acker’s underseen 2009 animation, 9. Rather than pull you through these images with a clear destination, Tippett meanders.

Mad God asks you to take in the chaos, the slurry of misery in its tactile, malevolent nightmare and find, if not hope — you will not find hope — then maybe sympathy.

With Teeth

Jurassic World: Dominion

by Hope Madden

Trite. Insipid. Derivative. Safe.

Oh, that’s harsh. I may still be mad that the Jurassic franchise ruined J.A. Bayona for me. But no matter the hot garbage that was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I vowed to keep my hopes high for Jurassic World: Dominion.

I mean, Laura Dern’s back. And Sam Neill. And Jeff Goldblum! What’s not to love?

Too much. There is unquestionably too much not to love.

Colin Trevorrow returns to helm the franchise he rebooted with the surprisingly popular 4th installment, 2015’s Jurassic World. It was fun. It had problems (it really embraced outdated ideas of gender roles and romance, for instance), but it was a decent slice of nostalgia wrapped in excellent FX.

Then came the abomination of Fallen Kingdom. So, now Trevorrow is back to rein in the franchise with the one thing that can save it: the cast we loved from Spielberg’s ’93 original.

Dern, Neill and Goldblum – as Ellie, Grant and Malcolm — are more interested in these giant hybrid locusts than in dinosaurs, though. Whereas Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) want to save their daughter.

Essentially, no one gives a shit about dinosaurs in this one.

See, that’s how zombie franchises derail. Filmmakers think we pay money to see their people on a big screen. People we can see in any movie. Hell, we can see people by turning our heads away from the screen.

Dinosaurs, please!

They’re here, and they look cool, but they’re filler. Trevorrow, co-writing with Emily Carmichael and Derek Connolly, stuffs the script with so much needless human backstory and drama that the dinosaur danger offers little more than set dressing.

In its place, loads and loads of traditional family values, Spielberg nods and nostalgia. The tone is insincere at best. Rather than feeling inspired by Spielberg, Jurassic World Dominion comes off as a hollow, cynical facsimile. It’s as authentic as a theme park ride.