Tag Archives: movie reviews

Missions Possible

The Magician’s Elephant

by George Wolf

Anything is possible, just believe in your dreams.

That’s a fine moral for The Magician’s Elephant. But much like the film itself, it’s a bit generic and less than memorable.

Based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, this Netflix animated adventure takes us to the land of Baltese, where strange clouds have rolled in and “people stopped believing.” Young orphan Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) is being raised by an old soldier (Mandy Patinkin) to live a soldier’s life, which will be hard because “the world is hard.”

It gets harder when Peter uses meal money for a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) to tell him how his long lost sister can be found. The soldier told Peter the girl died at birth, but that’s not what he remembers, and a palm reading confirms that she is indeed alive.

To find her, Peter must “follow the elephant.”

But there are no elephants in Baltese, at least until a desperate magician (Benedict Wong) makes one fall from the sky. And after the magician and the elephant are both locked up for causing trouble, Peter begs the King (Aasif Mandvi) to let him care for the beast, as it is “only guilty of being an elephant.”

The King agrees, providing Peter can complete three tasks. Three impossible tasks.

Ah, but remember, nothing is impossible!

Director Wendy Rogers (a visual effects vet helming her first feature) and screenwriter Martin Hynes have plenty of threads to juggle, from animal cruelty to the costs of war to a Dickensian twist of fate. The resulting narrative ends up feeling overstuffed and convoluted.

The muted coloring no doubt reflects the village’s cloudy atmosphere, and the stiff animation may be intended to recall a children’s popup, but there is little in the film’s aesthetic that is visually inspiring.

Mandvi and Patinkin are the most successful at crafting indelible characterizations, while the rest of the voice cast (also including Brian Tyree Henry and Miranda Richardson) manages workmanlike readings that neither disappoint or standout.

Same for the film. The Magician’s Elephant pulls plenty from its crowded hat, but has trouble conjuring anything that is truly magical.

Tell Me Dear

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

by Rachel Willis

A distracted driver makes a series of bad decisions one dark evening, setting the tone for director Shipei Wen’s first feature, Are You Lonesome Tonight (Re dai wang shi).

This is a film you expect to go a certain way, so when it veers off in a different direction, it’s an intriguing but not necessarily satisfying choice. The film follows a predictable pattern even though it might not be the pattern you were initially anticipating.

The movie’s two leads, Xueming (Eddie Peng) and Ma (Sylvia Chang), are what’s most appealing. Though Xueming is a bit too similar to characters we’ve seen many times before, Ma is more complicated. Because Ma has lost both a husband and a son, you might expect her to put Xueming into the role of son – and in some ways, she does, but emotionally, she keeps him at arm’s length.

We don’t spend as much time with Ma as you might want. Instead, we follow Xueming as he makes questionable decision after questionable decision. His motivations are murky, but this works to underscore the darkness of both the film and human nature. He deals with guilt and uncertainty in increasingly violent ways, making the sensitivity he shows Ma especially touching. Though she may be using him to fill certain needs, there’s no doubt there’s something that connects these two.

There’s a lack of linear cohesion to the film that is surprisingly irrelevant to the whole. That we move around in time doesn’t increase tension or even really cause confusion. It simply is, and it’s a curious choice. A scene or two is repeated. One particular scene is shown from multiple perspectives, but the choice to work it into the film in two different spots is unnecessary. It would have worked as well – perhaps better – if we saw both perspectives at the same time.

There isn’t much going on in this film. The ethical dilemmas are overlooked in favor of a paint by numbers mystery. However, as a slice of Xueming and Ma’s lives, it’s worth watching to see how they react to the events unfolding around them.

As a character drama, it’s intriguing. As a languidly paced mystery, Are You Lonesome Tonight is a little underwhelming.

Fright Club: Drugs in Horror Movies

It wasn’t always bears, kids. In other movies, people use drugs, although the result – limbs akimbo and carnage aplenty – usually still follows. Here are our favorite druggie horror flicks.

5. Cabin in the Woods (2011) (weed)

There are countless reasons to love Drew Goddard’s 2011 horror mash note Cabin in the Woods. Not the least of which is Fran Kranz as Marty, pothead.

Easily the favorite character (inside the cabin, anyway), Marty not only provides the levity necessary for this particular trope to work, his weedy logic is all that actually makes sense in this world.

The entire film is a trip, but it’s Marty’s trip that’s most worth taking.

4. Cocaine Bear (2023) (cocaine, obviously)

The year is 1985, from what I can piece together from an inspired soundtrack of pop hits spilling out of speakers, and one Jefferson Starship fan is about to make a jump from his plane with an awful lot of coke. Things don’t go well, and next thing you know, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta in his final screen performance) is sending his reluctant son (Alden Ehrenreich) and best guy (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to Blood Mountain to retrieve $14 million in missing blow.

As you may have guessed from the title, a bear found it first.

Inspired, manic carnage follows. Entrails spill, children fill their mouths with cocaine, skate punks lose their heads (well, parts of their heads), EMTs really earn their pay, and we all have an incredible, brightly colored, viscera covered good time!

3. Climax (2018) (LSD)

Oh, Gaspar Noe, you scamp! The provocateur returned to screens in 2018 with a bad trip full of percussive dancing and concussive beats that will leave you as bewildered, wrung out, unsettled and horrified as the characters.

Sofia Boutella leads an ensemble of dancers locked into a French warehouse post-production to just party. But there’s more in that sangria than fruit and soon enough, the party is an inescapable hellscape.

Noe has a way with pummeling an audience, overstimulating and punishing us into submission. Turns out, he can also choreograph a decent dance number!

2. Hagazussa (2017) (mushrooms)

Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse. Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.

Albrun’s is a tragic story and Feigelfeld crafts it with a believable loneliness that bends toward madness. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.

He’s cast a spell and you should submit.

1. Mandy (2018) (LSD)

A hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Not just Nic, either. Andrea Riseborough, cannibal bikers on LSD, The Chemist, and a religious sex cult led by a terrible folk singer. Plus a sword, an axe, a lot of blood, and did I mention the LSD?

Like director Panos Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black RainbowMandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

It is as insane as any beautifully conceived, expertly executed film has ever been and you must give yourself to it.

Police State

I Got a Monster

by Tori Haines

An unrelenting look at the prescriptive police corruption plaguing Baltimore’s system, I Got A Monster stares the repeatedly topical topic straight down the barrel.

Director Kevin Abrams follows dogmatic defense attorney Ivan Bates’s journey of taking down the city’s most prolific group of badged criminals: Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, headed by Sgt Walter Jenkins. Navigating the audience through the twists of the cold judicial system while Jenkin’s victims ride shotgun, I Got A Monster succeeds as a deeply educational piece.

The documentary’s strength is also its weakness. In its need to present information, the doc often loses sight of the angry, desperate, and necessary call-to-arms at the center of its message. The moments of true emotional catharsis come in the form of first-person testimonies from the lives Jenkins ruined at random. Devastated and infuriated, the victims recount their traumatic experiences with Baltimore PD’s racial profiling and corruption. These vignettes are the soul of the piece – where the film finds moments of true nuance, ethos, and bravery.

However, the balance of testimony offers scattershot cold legal expertise, with advisors desperate to spell out each step of Jenkin’s downfall.

The stark difference between the two testimonial styles feels left-footed, almost like audiences need to fully switch sections of the brain to properly interpret the speaker on screen.

I Got A Monster is not a documentary playing in the sandbox of multiple, shifting perspectives of opinion. To an extent, fans of documentaries expect and enjoy the feeling of whiplash. This piece is tough, in a way, because nary a soul alive would be able to justify the cruelty and corruption of Walter Jenkins. However, the complete unity of ideologies is what causes the awkward back and forth of ethos vs. facts. Finding some middle ground that gives audiences the touch of a differing perspective (for example, I would’ve loved to hear Jenkin’s legal defense team’s moral justifications) could’ve helped unify the important message as opposed to dissecting it.

I Got A Monster gives a voice to the handful of the men and women who had their agencies, freedoms, and, in some cases, beliefs of a just world ripped from them. The platform Abrams created for them is, in and of itself, worthy of praise and viewing. 

While I Got A Monster often feels like a disjunct narrative, the people behind the Monster make it worthwhile.

Born on the Fluff of July

Unicorn Wars

by Daniel Baldwin

Blood. Steel. Pain. Cuddles.

That’s the motto constantly being pummeled into the minds of the teddy bear soldiers by their theocratic, fascistic leaders. Their enemy? The unicorns, a seemingly peaceful race that resides within a natural wooded paradise called the Magic Forest. The bears want what the unicorns have and they aim to take it with deadly brute force. Emphasis on brute.

Albert Vazquez’s animated Spanish-language war satire is, simply put, a sight to behold. Vazquez takes all of the hallmarks and horrors of Vietnam War cinema and wraps them in a lusciously cartoonish new skin, rendering incredibly grisly terrors all the more potent. Too often, societies send their children off to fight their wars and what is more child-like than a teddy bear? Instead of putting guns in the hands of human teens, Vazquez arms impressionable teddies with bows, arrows, knives, and grenades, sending them off to destroy the natural world around them for its resources.

If it sounds like a scathing indictment of human behavior for the entirety of our history, that’s because that is exactly what it is. Man’s inhumanity to man is on full display here in numerous ways, both in a war between two vastly different cultures and in how the bears treat one another. Nearly all the film’s main characters are a vicious miserable lot, despite their Care Bear-ish looks. Every punch, stab, shot, bludgeoning, and impalement packs a wallop as it lays the horror of war bare for all to see. Pun intended.

If Unicorn Wars has any major failings, it’s that its crude sexual humor sometimes undercuts the deathly serious satirical message. The unicorns are also underdeveloped. The film cannot decide whether to showcase their side of all this or just leave them as an enigmatic (and largely peaceful) race. As a result, an early subplot involving a few unicorns peters out by the midpoint of the film and never really resolves in any meaningful way.

Vazquez is aiming for something as potent as Watership Down and The Plague Dogs here. While his reach ultimately exceeds his grasp, he still manages to conjure up a very striking and occasionally moving piece of adult animation – right down to an absolutely haunting final sequence. That Unicorn Wars is only his second feature makes it all the more impressive. Keep your eyes on this filmmaker, folks.

Love, Life Lessons & Basketball


by Matt Weiner

A team of ragtag misfits has to come together to win the big game, but not before they teach their washed up coach a thing or two about the power of teamwork in the process.

Yes, Champions is a remake of an older film, but it’s somehow not The Bad News Bears. In this case, it’s the 2018 Spanish hit Campeones. The kids are just as foul-mouthed, but this time the twist is that disgraced professional coach Marcus Markovich (Woody Harrelson, delivering a solid replacement-level version of classic Prickly Harrelson) has to work with a rec basketball team of intellectual disabled players as his court-ordered community service.

With a regional championship game looming in Canada for the Special Olympics, Marcus needs to juggle getting his own life and career back on track, dating new love interest Alex (Kaitlin Olson) and showing up for his team. The outcome of the game might be up in the air, but you can rest easy knowing that lessons are learned, love is found and use of the R-word is kept to a minimum and only to show personal growth. Neat.

While they might deserve a less stale vehicle to show off their skills, the performances from the actors with disabilities all rise above the cliched story (especially foul-mouthed Cosentino, played by Madison Tevlin, and Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, who gets caught in the middle of Marcus and Alex’s not-so-casual fling).

The team’s interactions with Marcus and one another make for the few genuinely earned emotions in a story that otherwise seems to exist to remind viewers in 2023 that people with intellectual disabilities also deserve to be treated with respect.

Olson is another acting standout. Her sharp comic timing wasn’t in doubt thanks to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s surprising to see how much she shines in this kind of role. That is, surprising in the sense that she’s such a natural, refreshing fit that it seems impossible she hasn’t led more romantic comedies.

With Bobby Farrelly as director, it’s hard not to compare Champions to elements of past Farrelly Brothers work. We’re a long way from There’s Something About Mary – and let’s not speak of the inexorable Shallow Hal – but this film exists firmly and bizarrely in an era not so removed from that time. (A heartwarming sports comedy about Special Olympics athletes isn’t even new ground for the Farrellys – 2005’s The Ringer mixes up the beats but its basic dignity message about people with disabilities is the same.)

That Champions is appearing now feels less an indictment of Hollywood feet-dragging than a not-so-gentle suggestion that perhaps we’ve moved beyond needing generic sports movies with entry-level calls for respect to move the needle for any holdouts.

Champions does itself no favors by substituting coarseness for meanness. That’s preferable to what this movie might have looked like a few decades ago, but it manages to neuter the comic touch of Farrelly and writer Mark Rizzo while dulling any interesting edges at the same time. (For example, an ongoing plot about a manipulative employer taking advantage of discount labor gets reduced to deus ex machina to set up the final game.) It’s an odd twist that Peter Farrelly’s recent solo effort Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And yet Bobby’s Champions might be the film that traffics in fewer broad stereotypes. That’s a win worth celebrating on its own. Just don’t expect the taste of victory to linger longer than the closing credits.

Away with the Fairies


by Hope Madden

There’s never a bad time for an Irish horror movie, but there are better times for them. Like March.

Hey! It’s March! Well, I guess it’s lucky that Grabbers director Jon Wright is back with the new tale of bloodthirsty little people, Unwelcome. Wright’s yarn follows Londoners Maya (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Jamie (Douglas Booth, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). We meet as the two 1) confirm they are pregnant, and 2) barely survive a brutal break in.

Act 1 is grim, humorless and traumatizing, capitalizing on the very Brit-horror anxiety around roving young thugs and the pointless violence they will do. Act 2 ushers us into the lush, quaint Irish countryside where Jamie and Maya relocate, thanks to a timely inheritance. Jamie’s aunt passed on more than a cottage, though. There are rules.

But Maya doesn’t take the rules very seriously. And besides, she’s due any minute, there’s a hole in her roof, the clan of handymen they hired to fix it is somewhat terrifying, and she and Jamie are still suffering from the trauma of the break in back in London. So, yes, she forgot to leave the raw meat out on the back fence for the “red caps” roaming the forest beyond.

What could go wrong?

Let’s start with what goes right. Wright’s pivot to very Irish horror, with its humor, color and creatures of old creates a fascinating shift from the gritty British tone. The Whelan family (Colm Meaney, Kristian Nairn, Chris Walley and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), hired to patch and repair the cottage, deliver uncomfortable tension from their introduction. Set design is gorgeous and the creatures are pretty cool.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough. Maya and Jamie make ridiculous decisions, many of them running counter to the characters’ own (sometimes verbalized) natures. The film doesn’t lean into humor nearly enough, and the conclusion leaves much to be desired.

Irish horror so often incorporates folktales of malevolent tricksters. You Are Not My Mother  (2021), The Hallow (2015), and The Hole in the Ground (2019) all tread similarly magical ground and all do a better job of it. Unwelcome can’t begin to stand up to comparisons to Wright’s creature feature Grabbers –the best Irish horror film you could hope for.

It’s not without its charm. Meaney and his crew turn in excellent performances and generate some honest laughs. But the film itself is a mess.

Senior Pictures

Therapy Dogs

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Ethan Eng (along with co-writer Justin Morrice) crafts a slice-of-life look at adolescence with his debut feature, Therapy Dogs. Eng and Morrice also play fictionalized versions of themselves, two friends seeking to document the truth about high school as they embark on their senior year.   

Your enjoyment of Therapy Dogs will likely rest entirely on whether or not you find the antics of adolescent boys annoying. There are the things that seem typical: drinking and parties and pot. Then, perhaps, the not so typical: exploring abandoned buildings and making dumb decisions like jumping off a railroad bridge into the water (which may or may not be deep enough for such a drop).

One thing the film highlights is that boys in 2019 are very much like the boys with whom I went to school in the mid- to late-1990s. And as the 90s have come back around in fashion, if not for the presence of cell phones, I might have thought I was watching something from my own adolescence.

The film runs the gauntlet of found footage style adventuring but at times appears more adept. The naturalism will occasionally give way to something more subtle. These are the moments when it’s unclear who’s behind the camera. Is this still part of the boys’ senior film, or does it represent the presence of an omniscient narrator? Regardless, it works to help hold together the disjointed segments.

The success of the film lies in its accuracy around the portrayal of teenagers, particularly boys, as they ponder the future and wonder what lies ahead. Though the film jumps around and never seems to settle on a plot, you come to realize that there is a commentary on growing up and how baffling it is that so many boys survive such bad choices.

Teenage boys are essentially teenage boys. Though teenagers today have different pressures than those of past generations, they still make stupid decisions, crack each other up with bad jokes, tell “epic” stories, fight, and eventually – if they survive their poor decision making – grow up. Eng captures it all in a way that feels as familiar as it does unique.

There are some filmmaking choices that are just as likely to be off-putting as they are to be engaging, but there’s no denying that the movie’s realism is what makes it relevant. This is an ageless tale of youthful exuberance that brings its own distinct perspective.

On the Ropes


by Christie Robb

If Tim Roth is attached to a project, I’m intrigued. In Punch, he’s playing Stan, the alcoholic father of 17-year old up-and-coming boxer Jim (Jordan Oosterhof). Stan’s been training Jim since elementary school. It’s a familiar story—small town kid hoping to get out by nurturing his athletic talent. 

In this case, the small town is located in picturesque New Zealand and what the town has going for it in terms of rolling grassland and beaches is more than ruined by the small-minded racism and rampant homophobia of its residents. 

One day, while blowing off his training to pursue his true passion of shooting footage for music videos, young Jim is stung by a jellyfish and is rescued by Whetu (a resplendent Conan Hayes). Whetu is both Maori in what appears to be a majority White town and openly gay.

Jim will have to navigate his growing feelings for Whetu, the pressure of his dad’s dreams for his future, and the demands of all the various folks around town who want to define the man he will become.

The first feature written and directed by Welby Ings, Punch‘s story and timeline feel a bit uneven. Most of the film has a meandering, dreamy pace that is an appropriate touch for the organic way the boys’ relationship develops.  But, this is set in contrast to the ticking clock established at the beginning of the film with an upcoming crucial boxing match and, later on, by Stan’s growing ill health.

Some of the character development is uneven as well, and sadly Roth is a let down here as Stan veers dramatically from a tyrannical figure to an empathetic shoulder for Jim to cry on without earning that moment. Similarly, the ending seems abrupt and also, perhaps, not quite earned. 

Matt Henley’s cinematography, though,  is atmospheric and gorgeous and elevates the film, especially in the scenes  Whetu and Jim spend together. They are a delight to watch.