Film Review

Film Review - Toy Story 4


The worst thing Pixar could’ve done with “Toy Story 4” is to try and top what they accomplished with 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” which found a way to elegantly and emotionally close the chapter on Woody and Buzz’s years as Andy’s playthings. The picture dealt with aging and friendship, even going as a far as to include a moment where the plastic pals feared for their own deaths, giving fans an exhausting ride of slapstick and mortality. “Toy Story 4” doesn’t carry the same weight, which is a wonderful revelation, with director Josh Cooley returning to the spirit of the 1995 original to inspire a new round of comedy and adventure, delivering a movie that’s immense fun, with vivid animation and distinct characters contributing to a third sequel that probably didn’t need to be, but most viewers will be thrilled to spend time with. Read the rest at

Film Review - Murder Mystery


Adam Sandler stepped out of his comfort zone over the last few years, finding creative success with Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” and the charmingly silly “The Week Of.” The actor is back in vacation mode with “Murder Mystery,” which returns Sandler to the comforts of glorious locations and minimal screenwriting, reteaming him with his “Just Go with It” co-star, Jennifer Aniston, for what should be recycling of “Clue” on a yacht. However, writer James Vanderbilt (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Independence Day: Resurgence”) wants a little more than a simple situation of close-quarters murder, taking the whodunit to Monaco, which permits the cast to romp around in luxury settings, trying to make the funny happen. “Murder Mystery” doesn’t have many laughs, but there’s energy that carries the viewing experience, giving Sandler and Aniston enough panicky situations to work over with their charisma. It’s not the slam-dunk project it initially appears to be, but it’s intermittently entertaining. Read the rest at

Film Review - Clinton Road


If there’s anything truly eye-catching about “Clinton Road,” it’s the co-director credit. Actor Richard Grieco makes his helming debut with the picture, and he goes where many untested talents head when dealing with a moviemaking challenge: horror. Joined by Steve Stanulis, Grieco presents a vision for New Jersey terror, depicting the Bermuda Triangle-style dead zone of a 10-mile stretch of road in the state, which is home to many disappearances and hauntings. This is simple stuff, with the production aiming to pull off a few chills here and there on an extremely low budget, calling in as many favors as possible. “Clinton Road” shows some effort, but there’s a lot of padding to work through to get anywhere in the feature, which throttles pace and limits frights. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Shaft


“Shaft” is a sequel to “Shaft,” which was a remake of “Shaft.” Can you dig it? If it all seems a little confusing at this point, don’t worry, the producers of the latest “Shaft” adventure have little regard for the rest of the film series, electing to go the cartoon route with the brand name, which was never afraid of a little broadness here and there, but the 2019 version includes a Clapper joke. That’s the level of screenwriting involved here. It began in 1971 with a Blaxploitation classic that defined cinematic attitude for the rest of the decade. It continued in 2000 with a wheezy reimagining. And now it’s a CBS sitcom from director Tim Story, who found great success with 2014’s “Ride Along,” and now believes every action movie deserves the slapstick treatment. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Men in Black: International


While a valiant attempt to give the fanbase something significant for a trilogy closer, it was clear that 2012’s “Men in Black 3” was running out of ideas when it came to the pairing of stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, while the alien attack aspects of the premise where diluted by the story’s concentration on time travel to inject some wow into a second sequel. It got the job done, but it was clear whatever magic was there in the 1997 original was long gone. Hollywood, never one to let a brand name die, attempts to revive the intergalactic cops with “Men in Black: International,” which trades Smith and Jones for Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who already enjoyed passable chemistry in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Also missing is director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose quirky way with the series is gone, with the reins handed to F. Gary Gray, the helmer of “The Fate of the Furious” and “Be Cool.” Creative changes are periodic, but Gray mostly tries to recapture what was lost, hoping to reboot the “Men in Black” with actors not known for their comedic chops, while the screenplay by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway isn’t terribly sharp with mystery, unable to power a surprisingly plodding film. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Am Mother


There have been many films made about the mysteries of artificial intelligence and robot order, but few understand the core crisis of trust the way “I Am Mother” does. Making his feature-length directorial debut is Grant Sputore, and he’s managed to find a way to respect low-budget realities while still creating a picture with big ideas, offering a strong visual presence while exploring a story with only a handful of characters. “I Am Mother” is dystopian sci-fi, but never oppressively so, managing to grasp larger questions of ethics and safety while remaining a suspenseful thriller with a few mysteries to solve, playing into genre expectations without softening the whole endeavor in the name of entertainment. Read the rest at

Film Review - American Woman


“American Woman” has all the signs of a Lifetime Movie, only without the glamour. It’s a story of a disappearance and the struggle of those fighting to understand what’s happened to their loved one, trying to carry on with some sense of normalcy while facing potential emotional devastation. While hysterics are encountered, screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”) is committed to character development, putting in the effort to make the feature about human beings instead of simple tragedy. Such commitment makes all the difference in the world to “American Woman,” which delivers a clear understanding of motivation, eschewing procedural activity to remain on the trials of life when hope has been depleted. Read the rest at

Film Review - Halston


For his third foray into the specialized area of fashion documentaries, director Frederic Tcheng (“Dior and I,” “Diana Vreeeland: The Eye Has to Travel”) takes on an American icon in Roy Halston Frowick. Tracking the development of Halston’s trained eye and fondness for publicity, Tcheng attempt to define what made the man such a sensation throughout the 1970s, with his branding capabilities and good taste helping to reenergize female clothing after the rigidity of the 1960s. “Halston” is a bit odd in approach, electing to create a fictional story as a way to portion out the audio and visual evidence, but Tcheng is obviously trying to keep his feature from becoming just another fashion doc that’s big on personality and low on connective tissue. The picture is engrossing, with the tale of Halston’s ascent and business decisions filled with strange characters and unexpected turns of fate, giving the helmer plenty to work with when assembling the span of “Halston.” Read the rest at

Film Review - Being Frank


Jim Gaffigan isn’t normally found in leading roles. The popular comedian is typically in charge of support, offering strange cameos and small turns in various comedies. “Being Frank” is a full test of his skills as an actor, handed a complete arc to communicate in a film that’s often very silly, but also hoping to be sincere with its study of parenthood and the shifting nature of family. Writer Glen Lakin delivers a picture primed for farcical turns, but it’s a hesitant screenplay, never fully comfortable with being ridiculous, while director Miranda Bailey aims to support whatever mood the movie finds itself in. Gaffigan’s the feature attraction here, and he’s good with what he’s offered, given a rare shot to play a semi-normal human being, and he makes his moments count, lifting “Being Frank” when it periodically becomes a drag. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hampstead


It’s always been tough to cast Diane Keaton in movies, especially in the last 20 years. She’s an idiosyncratic screen presence, but she’s not exactly pushing herself anymore, content to recycle performances and wardrobes, taking part in entertainment that mostly plays up her ownership of screen hesitation and awkward flirting. “Hampstead” doesn’t ask Keaton to provide anything but the bare essentials of her personality and timing, one again playing a timid woman with beret issues coming into contact with a seemingly unbearable man. Keaton’s done this before, making her participation in the picture disappointing, as she works through her to-do list of tics and stammers, showing very little interest in elevating Robert Festinger’s screenplay, which is based on the true story of a hermit caught in legal pressure over land he’s claimed for himself. Turning such a tale into a Keaton-y romantic comedy feels like a big mistake. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Dead Don't Die


Six years ago, writer/director Jim Jarmusch released “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which was his first foray into horror, spinning a vampire tale in his own inimitable fashion. In 1999, he created “Ghost Dog,” which represented his take on samurai cinema. With “The Dead Don’t Die,” Jarmusch attempts a mash-up of his favorite genres, adding Asian swordplay to a Romero-esque zombie picture, wrapping this odd cinematic gift with his traditional deadpan performances and droll dialogue. It’s a witty endeavor and a tonal daredevil leap that many viewers won’t want to take, but for the Jarmusch faithful, “The Dead Don’t Die” is a fine addition to an eclectic filmography. While some ideas die on impact, the feature has a compelling appreciation for weirdness and eeriness, and it’s a pretty grisly undead rising event as well. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Dark Phoenix


We already did this back in 2006. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (along with Zak Penn) attempted to bring elements of the “The Dark Phoenix Saga” to “X-Men: The Last Stand,” trying to do something with a major character arc from the comics, which found Jean Grey in command of awesome powers, making her the most powerful mutant of them all. In 2019, Kinberg returns the source material for “Dark Phoenix,” making another pass at beloved material, using the opportunity to craft his directorial debut after having a hand in scripting three previous chapters of the “X-Men” saga. Perhaps Kinberg should’ve selected a more modest picture to helm, as he’s clearly out of his league with “Dark Phoenix,” showing limited authority with performances and action staging. He’s striving to summon ultimate power with the endeavor, but there’s mostly noise and a cruelly half-baked vision for Jean Grey’s ultimate test as a mutant. Read the rest at

Film Review - Always Be My Maybe


“Always Be My Maybe” pairs comedian Ali Wong with actor Randall Park, giving the duo a romantic comedy premise to play with where the characters aren’t always interested in each other. Park and Wong co-script with Michael Golamco, creating a cinematic space to showcase their gifts, with both performers graduating to lead status with the effort, and they look like two people determined to make every moment in the feature count. Their labor pays off in “Always Be My Maybe,” which delivers big laughs and sizable heart as something of an anti-rom-com. The writing doesn’t bother to dispose of cliché, but it manages to preserve a bright spirit strong enough to break the sleeper hold of predictability, supporting an engaging study of near-misses and awkward situations. Read the rest at

Film Review - Katie Says Goodbye


It hasn’t been an easy road to release for “Katie Says Goodbye.” Shot over three years ago, the feature has remained on the shelf after a lukewarm fest festival debut. In fact, it’s been delayed so long, write/director Wayne Roberts managed to make another movie in the interim, releasing “The Professor” (starring Johnny Depp) last month to largely negative reviews. It’s interesting to see how the two pictures share a morbid curiosity with disaster, with “The Professor” charting the slow decline of a man diagnosed with cancer, while “Katie Says Goodbye” follows a young woman’s road to ruin as a small town prostitute. Perhaps Roberts has some undiagnosed depression he needs to see someone about, with therapy more meaningful than filmmaking, as his latest endeavor (or his first, technically) is an unrewarding slide into hopelessness, asking the audience to endure painful acts of violence and humiliation in the name of characterization that’s never truly there. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Secret Life of Pets 2


2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets” was a troubling movie. Harmless, sure, but the story was basically a remake of “Toy Story” while the overall feature reveled in cartoon mayhem, hitting the target demo with noise instead of trying to win their hearts. It made a ton of money, as such simple entertainment tends to do, inspiring “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” which does make a noticeable attempt to calm down and enjoy the view, at least for the first two acts, with director Chris Renaud (joined by Jonathan del Val) rethinking all the yelling and collisions, but the poop and pee jokes remain. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is an improvement over the previous picture, which is a good thing, but this madcap overview of animals and their idiosyncrasies (and bathroom habits) isn’t exactly the finest example of animated storytelling, offering a brief (75 minutes) and basic continuation that doesn’t stray far from the formula that made the original film such a hit. Read the rest at

Film Review - Changeland


Seth Green has been in the entertainment business for 35 years, but “Changeland” marks his feature-length directorial debut (also credited with the screenplay). It’s not a bold career leap for the actor, but it does provide him with some control, putting himself in charge of a tiny indie production that takes a long trip to Thailand to examine one man’s descent into depression. Green isn’t making this one for audiences, preferring to document some type of vacation with a collection of dear friends, loved ones, and his spouse, taking a page from the Adam Sandler playbook, cooking up a mild crisis to support what’s really a travelogue, and one that’s not nearly as profound about the ways of a broken heart as Green would like to believe. Read the rest at

Film Review - Godzilla: King of the Monsters


In this day and age, five years to wait for a sequel is an eternity. The success of 2014’s “Godzilla” wasn’t entirely a surprise, but the pump was primed for a continuation, building on the foundation poured by director Gareth Edwards, who made a specific creative choice to hold back some when it came to giant monster battles. The film was released, and then nothing. Well, at least until 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” which introduced the potential of Legendary Pictures and their “MonsterVerse,” creating a franchise battle plan for large things that smash. Finally, there’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” which isn’t an improvement on the 2014 effort, but more of a direct response to criticisms of the previous movie. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”) has been ordered to lose Edwards’s restraints, mounting a more ferocious, action-packed continuation that dials up the noise and the property destruction to give fans the viewing experience they want. And in this feature, titans unleashed is always preferable to humans talking. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Ma

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After winning an Oscar in 2012 (for “The Help”), Octavia Spencer has struggled some while trying to figure out how to capitalize on such major exposure. She’s managed to find bit parts in money gigs and participate in some quality work along the way (including 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” which presented her with an Academy Award nomination), but “Ma” feels like the first time Spencer’s been unleased as a star, with “The Help” director Tate Taylor putting his faith in the actress to carry her own horror project. And boy, does she ever. Wildly ridiculous but also appealingly demented, “Ma” is appetizing junk food for the multiplex, with Spencer making it her personal mission to become a cult nightmare figure for genre fanatics, delivering a wonderfully unhinged performance that Tate returns to whenever he runs into storytelling trouble. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Late Night


There’s a lot “Late Night” wants to say about the state of the world today. It’s a story about the changing tides of the entertainment industry, diversity, and workplace representation. Somewhere buried underneath all its ambition is a tale about a stony television legend learning to be something better to a world that wants her back in top form. Mindy Kaling’s screenplay feels like it was filled with complete ideas at one point during the picture’s development, but the final cut of “Late Night” is unnervingly incomplete, with missing pieces, sloppy editing, and characterization that’s missing a real sense of fullness. There’s much to like here, with the lead performance from Emma Thompson enjoyably ragged and impatient, but the feature doesn’t reach many of its goals, often going vanilla when Kaling seems ready to provide necessary poison. Read the rest at

Film Review - Domino


For various reasons, it’s been seven years since a Brian De Palma film has hit screens, with 2012’s “Passion” his last endeavor. Such a break represents the longest delay between projects in the helmer’s career, but it hasn’t been easy for De Palma to find his place in the business these days, with his signature style and interest in melodrama having a hard time matching the proper material to let his imagination flourish. “Domino” initially appears to be a return to form for the moviemaker, put in charge of a revenge story with various players and interest in the horrors of Islamic terrorism, and there’s genuine greatness wedged in here at times, with De Palma getting up to speed with a few terrific set pieces. Overall, “Domino” is messy, feeling as though it was slapped together instead of properly edited, as character beats come and go, and the central story of madman hunting isn’t provided enough concentration to matter. Read the rest at