Hunter Heilman

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Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle)’ is a sleek, gritty, wildly romantic thriller

Back in 2013, I was treated to perhaps the most effective romance film I had ever seen in the French film and Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The romantic epic, while controversial for its explicit lesbian sex scenes and alleged abusive behavior from director Abdellatif Kechiche, the end result is perhaps the most emotionally wrenching film and most passionate romance film to ever be recorded. From the film, I was sure that newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos would come out an absolute global movie star, and with co-star Lèa Seydoux’s previous work in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and eventual casting of a Bond girl in “Spectre,” Exarchopoulos never really took off. Perhaps her global appeal is lost in her predilection for controversial films, or perhaps it’s her struggle with the English language (comparatively to other French actresses of her caliber), but despite one of the finest performances of this century, she’s never ventured outside of France.

“Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle)” is a bit different, because Exarchopoulos has ventured outside of France…to neighboring Belgium. Yeah, yeah, it’s not that big of a change, but it’s one of, if not the first time since starting college (and now ending it), that I’ve seen Exarchopoulos in a film showing in a Charlotte-area theater, which greatly excited me. Paired with now mid-level movie star Matthias Schoenaerts, the film has flown under the radar like most foreign-language films do, but there’s something so unique, daring and enticing about the concept of “Racer and the Jailbird” that rings true of the authenticity that European, specifically French and Belgian cinema, have over American drama.

Gino Vanoirbeek, a.k.a. Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a gangster living in Brussels who works under the guise of being an automotive importer and exporter. When he is introduced to racecar driver Bénédicte Delhany, a.k.a. Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Gigi is smitten with her cool demeanor and talent behind the wheel, while Bibi is taken with Gigi’s charm. Together, they form a passionate and loving relationship, while still under the guise of Gigi’s life as a car exporter. When Gigi’s career as a gangster and bank robber begins to become dangerous and threatening to their love, Bibi must come to terms with the life of her love, while also fighting to preserve it, and her relationship, before their dreams all go down the drain.

“Racer and the Jailbird” is a thrilling, yet slow-burn look inside the lives of two very different sides of the Belgian elite. One one side, you have Gigi’s high-flying lifestyle, built from crime from his poor upbringing, while Bibi’s affluent upbringing has made her relatively apathetic to much of the splendor that an upper-class life would afford her. Together, their lives intersect at a point that one might think they would pass by one another without batting an eye, but their love comes easy. One of the things I like about “Racer and the Jailbird” so much is that the film is not about the journey to love, but the drive it takes to keep it. So many romance films end on one last kiss, where our protagonists seal their fate for a prosperous, unproblematic future; “Racer and the Jailbird” throws that out the window. Rather than one last kiss, we’re treated to Gigi and Bibi’s first sex scene nearly 10 minutes into the film’s 130-minute runtime. When you get these pleasantries out of the way, the film has much more room to breathe as something far more intense, as it becomes a race against time for Gigi and Bibi to solidify their love before life, unbeknownst to Bibi, will get exceptionally harder.

Both Exarchopoulos and Shoenaerts are absolutely scene-stealing in the film with each of their charms and quirks working towards creating a wonderfully palpable energy that carries itself through the film’s entirety. Exarchopoulos’ presence on screen is too big to be ignored, and there’s a power, even in her quieter moments, that really solidifies her as one of the strongest actresses of her generation. Shoenaerts has also been able to prove his worth in many, often English-language films, in the past, but this is perhaps his best work to date as the tough, yet tortured Gigi. Together, they create some truly unique, if unconventional romantic magic. It’s not your typical romance film, at least not after the film’s first act, but as the film goes on, the power and struggle of real love, including the hard sacrifices needed to make it last, or perhaps not last, are made abundantly clear and are felt hard.

Director Michaël R. Roskam’s method in which directing the film is interesting, yet entirely gratifying. The film is actually shot more like a typical American thriller, under the guise of a European romance film behind it. This is some of the best that indie cinema can get: sleek, yet very gritty; impenetrable, yet vulnerable, this is a film of strange contradictions that surprisingly work out well in the end. It’s more American approach to the story makes the film feel much more unique and unexpected than if the film had been taken in a more experimental direction, resulting in something that feels inherently familiar, but is ripped out from underneath us in lieu of something entirely different and satisfying, if not always conventionally.

“Racer and the Jailbird” also is a rare film where the intentions of the characters are pure and selfless, if not always moral and understandable. The film has conflict, yes, but the film also is tenderhearted and very compassionate of the less-than-ideal situation that our characters are found in. Cynicism is not rampant in “Racer and the Jailbird,” and this sort of pure kindness exhibited by many of the characters, even ones that it would not be expected of, is quite refreshing to find, especially in a European drama.

“Racer and the Jailbird” isn’t without some issues though. While the film takes a while to get going, it’s never boring, but in the film’s final act (in which all three acts have names in the film), the film kind of goes off the rails in how the story is progressing. While this isn’t always a bad thing, as it keeps the film unpredictable, the passage of time in which the changes that bring the film to its off-the-wall conclusion felt stilted and a bit disingenuous to some audience members who let the film transport them in the first two acts. The film, even in these parts, again, is never boring, but it also feels inherently separated from the first two acts in a way that, even when its emotionally affecting finale finally takes place, doesn’t always feel right.

But despite that, the overall effect of “Racer and the Jailbird” is one of incredible love, great danger, and some truly unique thrills. It’s not the type of film to have you on the edge of your seat in the traditional sense, but the sense of newness and unpredictability that the film displays is one that feels very raw and genuine in its execution put forth mostly from the performances of our two leads. Shot surprisingly mainstream, but approached in a very different manner, the film plays off of the audience’s familiarity with films of this nature and twists them into something completely different and makes something new from something old. There’s something, even in its flaws, so enticing and magnetic about “Racer and the Jailbird,” even after its credits have rolled, that seems to be calling me back once more to experience the newness once more.

4/5

P.S. This is my last review I will be writing for the Niner Times, as my time at UNC Charlotte is coming to a close. 563 articles and countless movie reviews later, I want to thank any and all of you that have read my work and indulged me for the past four years from the bottom of my heart that. I’ve truly appreciated every second I’ve had here, and I’ll miss it a lot. Thank you for the years.

Photo courtesy of Super LTD (Neon)

Directed by: Michaël R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Eric de Staercke, Jean-Benoît Ugeux, Nabil Missoumi, Thomas Coumans, Nathalie Van Tongelen, Kerem Can, Sam Louwyck.
Runtime: 130 minutes
Rating: R for some strong sexuality, nudity, violence, and for language.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.

A Super LTD release, Stone Angels and Savage Film present, “Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle),” a French–Belgian co-production Stone Angels and Savage Film, in co-production with Pathé, Wild Bunch, and co-produced by Eyeworks Film & TV Drama, Frakas Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Subla, RTBF, VOO and BETV, SCIO Productions, with the participation of Canal+, OCS, Telenet-STAP, VIM, Kineopolis Film Distribution, with the support of Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), Centre du Cinéma et de L’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, La Wallonie, Screen Flanders, Screen Brussels, Belgian Tax Shelter for Film Financing, Netherlands Film Fund, Eurimages, and Creative Europe Programme – Media of the EU

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Breaking In’ is a painfully ordinary thriller

Home invasion thrillers are something I’ve always really enjoyed, if only because home invasion was always one of my biggest fears as a child. This was exacerbated even more when I saw “The Strangers” in middle school, which royally screwed me up. My spark in these films was reignited this year with the spectacular sequel to “The Strangers,” “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” which found a way to stylishly reinvent the sub-genre of films. “Breaking In” is not like “The Strangers,” as there isn’t a random murderer involved, but motivated killers out to get something within the house. “Breaking In” is much more of a thriller than a horror film, but with star Gabrielle Union behind the project, it’s certainly an interesting and intriguing take on the genre.

Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) is a mother who recently lost her estranged father in a freak accident. Traveling to his secluded home outside of Chicago with her two children, Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) to clear out the house for sale, their trip is quickly cut short by a group of four armed men invading the home for a rumored safe that Shaun’s affluent father kept in the high-tech house. Led by mastermind Eddie (Billy Burke), but shaken up by sociopath Duncan (Richard Cabral), Shaun must save her captive children inside the fortress of a home before it’s too late.

Here’s the thing about “Breaking In”: you’ve seen it before. While this isn’t particularly surprising, it still doesn’t completely excuse it. The difference between the predictability in “Breaking In” as opposed to other Will Packer-produced thrillers that I’ve enjoyed like “No Good Deed” and “Obsessed” is that “Breaking In” is all over the place when it comes to tone. It’s not well-written or clever enough to be taken seriously, nor is it silly enough to have dumb fun with. It rests solely in the center of just a “meh” thriller. That being said, it’s not without its highlights.

Union is great in the film as Shaun. With the role seemingly built for her from the ground up, Union takes on the role with the force one would expect from a film like this, but the effect is still thrilling to watch when she’s in full force. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Union really turn it up in a film, and I enjoyed watching her return here. Burke is also a very good villain in the film. He’s written in a very cookie-cutter way, but Burke breathes a very dark and oddly magnetic life into the character that could’ve easily just been slept through or even ham-fisted by another actor. Together, Union and Burke elevate the film in its lead roles to beyond the unspectacular thriller it is.

Direction from James McTeigue is also not bad, though pretty unspectacular compared to his previous visual-heavy work on films such as “V for Vendetta” and “Ninja Assassin” (or even “Survivor,” if we’re being honest). It’s obvious he’s working with a much smaller budget here, and what he does is pretty and slick, but without anything clever to really go off of, the film falls rote pretty quickly.

The writing in the film is by-the-numbers, and most of the time it rests on a decent level of dialogue, straying into cheesy territory every now and then, but I’ve heard much worse dialogue in similar films. The issue is that the film goes in every direction you expect it to, even with the twists that the film throws at you in the final act, it’s pretty apparent that they’re coming, if only because they’re twists that have been done in other, better films.

“Breaking In” doesn’t really fall off until the final act. At only 88 minutes, “Breaking In” is short, but its final act feels like it could’ve cut 20 minutes off of it. Every time the film feels as if it’s coming to a close, the film throws another twist our way that prolongs the film’s runtime even further. There comes a point when the twists wear off just because there are so many that the film tries to throw at you that they aren’t special anymore. You reach a level of fatigue with the film come the final twist that you really don’t care what happens, and the final blow (so to speak) lacks any sort of payoff, both objectively and in context with the film’s bloated finale.

I honestly wish “Breaking In” was more ridiculous than it was, if only because I could’ve had more fun with it. The film exists in this strange limbo where it’s not legitimately good enough to be taken seriously, nor batshit crazy enough to truly elicit a lot of fun from the film. When you see the twists coming from a mile away, and they’re neither fun nor clever, it’s hard for me to really enjoy much of what’s going on. Union and Burke try to legitimize the film as much as they can, but without anything to truly work off of, their efforts become in vain, but no one else hams it up enough either to take it over-the-top. It’s all just…there.

The thing here is that, despite Union and Burke’s presence, “Breaking In” is just painfully ordinary. There’s nothing here apart from the performances that hasn’t been done a million times before, and even with a skilled director behind the camera, the film just can’t seem to get past the rote formula that comes with domestic thrillers such as this. I can’t discredit it for a lack of effort by any means, as the film at least tries to throw some curveballs into the equation, but all of them fall flat in the grand scheme of the structure of the film. As a thriller, it’s not very thrilling, and as a horror film, it’s not scary at all. Throw in a few jump scares, and take a wild guess how it ends and I guarantee you that you’ve already seen “Breaking In” before ever buying a ticket.

2/5

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Directed by: James McTeigue
Starring: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Ajiona Alexus, Levi Maeden, Jason George, Seth Carr, and Christa Miller.
Runtime: 88 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, menace, bloody images, sexual references, and brief strong language.

Universal Pictures presents, a Will Packer Productions production, a Practical Pictures production, a James McTeigue film, “Breaking In”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Tully’ is an adorably brutal domestic comedy

The “Young Adult” is one of, if not my favorite comedy ever. There’s something so bitingly familiar about everything touched upon in that movie that makes the laughs hurt just as much as they make you cackle. The pairing of director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and star Charlize Theron made for perhaps one of the most well-rounded dark comedies the world has ever seen. When it was announced that the three would team up for another film, my immediate thought went to that they were producing “Young Adult 2,” which ended up not being the case. In lieu, we got “Tully,” a film that I almost resented for not being “Young Adult 2,” but when you have a team as talented as this behind a film, how can one resist?

And it’s certainly a sight to behold. Not as bruising as “Young Adult,” but touching enough to last with you forever.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is a pregnant mother of two in her last month of pregnancy before her third child arrives with her lethargic husband, Drew (Ron Livingston). Her oldest daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland) is entering the age where she is beginning to struggle with self-esteem, while her younger son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) suffers from behavioral problems that cause problems with his private school. Tully receives much of the niceties in her life from her affluent brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). Despite this, Marlo suffers from severe post-partum depression from the frenzied stress of being a mother, which worsens when her newborn daughter, Mia, arrives. As a gift, Craig gifts Marlo a night nanny to watch the baby come nighttime to allow her to rest, to which Marlo refuses for the first bit of Mia’s life, but when her life hits a wall, she caves in, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives at her door to help her. Strange at first, Marlo begins to open up to Tully, and the relationship they form is one that simply can’t be formed from a simple friendship.

“Tully” is a film that’s heartwarming and adorable, but like the previous collaboration between the three commodities of the film hits all the emotional cues one would expect from the team that brought you “Young Adult.” This is a film that has many laughs, many cringe-worthy scenes of emotional levity, and some truly cuddly moments of real vulnerability that make this film one of the most touching films about domestic life in a very long time.

Theron, as per usual, is continuing to prove herself as perhaps the finest actress of her generation. While her physical transformation is what you might first notice in “Tully,” it’s her emotional change that carries the film to new heights. Lethargic, desperate and at her wit’s end, this is not the situation one might expect a character played by Theron to be in. There’s a rawness to Theron in the film, that, even when she begins to let loose after Tully’s arrival, is still down-to-earth and remarkably dynamic. Davis is also a powerhouse in the film too, but operating on the complete opposite spectrum as Theron. Tully is the antithesis to Marlo, bright and airy, willing to help out in any way she can. She’s the help everyone wants, and the friend everyone needs. The pureness to her character is a breath of fresh air for the sometimes bitingly cynical writing of Cody that really gives the film a levity you might not get with any other actress. Supporting performances from Duplass and Livingston are also really great, and surprisingly different for the actors, as, in a typical film, their roles would likely be switched, but here, it works wondrously.

Reitman is a burgeoning king of the quiet indie comedy. Far from the genre of Mumblecore, there’s a realness to his films that don’t require any pretension to get its point across. “Tully” isn’t quirky because it has to be, and one could even argue that the uniqueness of “Tully” isn’t quirkiness at all, but it’s simply a story of a relationship never explored before. “Tully” doesn’t have to try to engage you, because it’s an engaging story on its own merits. The synthesis between Reitman and Cody is as palpable as ever and it really shows the dynamic pairing they have together, and working with Theron turns them into a Hollywood dream team.

One might think that any film starring Theron is already setting up an unrealistic expectation of female beauty, but there’s a decided ugliness about “Tully” that’s really resonant. Not with Theron’s appearance, however tired and “normal” she might look, but the mundanity of it all creates an atmosphere that makes you believe in the world presented here. It’s written from a perspective that only a writer that’s a mother could understand. There’s a realness to it all that, despite Marlo’s distance connection to wealth that offers her the chance to experience a night nanny, you never get the idea that she ever expects anything from it, actively shunning the idea at first. There’s a really powerful message of not being afraid to ask for help when you need it, and while not everyone will have access to a night nanny, there’s a message that a support system of any kind, especially come the film’s wondrous final act, is what one should seek out.

“Tully” is absolutely fantastic. It’s real and raw, vulnerable and funny, bruising and heartwarming, and everything in between. Reitman, Cody, and Theron have all struck gold again in a much different, yet entirely appreciated way. This is a film about the trials and tribulations of not only motherhood, but sisterhood through strife. While starting as hired help, Tully morphs into Marlo’s housekeeper, chef, therapist, confidante and best friend in a way that never feels like something to be pitied like “The Help,” but that their relationship is symbiotic in all the ways they differ from one another. This is a beautifully restrained film that showcases the best that everyone involved has to offer, and then some. You come into “Tully” expecting one thing, and while expectations will give you that one thing, it’s hit in the first act, the rest of the film will grant you something your heart won’t forget.

4.5/5

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, and Ron Livingston.
Runtime: 95 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
Now playing in select Charlotte-area theaters.

Focus Features presents, a Bron Studios/Right of Way Films/Denver and Delilah/West Egg production, in association with Creative Wealth Media, a film by Jason Reitman, “Tully”

A Year of Impact

Photo courtesy of HBO/Warner Bros. Television.

Jeffrey Kopp

Every once in a while, I discover a show that really sits with me in a way unlike any other. I watch a lot of television shows, so it takes a lot to really blow me away, but “The Leftovers” managed to do just that. I decided to binge the three-season HBO series back in January, and I was fully engrossed by the gripping and emotional narrative. Helmed by “LOST” co-creator Damon Lindelof, the series dives into the deep mysteries of human existence, religion and the afterlife, all the while continually keeping the viewers guessing. The musical score and cinematography, along with the powerful performances from the cast, most notably Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, make this one of the most stunningly beautiful shows to air on television in recent memory. “The Leftovers” has this ability to really make you question why you’re here and what life actually means. That is precisely what I want from my entertainment and this series delivers wholly.

Painting by Helen Allingham.

Stephanie Trefzger

“In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a poem, or epitaph, rather, that encompasses several things that I “discovered” this year: the great poet Tennyson, Victorian literature and poetry. Obviously I was aware of all these things separately before, but I wasn’t a fan of any of them.  I thought Victorian literature would be as dull and stiff as the era’s mannerisms; I counted poetry out as worth exploring sometime in middle school; and Tennyson’s works were far too long and complex for me to even consider.  However, this poem was on the syllabus for one of my classes, and upon reading it, I immediately fell in love. Written after the loss of his best friend, Tennyson mourns his loss and begins to question his faith in relation to science, only to realize that both can exist within one another.  I am the type to get sentimental about human existence, and I think that this poem is one of the most powerful, raw expressions of  that humanity.

Album art courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records.

Tyler Trudeau

February’s vastly-acclaimed “Black Panther” was already a standout feature, even before I heard the vibrant and methodical soundtrack that accompanied it. Curated by rapper/songwriter Kendrick Lamar, probably the biggest name in hip-hop today, the mixtape inspired by the Marvel powerhouse easily became the hottest collaboration of the year so far. Infused with the same cultural awareness and electricity of the film, the album featured some of the biggest stars in the genre delivering exciting and emotionally-charged melodies to the ground-breaking story of “Black Panther.” From pop hits like “All the Stars” by SZA and Lamar to more mellowed ballads like Khalid and Swae Lee’s “The Ways,” “Black Panther: The Album” defined the debut feature of T’Challa in a phenomenal and iconic collaboration.

Album art courtesy of Columbia Records.

Aaron Febre

The biggest discovery I made this school year was the Tyler, the Creator album “Flower Boy.” Technically, this came out in the summer of 2017, but I got into this album around spring break. This album hit me by surprise, Tyler really matured here and contains some stellar tracks like “911/Mr. Lonely” and “Boredom.” I had picked my album of 2017 (Lorde’s “Melodrama”), but “Flower Boy” just took my breath away every time I listen to it and now it’s my Album of 2017. I’m often reminded of spring break when listening to “Flower Boy” and it shows that my pick for Album of 2017 will change long after the year passes by.

Photo courtesy of Epic Games.

Noah Howell

If you have never played “Fortnite,” you have probably at least seen its presence somewhere on social media, whether it’s a clip on Twitter or someone posting their ‘Victory Royale’ to their Snapchat story. Dropping into a giant map with an enclosing storm against 99 other people is a blast with friends, especially when the tension rises once you reach the top ten in match. With the amount of new content every week and the solid gameplay, it does not feel like a game that should be free-to-play, especially when compared to what other studios put out for free. What really solidified the game’s popularity was a live stream which casually came about between the biggest “Fortnite” streamer Ninja and Drake himself, with rapper Travis Scott and JuJu Smith, WR for the Steelers, joining in as well. This stream to no surprise shattered Twitch’s records, and helped to further break down the stereotype for who plays video games. While it may not be critically the best game to come out this school year, it is certainly the most popular and rightfully so, with fun gameplay and a price point that’s hard to ignore.

Poster courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Hunter Heilman

Rarely does a film (and I see a lot of films) hit me as hard as Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” did. Following a group of five female scientists as they enter a mysterious glowing barrier on the coast, the film chronicles their mind-bending journey into madness as they discover the origin of the ever-growing barrier. With wonderful performances all around, but especially from Natalie Portman, some absolutely insane visuals and perhaps the most cerebrally stimulating sci-fi plot in years, “Annihilation” is the type of film that keeps you awake at night for weeks on end.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is a game-breaking prologue to an intriguing finale

NOTICE: There are NO SPOILERS in this review.

There’s a lot to be unpacked here, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend like all of my feelings are lined up perfectly in a row for careful analysis. Nor do I really think it’s a film that requires that as its main goal here is to be entertaining, but you knew that it would be out of the gate. The Russo Brothers have taken over the helm of the “Avengers” series from originally helmer Joss Whedon. The rip-roaring success of “The Avengers” in 2012 was slightly taken down by the simply good “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in 2015. It’s not that “Age of Ultron” was bad in any way, it just had a lot to live up to now that the novelty of the first film had passed. After the immense success of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War,” generally both received as the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (along with “Black Panther,”) the Russo Brothers took the helm from Whedon and fans could not have been more excited. Marvel’s hand also couldn’t have been more well-played at this point in time due to the immense success that “Black Panther” has brought on the MCU bost critically and financially, becoming its highest-regarded and highest-grossing installment in all 31 films. But where does “Avengers: Infinity War” fall?

After films upon films have been built up to it, Thanos (Josh Brolin) is finally personally out for blood looking for the remainder of the infinity stones to help purge the world of most of its citizens to bring it to a more manageable state, mercilessly slaughtering anyone in his way to stop him. Unfortunately for him, those in his way include Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Wong (Benedict Wong), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt).

Of course, there’s technically more to the plot than that, but I describe it as such for two reasons: 1. I don’t want to even tread close to anything that could be considered a spoiler, and 2. I really wanted to illustrate just how jam-packed this film is…I mean, it is stacked. Even in its 159 minute runtime, the film still often feels like no one really gets the center stage treatment, which I was unsure of at first, but I then found myself used to the idea of Iron Man or Captain America taking center stage, but without a set focal point of a “main character,” the film really does feel like a true anthology film of superheroes. Are there too many heroes? Sure, but the fact that the Russo’s pulled it off with relative success is a feat all its own.

Where do we even begin? Let’s jump in with the tone of the film, which is an absolute stark contrast from the more light-hearted tones that the previous films have spun. I spent most of “Avengers: Infinity War” with a pit in my stomach, one I couldn’t shake for the life of me. I wouldn’t consider myself someone who actively concerns myself with these characters, but the fact that my body was physically tensing up at the thought of anything bad happening to them is something else. And that’s no joke, “Avengers: Infinity War” is dark, darker than most blockbusters could ever dare to be. Thanos is a power that has been teased for many, many films up to this point, and he delivers; he delivers in the way you feared he might. One might think that the filmmakers would make Thanos less powerful so the Avengers could defeat him with a little elbow grease, but no. Thanos did not come to play, he came to slay, and the tone that “Avengers: Infinity War” spins with that is one of sinister beauty.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of fun to be had in “Avengers: Infinity War,” because there is. The humor is as present as ever, and many characters who have never met before coming together with their respective senses of humor works really well for the laughs. I need to go back and watch the film again knowing what happens to truly appreciate the humor the film has without being so damn nervous the whole time.

The direction of the Russo’s is different than their previous films in the past, as it’s less rooted in reality and far more in the stars (both literally and physically), and for the most part, it works. The challenge here is that the filmmakers basically have to combine all the respective styles of the individual films into one big cohesive image of a film. When combining films like “Captain America” and “Iron Man” together, that’s not too terribly hard, but when you begin to incorporate “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Doctor Strange,” you’re dealing with different beasts that take a lot of molding to mesh nicely with everything else. There are times where the vibes of each world don’t always match up with the characters on screen, primarily in that of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequences and scenes on Wakanda. For the most part, it works, but not 100%.

And this is where a few of the issues I have with the film come in. With so many characters, the film is overstuffed, and while I liked the idea of not having a central character, there are just so many characters at a point that I hardly could keep focus at some points. I get that the “Avengers” films are supposed to be a huge culmination of everything the MCU has to offer in one film, but there are still too many characters that simply don’t need to clutter the screen if they don’t have to. This is why something like “Captain America: Civil War” worked so wonderfully, because they got to pick and choose who to include in the film, and cut out everyone they didn’t need to. “Avengers: Infinity War” feels like a family reunion with so many people that you can’t talk to all of your cousins before the end of the day.

The film, though not specified anymore in the title, is a part one of a bigger finale piece set to be released next year. This leaves the film to work its way up to something huge to be left unanswered until next year. The reason I find this to be an issue is that they changed the title of the next film to avoid the “Part 1 | Part 2” stigma that has come to many blockbuster films of late. With the suggestion by the Russo’s that this film is not a part one chapter at all, one might expect it to act differently, but it doesn’t. Without a specification that this is to lead to something bigger, it could lead to some disappointment when the film simply ends after spending a ton of time setting itself up.

And it spends a long, long time doing so. The film really does, for the most part, feel like one big set up, that really only resolves itself in its final act where everything finally meshes. Once the film can be viewed in its entirety with its second chapter, I’m sure it will feel much more organic, but without it, it can often feel a bit slow. This being said, the world that these characters inhabit is interesting as hell even in its slower parts, and I could watch people in simple dialogue scenes all day. It’s a double-edged sword that is objectively fine, but when put into context, might feel a bit rote.

Shot entirely on IMAX cameras, this film is made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Disney elected to only screen the film for press in 2D, but even then, the visual experience at hand here is unparalleled. Pair this with Marvel’s typically strong showing in the 3D market, and you have what might possibly be the most fitting film to see in IMAX 3D yet. Accept no less.

But here’s the thing overall: I like “Avengers: Infinity War” in the same way that I like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” It’s an incredibly well-made film with a ton of merit and a lot of fun to be had. I’m mostly just frustrated because I know I sat through something to get me to something better which requires a wait time. This doesn’t reflect on the film in any way other than its structure set forth by the studio. With the release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” nearly all of my frustrations with the first part were resolved when my questions were answered, my anxiety was mostly gone, and the experience as a two-part whole felt very organic and deserved. I expect this to be the same with “Avengers: Infinity War” and its as-of-yet unnamed follow-up. I think keeping the “Part 1 | Part 2” monikers would’ve helped the film overall, but that doesn’t change that, despite being incredibly overstuffed, “Avengers: Infinity War” is a fun, epic and beautiful film that brings us all the things we love about the MCU together. It also brings forth a lot of character juggling, pacing issues, and a cliffhanger so maddening I thought I had dissociated through the final 10 minutes of the film. It’s not without its issues, but “Avengers: Infinity War” is one sturdy prologue.

4/5

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios (Disney)

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, featuring Vin Diesel as Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Benicio Del Toro, with Josh Brolin as Thanos, and Chris Pratt.
Runtime: 156 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references.
Also available in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema, IMAX and IMAX 3D.

Marvel Studios presents, “Avengers: Infinity War”

Retroactive: The Pop Culture that Shaped Us

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Jeffrey Kopp (A&E Editor)

Movie: “Tarzan” (1999) – This is a film that hits me in the feels every single time that I watch it. The soundtrack by Phil Collins adds so much emotional depth to the movie; “Two Worlds” and “You’ll Be in My Heart” are the definite standouts. This is by far my favorite Disney movie of all time; just thinking about it makes me want to find my copy of the VHS tape and take a trip back to the jungle.

Song: “Hey Ya!” (2003) by OutKast– The lyric, “shake it like a Polaroid picture” has been repeating on a loop in my head since 2003. The catchy beat immediately transports me back to the simpler times of elementary school; the deeper meaning behind the song flew over my head as a child, but I’ve been able to appreciate it more as an adult. This is a song that has stood the test of time and is definitely one of my all time favorites.

TV Show: “SpongeBob SquarePants” (1999-Present) –  Every generation has something that culturally defines them. In the case of millennials, that is Nickelodeon’s most iconic cartoon. I have so many fond memories of watching “SpongeBob” with my parents and friends, laughing at the absurd scenarios and jokes that have evolved into memes in recent years. Without any doubt, “Pizza Delivery” and “Band Geeks” are two of the greatest episodes in television history.

“Breakaway” album cover courtesy of Walt Disney/RCA

Stephanie Trefzger (Assistant A&E Editor)

Movie: “Twister” (1996) – Granted, I only saw this movie once as a child, but it probably had the biggest impact on my life.  It scared the absolute hell out of me, and I had nightmares about tornadoes ripping through my house. In an attempt to assuage my fears, my mother encouraged me to learn more about tornadoes, and suddenly I was obsessed with weather.  Despite the science in the movie being outdated, Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton inspire a love and fascination for storm chasing in me to this day, and it has been my dream job for the better part of my life. If only my mother would let me.

Song: “Breakaway” (2004) by Kelly Clarkson – I love drama, and this song, as well as the album by the same name is full of it.  When I was in the car and I heard the opening notes, I would immediately stare out the window like Clarkson describes and acted like I was in a music video.  This album is also part of the reason I have trust issues; upon its release in 2004, it was the only Christmas gift I asked for from my parents. My dad, however, bought 2003’s “Thankful.”  While this is an excellent album, I felt disappointed and betrayed.

TV Show: “Shark Week” (1988-Present) – Ok, so this is more an annual event than an actual TV show, but I got super hyped for it every year (and still do).  Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but I have always loved the ocean, and after my disillusionment with dolphins, I became enamored with sharks instead. Due to my obsessive nature, I learned and accumulated enough knowledge about them over the last few years that I am able to take the fun out of any shark movie fairly quickly.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment.

Hunter Heilman (Editor-in-Chief)

Movie: “She’s the Man” (2006) – At the time, “She’s the Man” was basically the funniest film I had ever seen in my entire life. This 2006 teen adaption of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was Amanda Bynes at her most charming, the 2000s at their most iconic, and teen comedies at their most genuine. Everything about this movie is peak nostalgia and perfect memories of a much simpler time.

Song: “The ABBA Generation” (1999) by A*Teens– There is no album I have listened to and loved more in my life than Swedish pop group the A*Teens’ 1999 debut album, The ABBA Generation. Comprised of nothing but ABBA covers, I was exposed to the magic of both teen pop and disco music all in one go. Personal favorites of the album are “Mamma Mia,” “Voulez Vous” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” the latter of which still remains my favorite music video of all time. I love this album so much I can get emotional over it.

TV Show: “What I Like About You” (2002-2006)– I had a bit of a thing for Amanda Bynes when I was younger, as I simply found her to be the funniest person working in media targeted to people my age. I didn’t discover “What I Like About You” until shortly after it was canceled in 2006, but like “She’s the Man,” it showcased Bynes’ talents as more than just a child star. The chemistry in the hilarious cast and absolute lunacy of much of the show’s plot only cemented it more as my favorite sitcom ever.

Photo courtesy of Disney.

Kathleen Cook (Sports Editor)

Movie: “The Lion King” (1994)– I loved the songs and the characters – Timon was my favorite. I’ve actually never watched the scene where the dad dies though.

Song: “Come in Eileen” (1982) by Dexys Midnight Runners– I thought it was actually “Come on Kathleen,” because my mom would always sing “Kathleen.” I was heartbroken when I first heard the song without my mom singing it and realized it was Eileen and not Kathleen.

TV Show: “Dragon Tales” (1999-2005)– I had the stuffed animals for all of the characters and had a dance routine I would do to their song.

Album art courtesy of Universal Records.

Alex Sands (News Editor)

Movie: “Beethoven” (1992)– I had three St. Bernards growing up and they all were as crazy as Beethoven in this film. They’re big slobbery messes with really big hearts and lots of love. The film is not only a nostalgic early 90s film, but it hits home.

Song: “Leave (Get Out)” (2004) by JoJo– I recently rediscovered this banger song. The only problem is the real version is not on Spotify. So whenever I want to listen to it in the car, I force myself to listen to D-Money’s remix. You may ask “Who is D-Money?” I don’t know, but he should stop rapping.

TV Show: “Lizzie McGuire” (2001-2004)– I would like to give a shout out to Bitmoji for fulfilling my childhood dream of having my own animated version of myself like Lizzie McGuire. I was a die-hard Hilary Duff fan when I was kiddo and watched the episodes over and over. To this day, I still ship her and Gordo.

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom.

Josh Worley (Video Editor)

Movie: “Gone With The Wind” (1940)– Growing up, I first remember watching this movie with my grandma. The movie takes place in a time period that I am most fond of from a historical perspective.

Song: “Africa” (1982) by Toto– Whoever says it’s not, can choke.

TV Show: “Hey Arnold!” (1996-2004)- The greatest cartoon to ever grace this universe. There were deep moments that, when you were a kid you didn’t really think about, but they hit home now.

Photo courtesy of Jive Records.

Hailey Turpin (Lifestyle Editor)

Movie: “Peter Pan” (1953)– I wanted to be apart of Peter’s Lost Boys and I would jump off the couch to try to fly like him. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Song: “Oh Aaron” (2001) and “Not Too Young, Not Too Old” (2001) by Aaron Carter– My sister and I religiously listened to Aaron Carter back in the 2000’s. I have no other words besides talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique.

TV Show: “The Fairly Odd Parents” (2001-Present) and “My Life As A Teenage Robot” (2003-2009)– As an elementary school kid I was very particular about the shows I watched, and those two were the most interesting to me! The graphics and storylines were so good, and still are. I will always love Chip Skylark.

Photo courtesy of Cartoon Network.

Pooja Pasupula (Photo Editor)

Movie: “Toy Story” (1995)– While Toy Story is not my number one favorite Pixar movie, it’s the movie that always reminds me of my childhood and brings me the most nostalgia. This movie was always playing on every TV when I was a child and there are so many iconic characters and scenes encased in it. It made childhood seem like the best thing ever to be apart of. The whole series is centered around the inescapable circumstance of growing up, and being hit with that inevitability as a child was always hard for me. The whole series brings back memories of clinging to childhood and not wanting things to change.

Song: “… Baby One More Time” (1998) by Britney Spears– A timeless classic that never fails to make me smile or sing along. I was never exposed to music as a child and when my aunt found out she started to play Spears’ album around the tiny townhome she shared with my family. It’s the first song I have any memory of. At the age of four, I had no concept of what dancing was, so I would skip around our townhome to the beat of this song as my way to jam along to it. Hearing this song throws me back to that memory and the nostalgia of what the 90’s/early 2000’s era felt like.

TV Show: “Teen Titans” (2003-2006)– I’ve always been enamored with superheroes and watching this show as a child was what sparked my adoration for them. While Wonder Woman and Batman have been my core favorites for most of my life, the Teen Titans were my first love. I used to feel very vulnerable and helpless as a child, but watching teen superheroes kick ass gave me hope to one day be as strong and brave as they are. They were who I looked up to and idolized.

Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema/Warner Home Video.

Leysha Caraballo (Photo Editor)

Movie: “Elf” (2003)– Watching “Elf” every Christmas season with my family was one of my favorite traditions growing up. Will Ferrell is so over the top ridiculous, as usual, but in a heartwarming way in this movie.

Song: “Numb” (2003) by Linkin Park– Linkin Park’s “Numb” showed me that music didn’t have to fit the pop music mold. I may have been a bit melodramatic, but I connected to the sound and message of the music. They were my absolute favorite band throughout my adolescence.

TV Show: “That’s So Raven” (2003-2007)– This show never got old for me, to the point where I watched multiple all-day marathons. Raven had sass, attitude and confidence – all of my favorite things!

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom.

Mia Shelton (Opinion Editor)

Movie: Seventeen Again” (2000)– Not the one with Zac Efron, but the one with Tia and Tamera Mowry. I loved this movie because it was a unique and fun concept; grandparents using soap that their grandson accidently spilled his science experiment on that makes them seventeen again was fun to watch. I also love Tia and Tamera and seeing them on television and acting started my passion for acting. Also the grandfather is very cute when he turns seventeen.

Song: Circle of Life” (2004) by the Disney Channel Circle of Stars– I loved it because it had all of my favorite actors and actresses sing in the song like Raven Symone, Christy Carlson Romano, Hilary Duff, Tahj Mowrey and many more. Hearing their unique voices combined on one of Disney’s greatest song from its most notorious movie was very moving and fun to sing along to.

TV Show: Kenan and Kel” (1996-2000)– I loved this show, because they always made laugh. Kel’s obsession with orange soda and Kenan’s elaborate plans to make money made my stomach hurt from laughing.

Photo courtesy of Reprise Records.

Emily Hickey (Managing Editor)

Movie: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)– When I was four, I watched it every day for a year and insisted that my mom dress me up in my Dorothy dress and put my hair in the two braids. Every time I watch it now I am reminded of my childhood love for the movie and for the amazing soundtrack (that I still know by heart).

Song: “Landslide” (1975) by Fleetwood Mac– My aunt used to burn her favorite songs onto CD’s and give them to my mom, and as soon as my sisters and I listened to “Landslide,” it was immediately our favorite song and has been throughout our lives. When I was three, I put on a performance of the song in front of all of my extended family.

TV Show: “Ghost Whisperer” (2005-2010)– Starting in elementary school, every Friday my dad and I would watch the new episode aired at 8 p.m. Despite after a few years it scared me too much to continue watching it, it’s still my favorite because of the time spent with my dad.

Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox.

Daniel Head (Technical Director)

Movie: “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977)– Duh! I watched this movie and fell in love with the “Star Wars” universe. I was obsessed with the idea of intergalactic travel and warfare, and loved the characters. Everything about the movie was great to me, and I’m still obsessed with “Star Wars.”

Song: “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (2005) by Panic! At the Disco– I loved the sound song, and pretty much all of my friends did too. Just singing along with all my friends makes it memorable.

TV Show: “Stargate SG-1” (1997-2007)– I grew up with it and, again, I was obsessed with science fiction and the characters. I think that just the depth of the characters and the universe was enough to make me look forward to next week’s episode; to see some awesome new world, new alien race, or new piece of technology. A good plot was just the cherry on top for me back then.

Photo courtesy of Disney.

Angie Baquedano (Assistant Lifestyle Editor)

Movie: “Hercules” (1997)– I love Disney and I practically grew up on it, and when they introduced the movie they brought in my love for Greek mythology. The music was exceptional and I had the BIGGEST crush on Hercules (or should I say HUNK-ules).

Song: “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) by Elvis– I’ve had this really weird obsession with him since I was a kid. I can’t explain why or how this happened, but it did and I’m actually his wife, so…surprise.

TV Show: “Rocket Power,” (1999-2004) “Cat Dog” (1998-2005) and “Hey Arnold!” (1996-2004)– It might be impossible for me to choose just one for this. Apart from being a Disney kid, I was definitely a Nickelodeon child.

Album art courtesy of RCA Records/Columbia Records.

Madison Dobrzenski (Assistant Opinion Editor)

Movie: “The Ultimate Christmas Present” (2000)– I loved this movie so much as a kid, and to this day I can’t really explain why. I think it’s just because I also didn’t experience a lot of snow, so I empathized with them? I also loved anything Brenda Song was in when I was a kid, so that might have had something to do with it.

Song: “Girlfriend” (2007) by Avril Lavigne– I used to blare this song with my friends when I was in elementary school, despite being absolutely no one’s love interest, because we were like 12. I can still throw down to it to this day.

TV Show: “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” (2005-2008)– I loved this show for a lot of reasons. One, there was a smart character with the same name as me. Secondly, I always felt “different” because the show paints Zack out to be the cute and cool twin, but I had a crush on Cody.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Gemini’ is a pitch perfect, neon-drenched neo-noir

Recently, I’ve been replaying Rockstar’s underrated video game “L.A. Noire” on its PS4 remaster. It made me realize how much I miss the noir genre in film, but I couldn’t really place where the last film of the genre I’d seen had been. The trailer for “Gemini” came out a good while back, back in the late months of Summer 2017, but I’ll be honest in stating that it didn’t do much for me. The trailer seemed attractive, but incredibly far off from its late March limited release date. The premise seemed interesting, I loved the cast and the poster was absolutely gorgeous. I was interested, even if I wasn’t excited about the film. As I waited for its release, the film basically went radio silent, and it wasn’t until I had to actively search for it online to find out it was ever playing here in Charlotte.

But dammit, I’m so glad I did.

Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke) is the personal assistant to mega-movie star Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) based out of the Hollywood Hills. Jill and Heather share not only a close professional bond, but an incredibly close friendship. As of late, Heather’s want to step away from the spotlight has placed her in hot water with a few industry colleagues banking on her success. After attending a meeting with a studio on Heather’s behalf, Jill returns to Heather’s home to find her brutally murdered. After being questioned by lead detective Edward Ahn (John Cho), Jill begins to realize she’s the prime suspect in the murder. Alone in Los Angeles, and avoiding the cops before her eventual arrest, Jill must traverse Heather’s final interactions with her hotly contentious circle of acquaintances to get to the bottom of her murder.

I expected to enjoy “Gemini” at least, but I did not expect “Gemini” to be the slam-bang neo-noir diamond it is. This film doesn’t go in any of the directions you might think it would from the get-go, and its grounded nature makes the film really come together by the finale. This isn’t a salacious or over-the-top mystery film, nor does it intentionally lead you in a million different directions before pulling the rug out from under you. Like Jill says to a character at one point in the film “This isn’t a movie, this is real life,” and despite a few inconsistencies in the general behavior of investigations, “Gemini” feels like it, a neon-drenched, lavish reality.

Kirke steals the show here in “Gemini.” Jill is smart, but not so smart that she’s unlike any person you’ve ever met in your life. Jill isn’t some Lisbeth Salander type, the clues are unfolding for her at the same rate as her opposition, and she only ever stays at most one step ahead of those looking to lock her up. She’s daring, but she’s not reckless. Realistic, but not boring. Kirke brings a sort of energy to the role that feels fiercely subdued in her desperation, which I found really refreshing for a female protagonist. She’s the assistant to someone richer, more famous and more successful than her, but she never feels like the mousy servant, but rather a paid companion. Kravitz is also really good here, with a different side to her than seen in other films starring her. She’s a tough cookie, but not one with a hard exterior. She keeps herself guarded for the cameras, but opens up easily to those she trusts. Heather and Jill’s friendship is a really admirable one that almost makes being a personal assistant not seem too bad.

Bathed in richly saturated neon lights (ironically, the film is also distributed by Neon), “Gemini” is one hell of a looker, but not one so enveloped in a strange sub-reality of Los Angeles that it feels disconnected from the world. “Gemini” almost feels somewhere in between the foreign romanticism of “La La Land,” and the horrifying underbelly of’ “The Neon Demon,” and it’s a beauty to look at. Director Aaron Katz and cinematographer Andrew Reed paint a semi-loving portrait of Los Angeles, with one foot in the mysticism of Hollywood, and the other one in the leeches that come out at night when one gains notoriety. Unlike the previously mentioned films, “Gemini” is about the struggle that comes after fame and fortune are won, and the target that is placed on one’s back once the public gaze is turned on them.

At 93 minutes, “Gemini” is a short stay, but not one that ever drags, or even feels rushed for that matter. There isn’t a need for the film to constantly barrage you with twists at every single turn, as the film moves with an organic flow that doesn’t feel the need to assault the audience with ridiculous ways to shock the audience. Rather, the entire film feels like a police line-up of potential suspects all doing perhaps the most suspicious things possible, making the explanation of any of them being the one who killed Heather ultimately understandable.

And what about the third act? Does it deliver? Sure. In a way one might not expect, which is good for a mystery such as this. I’ll admit that while I was hashtag shook at the revelation, some might find it to be a bit too much of a left turn, albeit one that doesn’t feel so out there that it’s not plausible, but just not generally anticipated. Of complaints I’ve heard of the film, its final act is what is drawing the most criticism, yet I found “Gemini” to be riveting up until the very last frame.

There’s a sort of hazy bliss to “Gemini,” that even in its dark gritty moments, shines through. It’s a murder mystery film that doesn’t feel inherently salacious or obnoxious about being so unique and twisty that it begs for your attention. It’s a slower, glossier take on the neo-noir genre that marks a stunning achievement for Katz and a wonderful breakthrough for star Kirke. It’s a film that is short, sweet, to the point, and can almost feel slight in its unpretentious nature, but make no mistake, “Gemini” packs a serious punch that is not to be underestimated, and certainly won’t be forgotten (at least by me) for quite a long time.

5/5

Photo courtesy of Neon

Directed by: Aaron Katz
Starring: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, Greta Lee, Nelson Franklin, Reeve Carney, Jessica Parker Kennedy, with Ricki Lake, and John Cho.
Runtime: 93 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language and a violent image.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.

Neon and Stage 6 Films present, in association with Filmscience, a Syncopated Films/Pastel production, in association with Rough House Pictures, “Gemini”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Final Portrait’ is a loving, if inconsequential love letter to a lost artist

Actors who direct are a dime-a-dozen, with only a few really translating into anything truly noteworthy. Angelina Jolie’s breakthrough with last year’s Netflix foreign war drama “First They Killed My Father” broke her curse of historically tepid movies, Clint Eastwood has made a new career directing as opposed to acting, while Ron Howard has a damn “Star Wars” anthology film under his belt now. Many don’t know that Stanley Tucci, of mainstream “The Hunger Games” fame, also directs, but not often. Having directed a few films in the late-1990s to mid-2000s, much of his films, however well-received, fell under the radar. Now, with a newfound mainstream notoriety, Tucci returns behind the camera for “Final Portrait,” an admittedly small-scale film that one might not expect from the actor, but one that oozes his flair nonetheless.

The year is 1964, James Lord (Armie Hammer) is an American writer visiting Paris for an art exhibit showcasing Swiss artist Alberto Giaocometti (Geoffrey Rush), when he is asked by Giaocometti to pose for him for a portrait, what is to be his final portrait before his death two years later. What is originally set up as an afternoon affair soon turns into days, which turns into weeks, extending Lord’s stay with every one of Giaocometti’s neurotic artistic tendencies. As his experience continues, Lord gets an inside look at the world in which Giaocometti inhabits, and the people that make the artist as crazy, frustrating and genuine as he was.

“Final Portrait” is a loving portrayal of a lost artist in time, and Tucci pulls it off with the utmost of ease in a cloud of minimalism. At the center of all this doesn’t lie Tucci’s direction, however, but the wonderfully nuanced performances of Rush and Hammer. Hammer, coming off his awards-season high with (what I believe to be the overrated) “Call Me By Your Name,” actually does better work here than in the former. His portrayal of the enigmatic Lord is one that has a lot of layers to it if you know a bit about Lord going into the film, and the life he led. I wish the film had delved into Lord’s homosexuality a bit more, as I found the brief moments of it to really speak wonders into the character, where he finally got to let his hair down a little bit, but I digress. Rush, on the other hand, has a much more out there performance than Hammer, but it’s one that’s quintessentially Rush in its DNA, with a level of fragility and quirkiness (but not self-aware quirkiness) that always does Rush wonders. The chemistry between Hammer and Rush can’t be denied, and it’s one of the better and most touching on-screen friendships I’ve seen in quite some time.

The issue with “Final Portrait” is that while everything is good in the moment, the film lacks the depth to really understand the characters outside of the nuance that the writers bring to the performances. Lord’s homosexuality was a large part of his existence, and without the prior knowledge of it going in, the subtle references to it would make the undiscerning viewer completely oblivious to this major part of his character. Giaocometti doesn’t have much to precede him in the film, also expecting the audience to basically know of his achievements beforehand. Being lucky enough to view this on a studio-provided screener link, I was able to pause the film and look up the history of the characters, but for those viewing it on a less controllable big screen, one might be lost in the characterizations of the performances.

With that, the film also becomes rote and repetitive at a point. At only 90 minutes with credits, it’s a short film, and it never feels longer than its length by any means, but the film’s structure does give way to a lot of familiar territory by the third act. Lord sits, Giaocometti paints, his wife is frustrated with his behavior, his brother enables him, he hates the painting, he starts over, wash, rinse, repeat. The formula works at first, and in its last iteration, the character’s actions give way to a generally satisfying finale. Yet, as the middle section grows longer and longer, the audience becomes increasingly interested in what the story of the characters holds, and the interest in the actual painting, which receives much focus, goes by the wayside.

Stanley Tucci’s direction is undeniably impressive nonetheless. The film is bathed in neutral tones so unsaturated one might think the film is monochromatic at first, but the sense of color and space that Tucci holds is really pleasing to the eye. He stages much of the film like a stage play, to which I almost feel the story would be more suited for. Not much of the film goes beyond the confines of the studio, and much of it is dialogue-based. Having Rush and Hammer play it real time on stage would probably hold a much more moving effect overall. Still, for a director who hasn’t made a film in 10 years, I found his ease behind the camera quite surprising, even if it didn’t do too much out of the ordinary.

And I think that’s what holds “Final Portrait” back from being anything more than “fine,” because it simply doesn’t have that much that sets it apart from other biopics like this. It’s well-made, pleasantly directed and wonderfully acted, but much of it feels inconsequential to actually leaving a lasting impression beyond the day you see the film on. It’s a short watch, and one that doesn’t need to be much longer, and it’s an incredibly pleasant film to spend an afternoon with. If you’re aware of the history of the film, you possibly will find more to like here, if only since the film doesn’t care to explain much in the context of time or characterizations, but even without it, “Final Portrait” is charming. However shallow the film might be on the surface, it’s that charm that “Final Portrait” has to spare that keeps it afloat.

3/5

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by: Stanley Tucci
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shaloub, Sylvie Testud.
Runtime: 90 minutes
Rating: R for language, some sexual references and nudity.

A Sony Pictures Classics release, Riverstone Pictures presents, in association with HanWay Films, a Potboiler production, in association with Olive Productions, Arsam International and Lowsun Productions, “Final Portrait”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘I Feel Pretty’ is a shockingly charming and genuine romantic comedy

I don’t particularly like Amy Schumer, but I certainly don’t hate her either. I understand a lot of people’s grievances with the comedian, but I honestly just don’t care enough to actively go out of my way to dislike her. I liked “Trainwreck,” but I hated “Snatched,” so the potential for Schumer to deliver a good film lies somewhere in the middle. Enter “I Feel Pretty,” a film that feels inherently different than her previous works. I couldn’t tell in the first trailer whether the film was going to be family-friendly or raunchy as hell, but there was something about it that felt like she was at least trying to branch out of her brand. I was surprised to see the film receive a relatively tame PG-13 rating, and given the writer’s history with “How to Be Single,” a film I still love for its uplifting message about relationships, I was at least slightly interested in “I Feel Pretty,” even if I still was super apprehensive.

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) is a 30-something woman living in New York City. She works in a remote office basement for the online division of a major cosmetics company, Lily Le Claire. Struggling with major self-esteem issues, all Renee wants to be is pretty, like her SoulCycle friend Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski). One day, whilst attending a SoulCycle class, Renee falls and hits her head on one of the exercise bikes. When she awakes, she looks and the mirror and sees the most beautiful woman on Earth, despite looking no different than before. With her newfound confidence in her perceived notion that she’s beautiful, Renee’s life begins to turn around. She gets a job at the main office of Lily Le Claire and works under the CEO’s watch, Avery (Michelle Williams), develops a new relationship with a man named Ethan (Rory Scovel), and begins to lives like she truly loves herself. As she continues on, Renee begins to discover the true nature of her incident, and that it wasn’t looks, but confidence, that she was missing the whole time.

The biggest problem with “I Feel Pretty” isn’t with the film itself, but with how it’s been marketed as a Schumer comedy, because this film is not that at all. This is a much sweeter rom-com about the power of self-confidence and the irrelevance of physical beauty. This is the type of film I wish I had had when I was between 8-13, as I was developing my self-esteem issues that I didn’t begin to resolve until college. This is a surprisingly family-friendly film that really can help young people struggling with self-image issues that are programmed at such a young age. On the outside, it can seem like the film is championing outer beauty over inner beauty, but the way this film sees Renee working through her issues with no change to her physical appearance gives me confidence that all I need is a different outlook to keep it going.

The best part about this film is that it’s a movie with Amy Schumer, not an Amy Schumer movie, if that makes sense. The character of Renee is much different than the similar characters she’s played in the past, and the film doesn’t feel contingent on her presence, rather getting Schumer to step out of the box to try something new. Supporting performances are also good, with Williams’ amusing take on the air-headed, but well-meaning boss of Renee being something you wouldn’t expect from an actress of Williams’ caliber to go for, but it surprisingly works. Even Lauren Hutton shows up as the eponymous Lily Le Claire and does some quite amusing work with Schumer.

Directed by co-writers Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein, they have much more of an affinity for writing than directing, if only because this film doesn’t call for skilled directors behind the camera to pull it off. Still, this is an attractive film with a lot of really fluffy visuals that I think will hit home with the target demographic really well. This is the type of film that I would’ve eaten up as a tween, and I can only hope for the same effect with today’s youth, as its message of self-love and confidence could really help some kids already struggling with it. And I hope that 10-15 years down the road, this is the “She’s the Man” and “Mean Girls” film that people are nostalgic over.

“I Feel Pretty” just makes you feel good too. It’s not a gut-busting comedy by any means, but neither was “How to Be Single,” as both rest more on the story than the comedy, which as someone who gets enough (better) comedy on the internet, I can really appreciate. This isn’t a film that ever tries to be something it’s not, which can often times make it come across as more slight than it might intend to, but regardless, it’s so sweet and well-meaning that it’s honestly hard to hate something like this, even in its weaker moments.

Which it does have weaker moments, mostly in its middle act where there is a lot of inconsequential dialogue and plot points that come about that either never get mentioned again, or are resolved so quickly one has to think why they were even included. At 110 minutes, “I Feel Pretty” is fairly long for a rom-com, so there are quite a few scenes that could’ve been shortened or edited out completely to make the film more lean and mean. The film also doesn’t have anything so incredibly memorable that people will be quoting it in the future like something like “Bridesmaids” or “The Hangover,” leaving the film something that’s lovely in the moment, but doesn’t leave an incredibly pronounced mark once the credits roll.

“I Feel Pretty” shocked me, not just in that it’s good, but in the tone it wove as opposed to what the trailer wanted you to believe it to be. This isn’t a raunchy Schumer comedy where she talks about her vagina and shoots people in foreign countries, this is a much sweeter, far more genuine film that she gets to showcase herself for the better in. Even though the former type of film is her “thing,” I much prefer her in something like this, doing actual good for the messages being put out in romantic comedies. I just hope a good deal of people who need to hear the message of this film get the chance to, and to really take it in. It’s not perfect, nor is it particularly memorable, but it’s a wonderful spring distraction of saccharine sweet goodness before the onslaught of blockbuster action films hit the scene.

3.5/5

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment

Directed by: Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel, Emily Ratajkowski, Tom Hopper, Sasheer Zamata, Adrian Martinez, Dave Attell, with Naomi Campbell, and Lauren Hutton.
Runtime: 110 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, some partial nudity, and language.

STXfilms, Huayi Brothers Pictures and Voltage Pictures present, a Voltage Pictures & Wonderland Sound and Vision production, “I Feel Pretty”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Isle of Dogs’ is a rare misstep for Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson isn’t my favorite filmmaker, but I really do look forward to his films every time they come along, as they’re always refreshing takes on film in an age of drastic nihilism. “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s second foray into the world of animated film after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009. This time, Anderson wrote his own original story for “Isle of Dogs,” with a sharp acerbic twist to it we can only come to expect from Anderson’s film of any format. Anderson’s last film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was his best work to date, and one of the finest films to come across this decade so far, but when following up a masterwork such as that, is the pressure on to deliver? In the case of “Isle of Dogs,” I find its animated format to exempt Anderson from the pressures of delivering anything remotely similar to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but something of a different beast altogether (no pun intended).

Set 20 years in the future, the (fictional) Japanese city of Megasaki faces an outbreak of Snout Fever and Dog Flu, both contagious diseases started in dogs before spreading to humans. The cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi banishes all dogs from the city to the distant Trash Island for quarantine. Six months after the quarantine, the mayor’s ward and nephew, Atari Kobayashi, travels and crash lands on the island to find his former dog and bodyguard Spots to bring him home, against his uncle’s wishes. Stranded on the island, a group of five dogs, Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke assist Atari in finding his lost friend. Meanwhile, back on Megasaki, an American exchange student, Tracy, stages protests against the increasingly corrupt Kobayashi for treating the dogs of the city in such a cruel way.

Out of the gate, I’ll go ahead and say that “Isle of Dogs” didn’t do it for me, which broke my heart, as I wanted the attractively made film to capture me in ways other than aesthetic. When it comes to an Anderson aesthetic, “Isle of Dogs” has it in droves, but I soon found that it’s not just the quirky filmmaking style on the outside that makes Anderson’s films so charming, but more so in how the story unfolds in conjunction with the filmmaking style. It’s a mutually exclusive relationship, where when one falters, the entire thing loses its overall effect. It’s a shame really, because “Isle of Dogs” might just be Anderson’s most…well…Anderson film to date.

Like most Anderson films, the cast (in this case, voice cast) is jam-packed full of stars that are familiar with Anderson’s work, including but not limited to Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Frank Wood, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, Bob Balaban, Liev Schreiber, and Scarlett Johansson. This impressive cast doesn’t even include the vast Japanese voice cast that the film entails (a point I will get to in a minute), but like every other film of his, Anderson utilizes this cast wonderfully with some really unique, yet recognizable ways in bringing the cast about in a way that’s enjoyable, but not so noticeable that it takes away from the film.

The biggest issue I had with “Isle of Dogs” is that it’s dull. the story at hand didn’t hold much weight for me, as it constantly felt like it was setting up the story to get into something bigger, which it never ended up doing. Overall, it felt like a really bloated first act to a film that never came to be, and when you keep introducing new characters throughout the film in such a way that they become important to the story, then we’re constantly just trying to make ends meet with so much, yet so little going on.

“Isle of Dogs” has garnered a bit of controversy over its usage of a Japanese setting and themes in a film directed by an American white man. I’m a bit on the fence with this, as I don’t find an American white man directing a film in Japan to be much of an issue, but Anderson’s portrayal of Japanese culture is very much a Wikipedia version of the culture from someone who visited Japan once. I never got the feeling that the film had to take place in Japan, but it was rather used as a quirky backdrop to set this film apart from anything else. Nothing about this film feels contingent on the Japanese setting, and it really does feel like Anderson is using Japan for the “quirk” factor of it all, and it honestly doesn’t work here either. I don’t think it was malicious in any way, but it doesn’t excuse a lot of it.

I wish I had more to say about “Isle of Dogs,” as I typically hold reviewing Anderson’s films in reverence, but the sheer inconsequentiality of the film simply makes me feel indifferent to it more than anything else. It’s incredibly pretty and the voice cast is spectacular, but beyond that, the story within the film is tepid to say the least, and for a film this unique looking, the level of engagement I had with it was incredibly low, leading to its short runtime feeling nearly double its length. This film is a massive disappointment over anything else, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause for everyone to go see it. I think those really attuned to Anderson’s work, or even those who know nothing of him will enjoy the film for its charming elements, but for someone falling directly in the middle of the Anderson train like myself, it just didn’t hit enough checkpoints on either side to ever win me over.

2.5/5

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood.
Runtime: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.

Fox Searchlight Pictures and Indian Paintbrush present, an American Empirical Picture by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Rampage’ is unbelievably stupid, if forgettable, fun

Video game movies are making a bit of a comeback this year, but they aren’t any more respected as in the past. This being said, there was one special case that nearly blew my socks off this year with “Tomb Raider,” the Alicia Vikander reboot that was hit-or-miss for critics, but warmed my heart as a massive fan of the rebooted game series. “Rampage,” coming less than a month off the heels of “Tomb Raider” (and from the same distributor), is something with a little less adaption fatigue to work with. The original “Rampage” game didn’t have as fleshed out of a narrative as a lot of video game films do and have to confine themselves by, which can help and hurt a film like this. What can’t help but lift the film to potential glory is the inclusion of newfound mega-star Dwayne Johnson at the helm of it. It’s not necessarily that Johnson will take any role thrown at him, but he does find ways to improve the films, both great and bad, he finds himself in.

And that rings true for “Rampage,” only so far.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) is a primatologist working in San Diego at a wildlife sanctuary, with primary care of a rare albino gorilla named George. One night, when a space station breaks apart in the atmosphere, samples of an extreme animal growth hormone also fall to earth into George’s enclosure, causing him to grow immensely and develop strong aggression. With a wolf from Wyoming and an alligator from the Everglades of Florida also exposed, the world becomes increasingly confused and scared by their newfound threat to humanity. The engineers of such hormones, the malevolent Wyden siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy) of Energyne Industries, send out a radio signal to converge upon their Chicago offices to retrieve their accidental experiments. Meanwhile, former Energyne employee and initial developer of the hormone Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) joins Davis and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to stop the creatures before they destroy everything.

“Rampage” is stupid, but you already knew that. This film is unapologetic in its ridiculous premise and complete batshit crazy approach to everything. I honestly can commend a movie that tries so hard to take things so not-seriously, and for that, “Rampage” is a blast at some points. The biggest thing about “Rampage” is that its stupid elements can only get it so far before we start to ask it to start doing something unique, which “Rampage” never really gets around to. The destruction seen in the film, and dammit there is a lot of it, isn’t something we haven’t seen in countless “Transformers” films and “Avengers” films in the past, with the latter doing it much better previously. Still, its self-awareness saves it from becoming as rote as something like the “Transformers” movies have, and its sense of humor is present and genuine to administer quite a few laughs in the brink of the madness.

“Rampage” also suffers from some tonal issues, as some honestly horrific stuff will unfold upon the screen, then followed up by a joke meant to soften the blow of it, but often will simply exacerbate the blow dealt by it. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but the balance between the dark and light is a push/pull relationship that often times doesn’t push/pull in the right direction.

Performances across the board are what make this film quite enjoyable, as this is a well-seasoned cast with a lot of talent saying and doing some truly batshit things. Johnson, no stranger to big action, is right at home here, and his charisma and charm really help him push the film to a great service with a likable and present protagonist that is often wasted on in films such as this. Akerman’s villain is deliciously campy, the type that any actress would kill to play at least one time in their career, and Akerman makes the most of it. Morgan also camps it up with his hilariously Texan anti-hero that has more one-liners than any other character I’ve seen in a film since Mr. Freeze in “Batman & Robin,” and Morgan hits all his cues perfectly.

Some performances do fall a bit flat, primarily that of Harris, but to not fault of Harris’ execution. The character of Kate Caldwell is simply boring and underwritten, which is a shame given the wonderful female antagonist developed on-screen with far less screen time, I was hoping that Harris would get the same service as Akerman did in the screenplay. Harris is simply there, without much to do on screen at all but follow Johnson. Lacy also struggles next to Akerman as his comedic instincts sometimes cause him to go too overboard in his campiness in his villain. I didn’t think it would’ve been possible to over-camp a performance in a film like this, but Lacy proved it.

One great thing about “Rampage” is that it’s very stylish and well-directed, which makes the guilty pleasure aspects on the film even more pleasurable. When a film can be unapologetically dumb, but still have the dignity to try to create a fleshed out and attractive film is admirable. I like that even for the younger viewers who might not even view what’s going in “Rampage” as inherently ridiculous, but more of a by-product of a childhood imagination, Brad Peyton’s direction of the film still leaves something for everyone to enjoy and appreciate about “Rampage.”

And I think that’s what I liked most about “Rampage”: its childlike wonder. It’s sometimes too dark and occasionally a bit rote in its execution of action, but Peyton does a nice job in creating a glossy, if batshit film about the relationship between man and (giant) animal. It’s a guilty pleasure Friday night movie begging to be seen on the biggest screen possible (I chose Dolby Cinema for my experience). Johnson is as charming as ever; I had a major soft spot for Akerman’s wonderfully camp villain, and the film is fun in most elements. Save for a number of issues that really shouldn’t affect the sheer entertainment value of the film, “Rampage” slightly rocks.

3/5

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Runtime: 107 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language and crude gestures.
Also available in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema and IMAX.

New Line Cinema presents, in association with ASAP Entertainment, a Wrigley Pictures/FPC/7 Blocks Entertainment production, a Brad Peyton film, “Rampage”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Ready Player One’ is Spielberg magic gone very wrong

It’s almost a cliché to love Steven Spielberg, but what isn’t to love? He’s brought us some of the most magical films we’ve ever seen in the span of a 40+ year career. The wonderful thing about Spielberg is that in his magic, he finds a way to always diversify his cinematic repertoire. For every “Jurassic Park,” there is a “Schindler’s List.” He balances the serious with the whimsy quite well, and this ability to hit upon so many different forms of film for so many different age points shows just how much of a grasp he has on the craft of film and how to master it with the slightest of ease. With his deliciously on brand “The Post” hitting this past winter, his turnaround on the mega-blockbuster “Ready Player One” is surprisingly impressive, especially given that “The Post” was shot after “Ready Player One.” The more interesting thing about the latter is just how off brand this film is for Spielberg, which has come under fire in the film world. Some applaud his ability to go outside the box after so long in the industry, others were turned off by the trailer, expressing disinterest in the work. I fell somewhere in the middle, the trailer didn’t wow me, but it didn’t turn me off, and I certainly have a ton of respect for Spielberg doing something so different after all these years.

I just wish it had paid off in the end.

The year is 2045, and Columbus, Ohio is the fastest growing metropolis in America, which has become an overpopulated world of vertical tenant housing called “The Stacks,” where everyone spends their time in a virtual reality world called “The Oasis,” made by James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a young man living in The Stacks with his aunt, who spends most of his time in The Oasis under the name Parzival with his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe). Wade and Aech are persistently trying to win challenges within The Oasis to win a sum of three keys set in place by Halliday before his death. After five years, no one has yet been able to acquire a single key due to the challenges’ difficulties, including that of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), a billionaire tech executive who employs an army of professional gamers to win the keys for him, to no avail. Teaming up with popular gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Wade begins to unlock the secrets of the Oasis, and the unrequited attention of Sorrento and his army.

“Ready Player One” is a pretty big misstep for Spielberg, but it certainly isn’t for lack of trying, as this film is pretty gorgeous, for the most part. Much of the film is visually enthralling and quite beautiful to look at. When you see the film in full IMAX 3D, it’s even more impressive, opening up the scale of this entire world into something pretty damn cool. The visual issues come in many characterizations that go in between that of video game characters and reality, which creates a very awkward dynamic between the motion capture characters. When the characters are fantasy characters, it works, as there’s no point of real contact to tie it to, and many of the recognizable characters of pop culture spread throughout the film are fine too, as they often take their more cartoonish counterparts, but characters like Parzival, and especially that of Sorrento’s Oasis avatar, look super strange and often times laughable in how awkward the execution is.

Then we get to the story, which is one of the most irritating parts about “Ready Player One.” The film rests on nostalgia, and for people born in the 1980s (specifically white male critics born in the ’80s and were geeks as a child), that’s fine to rest on, but for anyone else out there, the amount that the film hammers in this “The ’80s were the best” rhetoric, the more tiring and repetitive it becomes. For a film that focuses so heavily on pop culture as a whole, its inability to look at it in the grand scheme of modern human history is not only a huge waste, but kind of a slap in the face to people who weren’t born in this specific time period.

The film also reiterates this weird, and frankly stupid idea of “Nerds are cool because we like things like pop culture,” that for some reason is still being put out today. News flash Brenda: it’s popular culture for a reason, because everyone likes things like that. There’s this air of exclusivity that comes with the characters in “Ready Player One,” that being the stereotypical nerd will get you further in life than the “popular” kids, when the end goal of the literally is to become rich, famous and powerful. The messages that “Ready Player One” spins are pretty regressive to the development of modern geek culture that has become a lot more mainstream in how much people are open about their legitimate interests without fear of persecution. I can only imagine that in 2045, this idea is one of the past that only really becomes more irritating when it’s repeated so much more here. With the film also set in 2045, the idea that everyone is obsessed with culture from 30+ years earlier is simply too lazy of a concept to accurately enjoy in execution.

“Hunter, did you like anything in ‘Ready Player One’?” Contrary to popular belief, yes. The performances in the film, despite disliking most of the characters, were quite good all around. Sheridan is a very commanding presence in a hero role that I think should be explored in possibly darker territory. He has this power about him that could work really well in a classic, yet reformed hero sense, and that’s rare to find in such a young talent. Cooke is also an incredibly underrated talent in film today, with none of her films really taking off in the way that many of them should. She had a rough start with “The Signal” and “Ouija,” but her subsequent work in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Thoroughbreds” really place her as one of the more versatile actresses of her generation.

The only person I wasn’t really impressed with in the film was Mendelsohn, but really only because his villainous role is practically tame compared to that of the roles he’s played in the past, particularly that of Orson Krennic in “Rogue One,” who was a deliciously evil fascist. Tie on top that his avatar in The Oasis was laughably unintimidating and it really amounts to a waste in the end.

As for Spielberg’s direction, there is a good deal to be commended here, and not just because he went outside of his comfort zone. Directing a film such as this is difficult, even for someone like Spielberg, and while I don’t think much of it paid off in the end, there are brief moments of goodness to be found. Many of the racing and battle sequences, specifically that of the final battle, were well directed, even if they seemed to be versions of other films’ great battles. And the balance between the real world and The Oasis, particularly when it came to the film’s varying degree of 3D usage, was quite well done. I just wish the consistency came throughout the film, rather than it feeling more like a series of unconnected vignettes paired off to connect with each other in some way to create a semi-cohesive story.

“Ready Player One” did not do it for me at all. I also don’t believe that I am the target audience for a film such as this, as its too nostalgic for someone my age to reminisce over and far too rudimentarily written for someone as old as me to ignore. I fall into a strange age group that “Ready Player One” does not cater to, ironic seeing that the protagonists of the film exist in that exact same demographic, but are just too “special” to be affected by it. Perhaps I’m a bit bitter about it, as a Spielberg spectacle such as this doesn’t come around often, so when it does, I expect it to deliver. Still, there’s a lot of visual splendor to be found in “Ready Player One,” and if this is a film that’s up your alley, seek it out on the biggest screen possible in 3D, as it’s simply made for the format. Still, Spielberg misses the mark here in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen Spielberg do in my lifetime, and that is a blow that is pretty hard to swallow.

1.5/5

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, with Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance as James Halliday.
Runtime: 140 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language.
Also available in Dolby Cinema, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Amblin Entertainment present, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, an Amblin production, a De Line Pictures production, a Steven Spielberg film, “Ready Player One”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Acrimony’ is ridiculous, yet somehow engaging fodder

There was a time in my life when I enjoyed Tyler Perry movies. I was young enough to find Madea to be hilarious, and the stories to be engaging enough to ignore their flaws. To this day, I still can very much so enjoy the early works of his as the benefit of nostalgia is on my side. As of late, Perry’s work hasn’t been as memorable. Love them of hate them, his movies elicit a response from people, but in the past few years, nothing has ever even gone that far, save for a few truly bad reviews of his two “Boo! A Madea Halloween” movies. When the trailer for “Acrimony” dropped, I didn’t watch it immediately, and it wasn’t until I sat through it before a film in November that I actually sat through it, and I was surprisingly impressed. I’m a huge Taraji P. Henson fan, and regardless of what she’s in, I’ll typically see it; I won’t always like it, but I’ll see it. But the fact that I saw a trailer for a Tyler Perry film and thought “Hm…that could be good,” means something.

And even if the film still isn’t particularly good, it’s still one of Perry’s best.

Melinda (Taraji P. Henson) is a Pittsburgh woman undergoing anger management therapy at the order of a judge in her divorce case against her husband, Robert (Lyriq Bent). She begins to recount the road that led to this contentious court order, starting from when she met Robert in college, and the turmoil their relationship wrought on her, her family and her entire life. This account brings the audience into understanding how Melinda has been driven so literally insane by her tumultuous marriage.

Let’s talk about the good: Taraji. P. Henson. There is no film where Henson does not completely command the screen in every scene she’s in, and “Acrimony” is no different. Even though I found myself often frustrated with the character of Melinda, I found her character to be quite interesting, mostly due to Taraji’s slow spiral of madness shown with her. Perry’s writing isn’t particularly subtle, so there aren’t a ton of things for Henson to work off of when it comes to her character’s ticks, but Henson finds a fire and a uniqueness to the role that no other actress could’ve done in the role.

The writing, as mentioned above, is perhaps the weakest element of most of Perry’s work, and much of the film is incredibly rudimentary. The lack of finesse and detail in crafting this story makes so many plot elements feel more convenient than a 7-Eleven in walking distance of your apartment. The film goes overboard in its finale (literally), and it really takes you out of a lot of the more engaging parts of the story. Because in an outline, the film is schlocky fun. Fun that, however basic it might be, has some surprisingly unpredictable elements, some that completely flip the script of what I was expecting from the film come its final act, and I respect that. It’s just too bad much of the film treats its audience like relative idiots.

At 120 minutes, it’s quite long, and could use a cut of about 20-30 minutes or so. I think much of the build-up to its finale hurt the film when the finale ended up being, however batshit, not quite as satisfying as it would’ve been in a shorter film.

Which is a real shame because I feel like Perry works best under the guise of an R rating. The second film of his to have such a rating, “Acrimony” might just be his second best film to date, with his first R rated film, “For Colored Girls,” easily being his best (perhaps since it was an adaption of someone else’s work?). Without the parameters needed to keep the film at a PG-13 and below, Perry has more free reign to do what works best for the story, and despite its issues, it breathes much better because of it. The film is also his best film in terms of aesthetics. It’s a steely gray film, with neutral undertones everywhere else, but it’s a surprisingly clean and attractive film that really has Perry putting forth a nice image. Some shots really felt like they needed to have another take done due to some small inconsistencies, but it’s more of a nitpick, especially when given the improvement behind the camera seen…

…For the most part. While much of the film does look nice, some parts look…well, terrible. I’m not sure why, but in some scenes, the characters are walking with a green screen behind them, for no other reason that I can think of other than that Perry wanted to use a green screen. They look superimposed into the image, which brings you out of the film so terribly that it’s almost laughable. What actually is laughable is the few visual effects used at the end of the film. Some of these effects look as if they were presets simply slapped on in Adobe After Effects 20 minutes before the final cut of the film was done. In fact, knowing that the film was shot in eight days, according to Henson, the fact that the trailer dropped a whole five months before release shows that the final cut was done long before now and that this mostly just came down to laziness.

But there is fun to be had in “Acrimony.” It’s salacious, corny fun that is best experienced in a crowded theater (my 11 a.m. showing on a Friday was sold out) with a few drinks and some good girlfriends. Beyond that, “Acrimony” is a film that feels like that movie you watch on a plane when you have your own seatback television and you’ve already seen the other movies offered by the airline. It’s not atrocious by any means, but it’s not particularly memorable or well-written enough to stay the test of time. I applaud Perry for going out of his comfort zone and doing something darker than he normally would, but I think there’s a great deal of growth as a writer and director that needs be had for something like “Acrimony” to succeed more as a film. I think he’s in the right direction, but I also think it’s time for some real evolution in Perry’s work. Just because it makes tons of money doesn’t mean that it couldn’t use some work. Still, “Acrimony,” however clunky it may be, does represent a good first step.

2.5/5

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Directed by: Tyler Perry
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Lyriq Bent, Crystle Stewart, Jazmyn Simon, Ptosha Storey, Ajiona Lexus, Antonio Madison, Bresha Webb, Danielle Nicolet, Nelson Estevez, Kendrick Cross.
Runtime: 120 minutes.
Rating: R for language, sexual content and some violence.

Lionsgate and Tyler Perry Studios present, a Tyler Perry Studios/Lionsgate production, “Acrimony”

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Unsane’ is schlocky, bonkers, uneasy handheld fun

Most filmmakers have a “brand” that they subscribe to, what they’re known for. George Romero was known for zombie films, Christopher Nolan has intelligent epics, David Fincher has sleek, mind-bending thrillers, while Spielberg brings movie magic to any genre. Steven Soderbergh has never had a brand of an kind. His films are all so different and set apart from each other that, no matter how you try to piece them together, it never makes up the photography of a typical filmmaker. He’s made comedies like the “Ocean’s” trilogy and “Logan Lucky”; he’s made thrillers like “Traffic” and “Contagion”; he’s made dramas like “The Good German” and “Erin Brokovich”; hell, Soderbergh even made “Magic Mike.” He’s all over the place, but always consistently talented and grounded. Soderbergh is a filmmaker constantly looking to build himself as a filmmaker by doing something new, and never wanting to hit the same territory twice, and this has never been more apparent in Soderbergh than it is in “Unsane.”

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a no-nonsense businesswoman new to Philadelphia, after moving from Boston to escape the grasp of a seemingly relentless stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Sawyer finds herself paranoid and hallucinatory in the city, constantly seeing her stalker in places where she knows he could never reach her. When she reaches out for therapy, she speaks on a time where she was suicidal in passing voice, and goes to reschedule another appointment with the therapist at the session’s conclusion, after filling out some paperwork. Soon, Sawyer finds herself whisked away back into the psychiatric hospital, having unknowingly committed herself to the institution. Sawyer’s confusion and anger soon turns to fear as she begins to see David manifest within the hospital as an orderly, but at this point, she begins to doubt whether her visions are real, or if she actually is insane.

Let’s get the big elephant about “Unsane” out of the room: the film was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. No, this isn’t some sort of clever dig about how I feel about the cinematography in the film, it literally was shot on an iPhone. Soderbergh, aching to test out as many new filmmaking techniques he can, opted to shoot the film on the Apple smartphone in 4K with a collection of clip on lenses and stabilizing grips. He has stated that he feels that this will soon be the way of the future when it comes to filmmaking and that he plans to shoot many of his films in the future in the mobile format for its mobility and ease of use. I’ll be the first to say that no, an iPhone will never replace the look and feel of a typical cinema camera, but the implementation of the phone’s usage into independent filmmaking? Soderbergh definitely is onto something. Of course, Soderbergh is not the first filmmaker to shoot feature length films on an iPhone, as Sean Baker of “The Florida Project” fame, shot his previous film, “Tangerine” on an iPhone 5 with anamorphic lenses, as well as other independent filmmakers have utilized the smartphone in other iterations as well. “Unsane” does mark the first time a wide-release film has ever been shot on an iPhone, but does it have to chops to pass itself off as something presentable on the big screen?

Yes, yes it does.

Now, of course, this film doesn’t look like a normal film. It’s shot in a strange, narrow 1.56:1 aspect ratio, the color grading is strangely off-putting and the lighting sometimes shows off the limitations that the iPhone has when it comes to shooting narrative storytelling, but to say that Soderbergh, like many filmmakers before him, didn’t defy the odds in using an iPhone to create something truly interesting is just not true. The filmmaking style fits “Unsane” here, making the film feel a lot more volatile and out there than a film shot on a cinema camera like a RED or an ARRI might feel like. It’s the lack of polish that makes “Unsane” feel so uneasy and off-putting as a film, but that’s nothing without its story and performances.

Foy, hot off the heels of her stint on Netflix’s “The Crown,” does wonderful work here as Sawyer. She plays it completely straight-faced through the entirety of the film, even as it gets completely bonkers near the film’s third act. This is a role that doesn’t suit Foy on the outside, but once inhabiting the role, she has an incredibly palpable energy about her that, from the very first moment she comes on screen, feels like a truly fleshed out character with a human personality. Sawyer is a frustrating character, but you never once don’t completely feel for her and her situation, as Foy’s commitment to the horror of the film is present in all her violent intensity. You sometimes are frustrated with her decisions and behavior, but you’re more frustrated with the way in which she’s treated and discarded within the walls of the hospital.

Supporting characters, while all beneath the shadow of Foy, all do wonderful work as well. Amy Irving, finally back on the big screen, does wonderful, if sometimes wasted work as Sawyer’s mother, Angela. SNL alum Jay Pharaoh does some wonderfully charming work as Nate, Sawyer’s one friend on the inside, aware and compassionate of her situation. Juno Temple delivers an always interesting performance as Violet, the volatile patient in the hospital constantly trying to antagonize Sawyer. But it’s Leonard as Sawyer’s stalker that really takes the cake next to Foy here. This is a truly unnerving performance that hits the true nail into the disturbing nature that comes with a lot of white male entitlement to women’s bodies.

In fact, “Unsane” hits on a lot of topics that often go unspoken in women’s lives that need to be brought up. Sawyer is constantly ignored and belittled by the medical staff in the hospital, in much of the same way that women are incongruently ignored and belittled in their own doctor’s offices. They’re expected to watch their words to prevent unwanted attention from men, rather than to teach men not to expect anything from women just because they might give you attention. “Unsane” is a surprisingly feminist film that really gives Foy the power come the third act to overturn all the expectations that were placed on her simply because she was told to by some sort of professional, and how that sometimes to save not only your life, but the lives around you, one might have to make some unethical sacrifices to do so.

“Unsane” also takes a look inside the practices many for-profit medical businesses take in ensuring their success as a business first, before that of an ethical medical facility. That’s not to necessarily say that all of the nurses and orderlies within the hospital are evil by any means, as they all simply have a job to do, but the look inside the higher ups at the hospital paint a different picture that’s an interesting take to place on film.

But let’s not get anything twisted here, “Unsane” is basically a B-movie. It’s schlocky, sometimes cheesy, pretty damn implausible and absolutely bonkers, which actually makes this film super fun to watch. The performances might be stellar, but the film itself, however uneasy and frightening it may be, must be taken with a grain of salt as a truly out-there genre film that doesn’t seek to be taken seriously, only its themes. Soderbergh knows this and embraces it, checking off “B horror film” from his laundry list of genres he wishes to add to his filmography. This is another point where the iPhone photography actually helps out, as the movement and freedom of the small camera gives Soderbergh the opportunity to manipulate the image in a way where the tone of the film meshes more with the video quality of the film itself.

“Unsane” is insane. It’s a film that I had to think about quite a bit in deciding my place on it. It’s not perfect, but it’s an incredibly interesting, and I’d say successful, turn for Soderbergh as a filmmaker and another inspiration for aspiring filmmakers to get behind the camera of their own film simply by picking up their phones, albeit with sound equipment, grips and lenses. Still, the film itself doesn’t rely squarely on its iPhone gimmick to get its story across. This is an unnerving, often terrifying, occasionally frustrating and entirely effective thriller, with Foy giving an absolutely fabulous performance of no compare with an actress in her generation today. I think the thing about “Unsane” that made me question it was not in its quality, but in that it affected me differently than a normal film a “safer” director would’ve made from the screenplay. This is a film that you’ve never really seen before, even if it doesn’t twist and turn in impossible ways, even in its more familiar elements, “Unsane” is brand new.

4/5

Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharaoh, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving.
Runtime: 97 minutes
Rating: R for disturbing behavior, violence, language and sex references.

Fingerprint Releasing and Regency Enterprises present, in association with Bleecker Street, an Extension 765/New Regency production, “Unsane”