A whole new multiverse: Academy celebrates creativity, unique artistry with Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once

It was practically unfathomable a year ago that a quirky blend of science fiction, drama and martial arts would be remember by more than a few ardent fans elevating it to cult status.

But 366 days after its debut at the 2022 South by Southwest Film Festival, Everything Everywhere All At Once moved beyond critical and cinephile acclaim by winning seven of its 11 Academy Award nominations Sunday evening including Best Picture.

While its success certainly signals an ongoing shift in what the Academy considers worthy of its top prizes, All At Once practically sweeping is a striking endorsement in genre filmmaking and original storytelling that should boost the profiles of future projects and promote filmmakers taking risks for the sake of unique creativity.

All At Once probably isn’t a film that reaches across the spectrum of moviegoers like Top Gun: Maverick or a Steven Spielberg movie might be, but those just stumbling onto this remarkable gem should make every effort to find a way to see it even if it’s too strange or outlandish for more conservative cinephiles.

Long overdue Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn, a down on her luck Chinese immigrant whose business is on the verge of collapse and her marriage on the brink of divorce. While heading to an IRS audit meeting, Evelyn is confronted by an alternate version of her husband, Waymond, who believes she is the only person capable of stopping the nefarious Jobu Tupaki from collapsing every possible universe.

Although the film could probably have been successful simply based on the creativity of writing/directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, Yeoh brings All At Once to the next level with a nuanced performance that is often frantic, sometimes melancholic, and ever transformative. 

She becomes a terrific stand-in for the audience as the film progresses with Yeoh’s initial confusion to the world Evelyn is forced into mirroring the bewilderment of viewers.

If there’s only one reason to see All At Once, it’s for the heartfelt, magnetic performance from Best Supporting Actor winner Ke Huy Quan, who returned to acting for his first role in two decades and steals nearly every scene he’s in as Evelyn’s sheepish, yet adorable husband Waymond. No matter what version of Waymond is in the moment – and all versions are incredible – Quan gives his whole heart to Waymond in a way that just leaps off the screen.

Another veteran performer – Jamie Lee Curtis – finally got her laurels with a Best Supporting Actress win with an almost unrecognizable turn as the IRS agent assigned to Evelyn’s audit.

All At Once is even more spectacular in terms of its visual effects, which was developed by a team of only five to create over 500 different shots in the film. Daniels use both practical and computer-generated effects to showcase Evelyn’s bridge between the versions of herself, dubbed “verse jumping” in the movie, and the look of Yeoh rapidly falling backwards is a constant blur of motion and imagery that keeps viewers at the edge of their seats.

The film also moves at an intensely rapid pace thanks to distinct and swift editing by Paul Rogers, who won for best editing, that makes the most of the dynamic action sequences that perfectly blend martial arts with the strange science fiction elements of the plot.

The singular vision of All At Once is so outside the box – there’s literally worlds with hot dog hands and pinatas – that rewarding Daniels with both Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay is something that speaks to the film’s technical merits and craft of storytelling, but also to the deep emotional core that resonates from the opening moments through the final credits.

The Academy’s shift in direction to celebrate the less conventional parts of cinema culminated in heralding in a new era of creative, vibrant and original storytelling.

In 2022, there simply isn’t a better example of independent artistry and breaking the mold of what movies could be than Everything Everywhere All At Once, a more than worthy Best Picture winner and something that cinephiles would do well to watch (or re-watch) very soon.


Creed III: Both sides of the ring

Cinema has long had a fascination with the pugilistic poetry of boxing and the legacy of its fighters from On The Waterfront to Raging Bull to the Rocky franchise.

While filmmakers have often used the sport to craft their own unique dramas, the genre of boxing movie laid relatively dormant until Ryan Coogler brought back the thrills and chills of cinematic sports with 2018’s Oscar nominated Creed.

After taking over the mantle in the first two installments as the titular character, Michael B. Jordan seeks to further forge his own legacy by doubling as both star and director for Creed III, which opened to box office success this past weekend.

With no mention of the “Italian Stallion,” the third installment in the story of Adonis Creed finds the boxer at the height of his stardom when a close friend from his past reemerges after a long prison sentence looking for his own piece of glory.

Jordan is solid in his return to the ring as Adonis, though it seems as if his mind is split between the character work in front of him as Creed steps into the roles of father, husband and businessman against the creative vision he must bring behind the camera.

His chemistry built with Tessa Thompson as Bianca helps carry the familial drama well as Thompson holds most of the emotional burden that Jordan isn’t required to do beyond facial emoting.

But for all that Jordan brings to the role, it’s often felt like his Adonis is a secondary character in the overall world of the Rocky franchise and its spinoff series, which saw Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa mentor Adonis and overshadow his protégé.

Creed III suffers from a similar problem, but it isn’t that Stallone isn’t in the film rather it’s a different supporting performance completely engulfing whatever character work Jordan is doing here.

A newcomer to the franchise as antagonist “Diamond” Dame Anderson, Jonathan Majors is astonishing in every scene he’s in, even ones where his character motivations are flimsy and underwritten.

Majors expertly maneuvers his way between being soft and reserved to a brash bravado to an almost psychotic menacing violent caricature. At times, his Dame is an emotionless Mike Tyson hell bent on revenge and destruction, but Majors layers that with a brittle, fragile wounded heart that perfectly balances outward rage with inner turmoil.

The film is significantly less interesting when Majors isn’t on screen – although this isn’t to say that moments of Adonis’s family drama aren’t compelling or engaging – but rather that they matter less because of how much Majors elevates the overall narrative of Dame’s story.

Part of the issue is Jordan’s inexperience in the director’s chair, not being able to balance out the film’s multiple storylines effectively and keep audiences engaged with all aspects of the film.

For baffling reasons, the Adonis/Dame relationship is almost entirely set aside for a half-hour in the second act and cripples the promise and momentum that early scenes have.

Jordan’s best work behind the camera comes in the opening moments of Creed III where a flashback to Dame and Adonis growing up on the streets of Los Angeles perfectly sets a tone for a new, more dynamic take on the boxing film. There’s a fluid, free flowing nature to the camerawork that often takes on the style of a boxer in constant motion that extends out of the opening sequence into the first fight that announces Jordan’s potential as a dynamic filmmaker.

Unfortunately, the chances he takes don’t always land as flush as Jordan might like.

After the opening moments, it seems that Jordan’s major interest as a director is to create unique and original takes on traditional boxing fight choreography and cinematography.

As the first sports film to use IMAX cameras for its action set pieces, Creed III has some dynamic energy that puts viewers in the ring more intimately than in most films in the genre and the second major bout focusing on Dame is especially engaging from a storytelling perspective as audiences learn more about who Dame is as a person by the way he fights.

Jordan takes a major risk in the film’s final act that will click with some audiences but leave more traditional boxing fans disappointed with the lack of sports pageantry. There’s a clear influence from Japanese anime in how personal and close-up the camera gets on the fighters and it’s a distinctive signature on the film that doesn’t quite land as much as Jordan might want.

While it doesn’t quite rise to the level of the original spinoff, Creed III is significantly better than its immediate predecessor in large part due to Majors breathing new life into the franchise and something ardent cinephiles may want to see on the biggest screen possible during a slow start to moviegoing in 2023.


Sharper: Deception game

Blink and you’ll probably miss the best movie to have been released in the early doldrums of cinema in 2023.

While most moviegoers are watching bears on drugs or old women pining for football stars or tiny superheroes, Apple snuck a surprisingly engaging, yet underhanded crime thriller past unsuspecting cinephiles and dropped it on their AppleTV+ streaming service to little fanfare.

Helmed by Benjamin Caron – a longtime TV director making his feature film debut – Sharper is one of the more elaborate, stylish psychological thrillers to come out in several years, much more dynamic than last year’s Deep Water.

At the outset, viewers are introduced to Tom, a lonely bookstore owner who falls for a mysterious woman who’s more than meets the eye. As the film expands into the larger world of New York City high society, Sharper does its best to show that nothing is truly as it seems.

The film is wholistically an ensemble piece, segmented out in parts to focus on events from each of the major characters’ perspectives. The screenplay from writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka has significant bite and layered character development that gives the talented cast plenty of juicy dialogue with which to play and create.

Justice Smith delivers a career best turn as Tom, hiding his heart from the world until Sandra opens his mind to the possibilities life has to offer. There’s both naivety and emotional loss bubbling under the surface of Smith’s performance, and it creates a strong through line for audiences to stabilize themselves as the plot spins darker by the moment.

Rising star Briana Middleton has a difficult task as Sandra, having to play demure, decisive and broken, sometimes all at once over the course of her journey. Middleton is especially composed in her first major role, more than holding her own against seasoned character actors.

Oscar winner Julianne Moore feels somewhat out of place in the grander scheme of Sharper, at times feeling like she’s in a different movie than the rest of her co-stars, but her performance is so specific that it doesn’t particularly hurt the overall narrative.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Stan is particularly adept at subverting both his own filmography and audience expectations with a wry, slightly underhanded grin and stoic charm that radiates his Max’s ability to always be in control of a situation no matter how outrageous things might become.

For a first time feature director, Caron does show a heavy hand at times with cross-cutting edits that remind audiences that they are watching a young filmmaker, although the backing of an artistic studio like A24 and the deep pockets of Apple give Sharper a distinctive cinematic flair.

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen maximizes the wide frame to create visually engaging scenes that highlight terrific locations and production design while keeping the actors and dialogue at the forefront.

If there’s anything that stands out as a fatal flaw in Sharper, it’s the film’s languishing pace that drags out individual scenes with unnecessary intros rather than getting into the heart of the moment. It’s clear that Caron is inspired by psychological thrillers of the past and wants to elongate the haunting musical score from composer Clint Mansell but trimming back Sharper by even 5-10 minutes could have truly elevated the overall narrative to a higher level.

While it certainly won’t be among the year’s top films, Sharper has enough intrigue, terrific production value and a solid ensemble cast that makes it something worth checking out at home.


Ant-Man 3: Big bite, little sting

Kevin Feige has some major problems.

The longtime head behind Marvel Studios and overseer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has often felt untouchable, almost invincible in a way due to his cultivation and crafting of a seemingly endless stream of comic book franchises.

But at this point, comic book fatigue combined with too much concern for spectacle and laziness in storytelling have left a once great collection of films with no real direction for the future.

Marvel enters Phase V of its MCU with director Peyton Reed’s third installment in the Ant-Man series with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which seeks to showcase the next intergalactic threat to humanity by shrinking its heroes down to subatomic levels to wage war against a nefarious, mysterious villain.

Quantumania for almost all its two-hour running time just feels like actors walking around in silly costumes in front of green screens, which really accentuates the ridiculous lengths the MCU must now go to try and craft a new story as it seems they’ve mined all their best material 30-plus films and several spinoff television shows later.

Films in the MCU have long since not felt like self-contained stories, rather just another random episodic piece of a larger puzzle that audiences leave the theater scratching their heads at.

From the outset, it’s clear that Quantumania is a small cog in a gigantic money-making machine and that the stakes of the film simply both matters too much and not at all in the grand scheme.

Perhaps this is due to the studio’s heavy hand on the wheel or Reed’s lack of directorial vision to craft something meaningful, but Quantumania is incredibly bland even in terms of the comic book science fiction mashup that it strives to be.

Gone almost completely after the first 15 minutes is the wry humor that set the original Ant-Man film apart and made a comedic director like Reed a solid choice at the helm. There’s just no heart to any character motivations and the film lacks the cinematic flair that the first two installments had.

Ant-Man films, in a general sense, were created to be heist movies and Quantumania is not that at all. It’s a glob of rushed, ill-considered, computer graphic mess thrown onto a screen in order to hold viewers over until the next round of CGI mess.

Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, and is largely stripped of the ability to use his earnest comedic charms aside from select moments at the beginning and conclusion of Quantumania and most of the heroes around him – especially Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne and Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym – are underwritten story filler.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer, whose Janet Van Dyne is the centerpiece of the narrative arc of the film, isn’t able to make what happens in the Quantum Realm exciting or even entertaining.

The film’s saving grace and lone bright spot comes from Jonathan Majors, who has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most compelling young actors and takes what could easily be a silly, mustache-twirling villain character and transforms his Kang the Conqueror into a principled arbiter put at odds with the film’s heroes.

Majors continues his strong work in the MCU, carrying over from the Loki miniseries on Disney+ that establishes him as the next primary antagonist for the larger Avengers franchise and is quite probably the only compelling reason for cinephiles to be excited about the MCU’s prospects moving forwards.

Undoubtedly the weakest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World – another miss of a sequel meant only to serve as a table setter for things to come – Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania doesn’t need to be seen on the big screen and could easily be skimmed over during an at home viewing on Disney+ for hardcore Marvel fans wanting to prep for the next Avengers film.


Your Place or Mine: Where is the love?

Valentine’s Day weekends have always been a landing spot for the charming romantic comedy.

And while the genre has become all but eradicated from the big screen, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have countless offerings of boy-meets-girl, hijinks ensue until they fall madly in love films.

In a pre-pandemic world, there would simply be no reason that a rom-com led by Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher wouldn’t make at least $30 million opening weekend at the box office, but nowadays a movie like writer/director Aline Brosh McKenna’s Your Place or Mine has become consumed by the streaming machine, released this past weekend on Netflix with little fanfare.

The film’s premise implies a sort of You’ve Got Mail crossed with The Holiday narrative.

Best friends Peter and Debbie live on opposite coasts and talk every day, but their lives are changed when they swap homes for a week as she pursues a lifelong dream, and he volunteers to watch her awkward teenage son.

Witherspoon, a queen of the rom-com genre, is solid here as an independent single mom looking to fulfill her dreams while figuring out who she is in middle age. Because viewers – especially women – will connect with Debbie from fond memories of Witherspoon’s filmography, it’s easy to find Debbie as charmingly quirky and relatable.

Kutcher, more known for his lovable idiot characters, has a much more difficult task of portraying the constantly suave businessman that’s incredibly against type. His strongest moments, ironically, aren’t with Witherspoon at all, but with Wesley Kimmel as Debbie’s son Jack.

It’s clear that Peter – and Kutcher by proxy – has a genuine affection for Jack, but absolutely no concept of how to relate to an introverted teen. This should equate to easy laughs, but mostly comes off as wholesome kindness in a begrudgingly sweet way.

The film serves as McKenna’s directorial debut and how much she’s influenced by her favorite romantic comedies comes out on screen, but also McKenna’s inexperience in the director’s chair carries over in the uneven comedic tone and acting flaws.

McKenna borrows liberally from Nancy Meyers films in terms of production designs and lavish sets, although it’s often clear when green screens are being used to fill in the background outside Peter’s apartment.

Structurally, Your Place does a relatively good job of balancing between Debbie and Peter’s storylines though it often feels like two separate 45-minute television episodes mixed in with a crossover episode.

It isn’t just that Kutcher and Witherspoon lack on screen chemistry.

Your Place keeps them apart for so much of the film – holding things together with split screen phone calls – that it fundamentally doesn’t make sense how Debbie and Peter move from friendship to romance. It’s as if the two were on completely different movie shoots and only were paired in a half dozen scenes to connect disparate thoughts.

Looking just beyond the camera line without a scene partner to bounce things off of, Witherspoon and especially Kutcher have no ability to create dynamic chemistry. As a result, most of the early punchlines fall flat which sets an overall tone of blandness that makes jokes later in the film less likely to land.

Conceptually, Your Place or Mine has the strength to be an above-average romantic comedy, but it feels like McKenna is too overwhelmed behind the camera or too committed to her own screenplay to create a more relaxed, natural tone to her film.

Ultimately though, a film with so much promise and two solid rom-com leads at the heart should be better than “Your Place or Mine” actually is and easy access on Netflix will leave it buried at the bottom of cinephiles’ queue for years to come.


80 For Brady: With love for Touchdown Tom

Six years ago this week, football crafted a story so unlikely that it felt scripted to the point of movie magic in real life.

An column on cinematicconsiderations.com the evening of the game predicted what was to come:

Everything about tonight’s incredible, dramatic Super Bowl that saw the New England Patriots rally back from 19 points down to win 34-28 in the first overtime championship game in NFL history begs to be turned into cinema.

Rather than focusing entirely on the game itself as the column went on to pitch, a more eclectic story of friendship over mutual love and admiration for a star quarterback became the centerpiece to memorialize a historic NFL moment on the big screen while appealing to a much older audience.

Produced by the titular signal caller Tom Brady and featuring the directorial debut of Kyle Marvin, 80 For Brady is inspired very loosely by the true story of four octogenarian women who have the adventure of their lifetimes making their way to Houston to see their hero play in Super Bowl LI.

The light-hearted comedy – reminiscent of 2018’s Book Club – stars four of Hollywood’s most iconic leading ladies: Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno and Sally Field. The exceptional, natural chemistry between the group elevates an otherwise lacking screenplay from Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins for a breezy 90-minutes’ worth of chuckles and the original outright laugh.

Each of the four women has individual moments to shine with miniature character arcs, Tomlin as the recovering cancer survivor Lou, Fonda as the flirtatious fan-fiction author Trish, Moreno as the fun-loving widow Maura and Field as statistics nerd and former MIT professor Betty. Moreno clearly has the most fun on her own, dominating a scene where Maura holds her own at a high-stakes poker table while hallucinating that she’s celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

But it’s in the scenes where the legends are in tandem that 80 For Brady really hits its limited stride, clearing out the narrative and allowing the four to banter naturally in the most charming of ways.

Brady himself makes several cameo appearances in the film, both in the fictionalized narrative and in footage from the Super Bowl itself. While his acting may be a tad stiff at times, there is a solid connection between the football star and Tomlin’s Lou that works particularly well.

With a first-time director at the helm, 80 For Brady has its significant flaws from a technical perspective. The editing is somewhat disjointed to the point that occasionally the punchlines don’t land with the umph that they otherwise might and once the Super Bowl kicks off in the film, Marvin struggles to balance the on-field and in the stands scenes.

The work-around of having comedian Rob Corddry and Saturday Night Live alum Alex Moffat essentially narrate the story of the game itself as Patriots fans hosting a video podcast feels especially forced in order to cover the inexperience of a director who cannot blend the fictional narrative with real-life footage properly to maximize the tension and thrill of the Pats’ comeback story.

But for as much as 80 For Brady presents itself as a sports comedy, at its core, this is a film about friendship and about pursuing dreams at any age. Older audiences will especially enjoy seeing four legendary actresses showing their comedic chops and should take the opportunity to seek this film out in theaters.


Shotgun Wedding: Romance moving online

If there’s one type of movie that hasn’t roared back theatrically after the pandemic, it’s the romantic comedy.

For every The Lost City that surprises at the box office, there seem to be a half-dozen or more rom-coms that only find success on streaming platforms like Marry Me, Ticket to Paradise or I Want You Back.

In a continuation of this trend, Lionsgate sold off the rights to its Jennifer Lopez produced tropical getaway film, Shotgun Wedding, which released to little fanfare this weekend on Amazon Prime Video.

Director Jason Moore – known for the original Pitch Perfect film and the much less successful Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters – takes the helm for a blend of action adventure and 2000s romantic comedy.

Shotgun Wedding finds Darcy and Tom bringing their quirky families together for a destination wedding on a remote island in the Philippines only to have the bridal party taken hostage by pirates and leaving the bride and groom to rescue them and save the day.

Without question, Lopez is the primary reason for audiences to give Shotgun Wedding a chance and her turn as Darcy accentuates all the charm and sass that Lopez is known for bringing to her rom-com characters. While the overall film is much more of an ensemble piece and other actors are given better lines in an uneven screenplay from writer Mark Hammer, Darcy is unquestionably the centerpiece of the film structurally and scenes without Lopez being the audience surrogate simply don’t work nearly as well.

Part of the reason for the disconnect is that the other half of the film requires audiences to try and connect with Josh Duhamel’s largely bland, uninteresting Tom.

The script asks Tom to be a “groom-zilla,” obsessed with putting on the perfect ceremony for Darcy and Duhamel simply doesn’t have the affability or comedic chops required to convincingly make an unlikeable character likeable.

It’s somewhat softened, though, by the even more strange presence of Lenny Kravitz as Darcy’s ex-fiance Sean, attempting to pull off a free-spirited vibe reminiscent of Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but Kravitz is far stiffer with dialogue and comic timing.

Strange casting for the two main male leads is especially confusing given how strong comedically the larger ensemble cast is from top to bottom.

White Lotus and American Pie star Jennifer Coolidge is a constant scene stealer as Tom’s outrageous, overbearing mother Carol, while comic legend Cheech Marin handles more dry humor well as Darcy’s rich, distant father Robert and The Good Place alum D’Arcy Carden is richly annoying as Robert’s much younger girlfriend Harriet.

Structurally, the film really drags in the opening act establishing characters and it isn’t until Tom and Darcy are on the run when Shotgun Wedding picks up any speed or positive momentum.

The action set pieces aren’t quite on the level of the John Wick films, but Moore and his stunt team lean into the more comedic elements of combat while maintaining a decent amount of violence worthy of the film’s R-rating.

With more explosions and mother-in-laws expertly handling automatic weapons than the typical romantic comedy, Shotgun Wedding certainly won’t make any cinephiles best of 2023 list, but could fit nicely into plans for a Valentine’s date at home.


Plane: Vintage action for the modern era

It’s somehow comforting to know that even as cable channels are fading to obscurity with the rise of streaming services, movie studios are still making films whose future lies on basic cable even before the first ticket is sold.

The marginally violent, action-adventure film is a unique sub-genre that typically centers around Jason Statham, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson or, on occasion, Sylvester Stallone and it’s a film easily summed up in a quick elevator pitch that doesn’t require much plot, just excuses for action sequences.

January is usually the best time of year to catch these middling at best movies and 2023’s first offering is exactly what one might expect from a lazily titled one word adventure film like Plane.

But thanks to a new twist on a tired subgenre, some inventive action and surprisingly grounded performances, Plane isn’t terrible.

The film’s premise definitely has to be overcome or at least shrugged off a bit for some viewers to take a chance on enjoying.

Gerard Butler stars as Captain Brodie Torrance, piloting a last-minute redeye across the South China Sea when weather forces him to ground the titular plane on a remote island occupied by violent separatists. With an unlikely ally, Torrance must get everyone out alive.

Butler isn’t wowing audiences with newfound range as Brodie, but there is an affable charm to his performance early in the film that helps endear him to the audience and make him the ideal candidate to lead everyone to safety. The veteran action star also does a great job in balancing Brodie’s wild emotions against complete inexperience in dangerous settings.

Conversely, Mike Colter revels in the brooding, silent killer role with an overbearing physicality. His Louis Gaspare is woefully underwritten by screenwriters J.P. Davis and Charles Cumming and it’s clear that director Jean-François Richet only views Louis as a vehicle for violence and mayhem, but Colter maintains a stoic, yet purposeful demeanor that could be star-making in the right action role.

Without a doubt, Plane is a fatally flawed action movie.

The plot is convoluted even by genre standards and the dialogue doesn’t leave much to write home about. There isn’t enough depth for the film to stand on its own as a danger in the sky movie or as a hunted by warlords movie, but the two unlikely halves work fluidly on a flimsy premise.

Where Plane excels as a January popcorn flick are in its numerous set pieces, which evoke better films yet are exceedingly entertaining and lift the overall watchability of Richet’s film exponentially.

Aerial sequences are engaging because Richet maximizes the tension by always having the camera moving and tightly focused on the actors. There’s a heightened sense of uncertainty in a rather easy to predict film as a result of the in-flight scenes which carries over nicely to the film’s second half on the island.

Richet steals generously from a wide array of films like Sully to Rambo to Thirteen Hours to No Escape in order to craft an amalgamation of disparate parts that casual audiences will remember after leaving the theater.

Bullets fly with reckless abandon, but Richet does his best work showcasing the brutality of his action during hand-to-hand combat. This is especially true of an exchange between Butler’s Brodie and a random henchman who sneaks up on him, where Butler can showcase Brodie’s inexperience as a fighter but his determination to live for his daughter.

While it’s certain to live on for much of 2023 as that film people might casually watch in the background at home doing chores, Plane has some decent enough set pieces and mindless entertainment that cinephiles looking for popcorn escapism might find worthwhile in a theatrical setting.


The Whale: Fraser’s emotional odyssey

Film is often about redemption, the seeking of absolution or, at times, both.

There’s tales about comeback kids, underdogs, the forgotten, the unforgiven, the unforgivable, the isolated.

In a way, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature is a bit of all of this, most notably being a return to stardom for Brendan Fraser with the year’s most committed, devastating performance. 

Structurally, The Whale tells the story of a reclusive, obese English teacher and his attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter at all costs to his health and psyche. But it’s also an allegory with strong evocations and outright references to the Hermann Melville classic “Moby Dick” and a treatise on mental health traumas.

There’s a depth of humanity to the film that shouldn’t be there at first glance, but the screenplay from Samuel D. Hunter based on his 2012 play of the same name opens up opportunities for Fraser to overwhelm audiences with a tremendous heartfelt performance.

Aronofsky and Fraser approach Charlie with such care that once viewers become accustomed to his size, all the matters at the core of the film are the purity of Charlie’s heart and how his inner pain forced him to succumb to chronic overeating and isolation. 

The weight and eating aren’t done as circus spectacle, though the technical skill and expertise required to design and fit Fraser with a prosthetic suit to realistically make the heavy-set actor appear as if he weighed 600 pounds.

It’s more clearly, once the story unfolds, that Charlie is a mere vessel by which Aronofsky could reasonably explain intense isolationism and its effects on those around them.

Unquestionably, it’s Fraser’s most introspective, emotional and powerful performance to date and Aronofsky is able to mine the depths of Fraser’s soul for raw emotional and honesty that hasn’t been shown so far in the veteran actor’s career.

The film’s small ensemble cast do a solid job helping to frame Charlie’s plight in a larger social context and it’s in scenes between Charlie and his daughter Ellie played by Sadie Sink that the most intriguing, provoking scene-work is done.

Sink provides The Whale with a raw emotion of blind rage masked behind layers of manipulation as Ellie. Her relentless combativeness doesn’t come across as pure malice, but weathered pain from the toll a strained relationship with Charlie brought upon Ellie during her formulative years.

It’s a terrific contrast to Hong Chau’s more empathetic, nurturing yet stern caretaker role as Liz, who takes the pain she feels from her own traumas and latches onto Charlie with sympathy rather than disdain.

The one odd duck in the ensemble is the presence of wandering missionary Thomas, played by Ty Simpkins. While the actor isn’t out of place with his performance, the character of Thomas unnecessarily muddies the waters and takes away from the larger allegory at play.

The Whale can be a bit heavy-handed in its dialogue at times, especially in the rare moments when Charlie isn’t at the center of conversation. The secondary storylines can become a bit clunky and forced to make additional, unnecessary points about organized religion and homosexuality.

Audiences will not be capable of being apathetic to the story and its larger themes. The Whale is especially overwhelming in this regard, bathing viewers in a constant tsunami of anger, frustration and sentimentality.

From a production standpoint, cinematographer Matthew Libatique excels at the ability to make the confining space of Charlie’s small apartment constantly feel large by approaching scenes of dialogue from fresh angles and perspectives to reframe audiences and prevent a stale, monotonous feel to the film.

With Fraser as a clear-cut Best Actor contender, The Whale was always going to be in the awards season race, but it’s become increasingly likely that it could exceed a single acting nomination and join the Best Picture race, with Chau also receiving enough support to have a chance at a supporting actress nod as well.

While it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, The Whale touches upon important social issues from an emotional, yet respectful place and is worth cinephiles spending two hours on at home or in theaters this awards season.


Babylon: All the glitz and glamour

When auteur directors get to the point in their careers where they have established the pedigree to have carte blanche with a studio’s checkbook, it opens all sorts of possibilities.

Damien Chazelle – who burst on the scene with Whiplash and is best known for his Oscar winning musical La La Land – dips his toe back in the waters of making movies about Hollywood with a roaring 20s, gallant and audacious examination of the transition from silent films to “the talkies.”

A three-plus-hour epic odyssey, Babylon follows two newcomers to the industry who are thrust into the spotlight in different ways as well as a veteran silent film star struggling with hubris and finding his place in a changing landscape for the moviemaking business.

For a film led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, the true star of Babylon is Chazelle.

From the opening sequence – a relentless, lavish and indulgent 30-minute cavalcade of debauchery in the home of a film producer – Chazelle overwhelms his audience with a plethora of sights and sounds that are bold and audacious, reveling in the same sort of excess as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street would, but in a more frivolous, carefree Hollywood ideal.

Chazelle masterfully whips the camera around a room filled with drugs and nudity as if it were an ingenue taking in the spectacle of Hollywood and succumbing to the seductive, illicit appeal.

When it comes to the technical aspects of Babylon, the film truly shines in Chazelle’s ability to capture nuance, referencing small pieces of early film history that would take scholars several viewing to find minute trivialities, but at the same time, making the most of modern cinema in order to fully engulf the viewer in the world of Babylon.

As Nellie, Robbie is a firecracker whose fuse is brightly flickering close to explosion through the entire 180-minute run time. 

While her franticness as the starry-eyed wild child comes to define everything about Nellie’s character, it’s incredibly impressive just how much control Robbie must change gears at a moment’s notice from laughter to a single tear to everything in between in a split second. 

In stark contrast, Diego Calva’s Manny is the most restrained character in the film, with Chazelle hoping viewers will view Babylon through his earnest eyes. Amidst the world of chaos, Calva is demonstrably calm and resourceful in the ways Manny climbs the ladder of success and it’s a breakout role showcasing vulnerability and empathy.

Pitt feels a bit on an island of his own as the silent film star Jack, but it’s a welcome salve from the main storyline of Manny and Nellie. Pitt excels at masking his inner pain and age with the bravado of a typical flawed leading man and the culmination of Jack’s arc throughout the film wouldn’t make any sense with the longing and brooding Pitt is able to subtly bring out in Jack’s eyes.

If there is a major flaw within the film, Babylon suffers at times with haphazard pacing and balance between its three lead stars which often leaves audiences disoriented and ready for a finale that doesn’t come until much later than expected.

Babylon features several of what could be considered false endings that jar casual viewers when the credits don’t roll.

This isn’t to say that the editing is bad by any means. Chazelle and editor Tom Cross are quick on the knife to make vibrant cross-cutting sequences that transport viewers back and forth between different film sets to heighten the urgency of the moment. While there’s a kinetic energy to Babylon, it doesn’t come out evenly which leaves more individual sections of the film as highlights rather than one cohesive piece of cinema.

At its strongest points, Babylon embraces the artistry of moviemaking whether it be small, intimate tidbits like filmmakers adding dialogue to silent films with handwritten messages on chalkboards to a side-splitting sequence where Nellie must repeat a scene over and over because sound and picture difficulties prevent shooting.

As is the case with most noisy movies about the film industry, Babylon is sure to be a major player this awards season in everything from best picture to best director and actress to any number of technical categories like production design, costuming, cinematography and composer Justin Hurwitz’s radiant score.

It’s going to be particularly hard for audiences to completely digest, or even stomach at times, everything that’s going on in the loud, boisterous world of Chazelle’s Babylon, but viewers willing to take the time and effort to allow themselves to be overwhelmed by grandiosity may reasonably find themselves loving and/or loathing enough of the three-hour odyssey worth a trip or two to the biggest screen possible.


White Noise: Cinematic static

It seems as though every year Netflix puts out a film that makes one wonder how it was greenlit into production. 

Whether it’s an exorbitant budget for a languishing Martin Scorsese epic like The Irishman or an overly sarcastic, nihilistic dramedy like Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, the streaming service can’t quite find its footing for an award season contender to draw large audiences with 2022 being no exception.

Noah Baumbach, whose previous effort Marriage Story saw Laura Dern win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, returns to Netflix with an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s avantgarde 1985 novel, the first feature the director has made without telling a completely original story.

White Noise is an eclectic, strange, befuddling black dramedy of a feature released in select theaters in early December before hitting the streaming service Dec. 30. The film stars Internet darlings Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as a couple living in an undisclosed Midwestern town whose lives are uprooted by a chemical spill.

Baumbach breaks his film into three parts, much like the novel it draws inspiration from, with each section only loosely connected through minor characterization and general themes.

White Noise is absolutely mystifying for those unfamiliar with the source material and wildly inconsistent in tone. In many ways, it’s like a train wreck that bystanders see coming and can’t look away from, which Baumbach almost revels in with the amount of time he spends on car crashes and people’s voyeuristic nature.

At the core of the film, Driver as a college professor in Hitler studies is quirky in physicality and dress, but ironically the most normal character in the entire film. The cadence with which his Jack pontificates is in keeping with Baumbach’s idiosyncratic dialogue and it’s clear that Driver relishes each opportunity to emote in a spiritualistic way.

Conversely, Gerwig – who audiences see significantly less of in the film – is more subdued as White Noise plays out with the most memorable part of her performance being a wacky frizzled 80s haircut and at times, a riff on a Beverly D’Angelo-esque character from National Lampoon’s Vacation.

The family dynamic doesn’t really evolve much over the two-hour feature, though each younger performer is given some opportunity to shine and moments between Driver and Raffey Cassidy’s eldest daughter character Denise over an unknown prescription are the most entertaining elements of a screenplay that’s all over the map.

From a production standpoint, White Noise does an exceptional job of creating a hyper-realistic recreation of 1980s middle America with bombastic costuming, over-teased hair and makeup and a fully transformed, inexplicably intricate supermarket viewers could spend hours in actually shopping in and being completely transported back in time.

There’s an overwhelming brightness to White Noise visually that harkens back to classic John Hughes comedic style and sets an expectation for audiences that the outrageousness of Baumbach’s adaptation of the avantgarde source novel just cannot meet. Much like the Gladneys’ home and family live, the film is stuffed full with detail and nuance to the point where there’s no room for audiences to breathe given the strangeness and complexity of the narrative.

Given Baumbach’s track record with Marriage Story and Netflix not having a true contender this awards season, it’s possible that White Noise could slip into the nomination mix for accolades like adapted screenplay or production design, but the relative inaccessibility could leave it on the outside looking in.

After an underwhelming theatrical performance, Baumbach’s film could find much more friendly waters on the streaming service where audiences can process the intricacies in chunks without having to digest the entire feature in one sitting. As it is, White Noise may prove to be too avantgarde and niche for the average moviegoer regardless of the setting.


Glass Onion: Whodunnit in the modern era

Three years ago, writer/director Rian Johnson wowed audiences with an unexpected, compelling and hilarious take on the classic Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery genre.

His Knives Out brought viewers into the world of a rural New England town filled with intrigue, suspicion and family tension while debuting an eccentric Southern detective on par with Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes in Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc. 

The success of Knives Out – which made over $300 million on a $40 million budget – prompted Netflix to spend $469 million to purchase the rights to two additional installments in what would become a franchise centered around Blanc’s exploits.

The first spiritual sequel opened this past weekend with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery debuting on the streaming service after a limited one-week theatrical run over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The film sees Blanc whisked into a world of high society and social media stars brought together by a tech billionaire for a murder mystery game that proves deadly and sets Blanc off to find a genuine killer on a remote Greek island.

What truly stands out about Glass Onion are the film’s illustrious and perfectly cast stars, most notably the returning Craig. His Blanc, fully formed in a second installment, is even more dry in his humor and Craig revels in the ability to acutely play the line between investigator and comedian.

A sequence early in the film that reveals what Blanc has been up to during quarantine for the COVID-19 pandemic is especially sidesplitting in its humor and Johnson deftly sidesteps the pandemic while also addressing directly issues that would arise in an elite world given the circumstances. 

Glass Onion wouldn’t work as well as it does on Craig’s performance alone.

Johnson meticulously assembles an ensemble to surround Blanc that ramps up the humorous elements from the original while maintaining quality in the acting as well.

Even by the standards of murder mystery where viewers must question the motivations of everyone but the detective, Janelle Monae has an arduous task in front of her being especially mysterious and vague and the accolades she’s been receiving as a possible best supporting actress contender are certainly valid.

The showiest work in the film comes from Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista, who are both truly going for it as over-the-top versions of characters viewers might associate them with from other work, but the smartness of Johnson’s screenplay and guided hand in direction keeps the comedy fresh and not too on the nose.

Edward Norton feels lighter and as if he’s having more fun with a role in some time as the tech billionaire at the center of the mystery, while Kathryn Hahn comes alive with small repartee that helps keep Johnson’s masterful screenplay at the forefront.

Because so much of the success of the first film came from a shared viewing experience in theaters, it’s hard not to be somewhat disappointed by first time at home screening of Glass Onion where the wry, smart comedy of Johnson’s screenplay perfectly acted by perhaps the year’s ensemble cast doesn’t land in the same way without others around to share the moment.

This isn’t to say that Glass Onion isn’t a terrific blockbuster film. Johnson has recaptured the magic of Knives Out and brought it back to life in a new environment that will give audiences something fresh to mull over and find all the hidden easter eggs and clues as the layers unravel.

There’s been some buzz that Glass Onion would make waves and enter the Academy Awards’ best picture race, though that seems to be overblown somewhat simply due to it being Netflix’s best chance rather than being worthy of a nomination.

The lack of a true theatrical experience really dulls the shine on Johnson’s film and keeps it from being on par with the original Knives Out, but regardless, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is certainly an entertaining at home experience that will pull cinephiles out of their seats during family gatherings this holiday season.