Top Gun Maverick: Cruising at higher altitudes

There’s a moment early in Tom Cruise’s first film in four years where his character must lay everything on the line and push himself beyond all the limits to save his team.

It’s a constant theme in the nearly 60-year-old actor’s latter career as Cruise constantly strives to top himself for the sake of blockbuster cinema, attempting to save theatrical releases by dangling from tall buildings, freefalling from heights unfathomable by anyone who isn’t a stuntman and literally flying fighter jets to show his face in the cockpit at Mach speeds.

Cruise’s endless bravado – a seemingly equal balance of boyish charisma and belief in his own invincibility – propels every choice he has made as an actor the past decade and a half, culminating in a death-defying Mission: Impossible franchise and now the resurgence of his 1980s classic Top Gun.

Director Joseph Kosinski reteams with Cruise for the first time since 2013’s “Oblivion” to modernize the aerial combat action drama, taking full advantage of cinematography advancements and Cruise’s obsession with creating unbelievable movie moments. Top Gun: Maverick puts Cruise back in the cockpit as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a former ace pilot called back into active duty to train the next generation of combat aces for a practically incompletable mission.

As with every film he attaches himself to these days, Cruise carries the weight of the entire project on his back from start to finish as audiences play co-pilot to Maverick’s rebellious nature that makes him the world’s premier dogfighter and rubs most of those around him the wrong way.

It’s a role Cruise has played many variations on over the years, but this return to the character is more self-reflective and emotional than one might expect as viewers can feel the weight of unrealistic expectations Maverick places on himself in Cruise’s face. Although there isn’t as much character work done on the post-traumatic stress that Maverick clearly hasn’t totally worked through, it’s easily overlooked thanks to Cruise’s relentless energy and charisma.

The film’s ensemble cast does well to work around the gravitational pull that the last true movie star brings to Top Gun: Maverick and the next generation of pilots led by a very nuanced turn from Miles Teller as a pilot with ties to Maverick and Glen Powell as his cocky rival help draw viewers into the larger story.

Val Kilmer’s return to Top Gun provides the most emotional impact in the film and his performance is incredibly bittersweet and poignant despite the lack of heavy drama surrounding Maverick’s PTSD amid the burdens he carries.

Fervent fans of the original film will find a lot of similarities in this legacy sequel, from near identical opening credits and orchestral themes to the flight school rivalries and shirtless sporting events that mirror the 80s classic.

Where the biggest changes are, however, are in the visuals.

The most arresting moments of Top Gun: Maverick come in the lengthy, spectacular aerial combat sequences, filmed practically with several IMAX cameras attached to the cockpit and nose of F-18 fighter jets that capture both the dazzling maneuvers flown by true elite Navy aviators as well as the genuine reactions and performances of the actors who are in the planes themselves and not acting in a green screen environment.

Aerial combat has never felt as real and dynamic on screen as it does here, far surpassing the limitations of technology in the 1980s original film and creating a level of harrowing, yet magnetic cinema that viewers could easily watch several hours of regardless of a storyline.

Hundreds of hours of footage captured by these Navy pilots both with the actors and through external jets following the action are meticulously edited into a crisp, supersonic freight train of exhilaration that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats and vault Top Gun: Maverick into contention for the year’s best film.

Though there will likely only be room for one, perhaps two, early blockbusters come awards season, Top Gun: Maverick has the firepower cinematically to edge out The Batman and Everything Everywhere All At Once as the first half of the year hit to earn a Best Picture nomination and it’s all but certain to receive nods in editing, sound and best original song for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” which plays over the end credits.

Top Gun: Maverick has absolutely everything one might expect from a Cruise-led movie: Tom riding a motorcycle, Tom running at full speed, Tom grinning like he just stole something, everyone else around him in awe of Tom being Tom. Cruise’s magnetism and the dynamic thrills of the aerial artistry make this summer hit one of the best blockbuster films of the last 10 years and something cinephiles need to see in the biggest screen possible.


Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers: A children’s movie for big, old kids

Most children’s movies have special references or hidden jokes for parents to enjoy that will sail over the heads of younger audiences.

It’s a general kindness afforded to adults whose theater going experience may be limited to family friendly films for several years and many of these movies are downright entertaining for older audiences as much, if not more so, than the kids that are the intended audience.

Every once in a while, a “kids’ movie” comes along that is so much better when viewed as an adult than as a child and it’s a surprise pleasure to watch regardless of age.

Disney didn’t quite understand the diamond in the rough they had when they dropped a seemingly routine reimagining of a 1990s syndicated cartoon show, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

Director Akiva Schaffer perfectly blends live-action performances with a wide assortment of animated characters in various styles that both pay homage and poke fun at the world of comedically drawn characters. The film, which takes its name directly from the 90s television series, is exceptionally well-written for a children’s movie by screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand and leans heavily on meta-commentary as Chip and Dale fight through a modern era filled with bootlegs, knockoffs and reboots.

It’s a script that allows younger viewers to simply watch two small chipmunks play detective while searching for their missing friend, while adults will get plenty of opportunity to smirk or outright laugh at inside jokes about everything from Pogs to “Rugrats” to failed CGI animation itself.

Rescue Rangers is set in the present several decades after the show originally aired with Dale longing to recapture the magic and nostalgia for their old detective show while Chip lives alone selling insurance. When their former co-star Monterey Jack is kidnapped to make endless bootleg versions of animated movies, Chip and Dale reunite to work with a rookie cop to save Monterey and take down cartoon crime boss Sweet Pete.

Andy Samberg gives a playful charm as the voice of Dale and the oafish innocence that he brings to the role doesn’t really diminish Dale as a dope but accentuates his naivety nicely in a way that helps endear the character to audiences young and old. As the central character of the film, Samberg helps draw viewers in with a kind and warm brightness to his affectation and while it’s constantly clear to those familiar with his work that it’s Samberg behind Dale’s voice, Schaffer does a great job of creating visual moments with Dale that help pull the wool over and maintain the suspension of disbelief.

It’s tougher to separate the nasal, almost monotone cadence that John Mulaney’s vocal work does as Chip, although the role works in Mulaney’s favor as the more straight-laced, rule following Chip has a stick-to-it-ness that plays into Mulaney’s comic strengths.

The secondary vocal cast are strong as well with Seth Rogen getting to relish in the dialogue of a foolish henchman who gets face to face with several other Rogen-voiced characters from films like the CGI version of The Lion King and Monsters and Aliens as well as Oscar winner J.K. Simmons leaning into his authoritative type as the deputy police chief in charge of the investigation who just happens to be made of putty.

Besides the entertaining and humorous screenplay, what really stands out in Rescue Rangers is the seamless work done by the film’s animation team to blend live actors like Kiki Layne with both hand-drawn and computer-generated animation.

Dale has a distinctive 3-D texture to his animation that accentuates his rounded chipmunk physique that contrasts nicely with 2-D hand-drawn Chip and his more flattened texture. Animators also get several fun opportunities to tease less successful renderings of famous characters in the various “bootleg” versions of iconic characters like Flounder from The Little Mermaid and the reoccurring gag about the initial design for Sonic The Hedgehog dubbed “Ugly Sonic” is a terrific, yet playful jab.

It’s stunning that this fun blend of animation and live-action would skip a theatrical release and head straight to the Disney+ streaming service given the lack of competition in the early part of the year for children’s movies, but Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is well worth the 90-minute ride for young and old audiences alike.


Senior Year: High school do-over

Movie fans haven’t seen Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson on the big screen for a couple years now after her last comedy The Hustle, a subpar remake of the 1980’s classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opposite Anne Hathaway, bombed at the box office just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

With Wilson, originality is key as parts where she’s inventing something new allow her humor to pop a bit more on screen. Though there is some very basic tropes to her new comedy that make director Alex Hardcastle’s feature film debut a bit formulaic, Senior Year is a fun throwback to late 90s-early 2000s mid-budget comedies that movie studios just aren’t making that much anymore.

At its core, Senior Year is a slightly more risqué version of the 1999 rom com Never Been Kissed with a twist.

Wilson plays Steph, a 37-year-old woman who awakes from a 20-year coma after a cheerleading accident a month before graduation. Determined to finally get the prom queen crown she felt she deserved back in 1999, Steph reenrolls at her old high school to become popular in an era of social media and community activism she’s completely unprepared for.

The key to this film working on any level is Wilson, who elevates a very middling script with her brash, yet bubbly personality that endears viewers to Steph from the outset and allows audiences to roll with the punches as Senior Year does a roller-coaster ride between genuinely funny and cringe funny moments.

As solid as Wilson is at carrying the film, Angourie Rice steals every scene she’s in as the 1999 version of Steph with a confidence and charm that plays a fun twist on the Lindsey Lohan character from Mean Girls.

Mary Holland teeters on the edge of being too grating while complicating Steph’s life as her former best friend turned high school principal Martha. It’s a performance that makes viewers want to grab Martha and shake some common sense into her, but Holland is able to keep from going completely overboard with Martha’s rigid adherence to not offending anyone at any cost. Martha almost completely sucks the fun out of Senior Year at times, but Holland helps Wilson to make a bigger impact as a result.

Clueless star Alicia Silverstone is a welcome sight in what amounts to an extended, yet pivotal cameo as one of Steph’s idols while Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell brings a sweet affable charm to Steph’s dad in both timelines that helps hold the film together.

The film’s screenplay penned by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli and co-star Brandon Scott Jones is probably the weakest element as its best jokes are more visual than written and the majority of the plot points are telegraphed so obviously that audiences will know exactly where things are headed by the 15-minute mark.

Light nostalgia for the “Total Request Live”-era of the late 1990s is the most fun part of “Senior Year” both from the countless references in dialogue as well as a hysterical shot-for-shot reenactment of the classic Britney Spears music video for “You Drive Me Crazy” that allows Wilson to put her physical comedy chops to the best use since the Pitch Perfect trilogy.

It’s strange that Paramount would essentially sell off this movie to Netflix instead of premiering it in theaters or on their own streaming service, Paramount+. Senior Year is equally as charming and entertaining as 2019’s Isn’t It Romantic, another Wilson-led rom-com that made $48 million on a $31 million budget. 

Perhaps streaming services will be the new forever home for mid-budget romantic comedies in a post-COVID landscape, but this lighthearted fare also seems to be the perfect Friday date night movie for younger couples to enjoy in a cinema landscape increasingly devoid of alternatives.

While not a laugh out loud riot for two hours, Senior Year certainly is a comedy with enough humor to keep casual audiences interested with its ease of access on Netflix.


Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness: Strange magic

Marvel Studios, the comic book film division of Disney, has pushed audiences for more than a decade that a bigger plan is always in the offing.

It took three phases and over 20 movies for producer Kevin Feige to complete his Infinity Gauntlet saga culminating in Avengers: Endgame and along the way there were times in which things didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s safe to say Marvel has gone back to the beginning in a post-Endgame world, throwing things against the proverbial wall to see what sticks and then piecing it all together down the road.

There isn’t a clear vision in their latest film, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, a movie that isn’t entirely about the titular Strange at all. It’s one that requires viewers to watch the Disney+ show WandaVision in order to understand character motivations and blurs exactly what the long term plan is for the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole to the point that it’s unclear if Feige even knows.

The simplest way to describe the plot of Madness is that it follows Strange as he ventures across multiple alternate timelines to protect multiverse jumper America Chavez from an unexpected threat to humanities far and wide along the way.

Director Sam Raimi, working with Marvel again for the first time in 15 years since concluding his own Spider-Man trilogy, has to slog his way through a wildly underwhelming screenplay from Michael Waldron that puts almost no actor in a position to succeed.

Much of the early portion of Madness has the signature Marvel sheen that seems to sugarcoat most of the MCU outside of the final Avengers films and it isn’t until things take a darker, more sinister turn midway through that Raimi’s directorial eye is allowed to shine through.

Madness is also unique in that it’s the first film in the MCU to directly pull from Marvel’s Disney+ limited series in order to fully understand the plot of the movie as Raimi’s movie requires audiences to have familiarity with WandaVision and several episodes of the animated What If… to have context for plot points the screenplay glosses over or assumes viewers understand.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a solid job in his return as Strange, especially with some of the alternative versions of the character audiences meet along the way. But by in large, his character mainly serves as a vehicle to drive the story forward and Strange’s uneasy chemistry with Rachel McAdams’ Christine from the first Doctor Strange film continues to be middling here.

Elizabeth Olsen is able to pull a rabbit out of her hat by crafting some truly inspired work as Wanda Maximoff, a fallen Avenger mourning the loss of her love in a path twisted by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and WandaVision. She provides Raimi’s film with an intensity that is showcased largely through the cinematography and direction that other actors just don’t seem to rise to the level of.

Newcomer Xochiti Gomez is serviceable as Chavez, although Waldron’s script basically reduces her character to a Macguffin that is the excuse to tell the story the film does, while not really saying anything about who Chavez is as a person or hero, a larger flaw of the entire screenplay as a whole.

In a way, the rapid pacing of Madness hinders just how good of a movie it is overall because audiences can’t fully appreciate the nuance of what Raimi achieves cinematically. There’s little time to linger on the wide panoramic shots of the visually stunning worlds Raimi’s production team creates because it has to quickly move on to fan-service cameos or random moments that won’t be fully realized until movies years from now.

The same is true of the terror-inducing moments he turns simple chase sequences into, with a race down an underground tunnel being the most creative and impactful cinematic moment in a Marvel film for several years.

There’s a point in the film where it becomes easy for audiences to tell which parts Raimi had control over the style and direction and which were spoon-fed to him by producers reliant on pre-visualized storyboards made before Raimi was ever brought on board.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness isn’t the groundbreaking horror comic spectacle that some audiences might have been hoping for in a Marvel reunion with Raimi, but his directing is the best part of this middling MCU movie and the main reason to see the film in theaters outside not wanting to be spoiled.


Everything Everywhere All At Once: Cinematic beauty in weirdness

The directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, have created a brand of cinema flavored with creative ingenuity blended with the bizarre and outlandish that have seen them mystify viewers with flatulent corpses and dark humor with films like 2016’s Swiss Army Man and 2019’s The Death of Dick Long.

Their third feature together, Everything Everywhere All At Once, takes their obsession with the absurd to new heights cinematically as the pair forge a strange, genre-bending tale that mixes Hong Kong martial arts with sci-fi hijinks, comic book universe hopping with family drama in a compelling, original film unlike anything audiences will see in 2022.

Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Crazy Rich Asians fame 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.

While the film could probably have been successful simply based on the Daniels’ creativity, 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.

As Evelyn grows in confidence and learns skills from alternate reality versions of herself, Yeoh is able to showcase her martial arts prowess and then immediately fall back into a stupor that is practical and convincing to Evelyn’s increasingly outlandish plight and as Evelyn comes to accept the ridiculousness of her situation, Yeoh makes it easier for audiences to suspend their disbelief as well and enjoy the ride.

Yeoh is aided by a wonderful ensemble cast who must make even wider transformations between their character’s normal selves and bizarre variations.

Ke Huy Quan returns 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.

Newcomer Stephanie Hsu is a revelation as the couple’s daughter Joy, a complicated blend of both her parents that allows Hsu to be more eccentric with her alternate versions and Jamie Lee Curtis is almost unrecognizable in a hilarious supporting 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 that makes the most of the dynamic action sequences that perfectly blend martial arts with the strange science fiction elements of the plot.

Daniels also create a fully realized, wholly immersive world with some of the best production design and costuming that will probably be featured in all of 2022. The depth to which the filmmakers transform a simple office building into a plethora of avenues for creativity cinematically is astonishing and the costume work, especially on Curtis’s Deirdre and also Jobu Topaki showcase the avantgarde uniqueness and originality unmatched in this era.

Because All At Once is so outside the box – there’s literally worlds with hot dog hands and pinatas – it’s unclear how a film released in the first half of the year will stay in the conversation long enough to earn the awards season acclaim it deserves, but Daniels’ film definitely deserves to stand alongside The Batman as the two features to release before July that need to be remembered by voters months from now.

Though it will be a fun experience at home for audiences who can’t find it close to them, there’s no doubt that the visual thrill ride of Everything Everywhere All At Once deserves a trip to the cinema to see the Daniels’ vision on the biggest screen possible and this strange, yet heartfelt will no doubt be a top film of the year.


The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent: Not that he ever left

What does it truly mean to be a celebrity on a global level? What does that recognizability, especially for those with boisterous personalities, do to an actor’s psyche as the shine starts to fade?

It’s a nuanced examination that comes from the most unlikely of places, a zany surreal action dramedy where former A-list actor Nicolas Cage takes on perhaps his most challenging role: himself.

With The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage showcases every side of his acting persona, cranking up the volume of his “Cage-yness” to 11 in a performance that’s incredibly neurotic, exceptionally thought out and cerebral, yet quintessentially heartfelt and emotional in a way only the Academy Award winner could.

The film from writer/director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten is a cinematic love letter to Cage’s illustrious and exotic film career, taking audiences on a journey with Nicolas as he battles his inner demons and quite literally talks to his younger self in a wonderful homage to True Romance, the most Nicolas Cage film he was never cast in.

Talent finds this fictionalized Cage on the brink of retiring from acting following another failed audition when an invitation (and million-dollar incentive) to attend a wealthy businessman’s birthday party in Mallorca, Spain, leads Nick to bond with Javi over vintage German horror films upon his arrival and begin to develop a movie idea together, all while covertly working for the CIA.

The incredulous nature of the story, while often going to the brink of inexplicable, works amazingly well simply because Cage commits so fully to the fantasy world Gormican and Etten have crafted that viewers cannot help but be carried along for the ride of R-rated hijinks, deep philosophical conversations, and increasingly meta diatribes about the art of screenwriting and hooking audiences into watching a movie.

Even though the entire film veers into the surreal, there’s a subtle through-layer of Cage working through his own struggles with his public persona and how “out there” he gets in his films leaking into his private life. In a way, Talent is the perfect opportunity for Cage to fully free himself from the crazed 90s action star persona and continue a career revitalization that began with last year’s Pig.

It’s also so easy to fall in love with this wonderfully strange version of Cage because of how genuine Pedro Pascal’s adoration of Nick pours out in every moment of his performance as Javi.

Cage and Pascal have a vibrant chemistry that makes silly interactions over the common love of a children’s movie, or an LSD trip feel whimsical and lighthearted rather than completely ridiculous. The affection both actors have for each other seeps into every aspect of their performances and from the 30-minute mark onward, the best parts of the film are Cage and Pascal’s random conversations that could have nothing to do with moving the plot forward, but are riotously entertaining nevertheless.

Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen as Cage’s fictional ex-wife and daughter are solid in smaller supporting roles that help ground his performance as a struggle between career and family, while Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz as two CIA agents pushing Nick to spy on his new friend have some funny moments but are largely just filler to flesh out the incredulous story.

Gormican doesn’t muddle the frame with big explosions or fancy camera tricks in an homage to Cage’s action roots, but Talent does have a fast pace thanks to exceptionally witty dialogue and the joyride audiences go on is generally smooth despite his relative lack of experience behind the director’s chair.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a phenomenal, quirky love letter to one of Hollywood’s most eccentric fan favorite actors and Cage’s winning performance paired with terrific chemistry opposite Pascal make this unlikely buddy dramedy a major surprise hit in theaters for 2022.


Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore: Losing the magic touch

It’s been two decades since teenage wizard Harry Potter and his friends made their cinematic last stand in the eighth film based off the novels by J.K. Rowling.

For a variety of reasons, attempts to keep the magic alive today have lost their spark with the third installment in a prequel franchise based on one of Potter’s school textbooks arriving with a whimper both critically and financially.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore follows magical zoologist Newt Scamander as he’s pulled into an escalating war between good wizards led by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore against Gellert Grindlewald, a former love of Dumbledore seeking to establish wizards’ dominance over non-magical humans.

The biggest problem is that, by and large, this third installment is relatively uneventful and boring, largely circulating around election stealing and magical politics that will put younger audiences to sleep and make adults groan.

What made the original Harry Potter film franchise so successful was the idea that audiences knew in advance where things were going but were excited to see how they would unfold in cinematic fashion. It also helped that viewers could grow up with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint along the way, but the main issue with the stumbling Fantastic Beasts franchise is that the path is far less certain and much less entertaining along the way.

There’s no consistency in this cobbled together trilogy, which has changed the actor portraying the primary villain, Gellert Grindelwald, in each entry and stumbled through its integration of Harry Potter lore into a prequel where most fan favorite characters haven’t been introduced yet.

In its attempts to become a more serious film, Dumbledore removes much of the wonder and magic from the Fantastic Beasts franchise in order to reorient the franchise around Jude Law’s titular character to bring the films closer to the world of Harry Potter but further from what made the first film entertaining.

The beasts themselves, which were the highlight of each of the first two entries, take a relative backseat for much of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film with fan favorites like lock picking Bowtruckle named Pickett and the gold obsessed Niffler. The primary new “beast” of note is largely used as a Macguffin to further the plot and kept out of sight for the majority of the film.

In fact, perhaps the best sequence of the entire film involves Newt charming crab like creatures with a fanciful dance.

Director David Yates and screenwriter Rowling also make the baffling decision to largely sideline major characters from the first two films, reducing Ezra Miller’s prominent role as the “obscurial” Creedence to a mere bit part and benching Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a co-lead with Redmayne for the first two films, almost entirely for Victoria Yeates’ turn as Newt’s longtime assistant, a less interesting and largely unmemorable character.

But there are some highlights to Dumbledore.

Law is terrific in the title role and offers some sincere emotional complexity even when it’s not entirely earned. Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat understated taking over the role of Grindelwald and the hints of faded love yet uneasy respect between him and Law are some of the best acting in the entire Fantastic Beasts franchise.

This isn’t to discount the work of Eddie Redmayne as Newt, either. Redmayne’s genuine affability successfully allows audiences to place themselves in the story seeing things through Newt’s eyes and it keeps large segments of the film afloat.

While Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore will need to do big business at the box office to sustain the life of the franchise going forward, the film itself will largely become nothing more than a minor footnote in the larger Wizarding World of Harry Potter and isn’t worth seeking out in theaters.


All The Old Knives: Secrets can kill

Former lovers meet up for dinner, talking about the old days over wine and probing each other for information.

Over the course of a meal, the two fall in and out of love while harboring a weariness that keeps them questioning the other’s intentions and just how honest they are being with one another.

This conversation carries much of the weight in director Janus Metz’s adaptation of a novel written by Olen Steinhauer that sees these ex-CIA operatives questioning each other and themselves in search of a traitor who aided hijackers in a deadly attack on a Turkish Airlines plane years earlier.

The kind of movie that nowadays would be stretched into a 10-hour miniseries, All The Old Knives is tighter than it feels as Metz takes his time with the slow-burn pacing and meters out revelations deliberately to keep audiences from deducing the traitor too early.

Steinhauer adapts his own novel and pens an intricately dense screenplay filled with red herrings that pushes Henry to doubt his own instincts as he interrogates his ex-flame Celia, a prime suspect to be the mole.

Because so much of Knives is centered around a single conversation in a largely empty restaurant, Metz’s film requires a pair of actors capable of carrying long scenes without much action or demonstrative monologues. Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, at first glance, don’t seem like a perfect fit, but their chemistry makes more sense over time.

As the film progresses, Pine becomes far from the obvious choice to play Henry. In the flashbacks to 2012, he has the suave charm and looks to pull off being a deep cover operative; but in the present day, the decision to weather Pine in salt-and-pepper gray reduces the believability of his character.

Luckily, these segments are highly dialogue driven and Pine is able to convincingly balance Henry’s role as interrogator with that of a former lover longing to have Celia back in his life.

Newton has a much harder role to play as Celia, with the present day version being especially apprehensive for unclear reasons while in flashbacks, her vision is clouded by a deep love for Henry. It’s rare that audiences truly know what’s going in either character’s head and Newton does a fine job of masking Celia’s thoughts behinds a veil of timid uncertainty.

Aside from Pine and Newton, most of the other characters are largely relegated to the background. Lawrence Fishburne does a solid job as the station chief, while Jonathan Pryce is exceptional in a role much too small for the quality of work he delivers here. Even with an overly long running time just under two hours, Knives could have used an extra scene or two between Pine and Pryce catching up in a London pub.

Knives is highly edited and crosscut in between time periods and within scenes of dialogue to always keep viewers engaged, although the frequent back and forth could prove to be too much for some audiences. The film could also benefit from a bit more streamlining of the constant time-jumping, but location changes and the color of Pine’s hair from moment to moment help keep audiences in the relative know.

Cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen is often striking, but Metz often forces the camera in more tightly than necessary in dialogue moments leaving the entire film a touch cold in spite of the warmth Christensen provides in lighting scenes.

While not the most cinematic film that would demand a trip to theaters, All The Old Knives may prove worthwhile to cinephiles appreciative of a slow-burn character driven drama thanks to its ease of access on Amazon Prime.


Morbius: Big teeth, no bite

Nowadays it seems that studios aren’t really trying as much to hide their greed, especially when as it relates to comic book movies.

Just one month after Warner Brothers dropped a fantastic, original, and darker take on a classic comic book hero with The Batman, audiences have to suffer through the complete opposite.

Pushed off for nearly two years due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and its horribly lackluster screenplay, Morbius arrived in theaters this past weekend as Sony looks to capitalize on its hold on Spider-Man related properties by focusing on the web-slingers antagonists.

A vampire movie that isn’t a horror film and a comic book movie without much excitement, Morbius is a “yada-yada” installment in Sony’s developing Spiderverse, one that brings almost nothing to the table but something that viewers will have to see to fully understand the subsequent films in the expanding universe.

And this isn’t to say that Morbius is required viewing for upcoming Marvel projects.

Clearly Marvel chief Kevin Feige isn’t involved in this project with Sony in full control of the independent feature, though a post credit sequence will leave some audiences confused. There are mild references to the events of the significantly superior Marvel Cinematic Universe film Spider-Man: No Way Home, but this isn’t at all the direction the MCU is headed.

One studio – Marvel – has a clear vision for its cinematic future on both the big and small screen, while the other – Sony – is just throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.

This worked with the first Venom movie as actor/producer Tom Hardy had a distinct idea for how to make the symbiote translate on the big screen visually and comedically, but even that fizzled out on a subpar sequel.

With Morbius, director Daniel Espinoza and star Jared Leto seem to be simply going through the motions with a film so uniquely uninteresting that it doesn’t really matter if the title character will choose good or evil just as long as he does something worthwhile.

The premise of Morbius is relatively straightforward, if not inexplicable even by comic books standards. Biochemist Michael Morbius seeks to cure himself of a rare blood disease by splicing his DNA with bats, infecting himself with a hyper-stylized form of vampirism instead. There’s a secondary storyline with an adopted brother who has the same affliction, but the stakes of Michael’s relationships with him and love interest Martina Bancroft are so thinly constructed that they feel like total afterthoughts.

The decision to keep Morbius at a PG-13 rating is nothing more than a desperate attempt to cash in. Espinoza’s film needs to be rated R to showcase the violence and brutality needed to give a vampire with a conscience any true moral dilemma. When the audience doesn’t see and cannot fully realize how sadistic the bloodlust of the vampire is, it’s impossible to find any way to connect to the storylines or the characters themselves.

Leto himself isn’t doing the film any favors emotionally, offering a relatively muted performance outside of some solid physicality to highlight the effects of Michael’s disease and he’s routinely outclassed in scenes opposite Doctor Who star Matt Smith as Milo.

There is one solid sequence featured heavily in the trailers after Michael’s vampirism emerges on a cargo ship that provides some excitement, but the action in Morbius is too infrequent to keep audiences engaged and poor CGI work in the final moments will leave a sour taste in viewers’ mouths.

Morbius is a film hardcore comic book fans will need to see at some point if they want to have a full picture of where Sony is taking their Spiderverse, but there’s no reason to rush out to theaters for this toothless picture.


CODA: Winning with heart

Fourteen months ago, a small independent film with a largely unknown cast and an Oscar winner in a smaller supporting role debuted to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, winning top prizes and a hefty payday from Apple.

The grand jury prize winner was expected to help launch the second wave of subscriptions to AppleTV+, a burgeoning streaming service fighting an uphill battle with stalwarts like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for viewership.

Critical success continued when CODA, director Sian Heder’s heartwarming family coming-of-age dramedy, arrived on the streamer last August, but didn’t seem to draw attention in the same way from casual audiences.

Now there’s not really an excuse for ardent cinephiles to miss CODA despite being exclusive to a secondary streamer as the film took home three Academy Awards including Best Picture Sunday evening during a very congested ceremony that may continue to overshadow this smaller feature.

Adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, Heder’s drama stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, a CODA or “child of deaf adults,” who longs to pursue her passion in music but fears abandoning her parents as the family’s fishing business is threatened.

It’s the first feature film to debut at Sundance and go on to win Best Picture, and in large part, the underdog win can largely be attributed to the film’s terrific cast of predominantly deaf/non-hearing members that provide the humor, heart, and passion of CODA.

Troy Kotsur rightly earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar with a truly layered turn as Ruby’s father Frank, who wonderfully portrays anger and frustration over struggles with the business in one scene and can effortlessly wash that all away to carry the film’s funniest moments as one-half of an awkward parental unit with Marlee Matlin.

Kotsur’s Oscar moment late in the film in a scene opposite Jones where the two are able to bond over music despite their hearing differences certainly propelled CODA to its win and it’s a genuinely heartwarming moment.

Jones also has terrific chemistry with Daniel Durant, who plays Ruby’s brother Leo, and it’s Durant’s brash attitude in being the overlooked older brother that helps solidify the terrific family drama.

CODA suffers somewhat from attempting to bridge together two separate films into one and the quality balance doesn’t quite matchup between the two, which makes its Best Adapted Screenplay win somewhat befuddling. Perhaps voters keyed in on the 40 percent of the script in American Sign Language, which held most of the emotional moments that pulled on voters’ heartstrings.

The core of the film, where Heder really shines, is in the family drama with Ruby’s struggles to become her own person outside of interpreting for her father and brother for their fishing business. When CODA leans on its deaf cast members, the film is engaging, unique and poignant.

There’s a secondary storyline that runs largely parallel to the family dynamic that doesn’t particularly mesh well until the final moments of the film. Ruby’s love of singing and involvement with her school choir often feels like an overextended episode of Glee, which is referenced in the movie. Giving this plotline equal weight in the running time – especially with an unneeded love interest – makes CODA artificially long at nearly two hours and separates viewers from the best parts of the film.

Winning Best Picture gives CODA the higher profile needed to draw audiences in who otherwise would never make an effort to seek it out. But it’s disappointing to see films with greater technical merit and artistic vision not rewarded more for their boldness and risk-taking.

CODA is far from an unworthy winner and its warmth, heart and uplifting narrative make it the crowd-pleaser that any cinephile would enjoy on a casual Friday night at home.


Deep Water: Vengeful infidelity

Director Adrian Lyne, the filmmaker behind some of cinema’s most compelling erotic thrillers, hasn’t stepped behind the camera in two decades.

The mastermind of Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and Lolita last put out a new movie in 2002 with Unfaithful, a sexy Diane Lane and Richard Gere film that quadrupled its budget in box office revenue.

With plenty of time to craft his next project, a pair of beautiful stars in the leads and a script based on a story written by the author behind Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, there shouldn’t have been any reason why Lyne couldn’t execute his vision for a steamy psychological ride that would leave audiences on the edge of their seats for hours.

That’s perhaps why it’s so disappointing that Deep Water, the latest Hulu original film to hit the streaming service, doesn’t quite maintain its spark in a disjointed feature with lofty highs and lackluster lows.

Lyne’s film follows Vic Van Allen, a husband teetering on the edge of divorce who allows his wife Melinda to carry on several affairs, although each man who enters the picture mysteriously disappears along the way with Vic as the prime suspect.

Ben Affleck continues a strong run of character driven performances in recent years as Vic, often brooding through his home with a distant stare that belies unspoken intensity underneath.

When the situation calls for it, especially in conversations between Vic and other men, Affleck is cerebral and direct in his affectation, driving his point home with a callously calm intimidation to leave viewers guessing.

Ana de Armas counters Affleck’s more subdued control with a sensual free-spirited approach to Melinda. The chemistry between the two is chaotic and electric. Neither performer fully trusts the other, nor really understands the psychology of their partner and their unease provides the perfect recipe to foster audience suspicion on both their parts.

Well into the R-rated category essential for successful erotic thrillers, Lyne makes sure his film oozes sexuality through regular, but not gratuitous nudity and intensely intimate moments that further the complexity of Vic and Melinda’s relationship.

The supporting cast is often treated as disposable as Melinda’s erstwhile lovers, but Grace Jenkins often steals scenes as the Van Allen’s adorable daughter Trixie and Tracy Letts provides much needed gravitas as a friend with concerns about Vic’s motives.

Though it’s largely a well-shot and well-crafted movie, Deep Water is vastly disappointing at times with its cinematography when Vic and Melinda are driving around town. The shots are hastily put together and the use of green screen technology to layer in the background is shoddy and distracting, especially when looking through the rear window.

So often, moody moments where composer Marco Beltrani’s score helps paint a picture of a marriage in disarray is paired with deafening silence in the attitudes and faces of Affleck and de Armas, only to have the whole scene ruined by obtrusive lights that feel completely out of place.

Lyne does a terrific job however framing the audience geographically in each of the film’s locations from the outset. He smartly establishes the sizeable emotional gap in Vic and Melinda’s marriage through an early shot of a stairwell in the couple’s Louisiana home. Melinda disappears up a flight of stairs to the right after glaring wistfully at her husband only to have Vic venture up the adjacent stairs to the left, the separation between them clear from simple blocking.

The biggest flaw of Deep Water likely is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as the film was slated to be released in theaters nearly two years ago. It seems the delays caused the filmmakers to overanalyze their screenplay, trimming nearly a half-hour out of the running time.

What happens in the final cut, unfortunately, is a rushed ending with several unfulfilled or short-changed storylines as if the majority of the third act was abruptly removed. This does help maintain the focus on Vic and Melinda, although much of the larger world-building Lyne establishes in the first 45 minutes becomes wasted as a result.

Deep Water would have been a major disappointment in a theatrical setting, where its subpar cinematography and disjointed screenplay would prove fatal. But in a more casual streaming setting, it’s exactly the kind of tawdry erotic thriller that could charm ardent cinephiles for a couple of hours on date night.


Turning Red: Not so enchanting

Director Domee Shi isn’t a household name in animated film like Brad Bird, creator of the Incredibles films or Pete Doctor of Inside Out and Soul, are synonymous with Pixar movies.

But the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker has developed a career out of making animated movies pulling from her heritage, first with the Oscar-winning short film Bao in 2018 and now with her major feature Turning Red, which forgone theaters and moved immediately to the Disney+ streaming service this weekend.

The film is the second straight Pixar release to premiere exclusively on Disney’s online streaming platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic following Luca last year and while this allows the film to reach a wider audience more easily, Turning Red suffers from lack of studio support and almost feels like an afterthought from a studio whose most successful film in recent memory, “Encanto,” is likely to win multiple Academy Awards later this month.

Shi’s film follows 13-year-old Meilin, an introverted, academic-oriented eighth grader with a small group of close friends who bond over a mutual love for boy band “4Town.” They plan to attend an upcoming concert in their hometown of Toronto, only to be waylaid by Meilin, who turns into a giant red panda when overly excited.

Rosalie Chiang provides a bright cheer to Meilin, especially when narrating in the first act of the film. When Meilin turns into the panda, Chiang adds a slight panic to her cadence that accentuates Meilin’s frantic excitability.

Sandra Oh is exceptional as Meilin’s overbearing mother Ming and her line readings of Ming’s frequent screeches instantly transport audiences back to their own childhoods during those moments where their own parents unintentionally embarrass them.

The best animated portions of the film are when Meilin is in panda form as Turning Red becomes more visually dynamic with a better character model than Meilin in human form.

Parents of younger children should probably watch Turning Red on their own before deciding whether to allow their kids to watch the film. Some of its rebellious themes, sexual innuendos and allusions to menstruation may not be subjects parents would approve of.

Pixar’s animation is largely sharp throughout and Shi integrates Japanese anime style often into the design of the film when characters get excited, representing this glee with bulging eyes on the verge of tears that comes from the anime influence.

The contrast in light and shadow Pixar’s animators are able to develop create a genuine three-dimensional element to the film that also is among the visual highlights.

Though the film is set in the early 2000s, the only real signpost of the setting comes in the form of the boy band “4Town” that the girls try to see in concert from the opening moments of the film. In that way, Turning Red feels instantly dated as if it should have come out over a decade ago and not in 2022.

Billie Eilish and Finneas, likely to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their theme to the James Bond film No Time To Die, craft several catchy yet unmemorable tunes for “4Town” and it’s in the moments where Turning Red leans into its cultural roots that the film becomes something beyond a strange PG-13 coming-of-age dramedy.

Because it’s a Pixar film and released in limited theatrical markets to maintain eligibility, Turning Red is a likely contender for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Academy Awards, although the much more anticipated Lightyear spinoff of the Toy Story franchise this summer could push it out of contention.

Not nearly on the level of Disney’s far superior family magic film Encanto, Turning Red may not be an ideal choice for younger audiences nor as much of a wide-spread crowd pleaser although catching the film on Disney+ offers a great opportunity for families to try the largely entertaining movie at low cost.