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F9: Drive fast, make things go boom

It’s time to call a spade a spade.

The Fast and the Furious series, now nine films and one spinoff deep in a 20-year period, isn’t in the action-adventure genre anymore.

The Vin Diesel-led F9, which debuted in theaters Friday after sitting on the shelf due to the coronavirus pandemic for over a year, cements the legacy of the franchise as comic-book level superhero franchise fodder.

Realism left the franchise long before Dominic Toretto and his “family” of maverick car thieves stopped street racing, but director Justin Lin’s return to the franchise ramps up the incredulousness in yet another pointless need of self one-upsmanship. F9 is so blatant in its exploitation of its origins that characters point out how unkillable they are and one villain even resorts to a quippy comment that begins with “if this were a movie….”

There are certainly those who will feel right at home in this over-the-top heist/racing/superspy feature, a generation of pre-teens conditioned by the Marvel Cinematic Universe to toss cinematic convention out the window.

But even film lovers who accepted the franchise’s transition from small-world crime drama to full fledge international thrillers will find that Diesel and company drove their vehicles off the cliff with “F9,” jumping the shark as they freefall into a pile of cash.

This iteration of the franchise finds Toretto pulled back into action as a long-lost relative resurfaces in the pursuit of “Project Ares,” a device created to hijack and override any computer-based device it can connect to. Incredibly, this MacGuffin is separated into three parts – two digital pieces and an encryption key – that drive the film’s three act narrative structure and allow Lin and co-writer Daniel Casey to completely reconstruct character arcs from the entire franchise.

Not only does this hinder the cohesiveness of F9 as a true narrative, but it reinforces the fact that nothing that happens in the film really matters in the long run as it will get wiped away or explained differently to suit the needs of an even more spectacular blunder of logic three years from now.

Over the course of the franchise, Diesel has taken his Dominic Toretto and willed him into being a mumbling, white tank-top wearing version of the Incredible Hulk, a brutish imp of a mountain man whose relentless talk of family conflicts with just how vapid and vain Toretto has become. He’s portrayed the role seven times, slowly consolidating the character down to its simplest common denominator.

Every performance in the film becomes a caricature in this mold, whether it’s Michelle Rodriguez’s ride-or-die girlfriend with the excessive bravado or Tyrese Gibson as the resident buffoon. With 10 main characters and at least another six significant supporting roles, the plot has to become overly complicated at the expense of character development in order to justify the wildly uneven storytelling involved.

The sole newcomer to the series – sure to be integrated into the already announced 10th and 11th films – is John Cena, a capable strongman actor whose comedic talents and charisma are largely wasted as Jakob. His presence in the film fills the two requirements of any new character – following in the footsteps of Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and Charlize Theron before him – be a big name star with the box office presence to drag viewers to the theater and keep things vague enough to bring back and expand the pencil sketch of a character created in their debut.

F9 is made for the big screen and perhaps the first true blockbuster action film that could be worth a trip to theaters given the scale of all the CGI-heavy stunt sequences there are. Driving through landmine fields and across the streets of major European cities in cars equipped with supercharged magnets create moments that are too loud and boisterous to be enjoyed for the first time on a home television.

If there’s a time to enjoy the franchise in 2021, seeing it now is probably the best opportunity as this is the fastest and most furious that F9 will get. Audiences who can turn off their brains to ignore the massive leaps in logic or young enough not to care will find a lot of enjoyment from the spectacle. 

Those who can’t will likely find it to be on par with The Fate of The Furious as perhaps the worst in the entire franchise and not worth the time, effort or money.

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12 Mighty Orphans: Feel-good fumble

Inspirational sports films have practically become a tradition on par with events like the World Series, Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby.

Without fail, it’s expected – almost demanded – that there will be one every year.

Texas director Ty Roberts has brought audiences an emotional drama based on a true story from his home state, putting viewers on the sidelines with an underdog football team with an exceptional amount of heart.

His film 12 Mighty Orphans debuted in Texas theaters last week concurrently with its premiere at the Tribeca Festival in New York City. The drama stars Luke Wilson as Rusty Russell, the first football coach hired at the Masonic Home and School of Texas, an orphanage where abandoned teenage boys create their own sense of family by fighting to compete against other Texas high schools and vie for a state championship.

At times, it’s next to impossible not to roll the eyes at a sports film leaning so heavily into the melodrama that the orchestral cues meant to bring on the tears completely water down any sizable impact the film could have made on the audience.

Wilson is a compelling lead actor in Orphans, offering compassion to the students he relates to as a former orphan himself. His Russell provides a calm in rough waters and Wilson moves smoothly throughout tender moments guiding the young men on and off the field.

When the film moves deeper into Russell’s past, Roberts wavers on how well he explains the character’s military history, though Wilson is adept at finding a balance between Russell’s personal struggles and being strong for his team.

At his side every step of the way, Golden Globe winner Martin Sheen is a delight as team physician turned assistant coach Doc Hall. Though the centerpiece of his character is an affinity for sneaking shots of whiskey at any given moment, it’s surprisingly the one flaw written into the film that isn’t overplayed.

Sheen wryly provided the film with both gravitas and a warm, lighthearted comedic touch that keeps the energy in moments where Roberts’ film could go off the rails and he has a wonderful chemistry with Wilson that draws audiences in to the notion that the team could make it deep into the postseason.

Because there are twelve players on the team and a limited running time, some of the orphans get pushed into the background to accommodate larger storylines. Among the key players, Jake Austin Walker is the highlight as the standoffish, brute Hardy. Walker commands the screen whenever he appears and brings an intensity to his performance that radiates the apprehensive nature of the character perfectly.

For some reason, melodramas like Orphans artificially create villains to heighten the plight of the heroes and the ones created here feel exceptionally inauthentic.

Seinfeld and Jurassic Park actor Wayne Knight plays a magnificently spot on caricature of Snidely Whiplash, the old cartoon baddie who would routinely tie up women to railroad tracks and twist his pencil-thin mustache.

But in this case, Knight has become an abusive, thieving teacher at the home with no depth of character or nuance. From the moment he arrives on screen in the opening moments to the final scenes, his Frank Wynn undercuts all the heartwarming momentum Wilson and Sheen develop with the orphans themselves, shattering any illusion or viewer engagement.

The same could be said for the work of the film’s co-writer Lane Garrison, who is cast as a rival football coach with an impishly cruel streak added almost exclusively to make Wilson’s Russell look better by default. Not only does Wilson not need this to achieve the sympathy of the audience, but it also actually weakens his character by implying that both men are at the same level of their coaching.

Distributor Sony Pictures Classics has done the film very little favors releasing the film more than two months before the start of high school football two-a-days, where the anticipation for the gridiron would be at its highest.

Eventually, 12 Mighty Orphans will likely make its way into a rotation of feel-good sports films that high school coaches could play for extra motivation for the team before a big game ala Remember the Titans or Woodlawn, but casual moviegoers shouldn’t go out of their way to seek out this middling feature that comes up short of the goal line.

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All These Sons: Tribeca At Home review

Gun violence is senseless.

Nowhere in the United States is it more prevalent than Chicago, where more people are shot and killed than in New York City and Los Angeles combined.

For filmmakers Joshua Altman and Bing Liu’s latest documentary All These Sons, approaching the sensitive subject meant dealing with the trauma and emotional scars that linger long after bullet wounds have healed.

Their focus is on a pair of social service support groups for young African American men on the west and south side of Chicago that help stop the constantly revolving cycle of violence.

At the film’s core are Marshall Hatch Jr., the son of an area priest who leads youth through a construction trades program to keep them off the streets, and Billy Moore, leading a redemption program of his own after being on both sides of gun violence, first shooting a high school basketball standout in his youth and later losing his own son in a shooting.

All These Sons also profiles the struggles of men like Zay Manning – shot during the course of the program and ready to retaliate on a moment’s notice – and Shamont Slaughter, whose inner turmoil pushes him to the brink following the tragic shooting of his younger brother.

Altman and Liu capture the immediate fear that pushes these young men into acts of aggression: a perception that a rival might be calling in friends for a hit, the need to closely watch every car that drives past looking for the barrel of a gun, the escalating do-or-die mentality that ends with the pulling of a trigger.

All These Sons showcases the urgency needed to curb gun violence in Chicago, but more importantly, it highlights the impactful, redemptive work being done by local organizations hoping to transform potential victims and perpetrators to end the cycle of killing.

Many of the men attending these programs have either known someone shot or been shot themselves, which has left long-lasting scars and post-traumatic stress that can be triggered by simply walking down the street and noticing an unfamiliar or threatening face.

By focusing not on the tragedy of gun violence but the hope of redemption, All These Sons prevents the struggles of men like Shamont and Zay from being exploitive and maintains their fallible humanity.

All These Sons doesn’t try to over analyze or dramatize the violence that haunts every moment of the film. It’s a story of hopeful redemption littered with emotional, philosophical conversations about anger, forgiveness and PTSD.

The cinematography is simple, yet impactful with an emphasis on unobtrusive, verité style that leaves the audience feeling as if they are an invisible bystander witnessing the evolution of young men moving away from a dangerous path. The visuals also do a masterful job of highlighting Chicago’s beauty in limited wide angle shots that allow audiences to feel a larger sense of scale that helps ground just how personal and intimate the stories of All These Sons are.

This is especially true during a nighttime scene on the Fourth of July, where Chicago police vans are cruising down the streets with fireworks lighting up all around them, cross cutting with images of young African American boys setting off sparklers in school playgrounds. 

What should be a glorious expression of American pride is offset immediately with news footage from the following Monday, where it was announced that 1,500 officers working overtime were deployed over the weekend and still 66 people were wounded and six died due to gun violence.

Composer Kris Bowers accents the film with a subtle, yet powerful orchestral score that helps to create the emotional backdrop for key moments.

A surefire contender for best independent documentary next award season, All These Sons should also be on the Oscar shortlist for documentary feature and will finish 2020 as one of the year’s top films regardless of genre.

Liu, who directed the terrific 2018 doc Minding The Gap, returns with something less personal but equally as powerful that will generate meaningful conversations for film lovers in all walks of life.

This review was written after screening as part of the 2021 Tribeca Festival online.

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In The Heights: Capturing the spirit of community

Much of great filmmaking comes down to proper world building, creating a community within the narrative to help bring the audience into an unfamiliar, unique place.

Filmmakers often showcase the worlds in which they come from, which makes authentic portrayals of diverse communities rarer than they should be.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway smash hit took audiences into his community, a melting pot of Latino immigrants from all walks of life. Paired with the vision of “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, In The Heights pushes underrepresented voices to the forefront of major box office cinema with one of the year’s most vibrant and joyous film.

Based on the Tony Award winning musical, In The Heights follows a summer in the lives of four young residents in the Washington Heights district of New York City, a diverse immigrant community staving off gentrification and generational expectations.

After breaking out in Miranda’s “Hamilton” and the 2018 remake of “A Star is Born,” Anthony Ramos should be a full-fledged star after this performance as Usnavi, a young bodega shop owner with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to rebuild his father’s beachside bar.

It’s within Ramos’ eyes that audiences are pulled into the world of the film and his everyman persona carries the narrative through its relatively disjointed moments leaping between multiple storylines.

Melissa Barrera is a revelation to American audiences as the Mexican actress breaks out in a big way with a passionate, wide-eyed turn as Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, who longs to leave her job at the local salon to become a high-end fashion designer.

A secondary love story between Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’ Benny worked better in the Broadway production than in the film version as neither character gets the full character development needed to get audiences to buy in to their romance.

“NYPD Blue” star Jimmy Smits provides a commanding, fatherly presence as taxi cab company owner Kevin Rosario, while Miranda himself takes on a smaller role as the piragua salesman that doubles as a sort of Greek chorus to reinforce the larger community presence.

The best work in the entire film comes from Olga Merediz, who offers a simply perfect turn as the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia. In what becomes the emotional core of In The Heights, Merediz personifies the immigrant struggle masterfully over the course of a single song and her portrayal of Abuela’s quiet confidence and faith in God becomes a guiding light for not just the community but the other actors as well.

The tenderness in Abuela and Usnavi’s relationship is exceptional and bridges the gap between the first and second act perfectly.

Chu has the ability to create visual spectacle that becomes cinema magic in short bursts. The style he developed for “Crazy Rich Asians” translates incredibly well for the musical moments in this film. Bright, vivid imagery that radiates joy into the hearts of audiences are perfectly edited to match the rhythms and flows of Miranda’s music.

The bombastic showstopper “96,000” set at a local pool features a cast of nearly a hundred basking in the outdoor sun while slamming their hands into the water and encapsulates the pulse of the community in one hopeful set of images.

Conversely, Chu’s nuanced, almost theatrical take on “Pacencia Y Fe” is far more intimate, trapping audiences in narrow, confining hallways meant to symbolize the struggles immigrants faced in their new life in America. It’s a breathtaking sequence that will likely help Merediz contend for an Academy Award as a supporting actress after earning a Tony nomination for the same role as a part of the original Broadway cast in 2008.

If there are shortcomings to the musical adaptation, the most glaring comes out in between songs as the energy and vibrancy are tempered down by exposition. Chu struggles in these moments to provide the amount of urgency needed to maintain the audience’s attention, but it’s swiftly regained as soon as the next number kicks off.

The driving force of the narrative is a sweltering heat wave that leads to a blackout in the neighborhood, but visually, In The Heights lacks the ability to indicate just how hot it is on the block besides sweat stains on the backs and underarms of shirts even though the characters aren’t sweating themselves.

In The Heights will likely be a popular prediction for major nominations next awards season, but an early June release and the looming West Side Story remake from Steven Spielberg slated this December could leave the crowd-pleaser on the outside looking in.

Film lovers intrigued by In The Heights should make the effort to seek out the film both in theaters and on HBO Max. The musical format lends itself to easy viewings on a streaming service at home as audiences can create their own intermissions between musical sequences and Chu’s visual language makes a perfect backdrop for the casually engaged.

But it’s also important to catch In The Heights on the biggest screen possible, where the spectacle of the vibrant musical can be fully appreciated.

More importantly, it’s a chance to vote with the almighty dollar to convince studios that culturally diverse cinema is not a niche market and offers something for every moviegoer.

In that regard, In The Heights is a true triumph.

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Wrath of Man: No saints, only sinners

As theaters begin the arduous process of trying to bring audiences back on a regular basis after more than a year away, it’s imperative that studios deliver signature films that represent the best of what cinema can do in every genre.

Wrath of Man, the first film pairing action star Jason Statham with British auteur Guy Ritchie in over 15 years, is without question of that caliber.

Oozing with pitch black villainy, the heist drama is Ritchie’s best film in a decade and makes the most out of a cold-blooded Statham performance.

Based on the 2004 French film Le Convoyeur, Wrath of Man centers around a mysterious new employee known as H working at a cash truck company moving millions of dollars in and around Los Angeles. The less audiences know about Ritchie’s film before heading to theaters, the better as the immersive screenplay crafts a world of intrigue and violence that needs to unfold naturally.

It’s a heist thriller that’s not about the money although there’s a lot of it to be thrown around. Characters by and large view the cash they obsess over as a means to an end rather than riches and as a result, the chilling evil of Wrath of Man is relative on a sliding scale rather than having clear cut good guys and baddies. 

Statham has made a career out of playing wry, charming characters who can beat the hell out of bad guys. But with Wrath of Man, he’s exceptional at delving into a more menacing, reserved persona as H, leaving audiences fully questioning his motivations as the nefarious plot unfurls.

To the audience, H becomes a vigilante antihero doing “things in two weeks that it would take (the government) 20 years” and Statham’s cerebral performance accentuates the grit and brutality of the most violent film in Ritchie’s filmography.

One of Ritchie’s strength as a filmmaker has always been getting the most from large ensemble casts and Wrath of Man showcases the strengths of each of its performers, big and small.

Whether it’s former heartthrob Josh Hartnett chewing the scenery as a cocky yet skittish driver named “Boy Sweat” Dave, Scott Eastwood as a mildly psychopathic former Special Forces operative or rapper Post Malone leading a crew of robbers, each primary cast member has their chance to shine.

No one takes advantage of their opportunity quite like Holt McCallany, a recognizable character actor given the space to feed off of Ritchie’s morally ambiguous script. His truck crew foreman Bullet is among the most complex, layered performances in the entire film and McCallany perfectly runs the gambit of psychological expressions from fear to cynicism to humor to calming strength.

There are a lot of moving parts in Wrath of Man with multiple plotlines and character arcs to be dealt with, but Ritchie expertly blends the narrative around one or two key events, showcasing them from different perspectives.

Crisp, distinct editing from James Herbert turns scenes on a dime with his cutting of Ritchie’s film, making events revisited later in Wrath of Man still feel fresh and unique.

Brooding visuals toned by dark, shadowy lowlights are a signature look of the film and cinematographer Alan Stewart expertly frames each shot to cast characters in just the right amount of texture to maintain a sharpness to the feature. A series of wide arcing, extended camera shots highlight outdoor locations to provide geographical context needed throughout the film and often help key audiences in to what might be happening next.

Composer Christopher Benstead’s deep, haunting score sets the tone from the opening moments and brilliantly incorporates sounds within the scene like squeaky hinges or pistols loading to fully integrate an ominous dread throughout. One chilling montage set to a piece of Benstead’s score melded with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is especially effective at inspiring terror and dread.

An exceptionally bleak, brutal film, Wrath of Man relentlessly attacks each moment with stylized vigor and is the heart-stopping thriller certain to coax moviegoers back to the cinema.

While it may not resonate with everyone, as in true Guy Ritchie fashion, it’s a film certain to generate a cult following like Snatch or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with endless re-watchability for years to come.

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The Father: Waging war on aging

First time filmmakers delivering quality debut features has been a staple of this year’s award season with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and Regina King’s One Night in Miami… as standouts.

Dramatist Florian Zeller has also become a name to watch in cinema, adapting his critically acclaimed stage play for the big screen and earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, two acting nods and best adapted screenplay.

The Father finds Anthony trying to maintain his independence in spite of his advanced age while his daughter Anne hopes to find a caretaker to help him with his daily life. As he balks at the help of others, Anthony finds himself doubting those around him, his own mind and even reality itself.

At the core of the film is a terrifically nuanced turn from Sir Anthony Hopkins, for whom Zeller wrote the titular role and named the character after. The Oscar winner is especially adept here at guiding audiences through the tonal shifts in the drama through his performance, which finds Anthony more and more unsure of himself over time.

Hopkins uses the non-verbal to communicate these changes with both a widening or narrowing of his eyes to give viewers clarity into Anthony’s mental state, but also in his physicality as Hopkins’ gait, shoulder movement and posture inform the larger picture that Anthony’s words cannot express.

This is especially true as Anthony meets (or more likely re-meets) characters throughout The Father as Hopkins expresses an individuality to each interaction that matches the mood of the scene and yet allows for Anthony’s fading memory to befuddle or confuse things.

Hopkins’ strongest moments come opposite Olivia Colman as Anne. The pair have an ability to emotionally express how Anthony’s situation has become a burden onto Anne, but in a way that shows off a deep-rooted bond somewhere between comradery and love.

Zeller’s screenplay is ripe with emotionally taxing yet fulfilling moments that genuinely display the effects mental illness have on the elderly and those who love them. Where it turns from solid script to truly inspired drama, however, is during a second viewing of the film as the pieces are all assembled and early moments take on new meaning with greater context.

The Father has a very large influence from its theater roots, often feeling immensely small in scale with dialogue-intensive exchanges in tight quarters.

But the film becomes something much more in its cinematic form thanks to expert, Academy Award nominated editing from Yorgos Lamprinos. Scenes are tied together in such a way – always from Anthony’s perspective – that audiences wander through the film trying to piece together its mysteries like how Anthony attempts to understand an everchanging environment.

In its stage form, it would be difficult for characters to melt in and out of the action in the same way they do in Zeller’s film. A simple, well-timed cut away masks this process and allows scenes that would change dramatically on stage to occur without incident. 

The fact that the editing enhances viewers’ understanding of Anthony’s mental and emotional predicament is astounding and very similar stylistically to Tara Miele’s indie fantasy drama Wander Darkly. 

Visually, The Father suffers slightly from Zeller’s shot construction and staging as his eye for the theater can cause imbalanced framing with slightly askew cameras positioned over the shoulder of actors as they are blurred at the edge of a frame to highlight another.

The Father is a strong contender this Sunday at the Academy Awards with Hopkins a co-frontrunner for Best Actor alongside the late Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Colman, a recent Oscar winner herself, could be a surprise as well in supporting actress although she is likely running third behind Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari and Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

A solid drama with compelling lead performances, The Father certainly deserves the honors it has been bestowed this awards season although it’s safe to say that Zeller’s film could wait until a reasonably priced home viewing rather than premium on-demand rental or a trip to the theater.

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WeWork: Myth of the unicorn

“If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.” – Scott Galloway, marketing professor at N.Y.U.

An attractive, tall man stands in front of the camera, confident and charming in his demeanor yet fumbling over his words as he attempts to explain a “fundamental shift” in the real estate business.

Quite suddenly, he lifts his leg and passes gas, which comes across as endearing and mildly funny until time passes with an unfinished monologue underscored by news anchors discussing the financial collapse of his company.

It’s a tonally mixed, but exactly on point introduction to Adam Neumann, then co-founder and CEO of a tech/real estate startup that ballooned to massive size in ten years only to fall by the wayside in weeks.

Neumann – and to a certain extent, his company – are the focus of Academy Award nominated director Jed Rothstein’s latest documentary WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which dropped on Hulu earlier this month after an impressive debut at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.

WeWork combines the ruthless business ambition of Facebook critique The Social Network and last year’s Fyre Festival documentaries with cult-centric docudramas like The Vow. 

From the outset, Rothstein allows audiences into the world of WeWork through founder Neumann’s captivating, almost Svengali-like personality boosting big dreams of a connected world through co-habitated work spaces and integrated, communal living.

Rothstein focuses less on the company itself, which developed real estate in New York City as open plan office buildings for startup businesses and freelancers. Instead, WeWork is almost entirely about the culture, the man behind its vision and how greed and relentless expansion brought the whole thing tumbling down.

Neumann declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but through a plethora of archival footage, his magnetic presence reverberates across each and every moment.

There’s something striking about the way films like WeWork come together, often with a massive backlog of behind-the-scenes footage originally commissioned by the subject themselves. It’s clear at times that Neumann is thinking of a grandiose, flattering documentary about his company as he pontificates to camera about his communal ideals.

Rothstein infuses millennial pop culture sentimentality into his feature that give WeWork a hip style very much in keeping with the free-spirited tone Neumann aspired to for his company.

The film is very detail oriented about technical business lingo and numbers that may be confusing to those outside corporate structures. Rothstein combats this through the use of computer graphics that simplify the data and present it in a visually digestible way. 

A thirty second summary of WeWork’s philosophy on “EBITDA” or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization takes a complex business evaluation metric and uses quick, flashy graphs to explain to lay viewers exactly how the company was hoodwinking investors. 

The biggest gap within the WeWork documentary is the void of discussion about co-founder Miguel McKelvey, who remains a part of the company and is shown rarely and mentioned even less. It’s astounding – and almost inconceivable – for a player to have such a significant impact on the creation and operation of a multi-billion dollar business and not become a focus of the documentary.

In this regard, it’s as WeWork isn’t about the company at all, but more the singularity of Neumann as a mythical figure whose rise and fall glorifies corporate CEOs undeserving of golden parachutes. 

An interviewee late in the documentary says that “when you focus the story on Adam, you miss how many people worked really hard to bring this impossible vision to life.” That’s true both of the company itself and of Rothstein’s documentary, which uses former WeWork employees to carry the bulk of the interviews but mostly in the context of talking about Neumann and his impact on the company and their lives rather than the group as a whole.

WeWork will also set the stage for an upcoming miniseries from Apple on the fall of the company with Oscar winners Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway set to star as Neumann and his wife, Rebecca. A second miniseries and additional feature films are also slated according to reports from major industry outlets.

An early contender for one of the year’s best documentaries, WeWork is a must see experience sure to captivate and likely anger viewers.

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Godzilla vs Kong: Monster movie fight

Large scale spectacle often serves as a primary reason moviegoers head to the theaters, whether it be epic battles between rival medieval armies or spies preventing world destruction or comic book heroes saving the universe.

In hopes for a big screen surge, Warner Brothers has put its faith in another tried and true blockbuster genre – the monster movie – with a gigantic showdown long in the making.

Director Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong is exactly what it sounds like, a faceoff between the two most well-known movie monsters, each with a storied cinematic history and primed for a fight expected to draw viewers out of their homes for old school thrills.

A decision to move King Kong from his remote refuge in search of his native home puts Kong and his protectors in the path of an enraged Godzilla, back on land after three quiet years for unknown reasons.

At its best, Godzilla vs. Kong lives up to the promise shown in earlier installments like 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. At its worst, it devolves into a Pacific Rim-esque mess.

Godzilla vs. Kong puts the wrong giant at the front as it’s the king of the jungle who truly takes center stage in Wingard’s film.

Uprooted from his home in Skull Island and forced into a journey of self-discovery, Kong has the most dramatic character development of the entire film while Godzilla slithers in occasionally from underwater to wreak havoc. Both creatures are shown in all their glory from a visual standpoint and the action sequences have a good amount of energy to them.

Most notably, this third Godzilla entry is perhaps the first this century to showcase the monster in bright daylight for extended periods of time, allowing audiences to truly get the most out of what they came to see: giant creatures beating each other to a pulp and destroying major cities.

The battles are the focal point for the entire film, receiving the best treatment from Wingard and intricate, thoughtful examinations of how a sea lizard and land-bound monkey might duke it out. An early sequence with Kong transported by boat only to come face to face with Godzilla in the middle of the ocean is especially engaging and creative in this regard.

The human characters in Godzilla vs. Kong, however, continuously fight an uphill battle for relevance as pretty much all the actors are saddled with outlandish plot devices and laughably subpar dialogue that drags most of the emotional weight out of the film.

While it’s great to see talents like Rebecca Hall, Julian Dennison, Millie Bobby Brown and especially the underutilized Brian Tyree Henry earn sizable screen time, viewers can easily tell that the material is holding actors back.

The one exception to this is Kaylee Hottle’s Jia, the one character besides the monsters actually written with purpose and care.

A deaf character played by a deaf actress, Jia comes across as the most genuine character in the film with a wide open heart and a connection to Kong through sign language that makes sense and helps propel the story forward both logically and emotionally, a rare feat in this action-adventure.

Wingard and his team take great care to muffle or outright mute the sound at times to put viewers in Jia’s shoes during her interactions with Kong and the ways they inventively craft the relationship between a young girl and a massive giant is perhaps the best human-titan interaction in the entire series.

It’s impossible to fully divorce a review of Godzilla vs. Kong from a debate about how to watch the film as it is currently playing both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max for the next several weeks.

If Warner Brothers was intent on releasing one of their tentpole intellectual property features in order to revitalize theaters coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, they would have put their four-hour odyssey Zach Snyder’s Justice League on the big screen rather than making it an exclusive selling point for their affiliated streamer.

In a normal year, Godzilla vs. Kong would have been a run-of-the-mill, turn-your-brain-off action blockbuster that came and went just as unimpressively as prior Godzilla entry King of the Monsters did in 2019. Wingard’s film feels more important now because, by in large, there is no real competition.

Truly, the CGI battle sequences and renderings of the titular iconic titans are worthy of the big screen where their grandiose majesty can be fully taken in by the audience. However, these scenes are not transcendent enough nor make up enough of the film’s running time to justify skipping a home viewing experience where Godzilla vs. Kong is certainly worth a shot.

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Another Round: To life’s freedoms and excesses

Danish teenagers play an unusual drinking game at the beginning of director Thomas Vinterberg’s new film.

Teamed in pairs, they run around a large lake carrying a case of beer and must finish the entire load before they can cross the finish line, where adults cheer them on and police idly look on.

It’s a familiar tradition in Denmark, a country whose laissez-faire attitudes towards alcohol create the backdrop for the most intriguing premise to a feature film.

Another Round, starring Mads Mikkelsen, follows four high school teachers plagued with the malaise and minutia of ordinary everyday life. Their solution to rouse them from lethargy in the hopes of being better teachers, more attentive spouses and to feel alive again is to test a theory that they will improve their lives by keeping a constant, yet moderate amount of alcohol in their system.

If it were an American film, Another Round would be a rumpus comedy that might blend Animal House with American Beauty. But Vinterberg keeps a more deliberate tone that feels looser and free from genre constraints, floating in and out of pace in a naturalistic sense that pervades the lead performance as well as the filmmaking itself.

Mikkelsen is more subdued than one might expect from a character experimenting with alcohol as intoxication brings out layers within Martin, both positive and negative that Mikkelsen balances to create a sense of believability without excessive sloppiness.

The shallow lethargy of Martin to open the film, almost to the point where audiences can touch the glazed-over look in Mikkelsen’s lifeless eyes, begins to awaken as alcohol flows into his system to validate the group’s hypothesis. Mikkelsen and Vinterberg take great care to ensure that the path to inebriation feels fluid and in keeping with a larger dramatic narrative rather than for comedic show.

Within Mikkelsen, viewers are able to feel the pulsating highs and crashing lows of alcoholism in revealing, entertaining ways that ground Vinterberg’s tragicomedy.

While Martin provides the center of the film, his three comrades in drink – Tommy, Peter and Nikolaj – give Another Round added depth by exploring the differences alcohol may have on people mentally and physically. Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe and Magnus Millang perfectly capture the relatable way in which close co-workers can bond together and yet lead separate lives hidden away in solitude.

The narrative is framed through segments that follow the trajectory of the group’s “research,” with Vinterberg often interrupting the visual space with black screens and small text to indicate text message conversations or lines from the study the group is writing as it is being crafted. Smartly, this also clearly defines for the audience the degree to which Martin and his colleagues are intoxicated, often showing the blood alcohol content level rise on screen as breathalyzers are used.

Vinterberg’s screenplay – written with Tobias Lindholm – draws the audience in by giving Martin the words to express his emotions as the alcohol increases, but also starts to remove those words at the same rate with a potent poignancy that culminates in one of the year’s most rousing cinematic endings.

A clear front runner for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, Another Round also snuck into the Best Director category for Vinterberg, ousting expected nominee Aaron Sorkin for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and contender Regina King for One Night in Miami.

Another Round isn’t an advertisement for alcohol use in excess, nor is it a treatise on the moral consequences of substance abuse. Countless films have engaged with the subject matter in that way.

Through Mikkelsen’s splendid performance and a thoughtful screenplay, Vinterberg has captured a largely hopeful outlook that celebrates life and second chances – literally another round of living – that audiences should seek out now that the Oscar contender has arrived on Hulu.

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Same ingredients, brand new dish

For years, Marvel Studios has dominated the blockbuster landscape with countless feature films debuting superheroes, building team-ups and raking in cash.

Its natural comic book rival, DC Comics, has always been behind the curve, attempting to play catch up by fast-tracking their way through Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman films to get to Justice League, their answer to The Avengers, a Joss Whedon movie that propelled Marvel into the cinematic stratosphere financially.

Director Zack Snyder had been given the reigns to the DC cinematic universe and after semi-successful turns with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, took the helm on Justice League only to cede control – ironically enough to Whedon – after the death of his teenage daughter during post-production.

A revitalized, extended version of the film Zack Snyder’s Justice League, better known to comic book fans as the Snyder Cut dropped on HBO Max Thursday four years after Whedon’s version was reviled by ardent fans of the series begging to see Snyder’s vision carried through.

The plot is largely the same. Bruce Wayne’s Batman has to assemble a team of heroes to attempt to stop an alien invasion from destroying the planet.

How direction influences everything about a film has never been clearer than examining the differences between Snyder and Whedon’s versions of Justice League. If events in both films didn’t unfold in essentially the same way with the same characters, it would be nearly impossible to see similarities between the two versions.

Whedon brightens the frame, shrinks action to its core and plays up the comic book nature of his heroes in a PG-13 wonderland that tries to Marvel-ify a DC property. In his eyes, it’s a commercial property.

Snyder’s voice shines through in the four hour 2021 edition, ramping up the length and brutality of the action sequences and pushing audiences to their absolute limit in a grounded meta-textual commentary on dramatic themes. The Snyder Cut is a somber elegy that happens to be about super heroes, striving for something closer to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

The main performances aren’t altered significantly. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne maintains a gravel texture to his cadence and the added scenes only enhance Batman’s faith in others that stems from events in Batman v Superman.

The same could be said of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Henry Cavill’s Superman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, larger versions of characters that are already carved in stone.

But Snyder also extends the film to place newer heroes like The Flash and Cyborg on par with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman with enhanced character development. 

Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen (aka The Flash) has the same signature naivety and wit from the 2017 edition, but his motivations for joining the team are more layered and full-fledged.

Ray Fisher’s Cyborg becomes the lynchpin of the film rather than a hanger-on, giving Fisher the opportunity to infuse his character with a brooding anger that softens subtlety over the course of the film.

The best performance in the revised cut comes from six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, whose Lois Lane carries a major section of the 2021 edition with a deeply stoic melancholia that far exceeds everyone around her. 

The Snyder Cut is an exceptionally remastered, wholly original version of the framework of “Justice League” that breathes life into the 2017 disaster and gives the film an identity as a film about family, redemption and teamwork that the original simply didn’t have.

Visually, Snyder makes his version distinctive in two key ways: changing the aspect ratio from widescreen to the virtually square 4:3 and removing the shine off Whedon’s version and replacing it with Snyder’s signature haze that places a weathered texture on the picture.

Clocking in at just over four hours and nearly double the original version’s run time, the Snyder Cut is really for hardcore comic book movie fans who also devour the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and won’t hold up as well for casual moviegoers. It is broken into six segments that almost make the Snyder Cut into a television miniseries capable of binging in one sitting or taking in piecemeal.

Whether this Snyder Cut will have a major impact on the future of the DC cinematic universe is somewhat unclear. Warner Brothers has not reached back out to the director since splitting in 2017.

But the same fans who sparked the online movement #ReleaseTheSnyderCut to get the film finalized and into the public could use this massive improvement to reinvigorate the franchise further and make the Snyder Cut a significant moment in cinema history deserving of wider audiences.

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I Care A Lot: The most legal of scams

Thousands of senior citizens from all walks of life across the country are currently under legal guardianship, a means by which elderly individuals incapacitated from being able to make health and financial decisions for themselves.

In many situations, this is in the best interest of the individual, deemed a ward of the state and assigned a caretaker to assist with financial, medical and legal transactions on their behalf.

But as is so often the case, granting power of attorney over another person can be a corruptible action where the guardian looks out for their own self-interest and financial gain as numerous caretakers have been arrested in recent years for exploiting their wards.

Writer/director J Blakeson points his camera lens squarely on the idea that nefarious people game the legal system to rob others of their life savings with I Care A Lot, a black dramedy that debuted at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival before releasing on Netflix last month.

In the film, Golden Globe and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson, who has turned her profession as a legal guardian to senior citizens into a money-making machine, convincing the courts to make rich retirees wards of the state in her care. When her eyes become trained on a new victim, things spiral out of control rather quickly.

Blakeson infuses his film with an abundance of dry wit painted over a stylized background of bright, shimmering hues that give I Care A Lot that “feels too good to be true” sense of something amiss under the surface. His points on the welfare system for the elderly are well-taken and Blakeson emphasizes the levels of corruption that can occur to swindle the unwitting every step of the way.

There are no heroes to be found here and as such, it often makes it difficult for the audience to truly connect with the film as viewers are forced to balance one character’s treachery with the next in a way that never truly feels stable.

In I Care A Lot, Rosamund Pike is a right proper villain as it were. Audiences feel the callousness and depths of Marla’s treachery oozing off every line delivery and the cold, blankness approach Pike brings to the character.

As the film’s protagonist, Pike goes to great effort in order to ensure an entertaining, engaging character with which to build a feature around. She does so in a way that commands the attention of those around her not with raw magnetism, but with Marla’s sheer willpower and determination to win at any cost.

Dianne Wiest is terrific in short bursts as Marla’s latest victim-to-be, Jennifer, blending both a naivety and hyper-awareness into a character slowly losing her agency and later her mind as Marla places her in a retirement home to wallow away her days.

A solid supporting cast including Eiza González as Marla’s partner and assistant, Peter Dinklage as a shadowy figure with ties to Jennifer and Chris Messina as a lawyer trying to free Jennifer give I Care A Lot added personality with vibrant performances and choices that don’t always work but feed into Blakeson’s directorial style.

I Care A Lot makes great effort to show how the elderly can be blindsided by a variety of corporate interests that take human beings and turn them into commodities for financial profiteering. Almost like something from an Ocean’s Eleven heist, Blakeson meticulously lays this out through a series of handshake deals, private court hearings and fake smiles as Marla and her associates perform their tricks to swindle seniors out of their life savings.

Blakeson does a terrific job of setting these initial expectations for his audience only to reveal something much more nefarious and darker. All the while, the bright sheen that covers I Care A Lot early visually begins to fade slightly as Marla’s world spirals out of control.

If Blakeson’s film was through and through the courtroom dark dramedy like originally framed, the premise of I Care A Lot was strong enough to really make it a true standout film. As it is, however, it simply devolves into genre fodder perfect for an intriguing evening Netflix watch on the couch.

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Minari: Struggling toward the American dream

There’s something simple, yet elegant about director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest feature, a semi-autobiographical tale base on his childhood growing up in America’s heartland.

The story is ordinary – and the cinema understated in large part – but there’s an ethereal quality to his film that opens with a young boy running in an empty field of green and never truly stops flowing in spite of the small character drama within.

Set during the 1980s in rural Arkansas, Minari follows the Yi family who move to a plot of land so Jacob can fulfill his dream of becoming a vegetable farmer selling his crops to an emerging Korean population in the South. His choices put a strain on his relationship with his wife, while his young son David contends with a health condition and his grandmother that he doesn’t consider to be his grandma.

Walking Dead and Burning star Steven Yeun centers the film with a driven, considered performance as Jacob, a man whose quest for the American dream begins to isolate him from the family he pulled from California. The forthright confidence of Jacob propels Chung’s narrative forward and allows the audience to examine the family dynamic in idyllic memory but with a hue of sadness and anger that pulls at the edges of this conceit.

It’s a performance that does tend to swallow the softer, almost muted work of Yeri Han as Monica who shines more in scenes opposite the young children rather than Yeun as her ability to draw compassion for Monica’s children far surpasses the anger she exudes during Monica’s conflicts with Jacob.

While Yeun is celebrated as the film’s lead, the true star of Minari is eight-year-old Alan Kim, who steals every scene he’s in as David with a childlike wonder and heart. Audiences experience the pain and uncertainty of the family’s plights through David’s eyes and Kim is a wide-open vessel through which viewers can be drawn into the story with his affable humor and inquisitive spirit.

The grandmother is expertly played by Yuh-jung Youn with a brash yet tender love that anchors the family – especially David and his mother. Moments with the other family members are important to the narrative of Minari, but the best work of the entire film is in scenes simply between Kim and Youn where the awkward unease of a boy meeting a relative for the first time melts into the emotional core thanks to tremendous chemistry between the two actors.

Will Patton’s Paul brings just the right amount of colorful twist to the story with his eccentric brand of Christianity challenging the Yi family.

It’s difficult to appreciate Minari receiving accolades in foreign language film categories simply because the majority of the film is in Korean with English subtitles because Minari is an American film about American immigrants living out the American dream. In some ways, it feels reductive to push Chung’s film out of categories and putting it in the box of “foreign film” as Minari deserves much more.

Chung directs from his own screenplay, which allows him to fully pull from his own childhood to make Minari feel both a distant memory and a clear and immediate reality. This is especially evident in the performances he is able to capture from Kim, Yeun and Youn and extends over to the visual artistry of the film.

The cinematography of Minari provides both a very muted, unobtrusive look for much of the film to allow for the audience to focus on the dialogue and performances, but it’s in the film’s more grandiose moments that director of photography Lachlan Milne’s work shines. 

Capturing the countryside in bright, natural lighting, Milne provides a true sense of scale for the wide-open, limitless possibilities of the Yi family’s newfound life creating a farm and also Jacob’s personal hopes for the future as they grow and narrow over the course of Minari.

The film will likely make the cut for the Oscar Best Picture race, though it will probably see a stronger showing at the Film Independent Spirit Awards than with the Academy. Yeun could see his way into the best actor race in spite of a strong category while Youn should earn a supporting actress nomination but could miss out entirely.

Minari does suffer from not having a true theatrical release as the gorgeous panoramas and simple narrative beauty would create a terrific word-of-mouth campaign far stronger than the weaker one A24 has given it. With a digital release via video-on-demand to accent a small run in theaters, Minari should be the film ardent cinephiles with an eye for independent cinema seek out in preparation for the delayed awards season.