Gunpowder Milkshake: Janey’s got a gun

Gunpowder Milkshake never had a chance at a theatrical run. The film’s biggest star is Karen Gillan, a talented actress with major ensemble roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as villainous half-robot Nebula and alongside Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in the Jumanji reboot films.

A major studio eyeing box office success isn’t going to put their resources into a female-led action ensemble film without a big name draw at the top of the billing and as much as Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett bring to Gunpowder Milkshake, it’s not enough to entice someone to finance getting the film onto the big screen in any significant way.

But in many ways, writer/director Navot Papushado’s first major feature is the perfect streamer movie.

Highly influenced by films like John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Kingsman and the complete works of Quentin Tarantino, Gunpowder Milkshake opts for flashy neon colors, brutal violence and simple matter-of-fact dialogue to bulldoze its way through the narrative with as little world building as possible.

The film finds Gillan’s Sam as a hitwoman on the run after betraying the organization that hired her to protect an innocent young girl kidnapped by clumsy, greedy lowlifes. When Sam and her ward, Emily, make it to a safe house, they are greeted by women from Sam’s past that prove to be key allies in a war against all comers.

Gillan is a generally enjoyable lead to follow over the course of two hours as her strong comedic timing really allows for the moments of levity to strike home well in the sparing moments they occur. A large segment of her Sam does feel somewhat lifted from Keanu Reaves’ titular performance in the John Wick series with a stoic, slightly muted monotone delivery for much of the film and a clear decision to internalize all of Sam’s childhood trauma and turn it into cold-blooded violence that anchors the film.

Despite the ridiculous nature of many of the situations the film puts her in, Gillan is able to carry action sequences with the gusto necessary to allow audiences to maintain a suspension of disbelief that makes the scenes implausibly enjoyable rather than short circuiting viewers’ engagement with the movie.

At her side for most of the running time is Chloe Coleman, who’s far more charming here than in last year’s underwhelming family action adventure My Spy. Coleman lays out Emily’s emotions bare and holds her own in scenes opposite Gillan, especially when the pair are trying to escape a slew of armed baddies in a bulletproof red speedster.

There’s a decent blend of homage and originality to the film’s many fight sequences, from a battle in a dimly-lit bowling alley with faded neon lights meant to evoke shades of Kill Bill to a fight in a hospital hallway that provides some of the most inventive choreography in several years in spite of a ridiculous pretext.

Stylistically, the action sequences vary in weapon choice to a much larger degree than the average thriller would and the film’s lone car chase scene has a distinctly original twist that is among the highlights. Cinematographer Michael Seresin does a solid job capturing moments from unique vantage points that emphasize and accentuate the bright visual color palette of Gunpowder Milkshake, but it’s often undercut by uneven editing.

It’s a significantly superior film to Charlize Theron’s Netflix action adventure film The Old Guard, but not quite on the level of her big screen hip action thriller Atomic Blonde, from which Papushado draws some inspiration.

While not among the best films of the year, the ease of access and high rewatchability make Gunpowder Milkshake a clear choice for action fans to take a chance on with their Netflix subscriptions while waiting for the next Marvel film or John Wick installment to arrive.


Snake Eyes: Fighting with a dull blade

Henry Golding broke out in 2018 as the charming boyfriend in Jon M. Chu’s hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians.

Since that time, the Malaysian actor has built a reputation for using his good looks and charisma with successful supporting turns in films like the thriller A Simple Favor, dramedy Last Christmas and crime dramedy The Gentlemen.

His first major lead role is a woeful misuse of Golding’s talent and skillset to this point as director Robert Schwentke strangles out any personality the actor might bring to the table with a stoic, borderline unlikeable character in hopes of restarting an unpopular action franchise based on a children’s cartoon and toy line.

Snake Eyes functionally erases everything about the well-established hero from the G.I. Joe series and hits the reset button for a third time after failed attempts to launch a franchise with 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, directed ironically enough by Chu.

In this iteration of the title character, Snake Eyes is a drifter wandering across the world looking for a fight when he stumbles into the middle of a war between the Yakuza and the Arashikage clan, where he saves the life of a potential rival and trains in the ways of the ninja.

The film functionally does both the character and Golding himself a major disservice by blurring the line too much between Snake Eyes as an anti-hero and an antagonist. There’s no real reason to root for Snake Eyes other than Golding’s innate likeability as he bafflingly waffles both sides of the coin to the point where it doesn’t even really feel like writers Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse know what to do with him.

Golding is clearly trying here, both physically by putting himself through rigorous training to do as many of the stunts himself as possible and emotionally to try and draw anything out of an underdeveloped character. But unfortunately nothing seems to be working.

The same could be said for Andrew Koji’s Tommy, a man who craves to be trusted and loyal but without any real motivation. The film’s true villains also lack distinctive motivations beyond cursory nods to G.I. Joe’s rival Cobra organization and it’s only Samara Weaving’s introduction as fellow “Joe” Scarlett that provides Snake Eyes with any punch in the latter half of the film.

Snake Eyes prides itself on intense hand-to-hand and sword-to-sword action sequences, but all too often these moments are plagued by poor cinematography, or worse yet, inherently terrible lighting that masks and distracts from the deliberate, methodical work of the stars and stunt teams.

As is most often the case in subpar fight-intensive films, the pivotal sequence in the final act is shrouded in the cover of darkness with pitch-black layers obscuring a car chase scene and combat on an 18-wheeler leading into a mystic battle in tight spaces with random blazes of fire lighting the way.

Audiences quite often won’t know what they’re watching on screen, which allows Schwentke to cut corners visually and attempt to create excitement via parlor tricks. It certainly doesn’t help that a film that prides itself on realism in its combat resorts to CGI-heavy machinations in its final moments, shortchanging some solid early work and leaving a bitter taste in viewers’ mouths.

While it’s clear Paramount is trying to draw in new audiences, Snake Eyes is too forgettable to generate any traction with viewers reluctant to go to the theaters for just any movie.

Rebooting G.I. Joe this way is simply rolling the dice over and over again, expecting it not to land on double ones.


Space Jam A New Legacy: Not quite a slam dunk

Basketball superstar LeBron James showed a lot of promise for a post-playing career as an actor with a small, yet hysterical supporting turn as a caricature of himself in 2015’s Trainwreck.

In the six years that have followed, “King James,” as he is known in NBA circles, has won championships with multiple teams and rivaled Michael Jordan for the unofficial title of greatest player of all time.

James returned to the big screen for the first time in six years this weekend, chasing after Jordan with what could be considered either a spiritual sequel or outright reboot of the 1996 children’s classic Space Jam.

Space Jam: A New Legacy stars James as a fictionalized version of himself, trapped inside the computer substructure inside Warner Brothers Studios dubbed the “Warnerverse” and forced to team up with Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang to win a basketball game to save his kidnapped son.

It’s readily apparent to be a modernization of the initial premise that saw Jordan play hoops with the “Toon Squad,” but an additional half-hour to the running time allows director Malcolm D. Lee to cram in as much I.P. as possible as an animated version of James flies across the Warner universe through Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, DC comic books, Casablanca and even the dystopian science-fiction world of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Often these one-off gags miss the mark and bloat the film unnecessarily; there’s no need for the evil clown Pennywise from It to watch a basketball game other than to be a distraction.

When the moments are well animated and ironically enough James isn’t involved, however, they can land for an amused chuckle that will sail right over kids’ heads.

James himself isn’t a terrible actor. It’s just that the screenplay from writers Terence Nance, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor is mediocre that the basketball star isn’t able to score given bad setups and bland dialogue.

With A New Legacy, James is actually probably about at the same level Jordan was as a performer in the mid-90s, but there isn’t a Bill Murray to riff off of or an Ivan Reitman producing the film to raise the comedic talent involved.

Oscar nominee Don Cheadle – whose other HBO Max film No Sudden Move is among the year’s best features – isn’t holding back at all as the villain, a computer algorithm richly named Al. G Rhythm, because that’s the level of thought being put into the narrative of the film.

Acting largely against a green screen and likely not even with James in the same room, Cheadle cranks the volume up to 11 in a performance that’s cartoonishly menacing and one that kids will enjoy hating while parents roll their eyes, perfect for the film’s target audience.

Warner Brothers’ animation department is filling up the proverbial stat sheet with this film, both in the volume of content drawn into each frame and in the visual artistry required to achieve the number of looks desired in the film. The strongest sections of A New Legacy come in the digitized world and there’s always something to look at that should hold the attention of kids on a fifth, tenth or hundredth re-watch.

A New Legacy feels very much like James need to continue to take the mantle from Jordan rather than make his own movie on his own merits.

In the end, it’s a Looney Tunes movie where the cartoons are significantly better than their live-action counterparts and the Ready Player One-esque Easter eggs littered throughout just distract from audience engagement, which is probably a good thing.

The film’s simultaneous release in theaters and home streaming on HBO Max makes it incredibly easy to watch, something that nostalgic adults who grew up in the 90s can give a shot with little effort or expense and something its intended audience – children 6-12 – can watch on a loop during a long summer break.


Black Widow: Filling in the gaps

Marvel has taken a two-year hiatus from the big screen following the climatic events of Avengers: Endgame.

Although the studio has produced several successful miniseries in the meantime for Disney+, fans had to wait an extra year for Phase IV of Marvel’s feature film franchise to begin with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the release of Black Widow, expected to be the final entry in the series for longtime star Scarlett Johansson as the titular assassin.

Director Cate Shortland takes significant inspiration from the spy genre to craft her feature, beginning with an intimate, subdued world of counterintelligence and balancing that against a more bombastic realm of comic book influence for a pleasing two-hour ride.

Black Widow takes place out of chronological order, in the fallout of Captain America: Civil War rather than Avengers: Endgame. Natasha Romanoff is on the run from authorities and stumbles into a faceoff with her long-lost younger sister Yelena Belova and the infamous Red Room, a Soviet assassin program that trained them both.

Johansson is solid in a film that should have come out five years ago to take more advantage of her character arc in the proper context, but the actress has such natural control of the character at this point that she naturally falls into the role regardless of the time jump. It’s a confident, driven action performance that carries the weight of the film on its shoulders while allowing others on screen to shine around her.

While Johansson is the far more established star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow places her at the same importance level as Florence Pugh, as if Johansson is passing the torch on to a key figure in the next generation of the franchise. Establishing Yelena takes up as much screen time as rounding out Natasha’s storyline, with a sisterly bond between the two characters redefining the elder sister’s arc throughout eight films and creating motivation for the younger sister’s journey still to come.

Johansson and Pugh have incredible chemistry on screen and their natural balance shines in both physical action sequences and more subdued, character driven moments. The pair onscreen together are the highlight of Black Widow.

Pugh especially carries every scene she’s in with a performance that’s as if she had been playing Yelena for 10 years like Johansson has with Natasha.

David Harbour does a good job playing both comic relief and emotional support as the pair’s father figure Red Guardian, while Rachel Weisz’s Melina is woefully underwritten and played overly passive for a spy of her caliber.

As is the case with most Marvel films, the villains are underwhelming with Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov serving as the quiet man in the shadows who may or may not be dead. 

The classic Marvel baddie Taskmaster is almost completely robotic, save for one moment. While the initial combat sequence between Taskmaster and Black Widow is solid, showcasing the villain’s ability to mimic the opponent’s combat style, it often felt that the character was included for the sake of having an iconic villain in the film rather than actually serving a material purpose.

Action evolves over the course of Black Widow, leaning more on a grounded hand-to-hand and car chase style reminiscent of Jason Bourne or James Bond films in the first hour and ramping up the spectacle as time goes on. The pacing and relative lack of action scenes may disappoint some Marvel fans looking for larger set pieces, but the compelling narrative does make up for this in large part.

Within the context of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow falls somewhere in the middle third of the series as a whole as it lacks the long-term storytelling payoffs or dynamic energy of other films in the franchise.

But for an audience starved of superhero action adventure on the big screen, Black Widow certainly holds its own as a solid MCU movie and an important one moving forward that’s well worth the price of admission.


No Sudden Move: A crime thriller for Steven

Steven Soderbergh makes movies with only one audience in mind: Steven Soderbergh.

The filmmaker behind classics like Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and Traffic is well into a point in his career where he has a clear vision for what he wants to do, can do it quickly and loves to experiment with the visual form as his own personal art project. 

It’s why he can quickly move from shooting a basketball drama on iPhones with High Flying Bird to plot-twisting vignette pieces strung together in The Laundromat to his latest film, a period crime drama that may fly well over the heads of casual audiences but could make ardent cinephiles re-watch over and over again for the little cinematic flourishes.

Three random criminals unfamiliar with each other are hired to “babysit” a blackmail victim and his family, only to see their relatively simple assignment spiral far beyond their control and sink far into the deeps of the underbelly of 1950s Detroit. While it rarely confronts these issues head-on, No Sudden Move reeks with deep-seeded racism and disenfranchisement of the period and larger conspiracy on a national level.

At the center of the film, Don Cheadle is a contemplative force as Curt Goynes, fresh out of prison and in need of quick cash. Although audiences are never truly sure what anyone in the film is thinking, Cheadle allows viewers to see Curt’s mind constantly churning possible scenarios and escape hatches in order to make it through rich and alive.

It’s the least flashy performance in a film filled with characters, yet Cheadle’s constant, steady presence gives the audience something to latch onto as the slow-burn, deliberate narrative moves along.

This is perfectly contrast by a dodgy, controlled mania from mobster-on-the-out Ronald Russo, played by Benicio del Toro. The Usual Suspects star is tailor-made for these sort of crime thrillers as his work often leaves viewers on the edge of their seat in nervous anticipation of what’s to come next as del Toro plays each role so in the moment that there’s genuine surprise as events roll out in real time.

Cheadle and del Toro have choppy chemistry on-screen, but this works in a film where trust is at an intense low and both actors feel like they’re working each other so as not to get worked themselves.

The film boasts a cavalcade of terrific performers littered throughout that give No Sudden Move a distinctly vibrant, character driven feel.

Kieran Culkin is intensely slimy as a criminal ringleader, while Ray Liotta evokes the dark side of his Goodfellas past as an unscrupulous crime boss. Uncut Gems breakout Julia Fox steals scenes as Liotta’s wife who may be cheating with Ronald, while David Harbour gives one of his best performances as the main victim with secrets of his own.

A major cameo left unspoiled here is the perfect jarring awake of the audience that the film needs to ramp things up to its climatic end and the scene featuring the uncredited star is among the most intriguing. Writer Ed Solomon’s terrific screenplay truly comes alive in this moment as a discussion of the randomness of events melds with social context that puts everything that came before into a new light.

Nothing is given or telegraphed to the audience as the plot weaves and winds its way through the narrative. Soderbergh and Solomon make a clear, conscious decision not to let the minutia of over explanation get in the way of driving things forward as the camera follows Curt and Ronald deeper into trouble.

No Sudden Move floats through its two-hour run time thanks to some silky, velvet covered visuals from Soderbergh in conjunction with cinematographer Peter Andrews. Shot with modern cameras equipped with period lenses, most scenes have a fish-eye quality to them that rounds and obscures the view. This pairs exceptionally well with Soderbergh’s high contrast lighting and distinctly off-kilter camera placement that finds the audience looking up from a tilted head at characters or at an almost two-dimensional parallel.

Warner Brothers’ decision to release No Sudden Move in July exclusively on HBO Max pretty much excludes any possibility of an awards season run for the Soderbergh film, which is among the very best of his last decade of work. It’s doubly disappointing not to be able to watch this mid-budget adult drama on the big screen as it’s exactly the kind of film that could draw out moviegoers hoping to make a return to the theater after more than a year away to see a film that isn’t a popcorn franchise film.

No Sudden Move is a low-risk, high-reward offering for cinephiles who will either quickly engage with Soderbergh’s unique perspective or be able to move on to other films without too much commitment thanks to it streaming on HBO Max.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.