MEAN GIRLS Review

This Trip back to North Shore High Justifies itself by still being Sharp in its Observations of Vacuousness.

ORIGIN Review

Director Ava DuVernay Adapts Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and takes us on a journey of global investigation and discovery.

THE IRON CLAW Review

Director Sean Durkin Takes the Epic Tragedies and Triumphs of the Von Erich Family and Crafts a Devastating Story around Placing Your Convictions in the Wrong People.

AMERICAN FICTION Review

Writer/Director Cord Jefferson’s Feature Debut Splits the Difference Between Searing Satire and Emotional Family Drama Coming out a Winner in Both Respects.

POOR THINGS Review

Emma Stone is Daring and Mark Ruffalo is Hilarious in this Surreal Fever Dream of Philosophy and Attempting to Understand our Nature through Unorthodox Methods.

TOP 10 OF 2023


This year has been a bit of a transition period to say the least. 2022 marked the first full calendar year in which I produced a weekly video review of the biggest release on my own. It was a lot of fun but a lot of work and producing those reviews at a level of quality with which I was satisfied in a consistent manner did end up hindering my viewing habits (I saw almost a hundred more movies this year than I did in 2022). While the video format of reviewing movies was an experience I largely enjoyed it’s one I had already planned to cut back on this year. And so, when the theater chain I partnered with to produce said movie reviews saw a change of management in early May and no longer wanted to accommodate our shooting in their locations it felt like something of a mixed blessing. I didn't know where exactly I'd go with my film criticism as I'd poured the entirety of my efforts into the YouTube channel and while I still don't plan to post as obsessively or consistently as I did six or seven years ago, my Letterboxd reviews were simply becoming too long and taking up too much bandwidth in my brain for me to leave them off of this site I originally started out of college. All of that to say, I have no idea where 2024 will take me, if I'll still be posting here in a year's time, or if some new opportunity or avenue will present itself. Whatever the case, I am sure of one thing though and that is the fact you can likely count on me to post my favorite films of the year here no matter what other plans or obstacles the year throws at me (just look at last year), but without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2023…

THE IRON CLAW Review

After a single viewing I know that despite my disappointments with The Iron Claw they are not because of what the film delivers or how it delivers it, but simply because I wanted more of what it was already delivering. Familiar with the story of and myth surrounding the Von Erich family and always willing to be nostalgic for any kind of professional wrestling pre-1997 or so, I must admit to being rather anxious walking into the latest from Sean Durkin. Though the writer/director has only made two features prior to this (Martha Marcy May Marlene being one of my favorite films of 2011), his ability to capture tone and a sense of place is an exceptional quality when done with sincerity and those qualities serve him and this story tremendously. That said, it wasn’t Durkin, the cast, or anything glaring about this production that made me anxious - in fact, the more details that came out about the film the more excited I was to see what they might do with this epic story of tragedy and triumph - and therein lies the cause for such anxiety: could this story, this epic of the Von Erich’s, be both contained and done proper justice in this format? My fear was that this would be the rare case where the material would be better served by a ten-episode season of television than the two-hour feature we’ve been delivered and while that still may be true there is no denying the soul of this film and, appropriately so, the strength of it. 

Beginning with an introduction to the patriarch and innovator of the titular move, Jack AKA Fritz Von Erich (an electric Holt McCallany) changed the family name from Adkisson to his mother's maiden, German name (who was also apparently “plagued with bad luck”) in Von Erich as a gimmick for his wrestling persona that aided him in portraying a Nazi-like heel in the ring. The monicker stuck as all five of Fritz's sons, four of which are portrayed in the film, entered the world of professional wrestling under the Von Erich name. While this opening sequence conveys a number of critical items most important is the contrast between how Fritz and his wife, Doris (an emotionally suppressed, but blisteringly conflicted Maura Tierney), approach life, Fritz through his appearance and reputation and Doris through her faith. It is this kind of contrasting system of ideas and ideals that create the policies by which their sons live and the theories they intellectually adhere to. It makes sense then that after setting the stage as such that the remainder of the first act sees Durkin (who also wrote the screenplay) introducing each of the four boys included in his version of these events while concurrently suggesting how the nurturing of a force like Fritz and a presence like Doris imbued upon and molded them into the men they became and the fate they met. Beginning with Kevin (Zac Efron) we immediately understand that this oldest, living Von Erich brother is also the most resolute and resilient of the bunch. Efron's first scene sees him waking up in the early morning hours and going for a run against the Denton, Texas sunrise. He invites his younger brother, David (Harris Dickinson), to join him, but David elects to remain in bed. Again, Durkin knows he has a limited amount of time to tell this gigantic story and doesn't sacrifice a second of screentime as every moment tells us something about a character that will shape their story. We see Kevin, already heavily embroiled in this world through events at the Dallas Sportatorium, become the Texas Heavyweight Champion early on; only elevating the family's local fame as well as their visibility to execs in the National Wrestling Association (NWA), which was the ultimate goal.

AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM Review

The irony of Zack Snyder's latest sci-fi epic releasing on Netflix essentially the same day as what will be the final relic of his orchestration at Warner Bros. with regards to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is undoubtedly significant in some somber, unfortunate way yet I can't quite put my finger on why this congregation of Snyder's new and old universes feels sad on both accounts. It's paradoxical, sure, but I guess in the broader sense it simply seems like despite the DCEU not going his way that he has recovered by making a two-part, $166 million Star Wars rip-off for the biggest streaming service in the world and yet, it doesn't feel like a recovery at all; somehow it feels like a failure on two fronts which is what makes Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom all the more depressing. 

Remember when Willem Dafoe was in an Aquaman movie? Doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago and a universe away? Unfortunately, thanks to the pandemic and James Gunn both things are by and large true. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the end of an era, the last of a dying breed, and though certainly not how Snyder saw things ending, the movie itself is not the worst note the current iteration of the DCEU could have gone out on (that would have been The Flash). It's not good, don't get me wrong, but there is a certain charm that director James Wan and, of course, star Jason Momoa bring to what are already absurd proceedings. Likely not the better movie of the two, but because I went into this much-delayed and much-maligned sequel five years after having been conditioned to certain expectations, this was a better overall experience because of the (much) lower anticipation level. All things considered, Wan is still very much a world-class filmmaker who knows how to mount a handsomely constructed action-adventure romp and when hung on the back of a comically over the top lead it couldn't be more perfect for feeding every Saturday morning desire of every nine-year-old out there.

POOR THINGS Review

When I was in high school in the early aughts it was the peak of "emo" culture as the wave of pop-punk music and hairstyles had fully enveloped the youth. Punk rock had completely overtaken the music scene that had previously belonged to the pure pop acts at the turn of the millennium. A good portion of what would have previously been categorized as the "mainstream" crowd was now more than happy to sport t-shirts from Hot Topic toasting their favorite bands; the more undiscovered, the better. At seventeen and eighteen this was more than enough to pique my interest in the shifting allegiances and blurred lines of high school cliques in the real world yet the bigger revelation that came out of this was an examination of the "goth" community. Beyond their shared interests in (again) music, I began to question what it was that motivated them to dress so distinctly and so differently. Furthermore, why the need to take it to such an extreme? My initial thought was simply that: to be different. Maybe that's exactly what it was or maybe it served as a signal to those who also dressed that way that they were of like minds. While this was certainly a probable explanation the overarching intent of the intensity of their look was seemingly to stand out and stand apart. This naturally led to internal inquiries of what is exactly different about you if what you're doing to be different is solely for that reason. And then, if there is this whole group of people who dress the same solely to be different then aren't they just another clique themselves? Of course, these social circles are formed due to similar interests, participation in the same activities, churches, tax brackets, and so on but as someone who likes to think of themselves as moderate in every facet of life the difference in "goths" and every other clique went back to the question of intent. Was there meaning behind the mohawks and dark make-up? 

While I never fleshed these questions and ideas out with anyone, this was the beginning seeds of understanding the rather broad (and simple) lesson that how you present yourself physically wasn't the aspect that would ultimately determine what makes you different from someone else. This isn't a slight against the goth crowd either, but more an observation and kind of affirmation that such exterior effort shouldn't be necessary in order to feel seen and valued. There's no shame in wanting to feel singular and validated - high school today must be a thousand times more complicated in these regards with what a mess social media has made in not only feeling the need to stand out in your bubble, but against the entirety of the internet - but if there is nothing beyond the desire to be different than simply being different that is when we enter the territory of someone's entire personality consisting only of being non-conforming because that's what they do. When considering all of this through the lens of high school circles, weird for the sake of weird began to feel as hollow as the goths no doubt assumed most of the jock's heads were. Weird for the sake of being weird is what brings me to Poor Things and whether or not the way it presents itself was simply to set itself apart or if the attempts to subvert and push the envelope were in fact to serve a bigger, more well-rounded series of ideas. That, or at least be in service of lampooning some very specific, but recognizable facet of the world in which viewers could relate to the point their opinion of the film might transcend the intentionally strange, possibly superficial surface.

THE COLOR PURPLE Review

I wrestled with whether or not I should finally see Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple, the 1982 novel written by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker in the form of letters between Celie - a poor African-American girl in the early 1900s - and God, as it has remained one of the bigger holes in my attempts at completing Spielberg's filmography. Given Blitz Bazawule's new film was based on the 2005 theatrical production that turned Walker's work into a full-fledged musical though, I decided I'd write about this new film from that perspective, which is to say, one's first encounter with the material in any form. To this extent, Bazawule's film is both what I expected it to be given the context clues around the story while also being rather surprising in who its targets are and where its objectives lie. I will be interested to see how this latest adaptation differs from Spielberg's not only due to the fact it is sprinkled with musical numbers and is generally of a lighter tone than is maybe suitable for the material, but largely (mostly) for the perspective from which it is presented and told. There has of course been much discussion over the last few years as to whether Spielberg, a Jewish white male, was the right person to best depict the lives of African American women in rural Georgia during this time period to which the answer is obviously no, but with the introduction of Bazawule's vision into the fold the ways in which these iterations compare and contrast will certainly make for an interesting case study.

MAESTRO Review

There is a scene late in Maestro where Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein is instructing a student on the instincts of conducting and in that moment, I realized this single portion was more the film I expected from Cooper given the precedent he’d set with A Star is Born than the one we ultimately got. A Star is Born was a movie that truly appreciated the process around crafting a song and/or piece of music and stood apart for its consideration of such. As much as a biopic about the late, great Bernstein felt like a natural next step in Cooper’s directing career Maestro simply never digs into its subject’s process and headspace in the way his previous film did; in a way that never allows the viewer to feel they really understand this man at his core – what exactly was it that made him so great? Is the film visually stunning and sonically overwhelming to the point it can't help but be impressive? Absolutely. And yet, even as I sat marveling at the ways in which Cooper had grown as a storyteller, an actor, and even an "artist" - as pompous as that may sound - I was still left with an empty, hollow feeling in that I could feel the intent and understand the meaning of as much, but never sensed the significance. Like a conductor on his podium who is supposed to be allowing the audience to experience the music, Cooper instead uses his filmmaking as a way of exerting his hard work and dedication over those who may not be as committed. Cooper is proud of himself (as he should be), but instead of allowing the text to do the talking as he did in his debut feature, we see this hubris show through the craft this time around. Not enlightening his audience to a notable figure's creative process through an exploration of the creative process, but instead shoving said intent down their throats.

AMERICAN FICTION Review

What is immediately striking about Cord Jefferson's directorial debut, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 award-winning novel Erasure, is how it balances the two different movies that it is and how these two movies work together to re-enforce the overall point of the film rather than competing against one another for more prominence or importance. The truth is, both could exist on their own and still be engaging, but the ways in which they lean on and feed in and out of one another elevate the heart and intelligence of both. From one angle, American Fiction is a burning satire, a total takedown of every stereotype the entertainment industry and by association, our culture at large, has ascribed to the African American individual and experience. From the opposite angle, Jefferson's film tells the story of a Black family in America that upends every single one of those stereotypes; painting not a perfect picture of a family to prove a point, but rather what is still a flawed yet funny and successful yet sad portrait of a life not typically seen embodied by people with pigment. 

Whether you see American Fiction as a conventional story told unconventionally or vice versa will depend on what walk of life you're approaching the film from, but the point is that by the time the credits roll the interpretation of the film's melding objectives are all on the same page. Jeffrey Wright's Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison is a writer who faces the challenge all introverted writers do in that he purports to understand and possess insight around the human condition without having spent any actual time in the wild, among people outside his academic circles in some time. Monk is distrusting of the individual student or person he encounters who does not think on the same wavelength as he while optimistic to the point he believes those same people that make up a culture of book readers will appreciate his high-brow literature enough to allow him to make a living off it. As a white male, this idea of knowing the truth deep down but still masking it in hopes that everything will be okay in the grander scheme of things leads to an interesting facet of the film, at least to viewers who look/think like me. It would seem there is a collective/unspoken desire for things to remain uninterrupted in the ways of the world even if we outwardly express a desire for truth and innovation; in other words, progress is fine as long as it is guided by the same kind of structure we’ve always adhered to. I’m not saying I agree with this, but I am saying I recognize the truth of the statement as suggested in the film. Of course, change is scary for most, but this is how American Fiction challenges a viewer of my persuasion as it asks the question, “what has shaped my perspective of black individuals and culture?” Do I take what I have been fed at face value or do I know my own truth via the work I have put into growing real relationships?

DREAM SCENARIO Review

When going into a movie with a premise as interesting as Dream Scenario there is always a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Anticipation in seeing what story the screenwriter chooses to tell through this unique premise while the anxiety centers around whether the film is able to see the full potential of said premise through to fruition. In terms of this very aesthetically indie third feature from writer/director Kristoffer Borgli the hook is that an average, everyday family man in the form of Nicolas Cage suddenly begins to show up in the dreams of both strangers and acquaintances. With no explanation as to why this is happening Cage's Paul Matthews comes to something of a fork in the road around how to deal with and/or take advantage of his newfound fame that naturally descends into notoriety. Another layer to Borgli's script in particular is that, given the premise, literally any moment in the film could either be a dream or reality leaving the audience guessing as to if what we're seeing is truly happening to our protagonist or not. 

Borgli unfortunately doesn't take as much advantage of this second layer as is available to him, but what is maybe more interesting is where the filmmaker ultimately decides to take the premise for the sake of the story he is telling. Much of the film frames Paul as a man or person searching for other people to impress and who are impressed by him, yet he constantly finds himself surrounded by those who have no interest in appeasing this desire. Whether it be his students, his children (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement), former colleagues (Dylan Baker) and girlfriends (Marnie McPhail) or even his current wife (Julianne Nicholson) in certain, critical moments – they all seem rather unbothered and unimpressed by Paul. Because of this, Paul is always searching for the insult whenever speaking with someone about himself and even when this phenomenon of him showing up in other people's dreams begins his instinct is not to wonder why this happening in the first place, but rather why his presence is only as a bystander. Still, as someone described as a "remarkable nobody" he enjoys the sudden shift in attention and isn't great at hiding it or remaining humble about it even if he remains average within this exceptional occurrence. Even when repercussions of this newfound fame begin to impact his real, personal life Paul has no sense of how to actually deal with things he otherwise imagines he would tackle head on; he’s helpless. 

WISH Review

This is the one you guys decided to have it out with, huh? The completely inoffensive, abundantly charming homage to Disney Animation Studios’ one-hundred-year history that also means to continue to push the boundaries of what constitutes a Disney princess further? I'm convinced there is a small (yet loud) and clearly influential sect of the internet whose entire purpose is to get as ahead of the narrative as possible and establish whatever direction they'd like to sway public opinion toward just to see if it sticks. For some reason, Wish was immediately dubbed lazy and unoriginal by hordes of people on TikTok (a format for micro shorts and ads) who picked apart the first clips of songs released from the film for no other reason than to say they supposedly weren't as good as songs from two years ago made for movies with different tones and objectives than this one.  

So, first, in the context of the film each and every song here works as intended which is to say, really well, with "Knowing What I Know Now" being a certified banger in the vein of classics such as "I'll Make a Man Out of You" and "I've Got a Dream". Further, the titular track of "This Wish" would be a standard Disney classic circa any other time in history. It, along with the whole of the story that doesn't stray far from your standard fairy tale pillars (young girl experiences longing and/or ambition and, in a manner of speaking, absolves the kingdom in which she lives from an evil sorcerer), are majestically rendered through a combination of the animation style and the style of that aforementioned music. The animation is in and of itself a combination of 2D watercolor background paintings (a homage to classic films dating all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and cutting-edge CG that emphasizes the hand drawn look that ultimately creates both a very modern and very retro aesthetic simultaneously.

NAPOLEON Review

There is something very 2004 about Ridley Scott's Napoleon in that it is first and foremost a large historical epic that one might have expected Scott to cash in his Gladiator chips on (it's also he and Joaquin Phoenix's first collaboration since), but more so because it shows no obvious signs of CGI saturation (aside from a few extras in a single battle sequence and a horse carcass) and when combined with Scott's wiggle room to get a little weird here and there it felt at times as if I were back in high school seeing a movie my dad would have been excited for on Thanksgiving break rather than the Apple Studios produced, long in gestation project it became that at times seemed unattainable and unfortunately sometimes still feels as much throughout its execution. The context with which one views Napoleon might be more critical to its reception (as is true with most expectations) than in most cases; the point in this instance being that there are multiple options for which to go into this. Knowing a little or a lot are always available, but knowing Scott has already discussed a lengthier version of the film immediately implies this is something of a CliffsNotes version of what he intended to make. Granted, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is something one either takes at wholesale or investigates individually given the breadth of history the man was directly involved in and responsible for shaping, but Scott tries to have his cake and eat it too resulting in what is currently a nearly three-hour experience that still feels abbreviated.

THE HOLDOVERS Review

As someone born in the late eighties and raised as a pure product of the nineties, I didn’t expect a seventies throwback piece to hit me as hard as Alexander Payne’s latest. What’s interesting is, as a millennial and someone who relates more to the first two decades above and who hasn’t seen enough “New American Cinema” born of the seventies to really recognize the qualifiers, it’s hard to know whether or not The Holdovers is in fact a movie akin to those made in the seventies or if it is simply a homage to what we now think of when we say “a seventies movie”. Payne, who is now sixty-two, has made films in the vein of seventies movies before - movies that center on multi-faceted characters with relatively small and always personal problems - but he’s never seemingly made a movie so overtly mimicking so much of what he clearly draws inspiration from. 

I say all of this as something of a qualifier in and of itself for, while I understand The Holdovers might be more provoking of the look and feel than invoking of the actual spirit of seventies cinema, as someone of my age and viewing history it left me feeling as if it had done both. Furthermore, I understand why those who might have a deeper pool of knowledge and sense of connection to movies of the seventies and their unshaven realism might find The Holdovers more of a copy of what once was rather than the authentic journey I experienced while watching the film, but the fact of the matter is: I found this far more enjoyable than expected given my aforementioned disposition, but more than that - I found this deeply affecting and honest. While it might be aping certain seventies visual cues very intently, it also manages a perfect balance of melancholy and comedy that elicits heavy truths while equally highlighting the gleefully effervescent moments of life (and how they weave our days and time together).

THE MARVELS Review

It’s been at least three years since Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, Candyman) was announced as the director of The Marvels and as a writer/director that means she has been thinking about this story for at least that long as well. I say this 1) because I doubt what is portrayed on screen here is all she had in mind (more on that later) and 2) because it’s important to remember the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into which films are released is not often the same context in which they were written or shot. DaCosta came on in the immediate aftermath of Endgame - prior to the release of either WandaVision or Ms. Marvel and most importantly - prior to COVID, likely eager to continue the story of this newly minted Avenger and the prospect of the first ever MCU lady league. Taking that into consideration, The Marvels obviously arrives at a very different point in the MCU trajectory than DaCosta likely expected as steam has been lost and arguably a fair amount of quality as well. I hate to be a doomsdayer, but the one-two punch of COVID’s impact on the release schedule and the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman threw a wrench into the MCU’s plans and as a result the whole operation into recovery mode in more ways than one. Prior to Endgame, The Marvels would have nestled snuggly between Homecoming and Ant-Man in terms of quality and stakes and no one would have batted an eye as it is both a smaller scale team-up movie and a fun comic caper, but when the fate of the MCU is riding on something more equivalent to Ant-Man and the Wasp than Civil War, folks will both be disappointed and continue to declare the end of this once bulletproof franchise.

PRISCILLA Review

Counting Priscilla, I've seen five of Sofia Coppola's eight narrative feature films (Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere are my blind spots) and the trapped, isolated, lonely woman is an obvious recurring theme in her work. This is no doubt what attracted the writer/director to Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir Elvis and Me on which Priscilla is based. Telling the story of Priscilla's courtship with Elvis, beginning in 1959 when she was only fourteen and Elvis was twenty-four, Coppola's film very much feels like a collection of very specific instances and memories Presley recalls during the thirteen years their lives crossed paths. These moments clearly left an indelible mark on what was otherwise a smitten teenager, but that would seemingly shape Presley into the woman she became; in many ways showing her a life she didn't necessarily want to lead. What makes Coppola's film so engaging are the conflicted feelings Presley experiences throughout her relationship with Elvis while the lack of any real momentum combined with a general knowledge of the events and timeline the film covers lend the film no real urgency regardless of the importance of this perspective. 

In last year's Baz Luhrman-directed, Austin Butler-starring Elvis, the scene in which Elvis meets Priscilla for the first time occurs just over an hour into the film after which it manages to distill this courtship down into a five minute scene making Priscilla much more brash in the process which is notable given Cailee Spaeny's portrayal is far more reserved. Priscilla herself seemed thrilled with Luhrman's biopic, but is also an executive producer on this film making the gray area all the more fuzzy. I wouldn't say Priscilla necessarily paints Elvis in a bad light as much as it does very much a man of his own time who handled his fame in the only way that seemed reasonable given the circumstances. Coppola's interpretation certainly makes it clear Elvis could be controlling (telling his young bride what to wear and how to style her hair), quick to lose his temper at the slightest sense of resistence, and would straight-up flirt with other women right in front of Priscilla's face, but the adapted screenplay also recognizes she is this man's safe haven and as much as she desired to do things for herself, she desired to serve that purpose for him as well. Now, I know what you're thinking, and it's a strong, "Hell no!" which is completely understandable and as a parent of a nine year-old girl who couldn't stop considering how fourteen is only five years off at several points during this viewing experience, I wholeheartedly agree. That said, and as previously stated, this is the crux of the arc we're meant to invest in and in that regard, the film does its job. 

THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER Review

Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist, Divergent) is a reliable set of hands to place your stock adaptation of a popular airport thriller in and if nothing else, The Marsh King’s Daughter demonstrates just how dependable Burger is at executing on if not elevating what could easily be dismissed as a Lifetime movie. Ironically, this is the kind of psychological drama audiences would flock to theaters to see in decades past when such material was placed in the hands of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alan Pakula. Though it's highly doubtful this adaptation of Karen Dionne's 2017 bestseller will shape any future box office trends it is nice to see something like The Marsh King’s Daughter - a movie with good bones, a strong premise, and something of a movie star in Daisy Ridley's roundabout franchise way - getting a wide release as any option for a sequel or opportunity to franchise are seemingly completely off the table. 

As refreshing as all this might feel in our current cinematic landscape, there is unfortunately still something rather rote about the experience of The Marsh King’s Daughter for, while those bones are solid, Burger's film doesn't really stand to support much depth or a stand-out performance that takes it beyond the genre stratosphere. There is potential for such, whether that be in exploring the current state of Ridley's Helena Pelletier who is in a constant state of trying to convince herself that the life she's leading is the right one after finding out the one person she believed in the most was really a monster; the movie naturally taking place when this person, this father figure, comes back into her life after twenty years. Or, one of these actors might have taken the opportunity to really infuse the material with some electricity (ahem, Mendelsohn), but instead things are played fairly safe and straightforward leaving the movie feeling predictable and uninspired.

PAIN HUSTLERS Review

Between dramatized series' like Dopesick and Painkiller to last year's unanimously praised documentary All The Beauty And The Bloodshed the whole world of the pharmaceutical scam and opioid crisis in America has been well-documented over the last few years. Director David Yates seemed to be in luck despite this barrage of similarly-themed content though, as I've only seen the Nan Goldin doc meaning this fictionalized telling of Evan Hughes' 2018 investigative feature of the same name was essentially fresh territory for me. That said, it's unfortunate Pain Hustlers or the first feature from Yates that has not been authored by J.K. Rowling since 2014's Tarzan and the first non-IP film he's made since 2005 is something he only seems tangentially connected to. That is to say that Yates, a Brit through and through, might have had a vision for how to tell this story when he read Hughes' piece, but more he likely found this distinctly American story just that therefore implying the type of vision he then defaulted to.

That default is naturally Scorsese-light as Pain Hustlers echoes recent output like The Wolf of Wall Street and similar films that came along in its wake a la The Big Short, War Dogs, and most recently Dumb Money. Each of these films center around unqualified individuals stumbling into incredible (if not always legal) situations that garner them untold amounts of money who then have to balance their greed with their inexperience before getting caught. As a piece of entertainment this moves quickly and offers enough broad insight coupled with reaches for genuine emotion to track as something worthy of your time while being informative either as a whole or about certain aspects of this crisis not yet exposed. As a novice on the subject, I found the idea at its core - the exploitation of helping people for profit rather than the greater good - naturally compelling and the details of it fascinating which made me wonder why, by the close of the film, I had no real reaction to what I'd just experienced.

INFLUENCER Review

As vapid as the title might suggest this is, Influencer is actually one of the better (if not the best) horror/thriller I've seen this year. Like so many films these days this isn't necessarily presenting us anything new, but what it's doing it's doing at a really high level. I love a movie that's smarter than it knows you're going to assume it is based on exterior factors and Influencer almost certainly takes advantage of its Shudder distribution, no marquee cast, and derisive title as each contribute to a certain kind of trashy B-movie perception that makes the fact this is actually a smart, twisty take on the role of social media not just in our lives but in the world at large all the better as said commentary is much more astute than it is mocking; never losing itself in its sermon, but instead letting the character choices and tone speak for themselves.

Not only does director Kurtis David Harder (who also co-wrote the movie with Tesh Guttikonda) take advantage of the preconceived notions around his film though, but he then steps it up further to convince us we're watching something made with real intent and awareness of style (as well as some vast knowledge of the genre) by managing to have his film aesthetically look like the staged, phony world presented via Instagram while also coming off as a credible feature film with purpose. Further, (and this is when I really knew we were in good hands) Harder drops the title card for his film thirty minutes into the runtime. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but the placement within the story and the way it combines with the soundtrack to kind of deftly say to the audience, "Okay, let's really get going now..." not only enhances the pacing, but revives interest in where the narrative could possibly go given the end of the first act feels rather finite. The fact the very next scene follows the character I didn't expect us to stick with told me all I needed to know about what might happen over the next hour and that was that I didn't know anything at all.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER Review

On the surface it would seem this latest incarnation of a familiar property was made both only for financial gain (or so they thought) and with the old-fashioned mindset that sequels must be bigger in order to be better. What is more frightening than one possessed girl? Two, right? Fortunately, this isn't exactly the line of thought eclectic (to say the least) writer/director David Gordon Green was following when making this decision. Rather, this decision is all about choice as choice is what informs the whole of this first in an intended trilogy of new Exorcist films.

Opening with an earthquake in Haiti that forces Leslie Odom Jr.'s character to choose between the survival of his wife and the life of his daughter, the film is keen to emphasize the role of our moral agency in this life and how seriously we take responsibility for our choices is just as important as the choices themselves. The way Green and co-writers Danny McBride, Scott Teems, and largely Peter Sattler weave this weight of responsibility and the constant questioning Odom's Victor Fielding has regarding the choices he's made and is confronted with making throughout the course of the film lend the otherwise familiar template of the exorcism movie some necessary weight, especially considering the lineage of William Friedkin's original.

While that original film saw both Jason Miller's Father Karras and Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeil grappling with their faith in the face of this possession, Green and co. have smartly updated not only the location of the film from Washington, D.C. to Georgia, but also the role of church and faith in what I feel I can safely assume is presently a more secular America than in 1973. In doing so, we have Fielding who is or has become an absolute non-believer in the wake of his wife dying. Fielding's daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), who is now thirteen and friends with Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) has a mother and father (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) who are very much ingrained in a community church and seem genuinely convicted in their beliefs (I lowkey kind of loved Nettles' performance in this as she lends a certain credibility to the southern protestant persona that is often easy to dismiss). When the girls disappear after school one day to secretly attempt to contact Angela's dead mother, they naturally conjure the unwanted spirits/demons that then begin to possess their bodies.

THE CREATOR Review

Visually absorbing if not thematically so. Though the ideas it's playing with and tropes it's utilizing may not be as shallow as they initially appear they tend to feel cursory due to the fact writer/director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One) never finds the right groove for his film to slide into. The Creator is ultimately a movie of fits and starts in which each new promise of something exciting and/or interesting never fully delivers on as much.

It's an odd feeling, really, given mere minutes into the film I was bowled over by the authenticity imbued on an image of a massive spacecraft hovering over a more natural (and clearly real) location. I'm a sucker for when films can integrate futuristic or not yet realized elements into a more common and recognizable environment and Edwards has a great eye for such combinations that really allow both components to pop, but while I was immediately in on the aesthetic I kept wondering when I was going to be made to care or even be wowed by anything other than the framing.

Aside from a few in-world inventions, performance moments (largely from Madeleine Yuna Voyles in a really wonderful and really complicated role for a child to play), along with some questionable story turns there wasn't anything that made me sit up in a way that I was inclined to lean forward. Rather, I kind of shifted my weight to the other armrest to consider why the film didn't seem interested in leaning into its ideas either. The mission is fairly straightforward, but the intentions are not...always. Weirdly, and despite admitting it was beings operating on artificial intelligence who nuked Los Angeles, The Creator is determined to convince us the only thing left of our souls are the fingerprints we left on the programming within the robots we're now at war with.

DUMB MONEY Review

A loud and frenetic character piece that doesn’t always give its large ensemble enough for viewers to really invest in (get it), but also delivers stock talk succinctly enough for the casual viewer to understand while kind of inherently hammering home its ideas around power, exclusivity, and the frustration that comes with not having access to the biggest motivating factor of human behavior.

Eclectic director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) knows the script from Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo has a lot going on (maybe too much at times) but he and editor Kirk Baxter (a frequent Fincher collaborator) seem to have understood the assignment from the get-go as there is a certain tempo to the film’s tone that allows for the transitions from one set of characters to the next and from one scenario to another to all feel like part of the same conversation. Whether it’s Pete Davidson, a DoorDash driver, scolding his brother immaturely for not selling at $11 million or Seth Rogen, portraying billionaire Gabe Plotkin, yelling at someone about his tennis courts there is a keen sense of forward motion in the construction of the film that keeps things moving as well as entertaining to the point you don’t question what is lacking or consider what could have been; you’re too busy trying to keep up with all that is going on to catch your breath, but most importantly…you’re having a good time.

A true time stamp of a film, Dumb Money is a thing of such recent history it may feel almost irrelevant in this moment but will undoubtedly serve as a fascinating encapsulation of this very specific snapshot in time years down the road. Presently, the casting makes this a lot of fun - especially in regard to the big wigs taking big shots – but this is Dano’s show and while, as someone from the South, I can’t tell whether he’s doing a good Boston accent or not, the performance itself is super charming and wholly endearing. We’re meant to come out of this rooting for Keith Gill and you absolutely do (I haven’t been able to stop asking for “tendies” since I saw the film).

BOTTOMS Review

I wanted to watch this again as soon as the credits (which were intercut with bloopers, I might add) ended. For 92-minutes writer/director Emma Seligman's (Shiva Baby) sophomore effort maintains a level of energy and intensity that shouldn't be overlooked. It's easy for movies to come out of the gate strong, it's admittedly difficult for movies to stick the landing, but one of the most overlooked and undervalued skills in filmmaking as a beginning to end process is maintaining the tone and energy you come out of the gate with through to the end and Bottoms comes out of the gate strong. Fortunately, Seligman and star Rachel Sennott's screenplay seemingly accomplishes everything it sets out to do, but more importantly it excels in doing so. The way in which the dialogue feels so natural, the rate at which the jokes land, and the simple creativity involved in crafting and conveying this hyper-realized version of high school where no one is subtle about or offended by which clique they belong to or where they land in the pecking order is simultaneously so impressive and so wildly funny that those aforementioned 92-minutes feel like nothing, a tease, which means all you can and want to do when the film ends is to watch it again immediately. 

Bottoms is a film as easy to appreciate as it is to be entertained by. It's not hard to spot all the ways in which Seligman and Sennott wanted to put their own stamp on the genre. This is still very much a high school movie in the vein of two best friends trying to get laid their senior year before leaving for college, but with the gender swap bit being only the first layer in their scheme to recontextualize this quest we've witnessed so many times before. Sennott and breakout star Ayo Edebiri are best friends PJ and Josie who are also both lesbians but are not involved with one another romantically. Josie is crushing on head cheerleader Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) who is currently dating the alpha male of the school in Josh (Nicholas Galitzine) while PJ would love to hook up with Isabel's right hand gal Brittany (Kaia Gerber) because she may as well be Cindy Crawford ;). Sounds simple enough, right? It is. Don't fret. Thematically we're not going for much more than some simple, universal truths about how tough it can be in those coming-of-age years, but it is in the attitude and style of how it presents itself that Bottoms really stands on its own.

THE EQUALIZER 3 Review

Denzel Washington is sixty-eight years-old and will be sixty-nine this December. I can recall taking note of this fact when writing about the previous Equalizer films as Washington was about to turn sixty shortly after the first premiered. In the last decade Washington, arguably one of our greatest and most charismatic actors, has not only made his first trilogy of films in the Equalizer movies, but has also been busy making character studies with Dan Gilroy, directing August Wilson’s Fences, as well as starring in Shakespeare adaptations with a Coen brother while sprinkling in a few other excursions like Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven re-make and John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things

While eight films in nine years may not seem like the actor is slowing down this most recent decade's worth of work compared to the previous mark some notable shifts in Washington's frame of mind. From 2003 to 2013 Denzel starred in a total of thirteen films, nine of which were first categorized as action movies. Not only was Washington more active in general, but he was choosing more physically demanding projects and while it’s obvious why the actor would want to slow down the older he gets this Equalizer franchise has shown us Denzel can still pull it off when he wants. This all to say, The Equalizer 3 is shockingly slow in its pacing and even when the action ramps up, it is limited. Whether this is to give Washington’s Robert McCall a break as well, because Fuqua wanted a steadier final act for his hero, or simply so that the (somewhat anticlimactic) payoff felt more rewarding after a long stretch of quiet, I’m not sure. Either way, this “choice” doesn’t do so much for the quality of the film as this third and final installment is again a rather by-the-numbers genre picture elevated only by having an actor of Washington’s caliber at the center to carry it.

GRAN TURISMO Review

Commercials are meant to convince and are often made to be compelling in order to do so. I've been emotionally affected by plenty of life insurance ads over the years, but Gran Turismo takes things to another level in what is essentially a two hour and fifteen-minute endorsement of the Sony, PlayStation, Nissan, and Gran Turismo brand as a whole. To dismiss this as little more than an advertisement would be a mistake though as Gran Turismo is arguably the way in which Hollywood should be operating and approaching tentpole films in 2023. Utilizing the brand as an excuse to hire interesting directors such as Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie) who can handle the logistics of these large productions while adding his unique stamp and essentially earmarking a genre movie around said brand is a win/win situation. In this capacity, not only do all of these companies get to slap their names all over everything in justifiable ways, but the creatives are given license to do things like take a shot at making their own sports movie that, while still adhering to the hallmarks of the genre, is not only well-executed, but more importantly - both convincing and compelling. 

And Gran Turismo is very well-executed. The visual prowess and scale of the film not only sell the stakes and intensity of the sport in question, but also on Blomkamp's skill as a director in what is easily his best film since his 2009 debut. Josha Stradowski is immediately set-up as the villain and main adversary of the piece as the former employer to David Harbour's once promising racer, Jack Salter. Orlando Bloom is a Nissan marketing guy who comes up with the scheme to pull in the best simulator racers to see if they can compete in real-world scenarios. Bloom's character hires Salter as the gamer's trainer which introduces us to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) a dedicated GT player who has a complicated relationship with his father (Djimon Hounsou) regarding his passions. All of these elements putting in play the underdog arc, the mentor/student relationship that slowly builds to an unbreakable bond, the father/son reconciliation, and hell - they even throw in a romantic interest (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) for good measure.

BLUE BEETLE Review

A true blue (literally) origin story that is so aware of its own expectations and limits they actually work the “it’s the journey, not the destination” stuff into the movie itself. If what’s important is that we’re on this journey together though, Blue Beetle at least knows how to lather the charm on top of its otherwise paint-by-numbers story. Having the ability to separate itself from the mess that is the current DCU doesn’t hurt either, but it is how director Angel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings) separates his film stylistically - whether indicative of James Gunn’s universe or not - combined with the appeal of the core family unit that makes this well-worn tale worth investing in. 

To this end, Xolo Maridueña makes it easy for the audience to root for him as not only does he offer the aforementioned inherent charm, but he also plays Jaime Reyes as an earnest, bumbling goof. While I know nothing of the history of the Blue Beetle comics, the film positions Reyes as someone who doesn’t typically get the win and even when he does, it’s not pretty. This is seemingly meant to be symptomatic of the treatment of Latinos both in the realm of comic book movies as well as culturally, but while Maridueña and his co-stars - including Belissa Escobedo, George Lopez, and Damián Alcázar - bring a fun dynamic to the proceedings with the one fresh trait of the film being that it integrates Jaime's family into the world-saving plot it does this at the expense of fleshing out its titular hero.

THE MEG 2: THE TRENCH Review

In 2015 I took my one and only trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. At the festival I had my first encounter with a Ben Wheatley film. The guy was coming off a couple well-reviewed indie features I hadn't seen, but was premiering his Tom Hiddleston-fronted High-Rise at the festival that year. I remember coming out of that experience bored and thinking the film felt like something made with ideas loftier than its writer could convey and for an audience where such allegories were overlooked anyway. It wanted to be something it wasn't, in short, but come to find out eight years and five Ben Wheatley films later that it wanted to be something it couldn't; at least not with Wheatley at the helm. I don't like to straight dump on people or wholly place the shortcomings of a film on the shoulders of one person, but there was no reason to believe Meg 2: The Trench was going to be good, especially with Wheatley directing. 

In all honestly, Meg 2 isn't as bad as I feared and certainly isn't as bad as the tomatometer would lead you to believe, but it isn't the kind of so bad it's good or fun either. Opening with a prehistoric prologue followed by a needle drop of Queen and Bowie's "Under Pressure" I thought we might be headed in the right direction, but while we're immediately given shark bites and Jason Statham action the three man screenplay then slows to plot out the plot no one really cares about. Li Bingbing's character is immediately noted as having died two years ago, her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai) is now being co-parented by Statham's Jonas and the girl's Uncle (Jing Wu) who is some type of scientist himself working for an environmental corporation that may or may not be evil (definitely is) that keeps a baby meg in an enclosed area for "research purposes".

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM Review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
is something we, especially myself and my millennial brethren, have seen done multiple times before, but this time it’s possibly been done the best we've ever seen it. Having been born three years after the first TMNT comics were released and the same year the more brightly-colored animated series debuted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a part of my life my entire life and hold a special place in my own sewer of nostalgia. The nineties movies (yes, even the third one) are a cornerstone of my childhood and yet, Mutant Mayhem might just surpass them on the sheer charisma of the cast and genuine camaraderie of our heroes. Not that those live-action features didn't have well-defined characters with interesting arcs, but they couldn't help but to feel a little stiff whereas here things are as natural and effortless as could be if not more so given we're talking about "turtle mutant karate teens". 

Effortless is maybe the key word here as everything in this latest animated incarnation - from the music to the execution of the age-old ideas and of course the animation style itself - feels effortlessly cool and surprisingly fresh. Director Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells vs the Machines) seemingly utilizes every tool at his disposal to emphasize the unrefined quality of our heroes and push that mentality to the forefront of the film. The style of animation will undoubtedly be compared to the Spider-Verse films, but in all honesty they each convey a different energy as Mutant Mayhem’s “rough around the edges” approach simultaneously lends the tone a bit more of an edge while still maintaining a child-like wonder as the turtles long to be part of a world that fears them. We can see the sketch marks, the incomplete outlines, and not only this, but the way the city, the sewers, as well as the people and/or mutants are depicted is far more raw - almost ugly - in a way we haven’t seen before. It’s not that the film itself is revolutionary, but what does feel so is how unconventional and hip they've managed to make a piece of IP and furthermore, the coming-of-age story it’s telling. Like, another TMNT movie could have very well felt played out and tired, but instead this feels very much akin to a "cool kid club" you'll want to be in on. A real statement on how much execution truly elevates.

TALK TO ME Review

A mix of tension and transgressions without being straight-up terrifying at any given point. The power of YouTuber's Danny and Michael Philippou's (RackaRacka) feature debut in Talk to Me is not necessarily that it scares or frightens, but more that it makes you feel the guilt and anxiety that Mia (Sophie Wilde) is dealing with in the wake of doing whatever it takes for her to get back to a place of peace. Like many a movie in the horror genre as of late, Talk to Me also deals in coping with grief, loss, and...you guessed it...the trauma caused by such experiences. Unlike many of these similarly themed therapy sessions though, Talk to Me's Mia, while being the protagonist of the piece, is not our hero. Mia is the lead, but also the leading cause of our frustration in this twisted game of possession as she’s the kind of main character who brings everyone around her down with her due to her own troublesome experiences. And it’s not that her struggles shouldn’t be or are not supported, but worse - it’s that they are - and that support is taken advantage of. Furthermore, she is so desperate to return her life to what she always imagined it would be rather than how it's turned out that she has no sense of remorse or awareness of the implications of her actions. Mia becomes so wrapped up in fulfilling her own desires to the point she is blinded to all the wreckage she’s left in her wake.

BARBIE Review

Barbie
has its fake plastic cake and eats it too. When the first note of Lizzo's "Pink" drops accompanying the reveal of production designer Sarah Greenwood's "Barbieland" as these real-life dolls dressed in Jacqueline Durran‘s wardrobe descend from their Dreamhouses there is a sense that what we, the audience and spectator, are being welcomed into are images and feelings that possess an equal amount of simplicity and elegance. There is the immediate sense of influence in that one can easily see images and references from this movie integrating themselves into the culture; stills painted in Hollywood murals alongside classics like The Wizard of Oz or characters standing next to Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, there is an adventurous sense that one has no idea what they're truly getting themselves into or at least, where this movie might go both literally and thematically. By the final scene (or two) of the film it is clear this duality of simplicity and elegance is wholly intentional so that the film works on different levels for different audience members whether that be someone who currently plays with dolls, someone who once played with dolls, or even those who always felt too boxed in by expectation to either play with dolls themselves or at least acknowledge the appeal of them. 

Yes, this is a movie about a doll, but the “we’ll sell more toys” aspect didn’t bother or invade my experience because of how intelligently writer/director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) uses this packaging to tell the story she and co-writer/life partner Noah Baumbach decided to tell or how it emphasizes the themes they wanted to explore and discuss. In addition to the levels and ideas (or levels of ideas), Barbie is also just a Technicolor fever dream of musical numbers and comedy bits that land with such frequency that even if your sympathy for Ken is maybe greater than it is for Barbie or even if Allan weirds you out a little bit (which we’ll get to) there is plenty here for all to enjoy if not hopefully (eventually) consider.

OPPENHEIMER Review

Given Christopher Nolan accomplishes as much in-camera as possible there is very little left to the imagination in Oppenheimer. From the bomb to the billions of stars and even boobs, Nolan gives us everything that made J. Robert Oppenheimer (the J apparently stands for nothing) tick. Was he a neurotic loner who was also a womanizer? A cold-hearted physicist as well as a bleeding-heart liberal? That seems to be the case and maybe the best case for why Nolan’s historical biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb” is so successful: it seamlessly integrates these contradictions into the narrative surrounding the moment that set the course of humanity on a different trajectory. Nolan's trademarks are well-suited to the story of a(nother) tortured genius who faces the greatest moral dilemma - possibly in history - and must come to terms with both his ambition, understanding his actions, and eventually wrangling with his legacy as he sees it being maligned and he himself being exiled by those with real power. 

Though technically a biopic, Oppenheimer doesn't necessarily carry a weight of obligation to feel like a fully formed portrait of the titular man, but rather Nolan's focus and more importantly his technique add more thematic and worldly weight to the proceedings rather than simply amounting to a highlight reel of Oppenheimer's most notable moments. This is also a more roundabout way of saying Nolan moves through much of his subject's life at a breakneck speed, especially in the beginning as Oppenheimer goes from student to well-renowned physicist in a handful of scenes, with very little handholding, while still elegantly establishing what inspires, drives, and irritates his main character propelling us into the second - most electric - hour of the film.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - DEAD RECKONING PART ONE Review

When you’re seven films into a franchise and up has been the only way to go for the better part of a decade there are bound to be those who look at a next entry that does the same things the last handful of entries have done, both positive and negative, and decide they’re tired of the schtick and that it’s time for the narrative to change so that the star and his brand may redeem itself at least once more. This is what seems to be happening with Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 (the cockiness of the cliffhanger likely making certain folks more eager to put the franchise in its place) yet this seventh film in the series and the third written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) only continues to improve upon or at least operate at the same level these films always have if not becoming slightly more preposterous by attempting to tackle a more contemporary and relevant issue through its story. Though story is obviously important to the Mission: Impossible films it is not their top priority, and it surprises me that such quandaries around plot semantics are what will seemingly rewrite the cultural narrative around these films that are largely lauded for their stunt work and commitment to their practicality. Personally, if Tom Cruise and McQ want to get a little more outlandish (and there is an admitted silliness here) with their antagonists I’d say they've earned a little wiggle room as they still deliver tenfold when it comes to the aspects people pay to see these excursions on the big screen for.

INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY Review

To no one's surprise James Mangold - a man who has made solid films across multiple genres - does well to craft a loving and honorable homage to Steven Spielberg. There is no broader a canvas on which to paint to Spielbergian strengths than an Indiana Jones adventure and Mangold does his best to utilize Spielberg's trademark sentimentality along with his own brand of sturdy and assured filmmaking concurrently for the purposes of, if nothing else, ensuring Harrison Ford's titular character is given a properly satisfying farewell. Though Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny may not reach the heights of the first or third entries it's a far more enjoyable film than the second and a much more gratifying experience than the fourth which is to say this follows two stone-cold classics as the third best film in the franchise; nothing to scoff at, especially given the star of this action film made it as a seventy-nine year-old. 

It is to the point of Mr. Ford's age that Dial of Destiny (and yes, I do think there could have been a better subtitle for this movie even if I'm not yet sure what that is yet) finds its true meaning beyond the chase for the MacGuffin and besides the establishing of supporting players that might continue this franchise elsewhere should Disney decide to do so (they shouldn't). That is to say, said titular MacGuffin is very purposefully made an agent of time manipulation in order to construct a story around not only the pursuit of artifacts and the pedigree and recognition that may come with as much, but more to emphasize the inability to go back and alter our regrets or act differently given a longer perspective. After the flashback-based opening set piece we are introduced to an unhappy Dr. Jones in 1969, a man out of time who doesn't even pretend to understand where he fits into the modern world or how optimism continues to exist. Indiana Jones is not who he once was no matter how much we or he would like him to be and dealing with this harsh truth and tackling it head on is largely what gives this fifth film that comes to us some forty-two years after Ford first donned the fedora the endearing quality that delivers on both the genuine entertainment and sincere send-off it delivers.

PAST LIVES Review

There isn't anything particularly flashy about playwright Celine Song’s debut feature film, Past Lives. It is a very simple and straightforward story with a sound structure concerning star-crossed lovers that is impressive because of its perceived lack of effort. The ease with which the film appears to pull off its tightrope of emotions would initially signal something lighter and less major; admittedly, this initial feeling made me question not necessarily the significance of the work, but more its weight. Of course, then the final scenes unfold and everything Song has been building to comes crashing down like a tidal wave of emotions and you can't help but to be swept up in them even if you've never experienced something similar in your own life. 

While maybe not the monumental achievement I'd been led to believe it was this line of thinking around preconceived notions and expectations became somewhat critical as I sat watching the film and the idea of how Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) would likely have never seen one another again had they not lived in a modern era with access to social media and Skype. A moment of insight, if not a particularly fresh one, about how much our lives are dictated not by fate but by circumstance was surprisingly striking. This naturally led to me questioning how I might have perceived the film differently if I'd seen it with one of the first audiences at Sundance or even better, without any knowledge of it or its critical reception at all yet I couldn't shake the idea that despite all there is to admire about the craft and execution of the film that this was still being somewhat oversold as a grand story of love instead of simply appreciated for its small, observational truths about how messy life becomes and how there isn't always someone to blame for the mess.

NO HARD FEELINGS Review

Remember in 2005 when Wedding Crashers was heralded as the return of the R-rated studio comedy? Prior to, comedies had devolved somewhat into the deluge of late-nineties high school comedies, PG-13 rated spoofs (a ripple effect of the R-rated Scary Movie in 2000), and Farrelly brother films that showed them quickly coming out of their prime. Old School jump-started the "Frat Pack" era in '03, but it was Crashers that solidified their ability to perform financially and ushered in Apatow's gang who would dominate through the 2010s. This all to say, while I'm as happy as anyone that Jennifer Lawrence's No Hard Feelings is being marketed as the "return of the R-rated mid-budget studio comedy" it ultimately feels more like an Old School than it does a Wedding Crashers. At least in terms of the culture if not also the quality. 

A perfectly funny and surprisingly sweet raunch-fest, writer/director Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys) guides No Hard Feelings through the familiar beats of a rom-com with an emphasis on the "com" given the more outlandish premise. This is especially of note considering the biggest hurdle the film had to clear was the fact it centers on a thirty-two year-old seducing a nineteen year-old and how, were the roles reversed, this (admitted double standard) would feel a lot more icky. Fortunately, Stupnitsky and co-writer John Phillips balance the potentially uncomfortable parts of their premise by not shying away from them and instead continuing to emphasize the outrageousness of Lawrence's age with the fact Lawrence's Maddie can't really handle just how much older she is than Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) or how distinct the line between her generation and the next has become.

ASTEROID CITY Review

It seems with each new Wes Anderson project the distinction between the two halves of his films that are style and story, art and heart, aesthetic and dramatic become sharper. While I wouldn't say that throughout his nearly thirty-year career the auteur has ever been "great and terrible" as in one facet succeeds while the other fails miserably, I would say he's exercised a fair amount of "great and powerful" moments while also being unanimously "wonderful" in some fashion in most if not all his films. These phrases are obviously meant to allude to the character of the Wizard of Oz due to the fact Anderson has never felt more like the man behind the curtain than he does in Asteroid City. Opening with a live taping of a narrator discussing the writing of the story we're about to see unfold the framing and structuring of this venture will undoubtedly be too sophisticated for some viewers to grasp or too complicated for others to care about. While the story of the writing of the play the narrator is telling us about begins in September of 1955 the play itself takes place a thousand or so years in the future despite the traditional Anderson aesthetic that inherently implies the past. It's confusing, but not really a detriment to the experience as the battle, but more the integration between veneer versus reality is what fans of Andersons come to his films for. 

What hurts Anderson the most in the case of Asteroid City has more to do with the cavern between these aforementioned halves; the lack of said integration. The craft on display is top-tier Anderson, naturally, yet the emotional resonance fails to make an impact (pun intended) as the juxtaposition between the perfectly crafted world and the characters on the brink rings false this time. The key factor in this being that audiences are aware the people here are little more than characters; that what we're seeing is a performance rather than weighted experiences where a genuine insight or epiphany is taking place. That is what makes the less than handful of moments when the actors break while performing the play inside the movie because they recognize something in the context of the production that echoes a conflict in their personal life so exciting and enticing. Because there isn't enough real estate for Anderson to fully explore his nesting doll structure though, these cracks in the otherwise neat facade fail to leave much of a mark. There is no doubt the distance between the emotions the people and the characters are experiencing and the levity the visual stylings bring isn't intentional, but it almost feels intentionally broad so as to allow viewers to assign whatever meaning resonates most rather than Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola having a certain theme, truth, or thought they are explicitly exploring.