‘Swallow’ Review: Haley Bennett is unforgettable in psychological thriller about a woman desperate for control

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

All it takes is some of the most anxiety-inducing click-clack-click of fingers typing on an iPhone that you’ll ever hear to empathize with the emotionally claustrophobic position of Haley Bennett’s Hunter in “Swallow.” She sports the hairdo and quiet presence of a housewife from the 1950s, but domestic surrender to her careless husband and in-laws isn’t the primary intention for director Carlo Mirabella-Davis—it’s the foundation for one of the more viscerally unsettling psychological thrillers that’s come about in recent years, an examination of how we cope with a loss of control and the hypnotic power objects can hold over us.

Despite his insistence otherwise, Hunter is more accessory than life partner to her husband, Richie (Austin Stonewell), who barely tends to acknowledge her existence except when he needs someone to blame for his wrinkled tie. There’s a pungent early air of foreboding in “Swallow,” as well as of imprisonment within the concrete-and-glass walls of a lake-side home. The location may be serene, but what goes on inside is Hunter’s quiet desperation for any semblance of control over her station.

The relationship feels downright abusive, and Bennett’s chillingly excellent performance as a woman shackled by judgement goes a long way toward making the viewer understand what she may be getting out of a habit that’s easy to imagine as horrific in any other context, and perhaps this one as well: Consuming small objects decidedly not made for consumption. After gulping down a marble, a tack or a battery, there’s a release that plays out on Bennett’s face. The shackles, it seems, are briefly loosened. Continue reading →

‘Wendy’ Review: Rustic Peter Pan reinvention is melancholy in search of meaning

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Wendy,” from writer-director Benh Zeitlin, opts for superlative over substance in telling an underwhelming tale about lost boys and girls frolicking about a paradise island suspended in youthful stasis, where childhood is eternal and grown-up agendas are made villainous. The tropes should sound familiar—it’s not just Zeitlin’s point, but the only semblance of a saving grace.

As much as “Wendy” has all the pieces to be a stripped-down echo of the “Peter Pan” tale, this is more re-interpretation than origin story. The film – bursting with atmosphere and little else – shows Zeitlin applying the same rough-around-the-edges style of filmmaking he introduced in his Best Picture-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” so as to make his first two features feel like the first installments of a contemplative trilogy. Continue reading →

‘Onward’ Review: Pixar’s family fantasy is satisfying, standard fare from the animation giant

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

There are few words, if any, that I imagine have been used to describe a Pixar movie more often than “magical.” The ingenious premise of “Toy Story,” the odyssey of Wall-E wordlessly cleaning an abandoned world, the sheer joy of “Un Poco Loco” being sung in a vibrant rendition of the Land of the Dead—all worthy of being called “magical” 25 years into a period that’s seen the bar for animation raised higher than the 50 years prior.

It’s about time, then, that Pixar has made a movie where magic is an explicit force in the story, though “Onward” – the first of two films coming from the animation funhouse studio in 2020 – is less another landmark of innovation and more a plug-‘n-play production with familiar aesthetic delights. The movie is fun (enjoyable even!), but despite “Onward” being leagues better than backwards Pixar misfires like “Cars 2” or “The Good Dinosaur,” “fun” and “enjoyable” is no “magical.” Such is the Pixar Standard.

Shepherding requisite genre tropes of self-belief and familial forgiveness within the influence of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Lord of the Rings” and maybe a sprinkling of John Hughes, too, “Onward’s” premise is the movie’s most original aspect and also its least-explored: While there are centaurs, unicorns and elves in this world, they don’t engage in spell-casting practices, but instead drive blocky police cars, run pawn shops and pull on sweatshirts to get ready for the first day of school. Per the world-building narration that’s offered early on, the unpredictability of magic at one point became inferior to the reliability of technology, and a community otherwise nestled in the crook of a mythical valley has taken on the look of a suburban town. The setting is beautifully-rendered, but at the risk of saying the movie has a “DreamWorks feel” as if that studio was artistically inferior, “Onward” lacks the jaw-dropping visual splendor of recent fare like “Coco” or “Toy Story 4.” Continue reading →

‘Greed’ Review: Steve Coogan is the cartoonish face of the ultrarich in familiar satire

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

 

Michael Winterbottom does his best Adam McKay impression with “Greed,” an abrasive pseudo-documentary about the global domino effects of corporate-caliber hubris that the English writer-director mostly encourages us to witness lightheartedly until turning the tables on his own satirical tale with implications so real and immediate that you wonder why he didn’t focus his storytelling lens on them in the first place.

Instead, “Greed” is largely motivated on Richard McCreadie’s rise to power as a pompous, fiscally-dubious retail mogul, using the guise of interview-gathering to revisit portions of a life that has always sought the cheapest way to get the most lucrative payout. The movie echoes “Vice” and “The Big Short” with its time-hopping structure and journalist-detective character of Nick (David Mitchell), who works to piece together an explanation of how expertly McCreadie has gamed the system so as to afford a destination birthday in Greece that features the construction of a gladiatorial arena and a live lion (yes, the metaphor only gets more astute as the movie goes on). The fourth wall remains structurally intact in “Greed,” and its educative tangents are cohesive and coherent enough, but the fact these scenes are so scant makes me wonder if a straight documentary – and a straighter filmmaking agenda – might have been more effective. Continue reading →

‘The Invisible Man’ Review: Unseen horrors in the #MeToo era

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

If H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” imagines that the scariest thing is that which is unseen, Leigh Whannell’s new big-screen adaptation realizes the scariest force is that which is unseen and perhaps not even in front us—but internalized, agonized over and shaped into an object by which we are made to interrogate our sense of reality.

The legacy of Wells’s story through the decades has been diluted to the elevator pitch of its title, serving as the inspiration for many a film, most recently the simple-minded “Hollow Man” movies of the 2000s and, on a more elemental level, 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.” More often than not, foundation tends to be the whole story when it comes to invisible men on the screen. Whannell’s iteration, however, is savvy enough to know that while the implications of its title can make for inspired set pieces, it can also be stretched into something more resonant than a one-note story. That doctrine has produced a great movie that is smart, satisfying and totally subversive in its recalibration of a 19th-century story into a modernized parable for the #MeToo era. Continue reading →

‘The Call of the Wild’ Review: Sanitized survival story features a very gruff Harrison Ford and a very not-real dog

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

For the first time in his illustrious filmography, Harrison Ford – who has acted alongside real snakes, costumed Wookies and CGI aliens – may be out-acted by the non-human companion at his side in “The Call of the Wild,” the new film from “How To Train Your Dragon” director Chris Sanders that is good-natured and gentle-hearted to a near-fatal degree. Not that the 77-year-old Ford hasn’t more than earned the opportunity to step to the side—his live-action roles outside of “Star War” have been scant as of late, and he seems both well aware and well-off that his natural chummy screen presence is still more than a treat for audiences in 2020. Even if his portrayal of the downtrodden alcoholic John Thornton comes off as Han Solo asleep at the wheel.

Not that it matters too much in the family-friendly “Call of the Wild,” whose real star is the larger-than-life Buck—the excitable and daring dog realized via motion-capture by Terry Notary to accomplished, magical ends. If Andy Serkis is the godfather of motion-capture, Notary is one of the filmmaking technique’s rising stars, having recently portrayed cinema’s most iconic gorilla in “Kong: Skull Island” and considerably smaller primates in Matt Reeve’s “Planet of the Apes” films. In “Call of the Wild” – which shows Buck undergoing a journey with multiple human masters before finding his pack – the charms largely come from Notary’s fantastic performance; he gives tangible weight, personality and ease of loyalty to Buck while never trying to make us think he’s creating the illusion of a real dog. Just a believable one, with the slightest of human expressions to clue us in on his motivations. The kids will be delighted, the parents may very well be too…or at least thankful that “Call of the Wild” keeps things grounded enough to keep the dogs mute. Continue reading →

‘The Assistant’ Review: A biting look at abuse of power and a workplace looking the other way

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In Kitty Green’s blistering new movie, “The Assistant,” the monotony of a modern workplace is downright cataclysmic, from routine daily duties that don’t much call our attention to the heinous acts – not explicitly stated, but widely and silently acknowledged – of unnamed higher-ups that very much do. Urgently of the moment, “The Assistant” is blunt-force storytelling comprised of increasingly-dire detail, and a film that uses the realities of our post-#MeToo world to shade in the margins of its narrative in ways that few others do.

The movie’s timeline encompasses a single harrowing day. As the young office hand at an unnamed film production company, Jane (Julia Garner) is the first one to work; the one who makes the coffee; the one who recites excuses to her boss’s wife when she calls; the one who takes care of ordering lunch; and, oh yes, the one who worked over the weekend as well. Keeping mostly to the checklist of things to do, she’s dutiful, bordering on subservient, and the performance from 26-year-old Garner – reminiscent of Shailene Woodley here – serves as the keystone to Green’s ostensibly muted screenplay. She speaks few words but still manages to communicate an immense amount with silent glances of trepidation; she’s wary of those she works alongside and works for. It’s without question one of the decade’s first great performances, and multiple shots in which cinematographer Michael Latham’s camera looms overhead and stares straight down – as if it were a supervisor surveying every move – underscores the fine line the unassuming Jane has to walk. Continue reading →

‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Review: Sega speedster’s live-action introduction, sans human teeth, has its moments

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

The dream of the ‘90s is alive in “Sonic the Hedgehog,” which – and it will surprise exactly no one to hear this – is at its hyper-kinetic best when it’s channeling the turbo-charged, cartoonish energy of the world’s fastest furball to sugary visual ends, as disposable as they may be. Highways, buildings, digitized jungles, one-liners—Sonic, here voiced by “Parks and Recreation’s” Ben Schwartz, and “Sonic” sets land-speed records on them all. It’s when he’s motionless and the movie anguishes through a tedious story of adopted families and existentialism that its joys tend to screech to a halt as well.

The feature debut of director Jeff Fowler, “Sonic” is arriving a few months later than intended, a delayed release that allowed the visual effects maestros to give the titular speedster a makeover after the first reaction’s to his initial appearance back in 2019 would have you believe people had dunked themselves in holy water. The movie’s writers – Patrick Casey and Josh Miller – perhaps should have also used that time to come up with an engaging story in line with its title character’s carefree sensibilities, and not the hackneyed outsider-in-need-of-a-friend template that feels like a back-to-basics homage to “E.T.” There’s at least a hint of the former in the early minutes, when the movie opts for a self-awareness of glorious storytelling delirium, like a DreamWorks project unfolding at 1.5x speed. Continue reading →

‘Downhill’ Review: It’s all in the name

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Of the many scenes that “Downhill” – a farcical family drama from American co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash set against the backdrop of beautiful mountains and a marriage tested – lifts from the superior Swedish-language film that inspired it, one stands out as an obscenely clear indicator of this remake’s jumbled priorities. In it, father and husband Pete (Will Ferrell, now past the half-century mark in age) sips ski resort beer in the shadows of the Alps when a fellow vacationer half his age approaches to say her friend finds him the most attractive man on the patio. Pete is aglow. A few moments later, she returns with an unfortunate retraction: “It was actually him,” she clarifies, pointing to a chiseled stud a few yards away.

With all due respect to Ferrell, who remains an elite comedic genius of his time: Well, duh. The scene is practically recreated, line for line, from Ruben Östlund’s searing “Force Majeure,” the difference being that the 2014 movie starred an objectively good-looking Johannes Kuhnke for whom the bit isn’t just believable, but devastating in its turn—the result of an empathy for its characters that “Downhill” struggles against itself to replicate. Comparably, slotting Ferrell into Kuhnke’s shoes is like tasking Willem Dafoe to play Buddy in a psychological “Elf” remake; the spirit of the original has been warped, its intentions blurred.

And blurred intentions define “Downhill,” a needless redo that wavers between mockery and sincerity for Pete and his wife, Billie (an excellent Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and for which the best possible outcome would be leaving the theater knowing there’s a far superior telling of this story waiting to be watched at home. Continue reading →

‘Birds of Prey’ Review: DCEU breaches R-rated territory with hellaciously fun, substantively thin Harley Quinn-led romp

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

 

In a rare moment of rest amid the firework violence and demented glee in “Birds of Prey,” Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn sits back for a bowl of cereal and catches some “Tom and Jerry.” It makes total sense that she’d watch the brash and over-the-top loony tune, which could not be a more apt Easter egg for Cathy Yan’s brash and over-the-top movie, a pseudo-sequel to 2016’s boorish “Suicide Squad” that borrows its predecessor’s pop-punk attitude and dials it up to an R-rated blunt-force romp often reminiscent of the self-aware ultra-bone-breaking of “John Wick.”

It’s also a movie that takes its narrative setup to some delightfully meta and cathartic heights. The DC Extended Universe’s recent re-prioritizing means separating itself from the artistic misfire that was “Suicide Squad,” in which Robbie’s Harley, shackled and oversexualized, is puppeteered by Jared Leto’s edgy, icky Joker incarnation. Harley, and “Birds of Prey,” quite literally sets that past ablaze as she blows up the ACE Chemicals plant – the birthplace of her altar ego – in an unfettered (and target-planting) act of independence early on in the first act. Like the mallet-swinging deviant at its center, Yan’s spike-collared movie forges its own feminist path to stomp down, vengefully tearing into a male-dominated genre with reckless abandon while merging the comical and crass. Though the screenplay from “Bumblebee” scribe Christina Hodson never fully pulls the pin from the grenade in its examinations of female ass-kicker reclaimed from male filmmaker, there are stretches in the inconstantly-paced “Birds of Prey” that joyfully prove it couldn’t care less: Its women are playing by their own rules. Between this, “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “The Eternals,” 2020 will bring us four live-action superhero movies solely directed by women – there were just two from 2000 through 2019 – and “Birds of Prey” is jaunty enough to be a worthy lighter of the match. Continue reading →