Review: ‘Ad Astra’ sees Brad Pitt explore the cosmos, and his emotions

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

 

To strap into the vessel through which writer-director James Gray chooses to explore the cosmos in the meditative “Ad Astra” is to understand the emotional turmoil endured by the astronaut we’re accompanying, Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride.

Despite its opening notes and frames being injected with a just sense of grandiosity that we’ve come to expect from modern space movies, Gray’s latest film is just as much an introspective journey as it is an intersteller one. The premise is straightforward – astronaut must travel through space and communicate with his long-thought-dead father, who may have a role in ongoing Earthly catastrophic phenomena – but this space odyssey is contemplation and adventure in equal measure, guided by one of the year’s most effectively somber performances and a startling level of self-awareness on Grey’s part about Hollywood’s historical teachings on the isolation of intergalactic exploration.

The “Lost City of Z” and “We Own the Night” director also offers up a counter-argument to our perhaps-overzealous ambitions of reaching the stars as a pinnacle of human achievement, one we should have been considering all this time: Why should we expect humanity’s problems to be bound to Earth? Continue reading →

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‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ Review: Del Toroian story is a devastating, creepy blend of dark fairy tale and real-world violence

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

 

In “Tigers Are Not Afraid” – the 2017 movie from Mexican filmmaker Issa López that is small on budget, high on craft and just now hitting screens in the U.S., including a limited run in San Antonio this weekend – grown-ups are nowhere to be found.

Kids live and scavenge on their own, settle into makeshift homes on rooftops, and journey through urban underworlds. It could almost be a utopia of sorts, an anti-Neverland that has traded jungles for graffiti’d buildings that look like they were previously targeted by bombs, forming an empty Mexican ghost town with a desolateness so stark it’s almost post-apocalyptic.

But López instead manifests that youthful isolation in heartbreak, in longing, in the very real effects that the Mexican drug war has had on families…and on tearing them apart. Since 2006, the movie lets us know early on, tens of thousands have disappeared or been killed in the country.
Their children, we learn, practically go uncounted for. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ is an exercise in layered, entertaining storytelling, and creates a star out of Jillian Bell

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

 

Calling your movie something as austere and stick-figure-drawing plain as “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a risky bet. If it’s forgettable, it can be easy to imagine how an ostensible inattentiveness was paid to something meant to most immediately grab our attention as moviegoers who have precious time to budget for movie-going.

That scenario is for naught in this case. The combined efforts of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and an unexpectedly layered performance from Jillian Bell makes “Brittany Runs a Marathon” not only memorable, but one of the year’s most resonant crowd-pleaser movies—a story that’s worth its weight in generational angst while never limiting its narrative to the millennial spirit that makes up its core. Continue reading →

Review: Blumhouse thriller ‘Don’t Let Go’ never goes all-in on its fantastical premise

“Don’t Let Go,” a supernatural crime drama arriving in the dog days of summer from writer-director Jacob Estes and Blumhouse, is just strange and unusual enough to belong in the production company’s stable of strange and unusual movies, though also enough of a conceptual bait-and-switch that it stands out among the much zanier “Happy Death Days,” “The Purges” and “Paranormal Activitys” of the world.

The story juggles multiple timelines, puncturing the fabric of logic when Jack (the reliable David Oyelowo), a cop mourning the sudden murder of his niece – along with his brother and sister-in-law – suddenly receives a phone call with her on the other end and seemingly from before the crime, ostensibly setting up a trippy mind-bender of a movie.

But Estes here is interested mostly in humanity—not genre. The high-brow is just a different, if not unearned, guidepost to a formulaic cops-n’-robbers story, with shades of domestic drama barely potent enough to keep the world from operating outside a palette full of gritty greys. Continue reading →

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ Review: A sweet friendship is formed while on the run

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

 

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” was made for August. The movie, a soulful gem about the connection between a man with Down Syndrome and someone who believes his future has been discarded by his past, has a dog-days-of-summer feel to it—it’s unvarnished by needless complexity and through-lined with a potent tenderness as deeply felt as the humid environments Zak and Tyler walk, swim and float through on their journey.

At a time when young filmmakers are churning out ambitious genre fare, directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (also the film’s writers) have opted for the simple and endearing in their feature debut, the kind of American tale with a remarkable warmth that shines in its attraction to the seemingly unremarkable.

One of the more prominent roles by an actor with Down Syndrome in recent years, Zack Gottsagen plays Zak in “Peanut Butter Falcon” with enough energy to keep the lights on at a power plant. But at movie’s start, Zak can only focus that energy on one thing—breaking out of the assisted living facility he’s forced to stay in. Continue reading →

“Alternate Endings” Review: HBO doc chronicles contemporary ways of approaching death, and of meeting it

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

 

“I’m here for my daddy: Adam. He used to tell mommy to shoot him into space when he dies!”

The confidant joy with which a young boy says that to a room full of strangers in “Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America” is the thesis of the new HBO documentary from co-directors Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz. A movie about the unmistakably modern ways people are choosing to approach the end of their life – explored through six individual vignettes – O’Neill and Peltz succeed in encouraging us to have conversations about the inevitability of our last days and, more poignantly, showing that we can be the ones to begin that conversation instead of leaving it to our loved ones after we’ve already passed.

It’s a disquietly tradition-breaking idea, something the unassumingly straightforward “Alternate Endings” makes note of at the start. The movie explains that unorthodox methods of memorialization – ranging from the environmentally-conscious to the completely strange, and sometimes going off with a literal bang of a rocket – have disrupted a funeral business that rakes in $16 billion a year. That’s the sole statistic in a documentary fueled by empathy, appearing during a prologue set in a funeral convention (yes, really) where marching bands play alongside displayed coffins, cemetery brochures have the sunny disposition of open house catalogs and morbidity is a corporate commodity. Continue reading →

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Review: Some ghoulish fun with enticing ideas

From its opening moments, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes the nightmarish bluntness of its title – also the name of the yestercentury horror anthology series that inspired it – to heart, painting with broody aesthetics a late-1960s suburbia ripe for treachery, murder and spooky goings-on. Much in the vein of Guillermo del Toro, that master of the macabre and dark fantasy here lending his post-Oscar victory hand as producer, it’s a touch of the supernatural that brings the terror lurking underneath beds and in the twistedly imaginative minds of young children to the fore.

I didn’t have the experience of staying up all night fervid and sweaty after reading the novelettes the movie is based on, but judging from the legacy of a series that managed to puncture pop culture in a slightly darker vein than “Goosebumps,” this André Øvredal-directed adaptation is a more or less faithful recreation of its more intimate brushes with terror, of the isolation in anticipating some neglected evil incarnate that has its sights set on you and only you (the familiar concept of “It Follows” may owe something to Alvin Schwartz’s imagination). Early on in “Scary Stories,” however, these frights – appropriate as a supposed gateway horror for younger audiences, but it’s not like many of them won’t also be absorbing the upcoming, much more sinister “IT” sequel – barely function beyond the borders that contain them in specific scenes. Continue reading →

“Hobbs & Shaw” Review: Zero to 60 in a fair amount of laughs

“We decide what’s impossible,” Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw growls in “Hobbs & Shaw,” the offshoot of the gazillion-dollar “Fast and Furious” franchise that packs enough testosterone to make John Rambo look like Ned Flanders. He’s referring to himself and Luke Hobbs, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s lawman who packs punches, natural charisma and often both at the same time.

I have no doubt they do. Cinema has thrown all the impossible it can muster at Statham and Johnson in recent years – from towering infernos in “Skyscraper” to the “Speed”-influenced if-your-heart-rate-drops-you-will-die insanity of “Crank.” In other words: Just enough so that it wouldn’t be unusual if “Hobbs & Shaw” – which feels like an excess of set piece concepts initially drawn up for the mainline “Fast and Furious” series before being excised – took its leading duo to space.

It doesn’t. Viewed alongside against recent peak “Mission: Impossible” entries, the stunt-tastic “John Wick” series and even the increasingly fast, increasingly furious mainline movies themselves, the action in “Hobbs & Shaw” seemed fairly tame to me. But while two of our biggest action stars throwing punches is the drawing card to “Hobbs & Shaw,” the comedy born of their hilariously interplay are what make the movie’s best bits. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,’ Tarantino contemplates and embraces his version of an era

There’s a shot early in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” that will strike those fluent in the cinematic language of its writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, as something very anti-Quentin Tarantino.

The camera is closed in tight – real tight, as if ready to surprise – on a swatch of paint, and begins to move, gingerly, over what we eventually come to recognize as the illustrated face of Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictionalized drunken actor in 1969 Los Angeles. The face eventually comes to take up the entire frame, feeling larger than life, but we’re still not quite sure where we are—there’s no background chatter, no camera flashes. Just morning ambience.

It’s an uncharacteristically quiet moment to open a Tarantino film, like the auteur paying a more patient kind of homage to the cinema he’s built a career of borrowing from and remixing. As if he, and we, are observing it from a church pew.

Not too long after, the impression is shattered. Tarantino reveals the grand nature of that opening to be a fakeout—instead of a massive billboard overseeing Sunset Boulevard, the artwork is propped up on cinder blocks on the end of a driveway, like an artifact time has forgotten. It’s a plot-building surprise right up the alley of a director whose name itself evokes polarization and debate. “Once Upon a Time…” – an evocative, romantic, violent, metatextual, questionable reimagining of a time and place that is all of those things – will also be polarizing, and absolutely lead to debate. Continue reading →

Review: In “Maiden,” charting a course for equality

Like unassuming ripples that evolve into waves to be reckoned with, the ragtag group of sailors spotlighted in the new Alex Holmes-directed documentary “Maiden” – about the first ever all-women crew to compete in a yacht race around the world – are connected by a dream that evolves into an unspoken understanding surrounding the magnitude of their 1989 voyage.

It’s astonishing that it happens over a brisk 95 or so minutes; while the movie tends to cut away from its emotional pinnacles a bit too soon, watching “Maiden” feels like we’re witnessing the historic 1989 journey of British skipper Tracy Edwards and her crew in real-time, feeling the shifting perceptions of those watching the sport. It’s a vitally raw example of the value of documentation and a timely (and timeless) portrait of a barrier-breaking endeavor playing on the strength of depicting an easy-to-root-for team with a dream within the context of an athletic event that stands as ripe fruit for storytelling in its own right: The many-thousands-of-miles-long Whitbread Round the World Race. Continue reading →