‘Crip Camp’ Review: Uplifting Netflix doc spotlights what can happen when we’re united once again

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


Early in the slightly-better-than-serviceable new Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” there’s a proclamation that Camp Jened – a humble outpost in a mountainous part of New York state that’s been shuttered since the late-‘70s – felt like a utopia. It’s easy to understand why a camp alum would recall the feeling decades later; grainy footage shot of the camp in operation shows joyful young residents with physical disabilities liberated, engaged and understood as people who can be trusted to look after themselves, and think for themselves too. There’s a social hierarchy even in the disabled community, we come to learn; the “normal-looking” polios resident at the top, while those with cystic fibrosis are closer to the bottom. One of them beams with a smile, and asks anyone watching to give him a call; he just likes to talk to people. All these eccentric introductions to each happy-go-lucky camper is enough to make you forgive the template time capsule soundtrack of Grateful Dead, Neil Young and the like—an early miracle in its own right.

Then again, these campers are shaped by the rebellious attitudes of the time. There’s frank conversation of teen infatuation and being annoyed at parents, but also wide acknowledgement – between members of a particular community who had never met before Camp Jened – that life would be a little better if the world they’d eventually return to treated them as equally as they were treated here. It’s a grain of longing that some of them end up fertilizing into action, and later: Change. Continue reading →

‘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 →

‘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 →

‘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 →

‘Parasite’ Review: Bong Joon-ho’s critique of socioeconomic systems is exacting, exciting and endlessly entertaining

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


One of the more uniquely integral aspects of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s films, particularly over the last 15 or so years, is a meaningful sense of place—a realization of geography between characters and their goals that extends to mood and meaning, and which ultimately turns the experience of watching a 2-D movie into something more tangible, thrilling and involving. A major reason the writer-director’s 2006 monster movie “The Host” endures is the symmetry of how physically close the bumbling Park family is to finding the captured Hyun-Seo and the minimal extent to which the forces of authority are willing to aid them; the ecologically-minded themes of 2017’s “Okja” are drawn out through the movie’s dichotomy of location as it goes from serene South Korean jungle to dangerously bustling American metropolis; and you can’t discuss 2013’s “Snowpiercer” to any extent without touching on the deliciously simple symbolism of the class hierarchy toppled horizontal in the form of a speeding train, with cars that become more affluent and cozy the closer you “fight your way to the front,” as the tagline reads.

Joon-ho’s “Parasite” – the 2019 Palm d’Or winner and now a righteous Best Picture nominee nine months later – brilliantly manages to find a primal form of his filmmaking ideologies while evolving them into a magnificent – and bloody – cinematic Russian doll. A story of class struggle that literalizes economic imprisonment, “Parasite” is both evocative of current global truths and also an echo of the sociopolitical commentary that the auteur injects his films with, giving what he’s saying as much consideration as how he’s saying it. Namely, by bouncing between genres as defly as he ever has, and in endlessly-thrilling fashion. Continue reading →

‘Gretel & Hansel’ Review: There’s evil in the wood, but maybe something more, too

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


In virtually every respect, Osgood Perkins’s darkly atmospheric “Gretel & Hansel” could not be more different from the last major effort to borrow the Grimm Brothers’ mythic siblings for the big screen, Tommy Wirkola’s bombastic fantasy actioneer “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” That movie – starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as crossbow-toting heroes evoking the rock-em, sock-em spirit of “Van Helsing” more than a children-oriented tale of foreboding – was released just seven years ago, but “Gretel & Hansel” shows how seven years is more than enough for Hollywood’s creative minds to steer in entirely new directions, and for the industry to transition into new epochs.

The switcheroo of the title is the first sign of a new interpretation of the 200-year-old Grimm story, and it bears out in a visually-stunning, ideologically-enticing fairy tale that echoes a feminine spirit without betraying its source material’s grim (pun fully intended) sensibilities. Bringing the focus back onto Hansel and Gretel as young children – though they’re not as naïve as we might expect – Perkins’s movie trades the leather-clad “Underworld” Effect for the quieter, creepier influences of latter-decade horror. It owes much to Robert Eggers, Luca Guadagnino and occasionally Yorgos Lanthimos as well, what with its entrenching visual style of dark shadows stabbed by neon and keen self-awareness about the magnitude of folklore. Continue reading →

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Review: Racecar drama isn’t quite as gripping in its story as it is thrilling on the track

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


The elegant bluntness of its title aside, the conflict fueling “Ford v Ferrari” – a sleekly-produced but vaguely-formulaic and overlong racetrack drama in the running for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – isn’t so much the one between two legendary auto companies duking it out at 200+ mph, but rather an intracontinental feud. The cozy offices of Detroit vs. the liberating, wide-open roads of the West. Image vs. performance. White collar vs. blue collar. The movie shows how ambition of the portfolio and ambition of passion are two different things, though the route it takes to reach that conclusion is distractedly conventional.

A film that pays due attention to the aesthetic details of its pretty cars both in the showroom and on the track – as well as when they’re getting ripped to shreds in competitive mishaps – “Ford v Ferrari” fetishizes competition and white male provocation through the (mostly-accurate) lens of history. For his first directorial effort since the R-rated superhero western “Logan,” James Mangold goes exponentially safer in telling the story about how the Ford Motor Company reasserted its international dominance via the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race, a feat of endurance that may be on par with watching the more tedious segments of this 150-minute auto epic unfold—that the movie has a strange aversion to using on-screen graphics to inform the audience of the story’s timeline (it could have taken place in a span of a few weeks or a few years, as far as I’m concerned) does it no service in terms of comprehension. Continue reading →