A Movie for Everyone This Week
In theaters. Streaming. For the kids. For Gen X. Absurdities and bad basketball playing. Good horror movies. Mediocre horror movies. Terrible horror movies. There’s just a lot to comb through here – let us help you get it sorted.
Raya and the Last Dragon
In theaters and on Disney+Premiere
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Disney was looking to do something different.
Well, it’s still a princess, unfortunately, so not that different. But Raya and the Last Dragon marks an impressive step forward in a number of ways.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) opens the film Mad Max style, riding some alien vehicle through a post-apocalyptic landscape, her face covered, her eyes darting to and fro in search of something–predator? Prey?
The apocalypse itself happened just six years earlier, and Raya had a hand in the world’s undoing. Now here she is, at the beginning of the journey that could put the pieces back together.
Tran delivers a heroine you can genuinely understand. She is logical, and when she tends to lean toward head and away from heart to make decisions, it’s hard to fault her.
Her sidekick, in grand Disney fashion, is the shapeshifting but fantastically colorful dragon Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. The comic’s brand of endearingly self-effacing humor punctures the film’s preciousness at all the right moments.
There is a central emotion, a powerfully executed conflict in Raya and the Last Dragon that never feels as if it’s been watered down or softened for younger viewers. The conflict speaks of the courage to believe in people even when they have proven themselves untrustworthy.
It’s a notion that flies in the face of logic, really, but the point of the film—and possibly of life—is that you cannot build a whole community if all you have are fractured segments unwilling to take that leap.
There’s just so much stuff here.
The film runs a full two hours, and you feel it. The first twenty minutes is burdened with piles of exposition, and the mostly magical second act journey is overstuffed as well. Too many characters to keep track of, let along get attached to, muddy the overall picture. Losing maybe half a dozen characters and trimming 20 minutes from the film would have done wonders for it.
There are problems with the execution, but not with the animation. Raya and the Last Dragon is breathtaking, its world building as gorgeous as it is meticulous. Animators deliver each South Asian-inspired community with its own unique look and feel—from a glinting desert wasteland to a torchlit floating city to a lushly forested community and more. The film is simply stunning and should be viewed on the biggest screen available.
But for all the Raya puts in the win column, it can’t shake the feeling that all four directors and the team of ten (10!) that built its script and story were culling from plenty of pre-owned parts. The Disney formula still has princesses, they’re just warrior princesses now.
That evolution may have been overdue, but it’s already starting to show some age.
Coming 2 America
On Amazon Prime.
by George Wolf
A quip about unnecessary sequels is just one of several “wink-wink” gags you’ll find running throughout Coming 2 America. And though the original was heavy in sexism (even for 1988) and light on LOLs, there’s little doubt that the film’s huge fan base has been anxious for a follow-up.
Eddie Murphy teams again with director Craig Brewer, which is reason for optimism, since Brewer helmed one of Murphy’s career highs – 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name. But screenwriters David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein return from the original film, and while they thankfully update the sexual politics, the humor is again scattershot at best.
Most of the cast is back, including 90 year-old James Earl Jones as King Jaffe of Zamunda. He’s ready to pass the throne to Prince Akeem (Murphy), but is worried that Akeem and Lisa (Shari Headley) only have daughters, and tradition calls for a male heir.
What’s this? The loyal Semmi (Aresenio Hall) has been keeping a very big secret all these years, which means Akeem and Semmi must return to New York to find Akeem’s long lost son.
That would be Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), who makes the trip to Zamunda for royal training with this mom (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracey Morgan) in tow. The additional family is good for Lavelle, and for us, as Jones and Morgan’s “fish out of Queens” antics give the film its most consistently fresh and funny moments.
They’re just aren’t enough of those moments to pump real life into part 2. The girl power is overdue and and love lessons are generic, each as predictable as getting more insults from the barbershop guys and more R&B stylings from Randy Watson.
Buy hey, you go to see Sexual Chocolate, you want to hear the hits. And if you’ve been waiting for Coming 2 America for reminders of what you liked the first time, you’ll get them.
Otherwise, a return trip isn’t necessary.
by George Wolf
Lucky takes a well-known horror trope – the masked killer whose “dead” body vanishes when you turn your back – and puts it in a freshly relevant light.
A gaslight, if you will.
May (Brea Grant, who also wrote the screenplay) is a self-help author living in the California suburbs with her husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh). They are working to get past a rough patch in their marriage when a strange, persistent threat presents himself.
Every night, a masked man (Hunter C. Smith) tries to break in and kill May. She fights him off – sometimes spilling plenty of blood in the process – but he always seems to get away. The police are on the case, but they’re more interested in why Ted doesn’t appear to be around anymore.
And they’d really like her to calm down.
Grant’s script is often smart and timely, and director Natasha Kermani peels enough layers successfully to hit a number of societal bullseyes. But an extended metaphor such as this is tough to keep constantly afloat, and some gaps of logic in the narrative work against the film’s subtlety and in turn, its overall power.
Grant and Kermani end up walking an entertaining line between subversive humor and metaphorical slasher. Lucky works best in that center, when May becomes a living example of that internet meme comparing what men and women do each day to avoid becoming a victim.
This is the final girl in a modern world of gaslighting and victim-shaming, where women form common bonds overs fears too often dismissed.
Just calm down, Honey, you’re lucky to be alive!
by Matt Weiner
There was a time in the late 90s when you couldn’t go six months without a quippy crime comedy that was obviously pitched as “Pulp Fiction, but this time you get to be the studio making a boatload of money.” Some of these, like Doug Liman’s Go, were quite good. Others, like The Boondock Saints, belong in the Hague. Most of them, though, were simply reliable—reliably watchable, and equally forgettable.
Thankfully, the new action comedy Pixie takes as many cues from its distinct local sensibilities as it does from forebears like Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, the capo di tutti capi of British gangster cinema.
It all starts, naturally, with a drug deal gone bad—and things just get worse from there. Pixie has all the convenient plot twists and beyond belief interconnectedness you’d expect in this sort of crime thriller. But it also has heart, anchored by Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) as the title moll.
A nonstop series of crosses, double crosses and double-double crosses take Pixie and her inept partners in crime on a scenic if slightly murderous tour through the West of Ireland as they attempt to make their big score without getting snared by misfit hitmen, killer priests and country gangsters hot on their heels. This includes Pixie’s own family (with the great Colm Meaney as patriarch, who seems to be thoroughly enjoying this “teddy bear who might also kill you” stage of his career).
For all the contrivances of the genre, director Barnaby Thompson, working off a script by his son Preston Thompson, imbues the film with an archness that keeps the action entertaining even at its most improbable. So much of this falls to Cooke, who switches effortlessly from femme fatale to agent of pure chaos, a beguiling anti-heroine who has figured out how to entice others to clean up the carnage she leaves in her wake.
And if the bawdy jokes, nun-related gunplay and jaw-dropping vistas still aren’t enough, perhaps Alec Baldwin chewing through his scenes and an Irish accent with equal aplomb will seal the deal.
Keep an Eye Out
Virtual Screening Room at Gateway Film Center.
by Hope Madden
His latest, Keep an Eye Out, takes us on a murder mystery in the most charmingly monotonous of ways. In fact, as Chief Commissioner Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde, Man Bites Dog) questions suspect Fugain (Grégoire Ludig), the officer complains that this is the most boring interrogation he’s ever done.
It’s not just the questioning (Fugain bought bug spray, then ate some potato chips, then accidentally knocked over a planter and broke it…) that’s mind numbing, though. Dupieux situates this aggressively dull conversation in a French police station leeched of color—everything in the room an unflattering shade of putty, except for the bizarre abundance of overhead lights.
It’s often tempting to seek symbolism in Dupieux’s absurd situations. Many of us are still wrestling with the message in his 2010 breakout, Rubber, about a discarded car tire on a nationwide killing spree.
Perhaps there’s no hidden meaning. In Keep an Eye Out, in particular, the filmmaker seems simply to be setting up jokes. As soon as Philippe (Marc Fraize) arrives on the scene—one eye on the accused, the other missing and grown over with skin—things take an almost Monty Python level of lunacy. It’s uncomfortably silly, stupid even.
There’s a freedom to the absurdism of a Dupieux film, although Keep an Eye Out feels far more superficial even than Deerskin (a film released prior to but filmed after Keep an Eye Out). Even his most focused work lacks the cynicism or bite of Yorgos Lanthimos, maybe the most consistent absurdist working in film today.
Which is not to say a Dupieux film can’t be as enjoyable. In many ways, they’re easier to enjoy than a Lanthimos film because they’re less likely to fill you with existential terror.
They’re weird. They’re delightfully unpredictable. They’d grow tiresome, but they’re all so short. (Keep an Eye Out runs barely longer than an hour.)
by Hope Madden
Authenticity is certainly the main differentiator between Chad Crawford Kinkle’s latest horror and others of the genre.
It’s been eight years since the filmmaker released his underseen backwoods gem Jug Face. He once again pits a tenacious female against the unrelenting pressure of an unholy presence, but Kinkle has a more personal kind of dread in store with Dementer.
Katie (Katie Groshong), looking for a fresh start, applies for a job at a skills training facility that works with adults who have special needs. She’s hired, working with clients two days a week in the facility, then spending two nights in a group home with three of them.
Katie is especially concerned with Stephanie (Stephanie Kinkle, the filmmaker’s sister).
Kinkle’s sister is an adult with Down Syndrome, which not only elevates the reality of the situation but also the tenderness and anxiety around the character’s safety. You can almost feel the filmmaker’s own personal dread over his sister’s vulnerability in an untrustworthy world.
Aside from Larry Fessenden, who appears briefly, Groshong is the only professional actor in the film. Kinkle, working with a skeleton crew, films in an actual skill center. The majority of the staff and clients represented in the film are, indeed, staff and clients.
The approach gives the film a verité style often seen in horror films, rarely if ever seen in a horror film with a main character who has special needs. Dementer lacks any of the sheen or noble heroism you often find in films centered around a character with a disability. The realism adds a level of discomfort, a sense that vulnerable adults who need care could easily find themselves in a precarious situation.
Dementer also offers an uncomfortably realistic look at working poverty.
Kinkle mines these anxieties as Groshong begins to see and hear signs that suggest Stephanie may be in real danger. As she races against the clock to save her, Kinkle slyly upends plenty of horror tropes.
It’s an often fascinating deconstruction of a particular subgenre of horror, an approach that usually benefits from the verité style. But too much of the loose narrative feels like filler. We watch Katie buckle her seat belt no fewer than five times.
Unanswered questions can strengthen a film, but Dementer feels underwritten. Still, you get the sense that Kinkle made the best of what he had on hand and told a deeply personal story in the most authentic way he could.
Sometime Other than Now
by Rachel Willis
Opening on a man sprawled on the beach, a crashed motorcycle and a wallet floating into the ocean, Sometime Other Than Now is immediately intriguing. Written and directed by Dylan McCormick, this is a quickly-paced drama that will just as quickly hook you.
The pacing of the film is the first thing that stands out. It’s faster than you might expect. Characters pop up and interact rapid fire. In the age of the slow-burn, it takes a minute to adjust. But it’s rewarding to watch as instant attractions pay off, as we come to know the characters and their situations. Not every question is answered immediately, but you’ll enjoy yourself as you wait for the solutions.
The dialogue is the next element setting this film apart from similar stories. It’s realistic, funny, no bullshit talk that draws you in and makes you care for characters you haven’t known long.
As the man on the beach, Sam, Donal Logue shows off his talent for drama. Both endearing and frustrating, you want to know where he’s been and to see where he’s going. Playing off Logue with near equal talent, Kate Walsh brings depth to her character, Kate.
The rest of the cast isn’t given same level of attention. Characters pop up in the beginning that are given some weight, making you think they’ll come up again as a larger part of the story. While they do appear later on, they don’t receive the resolution you might expect. Everyone who plays a role in the film does a fine job, but when compared to the two main characters, they feel hollow.
McCormick is also partly responsible for the film’s score, and it pales in comparison to his writing/directing talent. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the score; it’s just not the right music for the film. Although, there is a particularly lovely song that plays over the end credits that’s worth a listen.
This is only McCormick’s second film (and his first came out 15 years ago), and it’s a bit rough around the edges – a lot like its main character. But that’s part of what gives it its charm.
In theaters, including Studio 35.
by George Wolf
What’s the greatest moment in Asian-American history?
According to Alfred “Boogie” Chin’s father, it’s Micheal Chang’s upset of Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open final. And though Boogie’s sport is basketball, the Chin family is hoping some similar court magic will take them all the way to the NBA.
And that’s the first trouble sign with writer/director Eddie Huang’s first feature. From what we see on the court, the idea that Boogie (Taylor Takahashi in his screen debut) is good enough to play in college – let alone the NBA – is laughable.
Wisely, Huang keeps the in-game action to a minimum, focusing instead on the pressures of an Asian teen who must shoulder the burden of being his family’s savior while coming of age in Queens, New York.
Boogie transferred to City Prep High School, so a high-profile showdown with Brooklyn phenom “Monk” (rapper/musician Pop Smoke, is his last role before his tragic murder last year) would help land a college scholarship. But so far, the scouts aren’t promising anything more than walk-on opportunities.
The opportunities with Eleanor (Taylor Paige, so good in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the clear standout in this cast) are looking much brighter. As the big game draws near and the “manager” Mom hired makes things even more tense at home, Boogie leans on Eleanor for a quiet sense of comfort.
Huang (creator of TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) throws out some solid ideas, but his attempts to develop them stop at vague generalities. Much like the hooping talent, the cultural struggle of the Chin family is told more than shown, never giving us a reason to get emotionally involved.
And if you’re going to cast a completely inexperienced actor as your lead, why not someone who’s actually a basketball talent? Still, even without the inexplicable basketball charade, the coming-of-age drama here is only G league material. Huang may yet prove he got game, but it’s going to take some work in the film room.
by Hope Madden
Back in 2014, Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh wondered what to do about a dad who may be his son’s only salvation, or may be his one true danger. Canal had a lot going for it—it looked creepy, performances were solid, and it wasn’t afraid to bang up its cast.
It just couldn’t quite make the leap from good to great.
Same goes for the filmmaker’s latest, Son.
We open on a filthy, barefoot, rain-soaked young pregnant woman (Andi Matichak, Halloween) hoping to warm up with a coffee in a roadside diner. Two men walk in, she exits in a hurry.
Cut to eight years later. Same woman, clean and wholesome now, buckles in precocious little David (Luke David Blumm) to drop him off at school. They’re adorable. They’re happy, hard-working, loving, and about to face some ugly stuff once Kavanagh establishes the paradise to be lost.
An awful lot of movies want to know how far a mother is willing to go to protect the son who may or may not be the real villain. This has been especially true in the last five years. (See The Hole, The Prodigy, Brahms: The Boy 2, Z, Brightburn — it’s a long list.) Does anything set Son apart?
Kavanaugh roots the story in hysteria and conspiracy, sketchy memories of a cult versus police reports of sex trafficking. All of it feels mildly of-the-moment, but the real purpose is to throw skepticism toward the seemingly lucid mother and her claims.
Which is another common horror trope (is she crazy or is she right?), especially in the subgenre where a mother is trying to figure something out that may or may not be supernatural.
So, no, Kavanaugh does not bring much that’s new to the table.
Son does boast solid performances, and the filmmaker once again flexes his strong instincts for unsettling locations and atmospheres. The writing, pacing, and imagery all work together as they should to generate anxiety and dread. Son gets gory now and again, too.
It just doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do.
by Brandon Thomas
The music world and the horror world have a simpatico relationship. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Phantom of the Paradise are quintessential cool horror rock operas. More recently, Deathgasm – the New Zealand love letter to metal – has gained momentum as a cult classic with its fun mix of gory carnage and shredding guitars.
Where does the world of underground DJing fit into this legacy? Well, if Dreamcatcher is any indication, any legacy might be over before it starts.
Pierce (Niki Koss) and her friend, Jake (Zachary Gordon), tag along to a hot-ticket underground music fest with Pierce’s sister, Ivy (Elizabeth Posey), and her friend, Brecken (Emrhys Cooper). As the show winds down, tragedy strikes and the friends are thrust into a world of deceit and violence.
It’s hard to get excited about slasher flicks these days. Heck, it was hard to get excited about them by the mid-80s. These are movies built on tropes – it’s what the fans expect – and Dreamcatcher is no exception, despite a few clumsy attempts to be something different. The film swings big, trying to be more character-focused. This approach does nothing but put a spotlight on the incredibly weak script, and pad the running time to an excruciating hour and 48 minutes.
The parts of the movie that are your standard stalk-and-slash clash with the other side that wants to be something more akin to a 90s thriller (think Kiss the Girls or other Silence of the Lambs wannabes). Director Jacob Johnston handles the slasher elements well. These scenes are shot in a more grounded and brutal fashion. When the story starts to dip its toe into character motivation or anything resembling drama, the suspense falls apart.
The characters in Dreamcatcher run the gamut from unlikeable to downright loathsome. Scene after scene of Pierce, Jake, and Ivy airing their petty grievances wear out fast. Dreamcatcher lacks even one character for the audience to latch onto as a surrogate. This ends up making the horror shallow and meaningless.
Dreamcatcher might satisfy die hard fans of the slasher genre, but those looking for something a little more challenging will find themselves checking their watches on more than a few occasions.
Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.