2019

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019, Richard Phelan and Will Becher)

Farmageddon has so many sci-fi TV and movie references it’s hard to keep track. The whole thing feels like an homage to E.T. as far as the story—an alien (“voiced” by Amalia Vitale; voicing means making noises in Farmageddon, there’s no dialogue) gets stranded on Earth and makes friends with a local who helps them try to get home. In this case, that local is Shaun. The Sheep. He and the alien bond over pizza, which is a totally natural thing for a British sheep and a space alien to bond over, especially since the pizza allows for a lot of sight gags.

Since there’s no dialogue and since the noises the characters make rarely imply exposition—there are occasional newspaper headlines to get across the most impactful events (the nearby town, having sighted the alien spacecraft, is going alien-happy)—the film’s got to do everything visually. Yes, they get away with a lot of infographics. The opening has Shaun and the other sheep running afoul of their sheep dog, Bitzer, who has to put up signs forbidding their various modes of play. They can’t frisbee, they can’t suction cup bow and arrow, they can’t shoot each other out of cannons—Bitzer’s really pushing for no nonsense and it provides the film with its most antagonistic relationship—Bitzer is getting a little tired of Shaun.

Of course, Shaun could care less and thank goodness, because if he were worried about getting in trouble he and the alien wouldn’t set out on an odyssey to find the missing spacecraft and then the movie would be a lot less entertaining. Though, who knows. It’s entirely possible directors Phelan and Becher—and screenwriters Mark Burton and Jon Brown—could come up with enough fun around the farm, but then we wouldn’t get to go to the alien hunters’ secret base. With the exception of the boss, all of the (presumably) government alien hunters are in their yellow hazmat suits, which makes them entirely indistinguishable from one another and perfect for anonymous physical comedy. If it weren’t moving so briskly, one could slow and marvel at the artistry on display in Farmageddon’s stop-motion, but also how the filmmakers are able to so deftly toggle between popular sci-fi references and the physicality of the characters. The story itself is fairly simple. Once Shaun and the alien leave the farm, they’re simultaneously in danger from Bitzer—who’s in a middle of new mission of the Farmer (Farmer runs the farm, Bitzer is the good dog who manages the sheep, Shaun is one of the sheep, there I explained it) when he discovers his escaped charge in the wild—and the alien hunters. Only thanks to the Farmer’s scheme, which involves turning the farm into an amusement park with an alien theme (“Farmageddon,” they’re able to get away with the title because the Farmer obviously wouldn’t give it a good name), Bitzer’s in a spacesuit outfit and the alien hunters go after him too.

Burton and Brown introduce the eventual resolution about midway through the second act and keep reminding the audience. Farmageddon’s a family film without ever pandering to the kids or getting too dumb for the adults—they take such deep dives on the sci-fi references, it’s hard to imagine anyone, child or adult, getting all the references at first glance—it’s a simple narrative, smartly executed. The second act, which takes the heroes back to the alien hunters’ lair, does drag a little. The first act is all about entertaining, the third act is all about entertaining. The second act, which puts Shaun and the alien through various physical and emotional hardships—not to mention the alien hunter boss has got a very affecting origin story and one of the film’s bigger missteps is not addressing its treatment of her better. It does a little work at it, which, sure, can be enough, but there are definite missed opportunities and making the film’s only truly malevolent villain a career-minded woman has some optics to it.

Alien hunter boss has this little robot assistant who’s almost a significant supporting player then isn’t. It’s just a frequently utilized sight gag, though it does eventually serve to lighten the boss a little, which is good.

Farmageddon is always good. Even taking the difficult to describe with a pithy adjective second act and the alien hunter boss into account, it’s never like it’s not good. It’s always inventive, always imaginative. Seeing how they integrate digital effects with the stop-motion is cool; Sim Evan-Jones’s editing and Charles Copping’s photography are exquisite. They need to be to work with the stop-motion. Excellent direction.

The soundtrack could be better. It’s… too pragmatic. Likable but never charming and Shaun is nothing if not charming.

It’s a delight. Not a “insert well-chosen superlative” delight here, but a delight nonetheless. How can it not be. It’s Shaun the Sheep on an adventure with someone who cannot bleat (actually, the alien can; its mimicry power is constantly amusing), doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t miss a beat.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher; screenplay by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on an idea by Richard Starzak and the character created by Nick Park; director of photography, Charles Copping; edited by Sim Evan-Jones; music by Tom Howe; production designer, Matt Perry; produced by Paul Kewley; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun), John Sparkes (Bitzer), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La) and John Sparkes (The Farmer).


John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019, Chad Stahelski)

Even with conservative expectations, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum disappoints. Even with adjusted expectations as the film progresses; the first act seems like it’s going to be a two hour real-time action extravaganza with lead Keanu Reeves fighting his way through seventies and eighties New York City filming locations, only with twenty-first century fight choreography, special effects, and gorgeous high dynamic range photography. The film’s lighting is explicitly, intentionally exquisite and director Stahelski prioritizes those possibilities in the composition. It’s a great looking film.

Even after the first act, when Reeves is off on a quest to find the master assassin–there’s definitely a movie buff involved in making the Wick franchise; this time Reeves does a Tuco homage—Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—but it doesn’t seem like it can be screenwriter Derek Kolstad because the script sounds like no one involved with writing it (shouldn’t dump it all on Kolstad, he had three co-writers on this one) has ever seen a movie. Just video games. Yet someone knew Reeves on a horse versus ninjas on motorcycles would be great.

And a lot of Parabellum is great. Lots of really good supporting performances—Halle Berry’s action sidekick is outstanding and the film’s less once she leaves the story. And not just because Reeves ends up roaming a very artificial looking desert in hopes of the aforementioned master assassin giving him a last chance. No spoilers on the master assassin but… it’s a casting disappointment. Not just because the actor’s not a big enough name for a film very deliberate in its guest stars, but also because said actor’s performance is wanting. Parabellum is like if a video game were well-acted. Ian McShane is outstanding with absolutely nothing to do except act it up. Same goes for Anjelica Huston, who plays Reeves’s old teacher; she teaches mastery assassin classes to the boys, ballet to the girls. They never get into the gender split.

But pretty immediately Stahelski makes it clear the ballet is going to be a metaphor for the action sequences. And he delivers on them. The fight choreography is fantastic, the lengthy endurance fights are awesome, Evan Schiff’s editing doesn’t break anything (doesn’t really help either); Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s music is solid. They seem to be borrowing from a John Carpenter theme for this score. I think They Live but I’m guessing. Effective music. The film’s exceedingly well-produced, well-executed.

Oh, yeah, great cameo from Jerome Flynn. Don’t want to forget him.

Now for the negative adjectives.

The third act is a disaster. Not because it’s got this big double-cross and triple-cross or whatever cross, but because of how poorly the previously complimented creatives execute the crosses and crossing. Parabellum doesn’t sour right away, it starts by one thread not paying off, then another, then finally it becomes clear they’re just setting up the sequel. Only in a way you could never make a sequel but promise further adventures. No rest for the wicked type stuff.

Maybe if Larry Fishburne weren’t so eh in his role as an erstwhile Reeves ally. Or if Asia Kate Dillon’s emissary character (she works for the still unseen big crime bosses and assesses betrayals or something) weren’t blah. Dillon plays it better than the part deserves, especially since Stahelski ignores Dillon’s successful infusion of comedy into the role. But the most disappointing performance is Mark Dacascos, who’s an absurd (but deadly) assassin out for Reeves’s blood. Dacascos gets wackier and wackier as the film progresses, culminating in what could be a seriously funky homage (saying to what would spoil) but it doesn’t build to anything. He’s just runtime fodder to get Reeves to the sequel setup.

It’s a real bummer, considering the often excellent production. It’s a super-violent, extravagently silly action picture; good lead from Reeves (he doesn’t get too much dialogue this time), great fights, beautiful looking. The writing just catches up with it. The writing and the uneven distribution of good supporting players.

Parabellum could’ve been a contender. But isn’t, which is a bummer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; screenplay by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, based on a story by Kolstad; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Evan Schiff; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Halle Berry (Sofia), Mark Dacascos (Zero), Ian McShane (Winston), Asia Kate Dillon (The Adjudicator), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), Jerome Flynn (Berrada), and Anjelica Huston (The Director).


The Battle of Jangsari (2019, Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon)

I’m curious enough about The Battle of Jangsari I think I’m going to read War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent by Marguerite Higgins, which might have some information about the actual battle of Jangsa-ri because there’s nothing on the Google not about the movie. The big details, which you assume the movie isn’t going to change: 772 seventeen year-olds with ten days of boot camp being used a diversionary tactic at the battle of Incheon. Lambs to the slaughter, the unpleasant reality of war. Though the only ones talking about that reality are the guest stars.

See, Battle of Jangsari is not some awesome white savior but pseudo-woke adaptation of Higgins’s life story—the film’s not officially based on the book and makes sure to point out Megan Fox is playing a composite, not Higgins, which is why Fox doesn’t have a last name—it’s a jingoistic war movie. Just one with a couple down on their luck American actors doing inserts, possibly with digital backdrops. Jangsari uses a lot of digital backdrops, lot of all digital shots. Lot of really bad digital. Jangsari looks like the CG was done on a low quality render versus a high. Like a demo reel for the finished effects. Same goes for Komeil S. Hosseini’s music. It’s like… Hosseini didn’t see the movie, did he? He just sold them some music. Like temp music.

And Fox… Fox feels like a temp performance. Though not as much as George Eads feels like understudies run wild. Eads is real bad. Fox is just bad bad. The script’s terrible for Fox. It’s too brief to be terrible for Eads. He doesn’t even pretend to pretend to care about sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. His performance is a combination of impatience and indifference. It’s a great commentary on the U.S. involvement in the Korean War… they can’t even try to pretend to come up with a reasonable rational in 2020. Not even in a jingoistic, poorly lighted (Kim Sung-hwan’s photography is uncomfortably bad), weird war movie about slaughtered teenagers; the film never gives the number of survivors, which is just curious. Since the actual event is apparently untranslated or in some very obscure collection of female news articles… the film’s got no obligation to be honest. Why does it matter so much?

Because as a true story, Battle of Jangsari is an incompetent rendering of a compelling tragedy. It doesn’t matter if the kids’ sob stories are true, they’re all baldly manipulative. Choi Min-ho is the North Korean kid who moved South before the war and is now fighting to avenge his dead family, bombed by the North (while in the South). Choi’s got a North Korean accent he can do, which seems… odd. Would they really have had such a different accent back then? It seems like you’d want to be able to check it wasn’t creepy anti-North propaganda but then they run into some North Koreans who are butchering a cute puppy so you know they’re really bad people.

I’m super unclear on why these “let’s Raymond Burr these cash-hungry American stars into a Korean movie” movies exist. Are the American stars supposed to appeal to the Korean audience or to the international one. Because Fox is, like, never in a shot with any of the Korean stars. Eads maybe is in a room with one once. Fox is a small digital figure when she’s in a scene with the Korean cast. There’s clearly no crossover.

So pointless.

Anyway, the other main kid is Kim Sung-cheol. He’s a son-of-a-bitch thug bully sociopath and he’s the real hero. He gets a redemption arc after killing someone’s cousin. Like… South Korea’s got mandatory conscription so there’s some message it’s sending its audience and I want to know what. More than I want to see Kim and Choi become pals, because even though Jangsari’s only real chance is to go all in on the teen war melodrama… it does not. Lee Man-hee’s script avoids the kids whenever it can and when it can’t, they get not funny but kind of funny in a very sad, tragic, empathetic way set pieces.

Though those set pieces are far better than when directors Kwak and Kim get to do their lengthy first-person-shooter inspired war in the trenches sequence. They spend much of the first act with the shakiest shaky-cam they can get away with, all while it’s becoming obvious they doesn’t know how to compose any kind of shot, much less his fake Panavision one. Throw in Kim’s photography and it’s not a nice looking film. Not at all. It is visually unpleasant.

And not when there’s war gore. The film overdoes it on war gore. Because even though you feel inspired with love of country, you’re going to die in potentially gross ways.

Kim Myung-Min plays the commander. He’s… fine. I mean, he’s not bad. There’s something with his true story too but it’s not clear what because the postscript doesn’t give any real information. Kim In-kwon is the cool older guy. He’s… I mean, I don’t know. Could Battle of Jangsari have been better with a totally different crew but the same cast? Probably. None of the performances really stand out, good or bad, which is something of a blessing.

And, hey, got me interested in reading again right? I mean, maybe I’m curious enough… see, it’s a really compelling story. The movie just doesn’t do a good job telling it.

Except maybe all the puking in the ship as the kids go to the landing point. The puking is legit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon; written by Lee Man-hee, Brian Chung, and Cory Gustke; director of photography, Kim Sung-hwan; edited by Kim Chang-ju and Kim Woo-hyun; music by Komeil S. Hosseini; production designer, Lee Tae-hoon; costume designer, Sim Hyeon-seob; produced by Ko Sung-mi and Yang Jang-Hoon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Choi Min-ho (Choi Sung-pil), Kim Sung-cheol (Ki Ha-ryun), Jang Ji-geon (Guk Man-deuk), Kim Myung-min (Lee Myung-Joon), Kwak Si-yang (Park Chan-nyeon), Kim In-kwon (Ryu Tae-seok), Lee Ho-jung (Moon Jong-nyeo), Lee Jae-wook (Lee Gae-tae), George Eads (Colonel Stephen), and Megan Fox (Maggie).


Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


Canceled (2019, Jimmy Caputo)

Canceled has a great sense of humor. It ends on a knowing smile but then the end credits have a few knowing big laughs. It’s about five minutes of action, real-time, as two friends (Laura Sacchetti and Maria Scenna) try to console a third (Katrina Rossi) over the loss of her favorite TV show. The first minute pretends the consoling is necessary because of a boyfriend and it switches gears at just the right time. Again, great sense of humor. And director Caputo’s script has a better sense of timing than the short itself, which is frustrating.

Some jokes don’t work (Jeremy Gaipo’s recurring boyfriend gag is a fail), some performances don’t work (Scenna’s bored, apathetic friend seems less like a performance and more like Scenna’s unwilling to exert any acting effort), but thanks to Rossi and also Sacchetti (who’s resilient, she works through the moment not exactly working, not giving up until it does), Canceled works. Also, obviously, Caputo’s script and about half his direction. Whenever Scenna’s onscreen, it’s like time stops—partially because Scenna’s an energy vampire, partially because Caputo’s shot isn’t particularly interesting. He’s got fine composition when the actors are making it work, not when they don’t. Because Canceled’s an actors’ short. It’s a showcase for Rossi. And a good one.

Technically, it’s decent. Cinematographer Max Goldberg’s fine as long as he’s not trying to match lighting between shots. It never works. Some of it’s Justin Wayne’s editing, which is more enthusiastic than it ought to be. Not overconfident exactly, just… the cuts rarely go smooth. Though he does really well cutting a zoom here and there. Like, startlingly well.

It’s a funny short and a strong showcase for Rossi and Caputo’s writing. The successful material overshadows the problems, even the ones you worry about (like Scenna).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jimmy Caputo; director of photography, Max Goldberg; edited by Justin Wayne; music by Tony Francis Rainone; produced by Caputo, Goldberg, and Wayne.

Starring Katrina Rossi (Molly), Laura Sacchetti (Julia), Maria Scenna (Sadie), and Jeremy Gaipo (Brian).


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


Alien: Harvest (2019, Benjamin Howdeshell)

Alien: Harvest operates at that all too familiar intersection of bad and stupid. It’s a stupid idea badly executed, though it’s not clear whose at fault for each. For instance, the short is about four survivors on a space ship trying to get the lifeboat before the ship blows up in seven (or eight) minutes. It’s a seven or eight minute short. You’d think it’d be real-time… but no. So who decided to do stylistically weak montage (the second time jump, the first they just cut), director Howdeshell or writer Craig Dewey?

Howdeshell’s direction is bad throughout, sure, but Dewey’s writing is stupid throughout too. For instance, how is it possible no one in the Alien universe knows how to read a motion tracker? Especially given lead (or at least character given the most reaction shots) Agnes Albright ought to know how to read one, given her character’s background. Though Albright’s background is yet another of the script’s stupidities; for an officially produced “Alien Universe” short, Harvest plays pretty fast and loose with the franchise “rules.” And always just for shock value. Dewey and Howdeshell don’t have anything good up their sleeves so they’re just going for the jumps. They don’t get any. They get some eye rolls, which is impressive because it’s usually too stupid to bother wasting the energy to roll the eyes.

There’s one good performance—Jessica Clark, as the pregnant and therefore sympathetic survivor. Adam Sinclair’s pretty bad as her dude, James C. Burns is even worse as the mansplainer. Watching Burns makes you appreciate how even some bad actors are at least not godawful at it. He’s fairly godawful.

Albright’s… not good. It’s a crap part but she’s not good.

Nothing’s good about Harvest, though the space CGI exteriors aren’t bad and Danny Cocke’s music could be worse. At least it’s not too derivative of the source material, whereas Dewey reuses lines from the real movies.

Bad editing from Jake Shaver, though it’s unclear if its his cutting or just Howdeshell’s footage. It seems more like the latter… if you forget the ineptitude of the fifteen second montage to show the characters passing forty-five seconds of present action.

It’s never any good, but the utter stupidity of the finish (and the real-time fails) make Harvest much worse than expected.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Benjamin Howdeshell; screenplay by Craig Dewey, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Chris Saul; edited by Jake Shaver; music by Danny Cocke; production designer, Troy Spino; costume designer, David Tabbert; produced by Shawn Wallace; released by IGN.

Starring Agnes Albright (Mari), Jessica Clark (Hannah), Adam Sinclair (Alec), and James C. Burns (Sturgis).


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)

Booksmart opens with high school senior Beanie Feldstein getting up on her last day of school; graduation is in the morning. She listens to self-affirmations about—politely—crushing your adversaries as you excel past them. Now, Feldstein lives in an apartment building. Not a terrible one, but not a nice one. Her lack of perception of privilege and class are going to bite her a little so it’s an important detail. Similarly, when best friend Kaitlyn Dever pulls up to drive to school, Dever’s not in a great car. Booksmart is going to exist in a very particular bubble and the film’s got no problem with that bubble, it just doesn’t examine it. Because Booksmart is a comedy. Yes, Feldstein’s an overachiever from a different economic class from her classmates and Dever’s an out lesbian teenager living with two Christian but supportive parent. They’ve got things going on. But the film’s more concerned with being funny and fun, which is exactly what it needs to be doing.

At school, Feldstein gets a rude awakening to how the world of college acceptance works from her classmates, who she assumed were all headed to a trade school and it turns out, no, not only are they going to the same school (Yale) or better than her, even the kid who flunked seventh grade twice (Eduardo Franco) has already got a coding job at Google. Feldstein had no fun and excelled but they had fun and excelled, meaning she was wrong and the things weren’t mutually exclusive—which is true, especially once you find out the kids are all rich. Some are 1%, the others are 3-6%. Turns out Dever’s parents have a great house and the old car is just a Dever thing. The class and privilege aspects gradually get brushed over with the comedy. The details aren’t presently important for Feldstein and Dever, who are going to go on to have their own character development—outstanding character development—usually these little moments in the reactions or dialogue amid the comedy. Booksmart’s always working towards a laugh, usually at least medium ones.

The film knows how to get a laugh and it knows what kind of laugh it’s going to get—some of its the script (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman—so maybe the most successful four-writer movie in a while), most of its Wilde’s direction and Feldstein and Dever’s performances. Wilde’s sense of timing is exquisite. She and editor Jamie Gross cut the humor perfectly, but then it turns out they’ve also got these more ambitious sequences. There’s this fantastic dance sequence out of nowhere and then this emotional visually poetic underwater swimming sequence. Both those sequences serve Feldstein and Dever, but they’re also the showiest Wilde’s going to be able to get in the film and she ties the filmmaking ambition to the stars; they’re breathtaking sequences. And right after them, Booksmart turns out not to really have an idea of how to get from point C to point D. The film’s second to third act transition is exceptionally rough. It’s well-acted, it’s well-directed—Wilde even does this “hands off” thing when it gets too intense dramatically; Booksmart is about the comedy. The specifics of the drama aren’t the point. Especially not since it concerns Feldstein and Dever’s friendship—because of course it does, it’s a high school best friends comedy, weren’t you paying attention to the genre tropes; even when Felstein and Dever are spouting exposition about their history, Wilde always takes a hands-off approach with the pair. Their friendship needs to illuminate itself through the performances, not the specifics of the dialogue, which is very important as well because it’s often hilarious and the film needs to hit the laugh.

After some brief pathos for the stars, the third act then amps up the physical comedy in the search of an ending. Booksmart’s got a great epilogue, but the ending of the film’s narrative gets desperate at the end and plays a lot on the film’s goodwill. Nicely, the film’s still generating goodwill through the rough spots; Feldstein and Dever can handle the pathos fine, it’s just not serving a purpose. Kind of like the kind of icky thirty-something teacher and the twenty-year old student. That one is the film’s only actual problem, even though it too is a high school movie trope… it’s just one in need of more examination of how it executes in Booksmart, where it’s a C plot.

Okay, time to go over the supporting cast. It’s big, but the actors are essential to the film’s success. It’s one of those apparently perfectly casted films—even though Booksmart’s got the epical narrative, it’s also a hangout movie. And Wilde knows how to showcase the supporting cast. Billie Lourd’s the richest girl, who doesn’t make much impression in her introduction but becomes the film’s best running joke. And Lourd’s great. Then there’s Mason Gooding as Feldstein’s dope of a vice president… but a really hot one who Feldstein’s got a secret crush on. Meanwhile, Dever’s got a years long crush on skater girl Victoria Ruesga, who wishes Dever would party on weekends so… possibilities. Molly Gordon’s the mean girl who turns out to have a bunch of depth. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute are hilarious as the theater guys. Then Skyler Gisondo is the richest boy, who’s extremely socially awkward and seems to have a crush on Feldstein, which Feldstein’s mortified about.

The way the night unfolds—and the plot perturbs—informs how the supporting cast is going to interact with Feldstein and Dever, which leads to reaction scenes for the two of them as their expectations get realized and dashed. And Feldstein and Dever get the funniest material—Wilde sets the narrative distance constantly inform their relationship (and performances) more than anything else, even when the supporting cast is getting some big comic moment. Wilde’s stunningly good at the directing thing. Booksmart’s always impressive for one reason or another.

Great lead performances, great supporting performances, great direction, outstanding script; technically it’s excellent—Gross’s editing, Jason McCormick’s photography, Dan The Automator’s score, all superb. It’s a humdinger of a first feature from director Wilde.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivia Wilde; written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman; director of photography, Jason McCormick; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Dan The Automator; production designer, Katie Byron; produced by Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison, and Silberman; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Noah Galvin (George), Austin Crute (Alan), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown).


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