Movie Review: Passing (2021)

Now on Netflix.

This topical directorial debut and central duo of female performances will undoubtedly turn heads. Rebecca Hall’s delicate drama Passing (B) is a puzzle-box of ambiguity shot in 4:3 aspect ratio and overexposed, over saturated monochrome. Unlike some other movies shot in black and white simply to augment prestige factor especially in Oscar season, the cinematography here actually factors in heavily to a story about ideas, ideologies, identity and insecurity and especially framing the interior conflicts boxing these female characters into specific stations in life. In 1920s New York City, a Black woman Irene played by Tessa Thompson finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with former childhood friend Clare, portrayed by Ruth Negga, whose fair skin and blond hair helps her maintain a lifestyle “passing” as white. While Irene identifies as African-American and is married to a black doctor played by André Holland, Clare is wed to a wealthy and very racist white man portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård. Hall employs a near stage play environment within her commanding cinematic lens to present mounting tensions between the characters. At times the austere direction keeps viewers at a slight distance or surface level obscuring some underdeveloped sub-themes, but Hall rarely wavers in keen observations as she wields this curious lens on race and class. It’s a slow burn; this film makes Carol or Howard’s End look like potboilers. Thompson and Negga are towering in their nuanced performances, and Hall at the helm has accomplished quite a feat in her audacious first film.

Movie Review: Spencer (2021)

Now in theatres.

Although it joins Eyes Wide Shut and Die Hard in the “I guess it’s a Christmas movie” pantheon, Pablo Larraín’s biographical psychological drama Spencer (A-), about the Yuletide weekend in which Princess Diana chooses to split from the royal family, is a melancholy masterpiece. Kristen Stewart is luminous in the lead role, brilliantly humanizing a public figure we think we all know and plumbing the depths of her spiral into despondency. Larraín’s frenzied fever dream frames its troubled protagonist with such a splendid mise-en-scène of mounting formal and claustrophobic environments, a viewer could well believe it’s a slo-mo horror film as much as a tragedy. But this powderkeg princess diaries is mostly a cautionary tale of the effect of lovelessness and blind adherence to tradition. Several supporting performers stand out: Timothy Spall is a hoot as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, with a constant puss on his face as he tries to reign in our heroine to do her duty, and Sally Hawkins is a delight in a small role as a confidante and royal dresser who whispers into her wanderlust. The film is often quietly observant, which makes the moments of rage and revelations pulse all the more. For every nightmarish sequence around the corners of her lonely world, there are also tender moments depicting the fun and games Diana furtively plays with her sons. This is heartbreaking filmmaking with a light at its center about what could have been. Stewart will be recognized for her fierce performance, and the remarkable filmmaking too should be revered.

Movie Review: Belfast (2021)

Now in theatres. Focus Features.

This is where too-on-the-nose nostalgia and a passion project short on passion collide. Although it takes place in a specific part of history a hemisphere away, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age drama Belfast (C) unsuccessfully jockeys to be a timeless old-school Hollywood movie. The action is set during “The Troubles,” a time of religious unrest and warfare in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to early 1970, often seen through the lens of child star Jude Hill, a wide-eyed and rather unconvincing central protagonist. Branagh struggles with creating narrative momentum or a reliably consistent point of view on a rather limited milieu of cramped houses of a street and alleyway backlot. The film zig zags between cloying, sentimental, cutesy, contrived and saccharine – and back again. Even the fact that it’s filmed in naturalistic black and white comes off as lazy shorthand for an under-stuffed memory box. Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all have strong moments as two generations of the protagonist’s family, but it also feels a bit like assembling a bunch of perfunctory stock characters. Overall it’s a swing and a miss: surface gloss of history, largely inert.

Movie Review: Eternals (2021)

In theatres

After a Marvel villain famously destroyed half the world population, director Chloé Zhao actually raises the stakes in her cerebral and engrossing entry into the MCU, the epic action ensemble Eternals (A-). The “let’s get the gang together” type story centers on a group of ten superpower-wielding immortals who must come out of hiding to join forces and stop an eminent attack on earth, and Zhao impressively gains empathy for so many central characters while commanding one of the widest canvasses of space and time and history to depict the cosmic drama. A-listers Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek are very good but not the center of gravity here. Lots of up-and-comers make the movie. Gemma Chan is wonderfully winning as the professorial heroine, and Kumail Nanjiani is wryly funny as a hero in hiding in the Bollywood film industry (his character continues to knowingly chronicle his quest documentary-style). Richard Madden is dashing, and Lia McHugh effective as mythic characters. Although long in running time, Zhao leverages her ensemble and set pieces for some spectacular world building; and the action, while more sporadic than some fans may wish, is also consistently delightful. This is a thinking person’s superhero movie with real characters and respectable tension; it’s quite a bit more talky than most in this franchise. Picturesque and powerful, this film and its auteur are forces with which to be reckoned.

Movie Review: The French Dispatch (2021)

Now in theatres.

The latest lark by a gifted director is modern artifice without much of a meaning. Wes Anderson’s wry and literate anthology The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (C) contains within its whimsical sampler a trilogy of short stories written for a fictional bygone publication in an imaginary French town, and the movie proves to be a fleet-footed but flat shadow box of the auteur’s hallmark conventions. The story of a “tortured artist” featuring Benicio del Toro is by far the strongest entry; a take on “journalistic neutrality” less so; and a meandering morsel on “delicious irony” fails to satisfy. The director continues his tradition of focusing on madcap minutiae and summons a game and familiar journeyman cast to mostly pose in oddball characterizations without actually being characters. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and others make the most of their brief moments but are criminally underused in serving Anderson’s vague vision. If this were his first film, folks would marvel at the invention of his break-the-fourth-wall antics and artifice, but this installment’s wacky world building is perfunctory, like he’s as apathetic a self-caricature as his make-believe town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. This much exacting care about how things look should result in looking like he cares about the story or people in the film. Insufferable when it should be droll and narratively inert when it should be propulsive, Anderson focuses on the tableau, texture and terminology without peeling back the layers. 

Movie Review: Dune (2021)

In theatres and on HBO Max.

Its source novel may be more than a half century old, but under the direction of a true visionary, this text certainly has some substantial spice left in it. Welcome to sci-fi succession as director Denis Villeneuve unleashes a new Dune (titled onscreen as Dune: Part One) (A), and it’s a big-screen epic of biblical proportions. The futuristic plot centers on political intrigue surrounding a rare natural resource on a desert planet and a protagonist who, despite featherweight appearance, may indeed be a messianic super-being with the capacity to unite warring factions of the universe. There are also cool hummingbird style flying crafts, body force field shields and relentless sand worms; and the director smartly doles out exposition in small doses and varieties to not overtax the intellect. Timothée Chalamet is the aforementioned nebbish who rises to the occasion in both his acting and action; he is quite magnetic in the lead role. But dare he alone be an inadequate draw for the action hungry, there’s a charming trio of more traditional movie stars – Jason Mamoa, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin – present and accounted for in space scuffles of their own, and these guys bring great energy to their sequences. Rebecca Ferguson is also a highlight as the hero’s mother who teaches him the ways of a mythical magic. Absorbing from the get-go, the film overcomes some pacing awkwardness as it judiciously chronicles the first half of the book, but its journey is a thrill to watch in every frame. The cinematography and effects are marvelous and fully transport viewers to this otherworld. There are rousing battles and intriguing revelations around every bend of the breathtaking planetary landscapes. If all this sounds like Star Wars, it kinda is (or maybe it’s the other way around?) although this space opera is even more solemn and doesn’t usually aim much at luring in the youngsters. Quite simply, it’s stunning and smart and will be a treat for folks seeking a fully realized adventure.

Movie Review: Halloween Kills (2021)

In theatres and on Peacock streaming service.

It’s a mob against the masked man in this not especially terrifying continuation of a retconned timeline horror mythology. After his successful 2018 reboot, David Gordon Green further builds his boogeyman opus with the second of a proposed trilogy, Halloween Kills (C-), but this follow-up proves to be a rather routine slasher film despite being competently made. There’s a bit of a big chill in the air as reuniting survivors of violent attacks by serial killer Michael Myers form a vigilante squad to thwart him once and for all, or at least until the next planned sequel, while the largely sidelined Jamie Lee Curtis character Laurie Strode recovers in a hospital after a failed attempt at offing Myers. Judy Greer and Andi Matichak get little to do as the descendants of the Strode bloodline. Will Patton as a sheriff deputy and Anthony Michael Hall as one of the kids Laurie used to babysit also get few contributions aside from Hall’s frequent exclamation that, “Evil dies tonight!” The brute force body count and candied cornucopia of creative slayings should thrill hardcore fans of horror films, but the musings that the Town of Haddonfield is now basically cursed by fear that turns neighbors against one another, Purge style, doesn’t really stick. The only mild inspiration is that Michael’s childhood home is now occupied by a gay couple (Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald) who view the domicile for its camp value; if only the irony were carried through in other vignettes, there might have been more cleverness amidst the carnage. This installment basically confirms a tradition of inferior sequels, treads water for most of its duration and portends a “Shape” of things to come.

Movie Review: No Time to Die (2021)

Now in theatres. Photo: MGM.

Despite many isolated moments of grandeur, the overlong 25th James Bond movie and purported final installment of Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role, peaks early and struggles in patches to find its pace. There are several “first act” action sequences so effective in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die (B) that a viewer may wonder if the film will be able to maintain its momentum (the answer is not quite). Front-loaded highlights include an eerie origin story involving a villain and love interest and a spectacular 360 vehicular ballet to buttress against baddies in an Italian piazza. There’s also tremendous possibility in a plot involving a bioweapon full of lethal nanobots coded to an individual’s specific DNA. Plus, a trio of intriguing female characters including Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas and Léa Seydoux play well opposite Craig’s anguished protagonist. So it’s a bit of a missed opportunity amidst gorgeously photographed and well staged episodes that the enterprise doesn’t pop even more. Partly to blame is a half-baked villain in Rami Malek who, with clipped speech cadence and vague dastardly plans to turn personal trauma into global vengeance, fails to deliver on his creepy promise. And mid-way, there’s a series of bloated plot points which seem perfunctory at best. There’s also scant subtext under the posh proceedings, even though the action generally packs a wallop. For series stalwarts, though, the film pays fan service to nearly all beloved tropes from island lairs to inventive spy-jinks; and in many ways it’s as Bondian as a Bond film can be. Fukunaga leaves a stylish and singular directorial stamp on the franchise just as Craig has made the brooding hero’s role indelibly his own. Overall it’s a sturdy entry into the series and a fitting tribute to the actor who has shaken and stirred the series for the past decade and a half.

Movie Review: Dear Evan Hansen (2021)

Universal Pictures – now in theatres.

Tunefully tackling mental health, cancel culture and the nature of truth in the Internet age – and none of these topics with much dexterity – Stephen Chbosky’s mixed bag musical movie of Dear Evan Hansen (B-) nonetheless provides an absorbing showcase for an ensemble of female actress/singers who wave into a window of emotions more authentic than that of the film’s male lead. Call it Medicated High School Musical, and call it like it is that Ben Platt’s character translates awkwardly from the Great White Way to the silver screen. Platt is mostly crooning to the mezzanine balconies while Chbosky lenses the actor’s histrionics in awkward close-ups which reveal he is powdered in age-reducing prosthetics to reprise the lauded teenage performance he created nearly a decade ago on stage. The cinema canvas also surfaces flaws in the Broadway source material, namely that the audience is meant to sympathize with a character whose mounting lies prove to undermine his perceived good intentions. The characters breaking out into song isn’t really explained or consistent and can be confusing when one of them actually plays guitar as a plot device; and since emotion is already heightened, there’s often not much higher to go in some pedestrian presentational soliloquies. Were the YouTube fans meant to like the speech or the song? One must suspend a good bit of disbelief. However, let’s get to the good stuff, because there are many highlights in this overlong but often moving enterprise. First, the music is flawless, including two solid new songs to add to favorites such as “You Will Be Found.” The film is chock full of stunning female talent: Amandla Stenberg as an activist classmate whose tune “The Anonymous Ones” is a highlight, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever as a mother and daughter recoiling from tragedy in earnest songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us,” and Julianne Moore whose final reel “So Big/So Small” is a heartbreaker. Platt does indeed shine in many of his scenes of comedy and intense singing, even though the director should have reigned him in and clarified many aspects of the character. And Colton Ryan as a troubled classmate is so captivating in his two major sequences that it’s surprising he didn’t nab the lead role. Still, the parts of this story that work and surprise have the capacity to genuinely touch hearts and minds about the tug of war of man versus his worst instincts in a quest to belong. The film and its protagonist are often a tangled mess, but musical fans will likely grant Chbosky, Platt and company a full pardon for some of their missteps in bringing such an emotional wallop to the screen.

Movie Review: Malignant (2021)

In theatres and on HBO Max.

This head-scratcher of a horror movie is announcing its intentions as a new realm in terror, but its terrain of dreamscapes and damaged souls feeds on lots of tropes which have already been around for a while. A woman’s premonitions about a deranged killer’s next murders are just the beginning of the story in James Wan’s twisty thriller Malignant (B-), a slow burn of a tale that gets pretty unhinged in its final reel. In the protagonist role, Annabelle Wallis is effective as a troubled woman who may just have a connection to the gilded dagger wielding villain, but amidst many underwritten parts and plot threads, the sometimes hokey film often feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker rather than one who has been making Hollywood horror for some time. The psychobabble that bubbles up fairly far into the movie’s running time is evocative of early Brian de Palma films even though the camerawork and choreography rarely deliver much of a creative spark. It’s all more eerie than scary, and the film often seems enchanted with special effects and stunts that don’t add much to the storyline. Still, it casts a peculiar spell and keeps bringing in ways to keep things exciting, and the promised plot twists do indeed ratchet the proceedings up to a whole new level.

Industry News: Fall 2021 Movie Preview

Real-life stories of Hollywood royalty, chronicles of singing poets and lovers, displays of supernatural super heroics and much more will vie for your attention across multiplex and media as the fall film season gets fully underway. Filmmakers continue to showcase the movies they’ve been safely creating during the pandemic, and you’ll get a variety of new fare to enjoy on both big screens and home streaming in the months ahead.

Anticipated sequels and franchises include No Time to Die, the latest Daniel Craig 007 film; Dune, which covers half of the dense sci-fi novel about outer space wars; Halloween Kills with further mayhem between knife-wielding Michael Myers and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis; and Maverick, Tom Cruise’s long-awaited follow-up to Top Gun.

True-life sagas range from director Ridley Scott’s chronicle of a murderous fashion family with House of Gucci starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver to Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as television idols Lucy and Desi Arnaz. Two tragic legends also get the big-screen treatment as Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in Spencer and Ana de Armas embodies Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. And King Richard stars Will Smith as the father and coach of the Williams tennis sisters.

After the recent successes of Marvel on television, an emboldened box office run should continue with recent Oscar winner Chloé Zhao’s Eternals featuring an ensemble of immortal gods such as Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek plus the third in the latest Spider-Man trilogy, No Way Home, injecting a bit of twisty multiverse time travel into the teen web-slinger’s adventures.

Dear Evan Hansen with Ben Platt as a troubled teenager opposite Amy Adams and Julianne Moore ushers in a season of musicals, followed by Peter Dinklage in an acclaimed crooning performance as Cyrano, Andrew Garfield as an artist on the brink of hitting it big as he faces an early mid-life crisis in Tick Tick Boom, the Colombia-set Disney animated family feature Encanto about a magical family and Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as star-crossed lovers in the gang lands of New York.

Awards season will be in full bloom when Martin Scorsese presents Killers of the Flower Moon starring Leo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, Jane Campion showcases The Power of the Dog with Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Guillermo del Toro transports us to Nightmare Alley with Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett. The next movie by the droll Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch, features talent such as Timothée Chalamet and Bill Murray.

Some other anticipated autumn fare includes Don’t Look Up, a crashing comet comedy with DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence; Kenneth Branagh’s personal black and white historical drama Belfast with Jamie Dornan and Judi Dench; and the artsy Last Night in Soho with eccentric leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy. Plus there’s some unexpected casting including Denzel Washington as the title character in Tragedy of Macbeth and Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound man in The Whale.

There’s something for everyone, and expect these and many more to receive their bite-sized reviews weekly here at

This story is also syndicated throughout American newspapers this month.

Movie Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Now on Disney+ streaming service.

This movie crouches with creativity until it starts draggin’. For its first two acts, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (B) grabs the brash brass with a swagger worthy of a first-ever Marvel movie; but by the end of the final reel, the labored adventure limps like the 25th Marvel film installment that it is. The film successfully grounds its characters in intriguing emotional arcs, even if some veteran actors are better suited at the drama than the newcomers. Acclaimed Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung skillfully portrays the patriarch of a dysfunctional family and is the catalyst for a story that transports viewers from San Francisco to Macau in a quest for generational redemption and supernatural accessories. Simu Liu is a stunner of a physical actor in the title role, but his emoting in dramatic sequences is hit or miss, as is that of Meng’er Zhang who plays his stoic sister. Faring much better are Awkwafina in true command of her comic relief love interest sidekick role (leading man Liu is far more natural in moments of levity opposite her) and Michelle Yeoh who ups her “aunty” with dramatic and martial arts choreography skills. The film is an origin story in reverse, and the opening U.S. sequences with casual comedy and an outstanding extended fight aboard a runaway bus eclipse some otherwise deft world building to come in the Asian environment of underground fight clubs, shape-shifting bamboo mazes and enchanted villages with a menagerie of CGI beasts. Other than a glorious battle aboard skyscraper scaffolding, the events abroad do not measure up to the story and tone captured stateside. The film is chock full of interesting ideas but ultimately overstuffed in its endless parade of finales. It’s mostly highly entertaining even if the front is more of a kick than the remaining thrust.