I've reviewed films for more than 20 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and direct-to-video or streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.
The true wolves of Wall Street have arrived, and they’re adorned with bling and chinchilla. The latest addition into the hall of fame of superb real-life crime dramas is Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers (B+), buoyed by outstanding performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as exotic dancers who devise a scam to drain the credit cards of Wall Street clientele in the aftermath of last decade’s financial crisis. Scafaria’s visceral storytelling and exciting camerawork puts viewers directly in the action and elicits sympathy from characters who exhibit mixed motivations. Lopez delivers a performance of a lifetime as the queen bee of an unlikely hive of gangsters. She assumes the demanding role with brute force physically and emotionally. The film’s unapologetic glimpse at a transactional culture and its effect on friends and family gives it a pedigree to be remembered as awards season gets underway.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of Mark Twain, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
All the clamor over the hush of forbidden, guilty secrets really puts the SH… in this IT. Andy Muschietti’s bloated follow-up to his adaptation of the childhood passages of Stephen King’s nostalgic ode to overcoming what scares you is overlong, not remotely frightening, full of half-baked creature effects, sloppily paced and only occasionally charming due to the assets of select cast members. It Chapter Two (C-) flash forwards a quarter century to showcase the “Losers Club” kids all grown up facing off again with evil, especially embodied in Pennywise the Clown. In the body count of who vanquishes themselves as actors in the FX-covered ensemble, Bill Hader and Jay Ryan are a delight, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy are underwhelming, James Ransone is a mixed bag and Isaiah Mustafa does his role no favors. Most of the characters have been haunted in some way since they became Derry free, but reuniting in the small town brings back all the feels. The film too often flashes back to events in or adjacent to the prior film, and it just feels like a retread. The present danger isn’t particularly menacing, and the adults seem rather casual for a good bit in following the tedious rules of stopping evil in its tracks. The showdown is evocative of the ’80s mainly due to feeling like a neverending story. The much-heralded clown is a bit incidental this time around. The last five minutes are quite nice.
It was a summer of car chases and cartoons come to life, but
now Tinseltown’s thespians are ready to assume their glow in the spotlight.
Prepare for a variety of favorite actors – including Adam Driver and Scarlett
Johansson in more movies than can be counted – to showcase award-worthy performances
on multiplex and streaming screens.
Two Stephen King sequels promise to shock: It Chapter Two,
in which adult characters played by the likes of James McAvoy and Jessica
Chastain face down the clown with a red balloon who so terrorized their
childhoods, and Doctor Sleep (filmed in Atlanta) with Ewan McGregor as
the grown-up “Danny” from The Shining who can’t escape his demons either.
Scorsese’s The Irishman, which will debut both on Netflix and in select
theatres, is a gangster tale starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
It’s the story of mobster Frank Sheeran and the disappearance of one of the leaders
of the biggest crime families in American history.
Giving Netflix a scrappy run for its money in the streaming
department will be the debut of Disney+ in November, complete with the full binge-able
back-catalogue of the studio’s films plus a Disney live-action Lady and the
Tramp (set in Savannah) and Anna Kendrick as Santa’s daughter Noelle
in a save-Christmas quest.
Iconoclast directors Taika Waititi and Rian
Johnson, each most recently helming Marvel and Star Wars movies, return
to eccentricity with Jojo Rabbit, a WWII-set fantasy with Rebel
Wilson and Scarlett Johansson in small roles, and Knives Out, a
star-studded whodunit with Chris Evans, Daniel Craig and Jamie
Lee Curtis along for the mystery.
Sometimes Hollywood finds an ideal match between actor and
lead role. Tom Hanks plays Mr. Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the
Neighborhood. Harriet features Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in
the story of the Underground Railroad. Joaquin Phoenix is already getting
festival buzz as the Joker, an R-rated look at the classic DC villain’s
origin story. Goldfinch features star-on-the-rise Ansol Elgort as an art
forger. And Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut embarking on a
space flight in search of his lost father, whose experiment threatens the solar
The Report stars Adam Driver and Annette Bening in a docudrama about an FBI agent’s investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And a stage director played by Driver and his actor wife played by Scarlett Johansson struggle through a grueling divorce that pushes them to their limits in Marriage Story. Plus, the biopic Ford v Ferrari stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale and follows the 1966 Le Mans race, in which Ford designers attempt to crack the code of their rival sports car’s racing team.
J.J. Abrams concludes the nine-part Skywalker saga with Star
Wars: Rise of Skywalker in which we will finally discover the origins of
Daisy Ripley’s Rey, get a glimpse of never-before scenes with Carrie Fisher,
witness the return of Billy Dee Williams, discover the fate of Adam Driver’s
Kylo Ren and find out what that pesky phantom menace has been up to behind the
scenes. Finn and Poe also get mysterious girlfriends (Kerri Russell and Naomi
Ackie), and beloved BB-8 gets a new scooter-like companion droid.
Heads are being scratched not because of fleas but because of
feline CGI fur effects as folks anticipate the adaptation of Broadway’s Cats,
featuring the likes of Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift in full four-legged singing
and dancing creature mode.
And let Oscar talk begin! Steven Soderbergh’s biographical
comedy-drama The Laundromat stars Meryl Streep whose dream vacation takes
wrong turns into the world of off-shore tax schemes. Gary Oldman, Jeffrey
Wright and Sharon Stone round out the ensemble. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women stars Laura Dern,
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in a spry adaptation of the literary
classic. And Sam Mendes’ 1917 features Richard
Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch in a WWI dramatic adventure.
Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.
Georgia is the biggest hub of multimedia content outside Hollywood? I’ve heard stranger things!
A new bus tour through the state’s fictional locations featured on one of TV’s biggest hit shows plus a vibrant exhibit about movie making in Georgia are both making their debuts this week.
The acclaimed Atlanta Movie Tours organization is now taking reservations for its latest track: The Atlanta Upside Down Tour, a veritable cornucopia of Stranger Things locations. In an exclusive media-only tour, Silver Screen Capture participated in the three and a half hour maiden voyage led by local actor and precision driver Colin Cary in an uncanny Chief of Police Jim Hopper uniform.
Highlights of the “watch a sequence and then see the real place where it was filmed” excursion included a trip to Sleepy Hollow Farm in Powder Springs, Georgia, home of the rotten pumpkin patch and Hopper’s iconic cabin, where Eleven was hidden from the government. Other stops on the journey included the site of the police station and the Palace Arcade in Dawsonville, the restaurant that doubles as Benny’s Burgers in Lithonia Springs and even the sites of the bustling community pool and the warehouse full of rats in East Point.
The great crew at Atlanta Movie Tours makes their excursions bright and breezy, with trivia, commentary, great photo stops, well curated videos, a snack break and even a Dustin-inspired singalong. The Upside Down Tour is one of many themed bus trips embarking from the company’s Castleberry Hills headquarters, which doubles as a nifty retail shop of all things Georgia film.
A less likely location is also site of movie making celebration this year. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum has opened an exciting new exhibition,Georgia on My Screen: Jimmy Carter and the Rise of the Film Industry. Beginning with then-Governor Jimmy Carter’s creation of the first state film office, the exhibition traces the development and impact of a multibillion-dollar industry in the state. The exhibition will be on display through the end of 2019.
Created with the generous support of the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, major production studios, local film offices and museums, the exhibition includes artifacts from over 60 productions, filmed over the last 46 years in Georgia, including critically-acclaimed films, blockbuster movies, and major television series.
A few highlights of the exhibition include the Best Picture Oscar® for Driving Miss Daisy and Gone With The Wind, more than twenty objects from The Walking Dead including Negan’s bat, Lucille and Daryl’s motorcycles, Vinny’s boots and Mona Lisa’s dress from the 20th Century Fox film, My Cousin Vinny, Denzel Washington’s coaching uniform from Remember the Titans and tributes to the Marvel universe, whose films Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame are among the most popular movies ever made in the Peach State. Alongside the exhibition (offered as a part of entry fee for the library), the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum will be hosting a variety of lectures and talks, screenings, and family-day events throughout the year.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. The discarded duo of cowboy and fighter with a backdrop of a classic industry in upheaval almost seems like the makers have Toy Story 2 on the mind. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
Disney’s Mouse House has found a way to corral more currency out of Casa Mufasa and despite critical carping blowing across the savanna will likely have hakuna mutata (no worries!) about doing so. Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King (C-) is a largely joyless and superfluous affair, replacing traditional line drawing with a photo-realistic nature documentary CGI animation style. Not one element improves on the original, even though most of the content about a lion’s exile and return to assume control of his kingdom is still there. Voice actors Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make the most of their Timon and Pumba characters amidst the dirge-like proceedings, riffing with abandon amidst an otherwise overly reverential storytelling format. Some of the best sequences in the original still work once transmitted through the Favreau facsimile, while many other emotional moments are rendered toothless. Donald Glover and Beyoncé deliver more lemon than lemonade in the voice talent department with indifferent line readings. The cuddly animated Simba cub will sell a lot of plush toys. Nostalgia factor and escape from the summer heatwave will lure folks in to the multiplex, but those expecting to have their pride rocked may be better served with a viewing of the delightful original.
Director Jon Watts follows up his Marvel Universe reboot of the web-slinging series with the returning, utterly charming Tom Holland conveying convincing spectacle in the title role of Spider-Man: Far from Home (B), a worthy but overly busy Spidey sequel. This installment finds our hero mourning the loss of a fellow superhero while juggling a high school European field trip in which he’s looking for a romantic hook-up with MJ played with sass by Zendaya and battling emerging supervillain Mysterio, a mixed bag of a Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The teen angst is the best part; the set-up for the epic action in an augmented reality showdown is curiously half-baked. Holland’s Peter parkours, trapezes, amazes and teases through it all and makes this episode worthwhile viewing. The film is fast, funny and occasionally tender.
The venerable Burning Man Festival has nothing on the art house stylings of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (B-), in which a group of Americans including Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter visit the fictional Swedish commune of Hårga for what detours into the realms of hallucinogenic revenge fantasy. This curiosity, buoyed by eat/prey/love storyline stanzas, is more trippy than terrifying and more symbolic than satisfying. The highly effective Pugh plays a complex woman recovering from family tragedy and talented Reynor her overwhelmed lover. Their date with destination goes a bit far afield; and despite the generous running time, it rarely is uninteresting. Poulter is delightful comic relief as the friends find themselves drawn deeper into the shocking traditions of the countryside cult. But the film peaks early and can’t quite maintain its sense of mystery and dread. One of the film’s winning gimmicks is that most of the horrors happen in broad daylight in a setting that stays sunny. But only the most daring or devilish moviegoers will revel in the film’s bonkers final act. Applause for the intellectual take on the horror genre and the creation of an original world; but it ultimately needs a little more seasoning.
Have you ever had that tense dream when you show up for a final exam but missed the entire preceding semester of study? Or you appear on a stage to perform in a play but never memorized the script or blocking? Sure, you can get by with a little help from your friends, but your tour of duty will be dotted with some magical mysteries not easily solved. Even with the witty words of screenwriter Richard Curtis and music and lyrics of none other than The Beatles, Director Danny Boyle’s tonal troubles are here to stay in Yesterday (C-), his fussy maiden voyage into the romantic comedy genre. Sprinkle in a painfully miscast and unfunny Himesh Patel as the lead character, and base it all on a Twilight Zone style premise of “What if only one person on earth knew of the existence and song catalogue of The Beatles, and what if he were a singer who could pass off the tunes as his own?,” and you have a movie director seriously in need of a lot of hand holding. Only a lovely performance by Lily James, who lifts the love interest role into master class territory, keeps the plot grounded amidst Boyle’s kaleidoscopic swirl of perplexing supporting characters, floating fonts and fissures in the space-time continuum. A movie promising the Fab Four’s fanciful fare gets an uncomfortably competing and cloying dose of Ed Sheeran music (the musician plays himself) and very little joy or creativity in the live performances. The lead character is so wound up in guilt about the plagiarized origins of his source material that his music is robbed of its joy. This misbegotten effort is not without its occasional charms. For instance, there was some nice commentary about whether the presence of genius would even be noticed by a society marred by short attention spans. But the smiles and specific song you leave humming at the film’s finale don’t help harvest the fruit of Boyle’s often rotten strawberry field.