Packing for Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s vision of Theater Camp (B) may involve contraband supplies such as throat coat (for maintaining those satin vocals) or the occasional tear stick (because crying on cue takes real range), but mostly the characters in this mockumentary come equipped for the summer with dry wit. Fresh from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this comic lark written by the co-directors along with actors Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, showcases faculty and budding performers at the fictional New York State ”AdirondACTS” sleep-away camp. After the program’s indomitable founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her clueless “crypto bro” son (Jimmy Tatro) is tasked with keeping the thespian enclave solvent while long-suffering teachers played by Platt and Gordon (both believable in their bickering) endeavor to ensure the end-of-summer musical show must go on. There are some fantastic quips and acts of acerbic comedy, largely featuring Tatro’s character’s basic misunderstanding of the theatre kids. Galvin shines when explaining the rituals of the bohemian Rent kids versus the finger-snapping Fosse friends. Ayo Edebiri is also a supporting VIP as a counselor who lied on her resume but still has to muster up classes on mask theory and fight choreography. There are plenty of sassy sight gags, biting observations and creative asides to reward those who work in the performing arts milieu; tricking kids into being restaurant servers by convincing them it’s an exercise in immersive theater is one of the standout sequences. Other times the tone is too slight to have much bite. The saggy middle act rallies in the finale though, when a show-within-a-show comes brilliantly together. The movie’s creators are clearly caught up in the craft, and it’s all just campy enough to yield a few bonfires of hilarity.
This summer’s great wish fulfillment romance is so high stakes, it just might cause an international incident. Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine play the U.S. president’s son and a British prince, respectfully, who find themselves falling in love in Matthew López’s winning romcom Red, White & Royal Blue (B+). Considering their roles as high-profile public figures, the young men who Meet Cute at a U.K. wedding party must keep their burgeoning relationship a secret at all costs. The lead actors are dashing and often amusing in their earnest roles, and López grounds the plot with enough political accuracy and contours about making history for one’s culture or community to make the cross-continental complications fairly credible. Strong supporting performances include Uma Thurman as the Texas-accented president and Stephen Fry as a smug member of the monarchy. The film, available on Prime Video, is a triumph of representation and a jolly good time in its own right.
The blunt force trauma of being a modern teenager receives its horror film embodiment in Danny and Michael Philippou’s story of friends who thrill to a psychic portal unleashed by a disembodied hand that foists dread into their heads in the often thrilling Talk To Me (B). This nifty A-24 Australian import featuring the eerie embalmed handshake sure to bring all the boys and girls to the yard starts strong and builds decent momentum, with resultant head-trips both expansive and concussive. The co-directors are particularly adept at drawing their audience magnetically into the throes of outlandish juvenile antics, a veritable arm wrestle with the supernatural, and they rarely give up their grip. Among the cunning conjurers, Sophie Wilde as our bedeviled heroine and Joe Bird as a wide-eyed innocent are standouts. Both dexterous young actors could varsity letter in possession. Other characters barely registered but were engaging enough to sometimes buttress the blow of the body counts. Creepy practical effects, shocking jump scares, startling sound design and a few surprising peccadillos keep the slight but mighty proceedings fresh amidst the digital dimensions and massive head wounds. Serendipitously, the most bonkers sequence in the hands-first haunting involves a rogue foot. For most of its brisk running time, this head-banging handmade tale definitely has legs.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig isn’t done with plumbing the psychology of little women, setting the sly subject of her brilliantly subversive new work as a personified plaything who’s awakening into the reality of contemporary life. The witty auteur has crafted a loving tribute to those who create, those who play and those who simply grind into the trials of daily life in the eccentric, existential and exuberant Barbie (A). Packing everything she can about the highs, lows, choices and challenges of womanhood into an efficient fish out of water comedy, Gerwig fashions a droll and dreamy doll’s house, a mythology in miniature and a cultural touchpoint that’s so much more than its pristine plastic surface might promise. Much credit goes to graceful physical comedienne Margot Robbie as the title protagonist, discovering empowerment and empathy with support from a mighty female ecosystem. America Ferrera and Rhea Perlman are formidable standouts in the cast who instill wonder and wisdom along Barbie’s journey of self-actualization. As comic relief and a character gaining an agency of his own kind, Ryan Gosling is a hoot as Ken; he’s certainly the source of some of the greatest belly laughs evoked from a character with washboard abs. The production design, costumes and music are exquisite in this candy-colored universe made even more bountiful by the words of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s observational and deeply meta screenplay. It’s a testament to Gerwig’s love of her subject that she can get away with in-jokes at the expense of her Mattel producers and evoke both nostalgia and a forward-looking vision all at once. The emotional undercurrent of the protagonist’s growing awareness about how the world works is something few will see coming; the sentiment is real and earned. This brainy modern classic is more than meets the eyes and will be studied for years to come.
Watch the “Seeing is Believing” podcast for Silver Screen Capture video review and discussion of a faith-based hot take on the #Barbenheimer phenomenon:
A sweet story of unconventional friendship disguised as a raunchy comedy, Gene Stupntisky’s No Hard Feelings (B) pairs movie luminary Jennifer Lawrence with rising Broadway star Andrew Barth Feldman as characters meeting under unusual circumstances and creating quite a bond. The young man’s wealthy parents (an amusing if underused Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) want to bring their son out of his shell and turn to a down-on-her-luck thirtysomething Uber driver and bartender to help him lose his virginity and inhibition. Set in the coastal hamlet of Montauk, the film traces the misadventures triggered by an absurd premise, and both Lawrence and Feldman prove deft physical actors for the comedic chemistry of the occasion. There are moments of wit and pathos amidst a bunch of adult gags, although it never gets as weird or wild as it could. It’s nice to see Lawrence getting loose and limber in this kind of loopy role after some of her more dramatic turns. This is a breezy, funny lark.
Some famous Irish troubadours once declared humanity must stridently walk on, emboldened with “all that you can’t leave behind,” and a new movie rummages through the lived-in baggage we tote to each stage of our existence. A story of Seoul mates who may also be soul mates provides the profound connection at the center of Korean-Canadian writer/director Celine Song’s memorable and melancholy debut drama Past Lives (A). Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, played as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, are separated after Nora’s family leaves South Korea to immigrate to Toronto. Decades later, they reunite for several fateful days in her adopted hometown of New York City as they confront love, longing and the choices that impact their destinies. In a way the movie posits we are all immigrants or refugees from a stomping ground in our past where we came of age and where our self-concepts imprinted. Lee and Yoo are phenomenal in the crucial roles, exhibiting an incredible bond even as they share very few sequences together IRL. Both affecting actor John Magaro who humorously gets meta over pillow talk and NYC play crucial supporting roles; Manhattan looks like a dream lensed by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. Song frames the story with splendid grace and intimacy; her screenplay and directorial choices prove both instantly absorbing and universally resonant. Christopher Bear and Dan Rossen’s lovely music underscores this delicate and sensitive tale gorgeously told. Many of the notions explored in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and John Carney’s Once get a fresh examination here. You’ll believe the Korean concept of In-Yun, that who we are today is a version of who we were in our past lives, is indeed working its quiet machinations on the film’s characters. The film will undoubtedly spark conversations we all wish we were having.
This is why they call it Marvel! First-time directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson helm the immersive animated comic book “canon” ball, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (A), showcasing kinetic storytelling and sheer audacity at the service of a creative and emotional spectacular. The co-directors’ vibrant, kaleidoscopic and sometimes psychedelic visual palette upstages the Oscar-winning original film with more than a half dozen animation styles, countless incarnations of the iconic title character and a pristine web of heart and humor. Grounded teen Miles/Spider-Man (Shameick Moore, pitch perfect) and Gwen/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld, emotive and brilliant) embark on a mind-trip fighting villain The Spot (a wry Jason Schwartzman) and traversing the multiverse where they meet a new team of Spider-People, known as the Spider-Society, led by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (an imposing Oscar Isaac). A series of adventurous encounters significantly raise the stakes before the inevitable cliffhanger to the trilogy’s next installment. From the get-go of its cold open prologue, the film commands immediate attention and is surprisingly shape-shifting in nearly every frame, jolting viewers with enough artistic fluidity, wily spirit and imagination to fill infinite worlds. The ensemble’s excellent voice cast includes Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez as the central teen’s concerned parents who elevate the family story and emotional stakes of the characters with finesse. Daniel Kaluuya, Karan Soni and Issa Rae are whimsical standouts in a robust voice cast with the returning talent of fan favorite Jake Johnson, whose Peter Parker sports a surprise sidekick. The attention to detail in various alternating cityscapes is staggeringly impressive and keeps an already propulsive plot hopping. Also, kudos to music writer Daniel Pemberton dropping a considerable beat to accompany this rollercoaster ride. Indeed this middle chapter in this inventive trilogy is a feast for comic book and animation lovers and proves that even IP can have an IQ.
Who would have guessed the mystifying problem with Rob Marshall’s live action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (B-) would be subpar animated visual content? Seemingly rendered in a murky millpond leagues away from where James Cameron toiled twelve years on his recent underwater opus, Marshall’s nautical nightmare of unsure blue hues and realistic looking talking sea creatures threatens to sink this ship before it even starts. Parting the waters of this production design debacle is a stunningly watchable fresh-faced pair in the lead performances as star-crossed lovers: the instantly endearing Halle Bailey in gorgeous voice as spirited mermaid Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as earnest intrepid explorer Prince Eric. Together this dreamy duo could enchant viewers with a charm offensive against a blank backdrop and frankly probably should have. Sequences set in the ocean left much of the cast, including a cerebral Javier Bardem as King Triton, floundering. The story feels oddly like a submerged Bachelorette season: Thirst trap induced longing for life on land prompts the titular heroine to make a Faustian deal with villainous sea witch Ursula (a committed but CGI compromised Melissa McCarthy) to sprout human gams, and fortunately the sequences set on land are the sweet fantasia here. The musical numbers are a mixed bag with “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl” and the new “Wild Unchartered Waters” as standouts, but Oscar winner “Under the Sea” feels like a throwaway, and the less said of a final act sing-speak by a squawking Awkwafina the better. Sure the kitchen scene antics of “Les Poissons” have been excised, but a house of horrors embodied by uncanny valley crab Sebastian, fish Flounder and seagull Scuttle is an omnipresent trilogy of terror. When the movie does more than skim the surface and anchors its fortunes to the central romance with some modern-day thematic resonance, the film featuring curious choices and excellent voices finally begins to stand on its own two feet.
Click here for Stephen’s review of the 1989 animated movie.
Writer/director James Gunn completes his trilogy of space-age strays, agile action, wily wisecracks and nifty needle drops with a wondrous and emotionally resonant finale in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (A-). Chris Pratt plumbs deeper emotions fighting the loss of his great romance in this go-round as the ensemble endeavors to save their injured and intubated collaborator Rocket Raccoon by infiltrating a series of treacherous lairs. This leaves a game Dave Bautista, Karen Gillian and Pom Klementieff to carry much of the franchise’s incredible comedy, and they get some wonderful zingers. The film is grimmer and more violent than past outings as it tells Rocket’s onerous origin story and terror at the hands of a truly diabolical villain memorably played by Chukwudi Iwuji. The world building and creature effects are first-rate, and the movie builds to a resonant final act. This epic rescues Marvel from its doldrums, but given its auteur has left to shepherd the DC universe, more greatness lies in store for the latter.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s joyfully innocent adaptation of the Judy Blume young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (A) is the book club conversation a generation has waited a half century to manifest. And it’s a modern-day film classic. Raised by a Christian mother (Rachel McAdams) and a Jewish father (Benny Safdie), a 12-year old girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) embarks on a series of questions about religion and faith while averting the preteen perils of life in the sixth grade. Craig magnificently evokes the 1970s milieu of the source material, with a spin the bottle smorgasbord of funny and heartwarming episodes ranging from fitting into a curious club to fitting into a bra. Fortson is a natural as the titular character at the center of her own set of crushes and crashes; she anchors the film with fortitude and nary a false move. She’s worthy of all accolades. Graduating from her own mean girls mentality, McAdams is exquisite as the eternally plucky mom, and Kathy Bates is a hoot as the family’s wry paternal grandmother. The film maintains sublime seriocomic delicacy as it balances glimpses at various belief systems and plumbs some taboos on the verge of adolescence. It’s heartwarming throughout, without a dash of cynicism. See it with someone you cherish.
Do you hear the peoples’ strings? A French Revolution set historical costume drama about a virtuoso violinist whose contributions to classical music had been heretofore lost to history, Chevalier (B+), directed by Stephen Williams, is old-fashioned entertainment with a twist. The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Joseph Bologne. brilliantly portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., rises to inconceivable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, dangerously liaising with a married woman (Samara Weaving) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). The women in the ensemble are uniformly strong (including a vamping Minnie Driver) and more than compensate for the supporting male performances, largely a predictably disapproving lot of prune faces. Although Williams won’t win any prizes for cinematic breakthroughs, he moves the story along briskly and frankly hits some operatic crescendos at times. In the lead role, Harrison commands his every sequence and commendably connotes his heartbreak of being caught between two worlds punctuated by the braggadocio of his public persona. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing biography with high relatability for those who liked Moulin Rouge or The Woman King, plus the music is also magnificent at the end of the day.
Plumbers mysteriously vanishing into an unknown universe isn’t just the scenario homeowners find themselves in when their toilets are backed up; it’s also the premise dogging video game siblings Mario and Luigi for damn near four decades. Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie (B-) animates Brooklyn’s cunning craftsmen with Chris Pratt spryly voicing heroic Mario and Charlie Day endearingly embodying his timid fraternal twin brother Luigi. Partnered with feisty fighter Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mario must save his brother from the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black) who threatens to topple an idyllic Mushroom Kingdom the guys discover in an underground pipe lair. The movie is full bounce off the walls energy with kaleidoscopic colors and clever details dotting every horizon. But the uninspired script often throws a wrench in the good time with lackluster color by number plot points and groaner catch phrases. The highlight is Black’s Bowser chewing the scenery with relish and even tickling the ivories. He’s clearly in on the joke. Ultimately it’s hard not to be swept up in the parkour and pinball wizardry of the action sequences, and it’s largely good clean fun for the family. Despite some rather obvious needle drops on the soundtrack, Brian Tyler composes rousing music inspired by classic game play. The nostalgia factor is strong, and as Donkey Kong barrel battles and kart races on rainbows commence for the film’s mercifully brisk run time, you simply surrender and take the plunge.