MOVIE REVIEW: The Invisible Man (2020)

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Going back to its original roots as a novel by H.G. Wells and one of the original Universal Pictures Classic Monster Movies, the story of “The Invisible Man” involved a man whose experiments make him unseeable and eventually lead to a descent into madness and violence. For this modern reboot of the film franchise, writer/director Leigh Whannell brings the character crashing into the #MeToo era by centering this story on not The Invisible Man himself, but rather his primary victim. Whereas previous entries have been all about how a person deals with the effects of a strange new ability, Whannell’s film focuses on the perspective of those who suffer from a maniac’s abuse of power and control.

The film opens with an absolutely stunning night-time sequence of Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) suspensefully escaping the gorgeous, isolated home she shares with her brilliant, extremely wealthy, Optics scientist partner Adrien (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Right from the start, Whannell lays out the kind of experience this film is meant to be, relying on skillful precision in cinematography by Stefan Duscio and a powerful, terrifying score by Benjamin Wallfisch to always keep the audience intensely on edge. Cecilia is a woman who we immediately understand is the victim of awful and frequent abuses. She is clearly terrified and we hold our breath while silently praying she gets away from a man we literally know nothing about yet. And this is merely the beginning.

After living in fear for a few weeks, Cecilia learns that her ex has committed suicide, and she is free to begin healing from the horrible domestic and sexual abuse we learn he committed. But she doesn’t really believe it, and it isn’t long before mysterious things begin happening, signaling to her that someone, or something, is stalking her from outside her view. It should come as no surprise to anyone that’s seen much of Moss’ filmography that the actress is as good as they come, and her performance here ranks among the best she’s ever given. For most of the film, she is in a growing state of panic, slowly losing her sanity, and displaying every emotion one could possibly imagine a victim of these evil crimes might experience. Her ability to convey fear, distrust, and deep deep pain via facial expressions and voice inflection is incredibly impressive and also extremely difficult to watch. 

Despite support and assistance from loved ones like her sister, a childhood friend who is conveniently now a police officer, and his teenage daughter, Cecilia struggles mightily when no one believes her claims that an invisible man is out to get her. The terror he eventually begins to reign on her is some of the best supernatural horror you’ll see. It’s minimalistic for so long in a way that makes the special effects extremely impactful when they do happen, and the same can be said for the film’s reserved use of physical violence. For most of the film, it’s emotional and psychological abuse that Cecilia faces the most, but you can always feel the intensity building to something. Eventually, there are a few spots where brief outbursts of bloody action occurs, often in rather shocking fashion. The film is never too gory, though, so viewers fearing an all-out slasher flick need not worry much. 

I can’t express enough just how wound tight “The Invisible Man” is from start to finish. This is a pressure cooker of a thriller where your body is constantly clinched as you are made to feel as if you know where this hidden assailant is at all times, just waiting for the moment when something extreme is going to happen. Sure, it’s got its share of jump scares, but most are effective and play very well with an excited audience, as does the action choreography, a continuation of the great work Whannell did in 2018’s “Upgrade”. Fight sequences with The Invisible Man are especially wonderfully crafted and very memorable.

“The Invisible Man” puts a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch, and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Onward

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 54 minutes

Coming hot on the heels of Pixar’s Best Animated Picture Oscar victory for 2019’s unwanted yet somehow still exceptional “Toy Story 4″, “Onward” is the first of two original stories by the revered studio to hit the big screen in 2020. With fairly light marketing going in, many will find themselves entering a theater in the same position that I was – unexpectedly unexcited. But fear ye not, good peoples of Earth, because that Pixar magic is alive and well (literally in fact, because ya know this story is about wizards and stuff).

“Onward” is a beautifully colorful film set in the fictional city of New Mushroomton, part of a world full of fantasy creatures like centaurs and sprites, that despite once being filled with magic and champions on heroic quests is now taken over by scientific and technological advancement. Mastering magic was “too hard” and innovation for convenience won the day. The story centers around two elf brothers, Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) Lightfoot, who on Ian’s 16th birthday are given a present from their deceased father. This gift is a magical item that if used correctly will allow the boys to spend one last day with their Dad, which both of them desperately desire. Because he passed away from illness while they were young, Barley barely remembers their time together and Ian has no memories of his own at all. It’s something that both haunts and drives him, as he continually makes lists of things to accomplish in life hoping to make his father proud. In the old days, an epic quest was a staple of someone’s 16th birthday and after Ian’s attempt to use the item goes terribly wrong, the brothers set off to retrieve a mythical stone so that they can try again. Before the sun sets, of course. Every good quest needs a time limit.

To reveal any twists and surprises of the story would be completely unfair because the emotional journey Pixar takes viewers on is a truly wonderful one. Pratt and Holland have perfect chemistry as the brothers, who in lieu of a true antagonist for the film have a relationship that is both loving and also filled with many differences of opinion that lead to some exciting situations. Barley is a walking mishap who drives a van named Gwynevere, spends his time in role-playing games or protesting the destruction of historical sites, and generally reminds everyone he comes in contact with about how magic used to rule the land and they’ve gotten away from their true nature. Ian, by contrast, is smart but timid, socially awkward, and thinks his brother’s obsession is mostly lunacy. It makes for a ton of great banter throughout the film as the two embark on a daring quest that features all of the elements you might expect, including but not limited to finding a quest giver to get a map, solving tricky puzzles, and overcoming dangerous beasts with legendary weapons of power.

Yes, “Onward” is basically Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft with a heartfelt and deeply poignant story of brotherhood and parental loss layered into that world, and it’s incredible just how powerful the emotions it evokes are! Make no mistake, at multiple points during the fun adventurous quest full of monsters, spells, and swords, the tears will flow and the heart will pound. This dramatic quest for family grieving is non-stop clever and charming along the way, and with “Onward” Pixar has a truly magical start to 2020 with a film that families (and especially fantasy fans who will enjoy the film’s many references) are going to find themselves enchanted by.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Call Of The Wild

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 40 minutes

“The Call Of The Wild” is the rugged frontiersman cousin that wants to liken itself to the live-action remake of “The Lion King” but without the capability to throw down plenty of coin on photorealistic visuals. Disney’s influence being stitched into the fabric of this film is no surprise given that our director Chris Sanders was the writer behind some of the more widely known Disney cinematic treasures. It is very understandable that most of the production budget went to retaining the services of Harrison Ford but plenty of resources were needed to make this CGI something more than unfinished. Each of the animals shown in the film has the glossy finish of a new car which makes it very distracting to see given they are traversing over many lands filled with snow, dirt, and other environmental elements. The dramatic element of this film is lost and never takes off due to how cartoonishly the animals look and move around. The funny irony is that without this lackluster VFX, this film would be a plain dreadful experience cinematically. This adaption tale leans into family-friendly aspirations, trucking down a distant highway from Jack London’s original adventure novel in more ways than one.

Buck, our leading canine, is taken from the relatively easy-going lifestyle he enjoys in California under the graces of a loving family and thrown into the harsh circumstances of being a sled dog stationed in the Alaskan Yukon during the last vestige of the 19th century. After some time, he gets used to the high-paced activity of mail passage and starts to find a place for himself in this untamed world that celebrates grit and strength. Buck feels crafted from the hands of Zeus given all the superheroic qualities he possesses; they include the ability to jump like Mario the Plumber, the strength of a T-800, capacity to not feel pain, running like the speed of sound, and the wondrous flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. If you are going to have your animals depicted like a Looney Tunes cartoon or reminiscent of Scooby-Doo, then take the animation route and be comfortable in that space.

The story drips itself into so many occasions of forceful and cringe-inducing “tugging at your heartstrings” moments that it’s very easy to smell the cheese emanating from the silver screen. Human characters spend so much time talking to the animals that I was waiting for the moment when one of them would start talking back. One scene involves a lead conductor from the sled team telling Buck that they not only carry mail but also memories, stories, and lives, then you get a slow-motion montage of Buck roaming through a town seeing different people from different walks of life looking at envelopes. It is very formulaic in the different narrative beats that it presents and easily foreseeable how it will resolve itself.

Harrison Ford is an undisputed all-time great having delivered some of the more memorable performances and moments we have seen in cinematic history. As a fan, even I was able to tell that he settled for crumbs taking this role. Never during the whole journey do we understand his characterization or inner pain that lead him to exile himself in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere. We get that he lost his son and that the pain put too much of a strain on his marriage, but that’s it as far as development. He is only good enough to be a narrator, an exposition factoid spewing machine, or to pop up out of nowhere to serve as a deus ex machina for Buck when he deals with mistreatment. The draw of this film will be for people (most likely little children) who want to see weirdly designed and unstoppable forces of animals, but coming on the promise of a Hollywood star like Ford is an unfulfilling and hollow expenditure. As a matter of fact, most of the human characters are just window dressing which works horribly for a live-action but would be more welcomed in the animation realm.

If you want to be a good parent and you can stomach a 100-minute draggy and generic piece of fantasy adventure, then take your children because they will have a ball with these dogs and the excitement of certain action sequences. Otherwise, “The Call Of The Wild” puts all of its cards on the table and draws nothing but blanks in the game of film relevancy.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Rating: G / Runtime: 1 hour and 26 minutes

There is something I find sincerely appealing about stop-motion animation, be it in the style of Laika or Aardman, who utilizes a beautiful and detailed claymation technique. Both styles of animating take significantly longer than CGI or even hand-drawn technique and is a big reason why these studios can’t pump out new films at the rate Disney and Pixar do. The first “Shaun the Sheep” film came out over four years ago and grossed over $100 million at the box office. This sequel was inevitable, but crafting it took time. 

“Farmageddon” is, in a nutshell, a remake of Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, with a much cuter alien and an overwhelming amount of references to other famous science fiction films and television sprinkled throughout. The extra-terrestrial, in this case, is Lu-la, a small light blue and pink alien with telekinesis and a powerfully loud/forceful belch. Her space ship lands in a forest and while she’s out exploring, it’s not long before the government sends Agent Red and a team to examine the landing and seek out answers.

Back on the farm, Shaun and his sheep family are living their normal everyday lives, being trouble-makers and fighting with Bitzer the farmer’s sheepdog. When Lu-la stumbles across Shaun and the group, they embark on an adventure of discovery with the goal of ultimately hoping to find Lu-la’s ship so that she can return home. There’s not a lot more to be said about the plot, although Agent Red does have some backstory that provides a reason for why she is so driven. It culminates in one of the sweeter moments of the film and is a welcome character development choice to take her beyond just the typical cookie-cutter governmental baddie. 

Those concerned about the silent nature of Shaun the Sheep films should honestly not be worried at all. I remember being incredibly surprised at how much I loved “Shaun the Sheep” back in 2015 despite the lack of dialogue and in “Farmageddon” I didn’t even miss it. The soundtrack and score show up perfectly, and sound effects are used to greatly enhance the already incredibly expressiveness of the claymation. Because this film is playing so heavily off of sci-fi films of the past, there are frequent musical cues that callback to famous themes, and it was a joy hearing one each and every time. Additionally, the aforementioned soundtrack does a wonderful job of occasionally letting the lyrics being sung help tell the story of what is happening on-screen at that moment. This tactic is used sparingly, but with great success.

References to favorite sci-fi properties are plentiful, and though the story of “Farmageddon” is tender, easy to follow, and full of hilarious goofy action, picking out these moments will be great for major fans of the genre. For one thing, there is the required mention of Area 51. Then the “Alien” tie-is done in a brilliant way that makes it kid-friendly. There are also “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Signs”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Dr. Who” references and more. Agent Red even has a sidekick robot named Muggins that looks like a combination of Wall*E and Johnny 5 and serves as equal parts investigative partner and filing cabinet. This robot will quickly win kids over and is easily one of the film’s highlights. 

“Farmageddon” may not possess the deepest of storylines but that makes it accessible for everyone. With plenty for older geeks to enjoy along the way, this is a rare G film that parents and kids can sit through and enjoy equally together. It moves at a breezy pace and the cute factor is off the charts. This cosmic adventure is all-ages entertainment at its best. Pull up Netflix, hit play, and enjoy.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Photograph

Rating: PG-13 / Runtime: 1 hour and 46 minutes

Romance films are at their best when they come across as a believable depiction of two people sharing a strong connection. The two lead characters need to have a level of chemistry and intimacy that is hot to the touch but also deep in tenderness, striking at the core of a viewer’s soft spot. It is very easy for an experience in this genre to recycle the same “love at first sight” or “happily ever after” tropes that can be found center stage in a Fabio paperback novel; not that there is anything problematic with that intended message, but it doesn’t carry any of the intoxicating and soulful energy that love can strike in one’s physical and mental makeup. “The Photograph” combines all of the ingredients that make for an enchanting and earnest portrayal of African American romance, harkening back to well-known past features such as “Love Jones” and “Brown Sugar”. Director Stella Meghie carries the genre forward from surface level trappings and produces a flavor-filled tale of affection that is enchanting to the heart.

Micheal (Lakeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae) operate as two vibrant professionals who are enjoying success in their respective careers while living in the concrete jungle known as New York City. Michael is working on a story profiling a female photographer that has left behind a bunch of questions and mystery which leads to a chance acquaintance with her daughter (Mae). That quickly turns into a hot and steamy courtship. Over time, the link between the past and the present becomes clearer as Mae starts to uncover secrets about the mother she thought she knew while coming to grips with the vulnerability and affection she feels with Michael. Stanfield displays new sensibilities as a romantic lead, building on his quirkiness and the “it factor” that has turned a lot of eyes his way as an entertainer. The very talented Issa Rae exudes radiant beauty and the right level of comedic timing that keeps your attention on her at all times. What helps generate a fascination with this couple and their journey is the feeling that both of the characters feel like natural beings living a young and ambitious lifestyle. It is always a breath of fresh air for black characters to be depicted in a style that scoffs away harmful and simple-minded depictions. Lil Rey Howery is such a hoot as the brother of Michael filled with an unstoppable arsenal of one-liners that will make your side hurt, and Lee Morgan, always a consummate professional, continues to make his case as one of the more underappreciated actors currently working.

Meghie not only shares her vision of modern-day relationships as a filmmaker but also through a mostly organic zest in the screenwriting arena. The conversations shared between characters provide an anchor for the audience to connect with the diverse personalities populating the screen. The balancing act of the two narratives that eventually divulge into one handles well in cross-cutting between past and present, but I did want to see more significance in the journey of Mae’s mother. There were some missed opportunities to show why the mother had a hard time with parenthood and her harboring of unresolved issues internally that kept her from being able to open herself to the full power of untamed love. The focus and likeability of the film mostly come from Stanfield and Issa lighting up the screen, and the film bogs down a little when the two of them are not around.

The fabulous soundtrack plays the best of R&B from the past few decades and felt curated specifically to the major vibes the story wanted to emit and Robert Glapser creates a wonderful companion musical composition that recognizes jazz as the singular choice music for depicting blossoming romance. It is full of clean piano notes, trumpets that speak feeling without the use of words, and beautiful saxophone additions. This a must-own soundtrack that carries a lot of memorable moments that will ring heavy on the head for the foreseeable future. The cinematography is filled with the gorgeous use of wide shots that gives characters bigger than life presence and top-notch lighting that renders locations with passion and sleekness,

Take your significant other, a friend, family member, or anyone who is a fan of arresting romance to this realistically portrayed and charming feature. Not only do you see a side of love that pays great attention to the vulnerability of companionship but also the idea of not being afraid to have someone in your life only for fear of losing them. The strength of the film is in its great performances, production design efficiency, excellent curated soundtrack, and attention to the ins and outs of longing attachment. Even for someone who may not be a usual fan of films dealing with love, this breaks the genre’s stale mold and brings something familiar to the table in a new way.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: Sonic the Hedgehog

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 39 minutes

Let me just get this out of the way up front. I can confirm that Sonic does indeed go fast! Very fast, in fact. Almost as fast as the studio lept into action and changed the CGI animation of their titular character after extreme internet backlash following the original trailer’s release. That choice was a wise one, removing the creepily human similarities that made the character look very different than its video game origins. The newer design of Sonic is much more approachable, relatable, and adorable, and it likely salvaged Paramount’s chance at having the Sega game adaptation become a success. 

It’s no secret that films based on video games have been more miss than hit, and there are a number of understandable reasons why this is the case. Low budgets at times, a lack of talent or star power, or misunderstanding the market desire for a film version of a game to name a few. The list goes on. But one very real challenge that many adaptations face was something that “Sonic the Hedgehog” can actually count as a strength. The video game style of Sonic, you see, is not extremely narrative-driven, and thus the character is much more of an open slate with which to explore a new storytelling medium. Most casual audience members will simply go into the film knowing that Sonic is a cute furry blue hedgehog-like creature that runs super-fast and collects rings. The film smartly wastes no time in quickly getting most of its lore dump out of the way, showing us see where Sonic came from, explaining to us the power of these iconic collectible rings, and introducing Sonic’s nemesis. 

With the background in our rearview, “Sonic the Hedgehog” can get down to the business of crafting an adventure for the blue devil in the modern world. Sonic (Ben Schwartz) lives a lonely existence. He inhabits a small cave in the forest outside of small-town Green Hills, MT and enjoys watching Tom and Maddie Wachowski (James Marsden and Tika Sumpter) from afar, but he constantly dreams of a world in which he is not alone and can interact with the local humans. Eventually, that happens. After an emotional outburst sets off a special power Sonic was unaware that he has, the government comes calling, sending in their egotistical genius scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and his legion of drones to capture and study what they believe in an alien specimen of great value. The majority of the movie is made up of Sonic and Tom on a quest to keep him safe, having hilarious and exciting encounters while developing a growing friendship that neither quite knows how to handle. All the while they are chased by the evil, mustache-twirling Robotnik. It’s a performance by Carrey that calls back to his comedic brilliance of the past with him commanding the screen and delivering deliciously ridiculous dialogue in the perfect tone of a video game villain. While Marsden definitely does solid work, even with some slight emotional nuance, and Sonic is competent though unspectacularly voiced by Schwartz, this is Carrey’s movie through and through. True to his name, he carries the film and keeps it enjoyable throughout.

Action pieces in the film are a mixed bag. Some are exciting and others exist only to generate hearty laughs and play with Sonic’s speed in interesting ways, like a slow-motion bar fight that is reminiscent of Quicksilver’s memorable moment in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” or comparable sequences in any number of iterations of The Flash. You probably won’t remember the specifics of any action a day or two later, but it’s never boring and the kids are going to love it. What is more surprising is how emotionally resonant the heart of the film is. Despite some really on-the-nose references to family, Sonic clearly desires one and we want that for him. By the end, you may even find yourself tearing up a bit at some of the sweet character interactions that occur. 

Film adaptations of video games have been so bad for so long that the low bar has reached a point that isn’t honestly that hard to clear. “Sonic the Hedgehog” is certainly nothing special, but it’s a perfectly fun new version of the character to spend an hour and a half with that both scratches the nostalgia itch with its frequent references to the source material and is modern enough to keep younger audience members engaged at the same time. The end of the film teases a sequel and maybe the biggest endorsement of this film I can give is that I truly hope it happens.

** There are two scenes at the end of the film, one of which is mid-credits that you don’t want to miss! **

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW (Blu-Ray): First Love

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Japanese director Takashi Miike is nothing if not prolific. “First Love” marks his sixtieth film in the past twenty-four years and tells the story of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a terminally ill young boxer, who by accident or fate bumps into Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young drug-addicted prostitute, and is unwittingly caught up in a crazy night of chaos on the streets of Tokyo between warring Japanese and Chinese gangs. All of this is brought on by a young Japanese gangster named Kase (Shōta Sometani) scheming with Otomo (Nao Ōmori), a corrupt cop, to steal and sell yakuza-owned drugs in order to ignite a mafia war between the Japanese and Chinese factions. Stories like this, of course, would be quite boring if everything went according to plan, and so as you’d expect the night goes to hell quickly, and in true Miike form – violently. 

American viewers coming to Miike’s films for the first time may see a resemblance to Quentin Tarantino in the way that the director uses violence. For large parts of the film’s running time, it maintains a dramatic noir-like tone, with small doses of comedy, but in a few specific scenes, he unleashes an explosion of bloody violence. The yakuza are known for wielding swords as well as machine guns and heads quite literally roll at one point. The action includes gunfights, sword fights, martial arts, and body parts flying, and though prevalent, is not non-stop, but scattered throughout in a way that makes the film’s pacing work well. Miike is always building to something, and the climax is full of the stylistic action choreography fans of series like “John Wick” will enjoy. The film’s score and sound design are also noteworthy. Both are exceptional at mood-setting and suspense-building, and contribute much to the film’s action pieces in terms of amping up the excitement, as well.

Emotionally speaking, “First Love” does have at its core a romance brewing, but it’s subtle and not in your face or overly unrealistic in the way that many love stories are. The relationship is one of two people finding redemption, overcoming despair and addiction, and finding something worth fighting and living for together. When the sun rises after this deadly night, lives will have been changed forever, and the ways in which Miike connects us to his characters throughout the film leaves viewers very invested in both their individual and collective future. 

“First Love” is a thoroughly engaging modern-day Asian gangster film. Its blend of action, drama, comedy, style, and violence make it an entertaining watch and a fantastic introduction to Miike’s filmography. 

Rating:


Blu-Ray Bonus Features: 

The only two bonus features on the Blu-Ray disc are three film trailers (“Ip Man 4: The Finale”, “The Divine Fury”, “Freaks”) and an English language audio track. English dubs of foreign language films are notoriously terrible, but while I wouldn’t recommend watching the film with this track on, I can also say that it is one of the better ones I’ve ever heard. Again, I say “better” only relative to the fact that most are completely unbearable to listen to. It is, however, solid enough that I was able to get through the entire film and not lose enjoyment because of the voices. You definitely will lose a lot of context and expression, but the track is there for those who prefer it.

“First Love” was provided by Well Go USA Entertainment for this review. You can buy the film on VOD, Blu-Ray, and DVD on February 11, 2020.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Birds of Prey

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 49 minutes

As sold by its marketing, “Birds of Prey” is a total blast of glittery, violent, girl power from start to finish. Picking up soon’ish after the events of “Suicide Squad” (though you have no need to see that film in order to follow this one), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has had it with her Puddin’, a.k.a. The Joker, and is ready to end their relationship for good because she’s tired of being taken for granted. This presents a major problem for Harley, though, because without the fear that Joker strikes in her enemies as protection, a whole host of people she has wronged are about to come calling. Among these are crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Black Mask and Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Montoya is a cop who has been passed over despite her accomplishments in police work while her male co-workers take the credit and advance ahead of her. To her, bringing in Harley is part of a bigger case she’s been chasing, and this woman takes law and order seriously. Sionis is just another rich, eccentric, nasty, evil underlord, flanked by his loyal servant/muscle Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who wants to own everything and everyone in town, Harley included.

The overall script is honestly pretty silly and all over the place. In less than two hours it tries to focus on Harley’s life of independence, Renee’s frustration with lack of support from the police chief, and Sionis chasing down a diamond that has been inadvertently stolen by a young orphan street thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), as well as introducing us to the superheroines Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a.k.a. Black Canary and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a.k.a. The Huntress. It’s in these backstories where the film falters most, as its structure takes the approach of using flashbacks frequently to tell us who these people are once we’ve already been introduced to them. The same thing happens a couple of times with Harley and in every single instance, it robs the film of precious momentum. It also should be noted that while this film is called “Birds of Prey”, this is really the Harley Quinn show, and there is much, much less attention given to the other characters for most of its running time. That’s okay, though, because Robbie’s performance as Harley is as nuanced as ever, really outpacing the rest of the cast, and she does a great job of taking the character through new emotional ranges while never ceasing to provide the clever, hilarious dialogue and unpredictable decisionmaking we expect. If there is an MVP among the supporting cast, it’s definitely McGregor. The veteran actor is clearly enjoying himself and having a blast going full comic book with his performance. It works great in the context of the film, although if he’s supposed to be more powerful or scary as his alter ego Black Mask, that was not conveyed well at all and rendered any time his supervillain identity was used a pretty big letdown.

Director Cathy Yan reached out to Chad Stahelski, director of the “John Wick” series and founder of the renowned stunt work studio 87Eleven, to help with vision for the film’s action scenes, and it definitely shows. The action choreography is awesome and shot beautifully by acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The color palette being mostly muted with the exception of big, bold splashes makes the film visually striking. It always looks great, and seeing it in IMAX was a treat. The soundtrack kicks major ass and like the frequent kinetic action, it is almost always on. This is a rock and roll concert of a comic book film that is unlike any you’ve ever seen, but that does remind in many ways of movies that came before like “Tank Girl”.

“Birds of Prey” is not shy about its empowerment message and all of the characters here have suffered abuse of some kind by men. These women are all about taking their lives into their own hands and making their own way, a strong and positive thought. It’s fun to see a film get to go wild with his idea and serve as a catharsis for many women in audiences who will likely relate to what those on-screen have gone through. I did, however, find the film’s lack of balance to bring it down just a notch. There is not one single male character in the film who isn’t in opposition or causing harm to the ladies in some way (be it physical, emotional, or even just a small act of betrayal). Not one. It paints an unrealistically cruel world in which every male is a villain and that is going to be tough for some viewers to watch. For those willing to reflect on how that makes them feel and why, I think there can be value, but on the surface, it was a choice that somewhat lessens the ability for the movie’s message to translate into real life.

Despite some nitpicks and its big structural flaw, “Birds of Prey” is an incredibly funny and exciting film to watch in the vein of Marvel’s fourth-wall-breaking “Deadpool” series. It serves as yet another unique entry into the DC comic book universe that provides a stylistic experience and delivers its story from a perspective that we haven’t seen before. There may not be a ton of depth worth mining in this ultra-violent (yet somehow not super gory) comedic affair, but “Birds of Prey” is one helluva badass female-led blockbuster that is a great addition to superhero cinema.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Gretel & Hansel

Rating: PG-13 / Running Time: 1 hour and 27 minutes

Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister, have been kicked out of their childhood home due to the lack of food and resources available. On their trek to find a permanent place of residence, they start to feel the pangs of hunger and hope starts to feel like a figment of the past. Out of nowhere, they find a house rich with edible treats, beds to lay their weary heads, and protection from the dark forces looking for any easy morsel of blood. An old woman, the owner of the house, would love nothing more than to have a couple of extra hands to help with chopping wood and doing the chores necessary for the upkeep of her residence. Over time, the sister starts to receive visions and nightmares of something sinister that she can’t shake; she fears that she and her brother have stumbled onto an evil force. The old woman, as per legend, is a conductor of dark sorcery who has been luring kids in order to have them as a main dinner course. It becomes a matter of life and death for these two children to defeat this evil force once and for all in order to stop her reign of terror.

“Gretel & Hansel” has style eeking out of every bit of its frightful atmosphere based on the well-known Brothers Grimm folk tale. In the early days of 2020, this art-house horror flick sets itself apart from the pack with piercing cinematography and minimalist but magnificent set design. Cinematographer Galo Olivares uses natural light to expose the fantastic beauty of shrouded woods and the interiors of German-inspired architecture, as well as a stunning use of differential focus to place the emphasis on characters in accordance to the scary world they are traversing. When the film goes really dark, the staging of silhouettes in the frame of wide angles is a creepy sight to watch. The color palette is not wide-ranging, using only three main colors (blue, red, and brown) but it feels accurate and authentic to the period setting of medieval folk tales. Director Oz Perkins follows the journey of two starving kids who end up befalling to the dark sorcery of a witch with stylish use of handheld, medium close-ups and using a 1.55:1 aspect ratio to call back to some of the earlier days of historical horror cinema. “Gretel & Hansel” has the aesthetics of an A24 horror film with a strong emphasis of style over substance.

Unless you are a big fan of the original tale, this film is a hard sell, offering nothing new when it comes down to the mechanics of the story. Problems exist like snail-like pacing and hard to comprehend use of Medieval Germanic language. The horrific moments are not jump-out-of-the-seat worthy and the fear factor becomes lessened by the end. Even with some elements reworked and changed from the source material, the general progression is very easy to follow; at the end of the day, what good is a story if it doesn’t give any compelling or memorable pieces that will stick in the membrane? The literary experience is much more superior while the film could have found better footing as a TV series or a short film. Technical design is the only calling card this film can tout as a major strength.

“Gretel & Hansel” stands head over heels versus other horror films in the month of January, but that isn’t saying much. If you want to be wowed by great technical design, illustrious cinematography, a futuristic inspired score, and some stand out shots, this will fulfill your cinematic sensibilities. If story and pacing are what you cherish, then save your money and wait for the Redbox rental. Most viewers are ultimately much better off just reading the book.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: What Love Looks Like

Rating: None / Running Time: 1 hour and 28 minutes

The experience of love can take on so many dimensions that it is hard to boil it down to a simple explanation. A phenomenon that has baffled scientists, philosophers, and common individuals throughout human history, it can go from being akin to an addictive drug to being a source of destruction for an unlucky heart. Opportunities for stories that deal with the concept of companionship are a gold mine when they hit the right emotional notes. “What Love Looks Like” sadly comes off as the complete opposite, barely scratching the surface of a deep exploration on romance, instead carrying the ethos of an ABC Family teenage show that lacks the thematic seriousness to stray free from a melting pot of underdeveloped characters, overbearing cliches, and dry acting.

The story suffers from attempting to handle too many narratives centered on different themes of love in the social media age. One story centering on the damaging effects of cell phone addiction in relationships would have worked very well on its own center stage. Themes and messages of online dating, love lost, and awkward first dates work much better having the starting spot in their own film instead of being jumbled in amongst each other. The conversations between characters carry a stench of staleness and bad body language; unpolished and dry line readings given by actors make it feel as tedious as the sight of a cardboard box. For a feature to be centered on the powerful subject of love, the screenplay feels as though its inspiration was gathered from the front page of Hallmark gift cards, and that doesn’t represent the real and raw complications of wanting to share an affectionate connection with another human. The music of this film is a smorgasbord of acoustic guitars and bubblegum pop music that forcefully interrupts conversations and negatively affects the tone of many dramatic scenes. Instead of letting the actors show you through conversation how much they want to be with each other, the gleeful and cheery soundtrack ruins any chance of obtaining a sense of realism. The film operates as a whimsical fantasy instead of a romance film that has something new to say on how love affects everyone in a different manner.

“What Love Looks Like” has promise but jettisons that golden path for a superficial take on Millennial romance. The glamour and excitement of romance is replaced with the weariness of overused tropes and half-baked cheerfulness that stunts any chance it had of being successful emotional entertainment. A good film lies underneath its potential, but sadly that remains unearthed.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.