Friday, October 23, 2020

Review: The Witches (2020)

Review:  I was skeptical about this remake/reimagining of the 1990 classic The Witches, which in it self is based off of the 1983 novel by acclaimed author Roald Dahl. The 1990 original was universally praised by critics, and deservingly so. The film was fantastically dark and witty, and at times grotesque. the fact they were able to get away with doing certain things and maintain a PG rating is truly beyond me. the casting for it was also perfection. Anjelica Huston who played the head witch wowed audiences with her captivating performance. Something she would no doubt repeat less than a year later while portraying Morticia Addams in the 1991 box office hit The Addams Family (1991). Simply put, the 1990 adoption is a true classic, and it’s incredibly hard to not judge any updated adaption without comparing it to it’s predecessor. 

The 2020 reimagining is by no means a terrible film. I mean, it’s definitely watchable, and audiences of a younger age will no doubt find some level of enjoyment out of this updated version. It certainly has quite a few corks and some heartfelt moments that even had my heartstrings tugged at times. And it does follows the novel much closer in certain areas that the 1990 film hadn’t. But, just like 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate, following the source material doesn't necessarily mean a superior product. [SIDE NOTE: I actually loved the Johnny Depp reimagining, just not nearly as much as the 1971 classic starring Gene Wilder]. But I digress. The 2020 reimagining wastes absolutely no time at all as it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn't really slow down. It’s bigger, louder and much more flashy with the theatrics. But it’s lacking the spirit of the original. The original was slower in pace, less cartoony, and focused more time fleshing out it’s core characters. In the original there is a story the grandmother tells her grandson about a young girl in her village, who was kidnapped by a witch and imprisoned in a painting that hung in her parents home. The young girl lived her whole life in that painting unable to escape or communicate with her family. This story is incredibly dark and utterly heartbreaking at the same time. This scene in particular is so tragic and disturbing and its always stayed with me growing up. As an adult it horrifies me more than most R-rated horror movies, and that’s saying a lot coming from a horror buff such as myself. The reimagining does have a similar scene in which the grandmother tells her grandson a tragic story about a childhood friend being taken by a witch, but it doesn't carry the same eerie atmosphere as the original and is for the most part pretty forgettable. Later on in the film theres a moment when the missing girl is briefly mentioned and it took me a few minutes to remember it’s the name of the girl from the grandmother’s earlier story. 

The one thing the film does get right at least is the superb acting. I adore Octavia Spencer, she’s a talented actress who really gives it her best in whatever role she takes on, and The Witches is no exception. She breathes a level warmth and sassiness into the role that is genuine to the lighter tone of this adaptation. Honestly, I wish she could be my grandma! Ann Hathaway is also pretty amazing as the head witch as she delivers a very colorful version of the character that is pleasant, and sometimes hilarious to watch, but the one major drawback is that some of her best moments are spoiled by an over-abundance of CGI. Which let me just say, the special effects is arguably the film’s achilles’ heel. There are moments in which it looks half decent and passable, but most of the time it looks dated like something straight from the early 2000’s. Overall it’s pretty bad, and likely could have achieved better results with more practical effects like with the original. The witches in that, especially the head witch, was genuinely hideous looking and creepy. The design in the reimagining looks basic and very unimaginative. 

Final Thoughts: The Witches isn’t a terribly bad movie. It set off to do it’s own thing and should be commended for not going the route previously traveled.  It has it’s moments, and it can be a genuinely fun film for the whole family to watch together on movie night. But it’s a far cry from the superb quality of the original.

Rating: 5/10

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Cuties (2020)


Review written by Kelsey Zukowski

Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou

Written & Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré

Rating: 9/10 

Cuties is a multi-faceted coming of age film that tackles the difficult transition from childhood to womanhood with great realism. Through our protagonist we see what that journey of finding one’s femininity looks like amongst conflicting messages from familial upbringing, religion, social media, pop culture, and peers.  

It’s worth noting that the initial shock value promotional material Netflix used wasn’t a proper representation of the film. It got people’s attention for better or worse, which was likely the goal, but this is not the preteen Magic Mike. There is only around 5 minutes of sexy dancing in the entire running time and it is a fairly small focus of the film. The dance competition the characters are in mostly contains adult dancers and is open to all styles of dancing. It’s the protagonist’s fear of being viewed as childish and her desire to impress her new group of friends that influences them to sex up their routine and look. Anytime she is shown using her body in a more adult or flirtatious manner it is very clearly not condoned and even criticized by other characters, especially those who are older.

The film follows 11 year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who is the oldest child in a traditional Muslim family, living in a poor suburb of Paris. A lot of responsibility falls on her to help care for her younger siblings. Amy’s father has recently become engaged to his second wife. This is incredibly difficult for Amy’s mother, but something she is expected to accept and even be supportive of. As Amy sees the pain this causes her mother her resentment towards her father grows. She is already being groomed to become a good, modest, and content wife for a future husband, which is not something she is looking forward to.

Amy takes notice of a group of girls who are in an amateur dance crew and wear more revealing clothes than she is permitted to, which holds an alluring freedom to her. She doesn’t have any friends and begins to yearn to be a part of what this group of girls have. Most of the group is incredibly hostile towards her, but through the dance crew’s leader, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), she slowly finds friendship and a chance to dance with them; allowing her to feel more seen. She quickly becomes so desperate for their approval, which sends her on a descent in to rebellion, losing herself along the way.

The acting across the board was phenomenal and really added to the film feeling like a personal and powerful experience. The child actors did a great job of feeling very genuine. The combination of their presence and the directing added wonderful naturalism. The stand outs were our lead, Fathia Youssouf, and Maïmouna Gueye, who played her mother. Both showed incredibly strong emotion and layers, which was often subtle, but always evident. This film offered Youssouf a break out role and she showed that she was up to the challenge, beautifully showcasing her talents and adding a needed vulnerability to let the audience understand and empathize with what the character was going through.

The bond and relationship between Amy and her mother, Mariam, was among the strongest material as well.  The love between both of them, even at the height of Amy’s downward spiral and her mother’s shame and outrage, is clear. They are both struggling and under a lot of strain in their own ways, but there’s deep connection and understanding between them in the end. Mariam’s story shows both her sense of feeling lost and her strength. It acknowledges that even adults don’t necessarily have it all figured out, that this quest of finding who you are as woman, wife, mother, and individual is a lifelong one. The human experience and finding ones’ identity and role is an imperfect art. 

Filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, based the film on her own experiences growing up and her difficulties in discovering what womanhood and feeling stuck between several cultures and stages of adolescence was like.  She interviewed hundreds of young girls for the film, wanting to accurately depict what that challenge of approaching teenagehood looked like today with the influences of social media and heavily sexualized images in media at large.

Cuties is tamer in content than many might expect. There is no nudity, implied nudity, or sexual acts depicted. Many other similar films like Kids, Thirteen, and Mysterious Skin, go further and contain more disturbing material by depicting underage sex, which is not at all present here. The moments of the young characters amplifying their sex appeal are troubling and uncomfortable, but they are meant to be.  The scene that contains the worst of this is portrayed in a completely negative context and serves as the breaking point for Amy, making her realize this is not true to whom she is or who she wants to be.

There are plenty of scenes where the girls on the dance team are being silly, having fun, and essentially savoring being kids in a climate pushing them to grow up. There is going to be an instinct to resist some female roles before them and flock to others. It’s only natural for them to mimic what they see, especially at this age where their bodies are changing and fitting in and feeling validated is huge to a their confidence and happiness. Both sides of these two stages in their growth are present and are an important part of the narrative.

Most powerful art tackles difficult subjects; subjects that we wish weren’t present in our world at all. Even more reason why exploring these things, understanding their temptation and influence, is vital and has value. Looking back to experiences of my own and those of my peers at this age, what is depicted here is not a stretch at all. I also say that as someone who grew up without social media and some of the images, pressures, and messages that it sends to girls today. You can only imagine how hypersexualization in our society and young people feeling this pressure is only becoming more prevalent and damaging. Every artist has the right to tell their story and truth. Doucouré did that with bravery and honesty, creating a film many can relate to, males included, as young boys have their own pressures and stereotypes they face. It addresses concerns that should be exposed and talked about. Some may not be comfortable venturing there with her, but for those who go in with an open mind, it can be a captivating and enlightening experience worth your time.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Mentally Apart (2020)

Review: Mentally Apart is definitely not your every day run of the mill horror movie. It is deep, thought provoking horror full of symbolism and clues, many of which you are likely to miss on a first time viewing. But it is certainly worth multiple revisits. So what is it about? Well, the movie is about the relationship of beautiful couple, Luna (Christine James Walker) and Chuck (Larry Bernardo). As weeks pass into months in their apartment, bizarre things begin to manifest. And dark emotions begin to surface. What happens when the dream becomes a nightmare? And the perfect relationship sours..

I don’t want to divulge too much about the movie because it really boils down to something you must experience for yourself to get the full effect. But I will say that it likely won’t be for everyone. Some will no doubt love it, but by the same token there is going to be others who will likely hate it, or simply find it too bizarrely out there to really formulate an opinion. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because what that proves is that, Mentally Apart is a thought provoking film with a dash of psychological horror, that, while it might not be horror in a conventional manner, it definitely hits you where it counts. In short, it is a work of artistic brilliance!

In his feature debut, writer/director Joe Pomarico brought the goods with Mentally Apart. He captured the atmosphere and spiritual tone of something straight out of a Lars Von Trier film. It will be very interesting to see what his next feature will be. As for the acting. Christine James Walker was fantastic in the role as Luna. She has a very likable and charismatic personality which perfectly compliments her acting skill. There’s also a classic pinup look about her that fit the atmospheric dream like setting like a fine glove. And her on screen chemistry with Larry Bernardo really makes everything about the film work. I wasn’t too impressed with Larry Bernardo as Chuck at the start of the film. But, by the second act I was easily won over by his solid performance. As a duo, these two work incredibly well, and I hope to see them team up again.

Final Verdict: Mentally Apart is not for every horror fan. But regardless of whether or not you liked the film, you cannot deny the lasting impression it will leave on you. Does it have repeat value? In my Honest opinion, it certainly does.. because upon my second viewing I noticed a bunch little details that really added to the overall quality of the film that I hadn’t noticed in my previous viewing. And when a film manages to give you something new with each repeat viewing, that shows true cinematic quality. I highly recommend!

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Review: Taxicab Ride with Jesus (2020)

Review: Imagine if you had a chance to talk to Jesus Christ for 20 minutes. What would you even say in a situation like that? More importantly, would you even believe him? In my honest opinion there is no correct answer to this question because even the most faithful would likely question the legitimacy of a total stranger claiming to be the son of god.

But I digress, from director Dan Brennan, the creative mind behind The Video Guys (2008) and Maggie Marvel (2010) comes Silly Sisters’ latest production Taxicab Ride with Jesus (2020) a short film about Billy (Dan Brennan) a down on his luck cab driver who’s going through a rough time having to balance a growing mountain of bills and medical debt, his wife Clare (Marybeth Paul) stressed and worried, and their daughter Wendy (Juliana Sousa) hospitalized in a coma, and who’s health is rapidly declining. Billy’s latest fare, however, happens to be Jesus Christ (Russ Camarda). Yup, THAT Jesus.

TRWJ is a heartfelt short that teaches one to find the inner courage and faith to take responsibility in life, even in the bleakest of times. Seeing Dan Brennan and Russ Camadra together on screen is always a treat to behold. While both actors are without question fantastic performers on their own, it’s whenever this dual share the screen together that, in my opinion, is when the real magic happens. Dan’s performance as Billy comes off as sympathetic and relating. He delivers an accurate representation of the every day man fighting through the day to day struggles of life. Russ’s take on Jesus is both fresh and to be frank, quite enjoyable. This isn’t the overly praise the lord churchy Jesus. This is a variation who quietly observed humanity in all their flawed ways for the past 2000 years, and quite frankly, have grown somewhat annoyed to see how little we have learned from past mistakes. This iteration of Christ might be viewed as a little controversial to some, sure, but I personally found it to be a welcoming breath of fresh air. Ed Cryer as God was perfection, absolutely perfection! With a cast like this I wouldn’t expect anyone else in the role of the all mighty! I also enjoyed Marybeth Paul performance as Clare, and Juliana Sousa as Wendy. Both did exceptionally well in their respective roles.

Final Verdict: I really enjoyed TRWJ. It’s well shot and well paced with suburb editing done by Russ Camadra himself. I really loved the Taxicab Confessions vibe the film gives off during Billy and Jesus’s conversation. It’s blunt and comes across in a no-bullshit attitude, but also doesn’t come off as too preachy. I also really appreciated the piano score, which in my opinion, added that extra special touch. My only complaint is that, I really wished it were just a tad bit longer than 20 minutes. All in all, TRWJ is a worth watching short, especially now more than ever with content being somewhat limited in availability.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

Review: At the start of the early 2010’s Universal Pictures was on track to launch their very own shared cinematic universe aka the DARK UNIVERSE. Which initially would have began with Dracula Untold (2014), followed with The Mummy (2017) and then work it’s way through their catalog of classic monsters movies leading up to the “AVENGERS” event (Monster Mash). However things didn’t quite pan out the way the some had hoped for, and the critical and commercial failure of 2017’s The Mummy was the final nail in the coffin for any future plans for a shared universe in it’s current inception. While the concept of a shared universe can be thrilling and highly enjoyable. 2020’s The Invisible Man proves that not every iconic franchise needs it. In this review I will be breaking down the mentionable things I loved, the things I liked, and the things I, for the lack of a better word, did not.

First off, the opening sequence really sets the tone for Invisible Man with it’s eerie silence. The anticipating build up as Cecilia Kass (Moss) attempts to pack her things up and get the fuck outta dodge while her abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Cohen). The entire fricken opening sequence is unnerving to the core, and really sets the tone for what’s in store. This is largely attributed to The Handmaids Tale star Elizabeth Moss. Who really shows off her range of acting here. There are actors who can act their hearts out when given a good script. And then, there are great actors who can make any roll great through their performance alone. Elizabeth Moss is the latter. Her range of express is near limitless, and no doubt one of the most captivating aspect of any role she takes on. In this regard, in the absence of a physical co-star on screen, Moss’ performance picks up the slack and really amps up every scene. This is further complimented with the film’s beautiful cinematography, which takes these very brilliant wide angled shots that gives each and every scene a real sense purpose, and added atmospheric anxiety. I literally found myself scanning each scene up and down wondering, “where is Adrian? Is he here somewhere?”. The answer is, you don’t know. And that’s what makes it so terrifying. It’s not the scenes where he makes his presence known. It’s when he doesn’t.

This not knowing plays in well with the plot and the developing relationships between Kass, her sister Emily (Dyer), her friend James (Hodge), and his daughter Sydney (Reid). Because Kass suffers from PTSD due to her abusive relationship with Adrian, her motives and reactions are continuously questioned and doubted by all those around her. They think she’s going through a downward spiral into a mental break. And it’s frustrating for you, the viewer, because you know she’s not crazy, but they don’t. And it’s both maddening and brilliant at the same time. I loved the relationship between James, Sydney and Kass. It gave the movie a sense of grounding and a bit of relief from the intense build up. One of my overall favorite aspects of The Invisible Man is message of female empowerment embedded deep within it’s core. It shines light on psychological trauma victims tend to experience during abusive relationships. People typically assume that abuse only comes in the form of the physical, and while this is true to an extent, it also isn’t because its making light of the deep emotional and mental scars abuse leaves on a person. Kass isn’t just beaten. She was belittled and forced to be someone she wasn’t. Adrian got inside her head, it wasn’t bad enough he beat her, he needed to make her think how he wanted her to think, live and sleep how he wanted. Force her to be obedient in every sense of the word. But, when push comes to shove, there is only so much a person can take before they fight back. The movie doesn’t treat feminism like a trope. It’s worked in there quite organically and it works incredibly well thanks to writer/director Leigh Whannell. This is further cemented with the film’s ending, which in my honest opening, is one of the most satisfying movie ending I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in years. It’s the perfect payoff to a slow burn buildup. And it’s such an ingenious note to end the film on.

Final Verdict: So is there anything I hated? Well, I thought about it long and hard, and I honestly can say there isn’t a thing about this movie that I actually hated. There’s some nit picky things I wasn’t wholly satisfied with. But not something I outright hated. I wish we got a deeper look into who Adrain Griffin was, and what his motivations were that made him dangerously obsessive, controlling, and abusive. I certainly wish we had more onscreen time with actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen because he is a really good actor and did a magnificent job in the role. But I also understand that more onscreen time with him would absolutely defeat the purpose of the film’s title. Beyond the minor nit picking, The Invisible Man was near perfect, and had earned the rare top tier rating from me.

Rating: 10/10