Post Date Nov 5 — The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie Movie ReviewI am the target audience for “The Peanuts Movie.” I was all in. So it brings me no joy to report to you that it’s a rather safe repackaging of material you’ve seen before. Bring on the angry hordes. My review.

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Post Date Oct 24


A24 Films
Rated R for language.
Running time: 118 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

This is one of those situations in which mere words seem insufficient in describing a film’s profoundly moving power.

I can tell you this much, plainly and without shame: I sobbed throughout “Room,” about a mother and her 5-year-old son trapped inside a sparsely furnished, 10-by-10-foot space, and I started doing so long before the story turned truly harrowing. And afterward, I walked home from the screening room — 2.87 miles to be exact, I mapped it — to process my feelings. Did director Lenny Abrahamson’s film wreck me because it’s truly great, or because I also have a 5-year-old boy and motherhood has, as I’d long feared, turned me irreparably soft?

“Room” is indeed that great — but I might also be a ninny. In its poetry and power, its intimate details and ambitious ideas, it’s simultaneously devastating and mesmerizing. The truth at its core, which Abrahamson achieves through pure and subtle observations, is what astonishes again and again. Within this nightmare scenario, a mother and child have crafted for themselves a tangible fairy-tale world. They refer to the small area they share as Room. The window above their heads is Skylight. Ma’s bad tooth is — appropriately and affectionately — Bad Tooth. The boy, Jack, regards them all as treasured friends. But an enemy also lurks: Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the volatile, middle-aged man who put them there and makes frightening, nightly visits.

But despite the extreme events that led to their cramped captivity, there’s a realism to the relationship between Ma and Jack. They stick to a relatable routine — every minute matters, every day matters. They have a comfortable shorthand, the result of spending every single moment together. They make the most with what they have. They take care of each other.

Every parent will recognize himself or herself in Brie Larson’s Ma: She’s proud of her boy when he figures something out and frustrated with herself when she snaps at him too quickly. She answers his increasingly probing questions with patience and tries to protect him as long as she can. She’s a great mother, even though she didn’t choose to be one. It’s all there on the page in Emma Donaghue’s elegantly efficient screenplay, which she adapted from her best-selling novel. But the abidingly authentic performances from Larson and young Jacob Tremblay are what bring these words vividly to life.

If you saw Larson in her first, real starring role in the criminally under-seen “Short Term 12,” or in standout supporting parts in films like “The Spectacular Now” or “Trainwreck” or the Showtime series “United States of Tara,” you knew what she could do — you knew of her naturalism and her presence. Here, she conveys so much with just her posture, with the slightest glance. There’s nothing showy about her performance and yet you can’t take your eyes off her. She just never hits a false note (and rarely does the film as a whole). And she has a deeply believable chemistry with Tremblay, who’s excellent in a complicated, demanding role. There’s nothing cutesy about him — there’s not the timiest whiff of child-star precociousness. He is just totally in the moment all the time. He’s a tremendous find.

You may have noticed that I haven’t written much about plot yet, and that’s intentional. Yes, the trailers and even the signature image on the posters reveal that eventually, Ma (who’s only 24 and whose real name is Joy) and Jack escape their prison in a scene of meticulous timing and breathtaking suspense. They return to the outside world, something Jack only knew of from images on a beat-up television set and glimmers from the skylight, but for a while it’s more of a place of obstacles than opportunities.

The second half might seem more ordinary than the first, perhaps because it’s a world we actually know and one that seems safe. But it’s fraught with its own perils, both externally and internally, and how Joy and Jack navigate them together gives this section of “Room” an even larger kind of heart and even a sense of hope. They get help from a superb supporting cast, led by Joan Allen as Joy’s relieved mother and Tom McCamus as her stepdad, who forges his own lovely, unexpected connection with Jack. (William H. Macy, as her detached father, might have gotten more to do but that’s a minor quibble.)

And that’s all I want to say about “Room,” for now, at least. Please go experience it for yourself and let the emotions and revelations wash over you — and then come back and let me know that I’m not alone in being reduced to a puddle.

Post Date Oct 23 — I Smile Back

I Smile Back Movie ReviewSarah Silverman previously has dipped her toe in more dramatic waters with 2010’s excellent “Take This Waltz.” Here, the comedian flings herself headlong into dark and disturbing territory as an upper-middle class wife and mom struggling to conceal her depression and addiction. She’s willing to go to places that the superficial film itself is not. My review.

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Post Date Oct 9 — Knock Knock

Knock Knock Movie ReviewThe moral of the story is: When two hot, much younger women knock on your door, scantily clad and stranded during a rainstorm, you probably shouldn’t have sex with them, tempting as that may be. The latest from horror veteran Eli Roth builds sly tension for the first half, then goes haywire and gets tedious in the second. My mixed review.

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Post Date Oct 8 — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs Movie Review“Steve Jobs” doesn’t try to make you like Steve Jobs –and that’s what makes it so compelling. Danny Boyle’s film, bursting with super-Sorkiny Aaron Sorkin dialogue, is thrilling and daring and full of fascinating contradictions. My review.

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Post Date Oct 2 — He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala Movie ReviewDavis Guggenheim’s documantary takes a frustratingly superficial look at the life of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education and went on to become the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She’s a worthy and fascinating subject, to be sure — and she’s incredibly charismatic — but Guggenheim perpetuates the mythology of her bravery rather than digging deeper to determine how she truly feels about becoming an international symbol of hope at such a young age. My review.

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Post Date Sep 29

Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG for some scary images, action and rude humor.
Running time: 89 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

“Hotel Transylvania 2” is the greatest movie Adam Sandler and Kevin James have ever made together. I believe this is called “damning with faint praise,” given their dubious track record (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” various “Grown Ups” movies, “Pixels”) but it also happens to be true, and relevant.

The sequel to the 2012 animated hit “Hotel Transylvania” falls squarely within the segment of Sandler’s oeuvre in which middle-aged dudes lament feeling out of touch with the young people today and their rock and roll music and whatnot. But “HT2” has far zippier energy than those phoned-in flops and a script in which it seems people actually cared about whether it was clever, entertaining and maybe even borderline thoughtful.

(I’m just gonna go ahead and assume that was Robert Smigel’s contribution to the screenplay, and not so much Sandler’s. Although as I wondered in our “What the Flick?!” review of the film, maybe this is the real Sandler, and all the other halfhearted crap is just what he pumps out because he enjoys going on vacation with his family and friends and pretending he’s making an actual movie in the process. The world may never know.)

The first film — which Genndy Tartakovsky also directed — was cute and harmless, but this one is even more consistently funny and crammed with inspired sight gags. I talk a lot on my site about animated movies and how well they work for various members of the family. “Minions,” for example, is totally for kids; “Inside Out,” meanwhile, is really more for adults. “Hotel Transylvania 2” doesn’t break any great, new ground and it’s pretty thin in terms of plot, but it’s a lot of fun for viewers of every age. I laughed out loud — quite frequently, I’ll admit — at the pop culture references and parenting jokes. Nicolas, who’s almost 6, cackled his head off at the goofy monsters and their antics, which often resulted in some sort of bodily injury.

(Although Nic’s favorite character, Blobby, doesn’t exactly have a body, as his name would suggest. He’s essentially a green Jell-O mold come to life, but his propensity for changing shape and getting stuff stuck inside of his translucent, gelatinous self makes him endearing.)

So: It’s a sequel. This means more monsters and more humans and more adventures. You can still check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Vampire mom Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) literally finds this to be true when she ponders moving out of the hotel with her human husband, Jonathan (Andy Samberg), and their almost-5-year-old son, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). She wonders whether living under the watchful eye and sharp fangs of her father, Sandler’s Dracula, is the best place for her family now that they are trying to live a quote-unquote normal life. Drac, meanwhile, will have none of such talk. He hates change, as is so often the case with Sandler’s characters.

Plus, he wants to be around his only grandson in order to encourage the latent vampire tendencies he’s certain are in lurking within the boy. At this tender age, it’s unclear whether sweet, young Dennis will turn out to be a human or a vampire. He’s mixed. He’s a mystery. He’s Renesmee Cullen from the “Twilight” series.

And so, with the help of his monster buddies — Frankenstein (James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade) and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key, taking over the role from Cee-Lo) — Dracula insists on training Dennis in the proud vampire tradition. This means scaring people, turning into a bat, etc., but innocent Dennis always manages to make these activities adorable rather than frightening. An amusing bit involves Dennis’ love of a TV “monster” known as Kakie who is hideously, hilariously misshapen and annoyingly cloying. He’s voiced by Chris Kattan. The increasing interference of Dennis’ well-intentioned human grandparents (Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally) certainly doesn’t help matters.

That’s basically the extent of it: “Hotel Transylvania 2” is episodic in structure until The Big Reveal as to the kid’s true nature. The involvement of Mel Brooks in a choice bit of casting as Dracula’s dad, Vlad, adds some oomph to the big conclusion (at least for the grown-ups in the audience); kids, meanwhile, might be frightened by the dastardly deeds of Vlad’s right-hand man, Bela (Rob Riggle), which put Dennis and playful werewolf cub Winnie (Sadie Sandler) in danger.

Ultimately, “Hotel Transylvania 2” is about open-mindedness and acceptance — the kind of feel-good sentiments Sandler usually tries to wedge into his films half-assedly toward the end. This time, it actually sort of works.

Post Date Sep 25 — A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story Movie ReviewThe documentary “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” follows a young woman’s journey from insecure bullying victim to internationally acclaimed motivational speaker and lobbyist. Velasquez — who was born with a syndrome that gave her striking facial features and makes it difficult for her to gain weight — radiates sweetness and humor, no matter the situation. Her story is certainly worthwhile and inspiring. But I wish the film had dug deeper below the surface. My review.

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Post Date Sep 17 — Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials Movie ReviewThe teens from “The Maze Runner” are still running, but while they cover more ground in this second film in the series, they never really go anywhere. The sequel is bigger in scope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Plus, by this point, all these dystopian-future, sci-fi dramas based on Young Adult novels are essentially interchangeable. Which one has Kate Winslet as the icy government villain, and which has Patricia Clarkson? I try to sort it all out in my review.

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Post Date Sep 15

Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy Movie ReviewRadius-TWC
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some nudity.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

You shouldn’t be reading this review. I shouldn’t even be writing it. Every time I’ve recommended “Goodnight Mommy” to someone, I’ve warned that person not to read anything about it beforehand — just to trust me, and see it, and be mesmerized.

Yet it’s so great, I feel it’s my duty to tell the world about it without giving away what makes it great. So this review might end up being really short. But here goes …

“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian thriller about two 9-year-old, identical twins named Lukas and Elias (played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) living in an austere, minimalist house in the countryside. They’ve been by themselves for who knows how long, waiting for their mother to return from the hospital after undergoing some kind of plastic surgery. Once she arrives, bandaged-up and barely speaking, the twins increasingly suspect that this person isn’t their mother at all but an impostor.

The premise alone is enough to give you goosebumps. But it’s the execution that’s the real marvel from the writing-directing team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, making their startlingly assured feature debut. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with these characters. Nothing is simple or safe here, although the quiet purity of the film’s tone and aesthetic trappings might suggest otherwise.

It’s a horror movie in that horrific things happen, but it’s also a dramatic exploration of the bond between parent and child — specifically, between mother and son. A complicated dichotomy exists in our relationship with these little people we make; on the one hand, there’s a familiarity that’s infused within the fiber of our beings. I look at Nicolas sometimes and feel like I’ve known him my entire life. And yet they can also be baffling, maddening creatures whose actions shake us to our core and make us question everything we know. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me when Nic has a meltdown over sour gummy worms at the grocery store.

Being a parent makes “Goodnight Mommy” resonate on a whole different level, but it’s certainly not a necessity for being sucked into it. This is deft and daring storytelling that will grip anyone who’s willing to be a little uncomfortable — make that a lot uncomfortable — and who’s willing to follow it into some dark and twisted territory. There’s a brief respite of comic relief about halfway through when a pair of Red Cross workers knock on the door, then sit at the kitchen table waiting for someone to give them some sort of donation. It’s also a welcome reminder that an outside world does indeed exist, given the claustrophobic situation Fiala and Kranz have created. But that’s about it. “Goodnight Mommy” escalates, and it is relentless.

The tension is palpable from the start, though — long before the boys’ mother returns, and even during activities that would seem to radiate the wholesomeness of carefree, childhood fun. Lukas and Elias play hide and go seek in a cornfield, or chase each other across the lawn, or bounce up and down on the trampoline. But the use of natural sound attunes us to the hidden, dangerous rhythms of their games. There’s an underlying hum in the sound design — a buzz that grows — which tells you something isn’t quite right and provides an early, sinister tone.

Similarly, the house itself is a consistent source of the film’s atmosphere. Chilly, industrially chic and crammed with bizarre art, it reminded me of the house in “Ex Machina,” and I’d move into either of them tomorrow. (I’m not sure what this says about me.) Foreboding lurks around every sleek corner. It is simultaneously full of light and bereft of joy.

As for the performances, both Schwarz brothers and Wuest are in the tricky position of having to play it as understated as possible even while their characters go to extremes, and they consistently find that balance. Then again, “Goodnight Mommy” is full of such fascinating contradictions and surprises.

Just trust me. See it — and then we can really talk about it.