REVIEW: “Spontaneous” (2020)

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A part of me would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the crazy idea for “Spontaneous” was pitched to the studio heads. “It’s an adaptation of a book about high school students who inexplicably begin exploding in class. And I mean literally blowing up, spraying blood all over their classmates and sending the community into one big panic. Oh, and it’s also a teen love story”.

As nutty as it sounds, nothing in the above paragraph is untrue. “Spontaneous” is based on Aaron Starmer’s 2016 young adult novel about two high school seniors and their unexpected romance during the most unexpected of events. A terrific Katherine Langford plays Mara who is sitting in Calculus class bored out of her mind when suddenly her classmate Caitlyn “pops like a zit“. Not my words, that’s Mara vivid eyewitness description.

After the initial shock the kids from the classroom are quarantined as officials try to figure out the cause and more importantly if it will happen again. When it inevitably does the students must face the reality that any moment could be their last. During this time Mara hits it off with fellow classmate and outcast Dylan. He’s played by Charlie Plummer, so good in 2017’s “Lean on Pete”, solid but fairly ordinary here. Soon an unexpected romance blossoms as the two teens come to realize they must (of course) live for the moment.

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Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Before anything else you have to get in sync with the movie’s tonal gymnastics. It’s literally all over the map: a brash teen comedy, a sudsy romance, blood-soaked horror, a coming-of-age story, a family drama, etc. Frankly its attempts at being so many things gets a little exhausting. At its core you can’t help but notice all the ingredients for a really fun and original dark comedy, but then it begins checking off far too many of the usual teen comedy boxes. And rather than coming natural, you can see the movie actively working to come across as rebellious and cool. This is most visible in Mara. Langford gives an eye-opening performance, but her character has so much swagger and attitude that it’s a breath of fresh air whenever she’s allowed to dial it back and be an actual person.

“Spontaneous” is the kind of movie that is sure to find an audience, but it’s skittish genre hopping could just as easily turn some people off. And for everything the movie does that’s fresh and original there is just as much that feels like well-worn ground. The saving grace is Katherine Langford who ably holds together a character who erratically bounces between grounded in the real world and made for the screen. Still, without question she’s a young actress to keep your eye on. “Spontaneous” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Sylvie’s Love” (2020)

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There is a beautiful nostalgic allure to the new romantic drama “Sylvie’s Love” that begins in the first frame and carries through the entire running time. It’s seen in the luscious cinematography, the detailed sets, the dialogue, the performances, the costumes, the music. Everything about “Sylvie’s Love” screams classic Hollywood romance. There’s one significant difference. The film features a predominately black cast and tells a love story of two black characters set during a time when representation was practically nonexistent.

The film is written, directed, and co-produced by Eugene Ashe who gives us a kind of movie that we simply don’t see these days. After an exquisite opening set in 1962 New York City the movie slides back to the summer of 1957. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) works with her father Mr. Jay (played by the ever soothing Lance Reddick) running the family’s record shop. But she dreams of one day being a television producer. “Can you imagine,” her loving but cynical father remarks. “A colored girl making TV shows.”

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

One afternoon a young jazz saxophonist named Robert (former NFL star-turned actor Nnamdi Asomugha) walks into the record store to answer the ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window. It doesn’t take long to notice the spark between Sylvie and Robert and soon casual flirting turns to romance. The stars seem to be aligning for the young couple in love. Then Robert and his quartet get the offer of a lifetime to play a series of jazz clubs in Paris. He asks Sylvie to go with him but she declines for some very personal reasons. And just like that their summer of love comes to an unexpected end.

Jump ahead five years and we’re back at the scene that opens the film. Sylvie is now married to a successful but very ‘me-first’ businessman named Lacy (Alano Miller). She also has her dream job working as an assistant to the barrier-breaking producer (Ryan Michelle Bathe) of a popular television cooking show. But then that storybook chance meeting happens as a Sylvie, radiating in an elegant turquoise Chanel gown, stands outside of a concert hall. Robert, back in New York to record an album, walks by and Sylvie instantly recognizes him. In a snap the smoldering chemistry is back as if they had never been apart. But as we are quickly reminded, a lot has changed in five years.

There are many components that make this old-fashioned romance such a delight. It starts with its two stars. Thompson is wonderful in capturing Sylvie’s evolution from naive and vulnerable to strong and self-assertive. Asomugha exudes a quiet dignity and has a classic leading man charisma that makes his performance stand-out. There’s also a great supporting cast around them including Reddick and Bathe. But also Aja Naomi King as Sylvie’s best friend Mona. She goes from saucy comic relief to an activist offering subtle references to the world outside of the story’s romantic bubble.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film’s gorgeous, nostalgia-rich aesthetic is just as vital. Declan Quinn’s cinematography is some of the year’s best, offering up one frame-worthy shot after another. The visuals are transporting from the grainy film stock look to the warm and almost idyllic shots of New York City. The filmmaking style itself feels plucked straight out of cinema history. Meanwhile the lush period-perfect set designs and Phoenix Mellow’s elegant costumes work hand-in-hand with the jazzy and soulful sounds of Fabrice Lecomte’s score to create a rich and vibrant setting that’s easy to get lost in. I found myself admiring something in nearly every frame.

With “Sylvie’s Love” Eugene Ashe has made a swooning love story that feels so distinctly old-fashioned some may have a hard time connecting. The story doesn’t always explain the motivations of its characters well and certain plot points could use more attention. But I love what Ashe is going for, both narratively and visually. This is more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s a tender, heartfelt, and irresistibly sweet romance. But it’s also a fresh and welcomed story of the black experience set during a time when the movie industry had little interest in exploring their lives and their stories. “Sylvie’s Love” is streaming now on Prime Video.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Shadow in the Cloud” (2021)

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Sometimes after a long hard day all you need is something to help you unwind. Movies are the perfect balm. Particularly stressful days often leave you looking for something light and breezy. Maybe something energetic and exciting. Even something a little bonkers. Light, breezy, and (most definitely) bonkers are all fitting descriptions for “Shadow in the Cloud”, the new action-horror film from Roseanne Liang.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars in this hard-to-categorize action/monster chamber piece that impresses early on with its nifty concept and unique approach to storytelling. Sadly it eventually runs out of gas even at a lean 83 minutes. And despite its noticeable efforts, the movie never quite gives you characters with any notable weight. Moretz is actually a nice fit and she has no shortage of grit and commitment. But she can only do so much, especially when given so many scenes that require little more from her than to grunt, scream, or sit quietly while she is berated and ridiculed by incessantly foul-mouthed and sexist men. Men who almost instantly devolve into hard-to-bear caricatures.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Set in World War II, Moretz plays Flight Officer Maude Garrett who boards a B-17 Flying Fortress as it’s about to take off from an airfield in New Zealand. She presents the surprised crew with paperwork giving her and her highly classified package safe passage. The crew doesn’t like it. It’s against protocol and after all she’s a “dame”. Unsure what to do but desperately needing to take off, the pilot orders Maude to be put in the gun turret on the plane’s belly. In the air Maude is greeted with all matter of misogynistic hostility, from straight-up sexual harassment to constantly questioning of her credentials (again, she’s just a “dame”). The only halfway compassionate voice comes from Staff Sergeant Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith). The rest are for the most part dogs.

A big chunk of the first half is spent with Maude and the camera confined to the tight-quartered turret. During this long stretch we see no one other than Moretz. We only hear the voices of the pilot and crew members through the radio comms. On one hand it’s a bold choice from director Liang who keeps things interesting visually. Unfortunately the script gets stuck in one gear as the crew’s relentless abuse goes on and on and on. And of course when Maude spots a ghastly creature on the wing of the plane no one believes her until it’s too late. As the creature wrecks havoc with the engines, Japanese planes riddle the bomber’s hull with bullets. Meanwhile Maude fights to get out of the turret and to protect her package at all costs.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

It all culminates in an action-filled final third that embraces the absurdity and tries to have fun with it. Sadly the baggage of the first half weighs it down. What models itself as a feminist power story loses a lot of its punch by essentially letting the misogynists off the hook. I won’t spoil it but let’s just say I was expecting some sort of reckoning. Instead all is forgotten (by the characters and the movie) and the crew along with their more than capable female plus-one fight for survival against man and beast.

Overall there is a swirl of fun ideas here that simply never come together. I liked the nuttiness of the concept and some of its audacious filmmaking choices. I’m always up for silly action-packed escapism. I think Moretz is quite good and should open some eyes with her performance. But “Shadow in the Cloud” is such an uneven film and it’s plagued by shallow characterizations which isn’t especially new for these kinds of movies. The problem is there aren’t enough thrills and excitement here to keep us from noticing, even when we turn our brains off. “Shadow in the Cloud” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT- 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Skyfire” (2021)

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I’m still not sure how anyone could think it was a good idea to build a state-of-the-art multi-million dollar theme park and resort on a small island with a dormant volcano. And not just any volcano mind you. One that erupted 20 years earlier killing many islanders in its fury. But greed and intelligence don’t necessarily come hand-in-hand which is one of the points made by the Chinese disaster film “Skyfire”, a movie that actually debuted in China at the end of 2019 but is just now getting distribution here in the States.

“Skyfire” unashamedly follows the long and trusty line of thrill-a-second disaster films. And like those other movies, “Skyfire” has the sole aim of keeping you on the edge your seat with a barrage of fun, non-stop, CGI-infused action. Oh, and there are characters too because I guess you kinda need them. But it’s mostly about the sheer spectacle of it all and I admit it, “Skyfire” really delivers the spectacle. In fact throughout the movie I kept thinking about how fun it would have been to see it in the big screen.

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Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

While there have been plenty of these types of movies, “Skyfire” is actually China’s first big budget disaster flick. It would feel right at home in Hollywood and I found myself constantly waiting for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to throw himself into the mayhem. Simon West directs this predominantly Chinese produced romp, working from a script written by Wei Bu and Sidney King. It’s your familiar light and silly fare that fully embraces its utterly ridiculous premise (which is part of its charm), which basically becomes a ‘who’s going to make it out alive‘ story bathed in some pretty impressive digital eye candy.

Jason Isaacs plays British businessman Jack Harris, the brains (or lack of them) behind the high-end Tianhuo island retreat. He has poured his entire fortune (plus some) into building a world class resort, a shopping district full of popular retail stores, and an elaborate monorail for those who can chalk up the cash. “We’ve conquered it (nature) for our own entertainment,” Harris cockily brags in an attempt to woo potential investors. How’s that for a statement begging to be proven wrong?

Also on the island is Meng Li (Hannah Quinlivan), part of a renowned team of volcanologists hired by Harris to be safety consultants. Meng Li has some personal history with the Tianhuo volcano and its eruption 20 years earlier. Now it’s expected to stay dormant for another 150 years, but some alarming activity leads the team to think otherwise. Back home Meng Li’s estranged volcano guru father (Wang Xueqi) knows something’s not right with Tianhuo. He travels back to the island to coax her into coming home, picking at some old daddy-daughter scabs in the process. In the meantime Meng Li tries to warn Harris but of course he doesn’t listen (What kind of disaster movie would you have if he did?). Guess what happens next.

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Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

The experts are proven right and the volcano does erupt putting the estimated 50,000 tourists, staff, investors, and developers in immediate danger. From there Simon West stomps the accelerator and spends the rest of the movie at 120 mph+. The characters are given just enough personal detail to distinguish them from each other. Storywise, their main job is to either die or survive, whichever the plot deems fitting. At the same time they’re a pretty likable bunch and you don’t mind sticking with them. Enough so that you actually root for their survival. The only real standout is Quinlivan who shows off some genuine action movie chops.

Movies like “Skyfire” are almost by necessity beholden to a certain expectations. Many of us know the formula well. It’s filled to its volcanic rim with well-worn tropes, genre clichés, and those gooey sentimental moments. The characters are in perpetual danger (the non-stop ultra-dramatic score makes sure we realize it), steadily dodging flying rock, rivers of lava, and bursts of gas. Some of the bigger set pieces really impress such as a scene where survivors attempt to jump from one speeding monorail car to another. Even the lesser ones manage to be enjoyable. Still, chances are if you aren’t into these kinds of flicks then “Skyfire” probably won’t change your mind. But they can be fun and entertaining escapes, especially honest and straight-shooting ones like this. “Skyfire” releases January 12th on VOD.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Sound of Metal” (2020)

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In filmmaker Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer and one-half of the punk rock duo Blackgammon. The other half is Lou (Olivia Cooke), lead singer, guitarist and Ruben’s girlfriend. The two drive their RV/home from city to city playing small gigs and selling just enough merch to get by. Both were lost and wayward souls but found safety and refuge in each other and the music they make together. And then Ruben lost his hearing.

From its earliest moments “Sound of Metal” brandishes a gritty authenticity in its story, its characters, and even the filmmaking. It all starts with Riz Ahmed and his star-making turn as a recovering heroin addict who has put every bit of himself into traveling across the country with his girlfriend performing gigs and working on a new album. Once the threat of losing it all sets in the richness of Ahmed’s performance really comes out. Anger, bitterness, fear, denial – Ahmed maneuvers through his crumbling character’s emotional cycles with a true and uncompromising fervor. It’s soulful and hard-nosed acting that avoids showiness and other similar trappings.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Ruben’s trouble begins after a show in Missouri when he suddenly loses most of his hearing. Nicolas Becker’s gnarly sound design (easily some of the year’s best) conveys Ruben’s condition by putting us in his head, surrounding us with the same disorienting hums and muffled tones. It’s intensely effective and quite harrowing especially when Marder begins contrasting the normal sounds with what Ruben is actually hearing. Ruben is certain he can fix it despite a doctor telling him his hearing loss is not only permanent but will most likely get worse.

Lou has a better grasp on reality and reaches out to Ruben’s sponsor who finds him a rural rehab facility for the deaf. It’s ran by a kind spirit named Joe (Paul Raci) who immediately gets Ruben into group meetings and starts him learning sign language. After some initial hesitation Ruben begins to make connections, especially with a teacher named Diane (Lauren Ridloff) and her students at a local school for the deaf. At the same time everything he’s doing is to get back to old life instead of learning how to live his new one. It’s a key internal conflict and a central focus of the film’s second half.

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Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Sound of Metal” tells the kind of story that filmmakers have often struggled to get right. That’s because there’s almost an inherent temptation to ramp up the drama rather than trusting the story and the audience. In “Sound of Metal” there is no condescension and no overwrought sentimentality. The film’s proverbial feet are firmly planted in the real world (maybe too much so in some cases) and the movie benefits from Marder’s willingness to keep things grounded and character-focused. Same with his choice to cast members of the deaf community. It both adds to the authenticity and fairly represents an often underrepresented group.

Despite being underwritten in places “Sound of Metal” is easily one of the more pleasant surprises of 2020. The film’s tough-minded yet thoughtful story plows some heavy ground and asks challenging questions. How do you put aside everything you’ve ever known and carve out a new identity? At what point do you give up on your dream and face a new reality? Marder gives us lots to ponder and Riz Ahmed embodies it with a performance full of grit and raw emotion. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him and he earns our empathy the very moment the terrifying muffled hum first sets in. “Sound of Metal” is now available on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Soul” (2020)

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Full disclosure: I’m not what you would call the biggest Pixar fan. To be clear it’s no fault of their own. It’s just that I’ve grown picky when it comes to animation meaning I may not be the best judge of their films or the “genre” in general. I’m not saying there aren’t animated features I love, but I tend to be a little more critical than most and I rarely go into an animated film with a ton of excitement.

Maybe that’s why Pixar’s latest “Soul” was such a welcomed surprise. I didn’t go in with especially high expectations yet it only took a few early scenes for the movie to get its hooks in me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps in the road. Within ten minutes the story takes a less compelling detour, leaving earth for a more cartoony setting where we learn the basic rules of the film’s central story. But soon “Soul” regains its deeply human pulse, planting us back in the vivid, bustling, and character-rich New York City.

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Image Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a substitute middle school band teacher whose only dream is to become a jazz pianist. When he’s offered a full-time position at the school his cynical mother (Phylicia Rashad) is thrilled at the prospect of her son having a steady job. But Joe is reluctant, fearing it may hurt his stalled jazz musician aspirations. Then he gets what could be his big break.

Joe is asked to fill in on piano for popular jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett). Just like that he believes his life finally has meaning. And just like that he loses it all. While walking home after a brilliant audition an impervious Joe unknowingly dodges all sorts of big city hazards only to plunge down an open manhole.

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Image Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

He wakes up as a baby-blue ethereal blob caught in a dark void between life and death where souls are quietly ushered to the bright light glowing in the distance. Realizing the finality of entering the Great Beyond, a frantic Joe scurries away eventually falling into a place called the Great Before where unborn souls are given their personalities before being sent to earth. Following me so far? I hope so because “Soul” is just getting started.

Through a series of exhausting events Joe ends up mentoring a rebellious soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has no desire to be born. The two form a fun yet combustible duo who (thankfully) find themselves back on earth, inescapably tethered via a comic mishap. It’s here that “Soul” really finds its rhythm and begins doing what Pixar films are know for – balancing spirited animated hijinks with thoughtful themes that can resonate with all ages.

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Image Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

“Soul” comes from Peter Docter whose studio resume includes “Monsters, Inc.”, “Up”, and “Inside Out”. But he’s joined by co-director and second-in-command Kemp Powers who also wrote the script for Regina King’s upcoming directorial debut “One Night in Miami”. The impressive pair share writing credits with Mike Jones and together they create a story that hits its marks a lot more than it misses. Meanwhile Pixar’s team of animators turn in some of their best work, specifically during the New York scenes where their lighting, crisp motions, and stunning attention to detail really shines.

“Soul” is a heartfelt story about second chances and finding real purpose in your life. It’s about obsessions, mortality, and finding the true qualities that make each of us tick. The film also marks Pixar’s first feature led predominantly by black characters. “Soul” may not always reach it’s incredibly high ambitions, but I appreciate its willingness to reach high. And with its endearing characters, uplifting positivity, and snappy jazz tunes, it’s hard not to leave feeling warm and alive. “Soul” opens December 25th on Disney +.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars