I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Naomi Ackie stuns in this biopic about Whitney Houston, and the movie makes a strong case for why she was the greatest singing voice of her generation. It highlights Whitney’s accomplishments, shortcomings, and struggles with glamour, empathy and care, but the editing seems to occasionally bring Ackie’s performance down and while the characters and performances are strong, the script is so cliche it almost feels like it’s checking off boxes as it goes. The music biopic tropes are almost all there, whether it be the way the movie portrays the sudden rise to fame, abusive marriage, addiction, controlling father — it’s the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect but with a different soundtrack. The way the movie goes through these cliches feels almost like the way the parodical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story would’ve been written, and the editing often glosses past important story points and doesn’t let the beautiful musical sequences breathe and play out without frequent montage-like editing during the songs. Cinematograper Barry Ackroyd of the Bourne movies, The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips, and Bombshell isn’t enjoying using a tripod too much and often shifts between handheld and still shots mid-scene which occasionally distracts.

In addition to Ackie’s breathtaking work, changing Houston’s mannerisms as she takes us from her teen years to the end of her life, Stanley Tucci is excellent as her manager Clive Davis, who in a nice change of pace from most biopics, isn’t the greedy asshole who takes advantage of the star, but a kind counselor and a devoted friend to Whitney. Ashton Sanders does a strong job as her husband Bobby Brown, as well as Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters as her parents. Seeing Whitney’s process in creating her songs is also very satisfying, as well as her struggles with drugs and her music being called “not black enough” by critics of her music. Though it’s easier to follow than this year’s Elvis and has fun sequences for fans of Whitney’s music, with a star-making work from Naomi Ackie, but the script in the latter half could’ve been much stronger, as well as the runtime which drags later on and could’ve trimmed 10-20 minutes.

Avatar: The Way of Water

Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, learn the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.

James Cameron created a monumental landmark in visual entertainment and epic storytelling with Avatar. A sequel so many years later with so much promise to top the first would send too impossible to be real, but The Way of Water manages to deliver that same ambition felt in every shot of the first film and then some. Years were spent to create new technology to film motion-capture scenes underwater, and I’m glad Cameron spent all the time he needed to get it right because the term “out of this world” has never fit more for anything else. The plot beats in the first hour are familiar, but everything from there onwards is breathtaking, grand, and mesmerizing to the eye. The underwater scenes are some of the most visceral visual cinema I’ve ever seen, with the detail and realism allows you to completely suspend disbelief as you feel you’re actually on Pandora. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are great in their roles again, and the script this time beautifully captures the depth of a parent’s love for their child. Sigourney Weaver returns not as the same character but in a different and inventive way. Jake and Neytiri’s children are as complex and poetic characters as their parents who carry across the story’s themes such as empathy, uniqueness, and selflessness.

Cameron manages to somehow expand on the scale of Pandora and this fictional universe that millions of audiences were already in love with, while finding the intimate moments beneath all the colorful CGI that often stick out and resonate. The cast ensemble may not be Lord of the Rings-level of memorable yet, but the world-building and storytelling certainly is. Not to mention, the love Cameron creates between the audience and the oceans of Pandora may hopefully bring attention to the way corporations and human actions deplete our oceans here at home, and the way of water the title refers to is the beauty of nature that our ancestors knew so purely that can give life and consume those who don’t respect it. The overall narrative has familiar beats but the emotion is heartfelt and thrilling, and the atmosphere and aesthetics are a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has to be seen on the biggest screen you can seek out and in 3D — I’d recommend IMAX 3D, which is how I saw it. Avatar: The Way of Water may have the lesser story of the two Avatar films, but it has a sensational awe and grandeur to its fusion of images, score, and weight that invites you to not only enjoy, but experience, behold, and never want to leave the forests and oceans of Pandora.

Strange World

The legendary Clades are a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission.

Strange World is incredibly visually vibrant, which is never an aspect Disney misses in, not to mention director Don Hall’s outstanding track record at Disney in the past with Big Hero 6 and Raya and the Last Dragon. The imaginative color palette in the titular world the Clade family journeys through is engaging and surprising, even when the story material feels a little hollow. Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect as the lead role Searcher Clade, and it feels long overdue for him to join the Disney animation family. His voice has an incredible likability and he delivers the balance between “frustrating (but devoted) dad”, “frustrated/traumatized son” and “reluctant adventurer” really well. Dennis Quaid, Jakoubie Young-White, and Gabrielle Union are all having plenty of fun in the recording booths as well as a dysfunctional family that all want to just get along and enjoy each other’s company, though the grandpa and legendary explorer Jaegar Clade (voiced by Quaid) has other priorities and is overly consumed with his duties to his pride and explorations. Though the style is always visually inviting, the substance behind the conflict doesn’t always click until the end, and the characters’ relationships are way more interesting than the action itself. The style believes it’s being very nostalgic, presenting itself as a tribute to pulp magazines, but it actually looks and feels very modern. Though the film is quite heartfelt due to the characters it develops, the actual themes of familial expectations have been done plenty in recent animated films, most notably in Encanto and Turning Red that are still fresh in all our memories. There are instances where it tries to even become self-aware of the cliches its indulging in, which simply makes it even more awkward. On the positive side, the movie has Disney’s most prominent representation of an LGBTQ main character in one of their animated films, which is a celebratory step forward for family films on the big screen. Gyllenhaal’s voice performance is outstanding, backed by heartfelt supporting characters, and the animation gives the film lots of energy, but not enough to rank it among other adventures from the modern era of the studio like Zootopia or Wreck-It Ralph, though it’s still sweet and a decent one-time watch for families.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

As the Wakandans strive to embrace their next chapter in the wake of King T’Challa’s death, Queen Ramonda, Shuri, M’Baku, Okoye and the Dora Milaje must band together with Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover and a War Dog spy, and CIA agent Everett Ross to forge a new path for their beloved kingdom.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had to decide how to face two immense challenges — following up a cultural phenomenon and one of the most popular and resonant movies in recent years, and doing it without its magnificent lead, Chadwick Boseman. The effortless charisma and commanding dignity Boseman brought with him are absolutely missed in this sequel, yet writer-director Ryan Coogler decided to use his loss to give the film a complex gravity and message about grief, legacy and moving forward. Not only does Coogler use the sequel to expand the scale from the first film into a glove-trotting political fantastical battle, but also as a means to explore new stylistic grounds, feeling more director-focused than any Marvel movie in a while.

The visuals and action manage to even outdo the excellent and versatile fights from the first film, and the pace is much more graceful than the tighter pacing of other MCU films from this year. The music by Ludwig Goransson has a language of its own, always surprising, entertaining, and hitting you hard. Goransson uses African, Latin, and electronic bases in order to create a score that builds off the one from the first. The cinematography is more intimate than in the last film, with the camera sometimes closer to the characters or letting the visuals feel more seamless rather than showy. The movie addresses our feelings of sadness about losing Boseman and T’Challa through the characters, but doesn’t linger in it or feel stuck in the past. Speaking of the characters, Letitia Wright is great as Shuri, who is forced to mature quickly after what she’s had to cope with here, but it feels like this entire world of Wakandans, even the lovable side character of M’Baku, is growing and getting wiser with time. Angela Bassett delivers a ferocious performance as Ramonda, and honestly some of the best acting this entire Marvel franchise has seen. Dominique Thorne also shines as a cheerful, lovable presence she conveys through Riri Williams. Lupita Nyong’o also provides warmth and elegance as Nakia, though Martin Freeman’s return isn’t exactly necessary and his role in the plot could’ve been combined with Nyong’o’s character. Now, how does one follow up a villain as resonant and scene-stealing as Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant Killmonger? With Namor, Tenoch Huerta delivers a kindness we haven’t seen in many villains before, while clearly being violent and vengeful in his methods while showing warmth and empathy towards his people. He makes Namor a memorable character whose backstory’s execution isn’t the most hard-hitting but whose developments are always interesting.

This movie is the most sophisticated work Marvel’s done in a while, distancing itself from reminders of the bigger universe and allowing Coogler and crew’s creativity run free and deliver spectacle that feels consequential and really sinks in. It’s refreshing to feel like a Marvel movie isn’t constantly working to check off boxes to set up a bigger universe and pander to the widest action movie fanbase possible — after all, the first Black Panther was all about making stories about POCs no longer niche. While the messages may not be as revelatory as in its predecessor, it’s a film that rivals the first in ambition and weight. Perhaps it resonates so well because we all feel like a world with Wakanda is an infinitely better one, and a world without its late hero is one that’s infinitely worse. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever demands your eyes on the big screen and an open heart, with the performances and style creating an action adventure with gripping and soulful humanity.

Black Adam

After using his powers for vengeance, the mortal slave Teth-Adam was imprisoned by the gods and trapped for centuries, becoming Black Adam. Nearly 5,000 years later, Black Adam is freed and finds his unique form of justice challenged by the Justice Society of America (JSA).

If you’re familiar with the kind of blockbusters Dwayne Johnson is often a part of, this is no different — an action movie that tries to be as crowd pleasing as possible with as little brain energy as possible. And it’s very middle-of-the-road for his filmography — it’s not as fun as the Jumanji or Fast & Furious films but not as embarrassingly bad as Skyscraper or Baywatch, so right there in the middle with forgettable spectacle like San Andreas, Red Notice and Jungle Cruise. Johnson delivers a solid performance as Black Adam, whose humor this time around comes more from Adam’s “fish out of water” aspect. However, his character’s actual development in order to justify him turning into a more rageful anti-hero is pretty uninteresting and it says a lot that all four members of the Justice Society have no backstory or arc but are far more interesting than him. Aldis Hodge shows off his badassery as Hawkman, going toe-to-toe with Johnson and even managing to steal the show from him, along with Pierce Brosnan, who is also great as Doctor Fate, whose powers and presence are intriguing. Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are also entertaining as the other two members of the JSA. Unfortunately, the movie is brought down by a bloated conflict, weak CGI and a script you’ve seen a thousand times before. The rapid editing of action scenes takes away lots of the grandiose, even when Black Adam fighting the JSA starts off fun. By the third act, it descends completely into a forced “good guy vs bad guy” CGI-fest of action that feels pulled straight out of Justice League. Though the style manages to occasionally have fun, it’s got too many elements working against it, whether it be the editing, Marwan Kenzari’s awful character, the lack of thematic clarity, or a willingness to take itself less seriously than it should.

Black Adam serves loud noise and huge action scenes — exactly what The Rock is known for — but unfortunately nothing more. The solid supporting cast and occasionally entertaining action and scale isn’t enough to save this movie from descending into generic chaos.

Ticket to Paradise

Two divorced parents, David and Georgia Cotton, travel to Bali after learning that their daughter, Lily, is planning to marry a man named Gede, whom she has just met. They decide to work together to sabotage the wedding to prevent Lily from making the same mistake they made twenty-five years ago.

Ticket to Paradise is a welcome reunion for two legendary stars, George Clooney and Julia Roberts, years after they worked on the Ocean’s films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Money Monster together. They elevate a film that occasionally threatens to fall into generic territory by breathing fun and charm into the film, even when they’re ripping each other to bits with insults. Clooney’s performance is certainly the glue here, as he embraces his comedic chops and his character often pokes fun at himself while being grumpy and over-the-top. Speaking of reunions, fans of Booksmart will love to see Kaitlyn Dever and Billie Lourd sharing the screen again — Dever is great as their daughter Lily, and Billie Lourd is a scene-stealer as her best friend Wren, a character that the plot maybe could’ve done without but when Lourd is so entertaining, the movie suddenly feels infinitely more upbeat with her in it.

The movie can sometimes fall into cheesy territory especially with some obviously scripted lines and an exaggerated ending, as well as some unclear themes about who is more right about what, but it never sinks the film’s heart and sweetness. It’s a film that means to charm and show the nature of flawed parents getting over their own immaturities while loving their daughter, and when the parents are played by two of the most charismatic people in the world, you’ve got yourself a winning film. Though it’s nothing you’ll be urged to watch more than once, or even the best comedy out right now, given how much more memorable and hysterical Bros is, Ticket to Paradise is certainly a harmless and heartfelt good time, especially for today’s rom-com standards, with laughs, vacation-y settings, and charming performances.

Bros

Bobby Lieber (Billy Eichner), a podcast host and museum curator creating the world’s first LGBTQ museum, attempts a relationship with lawyer Aaron — but they must overcome their commitment problems first.

Not only is it celebratory for a major studio to release a gay rom-com, but it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie about the LGBTQ community that isn’t gloomy or traumatizing but rather entertaining and optimistic. Through through the museum Lieber is creating, the movie is very much about embracing the queer community and undoing the centuries of history that’s been erased. Though Bros rejects the idea that gay and straight relationships are exactly the same by having its lead character claim that “Love is not love!”, as gay male relationships have their own nuances and issues, the romance will be gripping for all audience. But just as important as its representation is the fact that it’s fun, uplifting and hysterical.

Billy Eichner is a fantastic leading man who’s loving yet stubborn nature comes off as warm as it does occasionally frustrating to see him stumble and figure out his way. Eichner, who also co-wrote the movie with director Nicholas Stoller, gives even the side characters their place to shine and make the audience laugh. There’s some incredibly funny moments that will stick with you and come to mind whenever you think of this movie, and lines that are too good to spoil but are worth the laughs in a theater with an audience. Luke Macfarlane is also a breakout star and is endearing as the more “macho” gay man as opposed to Eichner’s “flamboyant”-labeled character, but as the movie mentions, the queer community is not a monolith and the film embraces lesbian, gay. bisexual, and trans characters, including those of color, in its supporting cast. Though the plot occasionally lacks direction, and it may be a few minutes too long, it’s the dialogue and humor that keeps the audience engaged, and the romance that more than gets the audience to root for the leads that grounds the whole film.

As a comedy, Bros will give you stomach-inducing laughs, and as a romance, it’s more than sweet. It’s the positive celebration of diversity that audiences, both queer and straight, will feel uplifted by, and enjoy the sweetness, silliness, and raunchiness the film has to offer.

The Woman King

The Woman King historical epic inspired by the true events that happened in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Viola Davis makes every performance of hers seem effortless, and her role as General Nanisca of the Agoije, the Dahomey’s all-female group of warriors who defend the Kingdom, is no exception. Davis portrays the titular character as a fighter with a tough exterior who eventually peels back layers to reveal pain she must defend herself from through physical and emotional strength. Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch are both outstanding, Mbedu as a new recruit who must grow into a courageous fighter, and Lynch as a commander who gives it her all into the role physically and makes you care so much about her character.

The action is staged very well and is surprisingly strong for a PG-13 rating, but it’s never distractingly holding back from showing violence either, though nothing is disturbing here. The grandeur of the costumes and sets makes the atmosphere work so well, and the film benefits from a spectacular score from Terence Blanchard, who should at least get nominated for an Oscar. Though the film does occasionally slow down between the powerful moments, the last act especially is the most exciting, investing and empowering and elevates the entire movie. It’s a great popcorn action film but also a showcase of amazing production and performances that’s built for the big screen.

Nope

OJ and Emerald Haywood are siblings who own a ranch in a lonely gulch of inland California, where they train and handle horses for movie and TV productions. Soon, they bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery. 

To call Jordan Peele a unique filmmaker of our time would be an understatement — he’s blended genres and used them to incorporate thoughtful social commentary into the most mainstream popcorn entertainment, all while giving audiences films that can satisfy, challenge, and entertain. Nope is no different. It’s a science fiction-horror-thriller-comedy with a modern infusion of likable characters and borderline surrealist world-building, and Peele’s filmmaking is at the level of the most respected auteurs like Stanley Kubrick. It’s got moments of shock, laughter, brutality, and terrifying humanity that adds so much astonishment to a film that starts with what could’ve been an overused premise in anyone’s else hands. Daniel Kaluuya has evolved into a modern film star of his generation — though he’s starred in Black Panther and won an Oscar for Judas and the Black Messiah, it was Peele’s debut Get Out that guaranteed his stardom. He’s a master at being funny but showing a character confront with real and inner “demons” in a silent way but always being a fun character too. Keke Palmer has a contagious, bubbly energy and I’m sure the entire cast and crew had plenty of laughs due to her fantastic delivery of her lines that often sneaks up on you in hysterical ways. But she’s also a genuine hero, not to mention Steven Yeun and Brandon Perea who are scene stealers.

Peele’s style always challenges genre, structure, and how the audience expects to react to things. His stylistic energy in Nope invokes eyes staring in awe, jaws dropping, and mouths smiling all at once. Due to this, Nope transcends accessibility for fans of horror, and is a top-notch film for all fans of big-screen spectacle, because it never settles for just being a horror movie. In it’s own way, Nope is a piece of art, that’s not meant to give you easy answers or leave you comfortable. Like Peele’s last movie Us, there’s so much to debunk as the thematic elements often drive the filmmaking in his movies. This one addresses many things, but among it, humanity’s flocking to images chaos and danger, and our obsession with getting as close to death and trauma as we can while wanting to arrogantly cheat the effects they may have on us, should our endeavors to harness danger go wrong. The movie is also a tribute to filmmakers and crew members in positions we don’t often acknowledge, and the achievements of black contributions to cinema that aren’t always celebrated. In a way, Peele uses this movie to celebrate the invention of cinema but also warn about our roles as audience members and monetizers of content that’s both real and adapted from truth. With it, he creates the most daring and awe-inspiring summer blockbuster possible that I’m sure will inspire many to create and challenge the world of films the way he has.

A Quiet Place Part II

Following the events of the predecessor, the Abbott family now face the terrors of the outside world. With both A Quiet Place and its sequel that’s now playing in theaters everywhere, John Krasinski has proven himself to be not only an awesome actor but a master filmmaker. It worries me whenever a studio greenlights a sequel to a great film that stands alone perfectly, but A Quiet Place Part II is one of the rare occasions where the sequel lives up the original, and not only that, but along with that 2018 film, is one of the best horror/thrillers of recent years. A lot of it is thanks to Krasinski’s direction and the style which made the concept and storytelling of the first film so memorable. The opening sequence is nail-biting and even though the violence is kept at a PG-13 level, the film knows where and how to scare most effectively with showing and not showing certain things. For example, we see scenes from characters’ perspectives so the aliens and action aren’t always in the frame but sometimes in the background. The cinematography and editing are great as well, but it’s the sound editing that makes the movie. It’s the small noises that make you terrified for the characters as they try to survive among creatures who can track them based on any small noise from a distance, and the sound creates its own tension without a single jump scare. The loud sound effects of the monsters contrast this excellently and make this a terrific theater experience.

Emily Blunt may be at her best in this series as a mother trying to protect her kids, including a newborn, from otherworldly threats that are a family’s worst nightmare. Cillian Murphy is also excellent as a new addition to the cast, a cynical, hopeless survivor who is changed by his time with the Abbott family. Millicent Simmonds, the deaf actress who plays the deaf daughter in the film, may be the film’s heroine as she takes on challenges courageously and delivers a stellar performance, with not only some of the most positive deaf representation I’ve ever seen in film but all around a brilliant actor and lead role. Noah Jupe, who plays the son/brother, is again excellent, and he’s proven himself with these films as well as his magnificent roles in 2019’s Ford v Ferrari and Honey Boy. And even with just a cameo, Krasinski himself makes his presence felt throughout the film, passing the courage and good-ness of his character from the last film into his children and the world of the movie. Beyond the brilliant scares, which are only strengthened by techniques such as cross-cutting that Krasinski marvelously uses to make scenes more powerful and symbolic, the film retains the heart that made its predecessor so emotional — in every frame and line, this is a movie about a monster apocalypse, but also about parenthood, family, human survival, and hope. And one can’t help but think that with a family taking back their world by venturing back into the unknown and fighting back against the apocalypse, it’s a perfect film to represent our return to theaters. I, for one, had not been to the theaters since Tenet last August, when some screens briefly reopened, and this is an impeccable choice to return to the big screen with for the thrills, sound, and amazing effects and story that will more than satisfy those who know what they’re in for, and for the shared experience we’ve been longing to have back and can finally experience for a new blockbuster once again.

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