IR Film Review: THE JESUS ROLLS [Screen Media]

Making a follow up to “The Big Lebowski” in any way, shape or form is an interesting quandary. Jesus Quintana, who just had a small ode in that seminal film, was seemingly a pervert who just lived to bowl and start trouble with his bowling alley competitors. While that ode 20 years ago happened in LA, this new tome, “The Jesus Rolls”, which John Turturro writes, directs and acts in, picks up Jesus getting again out of the joint 20 years later (how long he has been incarcerated we don’t know). He is picked up by his friend, played by Bobby Cannavale. From the get go, be assured that this is not “The Big Lebowski 2”. This is it’s own animal with less visual flourish, slightly darker humor to be sure and more subtle writing. Much of what Jesus and his cohorts do makes little sense but that, in short order, is part of the fun. Jesus as a character just seems to go on whatever path life takes him, despite the absurd, stealing cars, trying to have sex with women but also coming on to his best friend in Cannavale, not out of spite but just saying “you should try it!”. Whether stealing cars or staying in random people’s houses, Turturro plays the older Jesus as just a free spirit but with wrong values. Once in a while, it does elevate. What lets this work in many ways, even though her English accent is still very heavy, blossom is Audrey Tautou, the star of “Amelie” and “The DaVinci Code” who seems undeniable free as a happy, openly sexual haircutter who has never had an orgasm and doesn’t mind. She is just a free spirit in platform pink heels. Tatou is just a bright light despite Cannavale and Turturro’s characters in different ways being not the best role models. Cannavale, who has played his share of bad guys and unsavories, plays his character in many ways as an innocent which is charming in its own way and makes one think of his earlier work in films like “The Station Agent”.

The one thing that Turturro can also pull off is some good cameos though most of them are brief and just push the story along. Ones like Tim Blake Nelson and Christopher Walken as just one scene but bring a smile to your face. The most intrinsic overall is a multi-scene stint with Susan Sarandon which shows a depth and a Bull Durham angle that we haven’t seen from her in years though the resolution of the character is unusual and changes the story somewhat. Pete Davidson from SNL also shows up in a key role but again it is a fleeting character. But again that is the world that Jesus Quintana lives in. Even his mother, who has a great reveal and played by a cool actress completely fits into the story correctly. In essence though the heart still revolves back to Tatou’s character and her brightness which balances out the texture of Jesus’ smarminess which Turturro doesn’t tame down but also makes it as dimensional as he can. And yes he does bowl and he can roll.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: ONWARD [Pixar/Disney]

The creation of new stories especially from the talent at Pixar is an interesting evolving evolution. The new iterations of IP are the first per se of originals after the departure of John Lasseter. Even though his removal was warranted, and despite the presence of so many of the original creative people, there is a slight hole, however miniscule within the structure. “Onward” works well and bring in textures of mythology but within the context of a modern world. It is intrinsic but, despite the quest motif, almost seems smaller than one would expect. The story works well though maybe a slight more complicated that the usual Pixar but as always deals with some sort of loss that must be regained through the transformation and path of a character.

The story follows the texture of two brothers, one of which Ian (played by Tom Holland) is becoming a man. He lost his father before he ever knew him. Barley, his brother, (played by Chris Pratt) is a fun-loving almost D&D outsider who teases his brother but loves him in his way nonetheless. This is not our world. This is a magical world where winged horses fight over garbage like dogs and cats and homes are sometimes made of mushroom. But modernism has taken the place of magic…which of course is an apt metaphor. The brothers discover a spell that will bring their father back for one day but the initial try (because Ian hasn’t ever tried to use magic) makes it so that only the bottom half of their father is there. In order to restore them they have to find another crystal that goes in a wand to conjure up the other half. Only problem is that the resurrection spell for their father only lasts for a day.

The quest itself is fun but mostly bittersweet. Small gestures by the bottom half of the dad are so small but mean so much which is why Pixar has always been able to translate to multiple languages. Holland plays a variation on his characters that start off meek but find a small degree of confidence by the end. Pratt’s Barney seems much closer to him as a person, even with his van Guinevere, which is an ode to Pratt’s life in his early 20s when he lived in his van in Hawaii. Pratt seems to go off script a little which is great but it seems maybe the animators tried to bridge it at times.

The true magic of the quest and the connection is almost a circle as the film ends in an interesting conundrum of a loop which actually works quite well and is quite existential in a way that “Finding Nemo” was in a way. But the realization in the final moments is handled exceptionally and with poignancy that, despite any shenanigans with the brothers, comes out truly 3-dimensional and formed. “Onward” is a evolving perspective of Pixar in staying with its true mission of stories of redemption while still making it undeniably heartfelt and accessible.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE INVISIBLE MAN [Universal]

The narrative progression of an IP like “The Invisible Man” can take perspective elements on the notion of existence and what it means to be alive. In approaching it in the Blumhouse model, it forces the filmmaker to find that differing approach. Leigh Whannel, known for the SAW Franchise with James Wan, seemed to have figured out something very specific when he made “Upgrade” a couple years ago which premiered at SxSW. He spoke about the difference about having one car for a car chase instead of 10. Working with less makes you approach different things creatively. While this might seem restrictive for some filmmakers who have already made their name, it is also freeing (depending on financial responsibility on who succeeds monetarily with this frugalness).

“The Invisible Man” is much better than it has any right to be but that is because of the committed nature of Elizabeth Moss and Whannel knowing how to work with cinematic perspective for much of the movie without anything really being there…but also knowing not to pull the punches when need be. Despite any genre trappings, there is an emotional resonance with Moss. She gets tossed around but these kind of damaged personas that burgeon to a vicious streak at times make her perfect, giving her that character actor edge. She made “The Kitchen” work at points because she went for it. It is not that her character has abandon, she just fully commits to it. While some might point to an element of overacting, it is a style that works primarily well in these types of films…and Moss knows it.

One crucial point in the film, Whannel does something interesting between the trailer and the actual film which acts to a point of misdirect without even adhering to the big reveal…and it hits hard in that moment to audible gasps. The set pieces feel familiar but also original which is also helped by the fact that the story is set in San Francisco and Silicon Valley yet it was shot in Australia and near Fox Studios Sydney so it has that movie feel of being real but not quite. The continuation of what “The Invisible Man” actually is, of course, reflective of the times but doesn’t make it a matter of scolding, just a state of being. Moss’ character wants to escape an abusive relationship but it is coming to terms with both the mental and physical strain that resides in how she sees herself.

When the genre elements finally kick in, that sense of identity is nicely teetering, especially in one scene after a betrayal of sorts when she is sitting on the floor with a knife in hand staring at an empty room, ruminating on the aspect of why she specifically exists in this space. It may be exposition but it rings heartfelt which makes the next scene really take the fight to a more practical level and thereby makes it more intense. Moss again is great at these points selling them wholesale. The antagonist(s) themselves are fairly thinly drawn, but that angle of the story is not so much central as is the notion of paranoia and control which is very finely detailed.

“The Invisible Man” is an interesting reverse psychology exercise into the diatribe that permeates our times. From the opening credits that tease a noir in certain respects, this approach to the Universal Monster Universe is the correct one: lower budget, using story and acting instead of overarching effects and the essence of psychology which is what made the mid budget films of yesterday so compelling, Making something dynamic is not so much the sum of its parts, but that essence of work between the lines in that what cannot be seen often is scarier than what is right in front of you.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: GUNS AKIMBO [Saban]

The trajectory of high octane, almost video game mentality genre has its great moments. A couple years ago “Hardcore Henry” showed at Toronto Film Festival, the extreme levels from which a lot of ideas could flow. Ryan Reynolds’ upcoming “Free Guy” will appproach it from another perspective but one with more money and mainstream humor. “Guns Akimbo” is much more gritty but takes its point of view from similar approach. Daniel Radcliffe plays a mousy if not slightly passive game/code designer who trolls website with the implication that he will eventually be called on his miscredence. The overarching villain aspect of the piece is a form of Death Death Kill where opponents are set against each other in the real world trying to kill each other. The big winner is Nix, played by Samara Weaving of “Ready Or Not”, going full bore into a nightmare version of Tank Girl mixed with Harley Quinn. One can see glimpses of her uncle, Hugo Weaving in some of her viscosity. After “Ready Or Not”, this almost seems too archaic for her, though definitely powerful and comedic.

Ultimately the progression is about subverting expectations. Although some of plot twists start to play melodramatic so they can be ripped to shreds, the losses and stakes never really add up to much. The pace is fairly fast and furious. Some of the set pieces, especially a road race per se where Radcliffe can barely drive the car because guns are nailed to his hands, uniquely gratifying. These nailed hands is the main visual structure of the piece and Radcliffe embraces them as possible. When it was announced, the film was expected to played to its graphic novel beats. Radcliffe as always picks material not necessarily for the character itself but its concept within the world. Within the trinity trio of Harry Potter, he has been the one who has taken the most risks though Emma Watson has gone for bigger budget fare with varying success. The thematics here of identity and who we want to be and who we think we are definitely integrate into the story. The resolution is typical graphic novel style overload but undeniably entertaining with the set up ripe for engagement and continuation. “Guns Akimbo” is good fun with its tongue-in-cheek, a good sense of itself and a flagrant style.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: FANTASY ISLAND [Sony]

After the advent of “Lost”, the notion of the mysterious island has been tinkered with but this metaphor, this trope of genre, has been in play for quite a long time. It is about taking the mythology and turning it on his head. “Fantasy Island” was probably original thought of as a straight reboot but audiences today don’t want the essence of a fantasy when the reality strays right below. They like the allure of the fantasy but tend to want to see the comeuppance so they don’t feel so bad about the state of the world or their own life. Jason Blum through his Blumhouse banner has found a way to make his type of horror films for a budget and yet use either his burgeoning IP or other IP and transform it with exceptional effect. He got ahold of “Fantasy Island” through Sony, much like the upcoming “Invisible Man” from Universal and changed the perspective.

Without giving too much, this Fantasy Island is about granting your wishes but also showing its consequence. While this might seem like having your cake and eating it too, the film does work on the level though seemingly in a strange college frat yet strangely compelling sort of way. This is why “Happy Death Day” and especially “Happy Death Day 2U “work so well is because it takes the 80s genre of horror per se, spins it with a little creative story structure (which doesn’t work some of the time but most of the time does) and pushes it back out.

The basic structure here still has Mr. Roarke…this time played by Michael Pena versus the now passed Ricardo Montalban. There is a secret to be kept but his intention is kept barely below the surface. Most of the characters from the kid who lost his father to war to a girl bullied in high school getting her revenge to two brothers from different mothers who just want to have a good time work well within their lane and especially when the lanes tend to mix. This type of film is not trying to be rocket science and, beyond a very basic explantation, doesn’t need to say how. The one anomaly is Maggie Q who is very good at genre stuff. She is good here but because of her recognizability, the tendency of the plot tends to get a little more obvious when she is around which might have not necessarily been the best idea since she deserves an action or horror remake all her own. Overall the film though maintains its pace while getting slightly sloppy at the end because all details can ride together…but “Fantasy Island” knows its audience, still wanting to give them scares but without creeping or goring them out too much.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SONIC THE HEDGEHOG [Paramount]


Doing a video game as a movie is always a tricky proposition because milestones sometimes don’t translate to great story points. Also tone is always a meandering creature because the stakes can either get out of control or move to a point where they don’t mean anything. With “Sonic The Hedgehog”, the want to create something family friendly can create a groan factor because some of the lines sound like they were created out of a screenplay workbook. Yet the pure essence of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) works because it is schizophrenic. Now whether that played into certain aspects of story structure is not clear. Because of the way the sequences run, the Sonic bits likely had to be more under control. On the other hand Jim Carrey is the most free flowing he has been in years. Comedy seems cyclical because the type of performances he was known for in his early career is what he tried to move away from by approaching more dramatic material. In doing this role and possibly coming back for a new Ace Ventura, it shows a shift in his progression.

The reality is that he is much older so it takes likely much more energy to pull off such a performance. His timing is still undeniably there and the director obviously let him go off on riffs even in some of the major action sequences. The result is an enjoyable to a point, grating at others, adaptation of what could have been simply one note. The reality is that fairly few video game adaptations achieve what they set out to do. Some fail miserably like “Super Mario Brothers “because it overplayed the camp and threw the audience into a world that looked like a day glo explosion. A film like “Doom” with The Rock and Karl Urban had possibility but what happened i that only at one point in the movie when it becomes first person do you really feel connection to the video game. Sonic provides a basis story (flimsy as it may be) which can connect to younger audiences (replete with bad dialogue) but still offer some levity (thanks to Jim Carrey) that can work on a slightly different level. “Sonic” isn’t perfect or particularly great but being what it is, it basks in its awkward levity until the end.

C

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: BIRDS OF PREY (& The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) [Warner Brothers]

The trajectory of “Birds Of Prey (& The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn”) is visualizing the identity of Harley Quinn and her journey to become that whom she truly is. The movie tries in earnest to portray this road of discovery in Quinn’s own special way which is undeniably entertaining and edgy in its own bizarro progression. The iteration at least for the for the first 2/3rds of the film is day glow brilliance and breakneck. While creative flourishes and structure is dynamic and interesting, sometimes the style of the film intrinsically does not keep up with the pace. Robbie knows her character in and out and doesn’t shy away from the character’s faults. Quinn still loves Mr. J but he unceremoniously throws her away for undisclosed reasons. She starts acting out logically (and at times illogically) which is where most of the fun comes from. Quinn (and Robbie) knows she is a clinically trained psychiatrist who has gone bonkers and boy crazy for Mr. J so it is an interesting paradox. While her journey to find her crew is important, it is not the goal. There is peeks of tenderness and at times hurt underneath Quinn’s brilliant smile. Robbie shows peeks of it but there is not so much dramatic tendency as there could be.

When the plot takes over about 3/4s of the way through, the film veers into more standard territory where it might have been interesting to see it in a nihilistic way or a trip that only happens in Quin’s head. It is a fun ride, more dynamic and entertaining than “Suicide Squad” but still is not fully exceptional. The only issues is that at times it feels, in a weird way, like a TV movie and not a film, which is not an insult since alot of TV is cinematic but it is missing a certain kernel that would make it jump more. The other Birds Of Prey per se are very apt with Mary Elizabeth Winstead making the most impact as Huntress. Her O-Ren stylings are great but Winstead plays her less cool and more odd in a way which is a creative choice but one which could have been amped. The reality is that none of the other Birds per se can shine a candle to Harley. There is a Moulin Rouge/Madonna ode of sorts at one point which is cool considering Ewan in the scene is a direct reference to that seminal movie of 20 years ago. Ewan has a bit of fun playing the flamboyancy of his baddie character who ultimately is the Black Mask. But despite the flourishes the character is inherently one dimensional with the weight of the villain having as much structure as Sam Rockwell’s captain in “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”…fun to watch without much motivation beyond simple carnage. Even Tyler Durden had an ethos.

Ultimately “Birds Of Prey” wraps around to the true nature of Harley Quinn which a loner with a soft spot who likes to get in trouble. At one point, she steals a gas filled truck drunk and runs it into Axis Chemicals. It is a multi tiered point both freeing, tragic, nihilistic and wonderfully lurid which is all the aspects that Harley Quinn should be. Even though it runs at throttle those at this and other points, the film reaches its zenith only rarely but not as a full fledged blow out.

B-

By Tim Wassber