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Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A big idea will take you farther than a big budget. That was the lesson of last year’s “Get Out” and, on a somewhat more modest scale, of the creepily claustrophobic “A Quiet Place.”

Co-written and directed by John Krasinski, who stars with real-life wife Emily Blunt, “Quiet…” is an intimate post-apocalyptic tale that examines the dynamic of a besieged family. It was made with limited resources; happily talent was not one of the rationed goods.

We first meet the clan — I don’t believe their names are ever mentioned — as they quietly pillage through the remains of an abandoned town.  Emphasize the “quietly” part.

Some sort of alien invasion or government experiment gone bad has unleashed nasty spider-like creatures (we don’t get a good look at them until late in the proceedings) who have an insatiable appetite for mammalian blood.  Only three months after these creatures made their appearance, the human race is teetering on the edge of extinction.

This particular family — Mom (Blunt), Dad (Krasinski), Big Sister (Millicent Simmonds) and Little Brother (Noah Jupe) —  have survived in large part because Big Sister is hearing impaired and the other family members are fluent in sign language. They are able to silently communicate with their hands (what conversation the film offers is rendered in subtitles) and this has allowed them to elude the marauding invaders, who are sightless but have  a finely developed sense of hearing.

After a jarring prologue we find the characters living on a farm, spending much of their time in a basement bunker. They don’t wear shoes (bare feet make less noise) and move with slow deliberation.  They have laid paths of sand around the farmstead…sand absorbs the sound of footsteps. Continue Reading »

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John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz

“BLOCKERS” My rating: C+

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A bit of Apatow lite with a heavy load of raunch, “Blockers” mixes parental paranoia and adolescent randiness.  Despite a few flat passages, it mostly works…which is to say it’ll make you laugh even if you’re ashamed to.

This feature directing debut from veteran comedy writer/producer Kay Cannon (the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, “30 Rock,” “New Girl”) centers on a trio of hovering parents who discover that their three adored daughters have signed a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

The film’s title (the script is by Brian and Jim Kehoe) is short for “cock blockers,” and that bit of information says a good deal about the sort of lurid laughs audiences can expect.

Mitchell (John Cena), Lisa (Leslie Mann) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) meet while dropping their daughters off for the first day of  elementary school.  The little girls bond almost immediately.

More than a decade later the three young ladies are facing high school graduation as virgins…and decide to do something about it. When the parental units intercept texts and emails detailing the planned deflorations, the oldsters go into full anxious mode and set out to prevent any such sexual encounters.

Continue Reading »

“1945” My rating: B

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The two men who get off the train outside a rural Hungarian town hardly seem threatening.

The older fellow has the white beard and black hat and coat of a pious Jew.  His younger companion (his son?) is also clad in black.

With the help of a porter they unload two crates — they look like small caskets — off the baggage car and onto a horse-drawn cart for the silent hour-long walk to town.

Nothing particularly threatening or suspicious about the pair, yet their presence sets off moral convulsions throughout the community.

Nobody is more wary than the town clerk, Istvan (Peter Rudolf), a mover and shaker preparing for the wedding that day of his not-particularly-impressive only son to a local peasant girl. His joy over the festivities is short-lived.

What gives? Continue Reading »

“ISLE OF DOGS” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

So much is going on in Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it.

Perhaps it’s best to let our eyes do all the work, for this is one astoundingly beautiful animated film.

Shot with the same stop-motion techniques as Anderson’s earlier effort, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” this new entry employs the filmmaker’s usual deadpan humor with gorgeous Japanense-inspired designs and a yarn about human/canine relations.

It’s part sci-fi, part “Old Yeller.”

In an introductory segment designed to look like Japanense screens and woodcuts and propelled by throbbing Japanese drumming, an unseen narrator (Courtney B.  Vance) relates how, after an outbreak of “dog flu” and “snout fever,” all canines in the city were banished by the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi, head of the ruling Kobayashi clan.

The dogs were transported to an island of trash off the coast where they learned to dig through the refuse for sustenance.

But not all humans are anti-dog.  A few still long for the days of “man’s best friend”; a pro-pup scientist is even developing a cure for dog flu.

The plot proper (the screenplay is by Anderson, who developed the story with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura) kicks in with the arrival of Atari, the ward of the Mayor who has stolen a plane and crash landed on the Isle of Dogs in search of Spots, his beloved guard dog, who was torn from him by the canine exodus.

The boy immediately teams up with a quartet of puzzled pooches (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) and the suspicious Chief (Bryan Cranston), who understandably nurses a bad case of anti-human sentiment. Continue Reading »

Nicki Micheaux, Ricardo Adam Zarate

“LOWLIFE”  My rating: B- 

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

Less interesting on a scene-by-scene basis than for its novel narrative arc, the aptly-titled “Lowlife” finds a surprisingly interesting way of telling a sleazy story.

The real star of director Ryan Prows’ feature debut is the screenplay by a small army of scribes (Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, Maxwell Michael Towson and Prows) who seem to have taken as their template the time-twisting format of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

Basically we have three interlocking stories, told one after another, and all taking place on the same day and featuring the same characters.

It’s sort of like an Alan Ayckbourn play…say, “The Norman Conquests” trilogy, which offered three plays unfolding at the same time in different rooms of the same house.

In the first segment, “Monsters,” we are introduced to Los Angeles lowlife Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham), who beneath his tacky taco restaurant maintains a subterranean chamber of horrors where illegal aliens are dissected for their organs or impressed into sexual slavery.

Teddys’ enforcer is El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), who never removes the red luchador mask once worn by his late father, a wrestler who still has superhero status in the Hispanic community.  The current El Monstruo is a bit like the Hulk…he’s light on brain and big on brawn, and when angered goes into a murderous rage, blacking out and awakening amidst corpses and destruction.

But he has a soft spot for his unborn son, the next El Monstruo, who is currently in the belly of Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), his wife and Teddy’s adopted daughter.

The second episode, “Fiends,” is told mostly from the perspective of Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the operator of a beat-up motel where much of the action takes place. Crystal’s husband Dan (King Orba) is dying of kidney disease; Teddy has convinced her that he can provide a fresh organ donated by the daughter she and Dan gave up for adoption years before, when they were dope fiends. Continue Reading »

Maryana Spivak

“LOVELESS” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As if his Oscar-winning “Leviathan” didn’t take enough of  a withering look at contemporary Russia, writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev now gives us “Loveless,” a film that lives up to its name in more ways than one.

It begins with 12-year-old Alyosha (Matey Novikov ) wandering through a forested park on his way home from school.  He’s in no hurry, and once we get to the apartment where he lives we can see why.

His parents, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), are in the last spasms of a hateful breakup.  Both have new lovers, and neither wants to see his/her style cramped by the presence of a pre-teen — especially one described by his own mother as “constantly whining.”

Of course, we can’t blame the kid for weeping in the privacy of his room, from which he can hear his parents discussing his future: first boarding school, then the army.  At least that way they won’t have to worry about taking heat from social workers.

As for their son:  “He’ll get used to it.”

What kind of people are these?  Well, that’s the questions “Loveless” addresses, even if definitive answers aren’t forthcoming.  One thing soon becomes clear…this isn’t young Alyosha’s story. He’s a peripheral player,  absent for most of the film.

Instead we follow Boris to his place of employment, a corporation run by a Christian fundamentalist who demands that his male employees all be family men — one desk jockey grimly jokes that the place operates under “Russian Orthodox Sharia law.”

We discover that Boris has impregnated his girlfriend (she’s young, insecure, and no doubt would feel threatened having Alyosha about).  Zhenya, meanwhile, is seeing a slightly older man who, if his apartment is any indication, is working his way up Russia’s oligarchical ladder.

These two are so absorbed with their own pursuits and pleasures that some time passes  before they realize that their son is missing. His teacher reports he hasn’t come to class for two days.

Continue Reading »

“READY PLAYER ONE” My rating: B
140 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

That most films based on video games suck mightily should come as no surprise…video games are all about dishing visceral thrills, not building dramatic momentum or developing characters.

This is why Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a remarkable achievement. Instead of attempting to wrestle the video gaming experience into a standard dramatic format, this surprisingly entertaining entry is really just one long video game, albeit a game with so much pop-culture name dropping that geeks will spend countless hours documenting all the visual and aural references.

Think “Tron” to the nth degree.

Don’t go looking for the usual plot developments or relatable characters. The strength of  “Ready Player One” lies in its ability to create an totally plausible fantasy world that operates by its own rules.  At times the audience’s immersion in this universe is total and totally transporting.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) unfolds in the year 2045.  Economic and environmental disasters have left the working class chronically unemployed.  They live in “stacks,”  mini-high rises made of mobile homes resting on metal frameworks. In this world video games are the opiate of the masses — when they’re not eating, sleeping or taking bathroom breaks, the citizenry are experiencing virtual realities through 3-D goggles.

This is the world of Wade (Ty Sheridan of “Mud,” “Joe” and the X-Men franchise), a shy teen whose on-line avatar is the game-savvy Parzival.  Wade/Parzival is a devotee of The Oasis, a massive video game developed by the late programming guru Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks) and so complex and challenging that in the years since its inception no player has come close to beating it. But millions log in daily in an attempt to find three hidden keys that will unlock Halliday’s fantasy world and grant the winner ownership of the unimaginably wealthy Oasis empire.

The challenge attracts not just individual gamers like Parzifal and on-line buddies like the hulking giant Aech or the samurai warrior Daito.  The IOI corporation and its Machiavellian director Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) has its own army of players who compete for the prize.   The person — or business — that solves the game’s many puzzles will in effect become one of Earth’s dominant forces.

Continue Reading »