Film Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 18 | Buzz Blog
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Film Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 18

Blue Beetle, Passages, Strays, Landscape With Invisible Hand, The Monkey King and more


  • Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Blue Beetle
birth/rebirth **1/2
There’s a potent piece of psychological horror swirling around somewhere in the story concocted by director/co-writer Laura Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien, but a fundamental chilliness in the filmmaking turns into an obstacle to that potential. In a Bronx hospital, nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) faces the ultimate tragedy when her 6-year-old daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) dies from an acute case of meningitis. But in that same hospital works a pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland), whose clandestine experiments could offer an impossible hope for bringing back the dead. The notion of applying a Frankenstein narrative to parental grief is hardly groundbreaking—Stephen King’s Pet Sematary being just one devastating example—but Moss and O’Brien do find some interesting territory in the clashing personalities of the clinician Rose and the caregiver Celie, and how their shared circumstance results in a kind of crossover in their behavior. It often feels, though, that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what to do with the reanimated Lila as a creepy threat, or how to mine their premise for all its body-horror possibilities. Most frustrating, despite the solid performances by the two leads, the emotions behind their behavior don’t end up driving the narrative as much as the idea of a ticking clock for the materials needed to keep Lila alive. The result is slick and occasionally satisfying, but one that misses the mark on finding the real terror in what grief can inspire someone to do. Available Aug. 18 in theaters. (R)

Blue Beetle ***
Over the past 15 years, some of the most satisfying filmed narratives involving DC Comics characters have been the early seasons of the “Arrowverse” TV series The Flash and Supergirl, and this feature follows a similar playbook of earnest emotion and playful storytelling. Xolo Maridueña plays Jaime Reyes, a recent college graduate whose return home to his family gets complicated when he comes into the possession of a scarab housing a sentient, symbiotic alien technology—or, more to the point as Jaime's reluctant superhero-dom is concerned, the scarab comes into possession of him. Along the way, Jaime comes into conflict with a high-tech CEO (Susan Sarandon) who wants to exploit the technology for military purposes, and the resulting dynamics do make Blue Beetle feel a little like an experiment in fusing Iron Man with Venom. But the screenplay Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer emphasizes the relationship between Jaime and his family members in a way that feels authentic, rather than someone just mouthing the word “family” every 10 minutes like a Fast & Furious entry. And director Angel Manuel Soto has plenty of fun with both the character interactions and this action beats, even as the story starts packing a little welcome attitude about the exploitation of brown people, and a willingness to have Jaime’s Uncle Rudy (George Lopez) assert “Batman is a fascist.” In a way, it feels like a pilot for a DC TV show—and in this case, that’s a compliment. Available Aug. 18 in theaters. (PG-13)

Landscape With Invisible Hand **1/2
With a title including the phrase “invisible hand” and a main character named Adam (though not Smith), it’s fairly clear that writer/director Cory Finley’s adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s novel is an allegory about economics—but at least in its cinematic form, it bounces to too many different variations on that theme. The story is set in 2036 America, five years after an alien race called the “vuvv” appeared, providing technology that made many jobs obsolete and radically shifted the economic realities for families like that of high-schooler Adam (Asante Blackk), who take in as boarders the family of his classmate/eventual girlfriend Chloe (Kylie Rogers). Finley uses many of the book’s more intriguing concepts, like Adam and Chloe turning their courtship into entertainment for the vuvvs’ anthropological curiosity, a notion that wrestles with the inherent falseness of people who monetize their online personas. But he also shifts several subplots to add more layers to the question of how people are affected by economic inequity, folding gender and race into a story that’s already dealing with matters including an unfair justice system, the stresses on family cohesiveness and the role of artists in pushing for change. The performances always feel subservient to the needs of the plot, and the plot keeps trying out new ideas, as though always trying to stay ahead of every anticipated “but what about …” for any story trying to tackle broken late-stage capitalism. Available Aug. 18 in theaters. (R)

Miguel Wants to Fight **1/2
Narrative efficiency is one thing; it’s another when a story barely has enough time to build a viewer’s investment. Co-screenwriters Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion (creator and staff writer, respectively, for the Freevee series Primo) introduce Miguel Perez (Tyler Dean Flores), a Syracuse, N.Y. high-school senior devoted to action movies and hanging out with his best friends David (Christian Vunipola), Cass (Imani Lewis) and Srini (Suraj Partha). But when he learns that his parents are planning to move, Miguel becomes determined to do one thing he’s never done before: get in an actual fight. Director Oz Rodriguez plays around visually with the genres Miguel fantasizes about for his own theoretical battle—ranging from Bruce Lee kung-fu flicks to anime—and the appealing young cast members give a snap to dialogue that is refreshingly not PG-13’d down. The problem is that the character stuff the writers want to include—like Miguel’s sense that his boxer father (Raúl Castillo) doesn’t respect him, or David’s feelings about his own deceased ex-fighter dad—have to jockey for time with all the goofier stuff in a movie that runs just 71 minutes before the credits start to roll. It’s a pleasant enough diversion at times, but ends up too thin to be more than a low-budget spin on Scott Pilgrim. Available Aug. 16 via Hulu. (R)

The Monkey King **
Remember the “DreamWorks face”—that ubiquitous expression of eyebrow-cocked insouciance that once filled posters and other marketing materials for CGI animated features? In adapting an ancient Chinese legend, it feels like the filmmakers behind The Monkey King had as a primary goal the creation of a walking, trash-talking manifestation of "DreamWorks face" energy. It’s the tale of the titular monkey (Jimmy O. Yang), fallen to earth in a rock, whose sense of rejection and isolation leads him to ever-more-extreme actions for proving his worth, including capturing a magical stick from the underwater Dragon King (Bowen Yang). His only potential companion: a young girl named Lin (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), who offers to become his assistant. Director Anthony Stacchi (The Boxtrolls) oversees an energetic production that almost never stops moving, full of whirling-dervish action, fantastical settings and even the occasional musical production number, and finds some fun in Bowen Yang’s voice performance of purring, preening villainy. But while the narrative tries to wrestle some genuine emotion from the idea of how individuals can behave badly out of a desperate need for acceptance, the relationship between Monkey and Lin just never hits a sweet spot, in part because the writers don’t seem to know how to take Monkey from center of an allegorical myth to full-fledged character. As we await the arrival of a literal deus ex machina, our protagonist remains a mere representation of arrogance in need of humbling—or, in other words, needing to have that DreamWorks wiped off of his face. Available Aug. 18 via Netflix. (PG)

Passages ***1/2
See feature review. Available Aug. 18 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NC-17)

Strays **1/2
If you’re going to season your raunchy, R-rated comedy liberally with emotional sincerity—as soooo many raunchy, R-rated comedies seem determined to do in the 21st century—it would help if that emotional sincerity didn’t feel cribbed from a much better version of the same idea. Here we find the tale of Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), a scroungy mutt who’s abandoned by his horrible owner Doug (Will Forte) miles from home, then teams up with a trio of other dogs—Bug (Jamie Foxx), Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park)—to find his way back to Doug for a little revenge. As a comedy, Dan Perrault’s script too rarely finds actual creative humor beyond references to dogs humping things, pee-pee/poo-poo humor and assuming it’s inherently funny to hear a string of f-bombs digitally mouthed by a dog (which, sue me, it kind of is). It’s actually a bit more successful once it’s clear that this is a story about recognizing when you’re in an abusive relationship, except that it gets sidetracked a bit by Bug’s backstory of heartbreak, which might as well have been scored to Toy Story 2’s “When She Loved Me.” It’s a goofy enough time-killer with a handful of guffaws, but this is a high concept convinced it can get you in your feelings, when maybe you’re just there to laugh at a Boston terrier saying “fuck.” Available Aug. 18 in theaters. (R)