Cinematic Spillover: Short Reviews of Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, The Farewell, Astronaut and More 

click to enlarge KIKO MARTINEZ
  • Kiko Martinez

Here are a few short reviews of movies that will be released at San Antonio theaters or on VOD platforms July 26. Also, we’ll take a look at one VOD release from earlier this week, and one theatrical release we missed last Friday.

Astronaut

click to enlarge QUIVER DISTRIBUTION
  • Quiver Distribution
First-time feature writer/director Shelagh McLeod is obvious about the message she wants to convey in Astronaut: Age doesn’t matter when you’re shooting for the stars. It’s a nice idea one might find on a bumper sticker or one of those inspirational posters (maybe of an old dog learning a new trick), but the meaning doesn’t translate to anything very dramatic or memorable in McLeod’s innocuous script. The drama stars Oscar winner and veteran actor Richard Dreyfus (The Goodbye Girl) as Angus Stewart, a retired widower who is randomly selected as a finalist to become the first person to travel to the cosmos via a commercial spacecraft. Unfortunately for Astronaut, McLeod doesn’t build a believable story around its unrealistic premise (doesn’t anyone vet these wannabe space travelers?) nor does she find a way to dodge the clichés a movie about growing old might encounter in the hands of a novice screenwriter. Dreyfus is serviceable in his lead role, but there’s only so much he can do when he’s the only engaging character on screen below the age of 85. Astronaut hits VOD platforms July 26.
2 out of 5 stars

Critters Attack!

click to enlarge WARNER HOME VIDEO
  • Warner Home Video
While the original 1986 Critters movie was nothing more than a blatant attempt to feed off the success of 1984’s Gremlins, if you watch it today, its retro feel is sort of fun, especially when compared to things like Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, and Munchies (yes, those, too, are 80s horror movies that came after Gremlins and also featured little, bloodthirsty monsters). Thirty-three years and three sequels later (including Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s screen debut Critters 3), the fifth movie installment Critters Attacks! reunites the killer fuzzball aliens with actress Dee Wallace, who played the shotgun-shooting mom in the first movie. In the first sequel in 27 years, Wallace plays a new character – Aunt Dee – a cat lady and new bounty hunter who tracks “crites” from a hidden bunker inside her house. When the crites land in a small farming town, they start killing random citizens until Dee finally catches up to them late in the movie (what’s the point of bringing Wallace back if her role is reduced to what is ultimately a cameo?). Taking a page from Gremlins, Critters Attacks! introduces a new character – Bianca, a friendly crite with black and white hair and eyelashes, who steps in as a kind of Gizmo-like ally. Bianca is discovered by a group of kids, led by sushi restaurant employee Drea (Tashiana Washington), a storyline that goes nowhere interesting for the entire 90-minute run time. Bloodier than its predecessors (red human blood and green crite blood), Critters Attacks! might entertain the biggest B-movie horror fans, but with a script this vapid, what's the point? Critters Attack! hit VOD platforms and Blu-ray/DVD July 23.
1 out of 5 stars

The Farewell

click to enlarge A24
  • A24
Comedy and tragedy meld together with compassion in The Farewell, a beautifully-told, true-story narrative from writer/director Lulu Wang (Posthumous). In easily the best performance of her short albeit flourishing acting career, rapper/comedian Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Billi, a Chinese-American artist living in New York who finds out her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who lives in China but who she has kept in close contact with all her life, is dying from lung cancer. She also learns that her entire family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her failing health for fear that the anxiety the news will create will make her sicker (apparently in China, it is common for families to keep this type of diagnosis secret from their loved ones). Since the doctors only give Nai Nai about three months to live, her family devises a fake wedding for Nai Nai’s 20-something-year-old grandson, so they can have an excuse to travel back to China and see her one last time. Touching and delightfully funny, The Farewell is also culturally fascinating as we watch Billi torn between her Western upbringing and her Eastern roots and the way both worlds clash, but also establish her identity as an independent and sensitive young woman. In the lead role, Awkwafina gives a quality performance – one that inhabits a range of emotions that she is able to capture with remarkable nuance. The scenes she shares with Zhou are heartfelt and charming and Wang isn’t afraid to allow her characters to wear their hearts on their sleeves, especially since she never lets their sorrow become cloying. Although The Farewell is about a Chinese family, viewers will more than likely see aspects of their own family throughout the film, which supports the concept that no matter how different we are from one another, we’re really all the same in the grand scheme of things and that humanity has no borders. The Farewell opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou and Cinema Bistro July 26.
4 out of 5 stars

The Lion King

click to enlarge WALT DISNEY STUDIOS
  • Walt Disney Studios
Please stop calling the new version of The Lion King a “live-action remake” of the 1994 animated classic. If anything, it’s a photo-realistic, animated remake of the original animation. There are no human characters like in the live-action remake of The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. Everything audiences see on the screen was created on computers. Now that we’ve gotten semantics out of the way, what audiences will also see in 2019’s The Lion King is something that can be described as both breathtaking and uninspired. Breathtaking, of course, based on the lifelike animals that were generated by graphics, an element of the film that will more than likely earn visual effects supervisors an Oscar nomination, if not a win; uninspired because aside from the groundbreaking appearance of the movie, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) didn't seem to care that all they created was a great-looking rehash. While it lacks most of the emotion and humor (aside from the wonderful Timon and Pumbaa scenes) of the original, The Lion King is too much of a visual knockout to ignore. Still, it’s disappointing what a narrative creative rut Disney decided to corner the film into – sort of like the hyenas do with Scar at his demise. The Lion King opened nationwide July 19, but was not screened for critics in San Antonio.
3 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood

click to enlarge COLUMBIA PICTURES
  • Columbia Pictures
It’s hard to believe director and two-time, Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) actually might call it quits after he completes 10 movies, especially since it’s evident with his ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, that he hasn’t lost a step when crafting a scene and seems to be having just as much fun as he did when he started making movies 27 years ago with Reservoir Dogs. Finding inspiration in and paying homage to the Western films and TV shows of the late 1960s, Tarantino tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio giving an Oscar-worthy performance), a fading and stammering TV star whose transition to the big screen isn’t going as well as he had hoped. His friendship with his stunt-double turned personal-assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) seems to be the only thing that keeps him from losing faith in his talent as an actor. The elements of this unique buddy comedy and the characters’ skill at maneuvering through the industry to survive is what make Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood such an enjoyable watch, as is witnessing Rick’s desperation to stay relevant. While many moviegoers might be anticipating a major storyline dealing with Charles Manson and his followers, that specific narrative is table-setting for the era, which Tarantino imagines in stunning detail. Thematically, the character of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a young actress who was murdered in real life by members of Manson’s cult in 1969, plays an adequate counterpart to Rick’s volatile personality (her career trajectory is opposite of his), but if removed altogether, Tarantino’s picture wouldn’t suffer because of it. Without her, however, he wouldn’t get to experiment again with revisionist history like he does in Inglourious Basterds when he unloads machine gun rounds into Adolf Hitler’s face. What better way to show that Tarantino plays by his own rules than that? Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood opens nationwide July 26.
3.5 out of 5 stars

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