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The Hitman's Bodyguard - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 17, 2017 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (2)

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is being marketed as an action comedy in the same vein as “Deadpool.” While the film has plenty of gratuitous action to go around, it’s surprisingly lacking in the comedy department. There are actually times when the movie doesn’t even seem sure if it wants to be a comedy. That’s not to say there are no funny moments whatsoever, but those scenes are overshadowed by routine car chases and shootouts that go on forever. If you sit down anticipating the next “Deadpool,” prepare to be disappointed. You shouldn’t expect the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston parody the poster promised either.

Samuel L. Jackson stars as the titular hitman, Darius Kincaid, who finds himself in Interpol custody along with his foulmouthed wife (Salma Hayek). Darius can get his better half pardoned if he testifies in court to incarcerate an Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman). When the villain sends his own hitman after Daris, Ryan Reynolds enters the mix as the titular bodyguard, Michael Bryce. It turns out these two share a complicated history, as Daris has tried to kill Michael on multiple occasions. Michael agrees to protect his adversary, however, in hopes of getting back in the good graces of his ex-girlfriend (Élodie Yung).

Reynolds and Jackson are two of the most charismatic actors around. To this movie’s credit, both share a likable chemistry and inject a fair deal of life into their scenes. Hayek and Yung also manage to score a few solid one-liners, excelling above just being the love interests. Unfortunately, long stretches of time pass without a single laugh. Unlike Edgar Wright and Paul Feig, who both know how to handle action and comedy, Patrick Hughes’ background is primarily action-oriented. His last film was “The Expendables 3” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” just feels like more of that old shtick.

Aside from having more explosions than jokes, the film can be downright unpleasant at times. The violence isn’t especially funny. If anything, it’s just gross and cringe-worthy. The bad guys are all killjoys without a funny bone in their bodies, which is becoming increasingly tiresome in action comedies. Hell, one of the first scenes involves a mother and child being brutally murdered. Doesn’t that just scream hilarity? Not since “Suicide Squad” has a film had a harder time deciding what it wants to be. Of course “Suicide Squad” was so all over the place that it was at least kind of intriguing to watch. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is simply forgettable.

It doesn’t help that the film essentially follows the same formula of every other buddy movie ever made. We all know that Michael and Darius aren’t going to like each other at first, but will inevitably become friends. It’s not a bad formula per se, but what matters is how the filmmakers execute it. Here, they’ve got the stars and a few interesting ideas, but the tone is impossible to get a grasp on. In short, “Midnight Run” it ain’t.

Grade: 2 Out of 5 Stars

Annabelle: Creation - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 10, 2017 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (0)

“The Conjuring” became a surprise hit back in 2013, breathing new live into the supernatural horror genre. For every successful film, though, there’s always a cheap, rushed out, crash grab. Enter 2014’s “Annabelle,” a spinoff everyone wrote off as cliché and unnecessary. Fortunately, this franchise had a comeback last year with “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle: Creation” keeps the momentum going. Much like “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” this is a prequel that improves upon its predecessor and manages to stand out in the crowded horror market.

In this origin story, we learn that a man named Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) created the Annabelle doll. Samuel lives a happy life with his wife (Miranda Otto) and daughter (Samara Lee). When tragedy strikes the family, however, Samuel is left a broken man. Another twelve years down the line, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) takes up residence in the house with several orphaned girls. Among the orphans are a crippled child named Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). When Janice stumbles upon Annabelle, an evil is awakened in the house and only the power of Christ can compel it back to sleep.

The scary doll trope is so overused that you’d think it would be old by now. Yet, Annabelle is certainly one of modern cinema’s creepiest inanimate objects. That’s because the filmmakers never turn her into a Chucky knockoff that’s constantly cracking one-liners or awkwardly walking around. Sometimes less is more and “Annabelle: Creation” manages to produce so much terror with so little. Director David F. Sandberg made a name for himself directing no-budget horror shorts and his talents are perfectly tailored for this material.

Granted, “Annabelle: Creation” does bring up some of the questions that seem to plague every haunted house movie. If a house hosts a demonic presence, why would anybody want to live there? Why don’t they just leave at the first sign of danger? Why doesn’t anybody ever burn these places to the ground? While not everything necessarily adds up, “Annabelle: Creation” thankfully never turns its characters into bumbling idiots. Likewise, the film treats its audience with intelligence by resisting the urge to go for cheap scares, keeping us on our toes at all times.

Sandberg does a fantastic job at slowly building tension in the first act and upping the ante with each set piece. The final product is an exceptionally crafted thriller with chilling atmosphere, striking imagery, strong performances, and even a subtle sense of humor. As far as this genre goes, “Annabelle: Creation” may not be a game changer like “The Exorcist.” Considering that this is the fourth entry in an ongoing series, however, the filmmakers deserve extra credit for going above and beyond to keep the audience jumping out of their seats. Most horror franchises would be heading straight-to-video at this point, but there’s still plenty of life in “The Conjuring” and “Annabelle.”

Grade: 4 Out of 5 Stars

The Mummy - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on June 8, 2017 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Shared universes are slowly taking over Hollywood. As of late, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been hitting it out of the park with each new entry. Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse is getting off to a solid start with “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island.” The DC Extended Universe… well, let’s just say that they’ve taken a huge step forward with “Wonder Woman.” Now Universal is moving forward with the Dark Universe, which will bring together the likes of Dracula, the Invisible Man, and other classic horror movie monsters. “The Mummy” lays the groundwork for this cinematic universe, but the film doesn’t exactly leave you excited to see a dozen more entries in the franchise.

Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, who’s essentially every other action hero Cruise has been playing for the past two decades. Annabelle Wallis stars as Jenny Halsey, who’s essentially every other female love interest we see in modern blockbusters. Together, they uncover the mummified Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who curses Nick and plans to wreak havoc upon humanity. That might sound like a pretty straightforward plot, but the exposition is so overstuffed and the pacing is so clunky that it’s hard to understand what’s going on.

On a technical level, “The Mummy” is a well-produced picture. The art direction clearly a lot of effort thrown into it and the action can be visually interesting. Occasionally the film can be too reliant on CGI, but it more than makes up for that with the stellar makeup effects. Ahmanet’s design is actually creative and unique compared to previous incarnations. The same can be said about the makeup for Jake Johnson’s Chris, a departed friend who communicates with Nick from beyond the grave. He’s kind of like Jack from “An American Werewolf in London.” Of course am I the only one who finds it distracting that Nick from “New Girl” is paired with another character named Nick here?

Alas, the production values are hard to appreciate when watching the film in 3D. Since this the Dark Universe, it makes sense that “The Mummy” is a darkly lit movie. Releasing the film in the 3D format was a huge miscalculation, though, as it makes the picture look even darker than originally intended. So most of the time you can’t tell what’s going on. Even if you see the film in 2D, however, “The Mummy” is still an underwhelming experience with one-note characters and a lack of focus.

To its credit, the movie isn’t without a couple cool set pieces and genuinely humorous moments. What the picture lacks is an identity of its own. It might’ve been campy, but the 1999 version of “The Mummy” with Brendan Fraser knew what it wanted to be and followed through. Here, the filmmakers don’t seem sure what they want to do. Do they want to make an action adventure, a horror picture, or a little bit of both?

All they really seem sure about is that they want to build a cinematic universe around this movie. Even on that basis, though, we don’t get much universe building outside of an appearance from Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. Maybe Universal will get their act together in time for the next outing. If “The Mummy” is the best they have to offer, however, it won’t take long for this franchise to unravel.

Grade: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars

Split - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on January 20, 2017 at 3:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Back when M. Night Shyamalan was on top of the world, seeing one of his movies felt like an eagerly awaited event. Between “Lady and the Water” and “After Earth,” however, Shyamalan became a walking punch line. So when “The Visit” came along a couple years ago, film fans went into the theater anticipating another cringe-fest. To the surprise of many, though, Shyamalan turned in an eerie, humorous, and well-acted thriller. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it was the first time in years that people actually had fun at a Shyamalan movie.


If “Split” proves anything, it’s that “The Visit” wasn’t a fluke. This is another effective work of horror from Shyamalan, who’s officially back on the right track. Like his previous outing, “Split” doesn’t take itself too seriously. If anything, it’s incredibly self-aware. At the same time, Shyamalan and his performers create a genuinely haunting, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s a film that constantly catches the audience off guard, reminding us why Shyamalan was once considered the next Alfred Hitchcock.


The film follows three high school girls named Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). In the middle of the day, these unsuspecting teenagers find themselves at the mercy of a creepy kidnapper, played by James McAvoy. They wake up in a mysterious room where escape appears futile. Their captor is eventually revealed to be Kevin Wendell Crumb, but he’s not alone. Kevn is living with dissociative identity disorder and has over 20 alternate personalities.


In “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan delivered quite possibly the greatest twist since “Psycho.” “Split” is kind of like Shyamalan’s love letter to “Psycho.” Where Norman Bates only had one alternate personality, though, Kevin has enough alters to fill an asylum. This includes a woman named Patricia, a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, and a Beast that supposedly possesses supernatural powers. The film is a remarkable acting showcase for McAvoy, who easily could have come off as too over-the-top in this role. Yet, he finds the perfect balance with each of these personalities and is consistently menacing.


Aside from Anthony Perkins in “Psycho,” McAvoy also earns comparison to John Goodman’s character in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Like Goodman, McAvoy delivers a portrayal that’s truly worthy of serious award recognition. Of course the Academy will probably never go for a performance like this. We additionally get strong work from Taylor-Joy, who broke out into stardom last year in “The Witch.” Taylor-Joy plays her part with just the right amount of strength and restraint, as if she’s Alice trying to survive an even more twisted version of Wonderland. Betty Buckley also deserves a shout out for her work as Kevin’s psychologist, who’ s starting to suspect her patient might be going off the deep end.


All the while, Shyamalan supplies thrills, chills, and even an applaud-worthy twist, which I won’t spoil here. With that said, “Split” isn’t perfect. It’s about twenty minutes too long and occasionally some of Shyamalan’s more annoying tendencies surface. The dialog can get pretentious at times and there are a couple deaths that come off as a little too silly. Every time the film begins to drag, however, Shyamalan hooks us right back in. It’s often believed that all artists go through peaks and valleys. In Shyamalan’s case, he’s experienced the highest of highest and the lowest of lows. For now, he’s at a solid middle ground that’ll do just fine.


Grade: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars

Was it wrong for Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson?

Posted by Nick Spake on January 15, 2017 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Seeing how it’s 2017, you’d think that whitewashing would be a thing of the past. Every other week, though, it feels like another news story comes out about whitewashing in the entertainment industry. From Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, this controversial subject seems to be more relevant now than ever. The latest case is Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson.

Read more at Flickreel:

Lion - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 23, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

“Lion” is kind of like “Slumdog Millionaire” meets “Finding Dory.” That might sound an odd combination, but it’s the perfect way to describe Garth Davis’ powerful movie. With such a rich, remarkable story, “Lion” has the essence of a modern fable or an animated feature. You could especially see a director like Don Bluth tackling this material, although the human characters would probably be substituted with mice, dinosaurs, or well… lions. Believe it or not, this film is based on a non-fiction novel from Saroo Brierley. Of course even if “Lion” were a pure work of fantasy, it would still be a gripping, moving, and inspiring experience about never giving up.


This fantastic tale begins with young Sunny Pawar as Saroo, a five-year-old Indian boy who gets separated from his older brother at a train station. Falling asleep on a train, he wakes up in another country miles away from his family. Saroo attempts to navigate his way back home, but isn’t entirely sure where he’s from. After a series of misadventures, Saroo is eventually taken in by an adoption agency. He finds a loving home with two Australian parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in wonderful supporting performances. He also gets an adopted brother (Divian Ladwa), who goes on to become black sheep of the family.


Another twenty-five years down the line, Saroo is an educated college student with a caring girlfriend (Rooney Mara). He additionally maintains a meaningful relationship with his adopted parents, always acting as their rock. Although everything seems to be working out for Saroo, part of him feels empty inside nonetheless. He becomes determined to find his birth parents in hopes of getting closure. Even with Google Earth at his disposal, however, the chances of a reunion appear slim.


Dev Patel continues to mature nicely as an actor, taking on the role of adult Saroo. He molds him into a likable, charming young man with great sorrow underneath the surface. As Saroo searches for his roots, he begins to dig himself into a pit of disappear. As all hope dwindles away, he begins to alienate his loved ones. Even when Saroo is at his worst, though, the audience identifies with his pain every step of the way. Kidman is particularly strong as Saroo’s adopted mother, who unconditionally loves her children and wants nothing more than to see them happy. Without an ounce of jealousy or cynicism, she completely supports Saroo’s endeavor to find his long-lost family.


This is a key example of why “Lion” is so uplifting. It’s a sincere film that doesn’t try to shove inspiration down your throat like “Collateral Beauty.” While there are certainly romanticized moments, the film truly earns those scenes through fleshed out writing, effective imagery, and characters that overflow with humanity. Director Garth Davis has primarily work in television, notably the “Top of the Lake” miniseries. “Lion” marks his first feature film and it’s a damn impressive directorial debut. He fully delivers in the emotional department with a film that understands the bonds of family. It may be familiar territory, but “Lion” reminds us why the universal theme of family seems to be at the center of every movie.

Grade: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars


La La Land - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 14, 2016 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The movie musical has made a major comeback over the past decade and a half. On the whole, though, every film has either been a Broadway adaptation like “Chicago” or a jukebox musical like “Moulin Rogue.” The only original movie musicals have been animated features, such as “Frozen” and “Moana.” Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is a true treasure: a modern movie musical with unique songs, distinctive characters, and an inspired love story. Although the film is set in contemporary Los Angeles, it has the look and feel of a musical from cinema’s Golden Age. What we’re left with is a miraculous film that has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, finding a pitch perfect balance.


From the opening number, “La La Land” is an enchanting experience that never lets up. As the music builds, a seemingly mundane California freeway is suddenly transformed into a blissful celebration with over 100 dancers. Chazelle’s film is full of scenes like this, draping everyday settings with eye-popping colors and kinetic energy. He gives LA an otherworldly presence, turning the City of Flowers and Sunshine into the City of Dreams. At the heart of this spectacular backdrop are two fools with the audacity to dream big.


Emma Stone deserves to take home this year’s Best Actress Oscar for her stunning performance as Mia. Reminiscent of Stone’s own life story, Mia is an enormously gifted actress who rolled the dice and moved to LA. In a city full of aspiring artists, however, it’s almost impossible to get noticed. She pours her heart and soul into every audition, but the casting directors never give their undivided attention. In addition to being an exquisite singer and dancer, Stone captures all the heartache and struggle of being a performer while also maintaining the passion that drives people to keep going. She most notably nails it in a captivating musical number entitled “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which is sure to be a frontrunner for Best Original Song.


Starring opposite Stone is Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. He’s a serious musician who wants nothing more to open his own jazz club. Alas, he finds himself playing Christmas carols for a demanding restaurant owner, played by J. K. Simmons. The jazz pianist eventually sets his pride aside and takes a steady gig with John Legend’s Keith. While the money is good, Seb fears that he’ll never get to play the kind of music he cherishes so much. This begs the age-old question, can an artist be happy with their work and be a success as well?


Stone and Gosling previously appeared side by side in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad.” In “La La Land,” they solidify their place as one of cinema’s greatest onscreen pairings. Every time these two are together, they unleash a wave of chemistry that practically drowns the audience in the sentiment of romance. They share a particularly wonderful dance sequence against the LA night sky, calling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to mind. Another number literally defies gravity, elevating our lovers above the stars so they can dance on air.


With flamboyant production design, lively lighting, and an infectious musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land” appropriately feels like a daydream. At the same time, though, it doesn’t shy away from harsh reality. The film acknowledges all the hardships and sacrifices that come with pursuing your dream. Even if your dream does come true, it might not play out exactly how you envisioned. No matter what road you take, however, you’re always going to look back and wonder what might have been.


This leads to the film’s superb finale, which I won’t dare spoil here. Let’s just say it encompasses everything that makes movies magical. Chazelle’s last picture, “Whiplash,” was a remarkable feat, especially for such a young filmmaker. His follow-up outing is somehow even better, standing out as the best film of his career, the best film of the year, and maybe even the best film of the decade.

Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars


Office Christmas Party - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 9, 2016 at 11:30 AM Comments comments (0)

“Office Christmas Party” has all the ingredients for a classic holiday comedy. The setup invites numerous potentially humorous scenarios and the cast is universally excellent. Alas, the movie never turns into a laugh riot, although there are big laughs spread throughout. For a film that had so many comedic possibilities practically giftwrapped, “Office Christmas Party” is somewhat disappointing. With that said, it’s hard to dismiss the film entirely when certain moments do hit bull’s-eyes. It also helps that “Bad Santa 2” set the bar so low just a couple weeks ago.

 T. J. Miller plays Clay Vanstone, a rowdy screw-up who manages a branch of his late father’s business. Jennifer Aniston is delightfully pessimistic as Carol, Clay’s older sister and the company CEO. With the demeanor of Ebenezer Scrooge, Carol tells her brother that he needs to lay off 40% of his employees and cancel all Christmas bonuses. On top of that, the whole office is on the verge of being shut down. The only person who might be able to save the branch is a potential client named Walter Davis, played Courtney B. Vance of “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Along with Jason Bateman’s Josh and Olivia Munn’s Tracey, Clay sets out to put on an epic Christmas party to win Walter over. As you can imagine, things quickly escalate out of hand.

The biggest problem with “Office Christmas Party” is that it often treads on familiar territory. We’ve seen countless other raunchy holiday movies like this, such as “The Night Before,” “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The filmmakers borrow one too many pages from those films without really adding anything very original. On top of that, the film also clearly drew inspiration from “The Hangover,” “Sisters,” and “The Office.” Then again, nobody is going to see this movie expecting anything revolutionary. The target audience is probably just looking for something wacky and festive. On that basis, “Office Christmas Party” is enjoyable enough.

While a lot of the punch lines are predictable, the acting ensemble adds a great deal to the equation. Miller, Aniston, Bateman, and Munn all have wonderful chemistry together. Of course the real scene-stealer is Kate McKinnon as Mary, a human resources representative who turns out to have a bit of a wild side. We also get some funny performances from Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry, and Randall Park as the office co-workers. Jillian Bell particularly kills it as a pimp who can be nice one second and naughty the next. Unlike some other comedies with large ensembles, everyone is given an appropriate amount of screen time and nobody overstays their welcome.

“Office Christmas Party” is about a group of employees coming together to save a dying company. Likewise, the cast comes together here and salvages much of the movie. If you’re in search of something smarter and deeper, you can always check out “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” or any of the other award season favorites. If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted holiday comedy, though, “Office Christmas Party” fits the bill. Just keep in mind it’s kind of like a Christmas present you’ll play with for one day and then forget about by New Year’s.

3 out of 5 Stars

Moana Interview - Animator Darrin Butters

Posted by Nick Spake on November 24, 2016 at 11:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My interview with character animator Darrin Butters (no relation to the "South Park" character). Butters has been part of the Disney family for 20 years. He got his bring break in 1996, working as an assistant on the studio’s first CG animated feature, "Dinosaur." Since then, he’s played a role in "Bolt," "Tangled," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Paperman," "Frozen," "Big Hero 6," "Zootopia," and of course "Moana."


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Loving - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 10, 2016 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (0)

"Loving" is a dramatization of arguably the most significant interracial marriage in American history. It’s actually surprising that Hollywood has taken almost fifty years to produce a major motion picture about the Loving v. Virginia case. Of course there was a 1996 made for television movie starring Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon. Even in today’s supposedly progressive world, the themes depicted in "Loving" remain as relevant as ever. Sure, interracial marriage might not be prohibited in the US anymore, but audiences can still draw parallels to same-sex marriage, which only just became legal in all fifty states. Racial tensions also continue to run high in our country with many people taking sides. In that sense, "Loving" couldn’t have come at a better time, especially now that Donald Trump is president.


Joel Edgerton turns in some of his finest work as Richard Loving, a white man from Virginia. Richard is deeply in love with an African American woman named Mildred Jeter, beautifully played by Ruth Negga. When Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard doesn’t think twice about asking her to marry him. Since it’s 1958, though, interracial marriage is still outlawed in their home state. The couple tries to beat the system by getting hitched in Washington, D.C. After returning to Virginia, however, they’re both quickly incarcerated.


Richard and Mildred are given two options. They can either remain in jail or find a new home in Washington. The two naturally choose the latter, but the adjustment isn’t easy. As much as Mildred loves Richard, it pains her to be so far away from her family in Virginia. It appears that the couple might be able to finally get some justice when a politician named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) catches wind of their situation. He believes that the case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, abolishing the interracial marriage ban for good.


Mildred is willing to get in front of the cameras and voice her opinion. Richard is much more reluctant to put himself out there, fearing that his family will be harassed and killed. He’s willing to take a risk, though, if it will make his wife happy and lead to a brighter future. This is largely what makes "Loving" such a great film. Even when Richard and Mildred aren’t speaking to each other, they’re always on the same page. Life might not always be simple for them, but the audience never doubts for a second that these two adore one another and will overcome any obstacle together. The bond they share is truly powerful and poignant, reminding us that love should be the only factor when it comes marriage.


Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is known for making very understated films that manage to say a lot with minimal dialog or action. His signature subtlety is present throughout the entirety of "Loving." Nichols is given numerous opportunities to take a more straightforward or obvious route, but he avoids melodrama around every corner. Instead, he gets the film’s messages across through low-key direction and multi-layered performances. The result is a gripping, thrilling, and inspiring experience audiences everywhere should take to heart.

4 out of 5 Stars