All the top 10 lists Nick has scripted for WatchMojo.com, the 7th largest YouTube channel in the world throughout 2014.
Nick's film review column at Filmfestivaltoday.com.
A comic strip sadly inspired by the real life of Nick Spake.
At the age of fifteen, I launched NickPicksFlicks.com, a website dedicated to the art of film. Since then, I have worked as a published film critic for Arizona State Press, Ahwatukee Foothills News, Nerd Repository, Film Festival Today, Arizona Filmmaker Magazine, and East Valley Tribune. Entertainment writing has also given me the opportunity to interview several big name celebrities, including Emma Stone, Chris Evans, J.J. Abrams, Emma Roberts, and various others. My life hit a roadblock in 2013 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, but I refused to let having cancer prevent me from writing film reviews and finishing college with a 4.0 GPA. In May 2013, I graduated from Arizona State University, achieving a BA in Theatre/Film and a minor in communications. Teaching me just how precious life is, my disease further influenced me to reach out to others through my writing. Today, I'm happy to say that I am currently cancer free. As of September 2014, I have worked as a freelancer writer for WatchMojo.com, which recently surpassed 19 million subscribers on YouTube. This video content site has acted as a creative outlet for me to write top ten lists about movies, television, video games, and pretty much everything else. Out of the hundred scripts I've contributed to them so far, I'm primarily proud of the Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, Top 50 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes of ALL TIME, and Top 10 Best Movies of 2018. In 2015, I joined the Flickreel family as a critic and columnist. In 2016, I joined Story Monsters magazine as a film critic and can't wait to bring you all more movie reviews.
Feel free to contact Nick at Nickspake1@gmail.com
5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
A Cold Day in Hell ****
Ever since redefining his career in “Taken” over a decade ago, Liam Neeson has become synonymous with playing grizzled old men who kill their way through hordes of henchmen, typically on some sort of revenge quest. Fifteen minutes into “Cold Pursuit,” a remake of a 2014 Norwegian film, it appears Neeson is going to give us more of the same. As the plot unfolds, however, Hans Petter Moland’s film becomes more like a Coen brother’s picture, particularly “Fargo.” In addition to sharing a snowy setting in common, both movies feature a plucky female police officer who wants to see justice served and villains that aren’t as competent as they think. There’s a particularly gruesome death towards the end that likely took a page from the infamous wood chipper scene. Even with all these parallels, “Cold Pursuit” still emerges with a unique voice and one of Neeson’s most entertaining performances.
Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, a snowplow driver and a pillar of the Rocky Mountain community. Nelson’s family life is obliterated, however, upon learning that his son died of a heroin overdose. Growing increasingly distant from his wife (Laura Dern), Nelson is just about ready to commit suicide until he learns that his son’s death is linked to a drug cartel. Nelson begins to assassinate his way up the ladder with a head honchonicknamed Viking (Tom Bateman) awaiting at the top. With an impulsive tendency to shoot first and ask questions never, Viking jumps to the conclusion that a rival drug cartel is behind these murders, sparking a gang war.
Part of what Nelson an interesting protagonist is that he’s not a retired CIA agent like Bryan Mills. He’s not a cop like John McClane, a war veteran like John Rambo, or a hitman like John Wick either. He’s just an ordinary guy with nothing left to lose, giving him the drive needed to take out the criminals at the bottom of the cartel’s totem pole. Nelson doesn’t become a one-man army overnight, however, quickly realizing that Viking is out of his league. After all, Nelson has never killed up until this point, learning everything he knows about disposing bodies from crime movies. Nelson thus turns to his retired criminal brother (William Forsythe) for help, opening the door to several more colorful characters.
Although “Cold Pursuit” starts off as Nelson’s story, it slowly grows into an ensemble piece that sees various people get roped into a colossal mess. We get great supporting performances from Julia Jones as Viking’s strong-willed ex-wife, Domenick Lombardozzi as a cartel enforcer living a closeted lifestyle, and Tom Jackson as an aging drug lord. Bateman is the real scene-stealer, however, having a ball with every second he’s on screen while still crafting a legitimately creepy presence. Where so many villains in modern black comedies are played with a straight face, Viking is the winking devil we deserve. Hot on the cold trail is Emmy Rossum as a detective who senses that snow is about to hit the fan.
This entire movie is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It starts off small, but eventually gains momentum and grows much bigger. This naturally leads to more and more people getting caught in the crossfire until the snowball finally reaches its end. As grim as the film is, Frank Baldwin’s screenplay finds the gleeful humor in the macabre. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times it’s over-the-top, but the film is always a blast. As far as revenge movies go, this one is best served cold.
It's like "Alive" with Hannibal, except there's strangely no cannibalism ***1/2
From “The Revenant,” to “All Is Lost,” to “127 Hours,” man vs nature movies have become increasingly popular in recent years. It’s debatable where exactly this genre stemmed from, although 1993’s “Alive” remains one of the defining survival movies for many. The harsh, freezing environment in “Arctic” is bound to give you flashbacks of watching Frank Marshall’s film in the theater over twenty-five years ago – assuming you were even alive back then. Of course, Joe Penna’s feature directorial debut has a few major differences. For starters, there’s no cannibalism, which is ironic seeing how it stars Mads Mikkelsen of “Hannibal.” The film’s success largely rests on Mikkelsen’s shoulders, as his co-star is incapacitated for a majority of the run time while the only other significant players are a pilot who’s DOA and a polar bear.
Ever since gaining mainstream attention in “Casino Royale,” Mikkelsen has been frequently typecast as diabolical villains. It’s an archetype that certainly suits his talents well, even amounting to a portrayal of Hannibal Lecter that rivaled Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance. Mikkelsen has more layers to him as a performer, however, and his range is on full display in “Arctic.” He delivers an emotionally raw acting feat as Overgård, who has been stranded in the Arctic for an unspecified amount of time. Converting his crashed plane into a shelter and rationing whatever fish he manages to catch from the frozen waters below, Overgård has seemingly accepted that this is his new normal. He’s given a glimmer of hope upon encountering a helicopter, but the possibility of a rescue is sent spiraling to the ground due to strong winds.
While the pilot dies in the crash, Overgård is able to salvage a nameless young woman from the rubble (María Thelma Smáradóttir). Lugging her back to his camp, he attempts to nourish his new companion back to health. With supplies running low and nobody coming for them, it appears Overgård’s only choice is to head out into the snowy wilderness where he may either find a haven or certain death. As if the odds weren’t against him already, the woman is still in no condition to walk and must be pulled every step of the way.
On a budget of only $2 million, “Arctic” is about as minimal as a movie can get. There’s barely any dialog whatever, but the audience can always tell what’s running through Overgård’s head judging from his expressive face. Penna has crafted an impressive visual story, framing Iceland in a way that’s both threatening and majestic. Overgård’s dynamic with the woman is also surprisingly involving, despite the fact that they never share more than a couple words with each other. It would’ve been easy to write in a token romance, but their relationship is wisely kept platonic with Overgård staying by her side without ever wanting anything in return.
If there’s a downside to “Arctic,” it’s that the survival genre is so oversaturated. Had it come out several years ago, this might’ve been viewed as a bold piece of experimental filmmaking. After “Cast Away,” “Everest,” and a few other films already mentioned, though, it can feel routine at times. That being said, even at its most familiar, the film is gorgeously shot, exquisitely acted, and makes the most out of its intense setting. It’s not revolutionary by any means, but that’s no reason to give it the cold shoulder.
The Return of the King ***1/2
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is a modern take on the Arthurian legend, although it has more in common with “Harry Potter” or “Percy Jackson.” Of course, both of those young adult franchises were clearly influenced by the story of King Arthur. In that sense, you could argue that Joe Cornish’s movie brings matters full circle.
Read Full Review in Story Monsters!
Sadly, Not a Firefly Movie **
Just last week, numerous critics ripped “Glass” a new one, notably taking issue with its twist ending. While “Glass” was far from a perfect film, it has nothing on the ridiculous twists and turns in “Serenity.” This film is so preposterous, so confused, and so utterly insane that it would make even some of M. Night Shyamalan’s dumbest outings call BS! It plays out like a Lifetime Movie of the Week if the writers of “Lost” took over half-way through, accumulating to a tonally inept mess. What’s especially mystifying is that the project somehow managed to attract mostly Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated performers.
Maybe they were drawn in by writer/director Steven Knight, himself an Oscar nominee. Knight, to his credit, is a talented filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take chances. His ambitions paid off in 2013’s “Locke,” which managed to make a long car ride dramatically compelling. In “Serenity,” however, Knight dives into the deep end and immediately sinks, as if he never even took a single swimming lesson. The creative choices Knight makes here are baffling to the point that “Serenity” is almost worth seeing if you’re a fan of entertainingly bad movies. Unless you’re in the mood for some serious shark jumping, though, you might as well jump ship now.
Those Lincoln car commercials are no longer the lowest point of Matthew McConaughey’s post-McConaissance career. In “Serenity,” he plays Baker Dill, a down on his luck fisherman who needs to prostitute himself to make ends meet. He describes himself “a hooker without a hook,” which is just one of the many horrendous lines this film has to offer. Baker spends most of his days on a boat with friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou), trying to catch a giant fish that always gets away. Captain Ahab has even bigger white whales to fry, however, as his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island. Trapped in an abusive marriage with Jason Clarke’s Frank, Karen asks Baker to take her husband out on his boat and feed him to the sharks. Although Baker is reluctant at first, he starts to come around for the sake of the son he shares with Karen, who spends most of his time on the computer.
Hathaway is a wonderful actress, but her entire performance sounds like a bad impression of a film noir dame. Clarke is cartoonishly over-the-top in his role, practically announcing how sadistically cruel he is every time he enters a room. Then there’s McConaughey, who hasn’t phoned it in this much for a major motion picture since “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” The film features a number of other players, such as Diane Lane as Baker’s love interest and Garion Dowds as a young man who believes he brings good luck, but they serve no real purpose in the grand scheme of things. You could literally leave their scenes on the editing room floor and nothing would be lost.
The effortless performances and melodramatic setup aside, “Serenity” at least keeps us slightly engaged until a mysterious stranger played by Jeremy Strong explains what’s really going on. About 40 minutes into “Serenity,” you’ll likely start to suspect the big twist. At first, you’ll think to yourself, “there’s no way this movie could possibly be that stupid.” Well, the movie IS that stupid, changing gears faster than somebody with schizophrenia. Not only does the second half in no way match the tone of the first, but it tries to tackle ideas we’ve seen better represented in countless other projects, from “The Matrix,” to “Inception,” to “Black Mirror.”
Say what you will about “Glass,” but at least the twist ending in that film had an ounce of logic to it. The twist in “Serenity” makes absolute no sense and gives no insight into the character it revolves around. If anything, the twist just leaves you asking more questions about this person’s mental state. Watching such lunacy unfold leaves the audience feeling as if they’ve suffered a psychological breakdown. Walking out of the theater, all you can do if shout at the top of your lungs, “Serenity now! Insanity later!”
The Glass Initiative ***1/2
When “Unbreakable” came out almost nineteen years ago, most people went into the theater expecting a spiritual successor to “The Sixth Sense.” Instead, M. Night Shyamalan gave us a superhero movie, a genre that had lost much of its street cred on the heels of “Batman & Robin,” “Steel,” and “Spawn.” Only four months before “Unbreakable” came out, though, the original “X-Men” kicked off a long line of successful comic book adaptations. Since then, entire cinematic universes have been constructed around heroes who started out on the printed page. In the MCU, Samuel L. Jackson has brought the Avengers together as Nick Fury. In “Glass,” he reprises his role as Elijah Price to assemble a different breed of heroes.
The reveal that 2016’s “Split” was a secret sequel to “Unbreakable” stands out as one of modern cinema’s finest twists, rejuvenating Shyamalan’s incredibly inconsistent career. Shyamalan has had his fair share of misfires and some of his more laughable habits are still present in “Glass.” The writing isn’t without its self-indulgent moments and the symbolism is often on the nose. On the whole, however, Shyamalan has a lot of fun with the characters he’s created, connecting them in inventive, unexpected ways with clever worldbuilding and colorful visuals. It takes us back to a time when we were actually excited to see what Shyamalan has planned next, which is perhaps the greatest twist of all.
Bruce Willis reprises his role as David Dunn, the unbreakable man who has protected the streets of Philadelphia for nearly two decades, earning the alias of The Overseer. Spencer Treat Clark is also back and all grown up as David’s son, who has always encouraged his father to follow the path of a superhero. David meets his physical match upon crossing paths with Kevin Wendell Crumb, once again played by James McAvoy, who embodies a total of 24 personalities, including the fearsome Beast. Both men soon find themselves caged in a mental hospital with the brittle Mr. Glass, who has seemingly become catatonic after causing that tragic train accident years ago. All three are placed under the watch of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who believes her patients are suffering from the delusion that they’re gods living among mortals.
It’s great seeing Willis and Jackson back in these roles after such a lengthy hiatus. David has essentially gone from being a reluctant hero to embracing his fate, portraying a character with the grit of Batman and the strength of Superman. While Jackson is subdued for a good portion of the film, he eventually emerges with a devious plan worthy of Lex Luthor. McAvoy, meanwhile, once again steals the show as The Horde, slipping in and out of various different characters in the blink of an eye. As over-the-top and even humorous as McAvoy can be, he still brings a degree of fear and even tragedy to his character(s), even if you wish the filmmakers provided more insight into his backstory. The film also includes welcome returns from Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, a young girl Kevin previously kidnapped, and Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s longsuffering mother.
From a psychological standpoint, the whole setup of “Glass” may seem weak at first. Staple spends much of the film trying to convince our heroes and villains that they have no real supernatural abilities. While she brings some logic and reasoning into her arguments, the audience knows that Shyamalan isn’t going to copout with such easy answers and if he did we’d just be left feeling cheated. There are also several things about this mental hospital that make absolutely no sense, at least until we get to the final act. This is where Shyamalan brings things full circle, delivering on this trilogy’s true potential.
Without giving too much away, Shyamalan gives us one satisfying twist that’s topped off with another twist… and then yet another! Some may call the ending preposterous, but for a superhero movie set in a universe from the mind of Shyamalan, it feels just right. What’s more, it leaves the door open for more additions to a series packed with potential. So, where exactly can Shyamalan take the story next? Well, if David and Kevin exist in the same world, who’s to say that Cole from “The Sixth Sense” can’t join in with his superpower to see dead people?
If Beale Street Could Talk
Beale Street Blues ****
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is about an African American man who is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. The film isn’t so much about fighting the power, though, as it is about feeling powerless. Almost everyone in the film, from the rape victim, to the accused, to the family members involved, can identify with the hollow sensation of not being able to do anything in a horrible situation. The only people with any power are the ones who have rigged the quote unquote law. If Beale Street really could talk, it’d tell us that injustice is around every corner. Since it can’t, however, these injustices must speak for themselves and we can only hope people will listen.
Like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the characters here spend much of the story searching for answers only to come up emptyhanded. Occasionally it looks like everything might come together, but that makes it all the more depressing when there’s another dead-end. That’s not to say the film is all gloom and doom, however. For all the hardships our characters endure, there is a beautiful romance and message about persevering even when the corrupt system comes out on top. Beale Street may be overrun with prejudice, it’s also a place where love flourishes.
KiKi Layne gives a stunning breakthrough performance as Tish, a young woman who finds herself pregnant with the baby of Stephan James’ Fonny. These two share lovely chemistry that couldn’t feel more authentic, but are pulled apart when Fonny is accused of raping another woman. This amounts to an especially uncomfortable conversation between Tish and Fonny’s parents where the hateful words said are even more shocking than the acts of physical abuse that ensue. Tish thankfully receives support from her own family, particularly Regina King in a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance as her fiercely dedicated mother. Although Tish holds onto hope that Fonny will be freed in time for the birth of their baby, history shows that she’s wishing for the impossible.
Rather than following a conventional three-act structure, “If Beale Street Could Talk” feels more like a series of memories. Many characters pop up and are never seen again, but each leaves a significant impact. Another standout performance comes from Brian Tyree Henry as a friend who’s haunted by the time he spent in prison and is even more haunted by the prospect of one day going back there. The most uplifting moments are when Tish and Fonny are alone together, separated from a world of racist cops and feuding family members. Whether or not love conquers all in the end, the passion these two have for each other is forever unyielding.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up feature to the Best Picture-winning “Moonlight,” reuniting him with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell. “Moonlight” is the more unique film of the two, but Jenkins brings the same personal touch to this adaptation of James Baldwin’s highly relevant novel. Between “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “Blindspotting,” “The Hate U Give,” “Sorry to Bother You,” and “Widows,” 2018 has been a phenomenal year for diversity in Hollywood and stories about race relations. “If Beale Street Could Talk” demonstrates that there’s still a lot to be said, which will hopefully inspire more films as powerful as this one in 2019.
The Notorious RBG ***1/2
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often regarded as someone who peaked later in life, as her popularity has only skyrocketed since President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court 25 years ago. Of course, if you’re familiar with Ginsburg’s full backstory, you’d know that she accomplished a great deal before becoming one of the first female justices. For all we know, Ginsburg probably could’ve accomplished even more had it not been more a sexist society that’s come a long way since the 60s and 70s, but still has a long way to go. Given today’s political climate, the United States needs Ginsburg now more than ever. With that in mind, it’s fitting that 2018 brought not just one, but two films about her.
Earlier this year, Ginsburg’s life and achievements were thoroughly explored in the documentary “RBG.” “On the Basis of Sex” doesn’t cover as much base as that film, but it does shine the spotlight on a case that would help define both her legal career and fight against sex discrimination. It’s not the most profound movie ever made about gender, sexism, and equality. Had it not been for Ginsburg’s influence, though, it’s possible that many of those other films would cease to exist. On that basis, this is a more than admirable representation of an American trailblazer.
Felicity Jones gives one of her best performances as a young Ginsburg, who sticks out like Elle Woods when she arrives at Harvard Law School. The university only recently started accepting women and still undermines female students around every turn. Ruth does receive unwavering support from her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), although he needs her support just as much upon being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Through thick and thin, Ruth and Martin always treat each other as equals with neither trying to assert dominance in the household. The rest of the country sadly doesn’t share this outlook, as not a single law firm will take Ruth on after she completes her education.
For a while, Ruth seems content with shaping the country’s youth as a professor. She sees the potential to shape the country on the whole, however, upon learning of a man taking care of his invalid mother who’s been denied a tax deduction due to his sex. Exemplifying how gender discrimination doesn’t solely apply to women, Ruth decides to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Along the way, she receives help from his family and a journalist (Justin Theroux) who knows how to work the system. Ruth must also go up against her old Dean from Harvard, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston).
“On the Basis of Sex” is ultimately an involving legal drama with a message that carries weight even to this day. If there’s a downside, it’s that there aren’t a ton of surprises, as director Mimi Leder and first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman hit most of biopic beats one would expect. For all the familiarity, though, the film does its subject matter justice with a strong ensemble and a lesser known chapter in U.S. history worthy of further examination. Unlike the person at its center, “On the Basis of Sex” might not change the world, but it does leave us hopefully for a better tomorrow.
A Disney Sequel That Works, Can You Imagine That? ****1/2
Much like how the lightsaber was passed from one generation to another in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Mary Poppins Returns" marks the passing of the umbrella.
Read full review at Story Monsters.
Transformers: Fully Loaded ***1/2
2007’s “Transformers” might not have been a masterpiece, but it was a visually engaging and self-aware blockbuster, as well as the most ambitious giant robot movie ever made at the time. Director Michael Bay just kept giving audiences the same exact thing over and over again through the next four sequels, however. With each passing film, the characters grew more obnoxious, the stories became more convoluted, the explosions got more redundant, and the runtimes dragged on longer, but of course that didn’t stop audiences from throwing their hard-earned money away. After “Transformers: The Last Knight” failed to make a billion dollars, though, the studio seemed to finally get the message: give us something different already!
After almost a decade, this franchise finally delivers something new with “Bumblebee.” Well, “new” might not be the best choice of words, as it’s not without a few overly familiar moments. You can draw parallels between this film and numerous other friendly robot movies, from “The Iron Giant,” to “Short Circuit,” to “Big Hero 6.” There’s also clearly echoes of “E.T.,” which isn’t surprising since Steven Spielberg is an executive producer. That being said, the characters are likable, the story is easy to follow, the action is inventive, and it clocks in at just under two hours. What’s more, the female characters aren’t treated like sex objects and the product placement is restricted to a tiny plug for Charmin toilet paper. Above all else, it feels less like a Michael Bay movie and more like a legitimate “Transformers” movie.
While Bay remains a producer, he hands directing duties over to Travis Knight, who made the exhilarating stop-motion epic “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson take the franchise back to its roots and the setting back to the 1980s. In the midst of a war between the evil Decepticons and a group of freedom fighters, a yellow Autobot lands on Earth where his memory is wiped and his speaking function is impaired. Taking on the form of a Volkswagen Beetle, our titular robot is discovered by a teenage mechanic named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who names him Bumblebee. As Charlie trains her new robot buddy and grows closer with a nerdy neighbor boy (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), two Decepticons are hot on Bumblebee’s trail, as is a military man named Jack Burns (John Cena).
Hiding an alien creature in a suburban household isn’t anything new and the filmmakers seem aware of this, even referencing “ALF.” While there are tropes we’ve seen before, there are several things that set “Bumblebee” apart. For starters, Steinfeld is a wonderful actress and sells every moment she’s onscreen. It never feels like she’s talking to a blank space where a CGI robot was inserted later. You believe that she’s forming a genuine connection with Bumblebee, who gets a great deal of emotion across through his body language and wide, emotive eyes. It’s a sincere relationship that’s been missing from the “Transformers” movies for some time.
Cena has a lot of fun in his role as well. It would’ve been easy to simply portray him as another stick-in-the-mud army man architype who never gets the joke, but Cena actually steals some of the film’s funniest lines. While there are moments where the character succumbs to a few frustrating clichés, he’s given just enough redeeming qualities to even out. Plus, they don’t turn him into a bumbling idiot either. Heck, he’s the first one to realize that the Decepticons might not be entirely trustworthy, seeing how “deception” is part of their name.
The action is very much in the tradition of the classic “Transformers” animated series. The CGI characters have a cartoony charm, but they feel real, making for plenty of rock ‘em sock ‘em action that never gets too excessive. Unlike Bay, Knight thankfully lets the camera sit still for more than five seconds. On top of that, Knight and Hodson know how to balance action with heart. The greatest flaw with the past four “Transformers” movies if that we never cared about anyone involved or what was going on. Here, we not only grow attached to these characters, but become more invested in them than we ever thought possible. In that sense, this one is definitely more than meets the eye.