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About 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 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 16 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, Another Top 10 Super Bowl Commercials, and Top 10 Worst Movies of 2014. 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.

Rating Scale

5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

Halloween

H4O: Forty Years Later ****


It goes without saying that the original “Halloween” is a magnum opus of horror. Despite clearly being a product of 1978, John Carpenter’s film still holds up phenomenally with its slow-building tension, chilling atmosphere, and daunting antagonist. The sequels are a different story, however. While the other films in this franchise aren’t exactly good, they certainly have an interesting history. Michael Myers was supposed to die for good in “Halloween II,” he was taken out of the equation entirely in “Halloween III,” and made a comeback in “Halloween 4.” Two more disappointing sequels later, “Halloween H2O” retconned everything following the second film and served as the final nail in Michael’s coffin. Of course, seeing how the next film was called “Halloween: Resurrection,” the final nail obviously didn’t stick.


After getting a Rob Zombie reboot, as well as a second “Halloween II,” you’d think another film would be the cinematic equivalent of beating a dead horse. Yet, David Gordon Green’s addition to the series, simply entitled “Halloween,” is a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to say if this is the sequel we’ve always wanted or the sequel we never knew we wanted. After all this time, however, it’s highly satisfying to see a successor that does the original justice, acting as both a homage and a worthy continuation of the story. The film doesn’t surpass its predecessor and likely won’t go down as a game-changer, but it is the most fun and personal “Halloween” sequel to date.


Green and company once again erase much of the muddled continuity, only recognizing the first film as canon. It’s also established upfront that Laurie Strode, once again played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is not related to Michael Myers, once again played by Nick Castle, as well as stuntman James Jude Courtney. Michael has been locked up for forty years, but the emotional scars he imprinted on Laurie that fateful Halloween night never left. Much like a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, Laurie acts as if she’s still in constant danger, unable to leave the war behind. Laurie's paranoia caused her to grow distant from her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer in an especially effective performance. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is more sensitive to her grandmother’s condition and wishes to unite her family. As Allyson tries to bring everyone together, Michael prepares to tear them apart as he escapes from incarceration. 


It’s never made clear why exactly Michael is drawn to the Strode family, although the mystery surrounding their dynamic only adds to its unsettlingly nature. Michael's creep factor always stemmed from not knowing if he really was the boogeyman or just a freakishly strong psychopath. Either way, he commands the screen here with his overwhelming psyche and nerve-wracking presence. Granted, it’s kind of hard to believe that a man in his early 60s could step on someone’s head and crack open their skull like a Jack-o'-lantern. If you’re willing to give into a little suspension of disbelief, though, you’ll find a well-crafted and even character-driven thriller.


The film likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without Curtis. Few performers get to revisit their career-defining role decades later and she doesn’t miss a beat. Curtis evolves Laurie from a likeable, strong-willed heroine to a fiercely complex soul with several different layers as a character. Every actress in the film turns in strong work, making for a slasher flick that embraces female empowerment. Come to think of it, the men here are all pretty idiotic by comparison. The smartest male character by far is a little boy played by Jibrail Nantambu, who realizes that it’s usually better to run from Michael than to try and fight him off.


Green skillfully captures the look and tone of Carpenter’s film while also incorporating a modern element. The standout set piece is a tracking shot that follows Michael through a neighborhood of houses, leaving us overwrought with suspense as we wonder what he’ll do next. The screenplay, which Green co-wrote with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, is playfully self-aware, although it never goes into flat-out satire territory. Carpenter even returned to work on the film’s score, which, much like the “Star Wars” theme, never fails to get the blood rushing. It all builds to an electrifying climax that may or may not be Michael’s last stand. In any case, this feels like the right place to end Laurie’s journey, sending her into the night on a high note full of tricks and treats.

Beautiful Boy

I learned it by watching you! ****


They say relapse is part of recovery. Some people might take this phrase the wrong way, assuming that it gives addicts permission to repeatedly fall off the wagon and for rehab facilities to not take as much responsibility for their patients. No matter how you interpret these words, one thing is clear: when it comes to addiction, temptation is always staring you in the face and anyone can give in at any time. Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” has an evident understanding of how relapse and recovery are intertwined. It pulls no punches and provides no easy answers, but that’s exactly what makes this adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir so effective.


Steve Carell revealed a completely different side of himself in “Foxcatcher,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He continues his string of powerful dramatic performances as David, a dedicated father who’s shocked to learn that his teenage son is addicted to meth, amongst other drugs. Between his supporting work in “Lady Bird” and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” Timothée Chalamet secured his place as last year’s breakthrough actor. As Nic Sheff, Chalamet once again demonstrates why he’s one of the most impressive young actors of his generation. A model student who gets accepted to several colleges, you’d never know that Nic is a meth addict based on a conversation with him. That just goes to show how susceptible we all are to addiction.


After hitting rock bottom multiple times, Nic sincerely tells his family that he wants to get clean. Nic commits to attending AA meetings, taking regular drug tests, and checking in with his sponsor. Along the way, he receives unconditional support from his father, as well as his step-mother (Maura Tierney) and estranged birth mother (Amy Ryan). A more straightforward film would’ve closed the curtain at this point, but Nic’s inner demons aren’t so easily silenced. Just when looks like his junkie days are in the past, Nic shows us that old habits die hard.


Nic is a character many viewers will grow frustrated with. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking watching this promising young man continually get his act together only to flush his sobriety down the toilet. Alas, anybody who’s battled addiction knows that this vicious cycle is all-too common. Although “Beautiful Boy” is authentic in its portrayal of Nic’s struggles, it’s just as much about the hardships his parents endure. The film constantly flashes back between David’s perception of Nic as a child and his current state, which will resonate with anyone who’s watched a loved one transform over time due to substance abuse. Eventually, David needs to choose whether to aid his son yet again or finally accept that no matter what he does, Nic will likely get himself killed. His decision isn’t as simple as one might assume.


“Beautiful Boy” is far from the first movie to tackle this subject matter. Its themes can be traced all the way back to “The Lost Weekend” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Of course, this is exactly why addiction is such a prevalent topic. Even if it’s not as ambitious as “Requiem for a Dream” or “Trainspotting,” the performances are raw, the screenplay is genuine, and the filmmakers never lower themselves to cheap melodrama. The ending isn’t the happiest, although it’s not the saddest either. It merely reinforces the notion that recovery is forever a work in progress.

First Man

First! ****1/2


There’s a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which NASA grows desperate for ratings as audiences become less and less interested in space launches. Of course, when you really think about it, few sights known to humankind are more majestic than a spacecraft blasting through Earth’s atmosphere. The notion that anyone could find space exploration boring is truly baffling, especially since most of us will never even get to sit inside a rocket. Ever since we put a man on the Moon, though, there’s been a real “been there, done that” mentality about space travel. Even the Apollo 13 mission generated little public interest until the astronauts involved ran into “a problem.” By today’s standards, going to the Moon may sound like a fairly doable task. People forgot, however, that leading up to 1969, the idea of man stepping onto the Moon’s surface was not only imposing, but seemingly impossible.

 

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” captures all of gravitas that made the Apollo 11’s mission nothing short of historic. Outer space has been the setting of so many iconic movies. Some films even succeed in simulating the sensation of being in orbit, most notably Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” In a strange way, though,“First Man” takes us to uncharted territory, as if we’re seeing the vast recesses of space on the silver screen for the first time. What makes this especially interesting is that most of the film actually takes place on our planet, focusing on the sheer dread and uncertainty of venturing to another world.


In a role that Gary Cooper likely would’ve played in another lifetime, Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, who will naturally become the first man ever to walk on the Moon by the time the credits roll. Landing on the Moon is far from the most difficult thing Armstrong ever went through, however. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Armstrong and his wife Janet Shearon, wonderfully played by Claire Foy, cope with the fact that their daughter is dying. Science has come far enough to send a man into space, but it can’t save a two-year-old girl with a malignant tumor. Although Armstrong often appears composed, underneath he feels broken, withdrawn, and overwrought with grief. Whether Armstrong’s at a friend’s funeral or in a rocket cockpit, his daughter’s death follows him everywhere and it’ll take traveling over 200,000 miles away from Earth for him to let go.


Armstrong was often described as a reluctant American hero and Gosling nails this to a T. It doesn’t require much more than a simple facial expression to know that the weight of the world is bearing down on his shoulders. He didn’t become an astronaut because of the fame or glory. Most of the time, he doesn’t even come off as very enthusiastic about his job. At the same time, he accepts this daring mission knowing full well that even a basic wiring problem aboard the spacecraft could result in immediate death. Armstrong doesn’t appear phased by the possibility of dying. What does scare him, however, is having to sit his two living children down and tell them that he may not come back alive.


Chazelle previously made “La La Land,” my personal favorite movie of the past decade. His follow-up film is a complete detour from his other works, further exemplifying his incredible range as a director. Along with Gosling and Foy, Chazelle gets universally strong performances from Jason Clarke as Ed White, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton. The combination of Linus Sandgren’s cinematography and Tom Cross’ editing creates a claustrophobic sensation that places us in Armstrong’s shoes at all times. Composer Justin Hurwitz goes from the City of Stars to literally touching the stars with a musical score that embodies the infinite wonder of space. What’s more, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer deliver a deep character study that avoids obvious symbolism.


Speaking of obvious symbolism, it’s worth mentioning that “First Man” has stirred up some drama due to a report that the filmmakers omitted the planting of the American flag. Those demanding a boycott of the movie are completely irrational, especially since the film DOES in fact show the American flag on the Moon in the final act. Anyone who skips the film over this quote unquote “controversy” will be missing out on one of the year’s most awe-inspired cinematic experiences. More importantly, the ending reminds us that the Moon landing wasn’t just a giant leap for Americans, but a giant leap for mankind.

Bad Times at the El Royale 

The Hateful Seven ****1/2


“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a thriller sure to draw comparison to the works of Quentin Tarantino, calling “Jackie Brown,” “True Romance,” and especially “The Hateful Eight” to mind. The film also has echoes of artists like Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen brothers, and Vince Gilligan. Even with so many parallels, it still emerges as one of the freshest and most fun times you’ll have at the cinema this year. Director Drew Goddard previously brought us “The Cabin in the Woods,” which also seemed to tread on familiar territory at first glance. Like his previous directorial outing, though, “Bad Times” ultimately takes us so some truly unpredictable places.


Akin to “And Then There Were None” or the screen adaptation of “Clue,” the film centers on a group of strangers who arrive at the El Royale hotel. Each guest signs in with a suitcase of secrets and a catchy name. Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast as Daniel Flynn, who’s committed more sins than his clerical clothing suggests. Cynthia Erivo, who’s best known for her work in Broadway productions like “The Color Purple” and “Sister Act,” gives a stunning breakthrough performance as Darlene Sweet, a soulful singer struggling to make it against the prejudice backdrop of 1969. Dakota Johnson gives her best performance as Emily Summerspring, a rebel on the run with her sister (Cailee Spaeny). Jon Hamm also hams it up as Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman who’ll need something much stronger to clean the crime scene about to unfold.


Working behind the desk is a nervous concierge named Miles Miller, played by Bill Pullman’s son, Lewis Pullman. Miles is seemingly the only employee at the El Royale, which only adds another layer of mystery to an already enigmatic destination. This is one of those movies where the environment is so rich that it feels more like a character than a setting. The production design mixes the glamor of Hollywood with the sleaziness of Las Vegas. As a matter of fact, the hotel is located smackdab in between California and Nevada with a line running straight through the lobby. Likewise, all of these characters walk a fine line between being lost and found.


Each guest strives to get through a stormy night with the promise of receiving a fresh start in the morning. With the arrival of a charismatic cult leader played by Chris Hemsworth, however, it appears the sun may never rise again for any of these people. The El Royale thus serves as an allegory for purgatory. On the surface, it seems like a getaway spot where troubled souls can escape their sinful pasts. Behind all of the smoke and mirrors, though, every visitor is being watched and judged. When the time comes to check out, they can either exit through the golden gates or be engulfed by hellish flames.


Although the runtime clocks in at 140 minutes, Goddard’s script never feels slow or overstuffed. Ensemble pieces aren't easy to execute, but Goddard juggles each character without once dropping a ball. Everyone’s story arc is equally engaging and you never find yourself wanting to fast-forward through one subplot to get to another. The star-studded cast, sharp screenplay, and smashing direction are complemented by Michael Giacchino’s musical score and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. Like “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” may not become an overnight hit, but it’s destined to become an overnight cult classic.

22 July

Not to be confused with Mile 22 ***1/2


Few directors know how to submerge the audience into chaos quite like Paul Greengrass. Where the shaky cam technique can come off as distracting and self-indulgent in so many other thrillers, Greengrass never fails to deliver a masterclass of cinematography and editing, creating a documentary style that feels all-too real. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in “United 93,” which to this date is still the most convincing depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “22 July” opens with an intense sequence that almost revivals the entirety of “United 93.” What follows is also dramatically compelling, but the film ultimately goes from near greatness to pretty goodness.


As the title suggests, the film revolves around the Norway terrorist attacks that occurred on July 22, 2011. As with many of his other projects, Greengrass casts virtually unknown actors as opposed to big names, making the experience all the more authentic. Anders Danielsen Lie is chillingly effective as Anders Behring Breivik, a lone terrorist who plants a car bomb in Oslo. This is only the first phase of the attack, as Breivik infiltrates a Workers' Youth League summer camp and claims 77 lives. In a lesser director’s hands, this sequence could’ve come off as manipulative and melodrama with a pretentious musical score playing over obvious symbolism. Through Greengrass’ lens, however, the action is brutal, uncompromising, and straight-up haunting.


This sequence is especially unnerving in a world where both terrorism and school shootings remain among human’s greatest issues. We feel as if we’re right beside the teenage victims as they run for their lives and take cover. Your heart will sink as Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is shot down and his younger brother (Isak Bakli Aglen) must make the impossible choice of going back or running. If the entire film was set on this island, “22 July” could’ve been one of the best thrillers of recent memory. For a film called “22 July, however,” much of the story focusses on the aftermath.


Breivik is inevitably captured by the authorities, which was always part of his long-term plan. He wants his day in court in order to explain the sick reasoning behind his irredeemable crimes. Jon Øigarden gives an especially strong performance as Geir Lippestad, a family man and layer who despises Breivik’s actions. Like Tom Hanks’ character in “Bridge of Spies,” though, he feels every person is entitled to equal representation and takes on Breivik’s case, knowing that it likely won’t end well for either of them. The rest of the film also chronicles the grief and trauma the survivors endured, mainly following Viljar’s road to recovery.


While the second and third acts of “22 July” are by no means bad, the film peaks early with that phenomenal opening. This movie suffers from the same problems as “Sully,”coincidentally another Tom Hanks flick. Both films depict some of the most fascinating and important events of the past decade. The repercussions of these events are interesting to learn about, but the ensuing courtroom drama isn’t nearly as engaging as what came before. That’s not to say that court room dramas can’t be gripping, but it’s hard to get that invested when the verdict is evident from the get-go. It doesn’t help that “22 July” is about 20 minutes too long at just under two and a half hours.


Despite falling short of its full potential, “22 July” is an intriguing history lesson for those who didn’t follow the Norway attacks as they were unfolding. Even if you did watch the news coverage back in 2011, the film is still a relevant reminder about the many problems surrounding gun politics. As a Netflix release, it’s definitely worth streaming, although you’ll want a big screen television to appreciate the film’s scale. It may not be one of Greengrass’ best films, but “22 July” does warrant comparison to “United 93” and “Captain Phillips,” the latter of which also starred Tom Hanks!

Venom

Feed me, Seymour! **


Sony’s history with the “Spider-Man” franchise is truly fascinating. The original “Spider-Man” broke new grounds for the superhero genre. “Spider-Man 2” was praised as one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time, as well as one of the best Marvel movies. The studio took a huge step backwards with “Spider-Man 3,” however, which packed in more subplots than it knew what to do with and tried to pass off Eric Forman as Eddie Brock. Sony was given a fresh start with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but its 2014 sequel repeated too many of the same mistakes. Spidey finally found a proper home in the MCU, but Sony is still trying to make their own cinematic universe happen with “Venom” serving as the first entry. Unfortunately, the film has more in common with Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” than “Iron Man.”


Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a charismatic yet cocky journalist. The most entertaining performance in the film comes from Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake, an evil genius who always has a dastardly monologue prepared. Although it should be obvious to everybody, Eddie is the only one who realizes Drake is bad news and tries to expose him. This results in Eddie losing his job and his fiancé (Michelle Williams) within the first several minutes. So basically, the film starts off like every crappy romantic comedy. Brock eventually finds an ally in a scientist (Jenny Slate), who reveals that Drake has been testing an alien symbiote on homeless people. Eddie comes into contact with the symbiote and inevitably finds himself sharing his body with an alter ego named Venom.


To address the elephant in the room, yes, Tom Hardy is a better Venom than Topher Grace. Of course, that’s kind of like comparing Matthew Broderick in 1998’s “Godzilla” to Aaron Michael Johnson in 2014’s “Godzilla.” One actor was painfully uncomfortable to watch, but his successor is just forgettable. It’s a shame because we all know that Hardy has great range as an actor, playing his fair share of heroes and villains. He’s not given the chance to create a compelling Venom or Eddie, however, as the screenplay never decides what their dynamic is supposed to be.


There was potential here for a gripping Jekyll and Hyde story, but the scenes between them are more reminiscent of Andrew and the Hormone Monster from “Big Mouth.” Seymour and Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors” also come to mind, given Venom’s desire to eat everyone in sight. Actually, Hardy stated that Ren and Stimpy provided inspiration for his performance, which should give you an idea as to why the movie’s tone is all over the place. You thought “The Last Jedi” went overboard with its humor? Well, in this movie we have Venom calling Eddie a “pussy.” Sometimes it’s legitimately funny, other times it’s so awkward that it’s hard not to laugh, and most of the time it’s just distracting, especially when you play the cheekier scenes against the dark, edgy moments.


Just as the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be, neither does its titular character. The film keeps building up Venom as an anti-hero, but we never see him do anything that heroic or villainous. Most of the time, it’s not even clear what his motivations are. We never understand why Venom forms an attachment to Eddie or why either of them cares so much about taking down Drake. If Sony wanted a standalone “Venom” movie to succeed, they should’ve just had him be a straight-up baddie and made Eddie’s descent into villainy the focus of the story. The anti-hero approach could’ve worked if they continued to evolve Eddie’s character in a sequel, but everything comes off as too rushed.


Director Ruben Fleischer previously made the wickedly fun “Zombieland,” but he feels out of his element here. The talented cast is forced to read from a screenplay riddled with pacing issues and several ideas that never mesh together. Compared to some other modern superhero movies, “Venom” is still more competent than “Batman v Superman” or “Fant4stic.” After multiple failed attempts, though, it’s evident that Sony is never going to get Venom right. It’s never a good sign when the best part of a movie is a preview for an upcoming movie. That being said, Sony hopefully has a much better project just around the corner.

A Star Is Born

A star is reborn ****1/2


There’s a rule in Hollywood that the remake never lives up to the original. “A Star Is Born” isn’t just a rare exception, but the rarest of exceptions. The versions starring Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand are among the most iconic musical dramas ever made. Most contemporary audiences aren’t even aware that both of those films were remakes of the Janet Gaynor classic, meaning we’re now on version number four. The fact that “A Star Is Born” keeps receiving the remake treatment isn’t what’s baffling. It’s that each remake has worked to a certain degree, which is virtually unheard of when it comes to other acclaimed films.


It wasn’t until I watched this latest interpretation that I finally realized why “A Star Is Born” keeps getting successfully remade. Between 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018, show business has gone through some radical changes. At the same time, however, showbiz hasn’t changed at all. Because of this, there will always be something new that can be brought to “A Star Is Born,” but the themes, story, and characters at its core remain timeless nonetheless. Bradley Cooper’s film is the best kind of update imaginable, capturing today’s entertainment climate while also encompassing the perennial highs and lows of being famous.


Stefani Germanotta, or Lady Gaga as she’s better know, is one of the defining artists of her generation. It wasn’t until she performed a “Sound of Music” tribute at the 87th Academy Awards, though, that Gaga demonstrated her true range as a performer. Gaga brings that same magic to her captivating performance as Ally, a waitress who’s told she’ll never make it as a singer. When a country western musician named Jack Maine (Bradley Cooer) stumbles into a drag bar by chance, he becomes entranced by her magnetic voice. He offers her a shot at stardom and soon a romance blossoms between the two of them, leading to fame, success, and heartbreak.


The chemistry our leads share never hits a false note. Their relationship stems from a place of sincerity that comes off as natural and both actors completely escape into their roles, making you forget that Gaga and Cooper are among the most recognizable people in the world. The audience buys their immediate connection and the hardships they endure draw comparison to many real-life celebrity couples, especially Johnny Cash and June Carter. The raw vulnerability each actor injects into their performance makes for one of the most deeply emotional cinematic experiences of the year.


The two make beautiful music together in more ways than one, as Gaga and Cooper can not only sing, but also worked on to the phenomenal soundtrack. With a long list of other contributing artists, including Diane Warren and Mark Ronson, “A Star Is Born” joins “La La Land” as one of the best original musicals of this generation. The film has no shortage of tunes that are worthy of a Best Original Song Oscar, but the most passionate is the duet “Shallow.” Most importantly, the music here actually advances the familiar story, making it feel fresh, modern, and exciting.


The entire ensemble shines bright with Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle both turning in surprising performances as Ally’s father and Jackson’s old friend, respectively. Sam Elliott is a strong Best Supporting Actor contender for his work as Jackson’s older brother, acting as a parental figure who fears his surrogate son will drink himself to death. Cooper is in a particularly unique position that could earn him five Oscar nominations, serving as the film’s director, lead actor, co-writer, co-producer, and one of the songwriters. The spotlight belongs to Gaga, however. She may already be a big star, but her performance here is like watching a star be reborn right before our eyes.

The Old Man & the Gun

One for the road ***1/2


Robert Redford has hinted that “The Old Man & the Gun” may be his final film, although it’s hard to say if he’ll follow through. Much like the main character in this film, Redford has been given numerous opportunities to get out of the game for good, but always seems to reel himself back in. In that sense, it would be fitting if this was Redford’s swan song. Then again, it would also be fitting if he went on to star in a few more films after this. Either way, this movie serves as an affectionate reminder as to why Redford has remained an active presence in the film industry for almost 60 years.


Writer/director David Lowery, who previously brought us “A Ghost Story,” establishes a look and style reminiscent of the movies Redford starred in throughout the 60s and 70s. Redford’s character here actually feels like an older version of Johnny Hooker from "The Sting." The film is based on a real-life career criminal named Forrest Tucker, who’s escaped from prison multiple times and is showing no signs of slowing down, despite his old age. Although Forrest makes a living knocking over banks with his gang, he pulls off every robbery with courtesy. He’s such a gentleman that the people he rips off can’t find it in their hearts to dislike him.


It appears Forrest has finally found a worthy advisory in a detective named John Hunt, played by Casey Affleck. After letting Forrest slip through his fingers once, John refuses to let his white whale get away again. While Redford and Affleck don’t share much screen time together, you can still feel their connection as tension continues to boil. The same can be said about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s dynamic in “Heat.” Even as John moves in closer to his target, Forrest wears a smile on his face without a care in the world.


“The Old Man & the Gun” is an interesting character study about someone who’s been running for so long that apart of them may want to get caught. When danger does loom around the corner, though, Forrest will do everything in his power to maintain his freedom. Of course in a way, Forrest’s bad habits will always keep him prisoner. At times he’s tempted to give up crime and settle down with a lovely woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). Alas, he can simply never stop running, even if nobody is chasing him. In his eyes, life is all about showing the world that he can’t be tied down.


Unlike his overlooked work in “All Is Lost,” Redford doesn’t really challenge himself as an actor here. His winking devil performance as Forrest is charming, but on the familiar side. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but it’s clear that this role was tailor-made for Redford. Whether it’ll be his last performance or not, it’s fun to see him take on a character like this again. No actor is better suited for the part and it’s a high note for Redford to go out on… assuming he sticks to his guns.

Night School

Back to school, back to school, to prove to Dad that I'm not a fool ***


Just a few months ago we got “Life of the Party,” a film about a middle-aged woman who returns to college. “Night School” basically has the same exact setup, except it’s about a thirty-something man trying to finish high school. Of course long before either of these comedies came along, this premise had already been done to death in countless other movies, not to mention sitcoms. To its credit, “Night School” is funnier than “Life of the Party,” although that really isn’t saying much. It’s certainly not without some inspired moments, but are there enough laughs to merit a passing grade? Well, let’s break a red pen and get to evaluating!


Kevin Hart plays Teddy, a smooth-talking swindler who struggles to focus in school and ultimately drops out. As a natural salesman, Teddy finds steady work selling barbeques, but loses his job after accidentally blowing up the establishment. Actually, the blast probably should’ve killed Teddy, but then the movie would only be about ten minutes long. Unable to get another respectable job without a high school diploma, Teddy finds himself saddled with two options: pass the GED exam or work at a Chick-fil-A knockoff. Teddy assumes he can charm his way through night school, but his teacher Carrie, played by Tiffany Haddish, can see right through his charade.


The ensemble is largely what elevates the middle of the road material. Hart gives one of his better performances, but it’s Haddish who dominates the screen. Reuniting with director Malcolm D. Lee of “Girls Trip,” Haddish lights up every scene she’s in with sass, wit, and a textbook of one-liners. Carrie’s misfit students are also a lot of fun with Rob Riggle as a lovable doofus, Mary Lynn Rajskub as an overexerted mom, Romany Malco as a conspiracy nut, Anne Winters as a juvenile delinquent, Al Madrigal as a waiter who gets on Teddy’s bad side, and Fat Joe as an inmate who skypes from prison. Their chemistry and quirks manage to spice up a plot that’s otherwise fairly by the numbers.


You don’t need to be a film historian to know how the plot is going to play out here. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the movie didn’t shoehorn in several tropes that only grow more frustrating the more times we see them. The most annoying subplot involves Teddy lying about being a high school dropout to his fiancé (Megalyn Echikunwoke). This inevitably works up to a scene towards the third act where the fiancé learns about Teddy’s dishonesty and dumps him, but there’s little doubt they’ll reconcile before the credits roll. Why do filmmakers keep including this cliché? It’s always forced, predicable, and doesn’t make for compelling drama or comedy. So what’s the point? It doesn’t help that Teddy’s fiancé lacks any personality outside of being the love interest architype.


For all the irritating clichés “Night School” has, it also takes the audience by surprise on occasion by switching things up a bit. Teddy and Carrie’s relationship refreshingly doesn’t evolve into a romantic one, which is rare for a comedy such as this. Taran Killam plays a slimy principal out to get Teddy, but he's thankfully not turned into a one-note villain. The screenplay actually gives him some legitimately funny lines, as well as moments of redemption. Even the climax, while not completely deviating from the formula, has a twist that makes Teddy’s story more identifiable.


The script was crafted by a total of six writers, all of whom have varying track records. Nicholas Stoller, for example, co-wrote “The Muppets” while John Hamburg helped scribed “Meet the Parents.” Both of these writers also worked on “Zoolander 2,” however. Malcolm D. Lee’s filmography is hit and miss as well, ranging from underappreciated gems like “Undercover Brother” to duds like “Scary Movie 5.” “Night School” isn’t the best or the worst project these artists have every worked on, falling somewhere in between. The film doesn’t always put its best foot forward, but the cast and several genuinely hilarious moments do help bump its grade up to at least a B-, albeit barely.

Colette 

The original ghostwriter ***1/2


“Colette” centers on a brilliant female writer who allows her husband to soak up all the credit for her work. If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because we got a fairly similar film not too long ago called “The Wife” starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. “The Wife” is admittedly a superior piece, as it paints a more complex portrait of marriage and manages to get so much across with so few words. That doesn’t make “Colette” an unworthy film by any means, however. It’s a beautifully made picture with passionate performance and an intriguing true story at its core. Even if the story in question sounds like one we’ve heard before, “Colette” still has something important to say.


Keira Knightley, who seems more determined than ever to go down as the queen of period pictures, stars as Gabrielle Colette, a strong-willed, intelligent woman living a simple country life. Colette falls for a charming yet conniving writer who uses the pen name of Willy, played by Dominic West. Desperate for money, Willy notices his wife’s unique talents when she writes a story about a young lady named Claudine. After giving her a few constructive notes, Willy decides to help Colette publisher her novel, but under his name. Although Colette is content with this arrangement at first, she eventually realizes her full potential as the modern age commences.


Colette’s marriage soon starts feeling like a prison sentence, especially when Willy locks his wife in a room and forces her to write more stories. Like most celebrity couples, the two wear smiles in public together, but are secretly growing further apart. As their marriage continues to deteriorate, Colette and Willy both seek out other women for comfort. At one point, both end up sharing the same mistress. Colette notably enters a relationship with a crossdressing artist named Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), who’s honestly fascinating enough to have a biopic of her own. All the while, Claudine is like the child Colette and Willy never had. She may be fictional, but she still suffers the side effects of her parent’s divorce.


The power struggle between Colette and Willy is largely what makes the film so gripping. Compared to Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in “The Wife,” however, their relationship doesn’t have as many layers. With Close’s performance, a single expression could tell the viewer that she’s a repressed artist torn between salvaging her marriage and claiming what’s rightfully hers. The weight of the world was bearing down on Close and the audience could feel all of her anguish. Although the conflict in this movie is virtually identical, it doesn’t pack as much of a punch. That’s probably because “Colette” is a bit more on the nose with its themes and wraps everything up in a tidy package.


While “Colette” could’ve dug deeper, there’s a great deal to admire nonetheless. Director Wash Westmoreland, who made the underrated “Still Alice,” turns in a visually appeasing piece with immersive sets and costume design. Knightley isn’t exactly stepping out of her comfort zone here, but it’s hard to not be won over by her delightful performance. West is equally appealing in his role, despite playing such a manipulative scoundrel. It may not change anything, but “Colette” does remind us that female voices have been silenced for far too long.

The Children Act

Trialed as an adult ***1/2


Sometimes a performance can elevate a film that would otherwise be average at best. “The Children Act” can consider itself lucky that it has an actress of Emma Thompson’s caliber onboard. While the movie itself is skillfully made and not without some well-crafted dialog, the filmmakers don’t always seem certain what they want to say. Even when the material is uneven, though, Thompson never hits a false note. This is perhaps her best performance since “Saving Mr. Banks” five years ago and that alone is enough to warrant a recommendation. 


In this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a workaholic judge. Fiona never had children, although she did settle down with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). Actually, “settle down” may be a poor choice of words, as Fiona is always focusing on a new case with no time for her family. After years of trying to be supportive, the neglected and sexually frustrated Jack flat-out tells his wife that he wants to have an affair. This conversation doesn’t play out exactly as you might think, though.


Rather than immediately erupting into a big blowout, Jack casually breaks the news as if he’s giving Fiona his two weeks notice. It’s a moment that catches the audience off-guard with its dark humor and brutal honesty. The scene tells us everything we need to know about their relationship with both Tucci and Thompson further demonstrating why they’re two of our finest performances. Fiona is naturally not okay with Jack’s proposition to sleep with other women while remaining married. Her workload is so heavy, however, that she has little time to repair the damage that’s already been done.


Fiona faces an especially difficult trial when a teenage boy named Adam (Fionn Whitehead) denies a blood transfusion that could save his life. As a Jehovah's Witnesses, Adam would rather die from leukemia than accept someone else’s blood. After visiting Adam in the hospital, Fiona rules in favor of giving him the blood transfusion anyway. This is where the film veers into bizarre territory, as Adam’s health improves and be begins stalking Fiona. The film never gives Adam much reason to be obsessed with Fiona, however. Does he see her as a potential parental figure or a lover? In any case, his character arc feels underdeveloped and never comes together. 


While Adam’s subplot can drag and could’ve been more fleshed out, it does give Fiona’s journey a bit more depth. It’s amazing how Fiona is always able to remain level-headed and professional in a work environment, even when dealing with an unstable dying boy. Whenever she’s at home, though, she feels powerless and uncertain. They say don’t take your work home, but in Fiona’s case it’s don’t take your home to work. All the while, Thompson is bold, raw, and stunning, breathing life into every scene.

The Predator

Predator: Resurrection ***


Much like “Ghostbusters” and “The Terminator,” “Predator” is a brand that Hollywood keeps trying to resurrect, even though it clearly peaked decades ago. While nothing has come close to topping the 1987 classic, we still go into every follow-up with our fingers crossed for a worthy successor. “The Predator” is the forth entry in the series, or perhaps the sixth if you consider those “Alien v Predator” movies cannon. The film doesn’t bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it does mark Shane Black’s return to the franchise over thirty years after playing Hawkins. Getting behind the camera for this sequel, Black aims to do the original justice while still making the project his own. In the same vein as “Alien: Covenant,” the results are entertaining enough, although you won’t exactly be clamoring for more once the credits roll.


The setup is fairly standard as another Predator lands on earth and crosses paths with a soldier named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). Through a series of contrivances, a Predator mask winds up in the possession of McKenna’s son (Jacob Tremblay). These scenes play out like an edgier “Flight of the Navigator” or “E.T.” Tremblay does an authentic job at portraying a character with asperger syndrome, further demonstrating that he’s one of the best child actors in the business right now. In order to protect his son and the world, Quinn joins forces with a badass group of military men. Also in the mix is Olivia Munn as Casey Bracket, a scientist with enough brain and brawn to go around.


Although the first “Predator” is often regarded as a Schwarzenegger movie, it was really an ensemble piece with memorable characters and one-liners audiences still quote to this day. Fortunately, if there’s one thing Black gets right in “The Predator,” it’s the chemistry between the cast. Bolobrook not only has a great dynamic with his Tremblay, Munn, and Yvonne Strahovski as his ex-wife, but his crew as well. Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane in particular bring a welcome sense of humor to the film. You can also feel the genuine camaraderie between Trevante Rhodes, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera as well. Even Sterling K. Brown manages to take a fairly stock villain and give him a passive aggressive, slimy charm.


Where the humans all shine, the least interesting part of “The Predator” is sadly the Predator itself. Sure, the Predator is cool and has a few new toys to play with here, but gone is the sense of mystery that hooked us in to begin with. The Predator works best as an enigmatic foe that the audience doesn’t know much about. Because of this, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to build a franchise around the Predator with each installment delving deeper into its origins. To this movies credit, though, it does humorously point out that the Predator should really be called the Hunter.


Even if the Predator isn’t very interesting this time around, our investment in the humans does add gravitas to the action sequence, which – being a Shane Black production – are well-executed. Granted, the CGI can occasionally come off as lazy, but Black still works in plenty of practical effects to balance matters out. You also have to give the studio props for green-lighting a hard-R action movie, especially after “The Meg” wimped out with a PG-13 rating. Between the comedy, the cast, and the set pieces, there’s a solid film in here that’ll amuse fans of the franchise. If you’re expecting something that’ll breathe new life this series, however, be prepared to wait for the next step in evolution.