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Crazy Rich Asians - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 14, 2018 at 8:35 PM Comments comments (1)

Quality romantic comedies are a rarity in this day and age, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is among the best of recent memory. The plot isn’t anything revolutionary per se, as you can predict pretty much everything that’s going to happen if you’re even remotely familiar with this genre. Even if the story isn’t unique, however, the film’s signature certainly is. In what could have been a very by the numbers adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel, the filmmakers go all out with a lot of clever one-liners, style in spades, and a winning ensemble. Speaking of which, this film has the distinction of being the first major Hollywood production with a mostly Asian American cast since “The Joy Luck Club,” which came out a staggering 25 years ago.

Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” makes the leap from television actress to bona fide movie star as Rachel Chu, an economics professor who’s dating Henry Golding’s Nick Young. Rachel is oblivious to the fact that Nick comes from an insanely wealthy family, although she starts to catch on during a first-class flight to Singapore. In town for a wedding, Nick introduces Rachel to his assortment of relatives, who range from delightfully quirky to condescendingly cold. Rachel soon finds that it’s going to be an uphill battle impressing Nick’s stern mother (Michelle Yeoh), who outright tells her that she’ll never be enough. Nick, meanwhile, is torn between returning to Singapore permanently for the sake of his family’s business or staying in New York to start a life with the woman he loves.

On paper, that setup really doesn’t sound like anything new. As is the case with any romantic comedy, though, it’s what the actors bring to the table that matters most. Fortunately, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a film that bursts with personality. Wu is a natural screen presence and we get surprisingly swept up in Rachel’s story as she tries to make a good first impression. Nick thankfully isn’t restricted to being a bland boyfriend archetype and his chemistry with Rachel never feels insincere. While Nick’s relatives aren’t all especially welcoming, the film wisely doesn’t turn any of them into a one-dimensional villain. Yeoh even brings a great deal of depth to Nick’s mother, striking just the right note of being controlling and concerned. All the while, rapper Awkwafina steals the movie’s best lines as Rachel’s old college buddy.

I haven’t been a huge fan of Jon M. Chu’s previous films, which include “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Jem and the Holograms.” His hyper style is perfectly suited for this modern Cinderella story, however. Where a lesser director would’ve taken a more straight-forward approach, Chu packs every shot with extravagant sets and colorful costumes that’ll make the viewers feel as if they’re at a party. Speaking of which, the big wedding is one of the most inventive you’ll ever see, turning the aisle into a babbling brook. There’s always something visually interesting to get wrapped up in, but not at the expensive of the character development or heartfelt love story.

Following the Oscar So White social media campaign, the industry has responded with several high-profile films centered on African Americans, including “BlacKkKlansman” and “Blindspotting.” The lack of Asians represented in Hollywood pictures has been even more prominent over the years, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is a significant step in the right direction. Of course, having a mostly Asian American cast doesn’t automatically equal a good or even progressive product. Just look at Margaret Cho’s short-lived sitcom, “All-American Girl.” What makes “Crazy Rich Asians” stand out is that the film respects its characters and doesn’t resort to cheap stereotypes. It’s a genuinely charming romantic comedy that audiences will remember in the years to come and will likely be viewed as a turning point for Asians in film. In that sense, perhaps “Crazy Rich Asians” is more revolutionary than I initially implied at the beginning of this review. That’s fitting, seeing how the movie’s message is to look deep into a person’s soul before completely judging them.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

BlacKkKlansman - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 10, 2018 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (0)

In the wake of the #OscarSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns, it’s safe to say that Hollywood is taking notice. “Black Panther” became the highest-grossing domestic release of 2018 and “Blindspotting” stole the show at Sundance. While it’s great that we’re getting all of these empowering movies, Spike Lee was making racially charged films long before trending hashtags were even a thing. While Lee’s directorial outings have been hit-and-miss, he’s given us some of the most provocative, challenging, and important films of the past thirty years, most notably “Do the Right Thing.” “BlacKkKlansman” is among Lee’s greatest cinematic achievements, mixing black humor and brutal honesty in a screenplay that’s as timely as it is entertaining.

The plot sounds so preposterous that you’d swear it was conceptualized as a blaxploitation picture or a “Chappelle's Show” sketch. Believe it or not, the film is based on the autobiography of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective who managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the late 70s. Speaking over the phone, Stallworth is even able to fool the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace). Stallworth can’t carry this ruse on alone for obvious reasons. So, when the KKK asks to meet him in person, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) steps in. Of course, Zimmerman is also put in a highly uncomfortable position, being Jewish. Nevertheless, both Ron and Flip convincingly play their roles, so much so that the Klan considers making Stallworth head of their local chapter.

The humor here strikes just the right balance of cringe-worthy and topical. As well-written as the script is, it’s the ensemble that makes the at times jaw-dropping dialog work. Washington previously had a bit part in Lee’s “Malcolm X” along with his father (Denzel) and is best known for his football career. He delivers a breakthrough performance as Stallworth, portraying him an ambitious detective who wants to prove his worth while also sticking it to the man. He has an especially strong rapport with Driver, who maintains a straight face even when saying the most heinous things to win over the Klansmen. The film also demonstrates the broad scope of racism, with Jasper Pääkkönen as a white trash extremist who holds nothing back and Grace playing a white-collar bigot who tries to mask his hate-filled stupidity with a fancy wardrobe.

While you’re not always proud of yourself for laughing at the film’s politically incorrect moments, you can take solace in knowing that all of the actors are in on the joke. That being said, “BlacKkKlansman” is much more than a social satire. While the film takes place nearly forty years ago, its themes ring all too true in today’s world. It’s probably not a coincidence that the film opens with a cameo from Alec Baldwin as an ignorant narrator and ends with a speech from Baldwin’s “SNL” counterpart, President Donald Trump. Playing Trump’s “Very fine people” comment alongside footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally could’ve come off as too on the nose in another film. “BlacKkKlansman” earns this moment, however, as it masterfully demonstrates the parallels between Trump’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan and David Duke’s “America First” slogan.

While “BlacKkKlansman” can be a harrowing experience when considering how little has changed over time, it does leave us with an encouraging portrait of law enforcement. Taking into account all of the black victims who have needlessly died at the hands of trigger-happy cops, the police have developed increasingly hostile reputation as of late. Although “BlacKkKlansman” doesn’t shy away from the abundance of racist cops out there, it mainly focuses on officers who strive for equality and don’t deserve to be labeled as pigs. You wouldn’t think such commentary would come from Lee, given how some of his previous movies have depicted the police. “BlacKkKlansman” reminds us that law enforcement isn’t always as black and white as it seems, however, which is just another reason why the film is a must-see.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Meg - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 9, 2018 at 11:20 PM Comments comments (0)

“The Meg” is kind of a difficult movie to review. You wouldn’t think that’d be the case, as it’s been marketed as a big, dumb shark movie and – to a certain extent – “The Meg” delivers just that. At the same time, though, it’s hard not to be disappointed when considering what could’ve been. For those who don’t know, director Jon Turteltaub originally set out to make an ultra-violent movie with a hard-R rating. Turteltaub was forced to leave the bloodiest scenes on the cutting room floor, however, in order to meet the requested PG-13 rating. Granted, an R-rating doesn’t automatically equal a good movie, but the premise for “The Meg” is perfectly tailored for an over-the-top gore fest. While the final product isn’t without salvageable attributes, it constantly feels like the filmmakers are holding back.

The film largely revolves around at an underwater research facility that encounters a giant shark known as a Megalodon, which comes roaring out of extinction. With a crew in jeopardy, the facility enlists Jason Statham’s Jonas Taylor, a former rescue diver who had a falling out with the team years ago. Just when it looks like it’s safe to go back in the water, the Megalodon makes its way to the surface and heads towards a beach. It’s naturally up to Jonas to stop the swimming/eating machine, along with a flirtatious oceanographer (Li Bingbing) and the billionaire who financed this expedition (Rainn Wilson).

Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, and Ruby Rose round out the supporting cast, which is refreshingly diverse. Of course the audience is really only here for two players: Jason Statham and the shark. If you want to see Statham fight a 75-foot, bone-crushing fish, then “The Meg” essentially delivers what you paid for. As ridiculous as it might be, watching Statham narrowly escape death while battling a shark is admittedly amusing. The fact that Statham manages to maintain a straight face throughout only adds to the fun. The Megalodon, while obviously CGI, is still a visually interesting creation. The production values on the whole are surprisingly impressive, which is both a strength and a weakness.

Going into “The Meg,” audiences are probably going to expect a silly monster movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. So in a strange way, the film might’ve benefited if the visual effects were a little cheesier, as it would be in the spirit of a B-movie. The tone of the film can occasionally feel uneven as well. Sometimes, “The Meg” relishes in its absurd nature, calling “Snakes on a Plane” and “Piranha 3D” to mind, but never quite reaching “Sharknado” territory. Other times, it feels like it’s trying to be a legitimately well-crafted movie reminiscent of “Jaws.” The opening even plays out a lot like Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, building tension by keeping the shark concealed at first. Is that really what viewers want out of a movie called “The Meg,” though? Well, to its credit, the film is at least a better prehistoric thriller than “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”

There’s a highly entertaining movie somewhere in “The Meg” and the parts that ultimately work are worth the price of admission. In order to meet its full potential, however, the filmmakers needed to take the setup to the next level. Don’t settle for being the diet version of “Deep Blue Sea.” Give us action sequences that defy all logic. Give us gratuitous profanity. Give us shamelessly graphic violence that goes for the R rating. Perhaps we’ll just have to wait to see the unrated director’s cut (fingers crossed).

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Spy Who Dumped Me - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 2, 2018 at 12:05 AM Comments comments (0)

From Paul Feig’s “Spy,” to the “Austin Powers” trilogy, to the original “Get Smart” series, the spy genre has always been a great source for satire. That’s not the only thing “The Spy Who Dumped Me” had going for it, what with a gifted cast, an Emmy-nominated co-writer, and an up-and-coming director. One would hope this might be that one summer comedy that takes you by surprise. The only real surprise here, however, is how lazy the film ultimately feels. What we’re left with is a waste of the talent involved, as well as a waste of our time.

Mila Kunis is Audrey, a slacker stuck in a meaningless job who spends most of her time playing video games. Audrey’s losing streak is capped off with her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) leaving and seemingly dumping her. She finds out in the worst way, though, that Drew is actually a CIA agent with some dangerous people on his trail. Through a series of contrivances, Audrey gets roped into a deadly mission along with her eccentric best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon). Also in the mix is Sam Heughan’s Sebastian, who - much like a Bond girl - could either be an ally or enemy.

Okay, so the story really isn’t anything special, but that’s the case for virtually every buddy picture. What matters is that the leads have strong chemistry and enough funny one-liners to go around, as demonstrated in films like “The Heat” and “Pineapple Express.” Alas, the writing here is on par with the uninspired plot and the actors struggle to elevate the material. Kunis has proven through movies like “Ted” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” that she’s a capable comedic actress, but she feels misdirected and underwritten in this bland role. McKinnon goes into overdrive and manages to score a few laughs, but not nearly as many as the filmmakers are hoping. It’s a shame since McKinnon has always been an MVP on “SNL,” but has yet to find a film project tailored to her abilities.

What about the villains? Do they bring any laughs to the table? Not even one. Like so many other modern action comedies, the filmmakers unwisely decide to make the bad guys threatening instead of humorous. They don’t even make memorable foils for our heroes. The main hechwoman played by Ivanna Sakhno is a stone cold gymnast who’d feel more at home in a movie like “Skycraper” than a comedy.

That’s the biggest problem with “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Aside from squandering its ensemble, the tone is all over the place. Half of the time, the film tries to be a legit action picture along the lines of “Rush Hour” or “48 Hrs.” Other times, it goes for a quirkier approach, which really doesn’t mesh well with the ultra violent and even mean-spirited scenes. It’s not impossible to balance darkness with lightheartedness or action with comedy. “Game Night,” for example, was not only well-plotted and cleverly written, but also delivered some well-choreographed set pieces without overshadowing the laughs. “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” meanwhile, plays out like a mission that’s better left forgotten than accepted.

Grade: 2 out of 5 Stars 

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on July 24, 2018 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

It’s been well over twenty years since the first “Mission: Impossible” movie hit theaters. After all this time, you’d think that the franchise would’ve run out of gas or have gotten a reboot with an entirely new cast. The sixth installment in the series is not only the best yet, however, but one of the most enthralling action films of the 21stcentury. In the same vein as “The Fast and the Furious,” this is a rare string of movies that's improved with each passing entry. Of course where the “Fast & Furious” movies are just plain fun, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” goes beyond simply being blockbuster escapism. It tells a well-crafted story with immensely likeable characters at the core. That in itself is a seemingly impossible mission accomplished.


Tom Cruise refuses to slow down as Ethan Hunt, the IMF agent who’s defied death almost as many time as James Bond. Hunt’s latest mission blows up in his face, however, resulting in the escape of Sean Harris’s Solomon Lane, the same antagonist from “Rogue Nation.” Although Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt is MIA, Hunt assembles the rest of his usual crew, including Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). It’s Rebecca Ferguson who steals the show as the captivating Ilsa Faust, whose loyalties once again fall into an ambiguous area.

Cruise has been the face of this franchise for two decades now and it’s clear that he’s still having a ball in arguably his career-defining role. Even if Cruise decides to retire his character one day, “Mission: Impossible” has evolved into an ensemble piece with several supporting characters who are more than capable of carrying a spinoff. “Fallout” brings a few new players into the fold, including Angela Bassett as the calculating head of the CIA and Vanessa Kirby as the seductively named White Widow. Then there’s Henry Cavill’s August Walker, who – like so many other characters in this series – may or may not be what he seems. Cavill is so charismatically crafty here that he’ll completely make you forget about the mustachegate controversy surrounding “Justice League.”

Above all else, “Fallout” is skillfully made spy thriller, earning comparison to modern classics like “Skyfall” and “Captain American: The Winter Solider.” The story is full of clever twists and turns that astonishingly don’t feel too convoluted or forced. Even when the filmmakers fall back on old tricks, such the classic mask reveal we’ve seen a dozen times before, they still manage to catch us off-guard. Like the franchise on the whole, there are some tropes that never get old, whether it’s a nail-biting countdown or Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme music. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is that this “Mission: Impossible” movie actually builds upon plot points established in previous films, such as Ethan’s marriage to Michelle Monaghan’s Julia. Seeing all of these narrative threads tie together is a nice touch, although you’ll still have a blast even if this is your introduction to “Mission: Impossible.”

While Christopher McQuarrie’s script deserves praise, it’s his direction that makes “Fallout” a knockout. McQuarrie blends practical effects with CGI so flawlessly that you can rarely tell what was shot on location and what was filmed in front of a green screen. Cruise has pulled off some astounding stunts throughout this series and he sets a new standard for himself in “Fallout,” from a motorcycle chase, to a HALO jump out of an aircraft, to flying a helicopter during the pulse-pounding climax. Cinematographer Rob Hardy deserves serious Oscar consideration, as does for Eddie Hamilton for his breathtaking editing. Going above and beyond, there isn’t a facet of this film that feels phoned in, making for a mission that’s impossible not to accept.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on July 21, 2018 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (0)

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” brings together a winning cast and a more than capable director to tell the story of a fascinating individual. Even if you’ve never heard of John Callahan, chances are you’ll recognize the signature style of his artwork. Personally, my first exposure to Callahan was through the early 2000s cartoon “Pelswick,” which also centered on a young man in a wheelchair. Of course, compared to the other projects with Callahan’s name on them, “Pelswick” was fairly tamed. In many respects, director Gus Van Sant’s film captures the spirit of the controversial cartoonist. In other respects, it leaves you wishing that the filmmakers had dug a little deeper.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan, who’s confined to a wheelchair following a drunken car accident. Although the ordeal leaves Callahan broken both physically and mentally, he’s slowly able to cope with this major life alteration through the help of a lovely physical therapist (Rooney Mara). Callahan has even greater demons to overcome, however, as he strives to quit drinking. He receives support from his hippie sponsor (Jonah Hill), but still struggles to let go of his anger. Callahan is especially resentful of his birth mother, who abandoned him as a child.

If there’s a reason to see the film, it’s Phoenix’s effective performance. Phoenix has had quite a year between “You Were Never Really Here” and now this. In both of these films, Phoenix masterfully walks a tightrope between utter despair and unlikely optimism. In this film, Callahan is able to find new meaning in his life by drawing sketches that wouldn’t seem that edgy today, but were quite taboo for the early 1970s. In the same vein of animator Ralph Bakshi, Callahan’s brand of black humor demonstrated that cartoons could appeal to an exclusively adult audience, pushing the envelope like never before.

As well-made as Van Sant’s film is, there are times when it feels like he needed more time in the editing room. While Callahan’s battle with alcoholism is handled with respect, these scenes start to meander after a while and just become repetitive. The film’s bloated length of almost two hours would’ve been more acceptable if Van Sant had instead dedicated a little more time to some of the supporting characters who come and go, most notably Jack Black as the man responsible for Callahan’s accident. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity pertains to the politically incorrect nature Callahan’s cartoons. Although it’s established that Callahan had his critics, the subplot feels underdeveloped and doesn’t really get to the meat of the controversy. Visually, it also would’ve been welcome if Van Sant had played around with Callahan’s art a bit more, perhaps by transitioning between animation and live-action to explore the artist’s psyche.

While not without its shortcomings, the film ultimately understands what Callahan stood for. Despite all the tragedy in his life, Callahan was able to channel that pain into something creative. By finding the humor in his own misfortune, his work showed us that we can still smile even during the darkest of times. In a way, this is the message “Patch Adams” tried and failed to get across twenty years ago. Coincidentally, the late Robin Williams was actually the one who originally optioned the book this movie was based on. It might not go as far as you might want, but there is enough here for the film to stand on its own.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

Blindspotting - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on July 20, 2018 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve gotten numerous films that’ve touched upon police brutality and prejudice. Few are as unique as “Blindspotting,” however. That’s largely because much of Carlos López Estrada’s film is unusually laidback and even lighthearted, playing out like a buddy comedy. This makes it all the more effective when instances of violence and discrimination inevitably sneak up on our characters. It demonstrates how a normal day can suddenly escalate into the worst of your life. Rather than constantly bombarding the audience over the head with obvious political commentary, the film takes the time to develop its characters, making the experiences all the more identifiable. The result is like “Clerks” meets “Crash” with a hint of “Do the Right Thing.”

Daveed Diggs has been popping up everywhere since his Tony-winning turn in “Hamilton.” He gives his best onscreen performance here as Collin, an African American convict only three days away from being off probation. Part of what makes Collin such an interesting protagonist is that he’s not a wrongfully accused man who falls victim to a corrupt system. Collin committed a serious crime and acknowledges that he needs to make some serious life changes. Of course this proves difficult since he’s constantly influenced by his best friend to make hotheaded discussions.

Rafael Casal gives a hilarious and powerful performance as Miles, Collin’s life-long best friend. Miles is even more prone to irrational behavior than Collin. Since he’s white, though, Miles only risks getting arrested where Collin fears he may be shot on sight by a trigger-happy cop. This becomes especially apparent when Collin witnesses an act of racial profiling that ends in tragedy. Although this shocking moment plays a crucial role in the film, it’s not the sole focus. Unable to do anything, Collin goes about his usual routine, trying to stay out of trouble with freedom just around the corner. Yet, that night never leaves Collin, no matter how hard he tries to shove the memory of the incident into his blindspot.

The highlight of the movie is the dynamic between Collin and Miles. Diggs and Casal couldn’t feel more natural together, which is probably because they both co-wrote the screenplay and have also been friends since childhood. “Blindspotting” isn’t just an exploration of racism in 21st century America, but also a fascinating study of friendship. Chances are we’ve all had a friend like Miles. He’s the kind of guy who’ll always have your back, but half of the time he’s the one who got you into trouble in the first place. On one hand, Collin and Miles are two peas in a pod who work off one another wonderfully. On the other hand, Collin has outgrown Miles in some respects and would arguably be much better off without him. It’s the kind of complicated friendship we rarely see take center stage and the dialog between these two never hits a false note.

“Blindspotting” is a film that constantly takes its audience to unexpected places. It starts off by catching you off-guard with its surprising sense of humor. Then it continues to play with expectations as our characters are overcome with moments of sheer dread. It all builds to a literally poetic climax that’ll have you on pins and needles with every breath the characters take. I won’t dare spoil the ending here, but let’s just say it perfectly fits the tone of this funny, provocative, and honest entertainment.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Skyscraper - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on July 11, 2018 at 8:15 PM Comments comments (1)

Through a critical lens, “Skyscraper” is admittedly an insanely dumb movie. The premise is ripped off from countless other action and disaster flicks, most notably “Die Hard” and “The Towering Inferno.” The story is only slightly less preposterous as Dwayne Johnson’s last two films, “Rampage” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” It’s also probably not a coincidence that the film is set in China, given the country’s prominent impact on worldwide box office. For the record, the film was actually largely shot in Vancouver. As silly as it might be, though, sometimes a summer blockbuster can get by on charm alone. There’s a good kind of stupid and a bad kind of stupid. Much like the recent “Fast & Furious” movies, “Skyscraper” fortunately falls into the latter category.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent who loses his leg in an explosion. Considering that he was standing right in front of the bomb when it went off, it’s rather miraculous that he didn’t sustain any other major injuries. Then again, this is the Rock we’re talking about. He can survive virtually anything, which Sawyer proves time after time when his family gets caught in a burning building. This isn’t any ordinary skyscraper. It’s an architectural behemoth complete with technological innovations. To make matters even more complicated, the skyscraper is being stormed by terrorists who wish to retrieve a literal plot device from the building’s owner (Chin Han). As the fire rages on, Sawyer must literally go to great lengths to rescue his family.

Johnson is of course perfectly suited for this over-the-top material. Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, Johnson doesn’t take this ludicrous plot too seriously, but still appears invested every step of the way. Speaking of which, the fact that Sawyer only has one leg doesn’t hold him back in the slightest as he leaps from massive cranes and outruns the authorities. It’s debatable whether this makes the film more ridiculous or more empowering to individuals with disabilities. Either way, Johnson is clearly having a ball and we can’t help but go along for the ride. That being said, it’s a good thing Sawyer didn’t lose either of his arms because he spends a large portion of this movie hanging off of ledges.

The supporting cast ain’t half bad either. As Sawyer’s wife, Neve Campbell manages to overcome the damsel in distress architype, often coming up with clever solutions to protect her children and herself. The villains, while fairly stock, are a lot of fun too. Roland Møller fits the bill as the leader of the terrorists and Hannah Quinlivan is worthy of a spinoff as his Asian henchwoman. Of course, the best performance in the film doesn’t come any of the actors, but the skyscraper itself.

The titular building, which is known as The Pearl, easily could’ve had a very generic look. Production designer Jim Bissell took it to the next level, however, giving us a setting that’s always visually interesting, both inside and out. The fact that the building is technologically advanced also makes leeway for a lot of inventive action sequences, most notably a house of mirrors set piece. It’s scenes like this that demonstrate the real effort and creativity that went into this project, despite not having the most elegantly written script to work with. The setup might’ve set the bar pretty low, but the filmmakers ultimately managed to rise above it and take the thrills to new heights.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The First Purge - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on July 4, 2018 at 1:15 AM Comments comments (1)

It might sound crazy, but “The Purge” movies have become usually relevant in today’s unpredictable political climate. They’re still preposterous and could never happen in real life, but the idea of all crime being legalized for 12 hours seems more probable today than it did five years ago. That being said, “The Purge” still hasn’t aged especially well, at least on a storytelling level. While the sequels made an effort to build upon the original’s intriguing premise and answer some of the gaping plot holes, none of these movies ever quite reached their full potential. The same can be said about “The First Purge,” which tries to work in some more timely political messages, but ultimately comes off as too safe, too familiar, and too on the nose.

In what’s arguably the most unnecessary prequel since “Solo,” this film explores the origins of the Purge. Before it was a national holiday, the Purge was a sociological experiment restrained to Staten Island. The story primarily centers on a couple low-income families, as well as a gang leader with a heart of gold. They have little interest in actually purging, but decide to participate in the experiment in exchange for $5,000. Isn’t that a little low even for people on welfare and food stamps? While there are a few psychopaths who come out to play, most of the murderers are actually missionaries who have been hired by a big bad politician to make sure the Purge is a success.

“The First Purge,” or “The Fourth One” as I like to call it, isn’t without welcome commentary. The movie addresses everything from social class hierarchy to the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike “Get Out,” however, the filmmakers don’t tackle these serious issues from a unique or thought-provoking perspective. It’s just by the numbers political subtext. Somewhere in there, there’s a really clever, relevant horror flick trying to emerge. Instead, it plays out like the “Captain Planet” episode that attempted to address gang violence. The intentions are noble, but you need smarter storytellers to pull this off.

Politics aside, the biggest problem with “The First Purge” is that it’s kind of dull. The idea of crime being temporarily legal is such a fascinating premise, but this franchise never takes advantage of all the crazy possibilities. Rather than pushing the envelope, the film settles for a lot of cheap jump scares and obvious symbolism. The action largely feels recycled from the previous outings with masked men senselessly running around with guns and knives. Everything else appears to have been ripped off from superior movies like “The Warriors” and “Die Hard.” In the end, it’s another wasted opportunity, as well as a waste of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei.

It’s a shame that none of “The Purge” movies are entirely successful because there truly is a fun setup at the core of the franchise. With each passing entry, you can’t help but go in hoping that this will be the one that gets it right. “The First Purge” is another letdown, though, and in many respects a step backwards for a series that’s never set the bar too high. Maybe it’s about time another filmmaker borrowed this premise and reworked it as a dark comedy. Actually, “Rick and Morty” already did that so just go watch their “Purge” episode.

Grade: 2 out of 5 Stars 

Leave No Trace - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on June 26, 2018 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (0)

From “The Hurt Locker,” to “American Sniper,” to “Thank You for Your Service,” we’ve gotten a lot of recent films that explore the side effects of war. “Leave No Trace” is one of the most unique movies to tackle such subject matter. The film has no footage of military combat. Actually, virtually any acts of violence whatsoever take place off-screen. The main character is never even depicted wearing a uniform and his experiences overseas are left mostly ambiguous. At first, many audience members likely won’t pick up on the subtle hints that our protagonist is a veteran suffering from PTSD. It’s this understated approach that makes “Leave No Trace” one of the best movies of its kind, though.

The film centers on Ben Foster’s Will and Thomasin McKenzie’s Tom, a father and daughter eternally camping in the woods. The opening scenes are largely clouded in mystery as we try to wrap our heads around their unusual living situation. Did aliens invade earth like in “A Quiet Place?” Did Will take parenting advice from the dad in “Captain Fantastic?” Is Meryl Streep about to pop out singing “Stay with Me?” The circumstances start to become clear after Will and Tom are discovered by the cops. Unable to return to their camp, the two are put up in a house via social services. It doesn’t take long for Tom to adjust to this change, getting along well with her new neighbors. While Will makes an effort, he simply can’t integrate himself back into society after enduring such trauma.

Foster has been doing reliable work as a character actor for well over two decades. Where he was previously seen as a wild card of sorts in “Hell or High Water,” Foster gives a low-key performance here that strikes just the right note. Like numerous other veterans, Will often appears cool and collected on the surface, but is overcome with pain and paranoia underneath. After everything he’s been through, this man is only able to find comfort in solitude. The fact that Will is responsible for his daughter’s well-being greatly complicates matters, though.

McKenzie delvers a powerful breakthrough performance as Tom, who loves her father and is willing to follow him wherever he goes. Once Tom gets a taste of a normal life, however, she may never able to go back to living in a tent. It would’ve been easy to depict Will as an abusive, manipulative parent who forces is beliefs on his child. While Will’s parenting techniques are indeed unethical, he’s also an understanding dad who wants his daughter to be happy. Since they’re unable to stay on the same course, though, Will may have no choice but to let Tom go. As unconventional as their condition might be, the audience doesn’t doubt Will and Tom’s rapport for a second.

Director/co-writer Debra Granik previously brought us “Winter’s Bone,” which was draped in dreary snow. In “Leave No Trace,” Granik submerges the audience in a green, springtime setting that’s beautiful while also being isolating, which perfectly fits the film’s tone. While the premise is certainly heavy-handed, the film merits a PG rating with no sex or bad language. This is a surprisingly inclusive drama that can appeal to wide range of ages. If you come from a military family or know somebody who’s gone through a similar ordeal, it’s definitely a must-see.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars