Nick Picks Flicks

Click here to edit subtitle

Nick's Blog

view:  full / summary

Bumblebee - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 19, 2018 at 3:40 PM

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.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Aquaman - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 18, 2018 at 5:45 PM

When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving forward with the DC Extended Universe, the projects that seemed to have the most potential were “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League.” Fans were more skeptical of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” as both characters were strangers to the big screen. Aquaman in particular isn’t the easier character to bring to life, what with his silly costume and even sillier powers. In an ironic turn of events, though, the DCEU movies audiences were most excited for fell short of expectations while “Wonder Woman” ended up being one of the best superhero movies ever made. “Aquaman” doesn’t reach the same heights as the DCEU’s finest hour, but it doesn’t sink to the lows of this franchise’s worst offerings either. At its best, the film gives us a modern, identifiable, and even badass interpretation of a character we never expected to be done justice in Hollywood.

While Jason Momoa previously appeared as Arthur Curry in “Justice League,” this solo outing delves deeper into his backstory. The son of a mortal lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), Arthur is the rightful heir to the underwater kingdom. Having been seemingly abandoned by his mother, his loyalties remain to the surface world. Arthur is convinced to fight for the throne, however, when his half-brother Orm, aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), plans to wage war against humanity for polluting the sea. Arthur is aided by a future aquatic queen named Mera (Amber Heard), his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), and a school of other creatures under the sea.

“Aquaman” struggles in the pacing department during its first act, as we’re bombarded with a lot of complicated exposition, not to mention characters who aren’t given proper introductions. It doesn’t help that the Atlanteans almost sound like they’re gargling whenever communicating underwater, making it difficult to catch crucial plot details. Fortunately, most of the dialog-heavy scenes take place above land while the ocean is reserved for action set pieces. That being said, this is easily the most visually interesting DCEU to date. Much like Gotham City in Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” Atlantis practically splashes out of the comics and into reality. It’s a phenomenally crafted location that leaves you wanting to learn more about its culture, technology, and history. Even when an effect is obviously computer-generated, you can always sense the creativity and passion that went into making it.

As rocky as the first half-hour or so is, “Aquaman” eventually finds its footing as a breezy treasure-hunting movie. The fate of Atlantis depends on Arthur and Mera uncovering the long-lost Trident of Atlan, taking them to the Sahara Desert, Sicily, and several other scenic spots. The film is actually very much in the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” movies, which managed to take themselves seriously while still being playfully self-aware. Likewise, the film’s depiction of Aquaman strikes a solid balance of godlike and down to earth. He’s someone who will fearlessly swim headfirst into battle, but is still the kind of guy you can have a drink with.

Arthur’s character arc admittedly would’ve been more compelling if he had a stronger antagonist to go up against. While his motivations are relatable, Orm is a fairly bland villain when stacked up against Killmonger or Loki. Arthur actually has a far more interesting rivalry with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s David Kane, who’s given a legitimate reason for wanting Aquaman dead. While we do get to see Kane suit up as the bug-eyed Black Manta, his alter ego’s screen time is restricted to one fight against Arthur. This action sequence alone is so dazzling, though, that you look forward to seeing a rematch in the inevitable sequel.

Director James Wan and company have turned in a refreshingly self-contained adventure that works as both a standalone outing and a piece of a larger cinematic universe. The filmmakers never forget that this is Arthur Curry’s story, which has just enough pathos, splendor, and fun to stay afloat. In a year that brought up “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” it’s not a game-changer by any means. After hitting some rough waters, though, it succeeds in fishing the DCEU out of trouble and redefines Aquaman for a new generation.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Vice - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 17, 2018 at 1:05 PM

Given today’s political climate, you can see why some people long for the days when Dick Cheney had the country in the palm of his hand. When the credits roll on “Vice,” though, the audience is left seriously contemplating which poison they’d rather gulp down. That’s not to say Adam McKay’s film is “liberal propaganda” or “fake news.” The film’s depiction of Cheney – while far from positive – feels surprisingly human and at times even identifiable. You might not agree with Cheney’s politics. You might flat-out despise him as both a politician and a person. Walking out of the film, however, we are given better insight into how Cheney developed into a modern Shakespearean villain. As he did with “The Big Short,” McKay accomplishes this with a sharp wit, biting commentary, and an all-star ensemble.

From “The Machinist,” to “The Fighter,” to “American Hustle,” few contemporary actors have transformed themselves more times than Christian Bale. He goes through his most radical makeover yet in “Vice,” portraying Dick Cheney from his early political days as an underling of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to the height of his power as Vice President of the United States. This could’ve backfired in so many way, but Bale looks the part with a significant weight gain coupled with spot-on makeup. Physical appearance aside, what’s even more remarkable is how Bale escapes into the role, capturing Cheney from various perspectives.

While the film doesn’t shy away from Cheney’s most controversial moments in office, it also presents him as a dedicated family man. He shares an especially strong rapport with his wife Lynne, played by Amy Adams in a resilient performance that channels Lady MacBeth. Cheney’s even depicted as a loving father when his youngest daughter (Alison Pill) comes out of the closet, immediately accepting her despite his ultra conservative beliefs. Had his political career ended with George H. W. Bush’s administration, his legacy would likely be viewed in a very different light. As we all know, though, the world’s perception of Cheney would be forever changed when he signed on to be George W. Bush’s Veep.

Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Bush falls somewhere in between Josh Brolin’s performance in “W.” and Will Ferrell’s impression on “Saturday Night Live.” Bush takes a backseat to #2 in this film, which is fitting since Cheney was always the one running the show. From the beginning, Cheney can see that Bush’s presidential campaign is more about earning his father’s respect. Bush’s lack of experience makes it easier for Cheney to take advantage of his position, particularly after the World Trade Center falls. As he climbs up the political ladder, Cheney slowly becomes more and more heartless, both literally and figurative. Bale is so slick and persuasive in the role, however, that you can understand why many people supported Cheney, who truly felt that what was best for his own ego was also best for the country he served.

The cast is rounded out with wonderful work from Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, and Jesse Plemons as a mysterious narrator, all of whom resist the temptation to plunge their performances in satire. That being said, “Vice” is also a wickedly funny picture with an equilibrium of brutal honesty and ingenious fourth wall breaks. Although it juggles multiple different tones, everything about “Vice” feels perfectly balanced, standing out as the most well-edited film of the year. It’s not often that a movie manages to be both a ton of fun and a harrowing portrait of the world we live in, but “Vice” gets people fired up in all the best ways.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 12, 2018 at 7:00 PM

Back when Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie hit theaters in 2002, we all thought it would go down as the definitive version of the web-slinger and nobody would ever replace Tobey Maguire. Since then, however, there have been multiple reboots with Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland inheriting the role. Although he’s finally part of the MCU, Sony has spun their own web of projects centered around Spidey, including the animated “Into the Spider-Verse.” At this point, anything “Spider-Man”-related should feel redundant, but there are several aspects that set “Into the Spider-Verse” apart. For starters, it’s well aware that Spider-Man has become overexposed and we’ve heard Peter Parker’s origin story one too many times. Thankfully, Peter Parker isn’t the protagonist of this film, although we still get a fresh take on the OG Spider-Man.

Ever since he made his debut in 2011, comic readers have been clinging to see fan favorite Miles Morales on the big screen. Shameik Moore takes center stage as Miles, a Brooklyn teen who’s brilliant but lazy. Aside from attending a charter school, Miles has an otherwise average life with loving parents (Brian Tyree Henry & Rio Morales), a fun uncle (Mahershala Ali), and a cool crush named Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). His universe is turned upside down, however, when Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super abilities. While that might not sound like anything new, this is where matters get interesting. The villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has developed a super collider that allows multiple realities to cross paths. Miles thus runs into an alternative version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who – similar to Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi” - has grown tired in his old age and is ready to call it quits as Spider-Man.

Peter isn’t the only Spider-person Miles encounters, as it turns out Gwen is from another universe where she protects New York as Spider-Woman. There’s also Nicolas Cage as the brooding Spider-Noir, Kimiko Glenn as the anime-esque Peni Parker, and John Mulaney as Spider-Ham, no relation to Spider-Pig from “The Simpsons Movie.” Each of these characters has their own distinctive style and movements, making for a lot of fast-paced interplay. One can’t help but wish there was more time dedicated to some of the supporting players, particularly Zoë Kravitz as Mary Jane Watson and Lily Tomlin as a badass Aunt May. Of course, they’re not the focus of the story. The heart of narrative lies in the dynamic between Miles and Peter, as one learns how to be his own Spider-Man and the other discovers that there’s still more good he can do.

“Spider-Man” movies are known for packing in too many villains and “Into the Spider-Verse” comes dangerously close to repeating this mistake. In addition to Kingpin, the film also features Kathryn Hahn as Doc Ock, Jorma Taccone as Green Goblin, Marvin "Krondon" Jones III asTombstone, and a few others. To the film’s credit, though, each villain plays a vital role in at least one inventive set piece that furthers the story. So, it’s not hollow fan service, as was the case with Venom in “Spider-Man 3” and Rhino in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” On top of that, the film does a much better job at establishing the main villain’s motivation. Kingpin is a ruthless thug whose appearance alone is daunting, but we do understand why he’s willing to go to such extreme lengths to get what he wants.

Akin to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s beyond impressive that the filmmakers are able to juggle so many character as well as they do while still finding room to tell a compelling story. What’s more, every frame of “Into the Spider-Verse” is a visual marvel. Much like how “The Lego Movie” felt like a brickfilm on a multi-million-dollar budget, this film actually makes the audience feel as if they’ve been sucked inside a graphic novel. This isn’t surprising, as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller worked on both of these modern animated classics. The attention to detail is so great that viewers can even spot those little bumps one would find on a comic’s printed page.

In the same vein as “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” “Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated incarnation that succeeds in outshining some of its live-action counterparts. If I had to rank all of the Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi's “Spider-Man 2” would still come out on top. “Into the Spider-Verse” would swing into second place, however, with its self-aware humor, dazzling animation, and unbound imagination. Going into the theater, you might share Kisten Dunst’s sentiment that Sony and Marvel have been “milking” the franchise. By the time the credits roll, though, you’ll find that the possibilities are truly endless.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Mortal Engines - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 12, 2018 at 7:00 PM

Watching “Mortal Engines,” you never doubt the filmmakers’ high aspirations. It’s clear that they want to make an epic adventure that really triggers the imagination like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or “The Lord of the Rings.” Speaking of which, the film was produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, who reunites with several major players from his Middle-earth trilogies, including director Christian Rivers. It’s possible for a movie to be too ambitious for its own good, however, and “Mortal Engines” sadly bites off more than it can chew. While you certainly feel the size of the picture, you rarely feel the gravitas the filmmakers are aiming for.

Based on Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel, the story sets itself in a post-apocalyptic future where the idea of a mobile home has been taken to another level. Entire cities are assembled on wheels, leaving behind tire tracks the size of canyons. On the moving city of London lives a young historian named Tom (Robert Sheehan), who crosses paths with a mysterious outsider who goes by Hester (Hera Hilmar). When Hester fails to assassinate a devious historian named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Tom gets caught in the middle and is forced to go on the run with her. Trekking through the wastelands and flying through the skies, the race is on to stop Valentine from unleashing a superweapon that’ll turn entire cities into junk piles.

“Mortal Engines” opens with a thrilling chase that plays out like the monster truck edition of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The production design and visual effects are down-right awe-inspired with rich detail packed into every corner. Like “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Castle in the Sky,” and other Hayao Miyazaki films, the technology depicted here is so inventive and you want to know how every little thing works. Of course, Miyazaki’s movies also usually have strong characters and involving plots, which is where “Mortal Engines” falls short.

The performances are universally good and the characters aren’t bad per say, but they’re not particularly involving either. Tom and Hester are to this movie what Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. You tolerate them fine, but every time they’re onscreen you wish Jack Sparrow would come back and Johnny Depp is unfortunately nowhere to be found here. Weaving is always a charismatic screen presence, but his villain is fairly by the numbers. Jihae scores a few cool moments as a resistance leader who joins forces with Tom and Hester, but she comes off as underdeveloped nonetheless.

The only intriguing dynamic in the film is between Hester and a cyborg named Shrike (Stephen Lang), who takes her in after the murder of her mother. Looking like a Terminator crossed with Ghost Rider, Shrike is a ruthless machine, but still has essence of humanity in him. He can see that Hester is overwhelmed with pain, which he wishes to take away by turning her into a machine as well. Hester seems strangely okay with this, that is until she kind of flips on a dime. That basically sums up the problem with “Mortal Engines.” It has a lot of fascinating ideas, but doesn’t allow enough time for them to fully materialize.

While it runs circles around something like “Jupiter Ascending” or the “Warcraft” movie, the characters still back a backseat in “Mortal Engines.” There’s so much going on here that at times it’s hard to even remember what our heroes are fighting for. If this film was going to work, the plot needed to be simplified with more focus. Seeing how there are four novels, maybe a television series would’ve been the best direction to take, be it live-action or animated. As is, though, “Mortal Engines” is admirable for its marvelous craft and capable cast, but it's otherwise an epic you can easily skip.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Mary Queen of Scots - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 12, 2018 at 6:55 PM

Frances McDormand was basically unstoppable on her road to winning a second Best Actress Oscar. If there were two performers who could’ve topped her performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” though, it would’ve been Saoirse Ronan for “Lady Bird” and Margot Robbie for “I, Tonya.” These actresses have been on a roll as of late and both turn in equally mesmeric work in “Mary Queen of Scots.” They’re the main reasons to see this beautifully crafted period piece, which might’ve reached greater heights had the screenplay taken a few more chances. As is, however, it’s ultimately an admirable feat, especially for a first-time director.

Ronan stars as the titular Mary, Queen of Scots, who isn’t content with merely ruling over Scotland. She has aspirations to seize control from her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, played by an unrecognizable Robbie. Whether or not you know your history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Rising of the North inevitably goes south for Mary. Nevertheless, it still makes for an interesting true story with Ronan and Robbie never failing to liven up the screen. Weirdly enough, though, this is one historical drama that might’ve benefited from taking more liberties.

Throughout the film, all we want is to see these two Queens go head to head with each other in person. Similar to “Heat” or “American Gangster,” the filmmakers give us what we want in the climax. Historians are sure to call BS on this scene, as there’s no evidence indicating that Mary and Elizabeth ever met fact-to-face. At the same time, it’s by far the most riveting moment and the film on the whole could’ve used more scenes like this. Since our leads spend a majority of the film apart, however, the rivalry never feels as strong as it should. It doesn’t’ help that “Mary Queen of Scots” is coming out around the same time as “The Favourite,” another costumed political drama with a much more fascinating rivalry at its core.

Then again, perhaps it’s only fair to judge a movie for what it is rather than for what it isn’t. For what it is, every shot of “Mary Queen of Scots” is gorgeous to look at. The stunning makeup allows Ronan and Robbie to escape even deeper into their roles, transforming them into different people. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne previously won an Academy Award for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and it’s entirely possible that she’ll pick up another statue for her work here. From the production design to the cinematography, you can see so much passion both in front of and behind the camera. This is made all the more impressive when you consider that it marks Josie Rourke’s directorial debut after years of primarily working in the theatre.

As elegant and well-acted as “Mary Queen of Scots” is, you can’t help but wish the conflict between our leads felt stronger, even if it meant bending the truth a little more. Considering that the film was written by the showrunner of “House of Cards,” maybe a straight-up camp approach would’ve been the best way to tackle this material. At the very least, the film could’ve provided more a unique perspective of who Mary and Elizabeth really were. Those performances from Ronan and Robbie go a long way, though, amounting to a good film with glimpses of greatness that occasionally shine through.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Roma - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 5, 2018 at 12:05 AM

To review “Roma” is like reviewing life itself. Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful film, it feels as if we’re peering into the daily routine of an actual middle-class family through a black and white lens. Few directors know how to make the audience part of an experience quite like Cuarón. In “Gravity,” he launched us into orbit alongside Sandra Bullock. In “Children of Men,” he sat us in a vehicle next to Clive Owen and Julianne Moore as all hell broke loose. In “Roma,” we step into a maid’s shoes as she copes with loss and uncertainty, finding fleeting moments of comfort in her surrogate family. It might not be the biggest film of Cuarón’s career, but it’s possibly the most profound.

Yalitza Aparicio makes an astonishingly authentic screen debut as Cleo, a housekeeper who works for a family in Mexico City against the backdrop of the early 70s. Although Cleo cooks, cleans, and takes care of the four children, she’s seen more as an employee than a family member, which doesn’t appear to bother her. Cloe’s role in the household becomes more significant, however, when patriarch Antonio (Fernando Grediag) leaves his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira). Cleo is also dealing with abandonment, as she’s been impregnated by a martial artist who coldly refuses to take any responsibility. Over time, Sofia begins to see that she has more in common with Cleo than expected and that her maid may be the reason her family is barely keeping it together.


There are numerous movies where little seems to be happening on the surface, but a ton is happening underneath. To a certain extent, “Roma” falls into this category, getting so much across without relying heavily on dialog. At the same time, this is a movie where a great deal is always happening on the surface, as Cuarón somehow manages to make even the most mundane activities look strangely engrossing. Foreshadowing the climax, the film’s opening shot focuses on mop water rushing up and down a tile floor like a wave on the beach. That might not sound like anything particularly exhilarating, but the stunning simplicity of the shot immediately hooks you in. “Roma” is full of shots like this, calling the plastic bag scene from “American Beauty” to mind. As a matter of fact, this whole movie can be described in the immortal words of Ricky Fitts:


“Sometimes, there's so much beauty in the world - I feel like I can't take it, like my heart is just going to cave in.”


“Roma” is a slice of life in the purest scene, but that doesn’t mean it’s a laidback experience. While many scenes center on Cleo’s every day chores, this makes it all the more shocking when tragedy rears its head from around the corner. The most extravagant sequence in the film finds our characters navigating through the Corpus Christi massacre, which accumulates to a hospital visit where we actually feel like a fly on the wall. The fact that Cuarón acted as a cinematographer and editor in addition to writing and directing adds a personal touch that can’t be beat.

Walking out of the theater, I was at a complete loss for words when asked for my press reaction. I literally needed a moment to collect myself and catch my breath before speaking. This is a difficult film to sum up in just a few words and the same can be said about the world we live in. All I can say is that you’re unlikely to see a film in 2018 that packs in more raw humanity. “Roma” can be streamed via Netflix, but much like how a world wonder must be seen in person to be done justice, this a film meant for the silver screen.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Favourite - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 4, 2018 at 1:35 PM

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has made some of the strangest yet most absorbing films of the past few years. On paper, “The Lobster” might’ve sounded like something Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom would’ve green lit in “The Producers,” but it ended up being a creative and oddly deep study about human nature. In “The Favourite,” Lanthimos delivers another darkly humorous triumph elevated by the year's finest acting trio. At first glance, one might assume this a straight-forward period piece. If you’re at all familiar with the historical figures at the center of this story, though, you know that it’s going to be anything but conventional and that Lanthimos may be the only director twisted enough to bring such a tale to the screen.

Olivia Colman has already portrayed Carol Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth, so it was only a matter of time until she played Anne, Queen of Great Britain. In the midst of England’s war with France, Anne relies on her closest advisor Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz. Behind closed doors, however, Anne and Sarah are actually much more than friends. Although Sarah has Anne under her thumb, she often butts head with the pompous Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult). An even greater rival enters the equation when Sarah welcomes her cousin Abigail Hill to work at the manor.

Among the film’s trinity of talented actresses, my personal favorite performance comes from Emma Stone as the calculating Abigail. She goes through the most interesting transformation throughout the film, arriving at the castle after losing everything and reduced to performing menial labor. Slowly but surely, Abigail begins to worm her way into Anne’s inner circle through wits, charms, and sexuality. Stone brings her signature charisma to the role while the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara gives her the layers of a Shakespearian villain. Of course, it’s not like any of the other characters are especially sympathetic.

Sarah is every bit as conniving as her cousin and will take extreme measures to secure her status, something she makes abundantly clear while shooting birds. Anne, meanwhile, can come off as a spoiled brat, but she’s far from naïve. She’s well aware that Sarah and Abigail are competing for her affection, egging them on every step of the way. When you think about it, Anne is both the most childish and the most manipulative of the three, making us wonder who's controlling who. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this approach to the characters could come off as too over-the-top. Lanthimos is tailor-made for this kind of material, however, balancing absurdity, black comedy, and history. Granted, it’s hard to say how much of the film is actually historically accurate, but it always makes for wickedly entertaining storytelling.

Visually, “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ most ambitious work. Between this film and “Mary Poppins Returns,” the great Sandy Powell could be looking at a double Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. The Hatfield House in the Great Park served as a shooting location for the film. To the untrained eye, the setting is a picturesque palace that everyone wants to be invited to. As we spend more time there, though, it starts to feel more like a prison that we can’t escape from. This is only emphasized through the cinematography, which makes the audience feel like fish in a bowl swimming around in circles. Yet, even at its most uncomfortable, you won’t be able to leave, which is a perfect metaphor for both Abigail and Sarah’s relationship with Anne.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Creed II - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 20, 2018 at 6:00 PM

Although it has some of the most iconic moments in the entire series, most people would argue that “Rock IV” was where these movies officially jumped the shark. The franchise would eventually pick up the pieces with 2006’s “Rocky Balboa.” Then in 2015,Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” breathed new life into a classic story, returning the series to its former glory. Now that Rocky and company are back on top of the world, one wouldn’t expect the filmmakers to revisit the point where it all started to go downhill. Plus, “Rocky IV” came out over 30 years ago, so it’s not like it’s fresh in the minds of mainstream audiences.

Like any true underdog story, “Creed II” is a sequel that pulls off the seemingly impossible. It takes a movie that was goofy to say to the least and evolves it into something modern, meaningful, and mesmerizing. We live in an era where a lot of sequels choose to ignore past mistakes. Some sequels even retcon their more notorious predecessors, as was the case with David Gordon Green’s “Halloween.” Rather than being ashamed of its roots, though, “Creed II” embraces where it came from and emerges stronger because of it.

Michael B. Jordan continues to shine as Adonis "Donnie" Creed, who has risen up as the heavyweight champion under the watchful eye of Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, of course. Creed has also settled down with his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose hearing disorder hasn’t prevented her from making it big as a singer. The Creed family receives a blast from the past, however, when Donnie is challenged to a fight by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu). Viktor has been intensely coached by his father Ivan, who killed Apollo Creed in the ring back in 1985. Donnie can’t resist accepting the fight, although Rocky fears he’s bound to meet the same fate as his father. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t use this scenario to make a huge political statement concerning America’s current relationship with Russia.

Director Steven Caple, Jr. pumps the boxing matches with kinetic energy, but the outcome of the big fight isn’t the film’s greatest draw. The appeal lies in the interactions these characters share. The screenplay by Stallone and Juel Taylor develops thoughtful relationships between Donnie, Rocky, Bianca, and Phylicia Rashad as Mary Anne Creed. Even Ivan Drago isn’t a cartoonish brute this time around. Similar to Johnny Lawrence in “Cobra Kai,” the film explores how Ivan lost everything after his fight with Rocky and this is his last chance at redemption. It succeeds in making us sympathize with a villain, even if we’re still rooting for Creed. If there’s one character who unfortunately gets the short end of the stick, however, it’s Ivan’s son, who’s given one vulnerable moment, but never becomes much more than a human wrecking machine.

Like “Creed,” this sequel doesn’t deviate far from the traditional formula. If anything, it’s shockingly similar to what we’ve seen before. Yet, both of these movies manage to distinguish themselves by not only introducing new characters, but also exploring new themes. The original “Rocky” was about a humble man who came from nothing and simply wanted his shot. Donnie, on the other hand, is the son of a renowned fighter and thus has great expectations to live up to. This makes for a more interesting character study as we watch Donnie try to honor his father’s memory without living his shadow, ultimately becoming his own man. In a way, that’s a perfect metaphor for the “Creed” movies.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 15, 2018 at 5:35 PM

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” built a solid base for a new chapter in J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” further elaborates on a time before Harry Potter, introducing new characters, exploring new places, and even catching us off-guard with a few new twists. In some respects, it does exactly what any good sequel should do, evolving an idea further. In other respects, the movie can often feel more like a stepping stone rather than a giant leap forward. While the film adds plenty of fresh ingredients, the final product could’ve used a little more time in the oven. That’s not to say the movie is half-baked, but it does leave you hoping the third course will be slightly more filling.

Taking place several months after the first film, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has staged an escape and fled to Paris. Just as World War II is only a few years down the line, Grindelwald plots to bring about a dark age that’ll shatter the peace between the magic and Muggle worlds. Naturally, the most qualified wizard to track Grindelwald down is a young Albus Dumbledore, played by Jude Law. He can’t face Grindelwald for ambiguous reasons, however, entrusting his old pupil Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with this task. On his journey, Newt once again crosses paths with his scene-stealing No-Maj buddy Jacob (Dan Fogler), the wide-eyed Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the no-nonsense Tina (Katherine Waterston). Grindelwald isn’t the only foe in Paris either, as Ezra Miller’s Credence has returned to unearth his mysterious family tree.

The returning supporting characters are all once again a delight, particularly Fogler as Jacob. Outside of the Dursleys, we rarely got to see how non-magical individuals might respond to the wizard community. It’s always fun watching Jacob interact with this world, which he finds confusing and intimidating, but also fascinating and wonderful. Newt’s creatures are also endearing to observe, whether they’re adorable, vicious, or adorably vicious. That being said, Newt himself has never been nearly as interesting as his friends or fantastic beasts. While not a poor character, you kind of wish that Newt would step aside and let Dumbledore take center stage instead.

Law hits just the right note as Dumbledore, creating a wise yet eccentric leader anyone would want to follow. In many respects, he’s more convincing in the role than Michael Gambon ever was. It actually would’ve made a lot of sense if Dumbledore was the protagonist here, seeing how he has a past connection to Grindelwald and is destined to face him in a duel later down the line. Speaking of Grindelwald, Depp was a controversial casting choice for a variety of reasons. Although he does occasionally slip into his Jack Sparrow routine, Depp ultimately creates a creepy and charismatic villain who may have a dangerous vision, but you could also see why others would share his ideals.

In addition to the usual suspects, the film also introduces us to Callum Turner as Newt’s older brother and Zoë Kravitz as one of Newt’s former classmates. The relationships between these characters come off as underdeveloped, however. While we’re given more than enough exposition, we never feel the emotion. The film also marks the debut of crucial characters from the “Harry Potter” lore, including Claudia Kim as Nagini, who will inevitably turn into Lord Voldemort’s snake, and Brontis Jodorowsky as the immortal Nicolas Flamel, who looks like Teddy Perkins from “Atlanta.” Both serve little purpose in this story, however, with their presences coming off as pure fan service.

Had “The Crimes of Grindelwald” fleshed out some of its new characters and shifted the attention to Dumbledore, we might’ve had a prequel well-worthy of this franchise’s legacy. As is, it’s slow and convoluted in parts, but not without several bright spots. Law, Depp, and Fogler liven matters up whenever they’re given the spotlight. Under David Yates’ reliable direction, the film is a visual marvel with inventive production design, costumes, and specials effects. The ending in particular will get longtime fans talking and theorizing what’s to come next. Of course, since we do still have three more movies to get through, Rowling needs to keep the pacing tighter and the stakes higher going forward.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars