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The Favourite - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 4, 2018 at 1:35 PM Comments comments (0)

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 Comments comments (0)

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 Comments comments (0)

“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

Green Book - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 15, 2018 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Given his background as a comedic director, “Green Book” might seem like an unconventional project for Peter Farrelly to tackle. In a way, though, you could argue that his career has come full circle with this film. Farrelly’s directorial debut was “Dumb and Dumber,” which centered on two guys who embark on a cross-country road trip. “Green Book” has a similar setup at its core, although the tone couldn’t be more different. Along with his brother Bobby, Peter has made some other very funny movies over the years, including “There's Something About Mary,” “Kingpin,” and “Me, Myself & Irene.” Like those films, “Green Book” has an unexpected balance of humor and heart, but it also encompasses something more. It finds the elder Farrelly Brother at his most mature, demonstrating how far he’s come since Harry and Lloyd revved up the Shaggin’ Wagon.


Between “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “A History of Violence,” and “Eastern Promises,” Viggo Mortensen has built up a reputation as an onscreen badass. He plays another tough as nails character in “Green Book,” although he’s clearly put on a few pounds to do the role justice. Mortensen plays Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York bouncer who’s rough around the edges, but loves his wife (Linda Cardellini) and children unconditionally. To make ends meet before Christmas, Tony accepts a gig driving a Jamaican-American pianist named Don Shirley across the Deep South. Mahershala Ali plays Shirley, who believes he can make a difference by playing his music in parts of America that remain heavily segregated. He underestimates just how much the South differs from the North, however.

The film’s appeal largely stems from the Odd Couple dynamic between Tony and Shirley. The two naturally don’t hit it off at first with one being a streetwise yet intolerant brute and the other being an educated yet naïve artist. Although they’re quick to judge a book by its cover, both end up having more layers than meets the eye. What’s interesting about their relationship is that neither man has all the answers. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, which ultimately helps to balance them out. Along the way, Tony stuffs his face with pizza, sandwiches, and fried chicken, which he introduces to Shirley.

Just as Tony spends a good portion of the run time eating, “Green Book” is a diverse smorgasbord. At times the film tastes like the purest of comfort food, as Shirley helps the ineloquent Tony write letters to wife. The movie also has nutritional value, however, examining how race relations have changed since the 1960s and how they haven’t. Walking into the theater, most viewers will likely be unfamiliar with “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which indicated which ventures would give service to African-American travelers. While the Green Book has been discontinued for over fifty years, racial tensions still run high throughout the country. Watching Shirley face racism and even physical abuse when he walks into the wrong establishments, it’s impossible not to be reminded of injustices that make headlines today. This makes it all the more empowering when Shirley overcomes ignorance and Tony overcomes his own prejudices.

“Green Book” earns comparison to the best road trip movies ever made, from “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” to “Midnight Run.” It’s also hard to watch the film without drawing comparison to “Driving Miss Daisy,” although the fact that the races are reversed creates an entirely different parallel. At the beginning of the film, Tony sees himself as underprivileged compared to the wealthy Shirley. In the South, though, money means nothing in a society where skin color speaks louder than words. For all the bigotry Shirley faces down the road, the experience also proves enlighten as he digs deep inside himself and finds roots he never even knew were there. In the end, Tony and Shirley discover they're both equals, regardless of which side of the track they grew up on. The notion that this onscreen friendship was inspired by actual events – with the screenplay being co-written by Tony’s real-life son – only adds to the poignancy.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Widows - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 15, 2018 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

At first glance, “Widows” may seem like a by the numbers heist movie, but there are so many more layers here than its premise suggests. Much like “Gone Girl,” another film scribed by Gillian Flynn, “Widows” demonstrates just how thrilling, well-acted, and even poignant a crime caper can be. Flynn has had quite an impressive year, as she not only collaborated with director SteveMcQueen on this film’s screenplay, but was also heavily involved in HBO’s adaptation of her debut novel, “Sharp Objects.” Not every writer can seamlessly make the transition from the printed page to visual mediums. Flynn has an evident understanding of how these different art forms function, however, mastering every facet of storytelling.

Viola Davis delivers yet another powerhouse performance as Veronica Rawlings, a wealthy woman who turns a blind eye to her husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) shady business dealings. When Harry is killed in a heist gone wrong, though, she’s given no choice but to get involved. Veronica is confronted by mobster turned politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose money was blown up along with Harry. Jamal gives Veronica a small window of time to pay him back $2 million or else he’ll send his enforcer/brother (Daniel Kaluuya) after her. Unable to come up with that kind of money, Veronica uses Harry’s notebook to execute another heist, but requires a crew to pull it off.

With nowhere else to turn, Veronica enlists the other widows whose husbands died alongside Harry. Michelle Rodriguez gives one of her best performances as Linda, a mother struggling to hold onto her business. Elizabeth Debicki continues to shine as one of our most underrated actresses in the role of Alice, who is finally starting to grow a backbone after enduring years of abuse. Veronica is unable to recruit the other widow Amanda (Carrie Coon), who has a newborn baby at home. Thus, the trio plots to steal from Jack (Colin Farrell) and Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), two other shady political figures. Meanwhile, Linda places her children in care of an athletic babysitter named Belle (Cynthia Erivo).

While it’s easy to draw parallels between this film and “Ocean’s 8,” “Widows” shares more in common with “The Town.” In another director’s hands, the film could’ve veered into more popcorn-oriented territory. The always-ambitious Steve McQueen, however, turns in a hard-hitting drama with fast-paced editing, slick cinematography, and an uncompromisingly gritty tone. What’s more, McQueen and company tell a compelling story that starts off fairly straightforward, but slowly unfolds with twists and turns that never come off as forced. This is a film you’ll want to see twice, not only to catch the clever foreshadowing you might’ve missed before, but for the sheer entertainment value as well.

McQueen has never shied away from difficult subjects, such as sex addiction and slavery. While the themes in “Widows” are more understated, the film still manages to make thoughtful commentary on real-world issues that sadly haven’t seen much improvement since 2008. At its core is a story that empowers women without ever feeling like a blatant statement. What’s more, the subtext doesn’t take away from action, mystery, or atmosphere that initially hooked us in. It’s a film that gives the audience what they paid for and then gives them even more.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Grinch - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)

It’s impossible to talk about Illumination’s “The Grinch” without also discussing the previous adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ cherished children’s book. We can all agree that the animated television special from the legendary Chuck Jones is a perennial classic that’ll never grow old. The live-action Ron Howard movie, on the other hand, has aged about as well as an expired can of Who Hash. As someone who was 10 when the film came out, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for it, due in large part to my unconditional love for Jim Carrey. The 2000 film is by no means a faithful interpretation of Seuss’ vision, though. The latest version falls somewhere in between. At times, it captures much of the warmth and charm of the original. Other times, it can feel like a manipulative commercial that came from a store.

We all know the basic plot of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” although this film naturally introduces a few new subplots and characters to reach a feature run time. Like the live-action movie, this version also delves into why the Grinch’s heart is two sizes too small, but the filmmakers thankfully keep the backstory quick and simple. Most of the focus is dedicated to the Grinch assembling his devious plan, often resulting in slapstick reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. Perhaps that’s fitting since both the Grinch and Looney Tunes have Chuck Jones in common. I addition to his trusty dog Max, the Grinch also enlists a reindeer named Fred, who basically exists just to sell toys, but still gets a few laughs with his roly-poly physique.

As the Grinch, Benedict Cumberbatch strikes a solid balance being both dastardly and likable, although he lacks the gravitas Boris Karloff brought to the role. Ironically, Cumberbatch probably could’ve created something similar had he stuck with his natural English accent. Using his American voice, he sounds like Hugh Laurie as Dr. House. Then again, House was basically a Grinch without the green fur. Being an Illumination production, it’s also hard to watch the Grinch’s evolution from naughty to nice without being reminded of Felonious Gru. Even the Grinch’s iconic theme music sounds an awful lot like the title song from “Despicable Me.”

Weirdly enough, the best part of the film isn’t the Grinch, Max, or Pharrell Williams as the Narrator. (God forbid Illumination ever make a movie without Pharrell’s involvement). The scene-stealer is little Cameron Seely as the Minion-sized Cindy Lou Who. In every other interpretation of “The Grinch,” Cindy has always been a straight-forward nice kid. Here, however, she’s a wild, imaginative, adventurous child, but still possesses a kind heart and wants nothing more than to help her overworked mom (Rashida Jones). There are more layers to her as a character than ever before and she’s the one aspect of the film that’s actually a step up from the other versions.

That being said, there’s really no competition concerning what’s the best “Grinch” adaptation overall. Being based on a picture book that was just over 60 pages long, the 1966 special was perfectly paced at 26 minutes. At 86 minutes, this film doesn’t overstay its welcome per se, but it’s not without drawn-out filler and several gags that come off as out of place. While directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney have a better understanding of the source material than Ron Howard, they also miss a few opportunities. Some of the most important lines from the book aren’t even included.

“The Grinch” is a mixed bag delivered by Santa himself. For every shiny new toy there’s an itchy sweater. Even if another adaptation really didn’t need to exist, however, the film does deserve credit where credit’s due. Anyone who appreciates Christmas scenery will enjoy the movie’s vibrant colors and the inventive design of Whosville. While there is a bit too much focus on pop culture references and pop songs, it does take time for some tender, touching moments as well. Considering the target demographic, the film will delight children and their parents will find it cute enough. If you hold “The Grinch” high up on a pedestal, this version probably isn’t going to win you over, but at least you’ll take solace in knowing it’s the second-best adaptation out there.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Girl in the Spider's Web - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Just as we’ve gone through three cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man, Claire Foy is the third actress to portray Lisbeth Salander on the big screen. It’s weird to think that both of these franchises are being released by Sony, which has become a literal spider’s web. What’s even stranger is that Lisbeth and Peter Parker seem to have more than a distributor in common. Lisbeth has essentially gone from master computer hacker to unstoppable vigilante. Not only does she serve up her own brand of justice, but Lisbeth now apparently possesses superhuman strength and reflexes. She can sneak up on someone out of nowhere and then disappear the second their back is turned. Even her car and motorcycle almost look like they were stolen from the Batcave. Plus, at one point her nemesis wears a mask that resembles Screenslaver's from “Incredibles 2.”

The new direction “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” takes isn’t necessarily unwelcome. Compared to the Swedish adaptations of “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest,” this addition to the “Millennium” series at least moves at a faster pace with a slick style. The film’s use of shadows, colors, and angles actually look as if they were inspired by a graphic novel. While it makes for an occasionally fun action thriller, Fede Álvarez’s film can’t compete with the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or its American remake. Where those two films found the ideal balance of gritty realism, gripping mystery, and genuine character dynamics, this one boils down to a basic popcorn flick.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” isn’t exactly a sequel to David Fincher’s 2011 film, as the cast has been completely swapped out. At the same time, the film takes place after the events of the initial “Millennium” trilogy. Even if you haven’t been keeping up with this series, though, the story here is self-contained enough for newcomers to follow. Lisbeth once again finds herself wrapped up in a criminal conspiracy, although this one raises the stakes with nuclear weapon codes. The plot only thickens when our heroine’s reunited with her twin sister (Sylvia Hoeks), who loves the color red almost as much as Lisbeth adores black. To get out of this tangled web, Lisbeth enlists the help of a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant), a fellow hacker/NSA agent (LaKeith Stanfield), and of course journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason).

Foy has been on a phenomenal winning streak as of late with her work in “The Crown,” “Unsane,” and “First Man.” She makes for a charismatic, empathetic, and all-around badass Lisbeth who’s easy to root for. That being said, Foy does have the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, who transformed themselves into Lisbeth. Foy may don the same wardrobe and makeup, but the audience is more aware that they’re watching an actress playing a character. Gudnason, meanwhile, feels miscast as Mikael, especially stacked up against the late Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig. The age difference between Lisbeth and Mikael always added another layer to their unique relationship, but the two both appear to be roughly in their late 30s here. Where in the other films Mikael acted as a way for the audience to peer into Lisbeth’s soul, he’s now nothing more than a standard love interest who contributes little.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is without a doubt a well-crafted movie and the cast turns in solid work for the most part. What the film lacks is a purpose to exist. While its entertaining in parts, we don’t really walk away from the experience with a better understanding of who Lisbeth is. The relationship between Lisbeth and her sister had potential, but even that comes off as rushed and underdeveloped in the end. Lisbeth Salander is bound to go down as one of the 21st century’s best characters, but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is perhaps her only story worth telling.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Boy Erased - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Watching “Boy Erased,” it often feels as if the audience has slipped into a parallel dimension. One could easily see the film’s disturbing premise playing out in a series like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Then it hits us that the film isn’t just based on a true story, but also touches upon an issue thousands of people have been affected by. In 2018, you wouldn’t think that we’d need a movie that explains why gay conversion therapy is inhumane. Since we live in a world where the American president is considering eradicating the term “transgender,” though, “Boy Erased” couldn’t be more essential.

Lucas Hedges broke out as one of our most impressive young actors with his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in “Manchester by the Sea.” He’s continued to shine in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” and “Mid90s” with “Boy Erased” marking his latest acting tour de force. In this adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir, Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a closeted homosexual who comes out to his devoutly Christian parents. Jared’s father, a Baptist pastor played by Russell Crowe, only sees two paths his son can take. He can either attend a conversion camp or shatter all ties with his family. Although Jared’s doctor (Cherry Jones) insists that there’s no “cure” for being gay, he decides to enroll in the program regardless.

Joel Edgerton is one of those actors you might not know by name, but you’ll definitely recognize him from his underappreciated work in films like “Warrior,” “Loving,” and others. In addition to writing and directing “Boy Erased,” he also gives a chilling performance as Victor Sykes, a so-called therapist who believes he can knock the gay out of his patients. Sykes subjects the young adults to physical abuse, most notably in a gut-wrenching scene where he convinces the family of one boy to beat him with the Bible. What’s just as harrowing, however, are the scenes of emotional abuse. Sykes’ hate-filled comments trigger flashbacks of “Full Metal Jackson,” making every moment Jared spends at the program feel like Vietnam. Some of Jared’s friends actually look as if they’ve been in combat, perhaps either because they’re being beaten at home or because they’re inflicting self-harm.


Nicole Kidman gives a particularly powerful performance as Jared’s mother, a trophy wife who tries to remain composed at all times. As she begins to see just how much pain Jared is in, though, she must make a choice between standing by her husband’s wishes or doing what’s right for her son. Jared’s father isn’t as open to accepting his son, but the film wisely doesn’t turn him into a villain. Although it’s acknowledged that Jared’s father is indeed a flawed man, we can visibly see just how torn he is between loving his son and wanting to stand by the ideals he’s always lived by. The film doesn’t even really paint religion as an evil institution. Rather, it demonstrates how some people use religion to force their beliefs on others as opposed to applying the Bible’s teachings towards creating a more loving world.

“Boy Erased” is by no means an easy film to get through. In addition to the horrors Jared faces in conversion therapy, it also explores sexual abuse. In one of the most unsettlingly rape scenes of recent memory, we’re reminded that the #MeToo movement doesn’t only apply to female victims. As brutal as the narrative gets, though, we are given an encouraging message: you can’t change someone’s sexual orientation, but you can change how you treat your fellow man.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bohemian Rhapsody - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 31, 2018 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

The production behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been an uphill battle, enduring almost a decade of delays with much of the talent involved leaving over the years. At one point, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was actually set to star as Freddie Mercury, giving us all “Brüno” flashbacks. The film faced its greatest hurdle yet when Bryan Singer was fired in the midst of shooting, requiring Dexter Fletcher to step in and wrap up the project. Despite not receiving a directing credit due to DGA rules, Fletcher still finished the project in time. After changing so many hands, though, is “Bohemian Rhapsody” a kind of magic or does it bite the dust?

Thankfully, the end result is a joyous celebration of Queen, reminding us why their music remains immortal and why there’s never been a frontman as unique as Freddie Mercury. From a historical viewpoint, there are details you can nitpick about the film’s depiction of Queen. From a storytelling perspective, though, the film more than captures the band’s spirit. Given the larger than life persona Mercury would often personify onstage, a more romanticized tone is perfectly in tune with his life story. At the same time, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t shy away from Mercuy’s inner demons and closeted lifestyle, as some feared would be the case. What we’re left with is a hugely entertaining biopic that finds just the right balance of the real life and the fantasy.

Rami Malek won a Primetime Emmy for his performance as the socially awkward, subdued Elliot in “Mr. Robot.” As Freddie Mercury, Malek further demonstrates his remarkable acting range, becoming a rock god. It would’ve been easy for Malek to turn a figure as flamboyant as Mercury into a caricature, especially with an enlarged set of false teeth. From the second he storms onto the screen, however, Malek becomes Mercury with all the right moves, from his distinctive accent to his eccentric mannerisms. Granted, he didn’t pull off this illusion alone, as the filmmakers used a combination of Malek’s voice, Mercury’s voice, and sound-alike Marc Martel’s voice for the singing portions. Malek’s delivery is so passionate and spot-on, though, that it never feels like we’re watching a lip sync battle.

While Malek is bound to soak up much of recognition, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an ensemble piece that does justice to Queen’s three other members. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello are all turn in charismatic work as Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, respectively. You never doubt the family dynamic these four artists share. Egos may clash, but there’s always a feeling of comradery and affection between them, even during their worst moments. Above all else, they’re willing to fight for each other’s creative visions, especially when going up against EMI executive Ray Foster, who refused to release the six-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Ironically, Foster is played by Mike Myers, who fought to include the now iconic rock single in “Wayne’s World,” giving it a second life.

The most intriguing relationship in the film is between Mercury and longtime partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Mercury’s sexual orientation has been widely discussed over the years, with some claiming he was gay, others believing he was bisexual, and others arguing that he was beyond labels. In any case, one thing the film makes clear is that he had many male sexual partners, including his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and boyfriend of several years Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). After finally confronting Mercury about his sexuality, Mary doesn’t dedicate her life to being his beard, but she doesn’t abandon him entirely either. You can sense these two possess a mutual love and respect for one another, despite not being able to satisfy each other emotionally or sexually. It’s the kind of dynamic we rarely see in films about the LGTB community, but it comes off as surprisingly genuine here.

While it’s debatable if Mary Austin was the love of Mercury’s life, she most likely knew him better than anyone else. Of course, as Roger Taylor put it, “In real life nobody knew Freddie.” That being said, it would be impossible for any film to completely embody a figure as enigmatic as Mercury. “Bohemian Rhapsody” does something just as extraordinary, however, making us believe that a fallen music legend has returned, if only for a short period. It accomplishes this through Malek’s transformative performance and a rousing mix of Queen’s greatest hits.

Queen was more than a rock band. They transcended the genre, combining elements of heavy metal, disco, gospel, and more. “Bohemian Rhapsody” in particular is arguably the closest any rock song as come to channeling the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. Likewise, the song’s film counterpart evokes both the fun of attending a rock concert and the spectacle of attending a night at the opera. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the climax of Live Aid performance, which serves as the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop.

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Suspiria - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 31, 2018 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

“Suspiria” is a film I really don’t want to review. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s good either. Some films are so mystifying, ambitious, and straight-up bizarre that it’s hard to say if they’re strokes of genius or self-indulgent messes. On one hand, “Suspiria” is a cinematic experience that’s too indescribable to even review. On the other hand, any film that can be described as indescribable needs to be studied in great depth. And so, here we are.

Now that she’s been freed from Christian’s Grey’s restraints, Dakota Johnson can finally open her talents up to more intriguing roles. In “Suspiria,” she goes from fifty shades of grey to draping herself in fifty shades of red, which is one of the few colors that stands out in an otherwise deliberately bleak film. As Susie Bannion, Johnson plays a naturally gifted young dancer who’s eager to prove herself at the Markos Dance Academy. She quickly catches the eye of dance director Madame Blanc, played by an icy Tilda Swinton. Although you may not realize it while watching, Switon also transforms herself into a male psychotherapist and a grotesque creature that appears towards the finale. Just as Swinton masterfully disguises herself, the dance academy isn’t what it seems either with a coven of witches working behind the scenes.

There are a few things I can say about “Suspiria” without a degree of uncertainty. It’s unnerving, it’s visually arresting, and it has the distinction of being one of the few movies released in 2018 that made me drop my jaw on multiple occasions. Of course, I could say the same thing about Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” What separates “Suspiria” from that modern horror masterpiece lies in the pacing department. Even at its most understated, “Hereditary” never felt slow or dull. “Suspiria,” meanwhile, lags at 152 minutes with many scenes that feel like unnecessary filler. For a film that prides itself on being surreal and experimental, there’s surprisingly more exposition than needed.

Had “Suspiria” been trimmed down by at least half an hour, it could’ve been one of 2018’s most tightly-plotted thrillers. That being said, at its best, director Luca Guadagnino has made a fiercely creepy thriller that knows how to overwhelm its audience with an uncomfortable sentiment. Not since Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” has a movie so hauntingly integrated dance choreography into a horror story. There’s a particularly sinister possession scene where the audience can practically feel every joint move and every bone break. For many viewers, this is the point that will either have you walking out of the theater or hooking you in for the long haul.


This remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic clearly wasn’t designed to appease everyone. For those who enjoy a good detour into insanity, “Suspiria” is a dreamlike art house picture that’ll plague your nightmares. To get to the truly bloodcurdling portions, though, you also have to sit through a lot of drawn-out moments that are simply boring. The film is kind of schizo as it leaves you yawning one minute and your mouth hanging open in shock the next. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, “Suspiria” is a hard film to define, but perhaps the only way to pin it down is to watch it again… or maybe even dedicated an entire film class to it.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars