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Night School - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on September 27, 2018 at 1:50 AM Comments comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

A Simple Favor - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on September 13, 2018 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Audiences may go into “A Simple Favor” expecting something along the lines of “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train.” It certainly earns comparison to those films, having numerous twists entangled within even more twists. The movie also draws parallels to a dark satire like “Desperate Housewives,” however. It isn’t afraid to take the tropes you’d typically find in a mystery novel and flip them upside down. At the same time, the film still flows like a classic detective story with a tight plot and killer payoffs. Particularly calling “Game Night” to mind, it makes the most out of what appears to be a simple premise and emerges as one of the year’s more pleasant surprises.

The always enjoyable Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, who – as her name suggests – can come off as a bit overwhelming. The other moms and dads envy Stephanie’s ability to juggle being a single parent, volunteering at the school, and still having time to do her mommy vlog. Stephanie develops an unlikely friendship with Black Lively’s Emily, a charismatic woman who prioritizes work and martinis above parenting. When Emily suddenly goes missing, Stephanie channels her inner private investigator to figure out where she went. Matters only get more complicated, though, as Stephanie grows closer with Emily’s husband, played by Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Kendrick is perfectly cast as a supermom who seems innocent on the surface, but has several skeletons locked away in the closet and isn’t afraid to get dirty. It’s Lively’s mysterious performance that catches the audience off-guard, however. Lively has demonstrated serious acting chops in films like “The Shallows” and “The Town,” but we’ve never seen her quite like this before. It’s almost as if Lively is parodying a “Gossip Girl” character, but still manages to come off as genuinely complex and even intimidating. From the moment Emily storms onscreen, the audience isn’t entirely sure what her deal is. Is she a caring best friend or merely using Stephanie to get something else? Is she an outrageous socialite or a complete sociopath capable of unspeakable deeds? All we know for sure is that Emily commands every room she enters, making her desirable to all those who encounter her.

The fact that Emily is such a wild card is what ultimately makes “A Simple Favor” so much fun to watch. Granted, there are a few twists that are fairly easy to sniff out. For every moment the audience sees coming, though, there’s another that pulls the rug right out from under us. Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, the plot developments never come off as forced or tacked on. Everything feels like it was carefully plotted out, which makes the viewer want to rewatch the movie in hopes of catching clues that might’ve eluded them the first time around.

Jessica Sharzer adapted her screenplay from Darcey Bell’s novel, striking a pitch perfect balance of legitimate thrills and witty dialog. Director Paul Feig hit a bit of a rough patch with the divisive “Ghostbusters” reboot, but he’s back in full-force here. While it’s not a laugh-per-minute comedy like “Bridesmaids” or “Spy,” “A Simple Favor” is perhaps Feig’s most stylish and sophisticated film to date. The art direction and costume design practically come off as Hitchcockian, albeit a bit more colorful. Like some of Hitchcock’s more comedic efforts, “A Simple Favor” leaves the audience wondering if they should laugh at the characters or fear for them, which is always a sign of a fascinating film.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Predator - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on September 13, 2018 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (0)

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

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

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

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


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

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Nun - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on September 6, 2018 at 10:50 PM Comments comments (0)

“The Conjuring” series has repeatedly taken me by surprise. Just when it seemed like supernatural horror movies had officially run out of gas, the original film breathed new life into the genre with strong performances and a chilling atmosphere. The sequel was every bit as invigorating with some of the franchise’s best art direction, cinematography, and character moments. Sure, “Annabelle” wasn’t anything special, but that just made “Annabelle: Creation” all the more surprising with its slow-building tension and effective backstory. Universal’s Dark Universe may never get off the ground, but the Conjuring Universe is one worth delving deeper into.

“The Nun,” the latest spinoff set in this universe, shares a fair deal in common with its predecessors. The ensemble is universally great and the creepy imagery can be downright inspired. That being said, the film doesn’t really bring anything especially fresh to the table. For a series with loads of potential, it often feels like the filmmakers are repeating themselves here. Since the plot plays out in a fairly predictable fashion, you rarely find yourself leaping out of your seat or even flinching. As a date movie or rental, this is perfectly adequate escapism that more or less delivers what it promises. In a year that brought us “Hereditary” and “A Quiet Place,” however, one can’t help but desire something more.

Set about twenty years before “The Conjuring,” this prequel takes place at the Cârța Monastery in Romania where a nun has committed suicide. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is called upon to investigate this most heinous death. He’s accompanied by a nun in training named Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera Farmiga’s real-life sister and an “American Horror Story” alumnus. They receive some additional help from a local named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who discovered the deceased nun’s body. As sinister hijinks ensue, it becomes clear that the trio is dealing with is Valak, the demon nun previously seen in “The Conjuring 2.”

Back when we were first introduced to Valak, she immediately struck terror into the audience with her gothic presence. It was so unsettlingly seeing Valak emerge from a painting and into our shadowy reality, making for a masterclass of craft and pacing. Nothing she does in this movie is nearly as spooky, however, relying far too heavily on jump scares. For a spinoff, the filmmakers don’t do much to flesh out Valak’s origins and whatever backstory we do get comes off as muddled. It’s weird to think that Valak can do a lot more physically than Annabelle, but the motionless doll still seemed to have more personality.

Director Corin Hardy is no James Wan, but he does a solid job at capturing the look and feel of the other “Conjuring” movies. What he fails to do is leave a unique signature that sets the film apart from all the rest. “The Nun” blends in with all of the other “Conjuring” movies much like how “The Incredible Hulk” or “Thor: The Dark World” blend in with the other MCU movies. That doesn’t make it bad, but that does make it a bit too safe and by the numbers. If the Conjuring Universe is going to keep up the momentum, it needs to take more chances and try new things with the following spinoffs. Maybe Annabelle and Valak can team up to form their own version of the Avengers.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Rose & Walsh - Theatre Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 29, 2018 at 3:35 PM Comments comments (1)

"Rose & Walsh" is playing at Theatre Artists Studio until September 2, 2018.

The Studio’s production of "Rose and Walsh" is a charming take on one of Neil Simon’s lesser known works that honestly deserves more recognition. The cast, which includes Marney Austin and Tom Koelbel as Rose and Walsh, respectively, all bring great charisma to this lively comedy. Meanwhile, Deborah Lee Hall continues her string of impressive directorial outings throughout the Valley. Of course you can’t go wrong with the source material either, which tickles you in all the right places whether it’s tackling love, death, or the burden of writer’s block.

What made the performance all the more profound and personal for me is that I saw it only two days before Simon passed away at the age of 91. As a fan of theater and film, Simon was one of the writers I looked up to the most. The fact that I starred in productions of "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park" during high school allowed me to connect with his work on a even deeper level. I consider myself fortune having seen "Rose & Walsh," as the play perfectly sums up how I felt upon learning Simon had passed away. Death is inevilable, but letting go is never easy. At least we can take solace knowing that Simon left behind such a rich body of classics that'll last for generations to come. 

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars 

The Happytime Murders - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on August 23, 2018 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

If “The Happytime Murders” had come out in the late 90s or early 2000s, it’d likely be praised as a boldly original comedy unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Much like animation, there was a time when audiences didn’t associate puppets with sex, violence, or profanity. While people still generally think of Big Bird and Kermit the Frog when it comes to felt protagonists, the raunchy puppet genre has become strangely popular over the years. The gold standards are the Tony-winning “Avenue Q” and the cult classic “Team America.” This idea has also been explored with the Dracula musical from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the short-lived sitcom “Greg the Bunny,” an episode of “Angel,” and even Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles.” While taking more of CGI route, Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” played with the premise of a vulgar character stuffed with fluff as well.

Just because an idea had been done before, however, doesn’t mean something new can’t be brought to the table. In this film’s case, the something new is a spin on the buddy cop genre. It’s a grim world where humans and puppets live side by side with the latter being treated like second-class citizens. Bill Barretta, whose best known for his work with the Muppets and “Dinosaurs,” gives a hard-boiled performance as Bill Barretta, a former cop who faced persecution in the department for being a puppet. It’s like “BlacKkKlansman,” except our hero is blue here. Now working as a private investigator, Phil gets wrapped up in a mystery revolving around the murders of the Happytime Gang, who broke new grounds for puppets on television. Phil eventually teams back up with his old partner Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy – who’s one of the few comedic performers who could act opposite a grizzled puppet while keeping a straight-face.

We also get some funny work from Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary and Elizabeth Banks as an old flame. The film appropriately belongs to the puppets, though, who all have creative designs and are always assuming to watch, especially when they’re being ripped to shreds. It’s actually quite amazing how the filmmakers make stuffing look as graphic as blood in a bizarre cross between “Sesame Street” and “Hill Street Blues.” That being said, there are time when the filmmakers could’ve gotten more inventive in how they kill each puppet. The first time you see a puppet get shot in the head, it’s a riot. The third time, you start to want a bit more variety.

The same can be said about the movie’s gross-out factor. In the first half, there’s a hilariously disgusting moment at a pornographic shop and a sex scene that makes ingenious use of silly string. The second half doesn’t have anything nearly as shocking, though, except for maybe a “Basic Instinct” reference. A hard-R satire like “Sausage Party” worked so well because the creators kept finding new ways to top the absurdity and the tastelessness. “The Happytime Murders” starts to settle down as it goes on, however, missing several opportunities. What the second half does have going for it is a fun mystery that’s not without its predictable moments, but ultimately has a satisfying payoff, both from a comedic and storytelling standpoint.

The film was directed by Jim Henson’s son, Brian, which is both surprising while also making perfect sense. Although this is somewhat new territory for Henson, “The Happytime Murders” has his signature visual flair, making for his best-looking production since “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Puppeteers have been around for a while now, but this film still manages to make us wonder, “how did they do that?” Todd Berger’s screenplay additionally has echoes of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Zootopia,” two other unconventional buddy cop movies with themes of prejudice. As entertaining as the results can be, one can’t help but wish the film pushed the envelope a little more and really went all-out with these ideas. Perhaps they’ll expand upon the premise in the sequel: “The Great Happytime Caper.”

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

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