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Mortal Engines - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 12, 2018 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

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 Comments comments (0)

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 Comments comments (0)

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 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