Nick Picks Flicks

Click here to edit subtitle

Movie Reviews 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Wha... what just happened?! ****1/2


"Avengers: Infinity War" makes everything that came before look like a slight brawl. Bigger doesn’t always equal better, but in this case, going big pays off in marvelous ways.


Read full review at Story Monsters.

Bad Times at the El Royale 

The Hateful Seven ****1/2


“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a thriller sure to draw comparison to the works of Quentin Tarantino, calling “Jackie Brown,” “True Romance,” and especially “The Hateful Eight” to mind. The film also has echoes of artists like Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen brothers, and Vince Gilligan. Even with so many parallels, it still emerges as one of the freshest and most fun times you’ll have at the cinema this year. Director Drew Goddard previously brought us “The Cabin in the Woods,” which also seemed to tread on familiar territory at first glance. Like his previous directorial outing, though, “Bad Times” ultimately takes us so some truly unpredictable places.


Akin to “And Then There Were None” or the screen adaptation of “Clue,” the film centers on a group of strangers who arrive at the El Royale hotel. Each guest signs in with a suitcase of secrets and a catchy name. Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast as Daniel Flynn, who’s committed more sins than his clerical clothing suggests. Cynthia Erivo, who’s best known for her work in Broadway productions like “The Color Purple” and “Sister Act,” gives a stunning breakthrough performance as Darlene Sweet, a soulful singer struggling to make it against the prejudice backdrop of 1969. Dakota Johnson gives her best performance as Emily Summerspring, a rebel on the run with her sister (Cailee Spaeny). Jon Hamm also hams it up as Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman who’ll need something much stronger to clean the crime scene about to unfold.


Working behind the desk is a nervous concierge named Miles Miller, played by Bill Pullman’s son, Lewis Pullman. Miles is seemingly the only employee at the El Royale, which only adds another layer of mystery to an already enigmatic destination. This is one of those movies where the environment is so rich that it feels more like a character than a setting. The production design mixes the glamor of Hollywood with the sleaziness of Las Vegas. As a matter of fact, the hotel is located smackdab in between California and Nevada with a line running straight through the lobby. Likewise, all of these characters walk a fine line between being lost and found.


Each guest strives to get through a stormy night with the promise of receiving a fresh start in the morning. With the arrival of a charismatic cult leader played by Chris Hemsworth, however, it appears the sun may never rise again for any of these people. The El Royale thus serves as an allegory for purgatory. On the surface, it seems like a getaway spot where troubled souls can escape their sinful pasts. Behind all of the smoke and mirrors, though, every visitor is being watched and judged. When the time comes to check out, they can either exit through the golden gates or be engulfed by hellish flames.


Although the runtime clocks in at 140 minutes, Goddard’s script never feels slow or overstuffed. Ensemble pieces aren't easy to execute, but Goddard juggles each character without once dropping a ball. Everyone’s story arc is equally engaging and you never find yourself wanting to fast-forward through one subplot to get to another. The star-studded cast, sharp screenplay, and smashing direction are complemented by Michael Giacchino’s musical score and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. Like “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” may not become an overnight hit, but it’s destined to become an overnight cult classic.

Beautiful Boy

I learned it by watching you! ****


They say relapse is part of recovery. Some people might take this phrase the wrong way, assuming that it gives addicts permission to repeatedly fall off the wagon and for rehab facilities to not take as much responsibility for their patients. No matter how you interpret these words, one thing is clear: when it comes to addiction, temptation is always staring you in the face and anyone can give in at any time. Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” has an evident understanding of how relapse and recovery are intertwined. It pulls no punches and provides no easy answers, but that’s exactly what makes this adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir so effective.


Steve Carell revealed a completely different side of himself in “Foxcatcher,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He continues his string of powerful dramatic performances as David, a dedicated father who’s shocked to learn that his teenage son is addicted to meth, amongst other drugs. Between his supporting work in “Lady Bird” and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” Timothée Chalamet secured his place as last year’s breakthrough actor. As Nic Sheff, Chalamet once again demonstrates why he’s one of the most impressive young actors of his generation. A model student who gets accepted to several colleges, you’d never know that Nic is a meth addict based on a conversation with him. That just goes to show how susceptible we all are to addiction.


After hitting rock bottom multiple times, Nic sincerely tells his family that he wants to get clean. Nic commits to attending AA meetings, taking regular drug tests, and checking in with his sponsor. Along the way, he receives unconditional support from his father, as well as his step-mother (Maura Tierney) and estranged birth mother (Amy Ryan). A more straightforward film would’ve closed the curtain at this point, but Nic’s inner demons aren’t so easily silenced. Just when looks like his junkie days are in the past, Nic shows us that old habits die hard.


Nic is a character many viewers will grow frustrated with. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking watching this promising young man continually get his act together only to flush his sobriety down the toilet. Alas, anybody who’s battled addiction knows that this vicious cycle is all-too common. Although “Beautiful Boy” is authentic in its portrayal of Nic’s struggles, it’s just as much about the hardships his parents endure. The film constantly flashes back between David’s perception of Nic as a child and his current state, which will resonate with anyone who’s watched a loved one transform over time due to substance abuse. Eventually, David needs to choose whether to aid his son yet again or finally accept that no matter what he does, Nic will likely get himself killed. His decision isn’t as simple as one might assume.


“Beautiful Boy” is far from the first movie to tackle this subject matter. Its themes can be traced all the way back to “The Lost Weekend” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Of course, this is exactly why addiction is such a prevalent topic. Even if it’s not as ambitious as “Requiem for a Dream” or “Trainspotting,” the performances are raw, the screenplay is genuine, and the filmmakers never lower themselves to cheap melodrama. The ending isn’t the happiest, although it’s not the saddest either. It merely reinforces the notion that recovery is forever a work in progress.

BlacKkKlansman

America First? ****1/2


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.

Blindspotting

Brother from another mother ****1/2


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


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


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


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


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

Blockers

American Pie without the pie ****


20 years ago, we got “American Pie,” a film about four teenage boys determined to lose their virginity before prom night. “Blockers” possesses a similar premise, albeit with a few notable changes. For starters, rather than boys, this story revolves around three girls who enter a sex pact with the end of their senior years on the horizon. Of course the film is just as much about the parents of the girls, if not more so. Unlike Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad, however, these parents aren’t exactly eager to give their children advice on intercourse. This helps to distinguish “Blockers” from its predecessor, making for a comedy that’s not only funny, but also kind of poignant in parts.


Our three comically seasoned leads are all tailor-made for their roles. Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the loving – yet clingy – single mother of Kathryn Newton’s Julie. Ike Barinholtz is Hunter, the clueless estranged dad of Gideon Adlon’s Sam. Then there’s John Cena as Mitchell, the overprotective father of Geraldine Viswanathan’s Kayla. While their daughters have been best friends since they were five, the three parents have had a falling out over the years. Once the parents find out that the girls are planning to give their flowers away to their prom dates, they reunite to prevent them from ending up on “Teen Mom.”


It’s a simple, if not clichéd, premise that still makes leeway for a lot of hilarious scenarios. The highlight involves a drinking game that, without giving too much away, is simply crap your pants funny. Gary Cole and Gina Gershon also give some uproarious supporting performances as a couple with a VERY open sex life. The screenplay from Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe is additionally ripe with one-liners. Actually, there are times when the audience is laughing so hard that it’s easy to miss some of the dialog. That’s just a reason to revisit “Blockers” when it comes out on DVD, however.


“Blockers” marks the feature film directorial debut of Kay Cannon, who is best known for her work on the “Pitch Perfect” movies. Cannon injects sharp comedic timing into her film, getting strong work from the entire cast. The dynamic between Mann, Cena, and Barinholtz is especially refreshing. In most films like this, the leads would typically be either three dads or three moms. Gender isn’t really a factor when it comes to this trio, though, as they’re all simply concerned parents who have their daughters’ best interests at heart… even if they go a bit overboard. Cena in particular does a genuine job at making the audience forget that he started out as a professional wrestler, masking his hulking physique with a parental persona.


As great as the parents are, the film fortunately doesn’t forget about the daughters either. Newton, Viswanathan, and Adlon also strike an equal balance of being humorous, complex, and down-to-earth. The three actually share a very believable friendship and the rapport they have with their parents is just as sincere. Despite all the unrealistic shenanigans, the interactions between the characters feels surprisingly authentic and the film’s messages regarding teen sex ultimately ring true. It might not be a proper substitute for the sex talk, but “Blockers” will speak to parents and young adults when that awkward time comes.

Bohemian Rhapsody

We are the champions ****1/2


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.

Boy Erased

Boy, Interrupted ****


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.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The McCarthy Redemption ***1/2


Melissa McCarthy’s career trajectory has been eerily similar to Tom Hank’s. Both started primarily working in television, but eventually broke out on the silver screen with Academy Award nominated comedic performances. Hanks starred in a few less than stellar films following “Big,” such as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Turner & Hooch.” Of course, he made a huge comeback in 1993 with “Philadelphia,” which redefined him as a more serious actor and even resulted in a Best Actor victory. Likewise, McCarthy has hit a couple rough patches following “Bridesmaids,” such as “Identity Thief,” “The Boss,” and “Life of the Party.” The ironically titled “Can You Forgive Me?” reveals a completely different side of McCarthy and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if her powerhouse performance accumulate to a Best Actress win.


McCarthy plays Lee Israel, whose 2008 memoir provided the basis for this film. Lee is a talented writer who even had a few books published back in the day, but she’s since fallen on hard times. Lee’s agent (Jane Curtin) is unable to get her work due in part to the subject matter she wishes to write about. On top of that, Lee is notoriously impatient, rude, and antisocial, unwilling to play nice in order to get what she wants. Lee’s only friends are her sickly cat and her eccentric drinking buddy Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant in a delightful supporting performance. Since Lee and Jack are both gay, there refreshingly isn’t any hint of a romance between them. Lee would like to ask out a timid bookshop owner (Dolly Wells), but her own insecurities get in the way.


Desperate for money, Lee finds that she has a talent for mimicking the voices and writing styles of late celebrities like Fanny Brice. After making a couple hundred bucks for a letter she forged, Lee decides to pursue a new career path as a criminal. At first, Lee fails to see the downside since she’s finally making cold hard cash while also pursuing her passion. Of course, it isn’t long until people begin to question the authenticity of Lee’s letters. Soon enough, the FBI is hot on Lee’s trail, meaning she could face serious jail time.


Through humor and brutal honest, McCarthy brings out the humanity in Lee. Between her criminal activity and all-around unpleasant attitude, this is a person we should despise. Yet, we oddly sympathize with Lee and even relate to her actions. Lee wants nothing more than to make a living off her writing, something any starving artist can identify with. She simply can’t work a room like other writers, though, hence why her name carries no weight. It isn’t until Lee starts signing her work with someone else’s signature that she finally starts to feel respected. Just as every forgery is a fake, however, Lee’s feelings of self-worth stem from an insincere place.


Although McCarthy’s performance is great, the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same heights. For a movie with a lot of buildup, the narrative loses some momentum in its final act where the drama and tension never feel as high as they should be. There’s definitely an interesting story to be told here, but not necessarily a fascinating one, at least when you compare Lee Isreal to an imposter like Frank Abagnale. In many respects, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the anti-version of “Catch Me if You Can.” There’s nothing romanticized or glamorous about Lee’s portrayal. Given the character’s uncompromising nature, though, perhaps that’s fitting.

The Children Act

Trialed as an adult ***1/2


Sometimes a performance can elevate a film that would otherwise be average at best. “The Children Act” can consider itself lucky that it has an actress of Emma Thompson’s caliber onboard. While the movie itself is skillfully made and not without some well-crafted dialog, the filmmakers don’t always seem certain what they want to say. Even when the material is uneven, though, Thompson never hits a false note. This is perhaps her best performance since “Saving Mr. Banks” five years ago and that alone is enough to warrant a recommendation. 


In this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a workaholic judge. Fiona never had children, although she did settle down with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). Actually, “settle down” may be a poor choice of words, as Fiona is always focusing on a new case with no time for her family. After years of trying to be supportive, the neglected and sexually frustrated Jack flat-out tells his wife that he wants to have an affair. This conversation doesn’t play out exactly as you might think, though.


Rather than immediately erupting into a big blowout, Jack casually breaks the news as if he’s giving Fiona his two weeks notice. It’s a moment that catches the audience off-guard with its dark humor and brutal honesty. The scene tells us everything we need to know about their relationship with both Tucci and Thompson further demonstrating why they’re two of our finest performances. Fiona is naturally not okay with Jack’s proposition to sleep with other women while remaining married. Her workload is so heavy, however, that she has little time to repair the damage that’s already been done.


Fiona faces an especially difficult trial when a teenage boy named Adam (Fionn Whitehead) denies a blood transfusion that could save his life. As a Jehovah's Witnesses, Adam would rather die from leukemia than accept someone else’s blood. After visiting Adam in the hospital, Fiona rules in favor of giving him the blood transfusion anyway. This is where the film veers into bizarre territory, as Adam’s health improves and be begins stalking Fiona. The film never gives Adam much reason to be obsessed with Fiona, however. Does he see her as a potential parental figure or a lover? In any case, his character arc feels underdeveloped and never comes together. 


While Adam’s subplot can drag and could’ve been more fleshed out, it does give Fiona’s journey a bit more depth. It’s amazing how Fiona is always able to remain level-headed and professional in a work environment, even when dealing with an unstable dying boy. Whenever she’s at home, though, she feels powerless and uncertain. They say don’t take your work home, but in Fiona’s case it’s don’t take your home to work. All the while, Thompson is bold, raw, and stunning, breathing life into every scene.

Colette

The original ghostwriter ***1/2


“Colette” centers on a brilliant female writer who allows her husband to soak up all the credit for her work. If this premise sounds familiar, that’s because we got a fairly similar film not too long ago called “The Wife” starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. “The Wife” is admittedly a superior piece, as it paints a more complex portrait of marriage and manages to get so much across with so few words. That doesn’t make “Colette” an unworthy film by any means, however. It’s a beautifully made picture with passionate performance and an intriguing true story at its core. Even if the story in question sounds like one we’ve heard before, “Colette” still has something important to say.


Keira Knightley, who seems more determined than ever to go down as the queen of period pictures, stars as Gabrielle Colette, a strong-willed, intelligent woman living a simple country life. Colette falls for a charming yet conniving writer who uses the pen name of Willy, played by Dominic West. Desperate for money, Willy notices his wife’s unique talents when she writes a story about a young lady named Claudine. After giving her a few constructive notes, Willy decides to help Colette publisher her novel, but under his name. Although Colette is content with this arrangement at first, she eventually realizes her full potential as the modern age commences.


Colette’s marriage soon starts feeling like a prison sentence, especially when Willy locks his wife in a room and forces her to write more stories. Like most celebrity couples, the two wear smiles in public together, but are secretly growing further apart. As their marriage continues to deteriorate, Colette and Willy both seek out other women for comfort. At one point, both end up sharing the same mistress. Colette notably enters a relationship with a crossdressing artist named Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), who’s honestly fascinating enough to have a biopic of her own. All the while, Claudine is like the child Colette and Willy never had. She may be fictional, but she still suffers the side effects of her parent’s divorce.


The power struggle between Colette and Willy is largely what makes the film so gripping. Compared to Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in “The Wife,” however, their relationship doesn’t have as many layers. With Close’s performance, a single expression could tell the viewer that she’s a repressed artist torn between salvaging her marriage and claiming what’s rightfully hers. The weight of the world was bearing down on Close and the audience could feel all of her anguish. Although the conflict in this movie is virtually identical, it doesn’t pack as much of a punch. That’s probably because “Colette” is a bit more on the nose with its themes and wraps everything up in a tidy package.


While “Colette” could’ve dug deeper, there’s a great deal to admire nonetheless. Director Wash Westmoreland, who made the underrated “Still Alice,” turns in a visually appeasing piece with immersive sets and costume design. Knightley isn’t exactly stepping out of her comfort zone here, but it’s hard to not be won over by her delightful performance. West is equally appealing in his role, despite playing such a manipulative scoundrel. It may not change anything, but “Colette” does remind us that female voices have been silenced for far too long.

The Commuter

Taken on a Train, aka Trainken ***1/2

It’s been almost ten years since “Taken” became an unlikely hit and in turn made Liam Neeson an unlikely action star. One could argue that Neeson is the action star equivalent of wine. The older he gets, the more badass he looks and sounds. In “The Commuter,” Neeson plays a 60-year-old man who manages to survive multiple fistfights, as well as a train crash that would kill Jason Bourne. In the back of your head, you know that this is preposterous, silly, and even downright stupid. Neeson plays the part so well, however, that you can’t help but go along for the ride.


The best scene in the film is the opening credits, as we’re introduced to Michael MacCauley (Neeson). The sequence takes place over several months, although it’s brilliantly edited to feel like just a single morning, emphasizing the repetitive nature of Michael’s daily routine. He wakes up at 6:00 A.M. next his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), takes a train to work, and puts in his eight hours at an insurance agency. Michael’s routine takes a twisted turn, though, as a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on his commute home. She offers Michael $100,000 to single out a person on the train who doesn’t belong. Michael soon begins to unravel a conspiracy that puts several people at risk, including his family.


The setup here is worthy of a Hitchcockian classic like “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” or “The Lady Vanishes.” Of course “The Commuter” never comes close to reaching the brilliance of a Hitchcock picture, instead taking the safer action route. On that basis, though, it’s by no means poorly made. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously worked with Neeson in “Unknown,” “Run All Night,” and “Non-Stop,” knows how to turn in an intense, well-shot thriller. That’s exactly what we get, which will leave the core demographic satisfied, but others longing for something a little more.


“The Commuter” might have actually earned comparison to a modern “Murder on the Orient Express” if it made slightly better use of its supporting cast. The film features several commendable character actors, including Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, and Sam Neill. Yet, none of them are really utilized to their full potential. Everybody seems to take a backseat with Neeson behind the wheel. Then again, Neeson is the reason why audiences are going to buy a ticket and he once again has a lot of fun in this role.


It’s hard to say how much longer Neeson will be able to milk this aging tough guy caricature. Sure, stunt men and CGI will always be there to fill in the blanks, but can he really pull this part off with his seventies and eighties on the horizon? Well for now, Neeson isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. Even if certain tropes from his films are growing tired, he keeps us coming back with his charisma and gruff charm. I’m totally onboard for more senior action flicks, assuming they have more integrity than “Taken 2” and “3.”

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Good Time ****


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.

Deadpool 2

Am I the only one who wants to see Peter get his own spin-off? ****


In an oversaturated superhero movie market, the original “Deadpool” stood out with its self-aware sense of humor and unapologetic R-rating. “Deadpool 2” is essentially more of the same. That’s not at all a bad thing, as the film ultimately delivers exactly what we want: more over-the-top violence, more gratuitous swearing, and Ryan Reynolds as the Merc with a Mouth. On one hand, it’s kind of disappointing that “Deadpool 2” doesn’t up the ante, but it’s hard to imagine how a sequel like this could possibly be as fresh as its game-changing predecessor. It’s still a most entertaining second chapter with enough memorable moments to warrant the price of admission.


Reynolds is better than ever as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool, who acknowledges upfront that the Oscar-nominated “Logan” is a tough act to follow. Similar to Wolverine’s relationship with X-23, this film follows Deadpool as he takes a temperamental mutant named Firefist (Julian Dennison) under his wing. Firefirst lands in hot water, however, when he’s targeted by mutant solider from the future named Cable, played by Josh Brolin. To protect his little buddy, Deadpool forms a new team called X-Force, which includes Zazie Beetz as the lucky Domino, Terry Crew as the not-so-lucky Bedlam, and Rob Delaney as the powerless Peter.


While you’ll go to the theater to see Deadpool himself, Reynolds fortunately doesn’t have to carry the movie on his own. Deadpool has a terrific ensemble to support him and his interactions with everyone, from Stefan Kapičić’s Colossus to Brianna Hildebrand’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead, are a delight to watch. Brolin also further proves that he can do little wrong with his debut as Cable. Funny to think that Brolin dominated the MCU as Thanos only a couple weeks ago and now he’s in another Marvel movie. And yes, Deadpool doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at this.


As you would expect, “Deadpool 2” is full of hilarious comic book and movie references, most notably taking shots at the DC Extended Universe. There are even some obscure references you never would’ve expected to see in an “X-Men film,” such as the parallels between “Frozen” and “Yentl.” Although the jokes mostly hit bullseyes, “Deadpool 2” admittedly slows down whenever it tries to be a real superhero movie. You don’t care that much about Deadpool’s growth as a person and the story is nothing new. As a matter of fact, the plot here would be a pretty basic rehash of “The Terminator” or “Looper” if it weren’t for the humor. Unlike “Kick-Ass 2,” though, this film fortunately doesn’t forget that it’s supposed to be a comedy above all else.


For all the moments that drag, “Deadpool 2” always has an inspired gag or an inventive action set piece waiting around the corner. Even if it’s not as good as the original, it’s sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes Deadpool. It also has what might be the greatest end credits sequence in the history of film. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that it makes up for the sins of the past while opening the door for a potentially interesting future. With that said, bring on the “X-Force” movie!

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

How Far I'll Go ***


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


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


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


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


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

 

The People vs. Gellert Grindelwald: European Crime Story ***


“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.

The First Purge

Let's make the Purge great again **


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


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


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


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


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

First Man

First! ****1/2


There’s a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which NASA grows desperate for ratings as audiences become less and less interested in space launches. Of course, when you really think about it, few sights known to humankind are more majestic than a spacecraft blasting through Earth’s atmosphere. The notion that anyone could find space exploration boring is truly baffling, especially since most of us will never even get to sit inside a rocket. Ever since we put a man on the Moon, though, there’s been a real “been there, done that” mentality about space travel. Even the Apollo 13 mission generated little public interest until the astronauts involved ran into “a problem.” By today’s standards, going to the Moon may sound like a fairly doable task. People forgot, however, that leading up to 1969, the idea of man stepping onto the Moon’s surface was not only imposing, but seemingly impossible.

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” captures all of gravitas that made the Apollo 11’s mission nothing short of historic. Outer space has been the setting of so many iconic movies. Some films even succeed in simulating the sensation of being in orbit, most notably Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” In a strange way, though,“First Man” takes us to uncharted territory, as if we’re seeing the vast recesses of space on the silver screen for the first time. What makes this especially interesting is that most of the film actually takes place on our planet, focusing on the sheer dread and uncertainty of venturing to another world.


In a role that Gary Cooper likely would’ve played in another lifetime, Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, who will naturally become the first man ever to walk on the Moon by the time the credits roll. Landing on the Moon is far from the most difficult thing Armstrong ever went through, however. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Armstrong and his wife Janet Shearon, wonderfully played by Claire Foy, cope with the fact that their daughter is dying. Science has come far enough to send a man into space, but it can’t save a two-year-old girl with a malignant tumor. Although Armstrong often appears composed, underneath he feels broken, withdrawn, and overwrought with grief. Whether Armstrong’s at a friend’s funeral or in a rocket cockpit, his daughter’s death follows him everywhere and it’ll take traveling over 200,000 miles away from Earth for him to let go.


Armstrong was often described as a reluctant American hero and Gosling nails this to a T. It doesn’t require much more than a simple facial expression to know that the weight of the world is bearing down on his shoulders. He didn’t become an astronaut because of the fame or glory. Most of the time, he doesn’t even come off as very enthusiastic about his job. At the same time, he accepts this daring mission knowing full well that even a basic wiring problem aboard the spacecraft could result in immediate death. Armstrong doesn’t appear phased by the possibility of dying. What does scare him, however, is having to sit his two living children down and tell them that he may not come back alive.


Chazelle previously made “La La Land,” my personal favorite movie of the past decade. His follow-up film is a complete detour from his other works, further exemplifying his incredible range as a director. Along with Gosling and Foy, Chazelle gets universally strong performances from Jason Clarke as Ed White, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton. The combination of Linus Sandgren’s cinematography and Tom Cross’ editing creates a claustrophobic sensation that places us in Armstrong’s shoes at all times. Composer Justin Hurwitz goes from the City of Stars to literally touching the stars with a musical score that embodies the infinite wonder of space. What’s more, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer deliver a deep character study that avoids obvious symbolism.


Speaking of obvious symbolism, it’s worth mentioning that “First Man” has stirred up some drama due to a report that the filmmakers omitted the planting of the American flag. Those demanding a boycott of the movie are completely irrational, especially since the film DOES in fact show the American flag on the Moon in the final act. Anyone who skips the film over this quote unquote “controversy” will be missing out on one of the year’s most awe-inspired cinematic experiences. More importantly, the ending reminds us that the Moon landing wasn’t just a giant leap for Americans, but a giant leap for mankind.

First Reformed

You praying to me? ***1/2


Over four decades ago, Paul Schrader forever changed cinema when he wrote “Taxi Driver.” While Martin Scorsese’s direction often soaks up most of the credit, Schrader deserves just as much recognition for crafting one of the 20th century’s most gripping character studies. “First Reformed,” which Schrader both wrote and directed, has the essence of a modern “Taxi Driver” with a touch of "The Last Temptation of Christ." It’s not as good as those films and chances are it won’t leave behind the same impact. Schrader’s film evokes many of the same feelings, however, taking the audience on an unsettling, understated, and uncompromising journey they won’t soon forget.


Ethan Hawke delivers one of his most powerful performances as Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in war. Being the one who convinced his son to join the armed forces, Toller is already riddled with guilt and grief over his death. Although he’s clearly suffering from a fatal ailment, he’s reluctant to seek medical help. Toller has for the most part cut himself off from having meaningful relationships, only occasionally speaking to a fellow pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) and a well-meaning yet nosy choir conductor named Esther (Victoria Hill). This man of the Lord only becomes more conflicted as he grows closer to a pregnant woman named Mary, beautifully played by Amanda Seyfried. She asks Toller to council her paranoid husband, who’s convinced that the environment is beyond repair. Unfortunately, Toller not only fails her husband, but also slowly comes to believe that mankind has doomed the world God gave us.


Environmentally conscious films tend to range from well-intentioned to unbearably self-righteous. “First Reformed” isn’t without its preachy moments and can at times be a bit too on the nose, especially when it comes to tackling big corporations. More often than not, though, the film avoids the clichés you might expect. This isn’t a movie that tries to provide an easy solution to a global problem. Rather, it’s about a man desperately searching for answers, but finding nothing but uncertainty around every corner.


Like Travis Bickle, Toller simply wants to fit into something greater. The more he struggles to find a purpose, though, Toller starts to take extreme measures in hopes of fixing a timely issue. A more straightforward film would’ve just made Toller a one-dimensional martyr. Instead, he emerges an incredibly complex protagonist. You could argue that he’s a Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, but he could also be seen as a deeply troubled individual on the verge of committing suicide.


In terms of style, Schrader keeps things subtle and intimate with a tight aspect ratio. The film isn’t without its surreal moments that catch the audience off-guard, however, most notably a psychedelic flying sequence reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski.” The ending in particular is going to have a lot of people scratching their heads. With nothing spelled out and a slow pace, “First Reformed” admittedly isn’t for everyone. For those familiar with Schrader’s work, though, you’ll definitely walk away with something to think about.

The Girl in the Spider's Web

The Girl in Sony's Web **1/2


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.

Green Book

Driving Mahershala Ali ****1/2


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.

The Grinch

Despicable Green ***


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.

Halloween

H4O: Forty Years Later ****


It goes without saying that the original “Halloween” is a magnum opus of horror. Despite clearly being a product of 1978, John Carpenter’s film still holds up phenomenally with its slow-building tension, chilling atmosphere, and daunting antagonist. The sequels are a different story, however. While the other films in this franchise aren’t exactly good, they certainly have an interesting history. Michael Myers was supposed to die for good in “Halloween II,” he was taken out of the equation entirely in “Halloween III,” and made a comeback in “Halloween 4.” Two more disappointing sequels later, “Halloween H2O” retconned everything following the second film and served as the final nail in Michael’s coffin. Of course, seeing how the next film was called “Halloween: Resurrection,” the final nail obviously didn’t stick.


After getting a Rob Zombie reboot, as well as a second “Halloween II,” you’d think another film would be the cinematic equivalent of beating a dead horse. Yet, David Gordon Green’s addition to the series, simply entitled “Halloween,” is a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to say if this is the sequel we’ve always wanted or the sequel we never knew we wanted. After all this time, however, it’s highly satisfying to see a successor that does the original justice, acting as both a homage and a worthy continuation of the story. The film doesn’t surpass its predecessor and likely won’t go down as a game-changer, but it is the most fun and personal “Halloween” sequel to date.


Green and company once again erase much of the muddled continuity, only recognizing the first film as canon. It’s also established upfront that Laurie Strode, once again played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is not related to Michael Myers, once again played by Nick Castle, as well as stuntman James Jude Courtney. Michael has been locked up for forty years, but the emotional scars he imprinted on Laurie that fateful Halloween night never left. Much like a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, Laurie acts as if she’s still in constant danger, unable to leave the war behind. Laurie's paranoia caused her to grow distant from her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer in an especially effective performance. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is more sensitive to her grandmother’s condition and wishes to unite her family. As Allyson tries to bring everyone together, Michael prepares to tear them apart as he escapes from incarceration. 


It’s never made clear why exactly Michael is drawn to the Strode family, although the mystery surrounding their dynamic only adds to its unsettlingly nature. Michael's creep factor always stemmed from not knowing if he really was the boogeyman or just a freakishly strong psychopath. Either way, he commands the screen here with his overwhelming psyche and nerve-wracking presence. Granted, it’s kind of hard to believe that a man in his early 60s could step on someone’s head and crack open their skull like a Jack-o'-lantern. If you’re willing to give into a little suspension of disbelief, though, you’ll find a well-crafted and even character-driven thriller.


The film likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without Curtis. Few performers get to revisit their career-defining role decades later and she doesn’t miss a beat. Curtis evolves Laurie from a likeable, strong-willed heroine to a fiercely complex soul with several different layers as a character. Every actress in the film turns in strong work, making for a slasher flick that embraces female empowerment. Come to think of it, the men here are all pretty idiotic by comparison. The smartest male character by far is a little boy played by Jibrail Nantambu, who realizes that it’s usually better to run from Michael than to try and fight him off.


Green skillfully captures the look and tone of Carpenter’s film while also incorporating a modern element. The standout set piece is a tracking shot that follows Michael through a neighborhood of houses, leaving us overwrought with suspense as we wonder what he’ll do next. The screenplay, which Green co-wrote with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, is playfully self-aware, although it never goes into flat-out satire territory. Carpenter even returned to work on the film’s score, which, much like the “Star Wars” theme, never fails to get the blood rushing. It all builds to an electrifying climax that may or may not be Michael’s last stand. In any case, this feels like the right place to end Laurie’s journey, sending her into the night on a high note full of tricks and treats.

The Happytime Murders

It ain't easy being blue ***


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.”  

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

So is this Jurassic Park 5 or Jurassic World 2? **1/2


The original “Jurassic Park” was such an exciting, quotable, and rewatchable blockbuster that it would’ve been crazy for Universal not to build a franchise around it. After the disappointments of “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III,” however, it seemed like there wasn’t much left to do with this franchise outside of milking it for every cent. Then over a decade after the franchise was seemingly extinct, “Jurassic World” came along and not only made a butt-load of cash, but also evolved the original’s premise. It was the best “Jurassic Park” sequel by a wide margin, bringing the series into modern times. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” attempts to build upon its processor, but Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s script sadly comes off as half-baked.


Bryce Dallas Howard is back as Claire, who’s still trying to correct the mistakes of Jurassic World by preserving the dinosaurs that were left behind on the island. With a volcano about to erupt, though, it looks like the prehistoric beasts are about to become extinct yet again. Claire finds a wealthy benefactor in Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who works for John Hammond’s former colleague Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Mills claims that he wants to rescue the surviving dinosaurs and give them a habitat far away from humankind. Chris Pratt’s Owen decides to join Claire on this rescue mission in hopes of reuniting with the raptor Blue, the true love of his life. It turns out this was all a setup, however, as Mills is actually planning on auctioning off the dinosaurs for money, money, money!


Herein lies the biggest problem with “Fallen Kingdom:” why do we need human bad guys? When you have a T-Rex and a volcano about to explode, what’s the point of throwing in a bunch of wormy, forgettable human villains who just make one colossal mistake after another? Granted, even the original “Jurassic Park” technically had human antagonists, but the filmmakers were smart enough to remove them from the equation half-way in. Here, we’re stuck with Mills for most of the run-time and he’s not nearly as memorable as Dennis Nedry. The villains simply slow down every scene they’re in when all we really want to see is badass dinosaurs doing their thing.


That being said, when “Fallen Kingdom” keeps the focus on the dinosaurs, it’s a pretty fun ride. Director J. A. Bayona, whose made some genuinely thrilling films like “A Monster Calls” and “The Orphanage,” brings his signature visual flair to the film, which features some jaw-dropping cinematography and effects. The best set piece by far takes place on Isla Nublar as our heroes dodge a dinosaur stampede and volcanic doom. It would appear nothing can stop Chris Pratt in his tracks… except for Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet. Bayona plays his best hand too early in the film, however, as nothing that follows even comes close to topping this stunning action sequence.


Above all else, “Fallen Kingdom” just doesn’t seem sure what it wants to say. There’s clearly an animal rights message somewhere in there, but it gets lost considering that the dinosaurs cause so much destruction and we’d probably be better off letting nature take its course. Speaking of which, our heroes are constantly preaching that we shouldn’t interfere with the dinosaurs, but that’s what they’re constantly doing and often making things worse in due course. There’s also a mystery surrounding a little girl played by promising newcomer Isabella Sermon, but the big reveal fails to go anywhere. She’s not the only one who comes off as underutilized, as Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm briefly returns merely to spout a couple lines for the trailer.


As disappointing as this “Jurassic World” follow-up is in parts, it does offer some intriguing ideas, particularly in the final act. It’s too bad these ideas weren’t introduced earlier in the film, but they do have me interested to see where this franchise will go in its next inevitable outing. With a more fleshed-out screenplay, there’s true potential for another stellar action adventure. For now, though, “Fallen Kingdom” feels more like a stepping stone to better things to come. If only it had spent more time in the incubator.

Leave No Trace

Leaving an Impression ****


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


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


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


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


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

Life of the Party

From female Ghostbusters to female Back to School **1/2


Melissa McCarthy movies tend to go in one of two ways. If it’s directed by Paul Feig, we’ll probably get an instant comedy classic like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” or “Spy.” If it’s directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband, we’ll get something mostly mediocre like “Tammy” or “The Boss.” With “Life of the Party,” the audience can’t help but get excited when they see McCarthy in the trailer, but interest quickly dies down when you spot Falcone’s name on the film’s IMDb page. To be fair, Falcone isn’t devoid of talent and his latest directorial outing does have its laughs. For this material to really shine, though, a more seasoned writer and director needed to be brought on board.


McCarthy stars as Deanna Miles, a middle-aged mother who’s taken aback when her jerky husband (Matt Walsh) asks for a divorce. Having never completed college, Deanna sees this as an opportunity to finally get her degree. Coincidentally, her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) Is in her senior year and soon enough Deanne becomes a regular at her sorority. While Maddie is a bit annoyed at first, she eventually comes to enjoy having her mom around. We’ve seen this kind of premise explored in other films like “Back to School,” “Billy Madison,” and even “An Extremely Goofy Movie.” Does “Life of the Party” bring anything unique to the table, though? Well, the cast does, even if the script doesn’t.


The characters here are for the most part all stereotypes, ranging from the geeky misfits to the mean girls. The material is elevated by a capable group of comedic actors, however. McCarthy strikes just the right balance of being warm and nurturing while also being over-the-top. We get some especially hysterical work from Gillian Jacobs as a student who started college late after spending eight years in a coma. Deanna actually has a very nice rapport with all of her daughter’s friends, acting as both a parental figure and an irresponsible sorority sister. Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, and Stephen Root help round out the supporting cast, delivering a descent number of one-liners.


There’s even time for a little romance as Deanna rebounds with a hunky college stud played by Luke Benward. Granted, it’s kind of hard to buy this relationship, but that’s part of the joke. It also leads the most hilarious moment in the film as worlds collide at a restaurant. I won’t give away what happens, but it’s one of the best revelation scenes since “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” So what we’re left with is a great ensemble and some genuinely funny moments in a comedy that’s ultimately just okay.


While there’s definitely a lot to like in “Life of the Party,” there are also too many moments that drag on without any laughs. The first act in particular is a bit of a slog to get through with most of the jokes falling flat. The humor does start to pick up in the second half, especially with that one dinner scene. When you look at the big picture, though, you’re left disappointed that some scenes didn’t get a rewrite. It’s perfectly passable for a DVD rental, but there’s not much to celebrate at the theater.

The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Maze Runner 2049 **1/2


My feelings towards “The Maze Runner” movies are very mixed. The first film, while nothing groundbreaking, at least had a gripping sense of mystery and a premise worthy of a “Twilight Zone” episode. 2015’s “The Scorch Trials” threw all of those interesting ideas out the window, becoming a straight-up “Hunger Games” knockoff. That shouldn’t come as a massive surprise, seeing how this franchise primarily exists to bank on the success of Katniss Everdeen’s story. Since the young adult craze has started to die out anyway, “The Death Cure” is about three years too late. Of course the filmmakers and studio can’t exactly be blamed for the movie’s poor timing, as Dylan O'Brien’s on set injuries delayed production.

 

O’Brien reprises his role as Thomas, who just might be the key to saving humanity as a deadly disease continues to plague the world. Thomas is once again joined by… well… I can’t really remember any of the other characters, which is this franchise’s main problem. While the actors all do a fine job, Thomas’ friends are interchangeable and have few – if any – defining characteristics. You know the one kid in Stephen King’s “It” that everyone forgets about and is nobody’s favorite? Imagine if they just made about four or five of them and you’d basically have the primary ensemble here.

 

The other supporting characters aren’t much more interesting and come off as unenthusiastically clichéd. You’ve got Kaya Scodelario as the traitor who’s bound to reteam with our heroes, Patricia Clarkson as the big bad government figure who sees the light, and Aidan Gillen as the other authority figure who gets no redemption. Giancarlo Esposito is also there, although he’s never utilized to his full potential. Nobody is. Everyone just seems to be there to collect a paycheck and nothing more.

 

As half-assed as “The Death Cure” can feel at times, director Wes Ball’s action sequences do brighten matters up a bit. There’s an especially impressive set piece involving a bus that manages to be inventive, thrilling, and humorous all at once. While it’s a well-crafted movie on the whole, “The Death Cure” also borrows from one too many other franchises. In addition to “The Hunger Games,” the look of the film was clearly influenced by “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner.” Huh, maybe this movie should’ve been called “Maze Runner 2049.” Ultimately, there’s a been there, done that mentality to the whole experience which never lets up.

 

Of all the “Maze Runner” movies, “The Death Cure” isn’t the worst, but it’s arguably the most uneven. For every moment that’s legitimately fun, exciting, or dramatic, there’s another that’s redundant and monotonous. It’s a middle of the road conclusion to a franchise that was always average at best. For what it’s worth, this was probably the best ending we could’ve hoped for and if the previous two films had you at the edge of your seat, “The Death Cure” will leave you satisfied. Personally, I’m just glad they didn’t try to split the final book into two movies.

The Meg

Shut up, Meg ***


“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).

Mid90s

It was 1990-something... ****


Somewhere between the mid-2000s and early 2010s, society seemed to develop an obsession with everything retro. Given the economy, political climate, and rise of terrorism, it’s understandable why people want to go back to a simpler time. If we could actually go back to another decade, however, we’d likely find that there’s no such thing as a “simpler time.” The 80s and 90s had their charms for sure, but it’s not like they weren’t without problems. So many modern movies fondly observe the past through a pair of nostalgia goggles. “Mid90s” isn’t afraid to interpret the era through a clear lens, delving into the confusing and brutal parts of growing up while still offering glimpses of hope.


Jonah Hill makes a promising directorial debut with this honest depiction of a 13-year-old boy’s journey through mid-90s life. Sunny Suljic couldn’t be more genuine as Stevie, who’s at the age where he’s starting to lose interest in Ninja Turtles and is more into skateboarding. Funny to think that Suljic was previously seen as a skateboarder in “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.” Stevie is tormented at home by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up on a regular basis. Their mother (Katherine Waterston) does her best to keep it together, but can sense Stevie growing more and more distant. Trying to figure out who he is, Stevie eventually falls in with a group of older skaters.


Stevie’s friends are mostly played by unknown actors, which adds another layer of authenticity to their performances. Na-kel Smith leads the pack as Ray, who affectionately takes Stevie under his wing. The gang also includes the quiet Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the jealous Ruben (Gio Galicia), and the reckless F**ks**t (Olan Prenatt). Needless to say, most of their conversations consist of four-letter words, as well as some casual racial and homophobic slurs. The way Hill’s screenplay represents the lingo of the time couldn’t be more spot-on, almost coming off as improvised. What’s more, the delivery is so natural that it never feels like acting, as if we’re really eavesdropping in on a conversation between kids from the grunge era.


With a loose plot, “Mid90s” is basically 84 minutes of Stevie hanging out with his friends and that’s pretty much all we need. Like “Boyhood,” “Moonlight,” and “The Florida Project,” this film is less about telling a flowing story and more about capsulizing a chapter in a young person’s life. Even if you weren’t a skater growing up, chances are you knew kids like Stevie and his friends. We can also understand Stevie’s desire to prove himself, which leads him to make several unwise decisions. What’s refreshing is that none of Stevie’s friends pressure him in a mean-spirted manner. They sincerely care about his well-being and have his back, even if they’re not exactly the best role models.


Hill certainly gets the look of the 90s down, occupying scenes with skateboards, Super Nintendos, and CD players. More importantly, though, he captures the decade at its bleakest, as our protagonist copes with anger, uncertainty, and isolation. Through his friends, however, Stevie finds that he’s not alone and there’s always somebody out there who’s having an even harder time getting by. Of course, these life lessons don’t just apply to kids who survived the mid-90s, demonstrating that some things never change.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

So that's what MI6 stands for ****1/2


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


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


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


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


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

Night School

Back to school, back to school, to prove to Dad that I'm not a fool ***


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.

The Nun

It doesn't really compel you **1/2 


“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.

Ocean's 8

Boom baby! ***1/2


Your enjoyment of “Ocean’s 8” will entirely rely on how much your you liked Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy. If you couldn’t get enough of the previous three films and have been yearning for more, you can bet on having a good time here. If you’re officially Ocean-end out, this sequel/soft revival probably won’t offer many surprises. While safe and fairly by-the-numbers, it’s still a well-executed heist comedy with enough star-power and glitz to keep the target audience entertained. Anybody who’s onboard going into the theater will get what they paid for, no more, no less.


Sandra Bullocks takes the reins of the franchise as Debbie Ocean, Danny’s equally crafty sister. Following a five year prison sentence, Debbie plans to pull off the biggest heist of her life at the Met Gala. Anne Hathaway is an MVP here as a self-centered celebrity named Daphne Kluger, who will be wearing a $150 million necklace to the ceremony. Of course Debbie can’t pull off this job alone. Her eccentric crew consists of Cate Blanchett as her right-hand woman, Helena Bonham Carter as a struggling fashion designer, Mindy Kaling as a quirky jewelry maker, Awkwafina as a sketchy pickpocket, Rihanna as the world’s most gorgeous hacker, and Sarah Paulson as a housewife who comes out of retirement for one last job. 


While this “Ocean’s” film has been classified as an all-female reboot, the leads aren’t written as stereotypical woman. Most of these characters just as easily could’ve been played by a man, but the presence of these eight charismatic actresses brings something refreshing to the equation. The entire ensemble shines and everyone works off one another wonderfully. Although Soderbergh didn’t return to direct this outing, Gary Ross captures the same slick style and cheeky tone. The heist itself is a creative one and leaves the audience guessing how exactly these people are going to get those diamonds off Hathaway’s neck. 


What the film lacks is a compelling villain. From Andy Garcia to Al Pacino, this franchise has attracted some pretty cunning baddies. Here, however, there’s not really anyone for the audience to root against and the character who comes the closest to being an antagonist is completely forgettable. It briefly looks like James Corden might shake things up as an insurance agent, but he’s sadly underutilized. As a result, our heroes seem to have the upper hand from the start and there isn’t really a sense of dread.


In spite of its shortcomings, “Ocean’s 8” ultimately compensates with its capable cast and Ross’ confident direction. While it isn’t the franchise’s best outing, it does provide a solid launching point for a new era. It would’ve been nice if the filmmakers took more chances, but that’s what we have sequels for. It’d actually be fun to see the series continue with “Ocean’s 9” and “Ocean’s 10,” bringing things full circle... just like an O.

The Predator

Predator: Resurrection ***


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.

The Old Man & the Gun 

One for the road ***1/2


Robert Redford has hinted that “The Old Man & the Gun” may be his final film, although it’s hard to say if he’ll follow through. Much like the main character in this film, Redford has been given numerous opportunities to get out of the game for good, but always seems to reel himself back in. In that sense, it would be fitting if this was Redford’s swan song. Then again, it would also be fitting if he went on to star in a few more films after this. Either way, this movie serves as an affectionate reminder as to why Redford has remained an active presence in the film industry for almost 60 years.


Writer/director David Lowery, who previously brought us “A Ghost Story,” establishes a look and style reminiscent of the movies Redford starred in throughout the 60s and 70s. Redford’s character here actually feels like an older version of Johnny Hooker from "The Sting." The film is based on a real-life career criminal named Forrest Tucker, who’s escaped from prison multiple times and is showing no signs of slowing down, despite his old age. Although Forrest makes a living knocking over banks with his gang, he pulls off every robbery with courtesy. He’s such a gentleman that the people he rips off can’t find it in their hearts to dislike him.


It appears Forrest has finally found a worthy advisory in a detective named John Hunt, played by Casey Affleck. After letting Forrest slip through his fingers once, John refuses to let his white whale get away again. While Redford and Affleck don’t share much screen time together, you can still feel their connection as tension continues to boil. The same can be said about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s dynamic in “Heat.” Even as John moves in closer to his target, Forrest wears a smile on his face without a care in the world.


“The Old Man & the Gun” is an interesting character study about someone who’s been running for so long that apart of them may want to get caught. When danger does loom around the corner, though, Forrest will do everything in his power to maintain his freedom. Of course in a way, Forrest’s bad habits will always keep him prisoner. At times he’s tempted to give up crime and settle down with a lovely woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). Alas, he can simply never stop running, even if nobody is chasing him. In his eyes, life is all about showing the world that he can’t be tied down.


Unlike his overlooked work in “All Is Lost,” Redford doesn’t really challenge himself as an actor here. His winking devil performance as Forrest is charming, but on the familiar side. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but it’s clear that this role was tailor-made for Redford. Whether it’ll be his last performance or not, it’s fun to see him take on a character like this again. No actor is better suited for the part and it’s a high note for Redford to go out on… assuming he sticks to his guns.

Rampage

A man and his monkey **1/2


Of all the modern film adaptations of video games, “Rampage” probably had to build the most from the ground up. In “Tomb Raider,” the filmmakers had one of the greatest game protagonists of all time to work with. In “Warcraft,” a whole world and mythology was delivered to the filmmakers on a silver platter. “Rampage,” however, is based on a 1986 arcade game where a giant gorilla, lizard, and wolf attack a city. How is that a movie? In many ways, director Brad Peyton and company deserve credit for trying to make something out of nothing, even if the results still come off as half-baked.


While it’s a monster movie on the surface, “Rampage” is also the tale of a man and his monkey. Dwayne Johnson plays David Okoye, a primatologist who would rather spend his time with an albino gorilla named George than with people. When George comes into contact with a mysterious experiment from outer space, he grows to the size of Mighty Joe Young and develops a serious attitude problem. He’s not the only one, as the experiment also affects a wolf and a crocodile that grow big enough to join the Toho family. Along with a former genetic engineer named Kate (Naomie Harris), David sets out to save George before he and his fellow giants level Chicago.


Through motion capture effects, performer Jason Liles brings a great deal of personality to George, just as Andy Serkis did with his portrayal of Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” films. George is really the only beast anybody seems that interested in, though. Ralph the Wolf is pretty much sidelined, although he does have one fun encounter with Joe Manganiello, who ironically played a werewolf on “True Blood.” Meanwhile, Lizzie, who’s never actually referred to by name, doesn’t pop up until the climax. While the destruction is visually impressive and captures the spirit of the game, the film keeps trying to shoehorn in humans we don’t care much about. That actually seems to be a problem with a lot of modern monster movies, as well as films with “vs” in the title.


As per usual, Johnson gives it his all, even when he’s not given the most complex character to work with. Harris also tries hard, although her character is basically just there to spout exposition and to be “the woman” archetype. The film honestly could’ve used more of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a government agent with a cowboy persona. It’d actually be great to see him and Johnson in a buddy picture later down the line. Then there’s Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy as the evil brother and sister behind Project: Rampage. As cliché as these villains are, at least they’re entertainingly over-the-top on occasion. Imagine Cersei and Jaime Lannister if you crossed them with Sharpay and Ryan Evans from “High School Musical.”


It’s becoming clear that the best video game movies are the ones that aren’t directly based on video games. “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ready Player One,” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a better film starring Johnson, all had fun with ideas and concepts derived from video games. “Rampage,” on the other hand, is just another film that isn’t sure how to adapt its source material. The movie might’ve worked it there was more emphasis on the monsters and less on the humans. Let’s just hope that “Godzilla vs. Kong” can get that right.

A Simple Favor

It's simply the best ****


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.

Skyscraper

Don't worry, he'll get very far on foot ***1/2


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


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


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


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


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

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Never forget, Han shot first ***1/2


There have been amazing “Star Wars” movies like “The Empire Strikes Back,” awful “Star Wars” movies like “The Phantom Menace,” and even divisive “Star Wars” movies like “The Last Jedi.” Now we get “Solo,” the first “Star Wars” movie that’s just… fine. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. It’s a thoroughly assuming adventure that’ll keep die-hard fans and casual viewers entertained, although the experience probably won’t stick with them like any of the of the previous entries. Considering that the film’s production had so much going against it, most notably director Ron Howard taking over for Chris Miller and Phil Lord, it’s comforting to see everything come together with mostly positive results. Since this is “Star Wars,” though, you’d think that the film would spark more passionate feelings, be they good, bad, or mixed.


The film naturally provides an origin story for young Han Solo, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who wishes to become the galaxy’s greatest pilot and reconnect with his old girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). On his road to becoming an unlikely hero, Han of course crosses paths with a Wookiee named Chewbacca and a charming scoundrel named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). He’s also taken under the wing of a Long John Silver-like smuggler known as Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Beckett signs Han up for a job that’ll make them all wealthy, although the odds aren’t exactly in their favor.


Han Solo is such an iconic character that it’s impossible to separate him from Harrison Ford. That being said, Ehrenreich does about as well as any young actor possibly could in the role. It’s been reported that Ehrenreich was required to take acting lessons well into filming at the request of Lucasfilm. This had many fans worried, recalling the scene from “Hail, Caesar!” where Ehrenreich’s character is miscast in a comedy of manners. Fortunately, Ehrenreich ultimately pulls off a believable performance, successfully mimicking Ford’s voice and body language. While it can feel like an impression at times, Ehrenreich wins us over with his charm and charisma. The same can be said about Donald Glover, who’s the next best thing right after Billy Dee Williams. In other words, this isn’t another Hayden Christensen situation.


The rest of the cast is well-suited for their roles too. Harrelson is a likable con man, Clarke is an alluring dame, and Paul Bettany is a menacing gangster. There’s also Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, a droid activist who wonders why her kind can’t be served at every cantina. It would’ve been nice if the film provided more commentary on machine prejudice in this universe, but perhaps that’ll be another “Star Wars Story.” The action, while nothing mind-blowing, is keenly executed and the visuals are nothing short of stunning. The film isn’t without pacing issues, especially in the final act where we get multiple climaxes. There’s also a surprise cameo that’s admittedly pretty cool, although adds little to the plot. As far as space westerns go, however, “Solo” is a solid piece of work, even if it really didn’t need to exist.


Han Solo is undeniably one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema. After the original “Star Wars” trilogy and “The Force Awakens,” though, it feels like everything has already been said about him. This film does nothing to diminish Han Solo’s legacy. On the contrary, it’s true to the character’s spirit from beginning to end. The film just doesn’t add anything new to the character, or the “Star Wars” mythology for that matter. Considering that “The Last Jedi” left the masses split down the middle, it makes sense that “Solo” would be safer, but it’s hard to get really invested in a story where you can predict everything that’s going to happen. In a nutshell, if you want a “Star Wars” picture that takes risk, this isn’t the picture you’re looking for. If you’re in the mood for a brisk, lighthearted romp in a galaxy far, far away, however, “Solo” is satisfying, albeit a bit scruffy-looking.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

From Russia Without Love **


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. 

A Star Is Born

A star is reborn ****1/2


There’s a rule in Hollywood that the remake never lives up to the original. “A Star Is Born” isn’t just a rare exception, but the rarest of exceptions. The versions starring Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand are among the most iconic musical dramas ever made. Most contemporary audiences aren’t even aware that both of those films were remakes of the Janet Gaynor classic, meaning we’re now on version number four. The fact that “A Star Is Born” keeps receiving the remake treatment isn’t what’s baffling. It’s that each remake has worked to a certain degree, which is virtually unheard of when it comes to other acclaimed films.


It wasn’t until I watched this latest interpretation that I finally realized why “A Star Is Born” keeps getting successfully remade. Between 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018, show business has gone through some radical changes. At the same time, however, showbiz hasn’t changed at all. Because of this, there will always be something new that can be brought to “A Star Is Born,” but the themes, story, and characters at its core remain timeless nonetheless. Bradley Cooper’s film is the best kind of update imaginable, capturing today’s entertainment climate while also encompassing the perennial highs and lows of being famous.


Stefani Germanotta, or Lady Gaga as she’s better know, is one of the defining artists of her generation. It wasn’t until she performed a “Sound of Music” tribute at the 87th Academy Awards, though, that Gaga demonstrated her true range as a performer. Gaga brings that same magic to her captivating performance as Ally, a waitress who’s told she’ll never make it as a singer. When a country western musician named Jack Maine (Bradley Cooer) stumbles into a drag bar by chance, he becomes entranced by her magnetic voice. He offers her a shot at stardom and soon a romance blossoms between the two of them, leading to fame, success, and heartbreak.


The chemistry our leads share never hits a false note. Their relationship stems from a place of sincerity that comes off as natural and both actors completely escape into their roles, making you forget that Gaga and Cooper are among the most recognizable people in the world. The audience buys their immediate connection and the hardships they endure draw comparison to many real-life celebrity couples, especially Johnny Cash and June Carter. The raw vulnerability each actor injects into their performance makes for one of the most deeply emotional cinematic experiences of the year.


The two make beautiful music together in more ways than one, as Gaga and Cooper can not only sing, but also worked on to the phenomenal soundtrack. With a long list of other contributing artists, including Diane Warren and Mark Ronson, “A Star Is Born” joins “La La Land” as one of the best original musicals of this generation. The film has no shortage of tunes that are worthy of a Best Original Song Oscar, but the most passionate is the duet “Shallow.” Most importantly, the music here actually advances the familiar story, making it feel fresh, modern, and exciting.


The entire ensemble shines bright with Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle both turning in surprising performances as Ally’s father and Jackson’s old friend, respectively. Sam Elliott is a strong Best Supporting Actor contender for his work as Jackson’s older brother, acting as a parental figure who fears his surrogate son will drink himself to death. Cooper is in a particularly unique position that could earn him five Oscar nominations, serving as the film’s director, lead actor, co-writer, co-producer, and one of the songwriters. The spotlight belongs to Gaga, however. She may already be a big star, but her performance here is like watching a star be reborn right before our eyes.

Suspiria

Wha... what was that?! ***


“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.

Truth or Dare

Truth or Die **1/2


“Truth or Dare” starts off with an intriguing, if not brilliant, premise: a game of truth or dare where lives are on the line. Throw in a capable cast and a fairly well-plotted screenplay, and you should have an all-around enjoyable horror flick. Unfortunately, the filmmakers simply don’t take full advantage of the concept at hand. There are ideas here that were tailor-made for a classic supernatural thriller or even a dark comedy. Watching the film, the audience can cook up a dozen terrifying scenarios that could’ve been derived from this setup. That makes it all the more disappointing as the movie doesn’t answer the door when opportunity knocks.


Lucy Hale is Olivia, a college student who joins her friends for Spring Break in Mexico. While there, she runs into a mysterious hunk (Landon Liboiron) who convinces Olivia and her palls to visit an abandoned church. Drinking too much, they start to play a game of truth or dare that gets far too real. Returning home, the gang is followed by a smirking demon, who I’m not convinced we’re supposed to take seriously. The rules soon become clear: do the dare or you die and tell the truth or you die. So what do the filmmakers do with this fun, creepy plot? Eh, that’s where the movie lets us down.


The characters could be dared to do any number of crazy things. Outside of a drinking game that takes place on a roof, though, there are no edge of your seat dares. The truths aren’t that stimulating either, primarily because our characters have nothing very interesting to hide. While we do get a couple twists, it's nothing that the audience can’t see coming from a mile away. There aren’t enough truly challenging ethical dilemmas to make us cringe in terror. Even the deaths feel all too restrained, especially when you stack them up against something like “Final Destination” or “Saw.”


It doesn’t help that the characters are for the most part blank slates. Hale’s time on “Pretty Little Liars” certainly gave her enough experience to become an overnight scream queen. Outside of Hale, though, the rest of the cast aren’t given much to work with, despite their best efforts. The only other character who has a distinct personality is Sam Lerner as a pervy nerd, who of course doesn’t last too long. What we’re left with feels like a game of Monopoly that has almost all the right pieces, but the dice are missing.


While “Truth or Dare” doesn’t quite merit a recommendation, a part of me still wants to see it perform well. This is largely due to the ending, which – without giving too much away – leaves the door open for a lot of cool possibilities. A sequel could deliver where the film that started it all fell short. Having produced hits like “Get Out” and “Split” in recent years, Blumhouse Productions has what it takes to make it happen. They just need some more inventive and ambitious storytellers to tackle the next film.

22 July

Not to be confused with Mile 22 ***1/2


Few directors know how to submerge the audience into chaos quite like Paul Greengrass. Where the shaky cam technique can come off as distracting and self-indulgent in so many other thrillers, Greengrass never fails to deliver a masterclass of cinematography and editing, creating a documentary style that feels all-too real. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in “United 93,” which to this date is still the most convincing depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “22 July” opens with an intense sequence that almost revivals the entirety of “United 93.” What follows is also dramatically compelling, but the film ultimately goes from near greatness to pretty goodness.


As the title suggests, the film revolves around the Norway terrorist attacks that occurred on July 22, 2011. As with many of his other projects, Greengrass casts virtually unknown actors as opposed to big names, making the experience all the more authentic. Anders Danielsen Lie is chillingly effective as Anders Behring Breivik, a lone terrorist who plants a car bomb in Oslo. This is only the first phase of the attack, as Breivik infiltrates a Workers' Youth League summer camp and claims 77 lives. In a lesser director’s hands, this sequence could’ve come off as manipulative and melodrama with a pretentious musical score playing over obvious symbolism. Through Greengrass’ lens, however, the action is brutal, uncompromising, and straight-up haunting.


This sequence is especially unnerving in a world where both terrorism and school shootings remain among human’s greatest issues. We feel as if we’re right beside the teenage victims as they run for their lives and take cover. Your heart will sink as Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is shot down and his younger brother (Isak Bakli Aglen) must make the impossible choice of going back or running. If the entire film was set on this island, “22 July” could’ve been one of the best thrillers of recent memory. For a film called “22 July, however,” much of the story focusses on the aftermath.


Breivik is inevitably captured by the authorities, which was always part of his long-term plan. He wants his day in court in order to explain the sick reasoning behind his irredeemable crimes. Jon Øigarden gives an especially strong performance as Geir Lippestad, a family man and layer who despises Breivik’s actions. Like Tom Hanks’ character in “Bridge of Spies,” though, he feels every person is entitled to equal representation and takes on Breivik’s case, knowing that it likely won’t end well for either of them. The rest of the film also chronicles the grief and trauma the survivors endured, mainly following Viljar’s road to recovery.


While the second and third acts of “22 July” are by no means bad, the film peaks early with that phenomenal opening. This movie suffers from the same problems as “Sully,”coincidentally another Tom Hanks flick. Both films depict some of the most fascinating and important events of the past decade. The repercussions of these events are interesting to learn about, but the ensuing courtroom drama isn’t nearly as engaging as what came before. That’s not to say that court room dramas can’t be gripping, but it’s hard to get that invested when the verdict is evident from the get-go. It doesn’t help that “22 July” is about 20 minutes too long at just under two and a half hours.


Despite falling short of its full potential, “22 July” is an intriguing history lesson for those who didn’t follow the Norway attacks as they were unfolding. Even if you did watch the news coverage back in 2011, the film is still a relevant reminder about the many problems surrounding gun politics. As a Netflix release, it’s definitely worth streaming, although you’ll want a big screen television to appreciate the film’s scale. It may not be one of Greengrass’ best films, but “22 July” does warrant comparison to “United 93” and “Captain Phillips,” the latter of which also starred Tom Hanks!

Venom

Feed me, Seymour! **


Sony’s history with the “Spider-Man” franchise is truly fascinating. The original “Spider-Man” broke new grounds for the superhero genre. “Spider-Man 2” was praised as one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time, as well as one of the best Marvel movies. The studio took a huge step backwards with “Spider-Man 3,” however, which packed in more subplots than it knew what to do with and tried to pass off Eric Forman as Eddie Brock. Sony was given a fresh start with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but its 2014 sequel repeated too many of the same mistakes. Spidey finally found a proper home in the MCU, but Sony is still trying to make their own cinematic universe happen with “Venom” serving as the first entry. Unfortunately, the film has more in common with Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” than “Iron Man.”


Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a charismatic yet cocky journalist. The most entertaining performance in the film comes from Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake, an evil genius who always has a dastardly monologue prepared. Although it should be obvious to everybody, Eddie is the only one who realizes Drake is bad news and tries to expose him. This results in Eddie losing his job and his fiancé (Michelle Williams) within the first several minutes. So basically, the film starts off like every crappy romantic comedy. Brock eventually finds an ally in a scientist (Jenny Slate), who reveals that Drake has been testing an alien symbiote on homeless people. Eddie comes into contact with the symbiote and inevitably finds himself sharing his body with an alter ego named Venom.


To address the elephant in the room, yes, Tom Hardy is a better Venom than Topher Grace. Of course, that’s kind of like comparing Matthew Broderick in 1998’s “Godzilla” to Aaron Michael Johnson in 2014’s “Godzilla.” One actor was painfully uncomfortable to watch, but his successor is just forgettable. It’s a shame because we all know that Hardy has great range as an actor, playing his fair share of heroes and villains. He’s not given the chance to create a compelling Venom or Eddie, however, as the screenplay never decides what their dynamic is supposed to be.


There was potential here for a gripping Jekyll and Hyde story, but the scenes between them are more reminiscent of Andrew and the Hormone Monster from “Big Mouth.” Seymour and Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors” also come to mind, given Venom’s desire to eat everyone in sight. Actually, Hardy stated that Ren and Stimpy provided inspiration for his performance, which should give you an idea as to why the movie’s tone is all over the place. You thought “The Last Jedi” went overboard with its humor? Well, in this movie we have Venom calling Eddie a “pussy.” Sometimes it’s legitimately funny, other times it’s so awkward that it’s hard not to laugh, and most of the time it’s just distracting, especially when you play the cheekier scenes against the dark, edgy moments.


Just as the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be, neither does its titular character. The film keeps building up Venom as an anti-hero, but we never see him do anything that heroic or villainous. Most of the time, it’s not even clear what his motivations are. We never understand why Venom forms an attachment to Eddie or why either of them cares so much about taking down Drake. If Sony wanted a standalone “Venom” movie to succeed, they should’ve just had him be a straight-up baddie and made Eddie’s descent into villainy the focus of the story. The anti-hero approach could’ve worked if they continued to evolve Eddie’s character in a sequel, but everything comes off as too rushed.


Director Ruben Fleischer previously made the wickedly fun “Zombieland,” but he feels out of his element here. The talented cast is forced to read from a screenplay riddled with pacing issues and several ideas that never mesh together. Compared to some other modern superhero movies, “Venom” is still more competent than “Batman v Superman” or “Fant4stic.” After multiple failed attempts, though, it’s evident that Sony is never going to get Venom right. It’s never a good sign when the best part of a movie is a preview for an upcoming movie. That being said, Sony hopefully has a much better project just around the corner.

Widows

How to Get Away with Millions ****


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.