Nick Picks Flicks

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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.

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.

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 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 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.

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 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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.