The Equalizer 2 (2018)

   Director: Antoine Fuqua  With: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, & Melissa Leo.  Release: Jul 20, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Antoine Fuqua
With: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, & Melissa Leo. 
Release: Jul 20, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer 2” feels like a game of peekaboo is being played with the audience throughout it's drawn out two hour and one-minute runtime. The first film was overly long as well, but it had something worth watching, worth investing in, the same cannot be said for Fuqua’s sequel. 

“The Equalizer 2” is exactly what it names suggests, a sequel. It begins presumably a few years removed from the events of the first film. There is no Ralphie or Teri to be seen; this is a whole new bunch of youthful kids in need of a guiding hand. He's that watchful guardian he evolved into from the first film, providing assistance and help to anyone who needs it, at least anyone that crosses his path. 

Our hero isn't watching over a city or a neighborhood, more like the ten to fifteen people he interacts with in his Lyft, like Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo). His former commanding officer, who now watches from afar, sending her good wishes and assistance whenever she can. Eventually, trouble comes across her path, and when our gunslinging hero hears the news, he launches himself on the warpath. Killing anyone and everyone involved, a mission that becomes more personal the further down the rabbit hole he goes. 

There are still those moments of wise-man teachings though, moments where Washington meets someone and tells them how they should be living their lives. Like Miles (Ashton Sander), a young black kid being torn between the two worlds of gang crime and honorable artwork. He takes part in some of the film’s best moments in which Denzel Washington, an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, is sermonizing to this young blood on how you can blame the white man all you want, but you still have a life to live. It’s a sequence of dialogue that can either make you uncomfortable, like myself, or can invigorate you with energy.  

No matter which side of that conversation you fall upon, the rest of the movie is something of a lackadaisical effort from screenwriter Richard Wenk. What can you expect from the genius behind stories like “Expendables 2” and “The Mechanic,” right? Despite that sarcasm, Wenk’s story feels like a simplified, eighties, action movie. You can predict it's plot developments from a mile away, who the villain is going to be, who is in danger, the events to follow those moments in the story, all of them make you feel as if your a fortune teller. 

It’s a flat story too, one that rarely soars in quality, while never diving down towards poor taste. It just remains steady, rarely ever risking itself to do something daring or challenging for a packed out audience of either “Equalizer” fans or Denzel Washington fans, (I’m going to go with the latter of those two options) instead, it stays on course, merely sailing down a calm sea of mundane storytelling. 

Where the story becomes a game of peekaboo though, is when Wenk begins to hint at stories worth our time. Like an older black man teaching a youthful black kid, or a man’s sins catching up with him, or the price of heroism. There is a multitude of chances where Wenk could’ve turned this vehicle of a story into those directions. Instead, it's more of pitstop. Somewhere for Wenk to stop and say “Hey, look at the great story I could have written, alright onto the next cliche roadside attraction.”

Something worth noticing is my lack of character naming for Denzel. While the first film I let his un-nuanced performance slide, this time around it's near impossible to do so. It’s, once again, a marriage of two performances we’ve already seen. One quite recently in that of Troy from “Fences,” and the other feeling like a rehash of Eli from “Book of Eli.” Providing a performance that has the sermonizing of Troy and the calm dangerous persona of Eli. Denzel isn’t reaching for that next Oscar here, instead just looking to get a sizable paycheck. 

Now that I think of it, I may have been to easy on the first film, because the action here is worth mentioning, but not in a good way exactly. While the first film felt like it needed the swift hand of justice for a city corrupted by unlawful people like that of a “Luke Cage” or a “Black Panther.” This time around, Denzel feels as if he’s stepping into the shark cage out of some twisted fantasy to punish. It becomes sadistic and maniacal, never exactly exciting. It feels a lot more like Bruce Willis’ “Death Wish” than anything else, providing that macho man fantasy of setting the world right by brutality. I can't say the first film refuted that notion either. 

It can become a bit squirmy to watch some of these action sequences, but there are others worth the ten dollar ticker, one in which involves a tension-filled car ride in which someone in Denzel’s lift was hired to kill him. He must drive the car and fight off the assailant in what becomes a breathtaking scene to watch. The finale has its moments too, but the film continually places itself as an example in the on-going conversation of action in moviemaking. What line is unsafe to cross? What lines are we willing to pass? 

“The Equalizer 2” is everything you expect it to be, and everything you don’t. It can be surprising and expectable at the same time. Tierdering between the isles of mediocrity and watchability. It’s not something all that surprising though, Denzel seems to be on the mend. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him bring a new character to life, it makes me wonder, are we in store for something exceptional from the former Oscar winner? 

At one point, he tells a criminal how there are two kinds of pain in this world, "pain that hurts, and pain that alters." "The Equalizer 2" delivers the pain that hurts, watching something that continuously feels as if it's asking you "did you really like the first film?" After watching this sequel, I'm not sure anymore. 
 

The Equalizer (2014)

   Director: Antoine Fuqua With: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, & Johnny Skourtis. Release: Sep 26, 2014 R. 2 hr. 12 min. 

Director: Antoine Fuqua
With: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, & Johnny Skourtis.
Release: Sep 26, 2014
R. 2 hr. 12 min. 

 

Action films starring black men seem to have a common theme running underneath them, especially when you can look back on them from a distant point. Always about a man answering the call, being forced or coerced into becoming a guardian angel for a neighborhood, a community, a city, or even a country. We see it with stories like “Luke Cage,” “Black Panther,” and in 2014 we saw it with Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer, a movie sharing a kinship-like relation to these comic book blockbuster. 

It’s about a hero in hiding, much like these fellow movies as the screenplay begins with an intimate look at this man’s routine. He’s disciplined, organized, competent, and when you think he’s merely an old man living a routine life, we see his struggles to sleep. He lies in bed, sitting in the darkness, calmly battering his book off his head as if he’s trying to forget something, but what? 

Presumably an insomniac with OCD, he leaves around the same time every night, carrying a neatly folded bag of tea with him to a local diner where he conversates with a troubled girl named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). It’s in these calm conversations where the intensity of the story is revealed to us, in a very on the nose manner. With McCall (Denzel Washington) describing the books he reads like spoilers for how the story will eventually develop. Like “Moby Dick,” a book about a fisherman wrestling the biggest fish he can as a symbolizer of a man confronting a final battle when he thought that part of his life had come to an end, eventually stating “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what.”

Another is “Don Quixote,” a book about “a guy who thinks he's a knight in shining armor. The only thing is, he lives in a world where knights don't exist anymore,” as Robert (Denzel Washington) describes, a similar way of characterizing our sleeper soldier. Richard Wenk’s screenplay, based on Michael Sloan & Richard Lindheim hit television series from the 80’s, is uncreative in that manner, unable to manifest a more clever way at hinting at the events we're about to witness.

Besides those moments, he produces a solid story, one that is filled with both heart and vigor. Maintaining a constant pushing momentum, building towards a crescendo of action, while, simultaneously, providing a deepened glimpse of a man discovering his role in life and questioning if it's a life worth living. 

He’s a formidable hero, watching idly, surrounding himself with good and honest people like Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a youthful man looking to get his start in life as a security guard. He has to make weight though, something he’s asked McCall’s (Denzel Washington) help for in making possible. Another is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a troubled girl, a prostitute. She’s someone better than that, as every girl is above being more than that, and she wants to be a singer until she begins to be far too independent for her “owners” liking. He beats her up one night, really bad, leaving her in critical condition. 

Our hero attempts to provide a middle ground solution, trying to buy her freedom. After an immature and idiotic refusal to his offer, Robert (Denzel Washington) can't walk away as we soon learn that he’s a man of many skills. One that breaks down his deathful actions almost prematurely, setting up his attacks, his use of weapons, and predicts the amount of time it will take. Yeah, this guy’s a badass. 

The story becomes a conflicted when a formidable foe arrives to solve the problem that McCall (Denzel Washington) has become for his boss, the monster fish that our fisherman must fight off. This foe is a former Russian operative,  Nikolai (Marton Csokas), one who's become a monster that nearly beats a man to death with his bare knuckles, screaming and roaring like an animal that has been unleashed on this gang-riddled Boston community. He’s remorseless, immoral, and is skilled like his adversary, but our hero isn’t exactly a comic book hero trying to do the right thing, more like the proverbial sword that cuts the heads off of snakes that attempt to bite or poison those around him. 

Fuqua (“Training Day” & “Southpaw”) provides an overqualified helming of this film which, based on its story, sounds more like your average run of the mill action movie. The action is stylized, intense, and aggressive. Fuqua provides a sleek look to this film that is grungy and grimly lit, the camera moves and vibrates around our hero as he and cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Avatar”) make this movie pop with energy. 

Hemsey’s exceptional score assists in fabricating an action film with more than meets the eye, but Denzel Washington is the engine that keeps the car running. Never providing something nuanced, more of a combination of depictions we’ve seen before, it’s like Coach Boone (“Remember The Titans”) meets John Creasy (“Man on Fire”). He’s calm, cerebral-like, but can be admittedly intimidating. The best scenes are when we see the man behind the facade, a man experienced and seasoned with men like Nikolai (Marton Csokas). 

He’s provided that wisened aspect with his character, making him seem like a cross between Yoda and John Wick, but in all actuality, he’s just a man trying to find peace in a world where harmony has been eradicated. Answering the call for his guardianship because he has to be who he is in this world, he’s good at something that few of us ever try to be good at, nor should we. 

The film builds as I said, to its big showdown like any other action film, but it takes place in a hardware store of all places, the same store where McCall (Denzel Washington) works. He becomes inventive with his killing methods in a finale that is worth the wait. What’s weird is the lack of surprise his co-workers reveal while discovering that their co-worker is a mercenary. Finally learning what he used to do for a living, a comical subplot that is continuously rehashed throughout the film in which his co-workers attempt to guess what he used to do before he started working at Home Mart. 

These everyday people are never surprised by both his actions or the events going on around them; I can't say ever say I was either. It's predictabilty, and that lack of plausibility makes “The Equalizer” feel more like a cross between a comic book vigilante tale and a thematically driven action film. Entertaining? Hell yes. Believable? Not for a second. 
 

Skyscraper (2018)

   Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber  With: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, & Kevin Rankin.  Release: Jul 13, 2018  PG-13. 1 hr. 42 min.

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
With: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, & Kevin Rankin. 
Release: Jul 13, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 42 min.

 

Walking into to my theatre to see Rawson Marshall Thurber’s (“Central Intelligence” & “We’re the Millers”) “Skyscraper,” I, like any other critic or savvy filmgoer, saw this movie as a potential rip off of “Die Hard” or “The Towering Inferno,” and when the promotional posters accepted those catcalls of early criticism, it felt more like an admission of those objections being correct, and they are. 

It’s a film inspired by previous, and much better, movies that rarely allow for Thurber’s voice to be heard. The film even maintains the familiar traits of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s previous works, #family themes can be found throughout the entirety of this big Hollywood blockbuster of a movie. It’s energetic enough to provide a thrilling experience at times, despite those moments feeling rehashed, and that lack of unoriginality makes this film seamlessly forgettable because there is nothing that shocks or surprises. It’s not a great film; it’s not even a good movie, it's a watchable and harmless big budget movie, as long as you ignore a lot of the blatant flaws and copycat moments. 

The film begins with a flashback, of course. We open with a wintery and dark scene in which a suspect has locked him and his family inside of a lodge. After the negotiations fail to solve the problem, blunt force is relied upon as Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) and his team breach the house. He makes the wrong decision, things go wrong, and he wakes up at a military hospital where he meets his future wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell). A familiar set up? Duh. 

Nonetheless, “Skyscraper” fast forwards ten years to our present story. Will (Dwayne Johnson) and Sarah (Neve Campbell) have started a family, bringing two kids into this world, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell). Will (Dwayne Johnson) has founded a small security company, out of his garage. After a solid recommendation from a former teammate, Will (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself testing the most high-tech skyscraper in the world. It has self-sufficient energy, top of the line fire safety measures, and is the tallest building ever constructed. What we have to presume is taller than the 2,717-foot record height, which is held by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, a building used by another blockbuster franchise like “Mission Impossible,” which contains a daring stunt with Tom Cruise running alongside its skyrise windows. 

The same kind of movie magic can be found in “Skyscraper,” but Dwayne Johnson is not near as daring. He stands in front of green screens and a closed set. I guess that puts the debate to bed; we now know that Tom Cruise is tougher than Dwayne Johnson. Jokes aside, the story gets to those points of depth-defying thrills when a team of mercenaries and assassins joins together to get back some corrupting information from tech genius and the masterful creator behind this towering feat of tech, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). 

There is a lot of bloodshed that occurs before the building catches fire and this bland ensemble of replaceable mustache-twirling villains’ plan comes to light. Countless lives are taken and the unimpactful nature of those moments shows the long-lasting failure of blockbusters being unable to make us care about villains killing innocent people. Unlike a fellow blockbuster, “Tomb Raider,” “Skyscraper” struggles to treat death and murder as a necessary evil that our hero must endure, it’s meant for spectacle and “character development.” 

These characters aren’t very developed though, Thurber struggles, as his past endeavors show, to make the surrounding characters worth our time. They are never equivalent to purchasing a ten dollar stub, but Thurber does provide moments that make that investment worth it. Though they feel ripped out of a “Mission Impossible” movie or something better than the movie we’re watching, these “Skyscraping” moments are tense and well-handled. Are they inspired? Yes, but that shouldn’t take away from how exciting they are to watch. One of those moments involves the trailer ruined leap from a crane towards an opening in the building, and another takes place with him tying himself to the building itself and repelling down its vertical slide of an exterior. 

I, like any other knowledgeable film fan, can spot the influences and flat-out ripoffs, but they are still thrilling to watch nonetheless. The overqualified Robert Elswit provides a lens to the story. The usual go-to cinematographer for Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Elswit is elected to be the man to make this film look a lot more artistic than it sounds on paper, and in some ways, he does just that. Providing some tangible scenery and some excellent camera movement, it would have been the icing on the cake for a much better movie. For “Skyscraper,” it's a needed pro for this film to become better than the average summer blockbuster, which it ends up being despite Elswit’s efforts. 

He’s not to blame for that outcome, and neither is Dwayne Johnson who made me eat my words a bit. I’ve always described him as an average actor, one that can play the two roles of charming and action hero, rarely delivering any semblance of emotion. Partially due to the poor writing behind his movies, and his inability to choose films that test him on that front as an actor. In “Skyscraper” he gives small glimpses of those talents, potentially displaying his range as an actor. It’s not concrete evidence that he can be more than a blockbuster hero, but it's something that should bring relief to his critics. Providing a snippet of a chance that this broad-shouldered, chiseled man of an actor might be more than meets the eye.

“Skyscraper” cannot say the same. It’s everything you expect it to be, and it remains fun to watch which makes it “successful?” I think what makes these movies successful is box office gross, but I can resonate with those who love this movie, perhaps they should see more movies though, better ones in that. I’ll admit that “Skyscraper” does surprisingly display some level-head brilliance, de-establishing the expected ego of a movie star like Dwayne Johnson, not that he has one. You would expect male actors like him to have one, but the third act of this film places him in peril with no one but a woman to save him, something rare to see in a movie like this one. She’s given plenty to do as well, as a military surgeon, she’s not helpless in these situations, and neither are the children. Everyone is given a role in saving the day, which was shocking to see, and one of the welcomed and genuine surprises to be found in this blockbuster tale.  

The plot is predictable, and the action feels staged and familiar, but I once heard indie-darling, and fandom favorite Kevin Smith recite a review for “Catch Me If You Can,” a much better movie, stating “sometimes you just want to be coddled in the bosom of a Hollywood movie.” With the vast amount of societally relevant and politically charged filmmaking to be found, “Skyscraper” came at a proper time for me, allowing me to sit down, relax, and enjoy a thrilling ride. It’s a ride I’ve been on before, but fun nonetheless. 
 

American Animals (2018)

   Director: Bart Layton  With: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, & Blake Jenner.  Release: Jul 13, 2018 R. 1 hr. 56 min.

Director: Bart Layton
With: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, & Blake Jenner. 
Release: Jul 13, 2018
R. 1 hr. 56 min.

 

Bart Layton’s “American Animals” is like a strange love child of “The Town” and “The 15:17 to Paris,” it could also be narrowed down as a rip-off of recent film endeavors like “I, Tonya.” The film opens with a title card that reads “This is Not Based on a True Story,” and then the “not based” segment of the sentence fades out of the screen leaving the title “This is a True Story.” Which makes you presume there will be a documentary sequence near the end-credits that reveals the reality of the film, instead, Layton splices interviews of the real men and women throughout the film. Continually derailing any momentum that had been built up before that interjection of legitimacy. I can see why a career documentarian filmmaker was assigned to direct this movie. 

Revolving around the fascinating events of the 2004 Transylvania Library robbery in which four college students banded together to steal a group of rare and expensive books, “American Animals” recounts their lives that built up to those moments, intercutting the stories behind the scenes from the boys turned men that we’re apart of this adventure. It’s a bit of bored white privilege being used as a motivation to do something special, as if the opportunity of college, job success, and a comfortable life aren’t sustaining enough for their happiness. 

It’s a bit hard to sympathize with these characters when you begin to consider that notion, as the film rolls on, the methodologies grow deeper. Itching vicariously at that idea of how we all so desperately desire to make our lives memorable, feeling that we waft through life as nothing short of mediocrity. Something examined far superiorly in “Sorry to Bother You,” but “America Animals” provides that dose of authenticity to make this film feel vigorously intense.  

The first hour of the runtime weighs itself down with that inter-splicing though, like your riding a roller coaster that is going straight waiting for something to happen. We meet Warren Lipka and his charismatic personality and Spencer Reinhard’s regret of the events, knowing there were more than a few opportunities for him to walk away.  That emotional examination of their lives became heavy and warranted in the latter half of the runtime, but the first half feels like it's stuck.

Revealing itself as a marriage of documentation and genre filmmaking, it takes a while for your expectations to adjust to the film your receiving instead of the artistically thrilling heist film you were anticipating. With one of the best trailers of the year that reminded me of an Edgar Wright production, “American Animals” never introduces itself with confidence, which is why that style comes to a surprise I think as if the filmmakers weren't confident that audiences would respond appropriately. They were right. The audience in my theater was filled with an atmosphere of excitement that was soon vacuumed out of the theater. We were duped. 

Once you sink in and accept the bill of goods you’ve been sold, you begin to study the intricacies behind Layton’s methods. It pays off when the third act occurs, when the actual robbery takes place. The tension is sky-high, the fumbling and unprofessionalism of our robbers are sensical, believable, and authentic. Seeing that visualization of fiction reflecting reality saves “American Animals” from becoming a bad movie, pushing it towards something that is more middle of the road, which is far better than failure I guess. 

The technicality saves it as well. Ole Bratt Birkeland provides a dour and grim look to the film that is continually pressing and closing in on these characters, oops, I meant real-life men. It’s as if the closer we get to these men; the more and more intimate the camera becomes, closing in on the actors, pushing towards them, even revealing them in their most private moments like bathing. The editing and music from Anne Nitkin work in perfect tandem, mimicking an Edgar Wright style of filmmaking that attempts to reproduce the sharpness and vigorousness that made Edgar famous. 

When given the green light, our cast steals the show. Evan Peters is relentlessly charismatic and provocative, and Barry Keoghan continues to feed on that brilliant subtilty that we’ve seen him excel with in previous films. Blake Jenner delivers that Luke Perry charm, smiling and confidently striding throughout the film. Jared Abrahamson fades into the foreground in some respects but maintains a substantial presence. 

These are the best aspects of the film that are outweighed and outshouted by the documentary traits of “American Animals.” It’s an experiment of a movie that wasn’t exactly worth it, I think. It’s a film worthy of study because it's derailing our expectations while simultaneously providing an authentic depiction of a heist that is merely invigorating to watch. It falls in the middle of the road for me; I find things that make me love the film and others that make me hate it, I don’t know which side is right. 

I do know that ignoring the victim of the crime, Betty Jean Gooch, isn't right. She was assaulted during these events, yet it's used more as a sympathizer for these men than a moment of vilifying. If she weren't given a slice of time to denounce their actions, this film would be receiving a much lower grade. 

Nonetheless, “American Animals” is about “good kids from good families” that find themselves grasping for the forbidden fruit, fruit that poisoned them almost entirely. Though they're, admittedly given a Hollywood idolization for artistic purposes, there's something worth watching here. 

They now reside with regular jobs, college responsibilities, and the stress of life itself, who knows, maybe a new adventure is on the horizon for these four adrenaline junkies. 

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

   Director: Boots Riley  With: Lakeith Stanfield, Armie Hammer, Tessa Thompson, Donald Glover, Terry Crews, Jermaine Flower, Steven Yeun, David Cross, Omari Hardwick, & W. Kamau Bell. Release: Jul 6, 2018 R. 1 hr. 45 min.

Director: Boots Riley
With: Lakeith Stanfield, Armie Hammer, Tessa Thompson, Donald Glover, Terry Crews, Jermaine Flower, Steven Yeun, David Cross, Omari Hardwick, & W. Kamau Bell.
Release: Jul 6, 2018
R. 1 hr. 45 min.

 

Satirical filmmaking has been condensed into forums of ignorance driven comedy. It is very rarely something speaking with a bright and outrageous voice. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is something that shakes up the genre in a way that doesn’t match audience expectations. Instead, remaining in the vein of the witty and hilarious Terry Gilliam while also staying rugged like a 60's Goddard film. It’s a movie that puts the laughter back in satire and fearlessly dissects the intricate socio-political subjects of corporate animosity, identity politics, and our American instinct to look the other way when chaos and turmoil erupt from the city streets. 

Boots Riley recognizes that cultural dilemma and manifests a world where literal corporate slavery goes under the radar, and a show that averages 150 million viewers is about watching people getting beaten up. Clearly, a mirage based reality, "Sorry to Bother You" is reflecting the insanity of a world that we dub as normal. 

It’s like walking into a mirror world that is reflecting the society we take part in fabricating. Shedding the blinders placed on ourselves by our fear of facing an unsolvable problem, never slowing down for those refusing to jump on the funky bandwagon, and speeding up for those who think they can keep up with Riley’s wit. 

It grounds itself around the character of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man suffering from a lack of money. He lives out of the garage of his uncle house, who is barely surviving his economic grievances as well, behind is rent for more than four months. With the self-imposed pressure of wanting to make his life memorable and the added stress of paying back his family for their sacrifices, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer at RegalView. 

He’s sold a bill of goods by the management, told of the prestigious land of power callers where the best marketers find themselves selling big money for big people. Struggling to get one of these useless brown encyclopedias sold through a sequence of practically constructed scenes, a colleague advises him to use a “white-voice.” It’s not that Will Smith white as he jokes, it's the one that sounds absent of stress and confident that life is working out for him, a subtle in-take on the inherent trust given to white people based on stereotypical beliefs,

That’s just a little jab thrown from “Sorry to Bother You,” as we learn that power callers are responsible for selling things they shouldn’t, and Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) doesn’t apologize for being successful at that either, gaining the attention of the maniacally charming Steve Life (Armie Hammer). He soon has the unjustifiable world revealed to him through a story that goes from earth-based satire to the stratosphere of insanity. 

It’s subversive and surreal take that doesn’t sway you with heavy messages; it jabs you with loaded jokes meant to make you laugh and to make you think, though both sides don’t always balance each other out. It can become far too serious of a subject to feel comfortable laugh at, and sometimes it's so blatantly funny that the point behind the joke may go over your head. 

Walking a tightrope with his humor, Boots Riley writes a narrative based on that instability. Writing his story as if he’s scooching alongside the edge of a tall building, peeking down at the den of failure, trying anything he can to save his film from disaster, and throws everything at this film. Including the kitchen sink and the rest of the house, never apologizing for it either. Including any and every idea possible to make this movie work. It can become bat-shit crazy to watch this movie as the third act dives from brilliant satire to intricately designed horror/sci-fi, and it’s a lot to take in. 

Sometimes it says too much, shouting it's messages at you instead of calmly stating them. Touching on the idea of selling our souls for greed, allowing capitalistic greed to strip away our humanity from us, quite literally. The film doesn’t tear apart a visual style though; cinematographer Doug Emmett works closely with Boots Riley by delivering a sleek, colorful, and practical look to a film that never shies away from speaking openly about tough subjects. Riley doesn’t hold back in that way even dubbing the “white-voice” with comedian David Cross. Recognizing satires are about creating a superficial and surreal world that seems insane at first glance, but continuously unfolds into rational thought the more and more you consider to dissect its makeup. 

In the third act, it goes way too far for my taste, confusing metaphorical artistry as an excuse to throw something so ridiculous into the screenplay. Does it have a reason for its existence? Sure, but one that doesn’t warrant it's stay. Riley has that first film anxiety of including any and every idea that he thinks will make this film memorable, probably involving too much and never crossing out ideas that should have never made it to the final draft. 

Nonetheless, the film does not act on its own accord of Riley’s brilliance, but rather a surrounding team of exceptional talent. Providing a potential launching pad for Lakeith Stanfield who does his best work to date, embracing the lunacy of it all with a performance that is matched by the rigorousness of Armie Hammer who strolls around his mansion in a muumuu. There’s an outstanding surrounding cast of Tessa Thompson, Donald Glover, Terry Crews, Jermaine Flower, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, and even stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell makes an appearance in this outrageous funhouse mirror of a movie. 

It goes way too far in some areas, yes, but I can give it a nod for that. Never shying away from a challenge, going all-in instead of playing it safe and boring. “Sorry to Bother You” is a provocative comedy that has a bright light shining upon it from the endless raves of critics, a spotlight that won’t be matched by audience approval I expect. I can’t blame them either; it's a large and grand formulation of a man shouting the importance of complex social dilemmas with inventive but bizarre methods. 

Some have compared Riley’s debut to Peele’s first feature film, “Get Out.” While they share the same inventiveness, Peele was able to deliver that necessary finesse to a film with such wacky storytelling, allowing his messages to hit with more acception due to that dose of believability. Riley does the opposite, on purpose I think. Choosing to go crazy for crazy sakes, being unashamed to be brash and original. If there is any “right way” to describe this film, it's just that, original. 

Disobedience (2018)

   Director: Sebastián Lelio With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Allan Corduner, & Nicholas Woodeson.  Release: Apr 27, 2018 R. 1 hr. 54 min. 

Director: Sebastián Lelio
With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Allan Corduner, & Nicholas Woodeson. 
Release: Apr 27, 2018
R. 1 hr. 54 min. 

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One of the bad things about being a movie lover who resides in a southern city is the lack of movies that come my way; sometimes it can take a few extra months before I can see and study a film that everyone else is raving about. Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a film that was one of great anticipation for myself, as a fan of his last film, the Oscar-winning “Fantastic Woman.” The recipient of best foreign language film, “Fantastic Woman” was a provocative and visually stunning entree to the year of 2017, and “Disobedience” is a so-so follow-up. 

His first English-language story, based on Naomi Alderman's novel,  “Disobedience” centers around Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a New York-based photographer, and the daughter of a recently deceased rabbi who breathed his last breath during his last sermon. As a denounced daughter of the Rabbi, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was someone who found herself as a stranger returning home to a community that doesn’t share the same individuality she does. She sees old faces, faces that immediately begin to judge her lack of fulfillment as someone unmarried, unproud of her Jewish heritage, and unconforming to a lifestyle that she abandoned. 

The question remains though, why did she leave the community? The answer comes to fruition when we begin to see her interact with her ex-best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was dubbed as the spiritual son of her father. He was the boy groomed for the divine throne left by this infamous Rabbi, and someone who was recently married. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) picks on her step-brother for marrying a Jewish woman until she learns the identity of this mystery wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), who shares an intimate history with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). 

As a woman forced to become someone that she’s not, Esti (Rachel McAdams) seems deeply saddened, pretending to fit in with the community she was born into, ashamed of her sexuality. Reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s “It's Only the End of the World,” the film begins to divulge into an examination of the inherent intolerance of religion. It’s something up for discussion, as when you have the belief that no other worldview is right other than yours, it tends to produce barriers. 

The barriers constructed by Sebastián Lelio and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz never attempt to paint a single individual as an antagonist, the film frames society, and even more so religion as the one at fault, not the followers themselves. It’s a refreshing framing of an imprisoned love story that would point the finger at the man or the pastor, instead, “Disobedience” strays away from expectations and provides a tale that, like “Call Me By Your Name,” blends it's melancholy with an unidentifiable villain. Unlike Luca’s masterpiece though, “Disobedience” doesn’t provide a reveling experience as much as it does a dramatic trial of two women’s silenced affair. 

You would expect Lelio and Lenkiewicz’s story to narrow in upon the affair, or the woman who’s risking everything to feel whole again, feeling young again, as The Cure’s “Lovesong” suggests, but the film centers itself around Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who becomes more of an observer than a character. Watching these events take place before, growing quieter and quieter as they continue, never speaking out against them, rarely giving us time with Esti (Rachel McAdams). She’s someone shackled by a community, a husband, a faith that refuses to see her as who she is, more as a surrogate for children. Why that emotional struggle doesn't become the focus still seems perplexing. 

Lelio and Lenkiewicz narrative is one absent of that emotional heft because of that choice of fixation I think; it was needed to make this movie something more than an essential examination of the tribulations that LGBTQ members still face in both religious communities and society in general. That’s not to say the film doesn’t provide anything worth investing though; it can become enraging to watch a group belittling others for a difference of viewpoints or a husband forcing his wife to be someone she’s not. Watching her deal with the process is disconcerting and resonating, seeming as if she’s become divorced from her individuality, with only Ronit (Rachel Weisz) being able to remind her of who she once was. 

The performances are essential in making this story work, and Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are well aware of that fact, never straying away from the challenge. The story doesn’t lay everything out for us, so those first moments of interaction have to feel organic and natural as if these two women are no strangers to one another. McAdams and Weisz achieve that level of chemistry in a multitude of ways, hefting a duo of performances that ache the heart as much as they uplift it. Two women standing together in confidence is something special to watch, but Alessandro Nivola is no slouch either. Depicting the husband and Rabbi successor, Alessandro Nivola is subdued near the beginning of the film but slowly begins to pack on the layers of emotion, leading to a speech near the end of the film that serves as one of it's best moments. 

The colors and framing of this film is subdued as well, cinematographer Danny Cohen furnishes a bleak and dour look to the film. Filled with greys, storm clouds, dim-lighting, and low contrasting visuality that seems in the vein of a black and white photo, something lacking the same punch of energy needed to make the screenwriting feel more than adequate. 

Maybe it should have gone further than just examining this story like an observer; perhaps it should've provided more interaction between the women, it needed more of something. Maybe the story centered around the wrong person as I suggested, maybe it was something else. Regardless of whichever side of the coin I decide to land on, it's a film that suffers because of that vacancy of emotional heft, never branching off as more than a quiet rebellion of everyday circumstances produced by such behavior. Perhaps it should have been more daring, more risky, more outright with its individuality. Maybe it was silenced by its religious undertones. 

“Disobedience” is Sebastián Lelio’s third feature film in a row to discuss the hardships of womanhood. The lack of voice, the lack of identity, the lack of notice given to them. He’s become somewhat of a moral authority as a filmmaker, why does he stray away here? 

I can’t say that “Disobedience” was worth the wait, there is something here worth watching, something special, I just feel that most of it was left unsaid. Next time, shout it out. 

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter (2018)

   Director: Jody Hill  With: Josh Brolin, Danny McBride, Montana Jordan, Scoot McNairy, & Carrie Coon. Release: Jul 6, 2018 TV-14. 1 hr. 23 min.

Director: Jody Hill
With: Josh Brolin, Danny McBride, Montana Jordan, Scoot McNairy, & Carrie Coon.
Release: Jul 6, 2018
TV-14. 1 hr. 23 min.

 

Jody Hill is a filmmaker that seems to have a multitude of common exercises within that of his storytelling, making movies and TV shows about men and their egos blinding their sight. Continually foreshadowing their demise, being a visible signifier of their blight for self-destruction. Ignoring the world around them, choosing to see them as mislead or ignorant for not wishing to match with their ideologies. It’s something you see a lot of as a southern born kid, that old-fashioned mentality is something of a sickness around these parts. 

Hill exemplifies this with a southern-rooted, hunter focused film like “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer.” His first film since "Observe," Hill centers a narrative around a father and a son, separated by divorce, at least that’s what the father believes. Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin) is that father, an infamous TV celebrity, at least on the small, low-brow, hunting channel. He’s a celebrity in the same vein that Ted Nugent is a rockstar, technically a true statement, but one that holds little water when in comparison to someone who actually exhumes those identities. 

Nonetheless, “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer” opens with a snippet of highlights from this enigmatic character and his “hit show” “Buck Fever.” He’s someone that pretends to be a tough guy, a great hunter, a master tracker when in all reality he’s far more mediocre than he believes. Forgetting that his identity isn’t manifested by his passion, neglecting others around him, ignoring the effects that his actions have on those surrounding him. 

This is what our story centralizes; when we met Jaden (Montana Jordan), it begins to fall apart from the dream-like weekend the father had hoped for, becoming evident that his son doesn’t share the same identity as his dad. He’s a loud-mouth, southern accented, and eccentric kid, who has a vlog, plays guitar and takes parkour lessons. Held back a grade, he continuously feels as if he’s dumber than everyone else. Unable to do anything right because he’s too stupid to figure out what the right thing to do is, something his father seems to be oblivious to. Unable to live up to his dad’s expectations, Jaden (Montana Jordan) begins to feel like this trip is a waste of time, spouting out information that hurts his father more than he realizes. Explaining how he calls his new step-father “dad,” or how his mother (Carrie Coon) and Greg (Scott McNairy) are thinking about getting married. 

He’s twelve, right at that age where dad’s start to fear they're losing their children to time, primarily when they are split from the mother. Hunting is what gives Buck (Josh Brolin) identity, and fatherhood suffers because of that, and when he expectedly attempts to force his passion onto his son, it's refuted. No son wants to be like his father, at least not at that age. We seek self-identity, self-recognition, and seeing our fathers controlling every dynamic of our lives is where we begin to drift, later it’s all a bunch of laughs, but until then it can be difficult. It’s a part of life that we all have to endure, as sons and fathers alike, but Hill almost seems to forget that at times. 

He chooses to focus more on the irony of hunting, never making clear whether he’s making fun of it, or bragging about its life lessons. John Carcieri and Danny McBride get writing credits as well, working alongside Hill in a way that fails to exemplify what his story is trying to say. Confusing itself between a comedy driven drama and a dramatically driven comedy, “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer” struggles to do what the father of its story does as well, blinding itself from the real message by focusing far more on the hunting than the men holding the guns. 

Brolin gets it though, providing a performance that is as charming as it is funny. He manifests a character that feels so magnificently different from his past endeavors, but still seeming as if no one other than Brolin was right for the part. It’s been the summer of Brolin with his role as Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Cable in “Deadpool 2,” and Matt Graver in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” He’s been exemplary this year, his performance as the Mad Titan is my favorite, but I can’t help but find a charismatic resonance in this depiction of a confused father whose idiocracy matches his pride, a recipe for disaster as he learns later on. 

With a father as confused as his son, nothing is learned, but rather hashed out by the screenwriter. A message about a father inability to accept his son, and that the man Buck (Josh Brolin) wants to be is not the man his son needs him to be. It’s a good message, one clouded by satisfying technical craftsmanship and muttered screenwriting that falls flat and never begins to become more than an unempathetic, confusing, and belittling story about a man’s incompetence to be more than a hunter. 

At 82 minutes, the film feels thick and lengthy because of its unfocused view. Hill suffers to make this story more than a simple tale with little heart, the trees crowd his sight, never being able to see beyond them. The performances surrounding Brolin are unable to match his, either feeling overdramatic in that Montana Jordan whose southern accent begins to wear thin, or a bit wrongfully written like that of Danny McBride who makes a few too many inappropriate jokes. Even making one that at least the boy is caring about the female's anatomy instead of a mans, I guess that’s the same mentality anyone else from that same upbringing would have. 

It all feels so familiar to me, the insensitivity to others, the obliviousness to family, the unconscious behavior to differing ideologies. I deal with it today, probably will tomorrow, it's a common occurrence around these parts, one that seems to argue Hill’s point in these men’s blindness to reality. At least that part of Hill’s writing makes sense. 
 

JAWS (1975)

   Director: Steven Spielberg With: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, & Jonathan Filley. Release: June 20, 1975 PG. 2 hr. 4 min. 

Director: Steven Spielberg
With: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, & Jonathan Filley.
Release: June 20, 1975
PG. 2 hr. 4 min. 

 

Some people like to narrify Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS” as a horror movie, centering around a man’s fear of swimming and him confronting that fear by force. Thinking that since it involves a monster, but not an unrealistically sized, great white shark, that the film is meant to scare you. In some ways they're right, “JAWS” does display a great deal of Spielberg’s love for Alfred Hitchcock, as someone who was a master in manifesting suspense, Spielberg learned from him and made the movie’s monstrous antagonist remain hidden for nearly half of the runtime. 

In 1975, this was a risky maneuver, one that could have sent audiences into a frenzy. Today, there would be twitter rants and youtube videos titled “Everything Wrong with Jaws” or “Why Jaws is a Bad Movie.” Those people would confuse expectation for fear with quality, assuming “JAWS” to be a film meant to terrify you, and on the one hand, that is what Spielberg is doing here, on another, he’s providing a fantastical journey led by three amazing characters. 

The story centers around the July Fourth holiday on Amity Island, a tourist spot for those who wish to celebrate the summer with beach water fun and a sunshine spirit. More than a week before this famous day swoops into town, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New York cop who got tired of fighting an unwinnable war, discovers whatever's left of a girl who encountered this monster. There’s an arm, a severed torso, and a few other things left of this poor girl. The cause of death? Shark attack, at least that’s what we see typed into Brody’s (Roy Scheider) report. It’s not until his doofus of a deputy, Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), starts blabbing about the beach being shut down that we begin to see our Chief faces the consequences of his decisions.
 
With the town’s number one source of income under attack, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) steps up to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), thinking he’s doing the right thing and this former hot shot detective has just gone into panic mode. The medical examiner redacts his cause of death, and the local newspaper owner agrees to make no fuss about the incident, sweeping all of this under the rug, so that out of town visitors have nothing to worry about. Even Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to calm himself down, but he can’t help that instinctive gut feeling, as he and his family go out to the beach. His wife, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Grey), spends her time attempting to calm down her husband whose staring at the water, peeking over whoever decides to sit in front of him. Making sure to never look away for too long, maintaining a constant vision of this sea of people.

We hear his wife talk about how he’s afraid of the water, a drowning incident as a child. All the while, Spielberg keeps our camera pointed at Brody (Roy Scheider), cutting back to the people in the ocean every other shot, building this tension, producing this amount of expectation that our police chief is about to witness a tragedy up-close. We hear the bombastic rhythmic tones of Williams’ score droop into the frame, our camera’s perspective switches to the eyes of something lurking beneath the blue painted shadows. It’s swimming right under these kids’ feet, choosing and deciding which one will be easiest to pick off. 

One of these boys is relaxing on a yellow floaty, at least he was until this great white beast wrestled him out of it, spewing blood into the ocean, manifesting a horrific scene. Spielberg then uses the infamous forward tracking, zoom out shot as he captures Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) panicked reaction, realizing that he was both right for dubbing it as a shark attack, and wrong for not closing the beaches. He frenzies out of his seat, screaming for everyone to get out of the water, sprinting down the shoreline with fear and dismay in his voice. It’s a horrific scene, the scariest one in the film for me because it's us watching a tragedy take place, and a man’s failure to act to be the root cause of it, a terrifying picture to have painted by a genius like Spielberg, and John Williams of course. 

I say of course because Spielberg gets most of the credit for this gem of a film, and he’s deserving, being the director and all. He was quite essential in crafting this film’s scenery and tone, but he’s gone on to say that “without Williams's score, the movie would only have been half as successful and according to Williams, it jump-started his career.” It’s hard to disagree when you’ve seen this score become just as infamous as the movie, not to mention the countless other pieces of greatness that Williams has crafted in his career since, ranging from “Jurassic Park” to “Harry Potter,” Williams has become a certifiable legend in the realm of film composers. He’s one of the best, one that got his talents noticed with a young Jewish kid looking to show the world what he could do with a little money and a mechanical shark. 

The story begins to divulge from horror into a thriller, building the tension in the town. People are begging for justice, but wanting to keep the beaches open because they know that their lives depend on the business they get from those waters. It’s a fuss of an argument with hooting and hollering all over until a long screeching noise stems from the back of the room. Nails screeching down this chalkboard, a chalkboard with a childlike drawing of a shark on it. A narrow-eyed, rugged, and rough-edged man sits in the back of the room, offering his services as a bounty hunter stating: “You all know me. Know how I make a living.” He goes on to talk about how this ain’t no normal fish, how this is not a common occurrence, and how he guarantees to catch this “bird.” The mom of the boy killed offered $3000 to anyone who would kill this monster, but he wants $10,000 for his services, promising he’ll deliver “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

It’s a remarkable character introduction of this sea captain known as Quint (Robert Shaw), one followed up by Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) later on when he arrives at a frenzy of fisherman attempting to be heroes, but looking more like a bunch of pirates searching for gold. Trying to fit too many men into the same boat, using dynamite as a weapon of choice, and enough chum to bring in a shark from Mexico. In the meanwhile, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees the first victim, almost vomiting up his lunch. He exclaims how this was no boating accident and how these men have a big problem on their hands.

A shark is caught and killed though, one that doesn’t match the bite radius of the original killer and one whose stomach is absent of human remains. Nonetheless, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is convinced that the shark found is the right one, at least it's good enough for him so that he can reopen the beaches for the Fourth of July madness, madness that Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees as a man offering up free-lunch to a hungry shark, one that is territorial and ramping up his victim count. Things get even worse, and the Mayor is left with no choice but to feed into the bounty hunter’s demands, providing an endless bank of supplies for a town desperately looking for a savior, they get three of them though. All of whom share a great deal of interaction and motivation. 

The screenplay written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with contributions by Howard Sackler and Spielberg himself, exhumes every detail it can in that way, providing small moments of naturalistic dialogue that allows us to feel resonance with these characters. Building the film’s tension around the characters, instead of the shark, this screenwriter becomes one worth studying and one worth quoting. With famous lines like “Your gonna need a bigger boat” or Shaw’s improvisational speech about his time on the U.S.S Indianapolis and the sea-songs about fair Spanish ladies, it all feels so naturalistic, almost driven by fate when you see the shooting stars streaking across in the night sky, a lucky break for Spielberg. 

It feels as if it was supposed to happen as if the film gods smiled upon Spielberg, but putting aside the luck he found, Spielberg found himself responsible for manifesting something rare. Something that invented blockbusters, becoming the first film to break past $100 million at the box office. A movie that exemplified the importance of a third act, building his tension towards a crescendo of events that were both terrifying and exciting to watch, not to mention the film’s best scene in how we view these differing men bond over scars and the saddening past of Quint (Robert Shaw), it all feels so historic. It’s almost disconcerting to think about this being Spielberg’s first, while he did make a TV movie before this, “JAWS” was his original debut. One that took place in 1975, and one that shocked the world. 

Oscar-nominated, phenomenally acted (despite some of the cast members being intoxicated onset), and masterfully fabricated by both Spielberg, his writers, and John Williams. It was the launching pad for both Spielberg and Williams, both who went on to become two of the most notable names of modern film. Becoming kings of their respective field of art, and “JAWS” went on to become something of historic magnitude, changing everything about movie making. The summer season may seem normal today, but in 1975 it wasn’t, that was until “JAWS” hit the silver screen. 

Few films change the industry like that; fewer maintain that popularity over time and the special ones get better over time, “JAWS” is one of those unique movies. Seemingly becoming better each time you watch it, aging like whiskey. It has all of the Spielberg tropes of family dynamics, patience with a character, perfected tone, and spellbinding entertainment; it’s a Spielbergian classic, one that is sure to stand the tests of time, in fact, it already has. 
 

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

   Director: Peyton Reed  With: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, & Randall Park.  Release: Jul 6, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Director: Peyton Reed
With: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, & Randall Park. 
Release: Jul 6, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is that kind of chapter in the Marvel cinematic universe that buckles underneath the excellence of the previous entree, it’s like reading a great book that has a fantastic chapter followed up by one that is fun, satisfying, but not near as superb as the one you just read. 

Once again directed by Peyton Reed, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a film that feels a bit mediocre in more ways than one, but not in a bad way. The film, written by a team of five writers, takes place about two years removed from the events of the Russo Brothers’ “Captain America: Civil War.” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) made a plea deal to take part in a two year sentenced house arrest, followed up by three years of probation, and he’s nearing his last three days of sentencing until he finds himself having nightmares from his time in the subatomic realm, but these dreams feel too real. 

He reaches out to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to explain this to him, hours later, he is kidnapped by Hope (Evangeline Lilly), because this father and daughter duo have been building a machine to take them to the quantum realm, believing that Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer; Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom) may still be alive. 

It’s a simple mission that needs the assistance of Scott’s (Paul Rudd) hypothetical quantum entanglement with her from the quantum realm, but their plan’s soon get foiled by this white hooded and fissuring figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). She’s a woman who’s suffered the sins of Hank’s (Michael Douglas) past, being a product of a father’s failed experiment that has led to her becoming a molecularly faltered woman that continuously glitches between matter, making her someone that can walk through any wall and avoid any attack. This condition also leaves her in constant pain though, forcing her to reach out for help, something that also comes from Hank’s (Michael Douglas) past mistakes. 

You would think the film would build an emotional lesson around that, but instead, the story revolves around a multitude of amusing subplots and a sappy-ish emotional heft between Scott (Paul Rudd) and his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). It picks up off that father-daughter dynamic we saw in “Ant-Man,” something we don’t see in any of the other Marvel movies, and begins to zero in on the flawed heroism of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Dealing with this revolving door of consequences for his actions, tearing him between the two worlds of fatherhood and vigilantism. 

He never seems to be able to the right thing without alienating his family or his friends or the woman he wants to partner with on these adventures as Ant-Man. He’s continuously reminded of these shortcomings, staying out of trouble to keep his daughter in his life, but exiling his past life and friends in exchange. It’s a complex moral dilemma, one that we rarely see in film’s apart of the MCU, but the film almost seems to overlook the enticeable potential of the emotion surrounding this internal character dynamic, choosing to satisfy audiences without providing something worth remembering. 

The film does subvert the macho-man mentality of superhero movies though, allowing the teamwork between these two heroes to become a reliable weapon. Never allowing that one-person show cliche to take hold, the "Ant-Man and the Wasp" are a team that relies on teamwork, something surprisingly rare to see in comic book filmography, almost as unusual as the amount of significance giving to the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly).

Spending a lot of time developing, focusing, and centralizing the story and the action around Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Reed exhumes as much creative choreography he can from the wings of the Wasp, disappearing and reappearing with fury and a whole lot of female badassery. We rarely get to see these displays of female super-strength, with them sporadically occurring in films like "Iron Man 2" and "Avengers." Luckily, "Thor; Ragnarok" and "Black Panther" have embraced that female empowerment, carrying it over into newer films such as this one. 

She almost steals the show with her displays of action, but the gang of assisting comedic characters makes that a hard role to earn, as the group of three ex-cons, has founded their own security company, ironically trademarked as “X-Con.” These neurotic characters share a fair amount of screenplay, providing as much comedic relief as they can, not that the screenplay is dourly in need of more humor. Nonetheless, the security team of Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Dave (T.I.), and Luis (Michael Peña) provide the films funniest moments with Peña being responsible for more than the other two goofballs, as predicted. 

The gang of characters surrounding our triplet of heroes doesn't stop there, you can also find the well-meaning ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer), the affable husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), the adorably innocent Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), a smug weapons dealer with a wicked southern accent depicted by Walton Goggins, of course, and there’s also the clueless FBI agent, Woo (Randall Park), who is amusingly jealous of the charisma displayed by Scott (Paul Rudd). All of these characters assist in formulating a group of subplots that struggle to reside together coherently, but they never become something distracting or worth denouncing, more of a run of the mill kind of scenario. 

The same could be said for Dante Spinotti’s cinematographer which, unlike the previous film, seems to have no individuality. Never standing out or making its voice heard, instead, it blends into the foreground, becoming reliant on well-handled set pieces and a vast amount of size gags, which seem to always get a chuckle or two out of me. 

Reed has a lot of great moments in his direction of the film, specifically in his helming of the movies emotional subtext, something that if focused more upon, could have made the film far better than your above mediocre superhero film. It relies on that relief of enjoyment you desire after seeing a mature and darkened MCU film such as "Avengers: Infinity War." “Ant-Man and the Wasp” struggles with that bad timing more than it should. Not to mention, a complete lack of emotional heft that, like “Thor: Ragnarok,” is set up to be paid off near the film’s finale, but these moments are shrunk down to size before they become the big hero that the movie so desperately needs. 

If you consider the MCU as a long-running, feature-length, television series that premieres at the movie theater, then you can think of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” as that follow up episode to the mid-season finale. Attempting to pull everyone back into the story, calming the waters so that you can return to your regularly scheduled programming until the Mad Titan makes his next appearance. There’s nothing obscene or egregiously wrong with “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” it’s following up a cinematic event of epic portions, providing a small but effective entree into this cinematic universe of superheroes, it's hard to blame the underdog for not outperforming the favorite. 

Set It Up (2018)

   Director: Claire Scanlon  With: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Pete Davidson, Meredith Hagner, Jon Rudnitsky, & Tituss Burgess.  Release: Jun 15, 2018 TV-14. 1 hr. 45 min.

Director: Claire Scanlon
With: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Pete Davidson, Meredith Hagner, Jon Rudnitsky, & Tituss Burgess. 
Release: Jun 15, 2018
TV-14. 1 hr. 45 min.

 

Romantic comedies are a hit and miss kind of genre, either they suffer from a multitude of cliches or they have such a unique voice that these films stand out with a fragrance of seamless rewatchability. Claire Scanlon’s “Set It Up” is a film that falls somewhere in the middle, but it definitely favors the latter. It’s a female written and directed film that seems to handle this genre with flair and charisma that seems to stray away from this genre. 

Taking place in the upper echelon of New York city, “Set It Up,” written by Katie Silberman, introduces us to the crappy job of assisting someone who holds the keys to your future, specifically two assistants. Harper (Zoey Deutch) who assists to a big-time sports journalist, Kirsten (Lucy Lou), and she’s an aspiring writer who spends her hours supporting and slaving away for this boss woman, while simultaneously forgetting actually to write something. 

Her co-star, Charlie (Glen Powell), is a helper for a big-time business mogul, Rick (Taye Diggs), and he wants to get that big promotion so he can afford those expensive seats that he usually saves for his boss. After a night in which these two aides struggle to agree on how to satisfy their bosses appetites, they come together and begin to share each other's struggles. Participating in this therapeutic exchange of the frustrations they feel for slaving away for two people who seem to care less whether they are happy or sad or anything other than on-time and quiet. 

They soon hatch up this plan to force these two to begin dating and getting it on, so that they can start to get a little time to themselves. Harper (Zoey Deutch) takes this time to try and kindle and mingle with other singles, and Charle (Glen Powell) decides to begin hanging out more with his model girlfriend, Suze (Joan Smalls). His gay roommate, depicted by SNL’s Pete Davidson, clearly sees this lack of self-confidence and identity that Charlie (Glen Powell) has, and it becomes a pivotal character arc for this man. 

Harper (Zoey Deutch) is in the same pickle of having that same lack of belief to become a writer, which as someone who shares that struggle of writer’s block, I get that anxiety of not feeling good enough. Continually stressing about re-writes and trying new writing styles so if someone looking to hire writers reads my work, they might decide to give me some money for it. 

These two people begin to discover the relationship their constructing is not as palpable as the one manifesting before them, and then the film provides those cliche lines for love and yadda yadda yadda. We’ve seen these tropes and plot structures before, and Katie Silberman seems to have forgotten this. She has provided a relative amount of nuance and unique voice to a film that soon turns into the stereotypical romantic comedy that we’ve seen more than a thousand times. I guess these things still have to be here so that we know that we’re watching a romantic comedy, but it also feels as if she’s sacrificing footing for a killing stroke in a way. 

Delivering a screenplay that still fits in the tight little check boxes of the genre, but also shares her voice. You can hear that tone of someone writing what they mean, from the standpoint of sharing what they believe. Painting a diverse cast that is usually predominantly white and straight like that of “The Proposal,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Love Actually,” and I could go on. 

“Set It Up” is not one of those films, introducing a proud gay character that provides the movies best jokes, and two bosses that are diverse as well. One of whom is an independent, strong, and confident woman and the other is a successful black man that stands in a position of power. It’s subliminally executed though, never noticing it until someone else points it out or until you begin to read someone else's review, like I did, before writing this one. Visually, Claire Scanlon’s direction doesn’t stand out in that area, rarely being more than a carry and film kind of situation. She does provide that upbeat, hipsterish, New York city style that delivers that authenticity that blends in with the realistically diverse depiction of a metropolitan area. 

The film doesn’t deliver much more than that though, a film that has a lot of surprising uses of foul language, gender influenced debates and a considerable amount of witty dialogue. The two stars share remarkable chemistry and provide some great banter between each other that feels palpable and believable. Seeing them interact with two diverse higher-ups such as a Chinese-American woman and an African American male, knowing they struggled for their earnings and opportunity, just as much as these two white assistants. 

It’s a film that paints a diverse picture, uses that picture to formulate a few subliminal socio-political comments, but never actually delivers anything worth mentioning. It’s a film that cuts off the crust of its bread, fearing to offend instead of standing their ground, Katie Silberman and Claire Scanlon provides a film that is surprisingly better than most but never takes that final step to make something worth taking notice. It’s like a teenager being afraid to speak up about something they know to be true; you just have to breathe and embrace the anxiety. 

We watch Harper (Zoey Deutch) deal with a similar problem; she's advised to write something awful to correct and tinker over to make it great, the same logic could be applied to the screenplay from Katie Silberman. You have to write that script that takes off a bit more than it can chew so that you can learn how to deliver your message properly. Silberman is almost there, but she needs to embrace that rebellious side that she displays so passionately in this authentically colored romcom. 

The First Purge (2018)

   Director: Gerard McMurray  With: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, & Mo McRae.  Release: Jul 4, 2018 R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

Director: Gerard McMurray
With: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, & Mo McRae. 
Release: Jul 4, 2018
R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

1.5_4 stars.png
 

The Purge franchise has always had an inherent political vibe to it, but Gerard McMurray and James DeMonaco’s “The First Purge” is a movie that feels like a child misunderstanding political ideologies, choosing to follow the most extreme side on crucial issues such as gun control, the wealth gap, and racial tensions.

I guess we were forewarned with the hat in the poster that resembled something along the lines of "make America great again," but these filmmakers flip-flop between each side of the aisle, attempting to look as if they reside in the middle, only choosing an option that they believe is right. But the choices made are too far extreme for me to think that these filmmakers are middle of the aisle electorates that made a movie to speak out on some vital socio-political issues.

Taking place before all of the other nonsensical movies began, “The First Purge” starts with a psychological interview of sorts with a man named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who is an outright junkie. He has cuts on his face, bloody gums, and is being used as the prime example for why this murder night needs to occur. So that he can find a way to outpour his withdrawal frustrations, which then would encourage drug use, drug sales, and somehow lower crime rates?

Nonetheless, news clips of protests circulating the one percent, crime-rates, and low-income communities become evidence for a night of purging the hatred they’ve manifested for the system in which they reside. It begins discussions that were surprising to hear from a franchise that has attempted to be an original philosophically based horror movie, a straight up action movie, and a supposed commentary on the presidential election. The conversations encircling the ideas of low-income, minority-populated communities being the guinea pigs for the rest of America feels somewhat authentic with the amount of racial tensions and believed stereotypes in our current cultural climate, but it all feels like a fear-mongering technique attempting to show us the course of our nation's future.

For those of us who like to maintain a level-head and listen to our oppositions to manifest solutions instead of continuing this cycle of division, these moments will feel painfully obvious, like a hole in the wall is attempting to be hidden with duck tape. The inherent racial targeting of it all sounds believable, acting like an alt-right conservatives wet dream. With an intoxicated political system and the poisoned electorate, power has been given to those ideologies we once deemed as lunacy.  

The film does offer some more buyable socio-political commentary by painting its local neighborhood gang boss as someone who stands for the community but has done it in a way that fabricates far more trouble than he intended. Our main character, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), confronts this man, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), in a scene that discusses how he hurts this community 364 days a year while this purge only affects one day a year. It’s a touching scene speaking on the dangers of choosing a gang lifestyle while displaying the hardships that can influence someone to make that decision.

It goes from that clever screenwriting to a dumb Purge movie on the flip of a coin when we learn that people are actively participating in this sociological and psychological study for a mere five thousand dollars. How bad is our country at this point? Are we in a great depression of sorts or recession? How far down have we gone where five grand is enough of an incentive to kill people?

From there, our movie goes from that rationally leveled mindset to a radical alt-right conservative mindset (not congressional republican, there is a difference between the two) that formulates the importance of the second amendment. It's as if the screenwriter, James DeMonaco, is screaming at you “this is why we need the amendment, to keep the government from killing black people.” It’s so unashamedly alt-right and NRA supportive that it's almost worth a tip of the cap for being so honest.

What’s confusing is how it goes from a level-headed, I’ll be it, left-leaning mindset, to something so ridiculous. The film does the same thing with that of its tone, and it's genre, something that is as indecisive as the screenplay is, going from straight up drama to thriller to horror to an action film. This movie seems to have no idea what it wants to be, flip-flopping with its political philosophies and with its genre, but when the film does allow it's action to take the spotlight, it becomes far more entertaining.v

Our John Wick 2.0 character is the gang leader Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), which is cool and a somewhat good character arc, but how did he become such a mercenary? Was he ever apart of the military? Was he self-trained? It was the one thing that continuously bothered me in this last twenty minutes of action; it was that annoying bit that stuck in my teeth.

However, the film before that was displaying haunting imagery of white extremist groups murdering off large groups of minority-populated neighborhoods. It’s quite disturbing to see something as extreme as this, and know that they are alt-right militia groups preparing for such a thing. Gerard McMurray directs these scenes with such vigor, something he maintains in the action sequences at the end of the film which are handled with intensity and unconventional camera techniques. Holding the camera close to the action, but never obscuring it from the viewer.

All of the performances are equal and satisfactory across the board, with no one standing out more than the other. Although, Mugga provided some laughs and gags that were far more entertaining than the horror intended scenery of these overnight sociopaths.

“The First Purge” corrects that past mistake of the franchise though, showing how people wouldn’t become monsters when giving the green light to become one, but it all remains so ridiculous with it's narrative surrounding something as preposterous as providing legal action to murder, primarily when it's used to satisfy a close-minded argument.

It’s a politically charged film, receiving a politically charged review from both me and most likely many others. It’s has a lot more going for it than the past three films, but it maintains that same clickbait mentality. Trying to make something controversial, so that you have to see it and give it some money. Never delivering something worth a feature-length runtime, feeling better suited for an overfunded Youtube video on someone’s political channel feed.

Uncle Drew (2018)

   Director: Charles Stone III  With: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Kroll, Tiffany Haddish, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, & Erica Ash. Release: Jun 29, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 44 min.

Director: Charles Stone III
With: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Kroll, Tiffany Haddish, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, & Erica Ash.
Release: Jun 29, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 44 min.

 

If you were to combine two films such as “Like Mike 2” and “The Longest Yard,” you would get “Uncle Drew.” The Pepsi commercial turned feature film is balling its way around theaters and doing so successfully, and it's getting its fair share of praises from critics and audiences alike. To be fair, critics are giving this film a pass based on its sheer innocence and family-friendly appeal and to their point, “Uncle Drew” is precisely that, a genuine comedy that is not meant to offend but to entertain. While I could sit back and give it a pass myself, there is far too much laziness and sappy attempts with its emotional aspects for me to just let it walk by unscathed. 

It’s a film that is dragging a ridiculous gimmick too far, what should’ve been a thirty-minute short film for TV, is a near two-hour feature-length comedy that includes car chases, old versus young basketball matchups, and a dance-off of course. It's meant to make little to no fuss, something for us to sit back and watch mindlessly. I am not such a film attendee though, that’s why when the story of Dax (Lil Rey Howery from “Get Out,” who also self references that film in this movie), an orphan whose love for the game of basketball carried him through life until he missed a game-winning shot in a big game, begins to be told by screenwriter Jay Longino, I roll my eyes. 

Not to mention, the on-going tale of the old Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) getting the band back together on this drama turned road trip movie. Trying to be Dax's (Lil Rey Howery) saving grace when he loses everything from money to his gold-digger of a girlfriend, getting the old team back together to play at the Rucker streetball tournament. Watching the shenanigans that follow is not exactly worth my while. 

It all feels so simple, so lazy, but what should expect from a movie starring basketball legends in old-man makeup? I suppose a shred of creativity, which does appear with Lil Rel Howery. Admittedly his funniest moments are in the blooper reel, but he does have a few great jokes to give us. As well as the inside basketball jokes made by our player, which gave me a grin or two. There is effort and talent to be found, but it's covered up by the wrinkles of laziness by director Charles Stone III (“Drumline” & “Mr. 3000).

He’s no stranger to these underdog overcoming the odds kind of sports tales, but his past displays are nothing worth beating his chest over. In some ways though, that lackadaisical mentality allows the film to roll in and out of thought, like an airball flying past the hope with little to no hope of actually scoring. 

The way he directs the film is tacky and expectedly mundane, and the way he directs his cast of talented athletes is no different, giving them little to no room for uniqueness. Other than Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) himself, this 5-man team of basketball icons is depicting the same goofiness we’ve seen from them before, especially Shaq. 

Tiffany Haddish, Lil Rey, and Nick Kroll feel handcuffed. LIke their not getting that improvisational green light to make something out of nothing, to make a surprisingly tasty cake out of a bland baking mix. Haddish feels as if she’s reprising her role from “Girls Trip,” being that obnoxious and crude jokester we’re all familiar with, and Lil Rey is best when he’s allowed to interlude those little snippets of self-referencing commentary.

 Making fun of the events, we’re watching on-screen as if he’s making fun of it for us. Irving has a few moments worth a chuckle or two, but he’s more of a moral compass than anything else. Attempting to deliver this so-so message of taking risks in life, using a hockey line, of all things, stating “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” With his old age and all, I guess he forgot this was a basketball movie.

I guess I am going easy on this film by not trashing it, but it doesn’t necessarily do anything so offensive or obscene to warrant that kind of negativity. Sure, it’s not a good movie. Heck, I definitely would describe it as a bad movie, but it's more lazy than it is idiotic. Geriatric-ing its way through the story, just moving forward and not noticing the potential surrounding it. Old people are like that though, always denouncing the next generation, a grain of authenticity to be found in a film that dresses up professional athletes like bank robbers. 

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

   Director: Brett Haley  With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette. Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

Director: Brett Haley
With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

 

In the midst of watching Brett Haley’s (“The Hero” & “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) “Hearts Beat Loud,” I began to take note of the film’s modesty. It never introduces or takes a stance on some sort of social commentary or political discourse, which is remarkably refreshing. While I enjoy a filmmaker standing by his beliefs and embracing that controversial edge of social topics, it’s nice to see a movie that allows us to relax and enjoy a film that charms with pure charisma. 

It never stops to take a stance on anything, which is something it could’ve done with that of its star being in a same-sex relationship with a girl named Rose (Sasha Lane). The film could’ve stopped to defend that relationship, which wouldn’t have bothered me, obviously, but it would have been entirely unnecessary. The story doesn’t need that added bit of socio-political debate; in fact, it feels so natural to the story that it never feels as if it's being argued for, just merely occurring within our narrative. 

Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch, “Hearts Beat Loud” focuses on a relationship between a father and daughter. Specifically, that much-awaited moment when the young one goes off to college and the dad has to learn how to live without her being home; the whole situation is even harder when discovering the mom passed away in a cyclist accident twelve years before our story occurs. 

Residing in the hipsterish village of Red Hook in Brooklyn, Frank (Nick Offerman) is a records shop owner, selling vinyl and chatting up music geekdom with customers. His daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is a pre-med student at a community college preparing to attend another round of pre-med at UCLA. 

The only problem is that she inherited that gene of singing from her mother, who met her father in a band. After one jamming session after a long hard day in which Frank (Nick Offerman) reveals to his landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette), that he’s going to close the shop, they kindle a fire that gives Frank (Nick Offerman) this feeling of a last chance at reigniting that immense pride of fatherhood. 

There is melancholy that hangs over it all, which becomes an idealist versus realist kind of scenario in which Frank (Nick Offerman) sees a young girl throwing away her talent for a reliable income. On the other hand, Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is afraid of ending up like her father, a dead-end shop owner who lives in the past. It’s something the film does quite differently than fellow uplifting musical rides like “Sing Street,” maintaining a level-head between something authentic and dreamlike storytelling. 

Brett Haley and Marc Basch excel in crafting that harmony of tension and upliftment, never allowing it to crush your feeling of elevation while never allowing you to believe in something implausible. Someone who says this best is the bartender Dave (Ted Danson), who states “We can’t always do what we love, so we have to love what we do.” 

He becomes a constant source of therapy for our father figure as well as providing some amusing stories about his times in Woodstock, and he describes the film’s narrative meaning with that poetic diatribe. Recognizing that dreams don’t always come true and we have to learn how to live without them. It’s not crushing, nor is it saddening per say. The film handles it in a way that inspires us to relook at life in a way that is far more optimistic than dour. 

Where the film gains a lot of steam that pushes it from good to great is its music. It has an indie-folk style that also has a lot of pop to it, providing a soundtrack that is so infectiously passionate. Forcing you to tap your toes while allowing the lyrics speak to your soul, it's that kind of music that we all listen to for some upliftment, and it delivers in that way. The film does have a few touching songs that echo the inherent emotion placed into this family dilemma, something that is sure to roll a tear or two from every eye in the theater. 

Aesthetically, Brett Haley and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, deliver a summerish atmosphere to the film. Providing a vivid and bright array of visuals that attract the eye, with yellows and greens radiating throughout the screen. The environment is very hipsterish, with flannels and coffee and retro style scenery that blends in with the story in an organic fashion. The camera itself moves freely, circling our artists when they begin to jam out, providing this momentum building essence that excited me with joy and vibrancy, something the film continued to do with ease. 

Both Offerman and Clemons deliver fantastic performances. Offerman (“Parks and Recreation” & “Hero”), returning for his second team up with Brett Haley, has always been the cuter and far more charismatic version of Tom Selleck for me, and he displays it again in “Hearts Beat Loud” with some adorably humorous moments with Kiersey Clemons (“Dope” & “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”). 

He also provides some of the film’s most passionate moments, moments that are only outdone by Kiersey Clemons who surprises with an exceptional performance. She gives these naturalistic moments that feel as if we’re watching Sam instead of Kiersey Clemons pretending to be Sam Fisher. If it weren't for her co-star Toni Collette’s phenomenal performance in “Hereditary,” she would be my front-runner for the best female performance of the year thus far. Collette also delivers a solid performance in this movie, as well as Ted Danson who is fun to see as always, and there’s also some fun scenes with Blythe Danner who depicts Frank’s (Nick Offerman) mother.

The story is one we’ve seen before, and one we’ll inevitably see again. The music is poppy, and purposefully catchy, but it all plays so organically that it provides a feeling that merely is infectiously joyous. During a scene in which Frank (Nick Offerman) is attempting to help bring Sam’s (Kiersey Clemons) debut song to life, he states: “This is a mood piece, it just has to have a feeling. This has a feeling.” The same could be said for “Hearts Beat Loud,” a mood piece that is contagiously exhilarating that elates as much as it inspires. It’s a feeling that I can’t get enough of, and one that I can’t wait to feel again. 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

   Director: Stefano Sollima  With: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, & Catherine Keener. (English, Spanish dialogue)  Release: Jun 29, 2018 R. 2 hr. 2 min.

Director: Stefano Sollima
With: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, & Catherine Keener. (English, Spanish dialogue) 
Release: Jun 29, 2018
R. 2 hr. 2 min.

 

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a film that in the midst of its story feels as if it's missing something. It’s almost incoherently speaking about something, but it is speaking about something. As unlike "Sicario” providing no message to its story, questioning whether our actions as a country should be equivalent to the evil we face, "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" delivers a message. The first film provided a lens surrounding the subject, observing without choosing a side to argue for. 

It was that itch that I needed to be scratched for me to dub the first film as something exceptional. Sheridan chooses a side of the moral puzzle to fixate upon at the beginning of this film in a disturbing sequence. He then flips flops to another viewpoint halfway through and then chooses neither side near the end. It’s as if he’s just as conflicted as we are when watching this movie because our first film was carried by Emily Blunt, who was our moral compass. Allowing us to see this dirty world through idealistic eyes, this time around that morality is missing. 

This time around we're watching a sequence of events that begin with a visceral glimpse of a terrorist attack. Up close and personal, we observe four men walk into a retail store in Kansas City and unleash mayhem on innocent American lives. Playing up to this idea that their actions justify our violent retaliation with hellfire and fury and “the full weight of the United States military” as Matthew Modine states while depicting this film’s secretary of defense. 

From there we cut to our C.I.A operative turned boogeyman depicted by Josh Brolin, he’s grown out a beard (Brolin with a beard is money by the way), and he finds himself targeting Somalia crime lords who gave those terrorists access to ships to get across the sea to Mexico. He displays new rules of engagement, threatening to launch an airstrike on this man’s home if he does not give him the information needed, and he’s not bluffing. 

Soon after that, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is brought back to American soil to receive the orders of creating a war between cartels as he did with terrorist groups in the middle east. To assist in starting this war, Matt (Josh Brolin) brings back Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) into the fold, like the rabid dog that he’s going to let loose. To start this battle, they plan on kidnapping the daughter of a cartel leader, Isabella Reyes (Isabela Moner), who soon becomes a bit of a problem when the job goes awry. Manifesting a film that becomes your necessary action-centric thriller of the summer that serves up the violence with a level of brutality that matches the first film. 

The violence is not given the same moral complexity or the same visual treatment that the triple Oscar nominee recipient provided. That film had vital tools in its fabrication, devices that are noticeably missing this time around. Stefano Sollima (“Suburra”) attempts to offer that same attention to detail and realism that the first film contained, using authentic sound design and a mimicking score that tries to inject that same tension. 

He falls short on all fronts though because he’s attempting to replicate instead of creating. He uses 360-degree tracking shots that take place during shootouts, providing intimate glimpses of the violence from a perspective that is thrilling. He also maintains that grim tone, a tone that is exemplified during these interactions between these shady government officials and Matt (Josh Brolin). When he lives in his own skin, he delivers some remarkable sequences, a key lesson for those who try to replicate another artists' genius.

Dariusz Wolski (“All the Money in the World” & “Alien: Covenant”) replaces the legendary Roger Deakins and unashamedly attempts to imitate Deakins’ techniques. He uses those extended branching shots of the helicopters hovering over the border, and using his lighting to cast shadows in a way that matches Deakins’ style. He falls short as well, and with no shame added because Deakins is a rare genius that comes around once in a lifetime. 

Sheridan is that one common thread behind the film’s production. He wrote the first film which remained ambiguous with its meaning in a way that worked and didn’t work for that film. It was an itch that needed to be scratched as I said, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” scratches it. He flip-flops between moral decisions as I stated above. He chooses one side that suggests that stronger violence destroys weaker violence, then shows a sequence of events that refute that notion, as if to say there is no right answer. No matter what we choose to do, it's the wrong answer. Maybe that is his message, a message that he has to sacrifice footing for, as I don’t believe he supports that hard-right leaning way of thinking that takes place in the first half of the film. 

However, the film doesn’t bring the same amount of productional heft and artistry to be found in the first film; rarely having a flavor of its own, and it weighs the film down in a noticeable way because it feels as if your missing that critical piece to finish the puzzle being crafted by Sheridan. 

He doesn’t write nearly as cleverly as the first film either, which suggests that Villeneuve may have assisted in that fabrication of that moral examination. The violence was meant to be a measuring stick of how far we’re willing to go to solve an unsolvable problem, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” seems to use that violence almost gratuitously. Using it to make a point, yes, but one that doesn’t reveal itself until the end of the film. 

It can become as conflicting as the subject of cartel crime and immigration policies, but Sheridan is in full form in providing those masculine moments of gun porn and glorifying violence as a form of entertainment. Where we draw the line in that area is a complex dilemma in itself.

Nonetheless, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” feels more like a remake than a sequel. Never matching or attempting to make it's own voice be heard, Sheridan provides a screenplay that is just shy of being as complex as the first film but delivers a message this time around. A message that is manifested through questionable methods, but one that is delivered and resounding with that same hollowness and dourness of “Sicario.” 

If this film is anything, it’s a testament to the magnificence of Denis Villeneuve, Johan Johansson, and Roger Deakins, and just how irreplaceable they are. Brolin and Del Toro may provide some charisma and that macho man mentality that some audiences will crave, Isabela Moner is fantastic as well, but it all seems so unnecessary, a message falling upon deaf ears. 
 

Gotti (2018)

   Director: Kevin Connolly  With: John Travolta, Spencer Lofranco, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey, William Demeo, & Kelly Preston. Release: June 15, 2018 R. 1 hr. 44 min. 

Director: Kevin Connolly
With: John Travolta, Spencer Lofranco, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey, William Demeo, & Kelly Preston.
Release: June 15, 2018
R. 1 hr. 44 min. 

 

Critics versus audiences is a subplot kind of narrative that anyone on either side of the argument can become infatuated by, I am at fault for this as much as anyone else. It can become increasingly frustrating to see films that you find immensely powerful to go under the radar of most moviegoers as if they never actually happened. It can be just as difficult to see a movie that you and your friends love that critics trashed with their reviews, or to see a lack of genre films at the Oscars. 

It’s a type of sociological discourse that all of us can seek our teeth into and share some kind of resonation with either side, but it’s never meant to be something that proves one is better than the other. Kevin Connolly’s (“E” from “Entourage”) “Gotti” is a film that struggles to grasp that concept. It’s a film centering around the life of the notorious mobster John Gotti (John Travolta), focusing on his family life, his most infamous moments as a criminal, and his indirect leadership of his community. 

The screenplay, written by Lem Dobbs (“Dark City” & “Haywire”) and Leo Rossi (Budd from “Halloween II”), attempts to paint this picture of him being a people’s man brought down by a group of corrupt government officials. As if he’s someone like Billy the Kid or Robin Hood, but in fact, he’s a criminal using propaganda and a forceful hand to maintain face. He’s like a local dictator residing over his neighborhood’s who does occasional beneficiary things for the community as a part of PR. The film never treats him as a criminal, but rather an outlaw, a folk hero mobster. 

The film seems to be confusing murder with avenging, to be fair most films don’t play up murder as something worth denouncing. Instead, its served up as something spectacular and worth watching. Nonetheless, “Gotti” received a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes which has led to it's rising popularity for its strong negative response from critics. The screenplay I described above is, in part, at fault for that rating. It’s seemingly inconsequential with it's writing, meaning that none of its storytelling has any merit or emotion to its story. It’s a one hour and forty-five-minute sequence of cliche mobster moments, including poor joisy accents and the throwaway lines to make the film seem a lot cooler than it actually is. 

Not to mention, “Gotti” breaks a golden rule of screenwriting in establishing who is telling the story we’re watching or are we observing these events as they happen. “Gotti” begins with John (John Travolta) seemingly speaking to us from beyond the grave, the point of view transfers between him and his son, and it ends with a multitude of news clips from that time. It’s shocking to see such a simple rule broken by professional screenwriters, but they are not the only one at fault for the lousy critical reception of “Gotti.”

Connolly and his cinematographer, Michael Barnett, provide a grim and shadowy look to the film. The lighting struggles to paint anything with visual prominence as if Connolly is trying to shield his movie from us through the obscurity of its poor lighting. The camera doesn’t do anything remarkable either, remaining still and relying on its star to provide the oomph of charisma that the film desperately needs, and Travolta doesn’t shy away from the challenge. 

Though his accent drops in and out of his dialogue, Travolta does deliver more times than not throughout this film in good and bad ways. He provides those unintended laugh out loud moments that are so bad they’re funny, but he also delivers some of the films best moments, specifically a sequence of moments in which we watch this crime family deal with the loss of a child. It’s one of the few moments in the film that has some sense of passion residing in its scenery. 

Travolta’s effort and one good sequence of filmmaking is not enough to craft a good movie though, the sheer lack of focus given to a film that feels as if it was made through a blender of events than actual proper filmmaking tools makes “Gotti” something worth forgettin’ about. The rest of cast surrounding Travolta is either overdoing the whole mob thing or not doing it enough, refusing to embrace the ridiculousness of it all to provide something worth watching. Not to mention the on-the-nose soundtrack played during the most cliche of moments ranging from artists such as Duran Duran, James Brown, Dean Martin, The Escape Club,  and Pitbull. It's all just so ridiculous. 

This film should not be used as a prime example in this ongoing argument of critic versus viewer, “Gotti” is feeding off our desire to feed into that narrative, attempting to cloud its shortcomings by manifesting discourse to camouflage its lack of quality, like a criminal pretending to be a folk hero. It may not be a good movie, but at least it remains consistent with its story in that way.  

The Death of Superman (2018)

   Director: Jake Castorena & Sam Liu. With: Jerry O'Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Matt Lanter, Shemar Moore, Nyambi Nyambi, & Jason O'Mara.  Release: July 24, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 21 min.  

Director: Jake Castorena & Sam Liu.
With: Jerry O'Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Matt Lanter, Shemar Moore, Nyambi Nyambi, & Jason O'Mara. 
Release: July 24, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 21 min.  

 

The DC animated universe doesn’t share the same glitz and glamour as it's live action counterpart, but it does maintain that darker edge. The films themselves have balanced that of levity with that of conflict, constantly waging a battle against the forces of evil, both internally and externally. It’s what makes these films kind of awesome to watch, not only as a comic book reader, but as someone who's become engulfed with frustration towards DC's recent outings, these animated tales don't just match their live-action older brothers, they surpass them. 

Following the story created by Dan Jurgens, Louise Simmons, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Karl Kesel, and others, during the 1993 multi-issue series that was designed to increase comic sales and show readers that the character was not invincible. It revolved around the monster known as Doomsday, an incredibly powerful monster with regenerative abilities that allow him to come back from death, unable to be killed in the same previous manner. He’s strong, fast, and immensely terrifying due to his lack of cerebral conception. It’s like Superman, but without his morality, that’s why he poses such a threat to the man of steel. 

Comics-wise, it becomes incredibly noticeable that this monster provides a formidable contest for our hero, but not in a way that is overwhelming, at least not at first. When their battle begins, Doomsday hits Superman, and with no avail to that first attack, he then kicks him through Anderson’s home. Jake Castorena and Sam Liu’s “Death of Superman” is a version of that same story that carries the universe's past subplots along with its new one. The story also manifests a Doomsday that is far more overwhelming and destructive than the one from the comics. He merely overpowers and destroys the Justice League, powering through the shield of the Hal’s (Nathan Fillion) ring, and catching the Flash (Christopher Gorham) in mid-stride. 

Then a battle with Diana (Rosario Dawson) ensues, one of the highpoints of the action in the movie. It’s bloody and mimics to that tale of man versus beast, but it's a badass woman this time, one that puts up an admirable fight. Speaking of the action, the film never shies away from brutality, displaying it front and center for the world to see. There’s blood, broken bones, and graphical visuals that are sure to scar some of the younger audience members. 

The movie has more to it than just a battle between heroes and monsters, Lex Luthor (Rainn Wilson) is apart of that as a man hoping to fight against the alien God the world has dubbed a hero. He believes in representing humanity with a hero who shares their morality. That fascinating character arc remains intact for this film, and even more so, it becomes an ultimate weapon in creating an arc that shows the difference between our caped hero and the others in the Justice League. A man with every power, who chooses to save those who don’t share that immense power. He’s not forced, no tragic backstory that psychological fabricated him into a hero, he’s the one hero who is not only the most powerful, but chooses to save instead of destroying. He appoints himself, instead of being elected by others. 

It’s one of the many things that Peter Tomasi’s screenplay does far better than Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s story in “Batman V. Superman.” Exhuming the ideas of what makes this hero special, instead of displaying him as a god amongst mortals. He’s a god attempting to be mortal, not the other way around. 

The story can become tedious with that of its use of the heroes, in that of Batman or any of these heroes surviving the battle by the skin of their teeth. It’s incredibly convenient that something always pulls them out of the fire. The romance in the story between Lois (Rebecca Romijn) and Clark (Jerry O’Connell) is a bit of a detractor in the screenplay. Providing another glimpse into what makes this alien a hero, his fears of including more people in his life, placing them in danger. It’s something all heroes share, but choose to do anyway. The film could go without it though; it's not the icing on the cake that the directors were hoping for. 

The animation isn’t something to behold either, it’s very formalized and staying in accordance with the last few films. It’s very digitalized and slim, painting the character in a much smaller version than the Justice League show from the mid-2000’s would have you believe. 

I’m not surprised by the lack of press this film is getting, most animation that isn’t Pixar or Dreamworks tends to go under the radar. It’s not something to behold, or that rivals the live action universe of heroes, but it's something worth watching to see how much potential DC has as a live action franchise. They should be competitive in a dogfight with Marvel Studios, but they remain at the back of the pack, even trailing behind Fox. It starts with how they don’t seem to get the mentality of what makes these heroes incredible. It’s not the abilities or the fights; it’s the ideologies they possess that makes them far better than we could ever be. 

In Whedon and Snyder’s “Justice League,” Bruce describes Clark as someone more human than him. A better version of this emotional interaction takes place in Tom King’s latest run on the Caped Crusader, in which in issue #36 of DC Universe’s “Batman,” he and Selina discuss why he is not the hero that Clark is, while Clark and Lois do the opposite. 

Both of them exchange their reasons for not being as good as the other, Clark describing Bruce as a man without powers, but can overcome with his will and his wit. Bruce illustrates Clark as the last remnant of a genocide and one who chooses to be a hero, a choice that he didn’t have. This interaction is what makes these heroes unique, not the capes and powers, but the emotions behind them, a note that Warner Bros needs to take note of with their live action films. 

Sicario (2015)

   Director: Denis Villeneuve With: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, & Bernardo Saracino. (English, Spanish dialogue) Release: Oct 2, 2015 R. 2 hr. 1 min. 

Director: Denis Villeneuve
With: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, & Bernardo Saracino. (English, Spanish dialogue)
Release: Oct 2, 2015
R. 2 hr. 1 min. 

3.5_4 stars.png
 

Denis Villeneuve's “Sicario” opens with a title card that reads: “The word Sicario comes from the zealots of Jerusalem, killers who hunted the Romans who invaded their homeland. In Mexico, Sicario means hitman.” When we are introduced to a world beyond the already savage scenery found on U.S soil, we start to meet our “Sicario,” and his lawlessness and freedom granted by our government to commit cross both codes of conducts and moral boundaries. Something that the narrative treats itself in accordance with this character in which it crosses lines that may disturb audiences, and delivers a dreaded atmosphere where no light is shined through. Something that Villeneuve’s past films like “Enemy” and “Prisoners” analyze as well, testing an audience limits in absorbing an amount of bleakness that we as filmgoers are unaccustomed to. 

The film follows it's title card with this heavy score, one that repeats itself throughout the film. Johan Johansson composes this sound of grimness, matching the film’s tone, as it draws us closer to the screen. From there, we are placed inside of a swat truck, one that is about to force its way into a house by ramming through its wall at full speed. F.B.I units and local swat teams swarm the house. Searching throughout the house for suspects, Kate (Emily Blunt) barges into a room where a man with a shotgun is waiting for her. He shoots, she ducks, she fires, and he falls. It’s a quick transition of events in which we see a woman who knows this is part of the job, but a piece that you want to avoid as much as possible. 

Why was he protecting this room though? There’s nothing in there, until her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), notices something that resides within the wall, behind the hole created by Kate’s (Emily Blunt) attacker. They pull back this thin sheet of drywall to discover bodies wrapped in plastic bags. Their butchered, bloody, bound like the packaging of meat, and there’s more than thirty of them throughout the walls of the house. It’s a rough and merciless sequence of events that set a tone that is dour and dark and filled with moral ambiguity. 

That tone doesn’t kick into high gear until Kate’s (Emily Blunt) record and ability to scratch the surface of these cases draws the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He’s an advisor of sorts, one that reeks of C.I.A and is mysterious in both his reasoning and his objectives. He likes what he hears from her, and brings her along a mission to find a drug trafficker in El Paso, but we learn that he’s actually in Juarez, Mexico. Introduced to an even more mysterious compadre named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate (Emily Blunt) finds herself apart of a group of men that shoot first and ask for permission later. 

The scene that exemplifies this takes place shortly after their arrival to Juarez in which their objective is to retrieve this high-level drug trafficker from local authorities and transport him across the border for questioning in exchange for residence in prison on American soil. On their way back to the border they run into a little mishap in which a broken down car blocks their escape route. Stuck in traffic, the tension builds as cars begin to pull past the convoy slowly. Each person becoming a possible attacker, a possible cartel member, a potential killer. The scene builds to a crescendo that Deakins produces with vigor as the camera resides in the car, pointing out at the cronies, circling like jackals. Joe Walker’s editing assists in assembling this masterpiece of tension that eventually climax’s with gunfire and bloodshed, bloodshed that horrifies Kate (Emily Blunt), and tells her that these guys are playing by different rules. 

It’s the best sequence in the movie because it introduces a multitude of storylines, as well as informs us of the tone being set. All of this occurs while a memorable shootout takes place, which is where the film begins to stumble. Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, and Johan Johansson bring an immersive level of production that Sheridan’s screenplay struggles to meet. 

The story itself is not flawed, per say, nor is it nonsensical. It all makes sense and has answers to our questions, but it is admittedly basic. It’s a story you’d expect in a mild to solid quality film that doesn’t match the technical mastery that we see with “Sicario.” It’s not the basicness that gives me that annoying itch that keeps me from dubbing this film as something great, it’s the lack of purpose to the story. 

What is the end game? What is the message? Why are we viewing these events? These are inquiries that Sheridan doesn’t provide solutions too. It’s a long, enveloped view on morality, but what are we supposed to take away from that examination. How does this affect our views on immigration, drug crime, and the politics surrounding the drug war itself? Sheridan never takes a stance; he refuses to do so. 

The frustrating aspect is that he lays down the breadcrumbs to follow that could lead to a big message like that of Kate (Emily Blunt) confronting her superiors and demanding a semblance of procedure, in which her higher up breaks down how far up the chain these orders stem from, as far as the Oval office. He then states: “if your fear is operating out of bounds, I am telling you, you are not. The boundary's been moved.”

From here you’d expect more focus on how far we are willing to move that boundary as a society, but we, instead, rely back on a story that turns into a revenge thriller that is brought to life by a remarkable team of filmmakers. Deakins, as I said, lenses the film with vigor and provides a shot that tells a better story than Sheridan can. It’s a wide shot with the sunset residing in the foreground and the silhouettes of these domestic soldiers walking down into the darkness that awaits them. It’s visual storytelling foretelling how these men are walking into a darkness where the light no longer meets, a final threshold for our protagonist to confront. 

Emily Blunt brings that protagonist to life, but she is more of an observer than a hero. We go where she goes, and she is the shield of morality that doesn’t conflict with the world she’s brought into but attempts to learn from it. Realizing that her by the book mentality barely allows her to scratch the surface of this world. She’s not shaking trees, forcing the fruit to fall out, she’s merely mowing the yard at the neighboring house. 

Kaluuya and Brolin are exceptional in their roles as well, delivering an amount of seriousness to the film that maintains the tone. Kaluuya depicts Kate’s (Emily Blunt) partner who is a former lawyer and believes in the law but knows that we can’t cut off the head of a snake if we’re given a spork. Brolin is that mysterious government agent who crosses every threshold possible with one goal in mind. He’s far more comfortable around men in uniform than those everyday people; he lives in a world that he’s been dragged into, fighting a war he believes in waging.  

Benicio Del Toro is the “Sicario” of the story; he’s the man who belongs to a Colombian cartel. He works for whoever he can to find his vengeance for the men that beheaded his wife and threw his daughter in a bin of acid. He’s the hitman for hire that keeps the government's hand clean by a technicality, allowing him to do all the dirty work for them to clean up later on. Kate (Emily Blunt) opposes him at one point in which he responds “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end, you will understand.”

In the end though, I don’t understand. Sheridan is making the complex problem of immigration feel even more complicated, not answering or providing an opinion. He, like most of us, is stunned by the callousness shown by these “gangs," though they seem more like terrorist organizations.  How can we combat such a problem? How do we begin to separate those innocent of the crime from the ones that are not? Our current president has chosen a path that most of us have revolted against, but we have to acknowledge the complexity of the problem, and the inherent dangers within it. I, unlike Sheridan, will attempt to take a stance, sadly, I don’t have artists like Villeneuve and Deakins to back me up. 
 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

   Director: J.A. Bayona  With: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Geraldine Chaplin, Kamil Lemieszewski, Justice Smith, & Peter Jason.  Release: Jun 22, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 8 min.

Director: J.A. Bayona
With: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Geraldine Chaplin, Kamil Lemieszewski, Justice Smith, & Peter Jason. 
Release: Jun 22, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 8 min.

 

Monster movies are apart of the many subgenres of blockbuster moviemaking that seems to have been aborted by Hollywood. They used to be the surprisingly thrillingly and seemingly unageable stop-motion creature features of the 1930’s, films like that of Cooper and Schoedsack’s “King Kong” and Harry O. Hoyt’s “The Lost World.” They were crafted in good nature of manifesting something different and unseen, just like what Spielberg and Scott did in the latter half of 20th-century filmmaking. The stories either served the purpose of smart representation through genre storytelling, or they were so original that the flaws found in their narrative were camouflaged by the spectacle of watching a dinosaur come to life. 

Now, in 2018, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the newest addition to the dying genre of monster movies that have been purged for the inherent commercial potential. Joining 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” in which the film circulates around the actions of ignorantly designed characters and subplots that are purposefully designed to carry us to the next movie. It’s financial prosperity driven story, which hasn’t worked in the 120 plus years of filmmaking’s history, and J.A. Bayona’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a prime example of this second-rate notion. 

The story, written by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow (director of the previous “Jurassic World), is absurdly designed. It’s a story that picks up a few months removed from the horrific events of “Jurassic World.” The company behind the park has been sued for damages and medical expenses, while someone with a butt load of money has sent a team of DNA retrieving pirates to grab some sample from the Indominus Rex. They discover the boned remains of that hybrid genetic monster, which makes no sense. Didn’t she get eaten by the Mosasaurus? Why would there be bones left? 

Nonetheless, they retrieve a bone from the dead monster, and things go wrongs, because of course they go wrong, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks the man attempting to close the bay doors that keeps the Mosasaurus locked in its giant pool. Running for his life, he fails to close those doors, releasing that giant monster into the open sea, and from there we pick up in a court hearing where Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is offering his sentiment on an animal rights issue that has been sparked from the events of the first film, as a dormant volcano has become active on the island, placing all of these de-extinct animals in danger of going extinct once again. Do they deserve to be saved? Should they be treated with the same rights as domestic animals?  

Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) sees it as nature correcting the course that we screwed up. Stating how we, as humans, never seem to be ever to use the discoveries we make in a way that doesn’t create war, starvation, or force nature to create a course correction for our mistakes. It’s the only part of the screenplay that attempts to introduce themes that speak to a larger crowd than the one in my theater, asking questions that we can’t answer. Do we deserve access to genetic engineering? What is our role as the superior species on this planet? Shouldn’t we make the earth better with the innovations we’ve made? 

That wittiness dissipates, and we’re reconnected with Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose apart of the animal protection campaign. She talks to senators and is attempting to help pass an act that is giving these dinosaurs sanctuary, but it all works to no avail. Congress sees these cataclysmic events as a natural course correction, as they should. MSNBC reports this with a fantastic with an amusing quote on the ticker that offers a jab at President Trump stating “President questions if dinosaurs ever existed.” 

An adept snippet that should’ve been more a part of the actual narrative, but we watch Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) being offered to take part in a private rescue mission to move these dinosaurs to a different island, a mission funded by the Lockwood estate, one of the co-founders of the first park. She accepts, of course, and we watch her get the band back together, reaching out to Owen (Chris Pratt) whose building his cabin in the woods. The two split apart between these two movies, and find themselves reconnecting on their mission back to the island. We also get two new members to the crew with the techy and annoyingly panicky guy in Franklin (Justice Smith) and a feisty dino-medic named Zia (Daniella Pineda). 

They join together with a small militia led by Ted Levine who depicts the stereotypical greed filled mercenary who inevitably turns on our heroes when the volcano erupts, and the heroes are left to fend for themselves. Running from CGI rendered dangers as they barely survive in very illogical ways such as Chris Pratt surviving volcanic ash without a scratch to be found. Banding together to save these dinosaurs from the money leaching hands of a wealthy family divided between making more money and correcting mistakes of the past, our heroes are faced with the same stupidity of Trevorrow’s film in which these dinosaurs are placed into an auction for black market buyers to use for military purposes. 

Our auctioneer played by the incomparable Toby Jones, states how we’ve been weaponizing animals for century’s, didn’t we stop doing that for a reason though? Like the invention of cars, helicopters, tanks, and other advancements that helped in making travel far more comfortable for us, but let's use dinosaurs to ride into battle once again. With the help of the enigmatic granddaughter of the old man depicted with a shockingly remarkable performance from Isabella Sermon, our heroes band together to stop these events as Owen (Chris Pratt) transforms into our Indiana Jones-like hero who swashbuckles his way through armed guards. 

Ted Levine returns after all this goes down asking for his bonus, he finds himself face to face with the new genetic hybrid created by these people. The Indoraptor which has been engineered to follow the commands of a specific noise, a noise that seemingly gets forgot when this monster inevitably gets out in a dumbly written sequence in which this mercenary is attempting to collect the tooth of this creature to help fashion his dino-tooth necklace. 

From there, J.A. Bayona attempts to flex his Ridley Scott-like muscles by transitioning this film from a rescue mission gone awry to an unimaginative and tensionless cat and mouse game between this genetically designed creature and our heroes. It’s an Alien homage that fails, not because of Bayona and his cinematographer’s, Oscar Faura, strong stylistic efforts to make this film look far prettier than it deserves to be. It doesn’t work because the story has moved devastated slowly and in all this time has been unable to manifest any resonance for these characters or any more significant themes that the story adds up to. The fun to be had stems from an entire visual point of view in which Bayona provides some awesome T-Rex killing moments and some exquisitely crafted portraits of a film that doesn't use that beautiful imagery to its benefit. 

The visual effects team and production team deserve just as much praise as Bayona and his cinematographer, but Trevorrow and Connolly drop the ball entirely. Carrying a film with a moment to moment mentality that adds up to a film acting more as the intermission between the first film and the forthcoming third film that is slated for 2021, a finale film that seems to be setting up the idea of how will we cohabitate with these creatures? How will Pratt and Blue reconnect? What will happen with the genetic codes that have been sold off to terrorist groups and militia groups? All of those questions will be answered in three years, the questions answered in this film are lacking. There’s a lack of energy, a lack of spunk, and a desire for something more charismatic, despite having a star like Chris Pratt and a plot surrounding dinosaurs. 

It’s a film that knows your not going to enjoy it and knows that you’ll pay to see it anyway. It feeds off the bones of those great monster features I named above and replicates them to make another buck. It's what I described it as in that of money driven story; it’s an intermission snooze fest that has a visually satisfying touch from a cinematographer and a director that exhumes as much entertainment from his stars as he can. 

There are emotional snippets to be found like that of Brachiosaurus roaring it's final breath as our heroes helplessly watch from afar, a scene that stands out far more than anything in the second half of the film. I think that’s a clue as to what makes these monster features so good; it’s not spectacle, it’s emotion. Take note of this Trevorrow.   
 

Incredibles 2 (2018)

   Director: Brad Bird  With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick.  Release: Jun 15, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Director: Brad Bird
With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick. 
Release: Jun 15, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

Pixar has always been about originality, minus the “Cars” franchise, but sequels have become a dime a dozen with 2016’s “Finding Dory” and the impending “Toy Story 4.” Now, fourteen years removed from the first film, Pixar has brought back the team of supers, but they don’t feel fourteen years older. We leave right where we left off with that same jazzy score and the sixties stylized heroes that speak with a societally focused message that is loud and received with ease. 

Written by Bird once again, it picks up where the first film left off, as I stated, with the underminer merging from the undergrounds of the city to launch an attack on the bank. These heroes jump into action though, not fearing the repercussions of breaking the law for enacting themselves into the scene. 

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) run in head first, leaving Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) to be watched by both Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell). The two kids fight over babysitter duty while the adults attempt to stop the crazed mole of a man. He inevitably gets away though, and the mining vehicle turns into a vehicular weapon designated on destruction. 

But our heroes save the day, only to be held at gunpoint as their escorted to the police station and warned to stay out of the light. Their governmental ally, Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), attempts to do what he can before he retires, but politicians don't understand those who desire to do good. They just needed an excuse to keep these heroes dead for good it seems. Given two weeks stay at a local motel, these heroes have a brash spurt of dialogue about subjects such as governmental treatment, fair laws, and the societal effects of legislation. 

It’s all done without a beat missed though, an exceptional feat to consider from a kids movies about superheroes. Not to mention the spellbinding attention to detail from the visual team of Pixar, from the wrinkles in Bob’s (Craig T. Nelson) robe to the use of shadows and lighting to the strands of hair to be found in Elastigirl’s (Holly Hunter) hair. Pixar is always top notch with its animation, and this is just another feather to add in their cap. 

The heroes find themselves at rock bottom with Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter) discussing who should take the brunt of the load this time around, seeing as Bob (Craig T. Nelson) worked at a miserable Insurance firm for twenty years. To their surprise, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) was approached by someone after the heroic events of the day, someone with a lot of money and an extreme passion for superheroes. 

Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) is that man; he comes from a background that formulates him like that of a renaissance man. Aimed at bringing back the bright and bold past of heroism, Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), are two kids who took their father’s business and personal ideals to manifest a fantastic opportunity for heroes to return to saving the day. He doesn’t choose the big and robust Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to lead the way though, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is their elected leader since her calamity costs seem to be the lowest. This comes to the surprise of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), attempting to cope with someone being chosen over him, and being happy for his wife at the same time. He’s internally conflicted in that way, but he decides to be brave and become the stay at home father while mom brings home the bacon. 

This is something that Brad Bird’s screenplay exemplifies with flying colors. He examines this constant fret of manhood under attack from women being the ones responsible for making money, something that has been examined before, but continuously seems to be abnormal for our society. It’s rare to see women in the front, especially when their husband casts a long shadow that they’ve been buried underneath continuously. Bird recognized that ideal in the first film, making Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) the calm and far more achievable hero of the pair, he carries that notion to new heights with the sequel. He takes her character to the point of legitimacy that examines that internal conflict that men seem to face, in which they seem to confuse the idea of leadership with an occupation. 

It takes Bob (Craig T. Nelson) a while before he makes this distinction, as well as the importance of it. He seemingly forgot how great it is to be a dad, and he faces far more extreme hardships than most fathers when he learns Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) has not one, but seventeen powers, and counting. He’s a character that seems to be more powerful than anyone and everyone as if he’s the Matt Malroy of the “Incredibles” universe. Luckily Edna Mole (Brad Bird) assists in fabricating something to make babysitting this omega level mutant-like child a bit smoother. 

This fatherhood challenge leads to some of the film’s most enchanting moments, like a conversation between Violett (Sarah Vowell) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) in which he apologizes for his actions involving the boy she’s crushing on and admits how he wants to be a good father. With the look of a man that feels as if he’s failed at that role, his daughter reminds him of the love she has for him. It’s a heartwarming moment that evoked the most emotion from myself and the audience around me during my screening this morning. 

The emotion isn’t the only benefit of the screenplay; there is also some fantastic action and superhero fun to be had. With a villain known as Screenslaver, who hacks into anyone’s screen and hypnotizes them with a white and black circulating loop. Forcing people to forget how to fly helicopters and taking over broadcasters to get across his message, it's all so predictable though. From the get-go, you can spot out the villain behind the mask; it’s almost worth spoiling for just how obvious it seems to be. 

The narrative doesn’t rely on that action-packed story as much as it does it's emotional investigation of fatherhood though, the visuality of it all doesn’t hurt either, maintaining that sixtyish, bond-like, and Kirby comic book style that the original film excelled with. Bird designs the film to look so bracingly out of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic book, as well as a Sean Connery style Bond film, but there's no womanizing to be had. The film treats all of its characters with a sheer amount of integrity and authenticity, not only with Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) but Violet (Sarah Vowell) and newcomers like Voyd (Sophia Bush) as well. 

Bird doesn’t treat the men wrongfully either; they stand in the spotlight just as much as the ladies. Working together to save the day, which is something that the “Incredibles” franchise continues to excel at. Displaying unity, bravery, and societal relevance at a cinematic rigorousness that deserves a trilogy or a tv show or whatever Pixar wants to do with it. 

I do have one recommendation though, keep Brad Bird at the helm of their story. He patiently waited to return to his toy box, a toy box he made famous 14 years ago. These are his toys though, allow him to choose who gets to play with them next. 

TAG (2018)

   Director: Jeff Tomsic  With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress. Release: Jun 15, 2018 R. 1 hr. 40 min.

Director: Jeff Tomsic
With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress.
Release: Jun 15, 2018
R. 1 hr. 40 min.

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Comedies are meant to be not only funny, but some of the best of these films have a heart to them. There like the little movies that could, they challenge these big boy films with witty humor and a little emotion to create that sense of resonance. Jeff Tomsic’s “Tag” exemplifies this notion, almost perfectly. The film follows a simple narrative, a group of adult men, who have been friends since childhood, gather around during May to play a game of “Tag.” It’s silly, but its core message isn’t something that is worth laughing at. 

Walking the line between embracing your childhood and moving on from it, “Tag” has a message that we all feel, but don’t get to wrap our head around completely. It gets lost in the transitions of this twisting narrative that takes competitivity to an outrageous extreme, especially when it comes to the one who remains tagless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner). He’s a guy who grew up to become someone of exceptional talent when it comes to this game, almost making it seem that he should have been involved with the military or something. Nonetheless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is one of the best parts of the film, both filmatically and narratively. 

His sequences of action in which the group attempts to conquer the impossible are narrated by himself. Providing a Sherlock Holmes-like design in which he predicts every moment for the audience. Breaking down his friend's movements and the psychological weaknesses that he exploits to his benefits. Narratively speaking, the character provides an amount of heart to the film for what he stands for as if he’s the last stitch of childhood. 

One that has played the game so well, and so competitively, that he finds himself symbolizing the one who has been absent the most from these men’s lives. Helms’ character discusses this when he talks about how the game is a way for them to stay apart of each other’s lives. Keeping them together, except for the man who seems to be untaggable. 

It becomes a game worth watching though, with some extreme sequences that lack believability entirely, which is where some film viewers will draw the line. I couldn't help but find this over the top essence of it all so humorously delighting though, it becomes both action-packed, while continuously being funny. Not only with discovering just how good Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is at this game but the little banter that seems filled with hopelessness and reliant optimism from his friends. Each of them has their successes in life, like Bob (Jon Hamm) whose CEO of a fortune 500 company.

At the beginning of the film, he’s being interviewed by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. In the midst of this conversation about the integrity of his company, Hoagie (Ed Helms), whose disguised himself as a janitor by getting hired by the Bob’s (Jon Hamm) company, interrupts their discussion by obnoxiously cleaning the office. Loudly banging trash cans and erupting with noise, till finally Bob (Jon Hamm) politely asks him to leave, only to learn that his friend is “it.” The game begins from there on, and our journalist acts as our expositional vacuum in which we are fed the backstory through her. The secrets, the stories behind specific character interactions, and the constant feed of information from the shared childhoods of these men. 

It’s a wild story that is based on one from reality, broken down in an article by the Wall Street Journal in 2013. The exposition is on the nose, and the film takes it sequences to an illogical extreme, but that's what comedy is right? It’s making something relatively mundane feel extreme in a way that is clever and authentic, which is where “Tag” strides. The authenticity of a group of lifelong friends interacting with one another in a way that is believable. The performances assist in this no doubt, but Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s screenplay manifests that naturalistic dialogue. It's not on par with something of a James Ivory, but it has a sense of earnestly that reminds me of his style. 

I wish I could discuss the style of the director, but comedies seem to be lacking in that department continuously. Few continuously stand out with their visual treatments or cinematic language, but every genre has inherent burdens to bear, I guess comedies is dull cinematography. If it wasn’t for the brash screenplay and unapologetic ridiculousness of it all, “Tag” may not have been at the receiving end of high praise from myself, but it all works. It’s funny, bold, and unexpectedly brilliant at times, it's a good comedy movie, something that seems to be in short supply these days.