The MEG (2018)

   Director: Jon Turteltaub  With: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia, & Masi Oka.    Release: Aug 10, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 53 min. 

Director: Jon Turteltaub
With: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia, & Masi Oka.   
Release: Aug 10, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 53 min. 

 

In the dog days of August, we all need to go see a movie like Jon Turteltaub’s (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” & “National Treasure”) “The MEG," a movie that exemplifies the sheer blissfulness of a Hollywood movie, the conflict of man and nature in an extravagant spectacle of a movie. To no one’s surprise, the newest adaptation of Steve Allen’s bestselling novel comes nowhere near the 1975 Spielbergian classic “JAWS,” one of the few truly perfect works of American cinema. Despite making that separation, “The MEG” is what you want out of a movie of it's kind. To confine my sentiments, it's a well-tuned see through thriller at it's best, a film in which action star Jason Statham battles a prehistorically resurrected monster Shark known as the Megalodon.  

The science behind the existence of that beast is nonsensical, but the sight of the shark itself is spectacular. The magnitude of this kind of animal, lurking in our unnatural habitat, giving it a natural edge over us as a predator, is striking. How does Statham develop his rivalry with this creature though? Well, his first interaction with the revived dinosaurs cost the lives of three of his friends as well as many others. He’s a rescue diver, one of three whose attempted a dive of more than 1000m or something like that. He’s a formidable hero, for reasons, most of them being his bravery, not saying much considering few of the characters surrounding him are not nearly as courageous. 

One of the best parts of all of this is the name of our hero, “Jona,” short for “Jonas,” and yes the tale of “Jona” does play a factor at some point and time. Nonetheless, his tales of an enormous predator intruding on his last mission, are dismissed as pressure-induced psychosis. He leaves the scene of deep rescue diving, resorting to the land of Thailand, spending his time as a damaged hero whose never-ending bender is used to wash away his failures. He’s a broken man, one we’ve seen before, who inevitably finds himself back in the saddle when a research facility which just so happens to employ his ex-wife, the doctor that got him fired, and former teammates suddenly require his assistance. 

Coincidental plot points aside, the monster was rediscovered when this $1.3 billion facility spends its opening day exploring the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The theory? A rift of musky cold air has hidden an undiscovered world beneath, one that inhabits new life, new species, and beasts that were thought to be extinct. They soon discover that this new world has locked away a feat of predatory evolution, one that immediately endangers the lives of the divers, who are later saved by our resurrected hero. During this suicidal mission, they accidentally provide a “mega-shark highway,” as Rainn Wilson put it, one that allowed this unevolved beast to slip through into the open sea. A creature that evolution has passed by, and one that mother nature locked away for a reason.

Jonas (Jason Statham) knows that and immediately has the right idea of killing this beast, an opinion not shared by the scientists or the investor. It’s an opportunity for both of them, and “The MEG” takes off from there as the drama kicks in and the forced romance occurs, and the predictable thrills and shrills unfold onto the silver screen, and it’s all so much fun. 

It’s not often to hear a critic utter the words “fun,” but here I am. The film is what it's trying to be, recognizing the fandom for the absurdity of “Sharknado” and the box office thirst for the horror of “JAWS,” Dean Georgaris and co-screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber provide a formulaic blend of those styles, one that is insanely thrilling. It has a lot of redundancy and goofiness and cliches sprinkled throughout its runtime, but it all amounts to something that knows what it is and what audience it's aiming to be accepted by.

The direction is sensically and arguably skillful, Jon Turteltaub finds himself as the perfect choice to helm the directorial reigns of a movie such as this one, relying on the lessons he learned from the “National Treasure” trilogy. Taking something that began so preposterously serious and grew to become sillier than intended, recognizing the bizarreness of the events on screen. Same thing goes with “The MEG,” Turteltaub goes in with the right state of mind, recognizing that the film lacks the potential to surpass something like “JAWS,” not that another film like this ever will, and knows that it won’t be taken seriously if he makes it as tongue and cheek as films like “Sand Sharks.” He’s in the right frame of thinking, knowing when to showcase his abilities as a filmmaker by providing genuinely thrilling shark sequences while reining the film in with the silliness of a Hollywood movie. 

The screenwriting has all the tropes and the expectational twists and turns and direct references to "JAWS," but it has a style and sense of wit to it, even giving its characters some believable choices at times. Going as far as to use the audience’s assumptions to manifest a surprise or two, "The MEG" emplores every resource it has, allowing former diver turned movie star, Jason Statham, to depict a character that smiles every once in a while, becoming the essential anchor of this movie. He’s the one that makes this movie work, along with an ensemble that does nothing but provide that extra oomph the movie needs, like that of Ruby Rose and Bingbing Li providing some energetic moments, as well as Rainn Wilson and Page Kennedy who dash a few sprinkles of charisma on top of this donut of a movie. 

An adequate analogy of what this movie is, a donut, something delicious and worth trying, but not necessarily good for you. The same goes for "The MEG," it’s not necessarily a good film, but it's honest. Everyone is on the same page; no one has false expectations, no one is aiming for a comparison, it all makes sense. It’s a movie that knows what it is and who it's for, only missing scenes like Statham punching a Megalodon. That would have made this movie the "Citizen Kane" of the modern-era.
 

Slender Man (2018)

   Director: Sylvain White  With: Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, Taylor Richardson, Annalise Basso, Javier Botet, Alex Fitzalan, & Kevin Chapman.  Release: Aug 10, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

Director: Sylvain White
With: Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, Taylor Richardson, Annalise Basso, Javier Botet, Alex Fitzalan, & Kevin Chapman. 
Release: Aug 10, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

 

The “Slender Man” was a mythological monster born out of the wedlock between ghost stories and the internet, told by Creepypasta, the modern-day equivalent to telling ghost stories around a campfire. Created by Eric Knudsen (also known as “Victor Surge”), the well-dressed figure grew a following, doctoring older photos to seemingly include him as an old folktale, spreading his name onto digital platforms such as Reddit, and even going as far as to make a video game. The story surrounding this urban legend monster that scares away social media obsession becomes horrific when it’s legend is given authenticity with that of the two twelve-year-old girls who murdered their friend in the woods, in the name of “Slender Man.” 

The well-serviced and well-executed documentary “Beware the Slenderman” from skilled documentarian filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky, tackles that story and examines the real-life terror of folktales possessing our youth to the point of atrocity. Exploring the vast and terrifying potential of the digital media age, bringing urban legends to life, influencing children into a position of committing murder. 

This background pays no dividends in creating a masterful horror film. It actually should be slightly offensive to see a movie depict a make-believe monster in a legitimate fashion four years removed from the tragedy in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It’s a bit shocking to see that a film such as this one has not been dismantled and protested against by twitter activists, but “Slender Man” found its way into theaters, and it's one of the year’s worst. 

This narrative involves teenagers, of course, revitalizing that old cliche of teenagers doing dumb shit, getting in over their heads, discovering the horrific reality of the world they’ve been shielded by, all of those cliches are there once again because who wants originality anymore, right?  Nevertheless, the cast is made up by an ensemble of well-known and unknown teenage actresses, ranging from the inept Jody King to the brilliant Annalise Basso. Each of them finds themselves in the midst of an inescapable event in which they summoned the infamous child-terror known as “Slender Man,” a tall, creeky, and multi-appendaged figure whose face is empty of emotion. Like that of a mannequin, he shares no sentiment, no expression, a mere white canvas resides on the top of his body as he possesses and torments these teenagers, driving them into madness.  

Is this “Nightmare on Elm Street” recreated? Yes. The film knows that too, even borrowing more from the horror genre’s prominent past, like that of referencing “The Exorcist” by re-creating the bed-ridden imagery of the younger sister, Lizzie (Taylor Richardson), whose hair stylization is reminiscent of a young Linda Blair. You can also find familiar imagery that echoes films such as “Blair Witch” and “The Ring,” but never becomes as hilariously horrendous as other horror films from earlier this year. (Cough… “Truth or Dare”... Cough)

“Slender Man” becomes another wasteful outing from Sony studios, who seemingly continues to misfire on all cylinders, not making “Venom” sound any more exciting. The visualizing of this legend turned real-life nightmare is where this film loses a lot of its merit, cinematographer Luca Del Puppo provides one of the worst framings of his career. Shooting these events with the mindset of a student short film, one that spent all of its money on the VFX of the creature, forgetting about the necessity of lighting, editing equipment, and seemingly constructed a purposefully designed framing that seems as if it had a veil pulled over the lens. It’s murky, overly shadowed, dark, and forgets that the absence of light makes it hard for us to see the characters. 

Then again, the characters might as well as be invisible. The attempts to create resonance for them from screenwriter David Birke (“Elle”) is abysmal. We learn that they like boys, watch pov porn at night, and enjoy texting one another. It would be easy to say that this film needed a woman’s touch, but I can imagine that few female filmmakers would stake their careers on a movie such as this one. 

The females to be found on-screen aren’t any better either, each of them has their fair share of moments, even beginning the film with an array of hope that seemingly gives off the idea that the modern folk-tale turned movie may have more to offer than a well-known name. These actresses deserve better too, they're left with characters devoid of personality, like that of the empty cipher stalking them. Their shared quality as actresses seemingly dissipates over time though, becoming more and more like your stereotypical scary story for teenagers, and it feels like it resonated with them too. The wave of teenagers that packed themselves into the back rows of my theater squirmed and jolted in their seats, seemingly enjoying their experience. 

I wish I could say the same. My near-developed brain would not allow me to mindlessly stare at the visualization of the slandering and faceless creature. Those unfamiliar with this faceless figure will find themselves asking “what’s all the fuss about?” I could say its the forewarnings of digital media's significance in our culture, examining how the ongoing fear-mongering of false tales gaining prevalence over the broad reach of the interwebs seems to be an unstoppable phenomenon. If “Slender Man” was meant to forewarn us of those dangers, they did a piss poor job.  

Blindspotting (2018)

   Director: Carlos López Estrada  With: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, & Utkarsh Ambudkar.  Release: July 27, 2018 R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

Director: Carlos López Estrada
With: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, & Utkarsh Ambudkar. 
Release: July 27, 2018
R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

 

Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting” is the fourth film in the quadrilogy of black empowering filmmaking. The non-Hollywood, Hollywood promoted, year of filmmaking continues as “Blindspotting” joins the likes of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You,” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” With more to come down the pipe, 2018 seems to be a tangible figment of change occurring in real-time, using Oakland, California as the reoccurring outset for these cinematically jarring stories that feel unequivocally representative of someone who’s never worked a day in Hollywood. 

Daring to breach the unwritten contract between the screen and it's viewing audience, providing comprehensive investigations of the inherent differences between a white man’s daily life and that of someone of color. Disregarding the preconceived notions on how a film should treat it's brown and black characters, rather providing another emotionally scarring and psyche challenging story that not only reflects ourselves but, in the case of “Blindspotting,” surreally dissects the differences between white and black. 

It’s a horror film at its core, and it's a drama on the other hand. Dependent on which side of the colored picket fence you reside in will decide that emotional response. It’s a heavy hitting story, one that grasps for fantasy, while remaining persistently tethered to reality. It’s a scathing trip of a movie, like that of “Sorry To Bother You,” even borrowing certain aspects of that film in that of the engineered craftsmanship in which screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) allow the slang and rhymes of freestyling to express their climaxes of emotion. 

It’s uncommon to see the two stars of the film be the leading voices for the film’s identity on the screen and behind it, constructing a narrative that focuses on the relationship between Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). Two best friends since childhood who work at a moving company together, finding themselves in the midst of an ever-changing Oakland. The Raiders are moving to Vegas, the Warriors are on-top, and police officers have become the town bully. With recruiting posters on each block and every street shop, it seems that everyone is signing up to join the winning team, a team that becomes a nightmare for our convicted felon star, Collin (Daveed Diggs). 

He’s driving home one night, returning to his probation stay in which the curfew is 11 pm, running late from a night out with Miles (Rafael Casal), he comes across a long red light on a lonely street. Staring at the red shine of the streetlamp, waiting for the switch to green. When it does, he steps on the gas in a hurry to meet his curfew. He’s only got three days left, so it’s crunch time for our main character, but as he begins to go on his merry way, a scared and running black figure slams into his truck, keeping him from proceeding. 

Suddenly a cop appears behind him, as the chase ensues, the officer stops, draws his gun, and shoots the fleeing “criminal” in the back. The "armed suspect" resisted arrest is the story, one sole witness can say otherwise, but he never does. Even poking fun at it, telling his lifelong friend the next day “What am I gonna do, call them up, yes I’d like to report a murder, the one you did last night. Yes, I am a convicted felon, back to jail tomorrow? Sounds good to me, see you then.” 

It’s the name of the game for someone like Collin (Daveed Diggs), but perhaps life wouldn’t be as difficult as it seems without the thorn in his side known as MIles (Rafael Casal). He’s the kind of friend who causes you more trouble than you can handle, buying a gun, illegally, at the beginning of the film. He’s somewhat responsible for Collin (Daveed Diggs) going to jail in the first place, and he’s a constant leach on the back of Collin (Daveed Diggs). Despite all the right things Collin (Daveed Diggs) does, he is never given that inherent benefit of the doubt that his screw-up of a friend, Miles, (Rafael Casal) is afforded. 

It’s the ultimate color of comparison, one that exemplifies the title card of the film. Showcasing how we automatically associate criminality by color or potential for violence by history. Assuming before acting, despite when someone like Miles (Rafael Casal) exemplifies the tough guy mentality of someone whose masculinity and over compensation for his street cred consistently push him towards decisions that ultimately end with violence. 

Collin (Daveed Diggs) becomes more of a father-figure for Miles (Rafael Casal), striving to teach him the proper perspective for life, consistently arguing that he’s living a healthy life now. He’s got an ex-girlfriend whose all about that journey of mentoring health, finding ways to discover your better self, unlike that of Miles (Rafael Casal) who continually retreats, repeating mistakes. Yet, Collin (Daveed Diggs) is the one who finds himself latched onto the hook. The one held responsible for someone else's actions, the one whose complained on by customers, just trying not to be another “black guy with dreads.” 

It’s a palpable glimpse of the fundamentally different paths that we walk as white people and black people, the scapegoats that we as someone colored lighter are afforded. It’s an example of that “Blindspotting” we have as a culture and as an American society, to associate an ambiguous result to the images we see, despite there being a far more obvious answer in the realm of explanation. 

An empowering and emotionally tormenting, thematically riveting, message that is spouted off to us through dialogue at one point, the one blemish to be found on this absurdly realistic gem of a film. Despite catching onto the scent that Diggs, Casal, and Estrada are leaving behind, we are forced to sit down and be told what the story is, despite us already knowing where this is going. Forgetting to trust that we can read between the lines of the story, “Blindspottting” loses itself in those few scenes, but picks up with that of it's freestyling ambitions. 

Daveed Diggs takes center stage in those moments, unleashing verbal warfare that is encased with thematic richness as his words carry emotion with operatic precision. The climax itself involves an enraged, poetically written, soliloquy that could only be delivered by someone with verbal talents of Daveed Diggs. His real-life friend, Rafael Casal finds himself with a handful of exceptional freestyling as well, but it's his moments of emotional expression where he stands out. When he’s allowed to deliver these powerful paragraphs of dialogue with intensity and misplaced rage, forgetting the commonality he shares with the people he dissociates himself from, being asked to call his “black” friend the n-word at one point, thinking that he has earned the same unexpressed rights to become enraged by someone’s wrongful associations. 

He’s a character that seems to confuse his struggles as the same of his friends, though he has more merit than most, there is an underlying difference between the two. Carlos López Estrada and veteran cinematographer Robby Baumgartner assist in exemplifying that difference with these sleeking and rhythmically designed visuals. The cuts and edits fire on all cylinders, transitioning between perspectives with a sense of socially intended dynamics. Like that of transferring us from a "behind the back" shot of Collin (Daveed Diggs) to a "behind the back" shot of Miles’ (Rafael Calas) son sprinting throughout his home, a reminder of how being black in America seems to be a constant state of running away from something. 

From racism, from underlying discrimination, from the police, from politics, from America; it’s a life spent on the brink of fear. How can we comprehend that? How can we construe the idea of a life that is so vastly different from our own? I am not sure there is an answer, it takes time for our brain to change the way we see these things, as Val (Janina Gavankar) explains. How much more time though? How many more police shootings? “Blindspotting” is an attempt at giving us another peek behind the psychology of living life under fret, providing low comedy with extreme drama. It’s another chapter in this renaissance of 2018, another one that is worth seeing. This is what happens when new voices begin to tell stories. 
 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

   Director: Spike Lee  With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Aug 10, 2018 R. 2 hr. 14 min.

Director: Spike Lee
With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Aug 10, 2018
R. 2 hr. 14 min.

 

“BlacKkKlansman” is like the sober recollection of a drunk America, conducting a juxtaposition of our contemporary and historical interactions with racism. Presenting itself as a dichotomy, vilifying racism as an absurdly, laughable, and hysterically ignorant formulation of a thought process.  While simultaneously, employing the inherent savagery that stems from the roots of what we would like to believe was yesteryear of American hypocrisy. Director Spike Lee and his co-screenwriters Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel adapt a tale of duplicity, one that invokes an authentic depiction of social justice for our fellow black man that was first uncovered in Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. 

Stallworth, depicted by John David Washington, was a Colorado Springs Police Officer, one of the town’s first. Being asked to become apart of the force in a mannerism that didn’t precisely construe the idea that everyone was on board, and they weren’t. Asked if he would be able to deal with such obscene torment from both fellow officers and residents, Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to find it within himself to see the forest through the trees. To view the sun peaking through the rain heavy clouds that hanged overhead, able to see the potential of a black cop investigating into white man shenanigans. 

That’s exactly what happened too, after a constant barrage of department change-ups, Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself in the role of an undercover detective. His first investigation was to infiltrate a black panther rally and depict if any potential acts of violence may be caused by what was then called a “terrorist organization.” 

After a long night, meeting a fiery, independent black woman in Laura Harrer (Patrice Dumas), Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself looking for a reason to continue this job, like that of an investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He goes as far as to attain an over-the-phone relationship with David Duke (Topher Grace), who was able to spell out his fair share of idiocracies. A lengthy, in-depth investigation that invoked a two-partner system in which Stallworth (John David Washington) would be the undercover agent on the phone, while his white partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), would represent the combined duo in person, eventually helping to expose and nullify an attack on black activists. 

It’s the kind of story that seems like something out of a Chappelle show, but it was real. Conjuring the attention of producer Jordan Peele who then passed the story onto fellow filmmaker Spike Lee who then recruited a team of mild-mannered individuals to put together one of 2018’s most outrageously fantastic films. It’s not Lee’s first dance with the term greatness either. This is more of a return to form than it is a debut performance, unlike that of John David Washington who, in his first feature film leading role, steals the show. 

He’s both charming and charismatically invigorating, becoming an enthusiastically refreshing entree into the conversation for best performance by a male actor. He’s the heart of this film, but Lee is the brains behind the operation. Providing an attentive and meticulous level of craftsmanship that reminds us that he’s not only one of the best working today, but hasn’t been allowed to stretch these muscles in quite some time. The blatant outcry towards absurdity is as prevalent as ever as he provides more than a few middle fingers to D.W. Griffith's alleged “masterpiece,” “Birth of a Nation,” a film that revived the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th century, sparking a new fire that remains unextinguished. 

The film maintains that fiery assertion for honesty, as Lee tears down the naiveness of an America that allowed someone with inherent similarities to David Duke to land themselves in the Oval Office. He doesn’t let up from there either, opening the film with an impassioned and horrifically disgusting monologue from Dr. Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). Who espouses racist vitriol in a way that, while horrendous, is hilarious as his tics and tantrums slip up through his desired perfection as if the white supremacy he believes is faltering underneath the spotlight as the red, white, and blue lights glow upon his face. 

At one point the projector displaying itself upon him manifests an image of a klan’s hood, a quick preview of the brilliance that would follow from Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin.  As they then introduced the dashingly handsome John David Washington, gingerly enwrapping him with a delicate touch of adoration, as he arrives in front of the banner for hire at the Colorado Springs Police Department. The haven and origination of our plot, in which the first phone call with the local chapter president, Walter (Ryan Eggold), took place. Stallworth (John David Washington) spouts off how anyone without white-pure-American blood gets under his skin, a laugh out loud sort of scenario as the surrounding officer slowly turn towards this insane situation.

Turns out though, Stallworth (John David Washington) mistakingly used his real name, leading to the involvement of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who happens to be Jewish, becoming a character of fascination for myself. He’s a representation of an underlier of truth that always seems to go unseen in depictions of this terrorist group, how they are not only targeting black communities, but Jewish ideologies, homosexuality, atheism, or any other kind of belief that stands to oppose theirs. A long forgotten dose of truth that a genius like Lee can unearth to remind us that we can’t pretend that we don’t all have skin in this game. 

We have the luxury of being able to dodge the hatred flung towards us, ready to hide away our internal conflicts and pass along as a white American. He not only excavates that unspoken truth of America, but Lee unveils the internal strife that black Americans face in what it means to be black in America, a state of mind that screenwriter and geekdom correspondent Marc Bernardin described as a “constant state of rage.” 

He’s not wrong either, when you find yourself on that ever so prominent cutting board of American coercion, like being a bi-sexual man, for example, you begin to feel a slight whiff of that internal strife that the black community has been systematically confronting for centuries. It’s the kind of subtextual message that will go over your head if you let it, and that’s kind of what Lee is achieving with “BlacKkKlansman,” a parody of reminiscence. Jokingly and passionately criticizing our integrated view as Americans to see these real-life events as acts of the past, as if we’re some college kid looking back on our high school selves saying “wow, I used to be dumb.” 

Lee doesn’t allow us to pull that ever-so-familiar trick out of the bag, wrapping the final moments of the film with a narrative and authentic echo of American hypocrisy. Ending the film’s story with a representation of how small victories are immediately met with heavy defeats, like a real-world enactment that occurred after the grand achievement of Barack Obama, being followed by the horrific rise of white supremacy that crescendoed into an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. Reminding us of Heather Heyer, whose life was lost on that tragic day, tributing her with a frozen silhouette of her tribute memorial in Charlottesville, writing “Rest in Power” underneath her life's timestamp. 

We are not-so-far removed from our history, and we are already repeating it. The question is, did we ever stop? It’s an inquiry suggested by Lee I believe, with the current political climate and sociological tensions between races, did we ever conquer what we thought to be an act of old dumb white men? It's these kinds of challenges that Lee provokes from the audience that forces you to judge your mindset and outlooks, internally. It's what makes “BlacKkKlansman” one of the best of the year. A satirically, crude, sombering, hilarious, triumphic tragedy of a film that is one of Lee’s best in years. He’s a master of the craft, and if you didn’t know that already, you will now. This is a Spike Lee Joint. 
 

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

   Director: Tim Wardle  With: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, & Lawrence Wright. Release: Jun 29, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 36 min. 

Director: Tim Wardle
With: Bobby Shafran, David Kellman, & Lawrence Wright.
Release: Jun 29, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 36 min. 

 

Tim Wardle's “Three Identical Strangers” is the kind of story that writers, or anyone fond of that art, would love to be responsible for creating. It’s an infusion of various genre’s and styles, transferring from your basic suspenseful drama to a thrilling mystery to a sweeping and hefty dramatic reveal that soon builds to a crescendo of ambiguity. It contains intrigue, originality, excitement, thematic integrity, profound messages, unanswerable scientific inquiries, and it's all real. 

Just like Eddie’s college dorm room friend, who spilled the bean to his long-lost twin brother Bobby, stated: “this is a story you won’t believe.” Seemingly designed for something of a cinematically empowering drama that searches for the truth and opens with a title card that reads “based on a true story.”  

This happened though, well before my time too. I was lucky enough to have it that way though, allowing this experience to be the first encounter with this once in a lifetime kind of story. It’s just that too, “Three Identical Strangers” convening to discover a forbidden truth, one that has encompassed the outlining of their lives. Meeting and acquainting with each other as if they grew up with one another, ending their first night together by wrestling on the floor with their now shared lovable man of a father, nicknamed “Bubbalah.” They each grew up with a different father though, each of which adopted these children from the same adoption agency, Louise Wise, one of the largest on the entire east coast. 

It begins in a way that overlooks all of the mystery for the first 30-45 minutes, reveling in the sheer majesty of three prodigal sons reuniting with another, each stemming from different backgrounds. David derived from a blue-collar family, one filled with immigrants and provided him with the same inherent workhorse mentality, and Eddy arrives from a middle-class parentage, one that believed in a stricter, military style of teaching. The third twin, Bobby, emanates from a wealthier household, a far more well-off estate of life that was able to provide him with a better knowledge of how the world works with better schooling, better opportunities, and exposure to the potential that life beholds, financially speaking. 

When they discover that someone may have orchestrated this entire event, from the differing wealth classes to the coincidental adopted sisters, everything may have been constructed in a way that services science over all things. Providing a study that is meant to answer one of science's most prominent inquiries in that of which is more significant in child growth: nurture or nature? 

A puzzle that could never be authentically answered without crossing ethical boundaries, which inevitably led to the study remaining unpublished, I suppose. We don’t actually know. The study was buried behind closed doors by its long-forgotten orchestrator Viola Bernard, locked in am an unbreachable cage at Yale University, locked and keyed until the year 2066. However, there is one exception in that of a subclause that allows access to the documents if granted by the board of Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, and I should stop there because this is a story that is best when discovered. 

It plays like that of a great mystery-drama one that has its fair share of tragedy, which is why the on-going montage of these three long-lost brothers plays for a few scenes too long. Rejoicing in the extraordinary events that occurred that lined-up to a heartwarming, and triumphic moment in the story. These guys knew each other and expressed the similarities on national broadcasts, allowing them to become overnight celebrities, trending throughout the East Coast. It’s a marvelous thing to happen, but it goes on and on and on, leading me to question at one point: “Isn’t there a mystery to this whole thing?”

It basks in this incredible story too long, getting sunburned by the harsh spotlight placed on this one tone of the story, needing to get jump-started by the mystery, so that the darker turn of the tale reignites your interest. Evoking a continually twirling journey of emotional manipulation, as we see the makings of a family tragedy that could have partially been blamed by the puppet masters behind the scenes of this story, someone who the film treats as the villains of this tale. 

Providing grumbly rhythms of the score to underline the interviews with these so-called “scientists,” but they are scientists in search of a discovery that would change human evolution as we know it. The two members we interview we're merely researching assistants as well, affecting a handful of lives that arguably may have led to one of our greatest revelations in sociological and psychological history. An answer that may suggest that our genes play a much larger factor that we anticipate, at least that was my opinion until the tragedy of Eddy takes hold, making you ask if this study is worth those risks? If you're morally conscious, then it's a passionate “no.”

It’s a line not worth crossing, toying with someone else’s life, but the villains here are not the research assistants. There is no need for villains in this story, in fact. The story is enticingly enchanting on its own. It’s something of fantasy turned reality kind of a story, inevitably proving that truth is stranger than fiction, and with the help of David and Bobby and filmmaker Tim Wardle, this true story becomes one of 2018’s best. It indulges itself for far too long, but inevitably provides a story worth investigating, one that summarizes itself with a hopeful finale that states how free-will manufactures our destiny. 

Spreading this message of how life is not some randomization of events, instead of a game of choice that has no overlooking design to its structure. It’s despairing, investing, and beautiful. Much like that of “Three Identical Strangers,” life is sensationally riveting, but we all choose to indulge the best of moments, fearing to learn from the tragedies that we all experience. A profound lesson that comes from a story that will leave you researching for hours on end, trying to discover the truth behind it all, or maybe that’s just me. 
 

JAWS 3 (1983)

   Director: Joe Alves  With: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, & P.H. Moriarty.  Release: July 22, 1983 PG. 1 hr. 39 min. 

Director: Joe Alves
With: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, & P.H. Moriarty. 
Release: July 22, 1983
PG. 1 hr. 39 min. 

 

Joe Alves’ “JAWS 3-D” is what you might call a “gimmick film,” a film that struggles to be anything more than a good idea. With a pivotal technical mark on film, reviving the distant interest of 3D filmmaking, “JAWS 3-D” was capable of being something more than a clever idea for a monster shark movie while using an underused style of filmmaking, but it never turned out to be anything more than a dumpster fire of a film. 

The film never takes off, merely stumbling about its overblown runtime, and right from the start, the 3D aspects feel unnecessary and insanely outdated. The black lines outlining the images, the horrendous frozen images that remain expressionless, the shimmering coloring of the unintended 3D frames, and the construction of a 35 foot monster of a shark that is never anything more than a puppet. The shark in Spielberg’s classic was something of a character builder or a producer of tension. The sequel, which provided a bit more of a reliance on the shark, never spotlighted the flaws in its construction. 

Unlike those films, “JAWS 3-D” highlights the cheap manufacturing of a shark that is ridiculously depicted with horrific uses of so-called tension. It’s all a shrouded depiction of what once was a great franchise, as one of the first examples of a studio that lost focus of one of the most pivotal achievements in filmmaking history, building themselves to seem like a group of greedy, leechers, picking off the bones and the fragments of the film that invented the blockbuster genre of modern cinema. 

The story attempts to have a sense of a familiarity with that of it's protagonist being the son of Chief Brody, Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid), who now works at Seaworld, along with his longtime girlfriend, Dr. Kathryn Morgan (Bess Armstrong), who is the lead trainer and biologist of Seaworld. What a great idea to have a deadly shark get loose in something like a waterpark, placing dolphins, killer whales, and, of course, people in danger? I would agree, it's a genuinely thrilling pitch to give Universal Studios, I definitely couldn’t turn it down, but I wish they did. 

It’s a film that shouldn’t have never reached the silver screen, as the plot even brings in the younger brother in Sean Brody (John Putch), the cowboy brother, who has been scared of the water since a child, well that was until an attractive girl talked him to facing his “phobia.” How a phobia was able to be broken so easily, I am not sure. It's one of the many ignorant features to be found in this so-called “screenplay,” despite lacking any sense of belief, or suspense that manifests any remnants of a thrilling time. 

Watching this movie at home today, I was able to laugh out loud at the cringiest of moments, making me feel empathy for the poor souls who were sold this bill of goods in 1983, leaving the theater with a sense of regret and betrayal from a studio that seemingly cooked up a disaster of a film.  

Amongst this array of stupidity you may also discover horrendous audio dubbing, despite the character mouths remaining still, and there is a handful of filmatic travesties to add on top of the misused gimmick, like that of the unintentionally amusing moments that are created because of the sheer lack of focus given to both the characters and the legitimacy of a terrifying great white. 

It all becomes so ridiculous, and luckily it can develop a guilty-pleasure kind of vibe that can become seamlessly entertaining to watch. The audio dubbing, the gimmicky absurdity, the atrocious acting (including Dennis Quaid’s hilarious fake gagging), and the sheer insanity of a story that relies on the dumbest of coincidences to make any sense. 

It’s a sham of a movie, one that relies on someone else’s greatness. Luckily I don’t have to write a lengthy review entailing the ins and outs of a film that at its best is a good drinking game. I can just cut it short, and sum this atrocity of a movie up as nothing more than a cinematic failure. Don't mistake this movie as a misfire, that usually implies it had something worth watching at one point. 
 

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

   Director: Susanna Fogel  With: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtin, & Paul Reiser.  Release: Aug 3, 2018 R. 1 hr. 57 min. 

Director: Susanna Fogel
With: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtin, & Paul Reiser. 
Release: Aug 3, 2018
R. 1 hr. 57 min. 

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The pairing of Mila Kunis and Kate Mckinnon sounds like a slam dunk pairing, add in some relatively decent action pieces and an R rating, and you may have a box office juggernaut on your hand. The hands of Susanna Fogel (“Chasing Life”) and co-writer David Iserson let that potential slip through their hands with an overblown, overly compensated, and overdramatic narrative that seemingly mistakes this organically pairing of stars for something of a “Mission Impossible” meets “Rush Hour” kind of comedy. 

It’s a misfire, one of the biggest of 2018 due to the inherent potential to be found in the makeup of this movie. The storyline goes as follows, two lifelong best friends, the eccentric Morgan (Kate Mckinnon) and the uncommittable Audrey (Mila Kunis), find themselves at a bar celebrating Audrey’s (Mila Kunis) birthday. Simultaneously, Audrey (Mila Kunis) recently broke up with her dreamy boy toy, Drew’s (Justin Theroux), who turns out, is a secret agent for the United States government, a character trait that is revealed to us through this elongated action sequence. 

After a night out in which they threatened to burn his things, Audrey (Mila Kunis) finds herself captivated by a dashingly handsome man, who also turns out to be a spy known as Sebastian (Sam Heughan). He along with his partner, Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), reveal Drew’s (Justin Theroux) identity to her, who later finds himself at their apartment in which he is killed, leaving a mission for this inexperienced and enigmatic duo to take a trophy, which is carrying a flash drive with some integrally significant information, to Vienna, Austria in Europe. They decide to go for it and find themselves apart of this twisting and turning journey in which each of them fend off highly trained operatives with the dumbest of luck. 

It’s your stereotypical “two people in over their heads” plot in which these two women are left with nothing but their wit and knowledgeable information from television, media, and relative awareness that allow them to become the unsung heroes of the world. We’ve seen this story before, yes, but with the talent at hand and with a female director, I was honestly expecting a sleeper hit. Not one of 2018’s best, but something exciting, thrilling, and, most importantly, funny. 

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is not a knockout comedy, but it has its funny moments. There’s a whole bunch of familiar Kate Mckinnon political punchlines that are authentically hilarious. Each of them carrying a dose of truth with each witty twist, and Mila Kunis has her fair share of time in the spotlight, delivering a handful of timely jokes about her partner in crime and herself. They share some sensationally palpable chemistry, each of them feeling as if they’ve known each other for more than a few months, both on-screen and behind the camera. 

Those funny scenes are also assisted with a fair share of well-executed action sequences, one of which is somewhat inventive. It involves Kate Mckinnon and this Russian, gymnastic, model, spy, hitman, vengeful, sleeper, killer person depicted by Ivanna Sakhno. She wears a lot of hats, but these two find themselves at odds in the midst of a Cirque du Soleil performance at a high praised ambassadors party in which “the drop” is taking place. (yes that cliche is there too) 

Anywho, they find themselves on sparring trapeze platforms leading to a gymnastic-heavy brawl that confuses the audience as an act in the performance and allows the viewer to become enthralled by an action sequence that is remarkably ingenious, if only I cared about anyone involved. 

These women are great, but for the entirety of this overlong film, I saw Kate Mckinnon and Mila Kunis, their characters are relatively absent from the story. I needed an IMDB page to remember their names, and that’s not a good sign if you're trying to make “fun” characters. The handling of the women is where the female behind the camera comes into fruition though, never do these women feel unprepared or incomparable of achieving the mission in front of them. They are reliable and somewhat brilliant at times, never in a way that feels overdramatic, rather believable actually. Where the film begins to become overblown is with the spy versus spy mumbo jumbo that is merely ridiculous, even for a comedy format. 

It’s like if “Mission: Impossible” decided to give up on relatively clever storytelling and replace twists and turns with predictions and expectations. Marginally inspired by Melissa Mccarthy's “Spy” in that way, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is unable to replicate that same ingenuity because of its lack of attention to the plot surrounding the comedy. Seemingly using it as an excuse to be lazy, as if the story will not assist in the comedy, because we never gave a crap about Del or Neal in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” right?

Nonetheless, Mckinnon and Kunis can only do so much to carry this film to the finish line which is two miles too long. It’s a two hour and twelve-minute film that feels as if should’ve been a one hour and fifteen-minute movie, at most. It’s not precisely Susanna Fogel’s framing of the film, more of the page not matching the surprisingly spectacular action provided from Fogel’s direction. 

It all amount to a similar feeling from 2017’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” this time there is more laugh out loud moments, but with a plot that feels even lazier than that movie, and that’s saying something.  
 

Christopher Robin (2018)

   Director: Marc Forster  With: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael,  Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings,  Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen, & Toby Jones.  Release: Aug 3, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 43 min. 

Director: Marc Forster
With: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael,  Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings,  Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen, & Toby Jones. 
Release: Aug 3, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 43 min. 

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The Disney renaissance of the Disney renaissance continues to color itself to fruition, building upon creations from the past as we can expect a “Fantasia” remake any day now. Marc Foster’s “Christopher Robin” is the newest reinvention, a film honoring both the adults and children perspectives in the audience, carrying a familiar and gently warm-hearted touch that manifests an enjoyable theatrical experience. The rendition of A.A Milne’s classic character doesn’t arrive too the silver screen without its fair amount of criticisms though, from the “childhood nostalgia makes for a better adult” cliche to the evolution of the core programming behind the characters purpose. You'll find a film that is reminiscent of your time Hundred acre-wood, but not entirely the same experience you remember having. 

The tale is Disneyfied, simplifying itself around the character of Christopher Robin (Ewan Mcgregor) who finds himself as an adult now, with adult responsibilities. He’s a funds manager for a luggage company, tasked with discovering loops and holes in the paperwork and numbers of the finances so that he can lower costs while maintaining everyone’s employment with the company. The stress of that kind of occupation can become overwhelming, and it does as we see Christopher (Ewan Mcgregor) begin to carry out the same tiresome cliche of a man obsessed with work far more than he appreciates the ones who love him. 

Attempting to send his child, Madeleine (Bronte Carmichael) off to boarding school, and unable to carve out time for a weekend trip with his lovely wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell). He finds himself in desperate need of a reminder in what it is to enjoy life, luckily his silly old bear of a friend has found himself in a bit of a pickle as well. The entire gang as seemingly vanished, perhaps a "Hepahlump" has finally attacked hundred acre wood. In a wild time of need, the lifelong friends are reunited once more to save both the gang in hundred acre wood and the misleading path that Christopher Robin (Ewan Mcgregor) finds himself traveling upon. 

All of this sound just a tad bit familiar, doesn’t it? And it is, it's a whole lot of familiar paths that you're walking down, seeing the same footprints left before you by other storytellers, all of that is fine and dandy though. “Christopher Robin” strongest moments are those points where the child inside of you whispers “I remember that.” It's those sequences of discovering hidden treasures within your memory that form that lump in your throat, or that sniffle in your nose, or those goosebumps down your spine where you find yourself reconnecting with that childhood mindset we all once had. 

The trips back into Hundred Acre wood is one filled with triumph and heartwarming tenure, one that if you're like me and have been absent for a good while, will leave you buried in a mountain of tears. Where those tears dry up is the moments of familiarity in the storytelling, the cliches of it all, the Disney stoplights in this nostalgic traffic jam. 

Those scenes like the adult rediscovering his naive optimism once again, which Mcgregor does marvelously, all seem so empty of passion due to their lack of ingenuity. Not to mention the severe overreaction by his family, which seemingly berates him with workaholicism for merely trying to save people's livelihoods in a desperate time. The man isn’t addicted to his job. He’s addicted to being a good person, which makes the whole tale feel unnecessary as if it's all a mere figment of imagination scrounged up by a stressful mind in need of some appreciation. 

There is no comfort and admiration to be found at home though, his wife and daughter want all the attention or none of it which is a bit extreme. Leading to a carryover in which Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), Tiger (Jim Cummings), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and Eeyore (Brad Garrett) find themselves apart of the grungy streets of London, which is a bit of a precarious point where the storytelling starts picking apart it's source material. Seeing how these manifestations were meant to be just that, a representation of a boy’s imagination coming to life, not literally, but figuratively. Alex Ross Perry and the four fellow screenwriters decided to go and make these characters literal, which is a bit of spitting on the grave of A.A Milne. 

Dismantling the core detail of these characters which is perhaps the most significant drop off in cohesive quality made by Marc Foster, as the cinematography and VFX work is all as magical as the 2D animation, bringing to life the slight smirks and blissful wisdom of Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings). It can become a necessary experience for anyone looking to escape the misery of modern America, one that evokes emotional memoir of childhood. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve walked the beaten paths of a hundred acre wood, a long time indeed. Being back in the tall forest, crossing the Poohsticks bridge once more, and seeing the entirety of the community built by these beautiful characters was something of an endearingly enchanting ordeal. 

It’s not exactly the way I remember it, Disney moved a few stones here and few trees there, but by the end of “Christopher Robin,” I am counting the minutes that I have been gone. Finding myself searching through my long-forgotten stashes of adventures with Pooh, Piglet, Roo, Kanga, Eeyore, Tiger, Rabbit, and Owl. It makes me want to recount the days I spent in those woods, which is perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to “Christopher Robin.” 
 

Hot Summer Nights (2018)

   Director: Elijah Bynum  With: Timothée Chalamet, Alex Roe, Maika Monroe, Maia Mitchell, Emory Cohen, Thomas Jane, & William Fichtner.  Release: Jul 27, 2018 R. 1 hr. 33 min.

Director: Elijah Bynum
With: Timothée Chalamet, Alex Roe, Maika Monroe, Maia Mitchell, Emory Cohen, Thomas Jane, & William Fichtner. 
Release: Jul 27, 2018
R. 1 hr. 33 min.

 

Timothee Chalamet was my break out star of 2017. The young man oozed with charisma, sex-appeal, and charm. He was in a close-knit race for best performance by an actor for me, with that of Daniel Kaluuya providing stiff competition. Least to say, I was anticipating whatever he decided to do next, and Elijah Bynum’s “Hot Summer Nights” is not what I expected. 

This time around he’s depicting Daniel, a young boy from northern Massachusetts whose father has recently passed away, making his life troublesome for both him and his now widowed mother. He’s sent away to stay with his aunt on the Cape for the summer where this tourist-trap of a beach town becomes fruition. The local legends, the nicknames for the locals, the “townies,” and the “summer bird” tourists who ride around in their yachts, luxury cars, and cardigans wrapped around their collars. 

Daniel (Timothee Chalamet) is an in-between kind of guy, one who is both a “townie” and a “summer bird.” He befriends the town legend, Hunter (Alex Roe), who introduces him to marijuana. He discovers the magic of Mary Jane and urges Hunter (Alex Roe) to think bigger, which seemingly comes out of nowhere, and begins our well-designed, but empty experience. Though I can proudly say that Timothee does his best here, providing a performance that is far better than the movie deserves, he’s not precisely depicting a memorable character or a fresh one at that. He’s submerged by the lack of creativity behind the camera. 

Let me start by saying though, “Hot Summer Nights” is not a bad movie in the same sense of the “Truth or Dares” or the “Fifty Shades Freeds” of 2018. It’s a film that maintains a polished design, one that shines with saturation in a way that mimics the bright, sunshine arrays of the 1980’s, at least that’s how we choose to remember them. Those are the brilliant ideas that Bynum has, one of which is the arrival of the town folk-hero, Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). He’s dashingly handsome, wickedly cool, and has reputation filled with the stuff of small-town legend. He’s lusted over, emerges from a cherry-red muscle car in slo-mo, built up by town gossip. Carries himself with the grease-junkie aptitude of allure, slicked-back hair, and pure confidence embodied into one dude. 

This is where Bynum has something going for his film, prancing upon the absurdity of a town built heroes, ones that only the members of the small-knit communities are aware of, like that of Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). There are snippets of the rumor mill in action, with rapidly edited interviews with these townspeople who share their experiences. It’s a Tarantino/Scorsese kind of a stylization in which the kids are cursing, the township stories are ones of ludicrousness, and it all amounts to a shady past involving this fable killing a guy. 

It’s all apart of this study of townsmanship. Diving into the treatment of women which becomes crudely disturbing, the town, like any other, has their dime. In this case, we find McKayla (Maika Monroe), the town hottie with a reputation, the unattainable goddess of prepubescent boys, and the little sister to Mr. Strawberry (Alex Roe). A stunningly alluring treasure that Daniel (Timothee Chalamet) finds himself infatuated by, succumbed to her charms. The only problem is, she warns him about befriending her brother, and her brother forbids him of engaging with his sister, creating a triangle dilemma that is sure to explode, a tiresome rehashing aspect that drags the film down like weights are tied to its ankles. 

The film loses itself in those tropes of storytelling. The relationship dilemmas, the sudden drug-dealing dangers which seem to have no natural reason for occurring other than Daniel (Timothee Chalamet) needed to do it so that the film could have that cliche “two kids in over their heads." They all fly by to quickly to develop any sense of resonance, disappearing into the background and becoming as forgetful as the characters. Seemingly developed around a cliche of a cliche of an eighties movie, despite taking place in 1991. Few things can be called original in this happenstance of a movie that dissipates in quality throughout its ninety-minute runtime. 

Like that of McKayla (Maika Monroe) and Daniel’s (Timothee Chalamet) romance, which has moments in which they stare at the fireflies on a midnight date, or they visit the local carnival, all a while attempting to bring out that heart-aching small town romance of two young people’s first love. It’s buried underneath everything else going on, the drug deals, the “Wolf of Wall Street” meets “Footloose” narrative and the outright confusion of it all. Leaving the viewer unsure as to whether our story is amounting to a young boy’s fall from innocence, or a long-con of an examination on the small-town culture we used to paint as blissful beauty, but now see as antiquated.

You have the adequate performance from Alex Roe and the sex-heavy depiction from Maika Monroe, but it’s all a bunch of nonsense amounting to nothing more than a series of events honoring a time period the film doesn’t even take part in. It doesn’t seem familiar with the environment either, because in the midst of its genre storytelling is a Jupiter sized hurricane. One that seems to catch these “Cape townies” off-guard somehow, as if they’ve never prepared for such an event, despite living so close to the water. 

All the while, the story is narrated by a young boy who saw the last moments of these events take place from his bedroom window. He talks like a kid from “Sandlot,” expecting us to care about his plucky attitude and youthful maturity, seemingly constructed by the events surrounding his life. We meet him near the end of the film, establishing his reasoning for narrating the story like that of “Goodfellas.” It’s a whole bunch of empty traits amounting to a whole sum of a picture worth a thousand words, none of which can describe what “Hot Summer Nights” is actually about. 

It's a shame too, Bynum seems to have an eye for storytelling. He has moments where you can see the point to his craftsmanship lying idly behind the tropes of yesteryear, but it all becomes lackadaisically misguided. It becomes automated when we start diving into the drug dealing nature of this Miami-Vice beach-styled storytelling. I’m guessing Bynum was a big fan as a kid. 

Eighth Grade (2018)

   Director: Bo Burnham  With: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, & Catherine Oliviere. Release: Jul 13, 2018 R. 1 hr. 33 min.

Director: Bo Burnham
With: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, & Catherine Oliviere.
Release: Jul 13, 2018
R. 1 hr. 33 min.

 

“Eighth Grade” is the type of film that you see and enjoy for what it is, its an experiential tour through the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl. The plot isn’t exactly the anchoring gate that allows you into this movie’s grasp. Nothing happens in this week-long span of a narrative. It’s not about a young woman confronting anything. Instead, we are given a small glimpse of her life, her daily routines, her hopes and dreams, and more. 

The film opens with a low-quality view of her Youtube channel, “Kayla’s Korner,” which is where we see the sheer accuracy and authenticity that writer/director Bo Burnham depicts with assured excellence. The ability to allow for Elsie Fisher to sound like a 13-year old girl, dealing with social anxieties, struggling to find her identity in the midst of the judgemental and treacherous world of middle school. He knows how middle schooler talks, allowing her to stumble upon her words. She tries to sound older, discussing hefty subjects on her channel like "Being yourself" and "Putting Yourself Out There," constantly reverting to the vernacular she’s more acquainted with, struggling to carry her message passed the repetitional use of filler words such as “uh” and “like.” 

She doesn’t have a handle on adult communication, struggling to express herself in a way that sounds coherent and identifiable. She’s always getting on to her father in those moments, where she finds herself embarrassed by her sweetheart of a dad (Josh Hamilton). Screaming at him to stop being weird, unsure of exactly what that means, she corrects herself with stumbling cringiness, which is perhaps the best way to describe Bo Burnham’s filmatic observance of an eighth grader’s life, a blissful, cringeworthy, flashback of a story. 

He doesn’t accomplish this feat on his own doing though, Elsie Fisher is someone who’s experiencing these moments in reality, as a 13-year-old actress who is amazingly in touch with the life being depicted on screen because she’s experiencing these junctures behind the camera as well. It’s the type of performance where she can be herself, as her character anxiously describes in one of the film’s opening Youtube videos. She’s a character experiencing the struggles of a social media massive generation in real time, which is where Burnham attempts to add an underlier of social currency to his simple tale. 

Speaking upon the differences between a generation that grew up with social media usage and another that didn’t gain access to this landscape of social interaction until they were in high school. Burnham explores these things with minimal runtime wasted, like that of a sequence in which Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” performs in the background while Kayla (Elisa Fisher) endlessly scrolls through the unlimited data of Instagram and Twitter. Losing track of both time and the world going on around her, as if she’s keeping herself up all night to find the one secret that will make her feel like herself again. 

She uses makeup advice, painting heavy eyeliner on her face and airbrushing her acne away, trying to bury herself behind what her fellow students would call “cool.” A common phrase used throughout this movie, as if she’s trying to be apart of the inside group that somehow found that golden key that no one else can find, that secret access to a sense of confidence and self-embracement that makes them seem “cool,” at least that’s what Kayla (Elsie Fisher) sees. 

She also sees the beginning trials of sexuality, where she finds herself hopelessly charmed by a boy in her grade, attempting to gain his approval by bragging about her “blowjob” ability, despite never participating in such an intimate experience. She goes home to learn what that means, searching through youtube videos, discovering a harsh truth that echoes with crude empathetic humor, the kind of joke where you want to look away because of the quivering goosebumps that ride down your spine, but you can’t help but relate to the quirky events occurring on-screen. 

This is a genre of comedy that Burnham dominates, both in his stand-up act and as a writer who masterfully uses his voice to tell a unique story about something he, himself, has never experienced. It’s a rare moment where a man discussing the troublesome coming of age stories that women confront is welcomed. He can make it feel unique to his voice, blending social beliefs with that of a teenage perspective that Elsi brings with blissful certainty. He includes darker tones that whisper the trials of womanhood, like that of an older boy playing a game of truth and dare with her, a game that reminds us of her naive youth. How she doesn’t understand what she’s suddenly become involved with, unable to see through the smirks and flirts made by this boy, but instinctively knowing that something is wrong. 

These moments are stops and bumps in the film that feel a bit out of the left field due to their sheer ineffectiveness in the story. They don’t exactly carry her to the place where she ends up arriving, there things that could be replaced by something else without us having to witness something so promiscuously jarring. It’s hard to watch those scenes, troublesome reminder of the legitimate dangers of the world girls like Kayla (Elsie Fisher) are growing up around, but the mismatch of a wincingly amusing journey down memory lane and socially conscious reminder feel jumbled. Bo had a few messages to get across. I get that. I just wish they blended with the scenery better.

That scenery is produced with ease though, providing this sleek and naturally captivated cinematography from new-comer Andrew Wehde. The camera's best movements are the intimate perspectives, ones that surround Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in her most personal scenes. Her pacing in the morning, her nervous ticks, and her sheer relatability are captured in those junctures, the moments where you begin to fall in love with Elisa Fisher. 

It’s like “Lady Bird” in that way, a story that is far more about meeting and greeting the character than the tale they’re embarked upon, it's a character study in its purest form, one that Burnham does with veteran-like ability. Grounding the film to reality, providing an atmosphere of real middle schoolers, not 16-year-olds pretending to be younger, but 13-year-olds carrying out their lives on camera. 

He chooses an age of adolescence that we seemingly forget about throughout cinematic history, high schoolers have been studied with endless diatribes of the hardships of leaving for college, saying goodbye to life-long friends, and confronting adulthood. Middle school isn’t the same battle, you have one foot in the sandbox and another in the realm of adulthood, swelling with hormonal urges, self-discovery, and constant irritability. 

Burnham knows this. He realizes that middle school sucks, he understands the inherent emotional engagement of eighth grade. We all have to go through this stage, we all looked dumb, we all had moments that made us seem cringy, and Bo assures us that we weren’t alone in that troublesome stage. Realizing that we made it through, that it didn’t last forever. “Eighth Grade” is an empathetic ride that we’ve all been a part of, one that speaks as loudly to us as it does to the eighth grader we once were. 
 

A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)

   Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire  With: Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Preecha Vithaya, Pansringarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Somluck Kansing, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk, Komsan Polsan, Sakda Niamhom, Sura Srimalai, & Patsapon Kaysornmaleethanachok.  Release: Aug 10, 2018 R. 1 hr. 56 min. (English, Thai dialogue)

Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
With: Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Preecha Vithaya, Pansringarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Somluck Kansing, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk, Komsan Polsan, Sakda Niamhom, Sura Srimalai, & Patsapon Kaysornmaleethanachok. 
Release: Aug 10, 2018
R. 1 hr. 56 min. (English, Thai dialogue)

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Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn” feels like a Scorsese film, possibly the biggest compliment I can give it, like “Raging Bull” married “Silence.” It’s a film discussing the hardships of a Thailand prison system, as well as the dourness of addiction. It’s a tale filled with vigor and depicted with ferocity, never shying away from showing the worst of things in exchange for a feeling of despair. It’s honest in that way, but unlike Scorsese, Sauvaire is unable to manage the film from a micro level as much as he can from a macro level. 

Treated as a biopic about Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a young boxer whose addiction to heroin drives him to a life of anguish in which he finds himself within the bars of a Thailand prison. It’s not pretty; his first day is spent puking up his guts, experiencing withdrawal. He soon finds himself in a few fights, then locked inside a dog cage sized hole as punishment for his behavior. Soon he’s placed in a cage with fellow inmates. There is a cage boss whose in charge of the cell and everyone who resides inside of it. 

That same night he experiences a sequence of scarring events in which a fellow inmate is raped, forced to watch with a shank push against his throat, he lies awake after with an expressionless face, waking up to the suicide scene of the same boy who hung himself in the middle of the night. Stripped of his manhood, he had nothing left. That was day one. 

Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese’s screenplay, based off of Billy Moore’s memoir "A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand,” doesn’t let up either. Moore (Joe Cole) finds himself battling his addiction, doing cruel things, beating relatively innocent men to near death with his bare hands, even attempting suicide at one point. 

It’s not a story for the faint of heart. It's brutally authentic. It builds that harsh environment around a broken man of a character, someone whose seemingly alone in this world, lost to a habit that he cannot escape. Like Scorsese, the film builds it's character through events, never giving us a one on one moment with this man, instead, making him through moments of action. It’s something Scorsese excels in doing, while Jean-Stephane Sauvaire stumbles with it. 

He fabricates a character that is built off of everything going on around him and to him, never showcasing what he wants, who he is, or why he has fallen to this hellish place. It makes it hard to invest at times. LIke standing in front of a painting that you enjoy, that you understand, yet you find yourself blocked from being able to experience it in the way the artist intended. 

Something else that plays a factor in making the film feel that way is the character of Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), a ladyboy that Moore (Joe Cole) finds an affinity for, providing a romantic aspect to the story. While most likely legitimate, this inclusion of a love story feels forced. It’s like the annoying person at a party, randomly spouting off every once in a while, changing the tone of the atmosphere entirely. 

These micro-level aspects are where “A Prayer Before Dawn” runs out of gas in the midst of the twelve round battle, but where it lands knockout punches is with Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction and David Ungaro’s cinematography. It’s vividly intoxicating. The boxing scenes are craggy and ragged, like a barroom brawl. Maintaining close proximity to the fight, transitioning between a tracking shot and splicing quick cuts here and there to fabricate a relentless amount of intensity that makes these boxing scenes become on par with Coogler’s fight in “Creed.”

 It’s truly mesmerizing, but there is also the fervor and fury added to the scenery of the prison. It’s grungy, dirty, rusty, and continuously impressionable. Providing imagery that will be seared into my brain as some of the best images of the year thus far, with both it's camera movement and stylistic design, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction, and David Ungaro’s cinematography nearly steal the show, but you can’t overlook Joe Cole. 

Looking magnificent, Cole portrays Moore with this emotionless expression at times. Seemingly lost in space, as if the events he’s witnessing take a while to sit in, but when he explodes with anger from the withdrawal, it's ferocious. Simply stunning to watch, Cole provides a powerhouse performance that anchors the film. He’s the necessary gear in this machine of a movie, delivering the horsepower to push this film past its storytelling lags. 

The ensemble of Thailand actors is remarkable as well, with only one actor being your standard white man protagonist, the rest ranging from heavily tattooed men portraying prisoners, a few ladyboys, and a furthering amount of diversity to be found. The treatment of language is fascinating as well, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn’t treat the dialogue as a translation, more of a need for essential information, providing subtitles when we need to know what they're saying, never at any other time. 

You could argue that Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese do the same with the screenwriting, but the page is different than the canvas. I needed that dose of scent, that nibble of a bite; I needed something to sink my teeth into. It felt more like I was snacking throughout the entirety of the film, waiting for the main course. 

Luckily, the entirety of the film fabricates an experience that is dreary, produced through masterful filmmaking. You may find yourself standing on a double-sided mirror, unable to feel the experience that Jean-Stephane Sauvaire desires you to endure, but you won’t be able to look away. 
 

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

   Director: Christopher McQuarrie  With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Jul 27, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Jul 27, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

 

If I were going to get into the movie-making business, I would be a writer. No doubt in my mind, because I am a sucker for storytelling, an admirer of dialogue, and a self-admitted addict of worldbuilding. These are the things that invigorate me with excitement; these are also the things that make action films so hard for me to watch. They’re bonafide products of Hollywood, with grand sequences of physicality and thrilling sequences of conflict, these are the kind of films that usually throw screenwriting to the wayside and let the camera do the talking. If that gets your gears going, then Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is for you. 

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the fanatical moments of chaos that you can only get from action films, but it's when they can blend story with those spotlighted productions of anarchy that I begin to feel that rush of adrenaline everyone else does. Movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” which blends stunts with the story, a lesson picked up by Christopher McQuarrie, though not as skillfully executed as George Miller. 

Screenwriting lessons seem to have gone directly over his head though, fabricating the first direct sequel in the franchise and being the first returning director in the franchise, Christopher McQuarrie begins “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” where “Rogue Nation” left off. Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself battling against a group called the apostles, a maniacal and ideological group of individuals who believe that the systematic control of governments has brought the world to its knees. In response, they plan to devastate the world economies and sanctity of the world by nuclearly attacking sovereign nations like Kazakhstan and holy cities such as Jerusalem. 

In response, he's tasked with the mission, if he should choose to accept it, of apprehending the nuclear weaponry. He comes close at the beginning of the film but inevitably loses it due to a tough set of circumstances. In response, he's forced to work alongside CIA Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), who alongside the regular team of the MIF crew, are trusted in saving the world once again. 

So its all about keeping nuclear weapons out of ideological fanatic hands, sound familiar? Good, because the story becomes a recycled version of every “Mission: Impossible” film throughout the rest of this two hour, and near thirty-minute runtime, with plenty of twists and turns, face reveals, spy mumbo jumbo, and predictable last-second hero moments to make the most die-hard of "Mission Impossible" fans satisfied.

There are sprinkles of emotional engagement, constructed through character, like an “Indiana Jones” movie. Hunt (Tom Cruise) being the core of those scenes in which we get a glimpse of a story that focuses on what happens when the good guys lose and another in which we discuss if one life is worth millions. Both of these share the films best moments, narratively speaking, but they both get outshouted by audience favorability it seems as if we can’t have entertainment and artistic quality co-existing with one another, which is where Christopher McQuarrie tends to pull on the reigns of this runaway horse.

 He sees the forest through the trees, but would rather stay nested in the woods that see the remarkable thing that is waiting on the other side. It’s where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” goes awry for myself. Never attempting to do anything nuanced on the page, rather allowing the camera to do all the talking, which is where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” has earned its prestigious reputation from critics. 

Directionally speaking, Christopher McQuarrie can do no wrong in this movie. Providing masterfully constructed sequences that feel as if they last for five to fifteen minutes, but in all actuality, they’re much longer than that. He engulfs you in these moments by leaving just enough breadcrumbs to follow from the screenplay; you become enthralled by these breathtaking moments of mayhem. 

There is not one or two moments worth raving about; there are five. All of them are quite remarkable, and all of them are shot in-camera with practicality being the guiding hand behind the scenes. This is where Tom Cruise makes his money, providing riveting sequences of his aggressive parkour freerunning, which as the fastest man ever caught on camera, Tom Cruise excels in those moments. He drives against the traffic on the Arc de Triomphe on a motorcycle, without a helmet. He learned how to fly a helicopter, and he learned how to do a HALO (High altitude; Low oxygen) jump from a plane going one hundred and sixty-five miles per hour. And all of this was done for real. 

Least to say, Tom Cruise is either someone you look at as a crazy man trying to win our hearts with an evil Kenevil mindset or as someone who's willing to sacrifice everything for art. Whichever light you wish to paint him in, one thing we can agree on is that Tom Cruise deserves some respect for his outings in both this movie and his entire display of ferocity throughout his career. 

My favorite of these moments involved a rope climb on a flying helicopter. Yes, you heard that correctly. The stunt was to have Tom climb up a rope attached to the undercarriage of a helicopter, and in the midst of making the climb he would fall but catch himself before he hit the payload. Tom, being Tom, actually lost his footing, fell upside down, and was able to catch himself near the bottom of the cargo attached to this thin rope, making for a fantastic hero shot, and a sequence that was legitimately death-defying. 

Those moments are what makes “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” a qualifier for action movie of the decade for most people it seems. Excusing recycled storytelling tropes for in your face action. I can’t do the same, but I can give these guys a lot of credit. Especially Tom Cruise, he provides a performance that is both intense and sincere, if given some more depth or bite to his character, he could have become the one emotionally reverberating aspect of the film. 

The usual gang of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, and Michelle Monaghan are tremendous and provide that familiar taste that reminds you that this is a “Mission: Impossible” movie. Henry Cavill along with the mustache that killed “Justice League” provides a solid outing, and Sean Harris isn’t too far behind with his memorable monologues that are delivered with the coldness of a good villain. Baldwin and Angela Basset are fine, but nothing worth mentioning. 

“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is by far the best entree of the franchise thus far, but the rehashed storytelling of a James Bond-like character with a conscious, and the recycling efforts of the franchises tropes and cliches keep this movie from becoming the ensembling blockbuster it tries to be. Though fellow critics seemingly sacrificed masterful directorial efforts for mediocre screenwriting endeavors, I cannot do the same. “Mission Impossible - Fallout” is an action movie through and through, one worth seeing on the big screen. 

Just don’t let the action fool you into thinking that the page is not as strong as camera, both of these things are needed for a masterpiece, something Christopher McQuarrie falls short of due to his inability to make the interluding moments of storytelling as thrilling as Tom Cruise’s ridiculous stunts, a harder feat to accomplish than it sounds, I imagine. 

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

   Director: Stephen Susco  With: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, & Savira Windyani. Release: Jul 20, 2018 R. 1 hr. 28 min.

Director: Stephen Susco
With: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, & Savira Windyani.
Release: Jul 20, 2018
R. 1 hr. 28 min.

 

The internet can be a scary place, one filled with trolls, unsanctioned hate speech, and unprotected guidelines on the extent of individual freedoms. It takes the grey area of life to its tipping point, Stephen Susco realizes that and tries to unearth that authentic fright in “Unfriended: Dark Web,” but almost fails entirely. The differences between Levan Gabriadze & Nelson Greaves’s “Unfriended” are miserably noticeable. 

It’s a repetition of the same introversion melodramatic horror that follows a group of tech-savvy millennials that somehow know the differences between megabyte and gigabytes, which is a google search away, yet the same age group that surrounds me seems to be unable to differentiate the two. 

They stumble upon something they shouldn’t on a laptop that our protagonists stole from the lost and found at the cafe where he works. Soon, they find themselves being tormented and terrorized by a group of cyber hackers/trolls who exist of the dark web of the internet, a worldwide web living on darknets and overlay networks that require special software to access, yet one tech geek and four relatively knowledgeable college students have stumbled upon it with a MacBook? 

Least to say, this is not a film for tech nerds or those surrounded by computer geeks. There’s an insurmountable of cliche hacking that is both implausible and unaccomplishable by a group of college kids. Not to mention the password for our illustrious cyber terrorist is “?” for a profile user named “?” Really? 

This is where “Unfriended: Dark Web” is going to get away with a lot more than it should, using seemingly believable usages of computer intellect to trick the audience into trusting that these guys know what they’re talking about; they definitely do not. 

The story, itself, is surrounded by its fair share of illogical developments, from the choices made by our characters to the cliched dumb protagonist. The characters themselves are tropes, with one-word descriptions like “the lesbian couple,” “the tech guy,” “the anti-tech guy,” and “the Chinese girl.” The deaf girlfriend joins the bunch of labeled characters, the one clever use of character relationships. The struggle of communicating with different languages over skype is quite challenging, one of the few interactions worth investing into. 

There are some other bright moments in the screenwriting worth mentioning as well, such as how the technology is being used and, the mistermed, but somewhat authentic, tools used to hack and to check the data on the laptop. The thrills and shrills have some high points as well, becoming something worth investing in on more than one occasion. One of the film’s best sequences takes place when the truth becomes unveiled, and the threat to our protagonist becomes vitally critical, the story transitions into a hidden rescue attempt in which he must lie to his friends, keep the game going, and do everything he can to save someone’s life. It’s intrinsically designed for thrills, how that didn’t become the focal point from the start is beyond me. 

The performances have their moments too, Colin Woodell delivers on more than a few occasions, and Rebecca Rittenhouse does some solid work as well. Andrew Lees and Connor Del Rio share some time in the spotlight but feed far more exposition than anything else. Stephanie Nogueras and Betty Gabriel are barely in the film enough to become something worth remembering. 

Much like “Unfriended: Dark Web,” an unmemorable attempt at thrilling an audience with the clever use of technology which is still as clever as it was the first time, minus the illogical tech details. The characters and structure of the story are routine; it's anything but imaginative and teetering on the edges of sadistically stupid. 

There’s enough here to provide something watchable and at times, believable, but “Unfriended: Dark Web” at the end of the day, is nothing more than another sad attempt at informing us of the dangers of hackers. It’s a prevalent threat, but with films like this, we might as well be the ones hiding on the dark web. 

JAWS 2 (1978)

   Direction: Jeannot Szwarc     With: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo, Jeffrey Kramer, & Collin Wilcox. Release: Jun 16, 1978 PG. 1 hr. 56 min. 

Direction: Jeannot Szwarc    
With: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo, Jeffrey Kramer, & Collin Wilcox.
Release: Jun 16, 1978
PG. 1 hr. 56 min. 

 

“Jaws 2” is what you would describe as the proverbial sequel to Steven Spielberg’s classic, at least that is what you would say today. Appearing to be a survivor, “Jaws 2” appears to have outdone expectations, able to avoid bombing out like an expected sequel to a film such as “Jaws.” Unlike poor sequels such as “S. Darko” and “Ocean’s Twelve” which, alongside many other poor follow-ups, seem to miss the point of writing a new chapter into a story. This side effect of a story is neither a pretentious fumble nor is it a slacking rehash. Instead, “Jaws 2” is a film unbalanced between tones, debating between something dark and mature and teenage melodrama. 

Three summers removed from the events of “Jaws,” we reacquaint ourselves with Brody (Roy Scheider) as a man dealing with traumatic stress, He's struggling to persuade anyone to trust him, as if he’s merely shooting blanks and looking for a shark in the midst of his boring tenure as Police chief, as Brody (Roy Scheider) finds himself in a similar spot as last time where he is attempting to persuade the town that the waters are no longer as safe as they used to be.

With a series of events that suggest another large great white, or a Carcharodon carcharias, has returned to the waters of Amity, we know that Brody (Roy Scheider) is telling the truth as we watch the first attack involving two divers discovering the Orca, a mediocre attempt at grasping the viewer's resonance. That opening divers attack keeps it from becoming the thriller it should’ve been, being the critical event that prevents any sense of mystery from manifesting.  

It’s a story that isn’t rehashing or snobbishly reenacting a darker tone of a sequel; it actually does both. The story provides us with simple memories like an experienced chief unable to convince a happy go lucky town that something terrifying is lurking in the waters, but it also takes a much darker tone in which Brody (Roy Scheider) is unable to persuade anyone that another horrific attack is taking place. The film never commits to that grim tone though, “Jaws 2” tries to combine an entertaining spectacle in which this group of teenagers is enjoying the sunshine of summer. 

Sailing, drinking, and exchanging some rough dialogue like “Did you see the way she was looking at you? She wants you, man.” “No, she wasn’t looking at me...No, I’m thin, I wear glasses. I live in Amity island year round; I’m not good enough for her.” “I guess you're right.” What is this? “Spider-Man 3?” 

There is also the excessive amount of anxiety acting like shivering and the memorable scream of “Sh-sh-shrrrrrr-sharrrrr-kkkkkkk” by Ann Dusenberry.  Those laugh out loud moments are overrun by Jeannot Szwarc’s handling of make or break moments. He provides the thrill and shrills when they’re necessary, just enough to make sure that the film delivers some sense of terror before the runtime rolls to its final credits. 

Where Szwarc stumbles is deciding between the mature and bleak themes surrounding Brody (Roy Scheider) and the teenage melodrama of a group of teens encountering life and death with a monstrous shark. This adolescent excessivity begins to teeter on the brink of “Friday the 13th” level stupidity, but John Williams’ score lends one of the helping hands to those ridiculous moments, providing magical sensations of spectacle during these images of sailing and soaring through the open seas. 

Roy Scheider provides the other hand of assistance, delivering the film’s best performance, which in comparison to the fellow performances surrounding him isn't saying much. Lorraine Grey and Murray Hamilton are the other returning faces, both lending some help to the overall believability of this film, but the ensemble of teenagers is surprisingly bad. With an excessive amount of overacting, Mark Gruner being the leader of that un-illustrious group with a fair amount of bad delivery, bad movement, and ridiculous moments worthy of laughter. After watching this performance, it makes sense that this was his last performance as an actor. 

“Jaws 2” is a film meddling between tones, never playing a level-headed game of prevalence. The film struggles to become something more than a watchable sequel, but how do you follow up something as spectacular as “Jaws.” It’s not self-imitating nor is it as pompous as something like “Exorcist 3,” but “Jaws 2” remains to be a motivating sequel. One that may inspire nothing more than the desire to rewatch the thrilling spectacle known as "Jaws." 

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. 

2_4 stars.png
 

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.