The Predator (2018)

   Director: Shane Black With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski. Release: Sep 14, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

Director: Shane Black
With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

 

Shane Black’s “The Predator” is a set piece of entertainment. It doesn’t use substance as much as it just lets you see the blood and guts of the action and the cracks of the comedy; it’s a blast. It wastes no time, jumping straight into the thick of things, like that of its hero. Little time is wasted, playing both like an homage to the action of the 80s and something that feels decisively contemporary. It’s not trying to mimic as much as if it's attempting to live in the same essence of McTiernan's “Predator.” It’s exactly what you want from a film called “The Predator.” Does that equal to one of the best movies of the year? No, but it does make for some buttery popcorn fun.

Wasting no time as I said, Black opens the film in the midst of a galactic chase. One bigger predator ship chasing a smaller one as a warp hole opens, transporting one of them to our atmosphere as they crash down into a forest that so happens to be the stage for a drug-bust/hostage rescue. A sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is on the job when he notices this crashing unknown craft flying towards his location as he soon finds himself face to face with one of the galaxy’s most dangerous “Predators.”

He lucks out, using the alien’s weapons against him, then stealing parts of his technology for evidence and sending it home. Instead of arriving in his P.O. box, it goes straight to his doorstep leading to his presumably autistic son to discover it. Assuming it's a gift from his dad, Rory (Jacob Tremblay) slices open the package to find a predator mask and weapon.

While this is occurring, Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is brought in to examine the predator that McKenna took down. She meets the smug leader of this “project stargaze,” Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who reminds us that this isn’t a reboot but rather a continuation of the story following “Predator 2.” As predicted though, things go awry, which seems to be the biggest problem with Black and, fellow 80s icon, Fred Dekker’s screenplay in that of how it struggles to surprise. We know what's going to happen before it happens, which is never a good thing.

What remains unpredictable throughout the film is the comedy, as when the shit hits the fan we are introduced to the goons of therapy group 2. The bus that McKenna is placed on allows us to meet this self professed ragtag team of “Loonies,” including the suicidal Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), the hilarious Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the terret stricken Baxley (Thomas Jane), the Irish Lynch (Alfie Allen), and the sweet Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). This group of ragtag sociopaths band together to save McKenna’s son when he learns that he has the devices, manifesting a cat and mouse thrill and shrill adventure between these soldiers and the upgraded Predator.

Casting aside the backstage dilemma that Black needs to answer for, “The Predator” works as a film that is easy to take for granted, producing a mobile pace that jumps from point A to point B to point C at a pace that is both ferocious and exciting. He gives just enough time to the characters for us to care about them for just a moment, just the right amount for us to care about their outcome.

He’s assisted greatly from a talented and charismatic ensemble though, ranging from Olivia Munn’s quirky brilliance to Sterling K. Brown’s charming hostility. Keegan is on-fire as the comic relief as expected, but he’s assisted greatly by Thomas Jane. Holbrook and Rhodes have their strength’s amplified by Black, fabricating a buddy-cop duo that is begging for its own feature film, perhaps from the same director considering his success with the subgenre in the past. (“The Nice Guys” & “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”)

A lot of what elevates “The Predator” is Shane Black, but he’s also true to form by allowing practicality to take center stage as much as possible. He recreates the first Predator with the makeup and props of the eighties, feeling tangible and tactile. He doesn’t just lean into the past though, the new and improved Predator is recreated digitally, becoming this eleven foot tall beast of a creature. He’s smart, fast, and one “beautiful mothereffer" as Munn puts so perfectly. It’s one of the many references to the past films, but Black never relies on our nostalgia, he leans into the future of a possible franchise re-birth. Making a portion of character motivations center around global warming, Black allows the film to feel modernized, but Black knows how to give us fans what we want. He brings back the 80s “kids know more than the parents” trope and echoes its brilliance with ease; it's an easy sell for me as a huge fan of the eighties “kid discovering mysteries” kind of movies.

No, “The Predator” isn’t one of the best films of the year, nor is it better than its predecessors (“Predator” & “Predator 2”). It does surpass every film that followed those, beating out the shotty remake from 2010 and the subpar versus films. It struggles to maintain realism at times, and the adrenaline pacing can work against the film’s best efforts sometimes, but “The Predator” knows how to balance parody and tribute. Black is both making fun of his first feature acting role and exhibiting his love for the franchise.

All that said, the backstage news has presumably led to critics punishing the film for its director’s wrong choices, and while that is fair, I am not such a critic. I condemn his decisions and cheerfully praise Munn’s actions, but “The Predator” is a good movie for me. It’s both entertaining and exhilarating. It’s not absent of its shortcomings obviously, but when you allow a Predator to be as bloody and violent as possible, reminding us of how dangerous and merciless these creatures can be, the fanboy inside of me grins from ear to ear. Add in some Predator dogs (Yes! I said Predator Dogs), and I will just shut up, and you can take my money!

A Simple Favor (2018)

   Director: Paul Feig With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin. Release: Sep 14, 2018 R. 1 hr. 57 min.

Director: Paul Feig
With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
R. 1 hr. 57 min.

 

“A Simple Favor” is a film that walks a tightrope between melodrama and parody. It’s a thriller told with a generous sense of humor, humor that is twisted and self-referential of the suburban mom caricature. That ever-so-perfect mom. The one who cuts the crust off the edges, remembers everyone allergies including the children who don’t even belong to her. That mom that volunteers for anything and everything, desperately pleading to be a part of every waking moment of her child’s life. That’s the kind of mother that we see in Stephanie (Anna Kendrick). She’s the mother who makes every other parent feel like crap as if they are not trying enough.

She’s a single mother too. Both her husband and half-brother died in a horrific car accident; so that mama work-ethic is due in part to her keeping busy, refusing to be reminded of the grief that she has somewhat buried beneath her desire for friendship. She even runs a popular vlog, where she shares recipes, parenting tips, and how-tos for the everyday single mom out there. This super-mom persona seemingly stifles her from developing any sense of meaningful connection with other adults though, both romantically and friendly. That is until she comes across Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a stunningly beautiful and alpha-like woman who seemingly allows no BS to slip by. She invites Stephanie over to her dazzling high-town house, just outside the hustling and bustling city of New York.

There, they exchange confessions. Drinking high-class martinis, and chit-chatting their stresses away. Least to say, Stephanie is star-struck by all of this. It’s not hard to see why either, Emily is that distinct kind of beautiful, striding around the screen in her red high heels and pin-stripe suits making sure all the attention is on her, like that of graceful painting brought to life. It’s the Manhattan dream to her, especially when she, like us, is swooped off her feet by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).

The handsome and smooth-talking charmer from “Crazy Rich Asians” graces us with his stunningly dapper presence once again, making all of us drool of course. Here he depicts a once-great writer, responsible for one New York Times Bestseller that has seemingly kept him from writing ever again. It’s also inherently enigmatic for Stephanie, both of these people seem to be piercingly contrasting to the stereotypical out of the city mom, they have threesomes, drink away their problems, and Emily is more unique than thought possible. She isn’t only stunning to look at, but her personality blows you back as well; swearing, and speaking directly to Stephanie. She’s intimate, encouraging, and seductive wrapped into one alluring package.

Some curious red flags go up while we are introduced to this gorgeous woman though, freaking out when her picture is taken, seemingly telling stories like that of a pathological liar, and when she suddenly disappears, it becomes more and more apparent that she was not an average person. As a former artist who used to paint her describes “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl wanna be so invisible.” It becomes a mystery that isn’t worth solving. The breadcrumbs lead to conclusions seen from a mile away. It doesn’t take much to figure out where everything is going; it's the opposite of something like “Gone Girl." Never surprising us, but making it fun to participate in the hunt for the truth.

It’s what gives “A Simple Favor” this smooth edge to its classy grandeur, shifting fluidly from a bad and predictable mystery to an entertaining dramatic comedy with the charismatic woman taking charge of the story. It’s one of Paul Feig's best talents as a director. The acclaimed mind from films such as “Bridesmaids” and “Heat,” showcases his innate ability to work with strong and engaging woman once again. He gives them space to work, rightfully allowing them to take center stage, to be apart of the creation. There’s room for him to build off of, room for him to mold things, room for him to bounce off their spontaneity, improvisation, and behavior.

The plot isn’t intricate; it’s channeling the comedies or spy capers of the 60s as made apparent in the stylization of the opening credits. Designed funkily, single color stilettos and purses moving along in these angular cut-out shapes and frames that collage together in French-pop sort of way. Establishing that high-town mood from the get-go, relying on songs from artists like Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Paul Keller to paint something ever-so similar to Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He speeds past the twists and turns, running over them like the speed bumps that they could become, a wise but noticeable maneuver from Feig. He knows the screenplay can be shredded if given too much leeway, so he remains reserved, relying on style and charm rather than substance and drama.

That’s not to say there are no radiating messages made by the screenwriter (Jessica Sharzer adapting from Darcey Bell’s novel). Emily points out wrongful female habits, like that of the constant insistence on apologizing for things that aren't their fault, or confusing beauty for strength. But the super-mom turned feminine detective aspects are over-blown; never ridiculed or pointed out for their innate ridiculousness, a missed opportunity.

Besides those kinds of missteps, the actresses are on fire here. Kendrick funnels that shy, awkward, and quirky happy-go-lucky attitude that makes her so effortless to yearn for, to resonate with. She executes that kind of character with ease, but she takes it up a notch from her performances in the “Pitch Perfect” films, able to introduce a more dagger edge to that plucky attitude. Lively is no different. She inhabits that ruthless yet charming persona, able to become sexy and detached, intimidating and provocative, like that of a thorned rose.

They are the gas that fuels the car, keeping this locomotive of charm going down the tracks which inevitably is where “A Simple Favor” nestles itself. It doesn’t try to outdo good mystery films like that of “Gone Girl,” nor does it try to match the classy dramatic crime films of the 60s like “Murder on the Orient Express.” It finds it's lane and drives the speed limit, coloring inside the lines. The best way to decide if a film is good or not as a critic, at least for me, is whether or not you had a good time, and I can answer that question with affirmation. It’s not going to be a prominent favorite for female lead filmmaking when the year reaches its end, nor does it do anything shocking and surprising. “A Simple Favor” merely entertains and satisfies, and that’s all you can ask for sometimes.

Destination Wedding (2018)

   Director: Victor Levin  With: Keanu Reeve & Winona Ryder.  Release: Aug 31, 2018 R. 1 hr. 26 min.

Director: Victor Levin
With: Keanu Reeve & Winona Ryder. 
Release: Aug 31, 2018
R. 1 hr. 26 min.

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Many astute filmgoers will live by the saying “less is more.” It’s typically a wise, but common, critique. In Victor Levin’s “Destination Wedding” it's quite the opposite, a film that takes that ever-so-common criticism to its peak by literally using the least amount of filmatic utensils as possible. The film is basic, but the lack of effort given to its inner workings is what makes it tiresome. It’s comparable to watching paint dry, only saving itself through the charisma of its star power. Something that is so essential to the film, that it maintains any sense of compelling essence that, if not there, the film would become the perfect lullaby for a mid-afternoon nap. 

“Destination Wedding” is a title that gives away the story, mostly because the story is enormously hollow. Lindsay (Winona Ryder) and Frank (Keanu Reeves) meet at an airport, waiting for an eight-seat plan to arrive and transport them to California wine country for a wedding, hints the name: “Destination Wedding.” They bicker at the airport, discussing erratically ridiculously meta topics such as the death of chivalry and the enactment of everyday pessimism that steals the organical optimism we maintain as an evolved species. They don’t stop there, they quibble and intellectually spar about their wits, hoping that the other will either sacrifice footing or slowly realize their inferiority. 

It’s a bit absurd to expect this style of conversational exchange to occur between strangers, I personally have to dig this sort of mental sparring out of my closest friends, let alone mere acquaintances. You would expect Cupid and his arrow to be hovering over them like that of a helicopter parent, but that’s one of the few subtle maneuvers of subversions that Levin exceeds at accomplishing. This story does end how you would quickly predict, but Levin extends it as far as he can until he arrives upon checking off the boxes of a romantic comedies' audience fulfillments. 

He does this through the snarky combating of dialogue between Reeves and Ryder, neither of whom are to blame for the humdrum tone of the film. They enact their brilliance and skills at will, providing performances that feel effortlessly captivating, you know they're having fun which forces a grin out of your mundane viewing experience. 

The title, while literal, is a bit subverting as well, camouflaging itself as an expectational romantic comedy that in all reality involves little romance and a style of comedy unfamiliar to the genre. It’s not on the nose and simple-minded, rather snarky and quick-witted. It’s twist and a bit hyper-verbal, but it never invokes enough charm to become more than that of a giggle or two to break you out of your hypnotization of fatigue. 

The treatment of the wedding itself is the final cornerstone of whispering praise; it's authentically adept. Depicting the usual boredom that comes from attending a wedding that you were neither excited for and never intended to be invited to. Reeves and Ryder sit in the back of the room at all times, keeping to themselves. Sharing life stories, meta discussions of perspective, and bashing everyone and anyone who pretends to be enjoying themselves. 

Exchanging happy-go-lucky charm for sarcastic crooked humor isn’t exactly a fair trade, but it's the only thing that Reeves and Ryder are working with, besides each other. They rely on no-one else it seems, seeing as there are no creative fingerprints to be found from Levin. His dialogue can become both pompous and agitating, watching two grown adults complain about how life isn’t fair isn’t exactly the building blocks of a classic. 

He relies far too much upon his stars who, despite burdening the load with a smile, struggle to maintain the jig for long enough that it becomes believable. They are not to blame, but they are not absent of criticism. Keanu relies far too much on the inhabitation of “John Wick,” both in his tone of delivery and embodiment. It’s like watching the masterful assassin go on a vacation. Ryder is elegant, but a bit too unenthusiastic at times, her line delivery can become void of emotion as if she has forgotten what the point of the film is, and I can’t blame her.

They are the entire movie, and while a two-lead drama has been accomplished before, it was done so by far talented filmmakers. While Reeves and Ryder are stumbling along the way, their work is embodied with charm and chemistry, never becoming the problem or a symptom of this bland potato of a movie. 

Writer/director Victor Levin shows his first-hand experience of these so-called cutesy wedding, the monotonous familiarity of them all, the lack of uniqueness or specialness they muster. But he never rectifies that emotion through the tools given to him, you can feel him trying, hearing the wheels spin out of control, but it's all a blurred vision. It’s empty, like that of the cups of coffee you’ll have to drink just get through it. 
 

To All The Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

   Director: Susan Johnson  With: Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, & John Corbett. Release: Aug 17, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 39 min.

Director: Susan Johnson
With: Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, & John Corbett.
Release: Aug 17, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 39 min.

 

“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” centers itself around the character of Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a young Asian-American teenager who finds herself becoming the biggest sister of the household with her older sister leaving for college in Scotland of all places. She’s shy, introverted, but fairly charming, so why doesn't she find herself amongst friends or, better yet, amongst boys? (Not that girls do anything else, but talk about boys, obviously) She’s afraid of falling love. Beyond that, she’s afraid of letting herself become vulnerable to someone else’s charms, letting them swoop into her life, and possibly, eventually, crushing her world. It stems from the loss of her mother at a young age, to combat this fear she writes love letters to those she has crushes on, even addressing them. She never sends them out, of course, doesn’t even plan to. One of them though is addressed to her big sister’s recently dumped boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard), an obvious big “no no.” When her big sister leaves, and her younger sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), believes Lara Jean (Lana Condor) to be lonely, she sends the letters out without her knowing about it.  

Soon, one of these boys, Peter (Noah Centineo), approaches Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and breaks the news to her that he can’t be with her because of his history with Gen (Emilija Baranac), someone who used to be Lara’s (Lana Condor) friend in middle school. She freaks out when she sees Josh (Israel Broussard) approaching with his letter, and kisses Peter (Noah Centineo). Later, they find themselves meeting up at her favorite cafe, and Peter (Noah Centineo) hatches this idea that they should pretend to be together to gain the attention of his ex so they can, inevitably, get back together. 

What does Lara Jean (Lana Condor) get out of it? Attention, the eyes of the school noticing her instead of ignoring her. At least I presume that’s her reasoning, it’s not made clear exactly, but the lies are made to be real, and it soon becomes a question of if they are faking it or are they beginning to fall for one another?

It’s not exactly an original story, with films like “The Proposal” and “Just Go With It” carrying out a fairly similar plot, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” can be seen as a product of its genre. Merely regurgitating the same story, but with a gender swap, a dropping in age, and a pinch of diversity. How that diversity is treated isn’t exactly for the better, it’s arguably stigmatized. Being treated as a young Asian girl falling for all the white men in her life, except for Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro) who is the one black guy to be found, but he’s gay so what does it matter, I guess. It’s not exactly racist, saying the ways it treats race is off-putting would be a better way of saying it. Oxford Kondō has a great article over it called “‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ Has Creepy Racial Things Going On,” I’ll leave the link for that here: (https://planamag.com/to-all-the-boys-i-ve-loved-before-has-creepy-racial-things-going-on-ad513e4dd470)

“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” has a lot of good things in it that makes it stand out from the crowd of romantic comedies, one of them is not the screenwriting. Written by Sofia Alvarez, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA novel, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” isn’t nuanced, but more than that, it's a bit dull. The film begins with an introduction to our young protagonist fantasies of romance, she reads these Fabio-like stories, meeting her crush in the “field of desire.” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) She sees romance in this frame, like that of a cheesy-fable of sorts, why? It doesn’t make her intriguing, rather empty. She’s a stereotypical teenager, which doesn’t make for great character investment. The story doesn’t take the time for that sort of thing though. It races straight towards the highlights of all rom-coms. The cutesy moments, the montages, and the inevitable break-up which leads to the heartening confessions of love. 

All of the tropes and things of that sort are not just sprinkled on top of the story, rather brushed over whatever story there is to be had. Not to mention that motivations are never made clear, why does Lara Jean (Lana Conor) choose to go along with Peter’s (Noah Centineo) plan? Is it for popularity? Is it to make Josh (Israel Broussard) jealous? Why does she do it? It’s the kind of question that if left unanswered like it is in Sofia Alvarez’s screenplay, it’s hard to accept or go along with anything else happening on-screen. 

The good things to be found “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” have to deal with the things on-camera, specifically Lana Conor who nails the quirky and innocent teenage girl, merely trying to figure out how to be both who she used to be and who she wants to be. Struggling to both mature into a new woman, while remaining true to herself. It’s a character that is seen as cliche, therefore easy, but it's far more difficult to sculpt something as double-sided as this, Lana Conor accomplishes this actorial feat with ease. 

The surrounding cast is quite charming and enjoyable as well, but the screenplay provided to them gives them little room to grow. The portrayal of these characters is a different story, as Susan Johnson works closely with veteran cinematographer Michael Fimognari, framing these characters and their interactions with a silhouette and portrait style of design. Time stops for them, freezing and giving these characters a pause in artistry. Rarely does this genre provide such a visual treat, Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” accomplished the same feat earlier this year, and just like that film, much of my praise goes out to both Susan Johnson and Michael Fimognari who are exceptional in their compositioning of such a bland and re-hashed story. 

Some of us can overlook the cliches because we’re enjoying the ride so much that we don’t notice the familiar beats and bumps. I do that with my fair share of genres and blockbusters, I am sure you’ve noticed, but this is a genre where I wish to see something new. I know it's far more arduous than writing film and television reviews, but there has to be some wasted talent out there. 

This film has female voices behind it, and I love that, and it's painted with diversity, and I love that too, but I also love good stories. "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" may be constructed by new hands and new voices, but it never becomes something of its own. Blending in instead of standing out, I guess, in that way, it remains true to the teenage drama. 

The Happytime Murders (2018)

   Director: Brian Henson With: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid, & Michael McDonald. Release: Aug 24, 2018 R. 1 hr. 31 min.

Director: Brian Henson
With: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid, & Michael McDonald.
Release: Aug 24, 2018
R. 1 hr. 31 min.

 

Puppets be crazy. Snorting lines of sugar, ejaculating silly string, ripping each other felt from felt, and more and more can be found in Ben Henson’s “The Happytime Murders.” A film that echoes the noir and femme fatale of the detective genre while simultaneously lifting the buddy cop movie formula and stitching it together into a film that’s premise can be simplified into: “What if the Muppets were Rated R.”

Imagine a beatdown PI, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), whose life has been ruined by one mistake, one bad day. He was on top of the world, had a strong family, a great partner,  even had a girl too. He finds himself, singlehandedly, responsible for the letdown of others until the job pulls him back into the game. Bringing our cop turned drunk into an investigation that becomes personal, horrific, and alongside a partner that cost him his job in the first place, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa Mccarthy). 

Forced to work together, they combine their minds and begin to crack the case, sound familiar? Well, when you thought you had the answer, imagine that one of these noired characters is a puppet, not only that, but the world they reside in is immersed with puppets. Before you ask, yes, it becomes a movie that sounds like what it is and turns out to be exactly what you figured, a raunchy and obscene take on puppets. 

Existing in the vein of films like “Team America” and Vegas entertainments such as “Avenue Q,” “The Happytime Murders” is both an opportunity to expose the craftsmanship behind its creation and a passion project for Melissa Mccarthy and Ben Falcone who find themselves credited as producers. It’s not the first go around that we’ve seen something relatively innocuous get frankensteined into vulgarity, films like “Sausage Party” are examples in which the screenwriting process must have been: “the more outrageous, the better.” 

The art of puppeteering is exceptionally displayed during the end credits, showing the passion and the tinkering presented by these men and women who are buried behind green screen suits. Manifesting a believable look to a film that, if given life from the page, would seem likely in suspending disbelief. That is not the case, because the remarkability of the work of bringing puppets to life gets buried behind the haphazard attempts at world building and allegorical representing some form of discrimination that is ridiculously extremitized. Never establishing the rules of the world we, as an audience, have been dropped into. Merely complicating and contradicting points and indications that wouldn’t begin to rub against my viewing experience if there was something worth laughing at, that is not the case. 

The film has one joke, the idea of muppets being egregious. It carries that joke past its limit, then takes it even further, and then drills itself into the ground to dig its heels in for the long haul, a long haul that feels dullishly lengthy despite the ninety-minute runtime. Melissa Mccarthy and Maya Rudolph are the best parts when it comes to humor, but those moments occur on a literal one-time occurrence. 

It’s a sad attempt at crafting an entire film out of a funny SNL sketch, one that would be both funny and clever, but, most importantly, it would be short-lived. Never allowing itself to grow into something that requires world building, that cries out for an explanation, that begs for questions to be answered, none of which takes place in "The Happytime Murders." 

Ben Henson, the puppeteers, Melissa Mccarthy, and Maya Rudolph are the only things working for this movie, but they are over shouted by the idiocy of a screenplay that borrows far more than it creates. Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson co-screenwrite a mess of a story that attempts to hide behind the facade of “Muppets gone wild,” a premise that wears thin in a matter of minutes. Needing to get more out of its marketable proposition, Berger and Robertson struggle to gain any traction, even when telling the detective drama/murder mystery. Leaving a story that provides twists with no payoff, investigations that lack curiosity, and partners who share little to no chemistry. 

“The Happytime Murders” is a dumpster fire of dummies, dolls that are being construed to the point of crassness for laughs that will come and go for some audiences. For me, it’s a film past it's prime, more suitable for a release in the mid-2000’s than in the inventive and prosperous time that we, as film fans, find ourselves. I’m all for the bizarre and outside the box fanfare getting wide released, but the cheap service offered from “The Happytime Murders” is only watchable in the sense of seeing how masterful these artists can be in breathing life into felt. 

In this case, the ironic dumb-downed summary of this film is a group of writers sticking their hand of the backside of cinema’s past to spout out something anew, distracting us from the trickle in their throat. Confusing the craft for a party trick, “The Happytime Murders” is a puppet without a voice. 

Blaze (2018)

   Director: Ethan Hawke  With: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell, Wyatt Russell, Steve Zahn, & Kris Kristofferson.  Release: Aug 17, 2018 R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

Director: Ethan Hawke
With: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell, Wyatt Russell, Steve Zahn, & Kris Kristofferson. 
Release: Aug 17, 2018
R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

 

Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is a Texas-sized story with a southern hearted tone. It’s easy to like and full of notable and simplified deep-south wisdom like that of “Rain doesn’t try and fall, it just falls," it also tells these elongated jokes that are simplistically amusing. Feeling southern rooted in more ways than one, it’s the kind of tale meant for audiences in favor of both that blues/folk/country style music and those who find themselves head over heels for the lone star state. As a Lonestar native myself, I can’t help but admit that my heritage belongs to the Banner state, but my soul has belonged to the northern and western ways of life for a good while now. That’s not to say this movie is meant for prideful Texans only though, “Blaze” has more to it than it's Texas foreground. 

It’s a spiritual chronology through one-man’s life, one that has a lot of relatability within it, as well as some gaping holes that are soaked with wasted potential. Inspired from his work in “Born to be Blue,” the Oscar-nominated actor/writer/director/producer displays his affinity for the folk-tale music legend of Blaze Foley (Ben Dickie). It’s not a biographical journey through his life as much as it is a cinematic translation of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music. Providing a soul-filled glance at how his art developed through his life, how his interactions, affairs, romances, and journey’s through his wistful life affected his music. 

If you’ve never heard of Blazy Foley (Ben Dickie), then you’ll feel the same confusion I did in understanding what made this man the talk of East Texas. He was something of a contemporary of musicians, having a reminiscent flair for country music legends like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who recorded one of his songs, bet you didn’t know that. I bet you were also unaware of his intimate friendship with country legend Townes Van Zandt, infamous for his heartbreakingly despairing works of songwriting. Telling stories that are sure to crack the coldest of hearts, and Foley’s (Ben Dickie) is something of the same breed. 

The story condenses itself into three major storylines, a wise movie from veteran filmmaker Ethan Hawke, choosing to avoid the typical bumps and back roads of the traditional biopic. Each of these three narratives takes place from separate times in Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. Opening with a radio interview between Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and his long-time friend and collaborator; Zee (Josh Hamilton; whose year of indie prominence is worth noting). The two gentlemen reminisce on their times with Foley (Ben Dickie), telling stories of someone who was a legend to one of them, and a real-life friend to another. It’s a duality of storytelling that could’ve been focused more upon, but I’ll get into that later, as the story flashes back to his final moments. His last performance in a podunk bar in the middle of a nowhere town. He’s drunker, sadder, and poetically philosophical throughout his final 24 track recording session. The last echoes of a folk-hero. 

In the midst of that final outing, we are given an anchoring glance through his life, especially his once in a lifetime kind of love with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), a young Jewish girl he met inside of floundering artistic community. She became his muse. He became her anchor. Each of them in desperate need of one another’s companionship, but both needed to learn how to love each other from afar. It’s one of the year’s best romances, one that eclipses the stereotypical standards of the genre; perhaps it's the reality breathed into it from Hawke. 

His visuals are predominantly responsible for that, painting these grungy but sunset colored manners that echoes the heart of small-town Texas, despite the majority of the story being filmed in Louisiana. The use of colors is also something worth noting, as Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens fashion some of the year’s most striking silhouettes. From Foley’s (Ben Dickie) portrait imagery to the heart-wrenching imagery of a dying father hearing his children sing, maybe for the last time. All of it echoes a heart that cannot be matched, but it begins to derail from its prominence the further it goes on. 

Forgetting to match the story with technical brilliance, Hawke lets the music overstay its welcome. The use of montages borders between the lines of cinematic adaptation and an over-long music video, manifesting an aloofness to the emotion buried beneath the happy nostalgic trails of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. It’s not just that protracted walk through the highlights of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) past that thwart the film’s prominence. It's the negligence for potential. 

Hawke sets the foundation for more magnificent storytelling points, assembling a groundwork that dissects the themes of remembrance, an artist’s conflict, and even the dissection of small-town America. He sees these recipes for success, he also begins to let them breathe, but he plays the film safe. When Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music becomes the focus of our storyline, the film succeeds, allowing the most outright critics of country music to fall in love with the soft-acoustic rhythms of this pseudo-musical romantic biopic, but “Blaze” could have become so much more than that, placing itself in the forefront for best indie-pic of the year. 

Hawke’s hesitance becomes a noticeable gap in quality, Ben Dickie is the complete opposite of that notion, standing outright and head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s not only the star of this film but the commanding voice behind the film’s best aspects. He’s a musician in real life, and it shows throughout his time as Blaze (Ben Dickie). Being able to perform the wistful and songbird exceptionality of the musical excellence were given witness to. He describes the struggle being in the matching of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) pitches and tones with the chords. He along with co-star Alia Shawkat provide performances that are lived-in, breathing a sense of long-grated experience to them at every point and time. 

It’s a talented piece of work, put together through a multitude of proficient filmmaking from both Hawke’s visual acuity and his direction of both his breakout star and young up and comer. It’s a cohesive body of work that accomplishes its task in bringing more eyes to the forgotten legacy of Blaze Foley. It’s much like the line delivered by Ben Dickie when asked if he want’s to be a star he replies, “I don’t want’st to be a star, I want’st to be a legend. Stars shine bright, but they, eventually, go dark. Legends last forever.” 

“Blaze” is a star of a movie, shining bright and flying high, eventually fading into darkness though, becoming a film that missed it's potential by a noticeable margin, like that of it's subject. Remaining one of Hawke’s best outings as a filmmaker thus far and a prominent introduction to the star quality of Ben Dickie, but nowhere near as great as it could’ve been. 
 

Mile 22 (2018)

   Director: Peter Berg  With: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, Elle Graham, Niklai Nikolaeff, Carlo Alban, Terry Kinney, Poorna Jagannathan, Sam Medina, & CL.  Release: Aug 17, 2018 R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

Director: Peter Berg
With: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, Elle Graham, Niklai Nikolaeff, Carlo Alban, Terry Kinney, Poorna Jagannathan, Sam Medina, & CL. 
Release: Aug 17, 2018
R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

 

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg's fourth collaboration, “Mile 22,” is a shocking drop off in quality. This is not the “Deepwater Horizon” Peter Berg, whose visual taste can be breathtakingly cinematic, this is the “Battleship” Peter Berg, where the story and visual language are ferociously absurd. It’s an incomprehensible mess of a movie, so much so, that the “style over substance” criticism feels insufficient. It’s the kind of movie that waves it's masculine mentality throughout its runtime, as well as attempting to carry a semblance of a fear-mongering political message, spouting off how all the injustice in the world cannot be solved by diplomacy or governments, but by bullets.  

It levels with the same silliness that “Bad Boys II” contained, solving problems through violence and only violence. It’s the only absolute answer to the world’s issues apparently, and screenwriter Lea Carpenter makes sure we’re aware of that at all times. Vehicularizing Mark Wahlberg’s monologues as diatribes about how governments are ridiculous and how our American eyes are blind to a world in need of cleansing, yadda yadda yadda. We are consistently reminded of the shadiness that we’re watching. These hitmen are not working for the government. They are deep secret outlaws, they are the unsung heroes, blah blah blah. 

It’s horrendously amusing to watch, mostly because how serious Berg and Carpenter treat the matter. Managing the message like that of the hidden truth that we need to hear as Americans because no has attempted to gush about this nonsense before, but I am getting ahead of myself. 

The narrative surrounds a rogue group of mercenaries for hire, codenamed “Overwatch.” They sign their resignations, live in the darkness, and save the United States from threats hitherto unknown. They are the most elite of the elite, and they walk through the scenery of the film like that of the diplomats in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise. Pacing through hallways, spouting off how they know everything about everything and how they are the best of the best until they are faced with a mission of the highest importance. 

A former-source that recently provided terrible intel arrives at the gates of the embassy with a heavily encrypted disc of some kind, stating it contains necessary info that will prevent a massive terrorist attack and he will provide the key to its lock if he is granted asylum in the United States. He’s conspiring against his home country and is seen as an immediate threat to his government, one that needs to be removed from the equation as soon as possible. The “Overwatch” team is called to act, being assigned to deliver the package to an abandoned runway, “22 miles” away.

It’s your basic shoot em’ up thriller. With a bunch of bullets flying and shaky cam mumbo jumbo, “Mile 22” is a film belonging in the ere of the mid-2000’s. It becomes incredibly dated once we see the briskly editing, hypertension, hacked up treatment of the action sequences, which is confusing, considering the first action scene we’re treated too is a cleverly designed brawl starring stunt mastermind, Iko Uwais. He’s handcuffed to a hospital bed, being tested for a multitude of things, I guess, then suddenly he notices that the doctors are assassins in hiding. The fight breaks out, and the battle ensues, and it's handled adequately. The camera is vibrant, not tumultuous, but energetically charged. 

The rest of the action scenes are not near as skillful, they diverge in quality on each occasion, becoming more and more like a Paul W.S Anderson film. Snippety cuts, excluding the use of time or spacial awareness for the audience, and becoming a film that leaves you asking “what is going on?” There is no moment where we settle down, no moment where we get to catch our breath, re-acquaint ourselves with the characters, and begin to resonate with them. The film frantically moves through those sequences, excusing itself as a straight-up action film, so that it doesn’t have to provide characters that are worth our time. 

It’s not the worst thing in the world. The performances tend to get lost amid the fog of the firefights anyways, supposedly trying to be a frenetic showcase of style over substance. The method of “Mile 22” is a frenzy of extremity that is irritatingly ridiculous though, with Mark Wahlberg screeching and hollering and swiftly spouting off monologues of his affinity for killing people, even innocent people if necessary, like that of the trigger-happy drone mechanic who overlooks these missions, begging to kill anyone and everyone. The cinematography is absent of a voice, merely shooting the action with fumbling hands, and the characters are assholes with names. It's a surprising shell of a film from a filmmaker I thought was back on the beaten path; I guess I was wrong. 

Where “Mile 22” become one of the year's worst though, is when Carpenter wants us to resonate with characters that kill innocent people, because we live in an unjust world and we should desire to make it just by any means necessary like that of our heroes in hiding. Rational minded people see the illogicality of that kind of characterization, we can see through the macho man persona and the gun-ho facade that lurks behind that mentality. The skills and precisions of this deep cover unit are not the focus; it's the bloodshed and broken bones that stem from those conflicts, the mayhem is the hidden beauty, it’s the necessity to cleaning up this mess of a world.
 
At least that’s what Peter Berg wants us to see as if there is no other feasible solution. I am guessing that Berg is not a fan of the sentiment “the pen is mightier than the sword,” neither is Wahlberg I presume. They might take a walk through history, see how many lives could have been saved by such a weapon, they might learn a thing or two, unlike me. I walked in and walked out knowing next to nothing about this movie; it’s a frenetic mess of absurdity, one that runs past you like a crazed man shouting “doomsday is upon us.” It’s a marathon of idiocy. 
 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

   Director: Jon M. Chu With: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, & Jing Lusi. Release: Aug 15, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 

Director: Jon M. Chu
With: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, & Jing Lusi.
Release: Aug 15, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 

 

It had been 25 years since a film had an entire ensemble of Asian-Americans as it's cast, let alone an Asian-American filmmaker. Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” was that last piece of absolute representation, an indie-darling of a film that focused on the relationship between Asian mothers and their American born daughters. It’s no coincidence that twenty-five years later, almost exactly to the date, Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” has been released into American theaters, framing a similar story to screenwriter Amy Tan’s novella. Being a novel adaptation itself, “Crazy Rich Asians” co-screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim adapt Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling story. A tale about a native new-yorker, Rachel (Constance Wu), getting lost in the depths of undiscovered secrets, kept from her by the man she loves. She discovers these secrets when she travels with him to meet his family in Singapore. 

She discovers his wealth, his family history, the in’s and out’s of an unfamiliar culture, and the struggle of gaining approval from a traditional-devout mother, one who refuses to believe that Rachel (Constance Wu) could ever be good enough for her son. Amongst the rom-com formula, you may also discover subplots that focus on the inherent conflicts that wealth can create, as well as the fish out of water cliche of our desperate lover attempting to wear shoes that don’t belong to her, pretending to be someone she’s not. It’s a story that is inherently familiar to American audiences, but the film provides a cultural flair that is unmistakably un-American. How great is that? 

This isn’t a criticism of why America is awful. I’m not going to break out into “This is America” raps and grunts, and “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t do that either, it merely celebrates its heritage and its makeup. It transports us to a corner of the world that is rarely shown in this grand of fashion. Jon M. Chu and talented cinematographer Vanja Cernjul ( “The Deuce” & “Marco Polo”) do just that though, providing a natural flow and bloom of Singapore that is conducted with a taste of wisdom. 

They masterfully stage these majestically transformative silhouettes of the beautiful terrain and ecology of a place that is hardly treated with such prestige. The glimpses of this culture that we get to see are nothing to shake a stick at either. It’s where Jon M. Chu earns his pinstripes as a director to be reckoned with, taking us on a private tour through the beat-up streets of Singapore, where we learn that the street vendor food is to die for, and we get to see the grandeur of Asian American tradition and style, peeking its head out with confidence. 

Its chin is held high, looking down upon us, as if to remind us of the power and the beauty that culture, such as this one, can possess. It’s a marvelous journey through a society that is rarely treated with such honesty and brilliance, usually focusing on the Samurai’s and NInja’s of its past, forgetting that this world has more to offer than mere swords and throwing stars. It’s a visual marvel, one that can take your breath away at times, as well as riddle you with goosebumps as the wedding ceremony that takes place in this film is perhaps one of the most poetically stunning sequences of imagery I’ve seen this year. 

It all serves up to something spectacular, but the story is unable to match the opulence of diversity seen on the silver screen, it crumbles underneath a reliance on cliches and tropes. Bordered by the tiresome formula of a rom-com, Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s adaptation feels vapid, broadly stroked, but with little heart. Though it has its fair share of surprises, using our assumptions against us like that of the screenwriters behind “The MEG,” it never provides a voice worth listening too, rarely stepping out and shamelessly expressing itself. 

They are sprinkles here and there, moments where the defiance and the unbashful pride swell up, and we get to feel the fervency lying behind the closed doors of the screenwriting, but it’s few and far between. Unlike “Black Panther,” a similar empowering body of work, “Crazy Rich Asians” suffers from trying to be too American at times, despite the world building and the landscapes of the scenery feeling inherently opposite. The story is something you would see from a Reese Witherspoon movie, which is not a compliment. 

The performances are notable though, Constance Wu is strikingly charming, providing a solid outing that only suffers from a lack of investing character writing. Awkwafina is given her time in the spotlight, being the comic relief of the film, just overstaying her welcome on a few occasions. Her partner in crime is Nico Santos who depicts a presumably gay fashion designer (because gay guys can only be fashion designers apparently), and they provide some genuine chemistry, both with each other and Constance. 

The stand out of the film, undoubtedly, is Henry Golding. He is effortlessly charming throughout this entire runtime, never feeling out of place, or out of character. He is perfection in this role as the suave, hunk, prince-charming, bachelor of Singapore. He’s funny, earnest, and kindling an organically resonating relationship with Constance, one that is both believable and tangible. His disapproving mother, phenomenally depicted by Michelle Yeoh, is a great character as well, one that doesn’t feel out of bounds either. 

These are the twists of expectations that are used against us, superbly. There is no secret conspiracy, no big melt-down moment, no-corny material, it all makes sense. It just adds up to something that isn’t quite as memorable as the tour of culture given to us by Justin M. Chu. He has a knack for visuality, one that I hope is put to good use throughout his career, which is what we can only wish will be the result of a film like this one. 

Opportunity. More chances to invite us into a new world that is visible and tangible, merely hidden from our American eyes. It’s a trait of filmmaking that can invigorate an experience with an intangible spirit, like that of the same beaming, elation of energy I felt when walking out of “Crazy Rich Asians.” 

Though the narrative is bogged down, broken down into something more readily digestible for American audiences, the scope of this film is vast, grand, and spectacularly diverse from expectations. It’s an all-access pass into a washed away culture, one that is radiating with hidden potential. 
 

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.
 

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 this year. 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 the colors of white and black. 

It’s a horror film at its core, one that is heavy hitting and grasps for fantasy, while remaining persistently tethered to reality. It’s also a scathing trip of a movie, like that of “Sorry To Bother You,” even borrowing certain aspects of that film in how the engineered craftsmanship from screenwriters Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) use 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, (He’s only got three days left, so it’s crunch time for our main character) 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 when a scared and running black figure slams into his truck, keeping him from proceeding. 

Suddenly a cop appears behind him, he watches 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. He buys a gun, illegally. 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. Those stylistic ambitions can become a burden more than an aid though, muddling the messages of the film and by relying more on the delivery system than the package being delivered.

Nontheless, "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 the kind of story that seems like something out of a David Chappelle skit. It’s 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 a true story too, one that conjured 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, like that of his father, 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. 

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. 

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. 

1.5_4 stars.png
 

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.  
 

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. 
 

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. 

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set It Up (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Drew (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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