Instant Family (2018)

   Director: Sean Anders With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, & Tom Segura. Release: Nov 16, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 59 min.

Director: Sean Anders
With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, & Tom Segura.
Release: Nov 16, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 59 min.

 

There is a conversation to be had about representation in film. How it should evolve, how portrayals should differ from years past, how diversity both on-screen and behind the camera needs to be addressed; and, this isn’t all to be brought up at the expense of a happy-sad film like “Instant Family.” But, there is an underlying subtext, a palpable tension, in particular moments of the narrative in which we’re watching a white, middle-class, suburbia couple (Pete: Mark Wahlberg; Ellie: Rose Byrne) adopt a trio of abused, damaged, and desperate for love Latino children (Lizzy: Isabela Moner; Juan: Gustavo Quiroz; Lita: Julianna Gamiz).

How miraculous is it that the picture paints itself with a flavor of white-privilege? Can’t you envision the Social Justice Warriors of the far-left, swooping down from the self-loathing towers of superstitious snobbery and demonizing a film such as this one? Shouting: “Racism” or “Another white savior trope!” Doesn’t that seem possible? More importantly, doesn’t that seem likely to happen?

This isn’t all to say that I’ve switched teams and am now an evangelical, “make America great again” kind of voter, but there is a fabric being stitched together in-between the predictable emotional climaxes and see-through endings that are merely meant to pluck tears out of you, instead of causing them to pour. I resonate with that code of conduct. That flag-bearer mentality. All of that is birthed out of white-guilt, that unassurance of what the right thing to feel is; and, we haven’t gotten to have such introspective and complicated discussions just yet. Right now it's about changing the status quo, which is all good with me, but eventually, that conversation needs to be had, and the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be.

Nevertheless, this isn’t all to sit back and praise “Instant Family” as a genius for such forward-thinking. It’s a happy accident; any drunk buffoon can see that. But, that’s not to say there is nothing here, quite the opposite. What “Instant Family” manifests is an abundance of topical discussions involving symbolism, behind the scenes operatives, the purpose of representation, the teetering lines between authentic representation and the shouting down of a different color of skin. Before we get there though, allow me to say that “Instant Family” is that happy-go-lucky kind of film.

It’s sappy, meant to pry any remnants of emotion left inside of the cold heart of any cynic and any critic. It a lot like last year’s “Wonder,” a film about a disabled child learning to embrace himself. Matching that textural expression of surface-level emotion, how adoption is a complicated process. How the complications that arise are not only challenging for the kids but the foster parents as well. The examining of this duality, of this shared struggle, is a bit like a one-liner: smooth and soft, and a bit pudgy. It rolls off the tongue and contains a sharp edge; remaining firm and stoic with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The crafting of such a film, aesthetically, is quite easy on the eyes. It’s simple, elementary, and knows when and where to insert a sprinkle of update or change from its contemporaries. The performances are all satisfactory, few of them step out of line or attempt to cross an unagreed upon threshold. It’s all smooth sailing. Which is sort of the point isn’t it?

These are the fluff pieces of the cinema, never reaching for a brass ring, or daring to wake up the person next to you. It’s in the name of good fun, and, because of that, the grade above represents a passing score. Not because the film is grand or breaking new ground, but because it plays the formula to perfection. The moments of relief, of that smiling cry, are there and you can’t help but grin at the joy of a parent’s hard work paying off with the words “Goodnight ‘Mommy’!” That ounce of appreciation, that moment of sheer glee, is what this movie works for, and I’m not afraid to say that I fell for it. I bought into the trick, fell for the bluff, got lost in the sun, or whatever other expressions you want to use to say: “I bought in.”

If a film can do that, well, it’s hard to say it's a bad movie at that point huh? However, like the rest of these passable products of the multiplex, there is a monumental gap in the excavation of these characters. It’s a term I’ve used quite a bit over the last bit of time, and for a good reason. One, I think it's a pretty word. Two, it’s true; a story involving characters should be treated as an archeological dig, reaching back into the past and figuring out what made it work before and why; and then taking that artifact of genius and issuing it into your collection of storytelling tools. There is never a moment in this film where the kids are not portrayed as damaged goods in need of repairing. The superficial emotion and the predictability of our story are expected traits. It’s a contractually-obligated token of the experience, one that is only rewarding to us depressed suckers who go to see these movies every holiday season.

The gears, the cogs behind that emotion though, that’s something that can be evolved. That’s a criticism worth noting; especially when that line between white-skinned heroism and honest-to-god humanity is teetering on the edge of a cliff. There needed to be a moment, a time, where the film provided that dose of authenticity in which these kids chose to be repaired, decided that it was time for a change. Some will argue it's the admissions of “Daddy” and the climactic finale, but that’s the product we paid for, where is the one that we didn’t?

Listen, I know that most of the audience is there for a cry-fest; just hoping to see a story that is peeling back a curtain just enough to weep a tear or two. But, there is something to be said about the divine intervention lurking within the background of a film such as this one. As I said, it’s an act of long arm coincidence, but there is an ounce of remedy, an ounce of mastery; I would even go as far to say a shred of artistry looming over this easy to digest movie. We all stumble upon perfection at one point and time, what if that’s what happened here and they were too attached to the blueprint to notice? I guess we’ll never know, isn’t that a crock of shit.

The Grinch (2018)

   Director: Yarrow Cheney & Scott Mosier With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavagnino, & Scarlett Estevez. Release: Nov 9, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

Director: Yarrow Cheney & Scott Mosier
With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavagnino, & Scarlett Estevez.
Release: Nov 9, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

 

Two of the more notable Christmas figures aren’t exactly big fans of the holiday. Dickens offered us Ebenezer Scrooge, a man that oozes greed and disdain for those who bear an affinity for the Christmas season. The story is about reflecting a man’s loneliness, a man’s absence of humanity, as the core cause for his insignificant life. How no one will remember him, because no one knew him. The hardening of his heart is designed to melt, as is Dr. Seuss’ (Theodor Geisel) furry, green, and charmingly vile figure “The Grinch.”

A classic since its publication in 1958, the book inspired its fair share of adaptations. However, the mimicking of Seuss’ aggravating rhymes and symmetrical storytelling has always been something of a nuisance for myself. I know that it is an epochal trait of Seuss’ style or form as a children’s novelist, but it's a formalization of narrative that only feels quintessential for the youthful reader. It’s more of a bolstering blister for the adults in the room, which is how Scott Mosier (acclaimed Kevin Smith producer) and Yarrow Cheney (co-director of “The Secret Life of Pets”) fabricate the newest illustration of Seuss’ iconic holiday tale.

The backstory and the narrative itself are all-too-familiar, barely sketching diverging pathways for previously acquainted audiences. The differences in the story are slight, hardly noticeable. In fairness, the adaptation of a story (especially one as beloved as this one) is a challenging feat. Maintaining a native resemblance to the original and a nuanced form for the next generation, that’s not exactly a mixture of storytelling that arrives with ease. Nor is the blending of maturity and adolescent-targeted screenwriting, as the best of the family genre resides in that crux of genius. How a story like “Toy Story” can latch itself to both the whimsical nature of kids and the reserved insecurity of adults, that’s something of a feat of higher-level thinking that “The Grinch” strays away from, which should come to no surprise.

“Despicable Me” was a film only as good as it's childlike entertainment values, never competing with the likes of “Inside Out,” “Finding Nemo,” or any of the other peaks of the American animation cinema. Illumination has never attempted to breach that barrier, choosing to remain reserved and predominantly careful with their films. Targeting an audience, and one audience only, “The Grinch” remains grounded by its lack of maturation or adult-like motifs and messages to be delivered through childhood wonder.

That said, there are some lunges in diversity that are welcomed. The idea of a strong-mother storyline in which Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) hopes to have one gift, and one gift only, for her year-long benevolence. It’s not for her, but for her double-shift working, exhausted, and continuously devoted mother (Rashida Jones). Watching her lead a gang of hoodlums and pranksters is a joy to see, as is the amusing recapturing of Seuss’ infamous main-character.

First depicted, at least filmatically, by Boris Karloff in the 1966 television featurette, and most recently portrayed by Jim Carrey in the 2000 live-action picture, directed by Ron Howard; “The Grinch” is a character that has shredded many green fur coats, and now Illumination has quite possibly upstaged them all. Now, Karloff’s 1966 version is incomparable in many ways, seemingly unable to be overshadowed for its prominence as the original film debut for the character. However, Benedict Cumberbatch most certainly levels that of his contemporary Jim Carrey. Jim’s performance always walked the tightrope between Carrey’s improvisational brilliance and an authentic enlivening of the grassy, grizzly Skrooge. At times, he leans far too much into Carrey’s comedic genius, straying away from the character itself and masquerading the Grinch beneath the presence of the immaculacy that is Jim Carrey.

Cumberbatch, though performing through voice-over, encapsulates the character’s childlike freight, while maintaining a warm, fuzzy sense of a lonely man looking for someone to accompany him on these destructive adventures. He strays away from his well-known captivating techniques, choosing to invoke an American accent to veil his identity beneath the pixelated animation. It’s not great enough to surpass Karloff’s iconic depiction, but it certainly outdoes Carrey’s spontaneity.

The modernizing of animation lends a helping hand as well, manufacturing a level of world building that is brilliantly intricate and imaginatively festive. It’s delightfully Seussian, slanting and curving through the wondrous world of Whoville. The festivity is animated with splendor, fabricating captivatingly illustrative gingerbread villages, mitten-shaped windows, and snow-enriched environments that encapsulates the aesthetical gala of the Christmas season. The Grinch’s monstrous cave is drenched in child-like curiosity, stretching far and wide in solidarity and isolation like that of the devious smile of the frivolous Grinch.

The gadgets and equipment the Grinch creates are devilishly clever, the action scenes are slapstick and energetic, and the music, is livelily reimagined by Danny Elfman, but trespasses the pop-ridden modernizing with a propped up version of Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Tyler the Creator. A lot of it feels that way though, teetering between ridiculously renovated and sharply adapted.

“The Grinch” is a welcomed treat nonetheless, a warm enough illustration of the famous Christmas tale that will thaw the coldest of hearts. It’s charming and cute, never losing that fantastical juvenile mischief; able to firmly plant itself in the thickness of the snow and provide enough heart-warming cheer to make even the most cynical man cry.

Mid90s (2018)

   Director: Jonah Hill With: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Katherine Waterston, & Olan Prenatt. Release: Sep 9, 2018 R. 1 hr. 24 min.

Director: Jonah Hill
With: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Katherine Waterston, & Olan Prenatt.
Release: Sep 9, 2018
R. 1 hr. 24 min.

 

Jonah Hill’s first directorial feature “Mid90s” is a renaissance film in its purest form. One still shot inside the rooms of 13-year-old and 17-year-old Los Angeles natives Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and his older abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) will inform you as to when this story takes place. The emphatically spotlighted posters of Wu-Tang Clan, the immaculate Air Jordans in the closet, and the Nintendo 64 being used is plenty enough exterior evidence to inform you as to what decade the film’s plot occurs. The debris of this era is scattered throughout Hill’s 4:3 frame, fanning out any and every remnant of the time; manifesting an archeological dig into the times before the internet, before the popularity of diversity, before the evolvement of culture.

It’s sacred, guarded almost, especially with that of Ian who protects his room ferociously. He commands Stevie to stay out in one of the opening scenes, who, of course, ignores that direct order and intrudes Ian’s personal space. He examines and investigates the room like that of a crypt, carefully deciding what items he can touch and which ones should remain dormant. When we learn that he trespassed to conjure up some kind of gift for his older brother’s 17th birthday, our hearts ache as Stevie is just a young lad looking for someone to care for him.

He takes brutal bumps throughout the film, emotionally and physically. Breaking bones, spilling blood, and exchanging primordial screams of buried rage; Stevie is a kid with hair bigger than his head and a shy gaze of innocence. When he becomes star-struck by the so-called “cool kids” at his local skate shop, he’s awkward and fidgety around them. Unsure of what the right thing to say is, or better yet, what’s the cool thing to say is. He’s never interacted with someone who doesn’t ask something of him or demands something from him. His mother (Katherine Waterston) is a work-obsessed, casual hook-up, kind of gal; allowing strangers of men to intrude upon her family without warning.

It’s one of the reasons given to explain the diffusion between brotherhood, but it's one of the many fragments worth a closer-look that Hill chooses to neglect. Hill’s job here, seems to be entirely centered around rebirthing the time, the era, the essence of “Mid90s” aura. In that frame, he excels. Stevie interacts with this illustrious group of rebellious teenagers in a vein that echoes the decade of masquerading. They spit off terms like “faggot” and “like” with the same kind of repetitious and casual behavior.

The leader of the group, Rey (Na-kel Smith) is the literal embodiment of the “cool kid.” He’s suave, athletic, and by far the best skater of the group; he also just-so-happens to be the more level-headed/mature member who is looking for a way out of the ghetto. He has dreams of “going pro” and skating for his life to do so, but he’s not alone in this endeavor. His best friend, nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because he prefaces every comment with a droning “Fuuuck. Shit.”, is someone who denies that whole “growing up” thing, believes it to be a cliche of life. To settle down, to aspire to be better is something of a commonplace to him. So obviously painted by his fear, he and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), nicknamed because that’s about the level of his intelligence, record and cheer on Rey in hopes that his dreams will come true. Ruben (Gio Galicia), the closest to Stevie in age, is so desperately terrified of being perceived as gay. Manipulating the connotation of “thank you” as a signifier of homo, something the cool “Rey” has to set right for Stevie later on.

The unquestioned fatal design of the social interpretation of “Manhood” is something of a pivotal role in their relationships; how sex becomes a test of coolness, or how the scrapes and bruises that Stevie gains from trying to prove his worth are signifiers of toughness. Something that Hill skims over along with many other emotionally gripping subjects, like that of the conscious rebuttal of homosexuality amongst the generation, how these kids so casually refute that difference of sexuality based off of misread or misguided philosophies taught to them by those who surround them.

The film is almost absent of adults, which would spark some idea that the coming-of-age aspects of the film would somehow elaborate upon the false cultural pretenses of the time. But, much like the decade in question, “Mid90s” attempts to oversee the scratches so effortlessly heard on the record being played. Rather analyzing the relationships of these boys, how growing up can complicate things, especially when some of them are maturing faster than others. But, the abusive household and the internal strifes that oppose Stevie are rendered through haphazard efforts, as if he can merely skate away from his troubles. While poetically apt for such a film, the struggles produced and studied by Hill need more time, more attention, more air to breathe before moving onto the next problem in question.

Sometimes, what has been left out of the story is just as necessary as what’s been left in, and Hill, as a young filmmaker, needs to understand the difficulty of that high wire act. Though not his first writing gig, with credits of “21 & 22 Jump Street” and “Sausage Party” underneath his belt, Hill is inexperienced in character study, in examining pain and strife. Here, he leaves out explanations for Ian’s rage, his psychological breakdown that we glimpse at after he beats Stevie down is never examined or brought up again. Hedges, who is proving to be a versatile and talented actor with each new picture, is never given his moment of pay off, a scene where he allows us a peek under the hood.

Most of the actors must feel this way, most of whom have no prior film or television experience. They are, quite literally, fresh new faces who work some magic with what they have. Though not near as enduring or moving as what could’ve been, the scene in which Na-kel Smith and Sunny Sujic talk things out fabricates a feeling of vulnerability. One of the rare moments in “Mid90s” where we can see what’s behind the characters, what’s haunting them, and how they deal with such a dilemma. And while Hill’s impromptu nature is on display, concocting a sense of familiarity and life-long friendship amongst the young ensemble, nobody gives a performance worth noting. Not because a lack of effort or care, but because of the lack of material to work off of; feeling handcuffed by design, the actors are boxed in and caged by the limits injected into a screenplay begging for more heart than skating.

There are a couple of moments of pure beauty to be found, the elongated rhythmic sequences of skating down highways, mirroring that of the Hulu documentary “Minding the Gap.” A doc that looks behind the skating, the feeling that transforms skating from a mere activity to an escape from life, into a figment of a reality that frees the young spirit from its prison. Hill should’ve done the same here, as it is hard to characterize the film as a “Coming-of-age” kind of movie when no one is actually coming towards something. The no-nonsense, low-def look is amplified by a tremendous score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with a soundtrack populated by hits from the vibrant time of the Mid-90s.

And though these exercise in nostalgia invoke care, excitement, and familial edge to such a film, “Mid90s” is spending far too much time looking over its shoulder than down at its own feet. Hill is gentle, light, and almost aloof in this project; rarely clearing through the brush and molding the rough edges of a film that feels far more like a first draft than the “straight-outta-the-gate masterpiece” we were advertised. As one of my favorite trailers of the year, I walked in wanting to love this movie; it’s always a hard thing to walk out burying that boyish wonder you walked into the theater with. Luckily, Hill has enough here for us to care about, he just needed to drill deeper to spring the oil-rich, goldmine lurking underneath.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

   Director: Jacques Audiard With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed. Release: Sep 2, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Jacques Audiard
With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed.
Release: Sep 2, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

“The Sister Brothers” is frontier road-trip that is continually reinventing itself, improvising at every twist and turn, from graphic body humor to witty, and ultimately moving brotherhood. It’s a film that evolves from its Wicked-style affairs to an action-filled and bloody shootout of wit and guts. It is absurdly revising the stereotypical shoot em’ up effects of a genre built upon gunfire and surface level emotions. Becoming both nostalgically familiar and inescapably nuanced, at least it's that way for the second half of its 120-minute runtime.

The backdrop is the Gold Rush, with that of Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), the sister brothers, as our central pair to follow. They’ve been tasked with the job of tailing and killing and even torturing a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has discovered a way to allow gold to appear in water glaringly. One of their illustrious and intellectual partners, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tracking this man and soon discovers this trick. Perceiving it as a way out to escape the thumb of ‘the Commodore,’ a feared crime boss who enacts a policy of reaping what you sow, so when these men barrel out of their deals to him, they find themselves on the receiving end of a bounty.

It’s a tale that doesn’t begin to grow on you until the latter half when we actually start to peel away the skin of these characters. Grasping the roots behind them, in what turns into a somewhat emotionally conflicting tale. The first half is quite the opposite, a lot of it is shrouded with meaningless set-up and road-trip backgrounds. The film builds itself as a traveling journey between these brothers, they bicker and argue and interact with nature in formidable fashions. They’re no slouches when it comes to surviving. The film opens with the fireworks of a shootout. The sparks of gunfire lighting the midnight sky.

We soon learn they’re a pair of cold-blooded hit-men, without much thought of the consequences of their actions, or the bodies that pile up behind them. They are cowboys in the truest sense of the word, antiquated and shortsighted. The film becomes that of a battle of brothers in a way, the older one looking for a way out for his brother, the other to covered in the muck of bloodshed to see anything ahead.

Charlie is the younger brother, one with a darker past than expected, a history that isn’t brought to fruition until the latter half of the film where it begins to pick up. Nonetheless, he’s a natural born killer in a way, one who is unable to escape his sinful past and actions that have caused so many bodies to pile up along the way. His older brother, Eli, is more soulful and gentle-natured.

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in this role, as is John C. Reily. Both of whom fabricate some surreal chemistry that mounts to a duo of performances that is some of the year’s best. Their pair of dancing partners in Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are fantastic as well, reuniting from their time on “Nightcrawler.”

These two pairs become paralleling stories. Two men are feeling as if they’ve known each other for longer than they actually have, forging a path for themselves that is struck with gold. The other, a pair of brothers who have, literally, known each other for the entirety of their lives, attempting to discover a way out of their experiences of mayhem.

The biggest problem with this entire period-piece of familial ties though is that the first half amounts to nothing more than a rehashing of a dialogue-heavy plot without meaning. It’s meandering, wallowing, and rambling to its ultimate point of story; it never begins to ignite itself, to allow it's the meat of the story to take hold of the screen until the inevitable finale. Perhaps it's the transitioning from the slow-burn, humanistic character studies to one of American cinema’s most infamous genres, the western, that French director Jacques Audiard struggled with; unable to capture the crux of the story being told until the bitter-sweet end.

The film is painted beautifully though, Audiard captures the old-west with vignette brilliancy and a level of rawness to its landscape as well, but that same level of tactile, of tangibility is lost upon the story for so long that you begin to feel as if your wandering in circles. When the bitter-sweet duality and the guilt-ridden relationship of brother take hold, both the performances and the story follow the grand, scope of the cinematic language laid forth.

“The Sister Brothers” is a movie without bite for most of its runtime, but when it does eventually begin to reach out and grab you and force your attention; “The Sister Brothers” becomes a quite moving film for both brothers and non-sibling audience members alike, but that long wait for relation makes it feel hollow and empty. Like the old west, it took quite a while for the Cowboys to discover their morality; when they did though, it was a beautiful thing to see.

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

   Director: David Lowery With: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, & John David Washington. Release: Sep 28, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

Director: David Lowery
With: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, & John David Washington.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

 

David Lowrey’s “The Old Man & the Gun” is a film meant for those of yesteryear. Yes, all films have a targeted demographic, but “Old Man & the Gun” amount's itself in the vein of an amalgamation of a man’s career as the cunning and suave commander of cinema. And though it's not a film as inclusive and broad-stroked as Lowrey’s previous outings, “The Old Man & the Gun” keeps Lowrey’s streak intact as a worthy but dwindling follow-up to the astonishing masterwork of “A Ghost Story.” As Lowrey, a relatively new name in the spectrum of directors, is a filmmaker of consistency. Setting one accomplished peak of work after another, surprising with his range of interests and audience-targeted intentions. In his newest work, he’s crafted a love letter to cinema’s past; one that relies too heavily on inside-baseball for us young folk to resonate with.

“The Old Man & the Gun” is a final film for someone who long ago surpassed mere actor status and became a name of iconic status, Robert Redford is that legendary figure. Making clear that “The Old Man & the Gun” is his final film, Redford flashes his charming smile, endearing us one last time with his twinkle-starred eyes. Redford leans into this adieu and farewell performance with a naturality, a sense of someone who’s grown tired of trying to keep on keeping on. He’s manifested a manifesto of sorts, one that is both ironically mirroring of the actor’s long-lasting career, as well as the finality of the bow he takes by the end of this exceptional performance.

Here, he plays long-time criminal and heist-manager Forrest Tucker, a lifelong rule-breaker whose been incarcerated 18 times, starting as early as 15 years old, and escaped a presumed record breaking 16 times. We meet him near the end of his illustrious career, a 74-year old man who has lived a life of adventure and unpredictability. Never settling for the family life or the stay at home and reap what you sow kind of livin’. No, instead, he and his two buddies who will be known as the “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover & Tom Waits) rob banks with a casualty and veteran-like expertise that never ends with calamity or violence, but instead formulates an surprising amount of endearment and respect for a thief that just stole from you. Forrest tells us one story after another, and Lowrey maintains the charm needed for us to sympathize with such a man. Making it out to be a character who stepped out of a John Huston film, a soft-hearted brute with an affinity for a crime.

The final days of the gang are spent challenging and accepting; how you can both still believe yourself to be young enough to embark upon nuanced journeys, but your age has a funny way of reminding you of your limits. In this vein, Forrest meets and flirts with the ever-so-talented Sissy Spacek depicting the innocent farm-girl caught up in someone else’s tricks and charm, Jewel. They first meet after Forrest robs a bank and, in an attempt to camouflage himself, he pulls over and pretends to assist her with some car troubles, despite knowing next to nothing about automobiles. He’s a quite peculiar man to her, never knowing if he’s who he says he is, or if he’s pretending to be someone else; a duality of identity that I think Redford even struggles to grasp a hold of himself.

His character seems to be someone stuck between a rock and a hard place; perplexed by whether it's time to hang up the runaway shoes and stay still for a time. He’s a character on the run from stability, on the run from the status-quo. Something John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the detective trying to catch him, sympathizes with. In this old-fashioned cop and robber lifestyle, an essence of respect is crafted between the hunter and hunted in these brief interactions between Redford and Hunt, a mouse toying with the cat who chases him. These moments of the film are where “The Old Man & the Gun” loses me though, the frames in which Lowrey seems to struggle with which talking-point should receive the spotlight. Is this a film about a man’s career? Or, is it about Cinema’s past? Or both?

This was a particular struggle I had, attempting to brush aside the suaveness and the piercingly sparkling charisma in hopes to discover a meaning to the story. Something I feel Lowrey never quite establishes as firmly as he has in the past, and in all fairness, he’s juggling a fair amount of excess fat. The cinematic language invoked period-piece heavy tone, fabricating a grained, distorted view that mirrors the old-fashioned-ness of such a work. Which then divulges into a film echoing the accomplishments of a man’s career, a story of reminiscence, and a tale of looking forward while peaking over your shoulder to make sure you're going the right way.

A lot is happening in such a film, so much so that Lowrey never actually decides which moment is worth far more discussion than the other; as if he can’t choose whether to retrace his footsteps or follow the path ahead. “The Old Man & the Gun” is a work of yesterday in that way, never precisely looking forward as much as it does behind. Redford wills himself into the nooks and crannies of a performance that demands attention though, and Lowrey isn’t precisely playing armchair therapist here. Lowrey cultivates a film that feels like it was crafted in a different era, enhancingly magical and timeless.

But there’s too much of someone else’s view in his work, feeling mimicked and copied and pasted far more than handmade or homemade. After all, this is a story about a legend riding off into the sunset, and in that vein “The Old Man & the Gun” gallops with ease. The aesthetical presence, while charming, lacks the vision of an original eye; and, in more ways than one, “The Old Man & the Gun” plays like a remake of the past, someone re-envisioning old cinema. The charming outlaw, the head-over-heels love interest; it all sounds like a film from an era of yesterday.

Sure, I love a work of Redford’s as much as the next; but shouldn’t we be looking to the horizon instead of the dusk? What’s coming next, not what’s already came before? Maybe it’s just me, but there’s too much commemorating in “The Old Man & the Gun” for me to see it as a new feat of cinema’s best, despite the array of talent involved. It’s a film living in the past, and sometimes that’s a good thing; for me, right now, we could use a bit more forward thinking.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)

   Director: Ari Sandel With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong. Release: Oct 12, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

Director: Ari Sandel
With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

 

It’s Halloween night, and two middle school boys are combating monsters in an attempt to save their mother from an evil ventriloquist dummy; how fun does that sound? If you're a nineties kid, like me, then the name R.L. Stine is as synonymous with your childhood as “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Dora: The Explorer.” The real-life author of 62 spook-tastic books for tweens that sold millions of copies makes his next entrance to the big screen. While some of us branched out from his child-like adventures to that of Stephen King's matured terror, R.L. Stine remains one of the more notable authors for a generation of kids that spent their nights reading and skipping through the pages of novel like that of “Night of the Living Dummy” or “Monster Blood.”

Looking back, I can recognize the dust-ridden bookshelves of novellas as the allegorical manifestations of children confronting adulthood; how they combat that of responsibility and maturity. A similar feat occurs in Ari Sandel’s “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” a delightful spook-fest for the Halloween soul. Rob Letterman’s “Goosebumps” was a blunder of adventure and scare, one that received praise from both critics and families alike. It was a fun, deliciously-eerie watch that in its follow-up swing has only squandered by that of a few notches.

Opening the film with that of the word “Fear,” as Sarah (Madison Iseman) types out loud into her laptop as she composes her college entry essay into Columbia University. The question asks about fear or a challenge she has overcome and how did it define who she is today; although currently, the only challenge she’s encountering is the horror of a blank page. A self-described creative writer, Sarah (Madison Iseman), like most of us so-called "aspiring writers," has seemingly encountered that ever-so dreadful and plagueful terror of “writer’s block.” However, she’s startled by the appearance of her boyfriend as he sneaks in through her bedroom window to drop off a care package for his mentally conflicting girlfriend. It’s a predictable fake-out scare moment, but what follows is surprisingly subverting of expectation as the mother catches the intruder before a make-out session ensues. Sarah’s single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) swiftly sends him away in a hilarious moment of lecturing as she pokes fun at just how loud teenagers are today, mockingly repeating his dialogue in what is a well-written and devilishly clever start to the children adventure.

The next morning, Sarah attempts to apologize to her mother. While that of her little brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who is staying with them for the weekend, post an advertisement at the convenience store for their start-up dumpster-diving business. Sarah confides in her mother, and Kathy attempts to provide advice to her struggling writer of a daughter, but she also asks for her to babysit while she works double shift at the nursing home.

Sarah, apparently upset, plans to sneak out. In the meanwhile, Sonny is trying to finish his science project on Tesla, but Sam gets them their first job in which they are tasked with cleaning out an old house, but whatever they find they get to keep. This just so happens to be an old-residence for the once-popular child-horror author, as they soon discover a secret passage and a treasure chest locked away. They open it up and find a book. They open it of course as Slappy the Dummy suddenly appears with that latin card in his suit pocket. Sonny reads it aloud of course, and Slappy is brought to life. However, before he begins to terrorize the neighborhood, Sonny and Sam are confronted by that of Tommy, the local bully (Peyton Wich from “Stranger Things”), and Slappy comes in handy. He pulls down his pants and telepathically abuses the crew of neighborhood bullies, but later on, his niceness fades and the evil within begins to reveal itself.

The kids band together in some surprisingly deftly scenery that like the first film is brought to life through top-notch VFX work. Everyone involved begins to play a role in the story, even that of the next door neighbor, a Halloween enthusiast depicted by Ken Jeong from “Hangover” prominence. He goes overboard in decoration, producing a line to the sidewalk on Halloween night. But when Slappy begins to transform Halloween costumes into real-life monsters and ghouls, Jeong’s house becomes a grease-fire of fright. The enormous purple balloon spide is brought to gruesome life, stomping it's eights legs around the neighborhood and chattering its jaws.

These are the surprises of fear that come in handy when creating such a fun ride, as screenwriters Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”) and Rob Lieger (“Peter Rabbit”) and Oscar-winning best short-film director Ari Sandel (“The Duff”) maintain a sense of unpredictability and rambunctious imagination to their adventure. Watching and cutting to everything and anything that has sparked into sentience, as at one point, hundreds of gummy bears begin to merge and gnash their gummy teeth as they attack and terrorize our youthful heroes.

That is ingenuity at work. But McLendon-Covey and Jack Black become underused talent pools, and Sarah and the boys are so thinly and haphazardly written that it's difficult to conjure up resonation for them amongst their battles with ghosts and headless equestrians. It’s missing vital components for a good allegory to reign true, but the few jokes provided to them and the glimpses of character attributes are entertaining enough to keep you focused on the journey at hand.

Black, has one of the film’s best jokes in which he arrives onto the mayhem of this Frankenstein-Halloween event and notices that of a solemn floating red balloon as he points and exclaims “Aha! I knew I came up with that first!” It’s a quick jab at the prominent King of horror as R.L. Stine once told King “ You know Steve, one magazine once called me a literary training bra for you." Steve replied: "Yes, I know." That same self-awareness that Stine exhibited to King is on grand-display by Ari Sandel. This is not a film about developing memorable characters or lessons to learn, but merely an encapsulated spook-filled adventure for families to enjoy. It’s not as bright or as compelling as the first film, but it strikes the perfect balance of silliness and creep-filled terror. The talent is in short supply both in front and behind the camera, but the remnants of inventiveness that make their way to the screen are worthwhile; sure enough, to make even the more cynical of trick-or-treaters leave the theater in the spirit for chills and thrills.

Venom (2018)

   Director: Ruben Fleischer With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott. Release: Oct 5, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

Director: Ruben Fleischer
With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott.
Release: Oct 5, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

 

Blaming studios isn’t usually a proper critique, it's generally hamfisted by those who believe themselves to be better decision makers than those who have taken financial risks on unproven projects, but Sony is often the exclusion to this argument. Their track record is not one of prominence when it comes to superhero filmmaking, Sam Raimi’s films aside as one of the few filmmakers allowed to invoke his style without regard, Sony has continually stifled itself from matching that of everyone else’s success. Seemingly attempting to follow a blueprint that they didn’t invent as if DC’s films weren’t a great example of this failed idea, Sony appears to decipher criticism and box office fizzles for a reason to continue. What can you do for someone who refuses to see the writing on the walls?

Nevertheless, 30 years after his first appearance in David Michelinie & Todd McFarlane’s “Amazing Spider-Man #300,” Venom has finally made his way to the silver screen once again since his clumsy mishandling in 2007. His story is altered into this jokingly quirky recluse who’s choices become dependant on the runtime of the film. The character, himself, has always had sprinkles of humor, more specifically dark humor. Fleisher and the four credited screenwriters (Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall) capture that essence of the character, but haphazardly invoke into a mannerism that feels transformed or divulged into something twisted like that of the gooey symbiote itself. It becomes that of an uneven extravaganza from there, one in which Hardy’s character, investigative reporter Eddie Brock, is characterized as that of a cool-guy rockstar instead of the nose to the ground journalists of reality. Yet, he amusingly is continually attempting to control this menacing black blob inside of him, stumbling and stuttering in hopes that he’ll regain his footing in the midst of this battle for sanity.

The film sets up his battle for stability by counteracting that arc with an Elon-Musk-like/evil genius stereotypical bad guy in that of the mad billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a powerful and connected individual who after being ambushed interviewed by Brock, gets both Eddie and his then-fiance fired from their respective places of employment. The film divulges into this accelerated version of a standard superhero flick that echoes the inconsistencies of a franchise like “Transformers,” which seems to have influenced the stylistic choices made in crafting the action sequences.

It’s an intensely far more violent version of something like “Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the missteps in storytelling that occur allow you to notice the absurdity of this real-world reflection. You begin to see how the film and the character seemingly forget about the foreclose notices and due payment warnings, which would typically be classified as nitpicking, but when the artists accidentally uncover that escapism-filled sheeth, you begin to see things more clearly.

Before I go any further though, allow me to iterate that Tom Hardy is applying as much as he can to this moldable piece of clay. He as both an actor and creator is pulling, scraping, and shaping this character into something intriguing ambiguous, a prolific symptom of the archetype. Notoriously known for giving every role his unconditional commitment, Hardy has exhibited his ability for digging in deep and inhabiting the skin of someone, or, in this case, something else. And if you're going to “Venom” to see Hardy’s depiction of the character, then carry on my good fellow and enjoy the exuberance that he’s forcefully applying to the screen despite the hiccups he combatants.

The same can be argued for someone like Riz Ahmed who broke out with his jarringly subtle, but overwhelmingly compelling performance in HBO’s mini-series “The Night Of.” So, that said, it be a bit unfair for me to blame the shortcomings of this so-called “anti-hero” story on that of the actors, each of whom is doing some good work here. I’ll admit, Michelle Williams, despite trying her damndest, feels miscast for this sort of film. Like that of a wallflower in the midst of the spotlight, it fabricates a contradictory tone that is of no fault of hers.

That said, “Venom” remains one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, at least in the sense of the blockbuster format. I am not gonna rival this film’s misfires with that of the veiled racism of “Peppermint” or the faulty neo-realism attempt from Eastwood in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Because this film is bad like that of a dirty room, it's merely messy, and that mess can provide a bit of fun at times. Like that of how the film seemingly is scampering past essential storytelling beats, a cliche of Sony’s work at this point. The film will enact moments that feel as if they belong in the story, but the moment that explains that role is absent, which makes for some unpurposeful comedy.

It’s an inscrutable, sticky mass of erratic CGI. Screaming, flailing limbs, and barely detectable imagery that attempts to produce some semblance of chaos in action, but it feels more like a splattered vision. Matthew Libatique, the same man I praised yesterday for his sensational work in Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” is forcefully pushed into a studio-style craft in which his touch is lost amongst the fray for a finished product, which inevitably seems to be the central problem at hand with “Venom.” A studio running as fast as it can to the finish line, not taking the time to care about who they trample over in the process.

I think it's fair to say, that whenever a “comic book” film’s opening credits state “In Association with Marvel Studios,” we all gulp with minor expectations as to what we're about to watch. Sony and Ruben Fleisher’s “Venom” is a film that vindicates that hesitance, a film that so blatantly misconstrues the identity of the character at hand that it's hard to fathom someone claiming this piece of work as a so-called “passion project.” The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde archetype are purposefully crafted for interpretation, but to mascarade the two-face tendencies of the character for demolishment of its severity; now that’s a parasite.

Night School (2018)

   Director: Malcolm D. Lee With: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Yvonne Orji, & Anne Winters. Release: Sep 28, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 51 min.

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
With: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Yvonne Orji, & Anne Winters.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 51 min.

 

It can be an aggravating notion to be a fan of someone. To share an affinity for his or her’s work as an artist, or their personality, or their craft that got them to the silver screen. All of us have that person as fans of the cinema, for some, it's someone like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an actor whose box office success clouds his mediocre performances. His repetitive depictions of similar archetypes of male bravado, the same can be said for someone like Kevin Hart. The number one selling stand-up comedian of the modern era, someone who is clawing and scratching his way near the top of all-time comedy lists. Firmly squaring his name up against legends like that of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld, but Kevin Hart has a persistent stench of second-rate comedy on the silver screen.

In comparison to his unabashedly successful stand-up career, his acting has never quite lived up to what it should’ve been, leading to many, fairly, criticizing those who proclaim his prominence as a comedian. It’s that one scratch on the final product, the one blemish on the paint job, the one crack in the mirror, or whatever other idioms you want to use to clarify that there is one thing missing from his resume of success, and Malcolm D. Lee's “Night School” is no different.

This time around, Hart depicts Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who happened to find his way in life to surmount some success. Though hanging on by a thread and living paycheck to paycheck, Teddy seems to have a good thing going. He’s got a bright future as a salesman, a loyal best friend, and a stunningly gorgeous wife who is also a successful career woman herself, but that’s not the point is it. Throwing that dose of shade aside, things, of course, go wrong somehow, in this case, it involves Teddy miraculously surviving a gas explosion, one that occurred mere feet away from him.

From there, he’s out hunting for a job to continue pretending to impress his fiance, the fiance that is more successful than him. Attempting to be a subversion of the male bravado admitting it's shortcomings and that the old-fashioned mentality of the man providing for the woman, “Night School” becomes a see-through attempt at comedic filmmaking. Add in the redemptive path for Teddy to earn his GED so that he can afford the fancy and expensive things he thinks his fiance desires, and you begin to realize how ridiculously unnecessary this film is.

Ridiculous? Yes, this is all ridiculous, but hey, it's a comedy right? Isn’t that the point? If so, then “Night School” has some form of learning disability itself, unable to grasp what makes a good comedy, like that of relatability. It’s hard for us to get a grip on the characters we see on-screen, the few jokes that reveal a blemish of painful truth are sped through as if they’re not worth mentioning. Like that of Carrie’s (Tiffany Haddish) hilarious reasoning for teaching these night classes, stating she needs money for things like “rent” and “antibiotics,” hinting at that painful truth of underpaid teachers that thousands of people can relate too.

As for the rest of the characters, they’re shells of tangible people, like that of Mila (Anne Winters) a juvenile delinquent looking to stay out of jail, or Stewart (Taran Killam), a vengeful high school principal that Teddy was mean too when they went to school together. The rest of the characters feed off of stigmas and tropes that we’ve seen before which is the best way to describe “Night School,” something we’ve seen before. Whenever you can walk into a theater and predict everything that will occur on the silver screen before the lights even dim down, that’s not a sign for something of high-quality entertainment.

Sure, Malcolm D. Lee's direction is competent enough to pass the eye test. The comedy has its moments of giggles and grins (specifically from Haddish most of the time), and the film attempts to maintain some semblance of socio-political relevance, and for those things, I have awarded it. But, it's this overarching sense of passive imagination that manifests this false belief that film is no longer what it used to be as if movies were never this mediocre.

Maybe it’s just me though. There were plenty of laughs around my theater. Many enjoying themselves and having a good time, and more power to them. I was not one of those lucky members of the audience; I couldn’t help but feel the inherent deja vu of everything occurring on-screen. From the cliche broken heart trope to the predictable path of redemption, it’s all just so blatantly predictable and unapologetic for it too. Why should it say it's sorry though? It’s not the first to construct a film of uninventive efforts, nor will it be the last.

All stories are inevitably about people or some fictional representation of people. Providing us with some metaphorical or surrealism glance at an authentic human perspective, showing and teaching us about things we didn’t know about ourselves. This is the great divide for me between great movies and those that are merely passable, the element that makes the difference between a film like “Fate of the Furious” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” While high exalted films provide differing attitudes and aspects on the human experiences, mediocre filmmaking, or passable movies, look at the human experience through that of the eye holes of movies themselves. Always feeling bizarrely reminiscent of something we’ve seen before, not just with that of its story, but the emotion produced from that narrative.

It’s no longer an homage or a reference as much as it is an echoing of dim alternate reality that doesn’t reflect us but reflects our cinematic knowledge of things we’ve seen before and will, inevitably, see again. As a fan of Kevin Hart, it's hard to see him become a stagnant gatekeeper of this aged old tradition of lackadaisical but repetitive pursuit for fabricating emotions that we’ve felt before from both better and more original artists.

Hart, alongside Haddish, are talented individuals who provide the best part of this film and that is color. The continuing battle for representation on the silver screen, the ongoing effort to make sure that kids who don’t look like me can see themselves reflected on the big screen. If only those people fighting for them were creating something of nuance, putting their creative and talented mind to work, steering the conversation because it can't be ignored when your one of the highest grossing movies of the year. Well, those artists do exist, their names just aren’t Kevin Hart.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

   Director: Eli Roth With: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, & Kyle MacLachlan. Release: Sep 21, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 44 min.

Director: Eli Roth
With: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, & Kyle MacLachlan.
Release: Sep 21, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 44 min.

 

“The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” admittedly, is reminiscent of a basic, but delightful, adaptation of one R.L. Stine’s kiddy horror “Goosebumps” books. It's inherent familiar of the child fantasy pictures of old, something we never get that much of in today’s superhero and universal cinematic climate. It’s a kid-friendly horror-fantasy in the simplest of formats, becoming an elemental, but a watchable piece of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” level sorcery.

That’s not a juxtaposition with the childhood brilliance Columbus adapted from J.K. Rowling, rather a reference to how smooth and transparent “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” can be. The plot sums it up, we meet Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a newly orphaned pre-teen who is adopted by his magical uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). From that logline alone, you can tell where this is going. It's treated as such by Eli Roth, former horror director, who’s scene-to-scene pacing establishes the characters, but fails to encapsulate the magical qualities/potential of the world they inhabit. He skips past those moments, the giggling snippets of a kid learning how to accomplish basic spells, the moment that fabricate not only the charm for the character, but also produce that ever-so-necessary world building. Teaching us spells along the way, as the boy begins to embrace that of the Warlock skill trait.

No, those moments are reserved for the Blu-ray, I’m guessing. That’s not to say that Roth fails to manifest a world worth visiting, because he does just that. Talking dummies, a timbering household filled with creeks and irks in its walls, a mystery that, while fundamental, is investing. On top of that, he got hold of a stellar cast ranging from Jack Black to Cate Blanchett, “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” should be an undeniable, family-friendly hit.

To be fair, in some ways it accomplishes what it sets out to do, entertaining the family audience. It has everything the family could ask for, cutesy creatures, scares and thrills, and adult-ish banter that is sure to crack a grin at least once. It’s a film that reaches back into the past, pulling back those nostalgic trips of potty humor and childhood adventure, where we witness that rote story about a pre-teen misfit finding his place in the world. Struggling to make friends, learning the life lesson of standing out instead of blending in; we’ve seen it before, but not in a good while. These kinds of tales feel in short supply these days, and maybe for a good reason.

Sure, some of the jokes are quippingly good, and the trip down nostalgic lane can always produce a good time, if only it lasted longer than the thirty-minute tenure. It’s short-lived magic, where eventually we have to start asking “where is the new stuff?” Familiarity is a great asset when crafting a film, but, ultimately, you got to do something on your own, and Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke seem unable to do so.

The longer the film goes on, the more and more predictable it becomes. With that said, you might be asking why there is a positive grade above, and to be honest, it stems from the fact the film is quite pleasant. Yes, it's ever-so-easy to guess where the story is going when Jack Black turns to the screen and tells the kid not to open his secret bookcase. Spoiler: He opens it. We know these things are going to happen, it's accustomed, it's a reliable magic trick, like that of pulling a quarter out one’s ear. When you figure out the secret behind the trick though, it becomes something of a party favor more than that of magic, but hey, it's still a party favor.

The worst of “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” doesn’t stem from the writer of “Supernatural” though, (seeing what he's written, does it come to much of a shock that the movie is predictable) it stems from that of Jack Black. He’s the one thing keeping this film going at times. There is a mediocre, but pre-cursing performance from Sunny Suljic who I can’t wait to see later this year in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut feature “Mid-90s.” Cate Blanchett struggles to maintain the energy needed to deliver her flat one-liners, but her soft-spoken charm makes her a warming side-show. It was nice to see her be the smoking gun of the show though, nothing like seeing a woman in charge on the big screen.

Owen Vaccaro delivers in highs and lows, showing potential to be a great actor, while also needing to learn still a few lessons of the trade that he hasn’t quite captured the grasp of just yet. Jack Black though, he was the locomotive behind this engine, he could have been the driving force, the one steering the car. “Could have.”

He has his quips and adult-ish banter with Blanchett, but as he showed last year in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” he has much more to offer than one-liners and funny voices. Everything is drawn up for him too; the one-man-show-style performance seems to belong to a character like Jonathan, an oddball who often seems to live in a world of his own, merely sharing it with someone else. It’s both his fault for not winding up enough, and the script he’s given for not being precisely easy to work with.

It’s a shame too, to watch Vaccaro struggle to find the right pitch at times, it would have been great to have a veteran like Black show him a lesson or two. But, it seems more like Vaccaro is teaching the lessons instead of Black, a charming but backward facing turn of events.

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 up 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.