Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Girlhood: The Funny and Truthful “Eighth Grade” is Head of the Class

Somehow comedian/filmmaker Bo Burnham, in his feature film directorial debut, has managed to put his audience in the shoes of a 13 year-old girl. It’s equal parts uncomfortable and relatable and is a testament to the power of great filmmaking. Employing a surprisingly fun visual style, interesting music choices including an offbeat score, the contemporary “Eighth Grade” manages to be one of the most fascinating films of the year about the mundanity of life and the repugnance of adolescence. Elsie Fisher gives a fearless performance in the central role of an introverted girl trying to get through the final days of eighth grade while dealing with her social awkwardness. The film takes an interesting look at the role of social media and finds unconventional ways to turn ordinary situations into gripping drama and uncomfortable comedy.

Kayla (Fisher) is an average, quiet 14th year old. Though like kids today, they have to grow up in the presensce of practically being connected to the internet all day long. As an adult it’s convenient. As a child enter ting adolescence I’d have to imagine it would horrible. Sure it’s nice to be able to stick your nose into your phone, play games and music at the touch of a button but kids can be cruel. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go the route of “kids are assholes online” and finds other ways to make clever use of smart devices and social media. Kayla makes online videos where she gives advice on how to be confidence and be cool. These short videos sort of set up how Kayla rarely follows her own advice and puts out a personal she really only wishes she could have.

So how exactly is a film about a 13 year-old girl making YouTube videos all that special? Burnham makes some fascinating, almos avant-garde directorial choices. The way his camera moves, what it selects to show, etc really helps to sell that we’re seeing things fom Kayla’s point-of-view. At several moments in the film the camera dares to slowly gaze Kayla’s crush Aiden (Luke Prael) and we’re forced to literally identify with our main character. When Kayla gets invited to a popular girl’s pool party because the girl’s mother forced her to, Burbham shoots the sequence as if we’re watching a thriller. You can literally feel the anxiety and tension. And Anna Meredith’s synthesized music score is an unconventional knockout that heightens everything.

The film certainly isn’t the first film to tell the story of a young person or the anxieties of growing up, but “Eighth Grade” feels extremely modern and of its time. Todd Solondz has made several colorful movies about the terror of adolescence but his films are almost always a bit wacky. Then there’s something like “Boyhood” which was a different kind of experiment, and this film isn’t dissimilar, though “Boyhood” relied too heavily on young actors who felt a bit amateurish. The performances in “Eighth Grade” are sublime and realistic. Josh Hamilton, easily the most recognizable person in the cast, is perfect as Kayla’s awkward single dad who tries everything to communicate with his quiet daughter.


“Eighth Grade” will certainly take you back to a certain age. I gather for most people it’ll most likely bring up BAD memories but the movie has plenty of humor to help balance the terrors many faced as middle school ended. Bo Burnham and his leading lady are really great finds and this will hopefully lead to even more extraordinary work. I’m truly in awe how everyone involved took such a simple, seemingly insignificant story, for what I assume was made rather cheaply, look and feel so innovative. The film doesn’t judge it’s young characters; they’re people too even if they spend most of their time “plugged-in.” It’s a truly rewarding experience; “Eighth Grade” passes with flying colors.  GRADE: A


Sunday, August 12, 2018

10,994 Meters Down: “The Meg” Sort of Bites


Let’s get to the point: “The Meg” is a middle-tier shark movie. If “Jaws” is the epitome of shark movie greatness, and “Jaws the Revenge” is the bottom of the barrel, then “The Meg” is about a “Jaws III.” In other words, it’s not quite so-bad-it’s-good, and it’s not even so-bad-it’s-bad. But is there anything worse than a sort of middle of the road shark movie? To be fair, there is at least half of a good shark movie in “The Meg.” The film’s second half is filled with some pretty fun in-jokes and enough ridiculous moments to make it worth it, but it’s sort of a slog to get through. It doesn’t help that everything about the film, from its visual style to its bland cast and uninteresting story, is merely mediocre. The film feels like it isn't ok with just playing it safe but it’s too afraid to go too over-the-top.

Jason Statham plays a disgraced underwater rescuer and now he’s retired, drinking beers somewhere in Thailand. And we have to sit there for nearly half the movie before anything exciting happens involving a giant prehistoric shark. Sure, “Jaws” took an hour to show the shark but at least everything leading up to that moment was scary, funny, and/or interesting. Not that one should be comparing “The Meg” to “Jaws” obviously. Though there are a few fun references to that horror classic.

Like “Deep Blue Sea” this flick is set mostly in and around an underwater research facility in the middle of the ocean. The scientists are trying to breach the bottom of the Mariana Trench; it turns out it’s not actually the ocean floor and a layer of gases has actually sealed off a whole other part of the ocean. Cue the prehistoric maneater. Not quite. First we have to briefly deal with a giant squid that attacks oceanographer Suyin’s (Li Bingbing) diving vessel and her limited emotional range doesn’t quite realistically depict how one might react if they were about to be crushed to death by a giant squid on the bottom of the ocean. THEN the shark obviously shows up to kills the squid and saves her. Eventually the shark escapes the bottom of the trench and for some reason sticks around in the middle of the ocean when it can go any damn well place it pleases.

Eventually the shark tires of the boring characters we’ve been introduced to and makes its way to a coastal Chinese resort where there’s literally hundreds of people bathing and swimming. The PG-13 rating limits the carnage, though that’s not really too much of an issue here. It’d just be nicer if there was even a modicum of suspense or tension but the sequence is fun enough. What can we really expect from the director of “While You Were Sleeping?” We finally get a couple genuinely clever and funny nods to “Jaws” essentially reenacted with Asian characters. In fact, the entire film (which was a Chinese-American co-production) feels as if it was made for an entirely different audience.

“The Meg” was one of the movies I was looking forward to the most this summer. I’m a sucker for a killer fish movie, but the movie has a hard time distinguishing between whether it wants to be silly or whether it wants to be serious. A movie like the brilliantly over-the-top “Piranha” remake knew exactly what it was doing. At least it’s better than last years snooze-fest “47 Meters Down.” The forced romance between Statham and Bingbing is terrible and fluffy (not to mention the forced, unearned sentimentality) and the film takes way too long to get to the good stuff. And Rainn Wilson feels wasted in yet another meaningless role. Chalk this one up as a meg-a disappointment.  GRADE: C+

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Cruise Control: The Highly Entertaining “Mission: Impossible-Fallout” Has All the Right Moves

Impossible indeed. The “Mission Impossible” films, paradoxically, just get better with each progressive entry. Sure, the films sometimes take a more dense script route, weaving in death-defying stunts with talky scenes of spy jargon and exposition but the plot is just an excuse for truly magnificent camera work. It’s part 6 people, we basically want to see Tom Cruise ride a rocket to the moon. Like ON the actual rocket. Taking a cue from the big budget, practical stunts of Christopher Nolan’s best work and the recent James Bond entries, “Mission: Impossible-Fallout” tries to outdo itself by featuring some truly jaw-dropping set pieces that have to be seen to be believed. Let's not forget the almost unbearable tension as we watch the actors who are really there, hanging off helicopters and cliffs, selling the crap out of it. And I’m buying it.  

This sixth entry in the increasingly insane spy thriller series, take a cue from real life and as it’s title suggests introduces NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Plutonium is such a hot commodity in films after all it’s what gave the DeLorean power in “Back to the Future.” So obviously, the leftover terrorists from the dismantled, evil “Syndicate” from “Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation”, want their hands on the stuff. These “Apostles” as they’re referred to are the prime targets for our hero Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). Returning from the fifth film is former MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). There’s a new director at the CIA played by new-to-the-franchise Angela Bassett. Of topic, does Angela Bassett ever age? But I digress. She instructs a member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division to follow along with Hunt and his team. He’s Henry Cavill, and even though the guy doesn’t have the most charisma in the world, he has found a nice role opposite the 100-wattage bulb that is Tom Cruise.

But enough about plot and stuff. This movie has enough car chases and helicopter chases, and HALO jump scenes, and bathroom fist fights to fill an entire action franchise. It’s shot and edited with precision. Director Christopher McQuarrie (who also scripted) returns from his first time up at bat with “Rogue Nation” and it’s a sheer delight to see what crazy stuff he’s able to pull off this time. He captures the action brilliantly; how cinematographer Rob Hardy was able to capture what he did (using a mix of digital and actual film) is simply crazy. The final act of the film, which I will not discuss whatsoever, is also an example of perfectly calibrated suspense. You don’t really believe for a minute that anything horrible is going to happy to any of our heroes and yet the nail-biting finale is so utterly intense you may need to have your cardiologist on standby. Lorne Balfe’s pulse-pounding score is not unlike Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight music and it really works here; it’s not surprising that the two composers have collaborated on several occasions.

“Mission: Impossible-Fallout” is an outstanding thriller from beginning to end, not to mention suave and cool. Even if the story feels a bit dense, you can easily enjoy the action set pieces without much prior knowledge of the earlier entries and there’s plenty of good stuff for those who have been sticking around since the 90s. Cruise is as likable as ever—the entire cast is—and you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen or release your hands from the arm rest. Bring on lucky entry number seven.  GRADE: A


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Greece Lightning: Fun Follow-up “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” Will Be Your Mom’s Favorite Movie of the Year


Since finally winning her elusive third Oscar Meryl Streep probably had enough of Mamma Mia! Yes, a majority of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Ago is, in fact, Streepless but it’s ok because the new cast is really game for a campy fun time. The first “Mamma Mia!” was a fun and silly jukebox musical about a girl trying to find the identity of her father before her fairytale Greek isle wedding. Everyone saw it because they love either love ABBA music and enjoyed the Broadway musical, or just because looked fun and silly. Released almost ten years to the day as the first film, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is a surprisingly well-made musical that features more impressively staged musical numbers, better singing, and thankfully lacks the sappy corniness that zapped the first film of pure greatness. Sure, this Godfather Part II-like prequel/sequel isn’t precisely necessary and its story is yet again strung around (even more) obscure ABBA songs but the cast is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having a fun time. And then there’s Cher who looks like she just stopped by to pick up a paycheck.


Odds are you know whether or not you’re going to like “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” It does offer everything you enjoyed about the first film but this time there’s a new person at the helm. That would be director Ol Parker who imbues the film with a cinematic quality that was severely lacking the first time around. The first film was clunky, corny, and offered cringe-worthy directorial choices that were better left for the stage. This time the world of Mamma Mia is opened up and feels more like a film than the stagey original.

And since everyone cares about the plot of an ABBA jukebox musical here it is. This time around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting ready for the grand re-opening of the Greek hotel she took over from her mother Donna. It turns out Streep’s character has previously passed away the year before. The real drama comes in the form of events in the past where we follow a young Donna in 1979 through her Big Fat European Vacation. It is here where she meets Harry, Sam, and Bill who are all Sophie’s possible fathers.

There’s not really much more to say and there’s hardly any real tension but the songs are performed with enthusiasm and that’s really what matters. The younger actors are generally pretty sensational in capturing the youthful versions of the cast members we’ve come to know so well. Lily James really captures Streep’s character’s essence and has an outstanding voice; she makes for an extremely likable lead. The same can be said for her best friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) who are fantastic stand-ins for Christine Baranski and Julie Walters respectively. The casting team also work wonders with the hunky threesome known as Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan), and Sam (Jeremey Irvine).

In conclusion, the songs here are good; they even reuse some of the more popular tracks from the first film. After all you can’t have a movie called Mamma Mia and not sing the title tune. Even the lesser known songs will likely become earworms after several spins on the soundtrack. You can’t fight the power of ABBA’s absolutely catchy discography. The film is overall tighter and more confident than its predecessor taking on an “ambitious” dual plot structure even if the present day scenes take on a more melancholy tone than the more fun flashback sequences. The script from Parker (and Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis who have story credits) works well enough if somewhat less focused this time around.

Oh wait how could I not mention Cher? The fact that she’s practically shoe-horned in at the end is unsurprising since her casting feels like a complete stunt to begin with. Let’s forget the fact that Cher is only 3 years older than Streep in real life and she’s playing her mother, but her rendition of Fernando is great even if her sound doesn’t quite fit in with everything we’ve heard previously. I guess ten minutes of Cher is supposed to make up for a practically Streepless film but at least the film has an ambitious quality that is completely charming. Bottom line? Your mom is gonna love this thing.  GRADE: B+

In lieu of the underwhelming trailer, here's the first musical number from the film, "When I Kissed the Teacher:"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

American Horror Story: “The First Purge” Probably Won’t Be the Last


Horror films are usually a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. And the really good ones reflect the time they were made. If I’ve learned anything from the widely popular Purge franchise, is that this country is seriously messed up. The Purge series get an upgrade in the form of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei which makes me wonder what bet she lost to end up here. That’s no knock at the “My Cousin Vinny” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” actress– she’s fine here – but she’s not given much to do except glare at computer monitors. Otherwise the generally unknown cast is good; the acting is above average for this genre. The film, like its predecessors, isn’t so much horror as it is some kind of dystopian action thriller with the third act basically functioning as a siege film. The real horror comes from the realization that maybe our country is headed in the direction that these films present.

The Purge films are enjoyable for what they are. The problem is the premise is so goddamned smart but the films aren’t necessarily as smart as they think they are. I believe in writer/director James DeMonaco who serves on as screenwriter on this fourth entry. Stepping into the director’s chair is Gerald McMurray and some fresh blood is welcome. He doesn’t do much different from what DeMonaco has already established and the film’s script is as on-the-nose-political as it ever has been. Everyone by now knows that the annual Purge is basically a way for rich Americans to help get rid of the poor population. Rich people can afford to either barricade themselves indoors or can even afford to buy poor people to murder. 

“The First Purge” gives us a little glimpse into how this controversial, essentially racist American tradition came to be. Though it only really skims the surface and that’s where it’s a tad disappointing. A politician from a new political party not unlike say, the “Tea Party,” is elected president and someone gets the idea to let Americans let out their frustrations for one night during a 12 hour period in which all crime is legal. Staten Island is chosen for the experiment, which at this point, doesn’t actually have a name. Residents are free to leave during the experiment but those who choose to stay will be tracked and given $5,000 as compensation. Overseeing things are New Founding Fathers of America members Dr. May Updale (Tomei) and Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh). Meanwhile residents of the city include various minorities and low income individuals including a sister and brother and his drug lord.

While like the other films, the premise is fascinating, the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s hard to care about most of these people since we don’t really know them. Lex Scott Davis is good as the sympathetic Nya and Y’lan Noel is good as Dmitiri the drug lord with the heart of gold. But most of these actors don’t have much to do except run around and look scared. Which leads to the other main problem, the film isn’t very scary. The premise is scarier than anything actually seen on screen. The film sort of won me over in its final act in which Dmitri must rescue those we’ve come to somewhat know in their apartment building.

Who knows where this franchise can really go from here. Except to television of course, which the film features in its closing credits. It makes sense because really these films feel like lost episodes of “Black Mirror” that aren’t executed quite as smoothly. “The First Purge” is fine for fans of the franchise but I don’t know how many new fans will rally behind this fourth entry. It’s fun to see the origins of the Purge but offers little in the way of surprises, suspense, or interesting characters.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, July 08, 2018

A Bug’s Wife: “Ant-Man & the Wasp” Continues the Lighthearted Fun of Its Predecessor


It turns out “Ant-Man” was exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed: an enjoyable lighthearted heaping of fun. It was first MCU film released after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and it was a refreshing palette cleanser. It turns out, its own sequel “Ant-Man & the Wasp” functions in much the same way after the truly astonishing but intense experience that was “Avengers: Infinity War.” Comedy is always the best medicine and there’s no better proof of that than the hilariously charming antics of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. Set after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” this sequel finds our hero Scott Lang under house arrest. Of course that won’t stop him from helping rescue Hank Pym’s wife from the “quantum realm.” It’s all lighthearted fun and the perfect antidote to the ten years of MCU films that continue to be entertaining if emotionally draining.

“Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film essentially. “Ant-Man & the Wasp” isn’t quite as cut and dry; I’d more of a rescue mission film but not quite as focused story-wise as its predecessor. Our hapless hero Scott Lang (Rudd) having attempted to leave his life of crime behind him, finds himself with an ankle bracelet for violating the Sokovia Accords in “Civil War.” At least now his daughter and ex-wife have forgiven him so there’s no family drama there. The family drama this time consists of Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) experimenting with the possibility of entering into the subatomic “quantum realm” to rescue his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who went subatomic decades earlier and was assumed dead. But since Scott went subatomic and returned unharmed it seems likely that Janet could possibly still be alive. Is it preposterous? Oh my yes. Is it entertaining as hell? You bet.

And let’s not forget Scott’s new partner “The Wasp” played by Evangeline Lilly in one of her most charming performances yet. As Hank’s daughter Hope, Lilly imbues the film with warmth and emotion that has somewhat eluded the actress up to this point. She shares incredible chemistry with Rudd and her onscreen father as well. These people are so likable that their charm really carries the film. And I haven’t even mentioned Michael Peña as Scott’s former prison buddy who has some really great comedic moments here. The comedy works so well in these films because director Peyton Reed made films like “Yes Man” and “Bring It On.” Sure, not exactly comedy treasures, but the guy knows what he’s doing. The action scenes are gripping, the shrinking and growing mechanics are clever, and the humor is funny.

Of course we all know a super hero movie is nothing without a decent villain. Here we get a mysterious figure in a white costume not unlike Lang’s shrinking Ant-Man getup, who is molecularly instable and can walk through objects, including walls. This “Ghost” (played by “Ready Player One’s” Hannah John-Kamen) adds a fun mystery to proceedings and the character’s story arch is unpredictable and interesting. There are other appearances from Laurence Fishburne and Walton Goggins that don’t add too much to the proceedings.

“Ant-Man & the Wasp” feels almost borderline insignificant compared to the other strong MCU efforts this year “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” but it’s no less enjoyable or well-made. You can easily watch the Ant-Man films without the baggage of ten years of films to wade through and be just as entertained. And the whimsical music themes from Christophe Beck is among the MCU’s most memorable. These films really remind me of how fun the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films were to watch when they first came out. Bright, colorful, fun and oozing with charm and humor.  GRADE: B+


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dino-Snore: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Proves the Franchise Should Go Extinct


Well the good news is that “Jurassic Park III” is no longer the worst movie in the franchise. I actually like the third “Jurassic Park.” The latest entry in the “Jurassic Park” series (the fifth overall and second in the “Jurassic World” spin-off; confused yet?) is so utterly ridiculous you can’t help but laugh out of spite. Sure it’s not the first entry to introduce crazy ideas (communicating with raptors, training raptors, etc) but this new film is such a far cry from what made “Jurassic Park” such a phenomenal and believable sci-fi thriller. Nothing in “Fallen Kingdom” makes even a remote lick of sense. The story, which is all over the place, goes completely off the rails and introduces completely bonkers plot elements in a franchise filled with enough bonkers plot elements. I could somewhat buy training raptors; I will, however, not buy the loony bin that is this franchise’s latest excuse for a sequel.

Jurassic World” had the benefit of being about a dinosaur park that actually opened to the public. It worked in a cheesy “Jaws III” disaster flick sort of way. “Fallen Kingdom” is a disaster of a whole other level. You’ll remember Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) the perky, uptight park operator from the last film who rekindled her relationship with hunky raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt). Well now they’re estranged again and she’s an animal rights activist who sees the dinosaurs –who killed all the guests who died on her watch—as precious, endangered misunderstood creatures. So a rich guy in a suit gives her money to travel back to the island with Owen to rescue the man-eating monsters from the active volcano that threatens to wipe out all the remaining dinosaurs on the abandoned island. How could anything go wrong with that plan?

Since the trailers basically give away a majority of what goes on in the film, it’s no secret that some dinosaurs may or may not find their way to a place that isn’t Isla Nublar. “The Lost World” did it. A T-rex stomping around San Diego was ludicrous in 1997 so the writers had to up the ante in 2018 obviously. Even Steven Spielberg had a hard time really selling that plot point but he made it work well enough. It’s obvious now that writers Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow are responsible for the crazy stuff in “Jurassic World” while Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa added a touch of class and humanity to the previous entry. Only Connelly and Trevorrow are credited this time. New to the franchise director J.A. Bayona is a good filmmaker. See “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible” if you don’t believe me. He offers some fine and weird directorial flourishes and there are some decent set pieces here but there’s not much any filmmaker could do with such a bizarre plot that desecrates everything that was simple and streamlined about Spielberg’s 1993 classic.

“Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” is an unfortunate downgrade for this popular franchise. Everything that made the last film at least fun and charming, like the park itself, are now gone. There’s a serious dearth of interesting characters (Pratt and Dallas Howard are fine but everyone else is forgettable). The filmmakers make too many of the same bad decisions that plagued the other Jurassic Park sequels (like more dinosaurs=good and unnecessarily dark moments). And the ending is literally eye-roll inducing. Despite this, I do believe we’re in another golden age of blockbuster filmmaking. The Marvel films and other big budget franchises have proven that just because you have a big budget and a strong fan base doesn’t mean you can’t make a smart piece of pop culture entertainment. This isn't it. Though I'd take dinosaurs over fighting robots any day of the week. GRADE: C-


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Eight is Enough: The Con is On for the Ladies in “Ocean’s Eight”


Even women can be cool and smooth criminals if they want to be. And in “Ocean’s Eight” they are. In this latest franchise “reboot,” though it’s more of a spin-off, we learn that steely cool con-man Danny Ocean is dead and that con-men run in the family. His sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) is just being released from a five year prison sentence and has her sights on a prize: The Met Gala. She gets her equally cool gal pal Lou (Cate Blanchett in the “secondhand man” role carved out by Brad Pitt except she isn’t eating something in literally every scene) and a team of women together to rob the expensive jewels off the neck of famous actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, doing her best diva impression). The entire film is basically following these women as they concoct a completely crazy and unbelievable set of circumstances that will lead to them walking away with millions of dollars worth of priceless jewels. And it is fascinating to watch.

The Ocean’s films have always been about fun. At least the first one was. Watching these guys pull of such crazy cons and a seemingly impossible heist was part of the charm. Steven Soderbergh’s sequels, however, took all the fun out and made things overly complicated and overstuffed with extra characters no on cared about. A reserved cast of eight con women is much more digestible. This time Gary Ross takes the reigns from Soderbergh (who’s still a producer) and injects a tad more diversity to the proceedings. Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch’s script is tight and exciting.

The story is so fun to watch unfold that for the entire film I forgot that there really wasn’t much conflict. In the original film, Danny wants to rob a specific guy, here these ladies just want the money; or at least that what it seems. There is a whole subplot about the reason Debbie was sent to prison after all. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t moments of suspense and tension. One sequence in which Mindy Kaling’s character is close to being caught is squirm-worthy. Speaking of which, every character gets their moment to shine. Helena Bonham Carter easily slips into the roll of a crazy, overwhelmed fashion designer. Sarah Paulson is a suburban mom but hasn’t quite left a life of crime. Rihanna is the genius computer hacker and Awkwafina is the fantastic pickpocket. And some other familiar faces show up as well.

“Ocean’s Eight” is a great success for anyone who thought the previous entries began to lose their sense of fun and focus. Sure this isn’t a perfect film; sometimes things fall a little too neatly into place but you can’t fault the ensemble's strong presence and their likable characterizations. There have been countless heist films and this is just another one that happens to get more right than wrong. Can’t wait for number Nine.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Head of the Family: The Bonkers “Hereditary” is a Disturbing Portrait of Familial Distress


Rosemary’s Baby. The Exorcist. The Shining. The Conjuring. Hereditary. You see where I’m going with this? Supernatural horror fans will absolutely delight in the mounting dread that is the new indie creep fest known as “Hereditary.” The film is all at once utterly realistic and borderline ridiculous - sometimes at the same time - as it follows the downward spiral of a seemingly average American family. “Hereditary” slowly builds with realistic, emotional drama with punctuated moments of pure shock that make the moments of horror all the more impactful. The film is a searing tragedy about the horrors of loss and grief and morphs into horror of a different nature. It’s destined to be a modern genre classic.

The film begins with the death of a family matriarch; she was estranged from her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), her son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her grandkids Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie, who works as a miniature artist, making the creepiest dollhouses known to man, doesn’t seem to be too upset by the loss of her mom and the film takes its time letting you in on the dynamics of the family. Peter is your typical movie teenage boy; he spends his time with friends and getting high. The youngest, Charlie is an odd little child. Too odd. Annie insists that Charlie was the only one her mother Ellen latched onto for reasons seemingly unknown. With Ellen gone, it’s not long before weird things begin to happen. Eventually the rug is pulled out from under us and the characters.

Boy oh boy do things happen. And why would I spoil them for you? A proper analysis of the film isn’t possible without getting into specific plot elements so I’ll just focus on the more generic positives the film offers. And that would be: Toni. Collette. She’s simply sensational here, going through a full range of emotions and being someone we easily identify with. She’s the heart and soul of the film and she’s Oscar-worthy. There’s a moment during an awkward family dinner that is a standout moment; it’s her Oscar nomination reel. The other performances are all top notch, especially a scene-stealing Anne Dowd (when doesn’t she steal every frame of every thing she’s in?).

First time feature director and writer Ari Aster works wonders building almost unbearable dread. When THAT THING happens, without warning, I was altogether numbed, shocked, and drawn in further. His script is as twisted as it is twisty. You’ll never be able to see where exactly the film’s headed. The shocking imagery he presents us is, in word, unforgettable. “Hereditary” is filled with the sights and sounds nightmares are made of including pristine camerawork and a fantastic, dread-inducing store from Colin Stetson.

“Hereditary” might be called “boring” or “slow” by some. In fact, those are the words I’d use to describe “The Witch.” This film is not dissimilar to that other slow burn of a film except the modern setting and story here are way more relatable and emotionally engaging. And more happens. The film feels more satisfying and unsettling and will certainly be worthy of repeat viewings; I can’t wait to see what this filmmaker does next. “Hereditary” will creep up on you and then creep you out.  GRADE: A

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Howard’s End: “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is Star Wars Lite but Fun Otherwise


We all know where Han Solo ends up, but where did he come from? Some people want to know and others could care less. But Disney is giving us his story and it’s probably as good a film that could have come from such a concept. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a film no one asked for but it exists anyways and it works. The cast is well realized and it looks and feels like the other Star Wars films. It’s a fun, light adventure that will satisfy fans anxiously awaiting Episode IX.

I always wonder what could have been with directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord initially at the helm, but Disney didn’t see eye to eye and they were replaced by the extremely vanilla Ron Howard. Howard is a fine director though he hardly takes many risks and offers little in the way of visual wonder (though I’ve been particularly impressed with some of his recent offerings like “Rush”). Howard is the safe choice and “Solo” certainly is safe movie. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it won’t win any new fans. You pretty much know what you’re getting and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The film, taking place in the years between Episode III and Episode IV, the film follows a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) a smuggler who works in and around the criminal underworld. He’s a tad more optimistic than his older self (we know that because he says things like “I’ve got a GOOD feeling about this”). Emilia Clarke, making her way through nerdy properties (ie Game of Thrones, Terminator), appears as Han’s love interest Qi’ra. After an event that leads to her capture, Solo trains with the Imperial army and eventually leads a daring heist that involves a highly sought after fuel called Coaxium. Woody Harrelson shows up as Han’s mentor Tobias Beckett, and we meet familiar faces along the way including Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Paul Bettany is fine as the film’s villainous crime lord Dryden Vos.

Howard directs the film with an assured hand. The action scenes are well-shot and suspenseful. The actors are fantastic in their roles. The visual effects work and the cinematography from Bradford Young (“Arrival”) has an appropriately dark and grungy look. John Powell’s score, which uses lots of John Williams cues, is fantastic and uplifting. The film functions, much like “Rogue One,” as a fun heist film. It’s obvious the film was made for fans even if they never really wanted it.

I get what Disney is trying to do. They could potentially have a million Star Wars-related films made. They just need to make the really great ones. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a completely fine movie. I just really want to see a great one.  GRADE: B


Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Cable Guy: The Hilariously Irreverent “Deadpool 2” is Another Marvelous Meta Romp

It seems like only yesterday I was complaining about “superhero fatigue.” Actually it was about 7 years ago when I wrote this in my “Captain America: The First Avenger” review: “I myself have found myself going through superhero fatigue.” What the hell was I thinking? That was way back when these comic book adaptations were sort of by the numbers and the MCU was still in its infancy. “The Dark Knight” and "Iron Man" were considered the epitome of comic book quality but they really just set the stage for what was to come. It’s now 2018 and not only are comic book films released nearly every other week, we finally have a sequel to the delightfully derisive “Deadpool.” While it certainly wasn’t the first graphically violent but comedic, kids-shouldn’t-be-watching-this, subversive super hero flick (there was “Kick-Ass” and “Super” to name a few but they weren't entirely successful) it was finally the first one released by a major studio to not take itself so seriously. “Deadpool” was somewhat of a surprise hit and I’m glad to report that “Deadpool 2” is arguably even funnier and meta-ier with so many funny gags and pop culture references you’ll either be giddy or completely sick of it by the end. I was giddy.

“Deadpool 2” ups the ante in terms of literally everything. More characters. More fun. More jokes. More violence. And so many great song choices. No seriously, this thing has an amazing soundtrack. Don’t even look up the soundtrack album before you see the film, you’ll want to be surprised (I’ll just describe it as super fabulous). And let’s just say there’s an Oscar-worthy original song performed by a popular French Canadian superstar. Enough hints.

Does anyone really care about the plot of “Deadpool 2?” I couldn’t really piece anything together from the trailers but there is actually a story unfolding here. Wade Wilson (easily Ryan Reynolds’ most iconic role), if you remember from the first film, is now a super-healing mutant covered with scars from head to toe. His alter ego is the wise-cracking, mercenary Deadpool and he’s living it up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin); but after a series of unfortunate events, Wade ends up at the X-Men’s mansion and back with old frenemies Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Eventually he forms a team with a gender neutral name (X-Force) which involves some of the films biggest laughs and cleverest bits (including standout turns from Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard, and Rob Delaney). Meanwhile, a time-traveling cybernetic soldier shows up, no not that one; his name is Cable (played by Thanos himself Josh Brolin) and he wants to assassinate a teenage mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison). Wait, is this a Terminator film or what?

Ok enough plot stuff. This movie is just hilarious. The script is as meta as ever thanks to writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who also worked wonders on the first film) with Reynolds getting a credit this time around. I can’t even count the number of ingenious references. There’s everything from “The Passion of the Christ” to “Frozen.” And the film has a really fun time making fun of itself, and Reynolds himself, and the fact that we’re watching a comic book film. There are plenty of fun cameos too good to spoil here as well. Did I mention the soundtrack full of gay hits (seriously; Dolly, Cher, etc)?


I expected “Deadpool 2” to be great. But I didn’t expect it to be this great. A sequel is almost never as good as the first film because most sequels by their nature lack the element of surprise. But the filmmakers have improved upon the fantastic first film in so many great ways. The film feels fresh, has dramatic weight, and earns every fun twist and turn in the plot. The actors really sell the material and it feels like they’re having as much fun as the audience. The film is well-paced and offers plenty of fun action thanks to new to the franchise director David Leitch. 2018 is turning out to be a great year for superheroes. And no fatigue in sight.  GRADE: A-  

Saturday, April 28, 2018

To Infinity and Beyond: The Mindbogglingly Ambitious “Avengers: Infinity War” Doesn't Disappoint


Ten years. It took ten years, but “Avengers: Infinity War” is everything Marvel fans have been waiting for. And it’s an altogether successful hodge-podge of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo took the daunting task of merging so many different characters and their worlds into one cohesive (for those who have been following along at least) saga and are pretty much completely successful. There’s not too much to offer viewers who are unfamiliar with the MCU; but that’s beside the point. “Avengers: Infinity War” works because of the decade-long foundation of great character building, creative storytelling, and compelling drama filtered through a geeky comic book sensibility. What we’re left with is a culmination of heart-pounding action, witty comedy, moving drama and, for the first time in the whole series, an actual feeling of consequence and finality for these characters we’ve come to love so much. Even 19 films in, there hasn’t been anything quite like it.


Recently in the last few years many of the Marvel movies have taken on their own specific identity. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a political thriller; “Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film; “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a John Hughes-inspired teen movie; “Thor:Ragnarok” was a campy, retro-styled gladiator epic; “Black Panther” was Shakespearean sci-fi drama. “Avengers: Infinity War” doesn’t quite have any specific distinction and that’s because it’s somewhat of a combination of multiple styles and genres. In fact, the entire film is essentially a setup to a disaster flick of galactic proportions. We’ve heard the name Thanos thrown around a lot for nearly ten years and even glimpsed him a few times here and there but finally he’s front and center and his mission is clear. Collect the six powerful “infinity stones,” that have driven the plots of many previous films, so that he can rule the entire galaxy.

Sure, the plot of the film is essentially watch big creature gather glowing CGI rocks, but it’s compelling stuff I promise. That’s because for the first time in the franchise’s history, it feels like there is some real weight and consequence to the actions of Thanos and his evil followers. It’s no surprise that not everyone will make it to the of the film alive; there are some truly heartbreaking moments here. Be prepared. But big character deaths are the only things driving the drama of “Infinity War.” Thanos who is the “father” of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is the real star here. A complete CGI creation brought to live with verve by Josh Brolin, the film follows this villain as he comes face to face with our favorite super heroes.

The film is like watching a fine balance act that just doesn’t quit. At one moment the film has the warmth and humor of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the next we’re back to the bizarre wizardry of “Doctor Strange.” The film puts Earthbound characters like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) into space as they all work together to attempt to stop Thanos from completing his colorful rock collection. There is scene after scene of either rollicking action, balanced humor, and moments of shock and awe as our favorite heroes face the one villain that actually feels unstoppable.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely wondrously weave together dozens of characters and never manage to shortchange of them. It truly is remarkable big budget filmmaking of the most refined kind. As refined as this sort of Hollywood filmmaking can be. “Avengers: Infinity War” is the magnum opus of the MCU; a real accomplishment from all involved. The film flies circles around the previous "Avengers" flicks; it's operating on a complete different plane that would make Doctor Strange proud. It’s a rewarding piece of pop culture entertainment that also functions as a sign of things to come.  "Infinity War" certainly is not all wrapped up in a perfect bow at the end; only the naïve would think so, but I sat wide-eyed (and teary-eyed) and I eagerly await the next ten years and beyond.  GRADE: A


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Silence is Golden: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is a Tension-Soaked Masterpiece


If you can learn anything from “A Quiet Place” it’s that getting pregnant in a monster-riddled, post-apocalyptic world is just a flat-out terrible idea. But I guess sometimes you just can’t help yourself. An attractive, but weathered young couple must protect themselves and their young kids from terrifying creatures that prey on anything that makes noise. The couple is played by real-life crouple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. The gorgeous pair is a direct contrast to the ugly landscape their characters are now living in. And the monsters are extremely scary. In fact, “A Quiet Place” completely drips with dread from beginning to end, taking the viewer on a roller coaster thrill ride that includes scene after scene of almost unbearable tension. It’s a remarkable genre turn for director/star John Krasinski and a complete detour from his charming work on “The Office.” Michael Scott would absolutely love this flick.

“A Quiet Place” wisely doesn’t spend much time on exposition. Anything that’s important is told through the dialogue (most of which is spoken through sign language). The script from newcomers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck (and Krasinski) drops the viewer into a not-too-distant future in which giant creatures hunt by sound forcing people to live completely silently. Krasinski and Blunt are Lee and Evelyn and they’ve got a routine. They walk around barefoot, walk outside on trails of sand, use giant lettuce leafs for plates, and use felt pieces when playing Monopoly. They’ve got young children to look after including Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf. The family mostly communicates through sign language. Which means for a majority of the time, you’re essentially watching a silent film. But they’re human after all and accidents happen. And that’s when THEY show up. The nightmare-inducing monsters are brought to life through fantastic special effects.

Krasinski directs with an assured hand. It’s not his first time at the rodeo, having directed a couple other small features and a few episodes of “The Office” but he’s never made anything quite like “A Quiet Place.” Sure it shares similarities with other films in the genre (it’s sort of feels like “The Road” meets “Jurassic Park”) but the film doesn’t feel like anything you’ve seen before. The film is a masterclass in genre filmmaking. The sound design is impeccable. Just try snacking on popcorn or nachos while watching this flick, I dare you. The silence is practically deafening until the roars of vicious creatures fill the auditorium. And the music. Marco Beltrami’s monster mash score is brilliantly used and creates excruciating tension. The family has all relatively smart, resourceful people, but at one point all hell breaks loose as they must battle obstacle after obstacle as their home becomes a target of the menacing monsters. Don’t forget to breathe.

“A Quiet Place” is easily a new masterclass in horror filmmaking. It’s a tense thriller that hits all the right notes and has fun playing with your senses. The small cast is uniformly excellent, with impressive child performances and two truly likable lead actors; Krasinski’s direction is impressive, especially the way he's able to build tension with silence and little dialogue. And as if that isn’t enough, there is a strong emotional undercurrent which resonates in a strong way. It’s a film that easily stands among the best of the genre including classics like “Alien,” “The Descent,” and “Jurassic Park.” You heard it here first.  GRADE: A