Sunday, November 04, 2018

Yas Queen: Freddie Mercury Biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” Will Rock You

“Bohemian Rhapsody" may not be the movie everyone wanted but it’s the movie we’ve got and for all intends and purposes it’s pretty damned good. It’s easy to piss on the film because of its notorious behind-the-scene troubles. Director Bryan Singer was fired weeks before the film finished shooting; another director (Dexter Fletcher) was brought in to complete the film and see it through post-production. The sour note is the fact that Singer received sole directing credit. Does that suck? Yes. Should the film be punished for it? Not really. “Mr. Robot” breakout Rami Malek stars as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and he’s simply stunning in the role. It’s as if he’s possessed by Mercury’s spirit; it’s impossible to take your eyes off him for over two hours. “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t going to win any awards for its originality; it hits all the standard music biopic notes: rise to stardom, drugs and alcohol, fall from grace, redemption. Music biopic screenwriting 101. But it does offer an electric lead performance and a standout ensemble, stunningly realized music sequences, and an emotional pull that I found strangely comforting. In the end, I was starstruck and film’s manipulations got me hook, line, and sinker. I loved every minute of it.

Rami Malek. I hope his charisma and equally introverted and extroverted vision of rocker Freddie Mercury will send him all the way to Oscar nomination glory. He’s transfixing; everything from his goofily over-sized teeth to his impressive moves, he becomes Mercury. It’s beyond just imitation. Sure he’s most lip syncing most of the time but it’s pretty seamless. His bandmates played by Joseph Mazzello (as John Deacon), Ben Hardy (as Roger Taylor), and Gwilym Lee (as Brian May) are all great and impressive doubles for their real-life counterparts. Lucy Boynton is good as the love the Mercury’s life Mary Austin.

The film is sort of a “best of” with plenty of well-staged music numbers featuring all the great Queen songs including a spectacular finale at their notoriously well-received appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Sweeping camera moves and spectacular sound design make you feel like you’re there. Then of course is all the drama that comes with music biopics. This is obviosly not the film’s strongest element but it works well enough.

Originally conceived by Peter Morgan who gave us, ironically, “The Queen,” the film went through many iterations before settling on the work of screenwriter Anthony McCarten. The film doesn’t feel overly controversial in the portrayal of Mercury or his band mates which is probably because surviving members were involved in the production. For a big budget studio-baked production the film doesn’t shy away from the queerness factor. Mercury is portrayed as falling in love with a woman but it becomes obvious to her, him, and to us as the film progresses that he’s not being true to himself. The film handles it well enough. Maybe if the film had been more “indie” things would have been handled differently but the film doesn’t “straight wash” Mercury in the slightest. McCarten’s script even takes liberties with some of the real life events and the historic timeline for creative and dramatic purposes but this isn’t a documentary. I don’t even think a narrative film about a real life person even exists that is 100% accurate.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was completely intoxicating from beginning to end. Maybe it doesn’t quite have the edge that many think is required to be completely honest about who Mercury was (the film’s PG-13 rating being proof of that) but did this film need dirty language and graphic sex just to seem more “realistic” or “true?” Hardly. It’s not as if it Disneyfies Mercury’s life. I found his outward struggles with fame and his inward struggles with himself relatable and ultimately moving. It’s even just impressive to have a studio backed film about such an iconic queer person. The film is solid entertainment, emotionally engaging, and unsurprisingly has a killer soundtrack that completely brings the house down. The extremely likable Rami Malek commands the screen and makes me want to listen to Queen nonstop until the end of time.  GRADE: B+  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

American Crime Story Hotel: Good Times to Be Had at “Bad Times at the El Royale”

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of the more original films to come out in a while. But it has more than its fair share of debt to pay to the noirish crime films that have come out before it. I’m thinking basically everything Quentin Tarantino has done in the past twenty five years. Maybe it’s not one of the most original films to come out in a while. Ok I’m not being fair. It’s a highly entertaining and engaging film. But I’m not sure if it’s quite as hip and cool as it thinks it is. The same goes for writer/director Drew Goddard’s previous effort “The Cabin in the Woods” which was more of an insult to horror fans than the tribute it thought it was. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a stylish and weird neo-noir crime thriller with a killer 60s soundtrack, some standout performances, and a wacky script. But you won’t leave the film overly moved and you probably won’t be thinking about it days later. The film certainly knows how to entertain though.

Seven strangers at a hotel. That’s the premise. The El Royale used to be a swinging hot spot, sitting right on the line between Nevada and California. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a girl tied up in her trunk (Cailee Spaeny), the concierge (Lewis Pullman), and the charismatic and perennially shirtless Chris Hemsworth. They all have reasons to be at this hotel at this particular moment, and while that feels forced and contrived, you really just have to go with it.

How much more can be said plot-wise without getting into spoiler territory? Pretty much nothing. Money is involved, two-way mirrors, and lots of great Motown songs. And that brings me to the standout here (don’t worry, Chris Hemsworth’s writhing abs who appear to be audition for Magic Mike 3 come in second) which is stage actress Cynthia Erivo in one of her first major film appearances. The only crime she commits is stealing the entire film with her performance and her amazing voice. She’s simply mesmerizing. If it were December we’d be talking Oscar. Everyone gets their moment actually. Johnson is miles away from that bland “Fifty Shades of Grey” nonsense and Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) is definitely a rising star. Veterans Hamm and Bridges do fine work as well.

Oh Drew Goddard why must we have such a difficult love-hate relationship? You’ve made a fun, fascinating film. But, like Frankenstein’s monster (hey it’s almost Halloween), it sort of feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other great movies. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is actually pretty sensational and the clever editing and twists and turns keep me fully engaged. But you can help but a feel a slight sense of, we’ve sort of seen all of this before. Picture a "best of" Quentin Tarantino. It’s still leaps and bounds better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” While that movie attempted to deconstruct horror films it ended up insulting them instead; “Bad Times at the El Royale” feels way more of a tribute than a ripoff even if it doesn’t exactly break the mold. It’s at least worth checking in.  GRADE: B

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Moonlight: Damien Chazelle Makes Movie Magic Again With the Dazzling “First Man”

Americans are just as fascinated with space movies as they are with space itself. “The Right Stuff” told the story of the first men in space, “Apollo 13” was about the disastrous 1970s moon mission, “Hidden Figures” was about the unseen geniuses behind some of NASA’s successes, and “Gravity” turned space into an intense thriller with nary an alien in sight. And now we orbit around to the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” The moving and intense film seems like an odd choice for director Damien Chazelle hot off his Oscar win for scrappy musical “La La Land;” so now we have a scrappy space drama. Featuring likable performances from its leads and a surprisingly gritty sense of realism, “First Man” is a fascinating look at the events leading up to Armstrong’s historic moon landing and just how grueling the journey truly was. And to think it was done fifty years ago is simply astonishing.

“First Man” isn’t going to change your life. It has no real social message; it’s a historical document that is meant to engage and entertain. It’s about the theatrical experience and about the importance of the journey since we already know the destination. (I think this is also why his “La La Land” faced such intense backlash, when compared to the simplicity and beauty of “Moonlight” which told a story rarely seen onscreen that could change lives rather than just entertain). Chazelle wipes away the color-infused look of “ La La Land” in favor of a muted palette and really nails the look and feel of something from the 60s in which the film is set. It goes without saying that the space sequences are intense, thrilling, and claustrophobic. When the IMAX screen’s aspect ratio opens up as Armstrong exits his spacecraft on the moon it’s as if we’re Dorothy taking her first look at Oz.

Ryan Gosling is fantastic as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy is wonderful as his wife Janet. Foy transcends the traditional “concerned wife” type performance and makes it something truly compelling to watch. Armstrong’s journey to the moon wasn’t without tragedy, including a tragic death in the family and the watching some of his fellow astronaut colleagues succumb to their own tragic fates. Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer sort of takes the safe route with his script; there really isn’t that much here that hasn’t been seen or done before, but you have to admire a studio wanting to make a mid-budget spectacle about the race to the moon. This is an “adult drama” that feels like somewhat of a dying species.

Chazelle’s fascinating directorial choices is what really pushes “First Man” out into to orbit away from movie-of-the-week melodrama. His pal Justin Hurwitz’s music score is simply phenomenal and some pieces give the film an eerie quality that is catchy to the ear. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography nails the time period and is generally a technical wonder. Its no wonder all of these men walked away with Oscars for La La Land. And Chazelle’s amazing editor Tom Cross who won for his dizzying work on “Whiplash” works wonders here as well.

“First Man” is a wonderful technical achievement; it’s as close to actually landing on the moon as you or I will ever experience. The entire cast is fantastic and the film’s score, camerawork, and special effects are standouts. Chazelle, working in yet another new genre, makes something grand out of well-worn type of story. Will it change society or the world? Does it feel “important?” Not really. The film continues Hollywood’s obsessive fascination with exploring space and marks yet another marvelous technical achievement from Damien Chazelle who refuses to play things save in any of the gorgeous works of art he’s created. GRADE: A-

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Portrait of a Lady: The Electrifying “A Star is Born” Makes Lady Gaga a Movie Star

Does the world really need a fourth iteration of “A Star is Born?” Yes, because I watched clips of the three earlier films and they all looked god awful. Especially the one with Babs. Ok fine, the world doesn’t really need another cliched story about the hopes and dreams of an aspiring music star. But if you’re going to do it, at least do it right and Bradly Cooper’s brilliant directorial debut does just that. I sort of dreaded seeing Lady Gaga’s major feature film debut because even though I’m a fan, her acting on “American Horror Story” wasn’t great and her smaller film roles, like “Machete Kills,” gave her little room to make an actual impression. But she is simply sensational in “A Star is Born;” the film is an emotional roller coaster filled with fantastic performances, inspired music sequences, and an arresting sense of realism. The film's emotional pull is unobtrusive but relentless. 

Nothing in “A Star is Born” is truly groundbreaking. It’s sort of a well worn story about fame and stardom but it’s impeccably crafted. Lady Gaga is Ally who is a waitress by day and drag bar performer by night. Bradley Cooper is Jack, a drunken fictional rock star whose stardom appears to be fading fast. Fate bring him into Ally’s drag bar where he “discovers” her. They hang out, talk, sing a little and we witness the sparks of some of the most impressive onscreen chemistry I’ve ever seen in a film. The gruff Jack is smitten with the appealing young woman and before she knows it he’s dragging her onstage to sing a duet. This is one of the film’s most engaging scenes. I got extremely choked up watching Ally’s impressive debut and Gaga and Cooper’s rendition of the original song “Shallows” is emotionally fulfilling. You’re literally watching a star being born.

The film isn’t supposed to be the story of Lady Gaga’s life but it’s hard to not make comparisons to what we’ve seen and heard about the singer. The film’s script (by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper) takes the usual turns: Ally becomes a pop sensation while Jack continues to drown himself in booze. There’s not real shocking revelations or crazy turns but the film wins you over with its impressive performances from its leads and supporting players. Andrew Dice Clay has some really sweet moments as Ally’s single dad and Sam Elliott is affecting as Jack’s equally gruff older brother. The film’s original songs are also impressive and the leads' vocals are on point.

Cooper’s direction here is pretty astonishing (as is his introverted, grizzled performance). The handheld camerawork never feels forced, the chemistry between the cast is dynamite, and the actors have never been better. I’m always flabbergasted by the performances that come out of a film directed by someone who is also an actor. It’s no surprise that I was all in on the story of Jack and Ally and the wrenching drama they both go through. The film doesn’t exactly have the happiest of endings but the film is filled with enough heart and humor that we don’t feel bogged down but the darker elements. I’ll admit, I went a little gaga for this one.  GRADE: A

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Strode Games: David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” is a Glorious Return to Slasher Form

When has a horror movie heroine ever had to return from the grave? Laurie Strode just did. At ten films in, the "Halloween" franchise seemed to be buried and gone after the travesty that was the truly bizarre and terrible “Halloween II.” Rob Zombie we thank you for your service but please go away. This new “Halloween," with its non numerical title, is actually a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. We’re supposed to pretend that parts 2-8 and 1 and 2 never existed, which I’m okay with because they DO still exist. I’m especially okay with it because this new Halloween, which marks the 40th anniversary of the original film, is a splendid return to form for this iconic if wacky horror franchise. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a fearless performance as final girl (final grandma?) Laurie Strode and director David Gordon Green imbues the film with a sense of dread and nostalgia that never distracts from the fact that we’re actually watching a fantastic story about how tragedy and loss has affected three generations of women. It’s the ultimate slasher flick of the #metoo era and it’s also pretty darned scary.

I promise not to spoil anything but the film begins with the idea that Michael Myers never escaped after his attack on Laurie and her friends and was actually captured and put away for forty years. And if these people have yet to learn anything it’s that transporting Michael Myers is always a terrible idea. A couple of podcast journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) seek to understand the psychotic Myers’ silence. And a reclusive and borderline crazy Laurie Strode (Curtis), who was Myers original target after he escaped from a mental institution 40 years earlier, constantly warns her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) to be prepared for anything should Myers ever escape again. And he does. Would we even want to see a movie in which Michael Myers doesn’t escape from a mental institution?

“Halloween” is an impressive horror debut for Gordon Green who has a career filled will stoner comedies and indie dramas. His last film also featured themes of PTSD in his Boston bombing drama “Stronger.” In a way it almost makes sense. At least he’s made an atmospheric and scary film even if it can’t hold a candle to what Carpenter was able to accomplish in his original film. It is however, arguably the best film in the series since the 1978 film. Carpenter has returned to score the film giving a mix of new and returning themes. The script features strong characters though there may be too many characters to follow so sometimes it feels like some people are forgotten about. You’d almost expect Curtis’ role to be minor, almost cameo-like, but she really does carry most of the film. Her granddaughter Allyson and her friends give the film a sense of the teen vibe that these slasher films as known for. And lastly the film is way more graphic and the body count is way higher. That makes the film feel a tad disjointed from the 1978 film in terms of continuity since Michael Myers “only” killed five people back in the day but I guess 40 years of pent up rage will do that to a psychopath.

“Halloween” is a fun nostalgia trip (with plenty of fun nods and references to most of the other other films in the series) that is scary and atmospheric. The performances are very good considering the harsh criticisms this subgenre usually receives and it’s really difficult to find any major fault in the smart script (written by Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley). The folks at Blumhouse really know what they’re doing when it comes to producing quality horror films and it’s nice to know that Michael and Laurie have come home at last.  GRADE: A-

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sister Hacked: The Conjuring Universe’s “The Nun” is Disturbingly Unscary

Let’s begin with the positives. As weird as it may be, it’s cool that there’s even a “Conjuring Universe.” “The Nun” adds little to a series that has seen as many lows as highs. The film, the fifth in this shared cinematic universe, is arguably the weakest and most offensively the least scary and is a constant reminder at how well-made the main Conjuring films truly are. Taking place at a remote convent in Romania in the 1950s “The Nun” follows a young novitiate and a seasoned priest who investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding another nun’s suicide. After a somewhat silly but halfway decent opening, we’re left with uninteresting characters investigating an uninteresting case and wish that somehow Ed and Lorraine Warren will show up to make things more entertaining. Alas it’s not quite meant to be.

In “The Conjuring 2” we learn about an evil demon known as Valak who takes the form of a creepy nun. This figures heavily into the film’s plot so of course it seemed obvious to be next secondary character to receive the spinoff treatment. However, nothing about this creepy nun is ever as effective or scary in “The Nun.” In an admittedly clever bit of casting, Taissa Farmiga (The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga’s younger sister) plays Sister Irene and she’s fine in the thankless role. Demian Bichir is Father Burke who accompanies the young woman to help solve the mystery of the suicidal nun. Then there’s the farm hand/delivery guy who discovered the dead nun “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet) who seems to be in a different film altogether. Desperate to add a bit of humor to the dire, too serious film, Bloquet is charming but even his baby blues can’t save this turkey.

Things go bump in the night. There are weird visions. Father Burke ends up buried alive. Frenchie is attacked by a demonic entity. It’s all dull and boring until “the blood of Jesus Christ” figures into the plot and then it’s just ridiculous. The only remotely scary part in the entire movie was much scarier in the theatrical trailer. There’s actually nothing particularly awful about Corin Hardy’s film it’s just that it’s resoundingly forgettable and unexciting. The script, unsurprisingly comes from Gary Dauberman who also wrote "Annabelle" and "Annabelle: Creation" which are both fine in their own ways, but highly flawed. His surprising credit on “It” is comforted by the fact that two others are credited on that one.

It’s a fact that the main Conjuring films are where it really counts in this “cinematic universe.” Less seasoned horror enthusiasts might jump here and there but “The Nun” offers very little to hardcore fans of the genre or anyone else who is familiar with films about things that go bump in the night. The only real benefit of the “The Nun” was having the idea to watch “Sister Act” upon my arrival at home.  GRADE: C

Friday, August 17, 2018

Fight the Power: Spike Lee Proves He Still Got Game With the Humorous and Compelling “BlacKkKlansman”

There is no arguing that Spike Lee is one of the most provocative and inventive directors to come out of the late 80s/early 90s indie film scene. Sure some of his films are “controversial” but he’s making more than sheer entertainment. He has a distinct voice and I appreciate that. The latter half of his career hasn’t been as successful as some of his great early works but he’s back with the fantastic “BlacKkKlansman.” Only Spike Lee could get away with having KKK in his movie title. And only Spike Lee could tell the outrageous true story of a Black police officer successfully infiltrating a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the type of story that can only be based on fact otherwise no one would ever buy it. This brilliant filmmaker has returned to his provocateur roots and has fashioned a heartbreaking, but humorous look at racism in small town 70s America and the implications that it has on modern society.

America was and continues to be a racist nation. We’re a country that was founded on racist ideals. Sure our Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal” but that has been a fallacy for centuries. To this day certain groups of people are still trying to get the rights and privileges of others. And this is extremely relevant to the movie-going experience that “BlacKkKlansman” provides.

Set in the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first Black man hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. He goes undercover at Black Student Union rally where he meets a riled up local woman named Patrice (Laura Harrier). Ron finds a recruiting ad for the KKK and decides to call them up. He pretends to be white and arranges to meet Walter (Ryan Eggold) the head of the group. Ron sends his white, Jewish co-worker Flip (Adam Driver) to pose as Ron and meet the group. As you could imagine, these people are the epitome of evil hatred. You will hear racial slurs up the wazoo and at some point you’ll literally become numb to them. Eventually Flip and Ron suspect the group may be planning some kind of attack.

To say the film is enthralling is an understatement. First of all, from a filmmaking perspective, the film has a delightfully grungy 70s vibe. The music from Spike regular Terrance Blanchard is bluesy and fun. Lee employs some of his fun camera trickery that was so groundbreaking early in his career and remains a significant part of his oeuvre. The film’s script is arguably much more “commercial” than many of Lee’s previous films. It feels like a film that those unfamiliar with the auteur could easily climb on board with. That’s probably because the film started from a spec script from Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz. And then Spike put his fingerprint all over it. So the film works as a thrilling police procedural and a provoking statement about American racism and hate. In other words, it’s a fascinating thriller with something important to say.

Everything is masterful in “BlacKkKlansman” including the amazing performances. If I didn’t know any better I would of thought Spike found real white supremacists to play themselves. These characters are truly vile and disgusting and he rightfully portrays them that way because they are. The actors really make them feel like real people especially Jasper Pääkkönen who creates one of the year’s truly scariest villains.

“BlacKkKlansman” is a transcendent film. It’s important, it’s entertaining, it’s incendiary. It makes you sad about where this country came from and ends in a way that makes the film shocking relevant today. It will make you laugh and it will break your heart. The entire cast is outstanding and Spike Lee has truly made something special that will be remembered for quite some time. It’s a truly rewarding and visceral experience.  GRADE: A

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-