Reviews


“BlacKkKlansman” Movie Review


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     Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” stands as the director’s finest work in years, and certainly his most important given our society’s current state of division on the topic of race.  By telling a true story dated in 1979, Lee sets out to indicate an obvious juxtaposition between the era on screen and the politics and agendas we deal with today, making the case that not much has changed as people have only dug in further within their beliefs.  If Lee is correct, than our future as a country is bleak at best.  And I don’t believe he intended on making a cautionary tale, but rather a demonstration of our current state of affairs, and the potential consequences of continuing to follow along this same path.  Much like recent films such as “12 Years A Slave” and “Mudbound”, “BlacKkKlansman” reminds us of our often sad and regretful history, but has a unique way of slapping you upside the head in order to ensure you realize all of this is still going on right now.

     In the opening scenes, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) arrives for his interview with the Colorado Springs Police Department, wide eyed and prepared to fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer.  In fact, he is about to become the first African-American police officer in the department's history, a distinction those interviewing him are obviously aware of as they prod him with questions involving his potential reaction to other officers using racial slurs around him and towards him.  The answers to these questions all come in the form of carefully pronounced dialogue so as to make one think he is simply speaking like a white person would (He later tells someone he speaks both regular English and Jive), which is to say he presents himself in a way that ensures he will get the position, avoiding the stereotypes that come with the use of street jargon.  This, of course, will come in handy later.  Ron gets the job, but is relegated to the records room where his day to day duties include fetching records for less than patient white officers who look to test the rookie’s patience with unnecessary below the belt comments about suspects whose skin color is the same as his.

     There are; however, people within the department who champion Ron’s advancement, including Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), one of the men responsible for his hire, and someone who would seem to benefit from the success an African-American officer could bring to the agency.  After a short stint in his first assignment, Ron is transferred to Narcotics in order to work undercover during a planned speaking engagement at a local college featuring a known Black Power advocate named Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins).  This leads to a fledgling relationship with the organizer of the event, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who seems engrossed by Ture’s teachings and as a result believes all cops are “pigs”.  An incident involving a racist local cop the night of the event only fuels her beliefs, as well as those around her, putting Ron in the precarious position of maintaining his cover and not divulging his true identity.

     Chief Bridges again transfers Ron, this time to the position of Intelligence Detective.  Soon after, a chance reading of an ad for the local Ku Klux Klan chapter sparks an undercover phone call by Ron to the chapter’s recruiter.  And guess what? The two of them hit it off over the phone!  So much so, that Ron is summoned to meet the chapter’s members in person, which puts in motion an operation that has his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), attending the meetings posing as him.  Doing so indicates the hateful and despicable group is up to no good, which pushes Ron and Flip into a full fledged investigation into the chapter in order to find out what nefarious act they are planning.  Is it just hateful talk? Or will they follow through on the terrible crimes they are describing to one another all in an effort to spread their moronic message and hurt innocent and unsuspecting people?  As the plot advances, Lee sets up quite the scenario, all of which is told in a manner where you could easily believe much of it could and does happen today.

     Working from the actual Ron Stallworth’s book, Lee and screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott skillfully weave each scene to echo today’s unquestionable racial divide.  Remembering when the story takes place, you have characters who converse about the hate filled rhetoric of Klan leader David Duke (played in the film by Topher Grace), only to ponder how unlikely it would be that someone with much of the same beliefs could someday find their way into the White House.  There are a number of obvious references throughout the film that point to the connection some believe exists between the Klan leader and our current President.  And there is no question at all what Lee’s intent is by telling the story in the first place.  A villainous creep named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, played by none other than Alec Baldwin, spews a hate filled racist monologue as the film opens, cut against scenes from 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” and 1939’s “Gone With The Wind” in an effort to point out how black people were portrayed in film throughout history.

     When the film ends, rather than running the end credits, Lee cuts directly to startling footage from a year ago in Charlottesville, West Virginia, as hoards of white supremacists and neo Nazis  marched in protest of the removal of several Confederate statues located on the college campus there.  We then see President Trump’s press conference in the aftermath where he tells the press each side was culpable for what occurred and failed to denounce the actions of a clearly racist faction that is still very much alive within our society.  Lee’s inclusion of this segment wasn't necessary to get his point across, given the superlatives of “BlacKkKlansman” does that just fine and with a razor sharp effectiveness.  Adding the Charlottesville footage seemed like overkill after he so skillfully told a story that to any intelligent member of the audience would certainly drive home the point he is trying to make.

     If you have watched the HBO series “Ballers”, than you are already well aware of John David Washington and his ability to play against the likes of Dwayne Johnson and steal the show with effortless charisma and charm.  “BlacKkKlansman” allows Washington a role which not only exhibits his enormous talents, but also one that tells the world he has without question arrived and is a force to reckoned with.  One of things I really loved was how he exuded the passion for being a cop and doing what was right, even in the face of adversity coming both from his superiors, as well as Patrice and the Black Power movement who see him as a sell out.  Driver is also solid as his Jewish American partner who he himself contends with consistently hiding his true heritage in order to be accepted within the mainstream.  But it’s Spike Lee who expertly puts all of this together, resulting in an often hilarious take on subject matter that would otherwise be difficult to watch.  “BlacKkKlansman” is one of the best films of the year, and stands as one of Lee’s best amongst his already impressive body of work (“He Got Game” & “Clockers” are two of my favorite films).  The only problem is us.  Will we heal our divide?  Or will the hate in this country be the final nail in society’s coffin?  GRADE: A

“Eighth Grade” Movie Review


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     There’s an unmistakable authenticity during every moment of writer/director Bo Burnham’s feature debut, “Eighth Grade”, a coming of age story providing a modern twist on everyday life as experienced by angst-ridden middle schoolers, as well as the pitfalls that come with our social media driven society.  Depending on your age and whether or not you’ve had children of your own, the story Burnham sets out to tell may prove shocking when you realize the lead character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is an accurate portrayal of today’s junior high aged children and the challenges they face daily to fit in, while constantly being bombarded by the highlight reels of others on Instagram and Snapchat and the feelings of not measuring up to what others are perceived to have.  As painfully ordinary as Kayla is, we quickly realize this is the new normal.  A notion we may dismiss as nothing more than a cautionary tale, but would be wise to examine further in order to avoid devastating future consequences for our children.

     George Carlin used to talk about how all a young child needed to play and entertain himself for hours was a stick found somewhere in the backyard.  You could dig holes, play with the critters you might unearth, and enjoy nature the way it was intended.  Today’s kids don't seem interested in the backyard anymore, instead choosing to spend hours cooped up in their bedrooms aimlessly staring at the social media feeds of their peers, as they conjure ongoing plans to trump up their own profiles in an effort to show their lives are full of good times and enviable experiences as well, even when it’s not truth.  You almost can’t help but feel bad for Kayla during the first handful of scenes in which we see her filming herself in her bedroom for a YouTube channel she has concocted where viewers will learn about her philosophies of teen existence.  Problem is, no one is watching, all the while others in her class enjoy the popularity of well followed Instagram feeds filled with likes, comments, and direct messages inquiring about their utterly fabulous lives.  It’s really sad, isn’t it?

     Yes, instead of focusing on learning, today’s kids are engulfed in a constant state of techno driven psycho babble, scrolling and posting their way through endless gigabytes of photos, videos, emojis, and poorly written text blurbs that do nothing for them other than activate an array of negative impulses.  And we, the parents, are actually allowing this to happen at an alarmingly young age.  Perhaps no circumstance in “Eighth Grade” better demonstrates the plight parents face with their kids than a scene where Kayla and her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), are having dinner at home.  Mark is desperately trying to connect with Kayla through real conversation, but finds it difficult since she is busy looking at her phone and has a pair of headphones in her ears.  Rather than disallowing her phone at the dinner table, Mark attempts to talk over whatever it is that is currently distracting Kayla, but her response proves disrespectful, as she ignores her father in favor of her social media feed.  It’s as if her only concern is what other people are doing at the moment.  People who likely no more than acquaintances, if that.

     And if the social media influences aren't enough, Burnham ensures the elephant in classrooms across the country today is addressed by having his characters receive in school instruction from a Police Officer on how to react when an Active Shooter threat is present on campus.  None of the kids really seem to take it seriously, as they sit under their desks during a drill and simply whip out their phones to see who posted what in the few minutes since they last checked.  Meanwhile, Kayla checks her YouTube account, revealing to the audience that most of her videos haven't even been watched one time.  Things do look up momentarily; however, when she is invited by the mom of the most popular girl in school to her daughter’s birthday party, but soon the dread of fitting into an uncharted social situation begins to envelop Kayla’s mind to the point where she isn’t sure if she really wants to go.

     Through all of it, Burnham injects a number of positive and heartwarming moments in the third act that give Kayla some light at the end of the tunnel as she prepares to transition from middle school to high school.  The aforementioned birthday party becomes an opportunity to meet Gabe (Jake Ryan), a kid who shares a lot more in common with Kayla than does her middle crush and resident bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael).  In addition, high school shadow day introduces Kayla to Olivia (Emily Robinson), a super positive senior to be who brings Kayla under her wing and exposes her to some of the obstacles ahead.  Still though, one has to wonder how this generation will ultimately succeed with so much superfluous information constantly pinging within their brains.  Add to that, the constant threat of a tragic school shooting and it’s a wonder these kids actually learn anything.  A thought that really makes you respect the job our teachers are doing on a daily basis, as they contend with an ever-growing list of impossible issues in the classroom.

     There have been several films over the years that have explored the relationship between kids and social media with varying degrees of extreme circumstance.  On one end of the spectrum, you have 2013’s “Disconnect”, which examined, among other things, the effects of cyber bullying and the devastating potential consequences that can result. On the other end, you have 2015’s “Unfriended”, which exploited the topic by using social media as a plot device furthering a supernatural horror premise.  Burnham, perhaps for the first time in a film, has indicated the very ordinary nature of every day children and their consistent exposure to these digital platforms without working in some extreme consequence to their behavior.  In other words, this is something everyone is doing, even though they know it might be bad for them, or as “Eighth Grade” demonstrates, it has apparently become a societal norm.  A norm that somehow has resulted in a near one thousand dollar phone in every kid’s pocket.  I guess we must’ve ran out of sticks. 

 GRADE: B+

“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” Movie Review


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     The “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, having launched in 1996, has now spanned over two decades and six films, which in most cases means some sort of reinvention in order to keep the story fresh and ultimately consumable by today’s audiences.  Somehow, the “M:I” films have maintained a similar tone and story structure, while also keeping the core actors intact from film to film, and simply introducing a different foil in the form of a villain, or at least someone whose loyalties to one side or the other remains in question throughout.  With the formula remaining consistent, the filmmakers behind the “M:I” franchise have taken a page out of the uber successful “Fast and Furious” film franchise by upping the ante each time out with death defying stunt work and action sequences that seem to get even more heart stopping and outrageous from film to film.  

     Returning to his writing and directing duties, of which he proved incredibility skilled the last time out with “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”, is Christopher McQuarrie with “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”, an all out action fan’s dream of a film whose two and half hour running time seems to go by as fast as a two minute roller coaster ride.  To say the least, what McQuarrie and his talented actors and crew have accomplished here is something often not seen when a franchise reaches its sixth film and hasn’t rebooted with new lead characters.  “Fallout” rocks you to the core with a series of breathtaking set pieces that continue the franchise’s ability to deliver the kind of creative and jaw dropping excitement which clearly outpaces the last installment and sets the bar high enough that one can’t imagine how they’ll top themselves in the next one.  Put simply, this is first class work by all involved.

     Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, and his IMF team, yet again, has their hands full with a terrorist organization hell bent on setting off a nuclear bomb and creating, as they say throughout, the kind of suffering necessary to essentially reset human kind and change the world permanently with one swift blow.  During the film’s first act, as we see Hunt and his team, including Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), attempt to recover a suitcase full of plutonium that has fallen into the wrong hands, I began to think about how often filmmakers use nuclear weapons and the necessary ingredients needed to construct them as the McGuffin which sends our globetrotting heroes from location to location in an effort to keep these dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands.  The filmmakers certainly could’ve gone that direction, but fortunately, the twists, turns, and double-crosses this series is famous for go well beyond the standard “terrorists in possession of nukes” formula.

     Given the past exploits of the IMF, as well as the uncertainty of their most recent operation, the CIA inserts an agent named August Walker (Henry Cavill) on Hunt’s team, as they embark on a mission to contact a broker who can lead them to the plutonium.  Cavill provides a tremendous presence, injecting a notable brute force in the manner his character prefers to handle situations which meshes well with Cruise’s Hunt and proves to be a worthy partner when muscle is needed to dispatch the henchmen they inevitable come into contact with as they move closer to their target.  Cavill's work far exceeds his turn as Superman in “Man of Steel” and “Justice League”, as well as his role as a CIA operative in 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, and is clearly the best performance of his young career. We also welcome the return of MI6 Agent Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who runs an operation parallel to Hunt’s, but whose interests might differ.  Hunt’s “Rogue Nation” nemesis, Soloman Lane (Sean Harris), also makes a haunting return.  McQuarrie’s script expertly puts these characters in positions where their intentions remain in question as the third act leads them into a multitude of scenarios you won’t see coming, leading to an appreciation for the craft on display here.

     Cruise, who at 56 years old still remains an astonishing physical presence, pushes his character to the physical extreme, showcasing the ability to not only complete dangerous stunt work, but also the fitness to sprint long distances, scale buildings and rock walls, and jump from roof top to roof top in a manner which shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.  His work in this film will amaze you, and will certainly be enough to adequately remove the thought of his most recent misfire, “The Mummy”, from your mind and replace it with his portrayal of the character he was clearly born to play.  By the time the next installment arrives, Cruise himself may be pushing 60, but I wouldn’t bet on any sort of evolution in the character where he slows down and uses brains instead of braun.  It’s just not how Cruise and his character are wired.

     As for the “M:I” franchise, “Fallout” is as satisfying an entry as we’ve seen in any long running film series, and stands as one of the best films of 2018 thus far.  It’s entirely unlikely we will see another film this year that will pack this kind of adrenaline fueled punch, while also maintaining the smarts and intelligence we often note when viewing the other films in the series.   “Fallout” is the sort of film that will leave you shaken as you walk out of the theater attempting to process and piece together everything you’ve just witnessed and experienced.  Rather than allowing the film to delve into the category of disposable and forgettable entertainment, McQuarrie and Cruise ensure “Fallout” will imprint itself within your psyche and stay awhile.  GRADE: A   

“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” Movie Review


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     Not long ago, I was reading an article in the local paper which explored the question as to whether artists should be required to play their hit songs during concerts, in addition to the less popular songs comprising their current album which is the likely reason for their tour in the first place.  This thought came to mind while viewing “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”, the new sequel/prequel to the enormously successful first film, “Mamma Mia!”, which came out almost exactly ten years ago this month in 2008.  

     The lengthy time frame between films could easily be explained, given the difficulties the filmmakers most certainly experienced attempting to unearth another set of ABBA pop songs for use within the story, something which the filmmakers luckily inherited the first time around since that film was based on the pre-existing stage show.  But has writer/directer Ol Parker taken a tremendous risk with the sequel in attempting to build a new story around songs that never became popular some 40 years ago when they debuted?  And does he succumb to the temptation of having his all-star cast simply sing hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” all over again so as to ensure fans don't leave disappointed?  The answer is a combination of both, just as you might've guessed.

     There’s one thing you should know going into “Here We Go Again”.  If you're expecting to see Meryl Streep once again leading the cast as Donna, you’re bound to be disappointed.  She appears in one scene during the entire film.  The audience is told why almost immediately, and the result is an emotional letdown that quickly makes you wonder if the story moving forward can survive without her.  The film certainly benefits from the extended flashback sequences that take up nearly half of the running time and in some ways make up for Streep’s absence, but each time we are back in the present day, the story seems to falter, particularly given the fact there are no real stakes this time for any of the characters involved.

     Essentially, that present day story revolves around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her near complete renovation of the once falling apart Greek hotel once owned by her mother, Donna (Steep).  To celebrate, she has planned a grand opening day party, inviting her three dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Harry (Colin Firth), as well as Donna’s former band mates, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).  So the gang is certainly all here, and game as ever to perform ABBA’s back catalog titles, glamorously choreographed as they are.  But as I said, the emotional weight to any of this is gone and what there is in the form of a few minor plot twists are all but resolved about half way through, leaving the third act to feel as though they couldn't think of anything else for the characters to do before wrapping up and rolling the credits.

     In the flashback sequences, we see the flings mentioned in Donna’s diary in the first film play out, as she meets Harry, Bill, and Sam for the first time at some point in the late 1970s.  Played by Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, and Jeremy Irvine, the trio find themselves in the company of a young and independent Donna, taking the form of Lily James, who provides a wonderful early look at the character during a time where she was still trying to find her purpose in life.  Problem is, the few minutes all of this is addressed in the first film seems adequate to me.  Is it really necessary to watch as she meets these three guys in different situations over a period of about three weeks, just so things we already know are memorialized on screen.  Quite frankly, there isn't much to it either.  

     Each of these scenes provides an opportunity for a musical number, but the staging of these scenes carry zero weight since we already know the outcome.  We already know Sam was engaged.  We already know he leaves to break it off, only to return for Donna and find she has moved on with someone else.  The adult versions of all of these characters fully explained that in the first film.  If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s getting to see the early exploits of Donna’s band, with a young Tonya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and a young Rosie (Alexa Davies) performing at the Greek hotel for the very time and winning plenty of new fans in the process.

     Some of this; however, is so pedestrian, that you can’t really blame Parker for going back to the well and having his characters perform a few of the ABBA songs you’ll actually know in order to maintain the lively and happy tone the first film so masterfully displayed.  A sequence in which a fleet of fishermen approaching the island by boat gleefully singing Dancing Queen to the delight of onlookers awaiting their arrival is sure to bring an instant smile to your face, but scenes like these are few and far between. 

     The filmmakers knew this, and even go as far as to introduce Cher into the mix, appearing as Donna’s absentee mother (Sophie’s grandmother) for a party she was apparently not invited to, so as to liven up the ending a bit.  And given her talents, it’s no surprise she is belting out lyrics just minutes after her entrance.  It’s as if the entire cast was suddenly invited to a Cher concert where she does exclusive covers of ABBA b-sides!.  Not all of this is exactly a bad thing however.  “Here We Go Again” still manages to be a fun time at the movies and there’s no doubt the entire cast had a really good time putting it all together.  One has to question the creative decisions involving Streep’s character, but at least the filmmakers understood the importance of playing the hits we all came to see.  GRADE: C+

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Movie Review


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     The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to amaze, as its now 20th feature film, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, flies into theaters barely two months after the massively successful “Avengers: Infinity War” shook fandom to its core with the jaw dropping reality of half of the universe’s inhabitants disappearing with one snap of Thanos’ finger.  Given the fact the first “Ant-Man” (2015) set the stage for what has become the lighter side of the MCU, you’d have to figure the filmmakers would have a problem utilizing the same comical tone after what we just saw transpire in “Infinity War”, but the work around here is a rather obvious one.  “Ant-Man and the Wasp” takes place after the events of “Captain America: Civil War”, and before the events of “Infinity War”, giving way to what is essentially a continuation of the first film, albeit with the consequences of “Civil War” directly influencing the narrative.

     Returning for the sequel is director Peyton Reed, whose work on the original more than justified his suitability for the project.  Sometimes, certain types of material are found to be exactly what the filmmaker was born to do, and it certainly appears this is the case with “Ant-Man” and Reed, particularly given a now proven sense of comic timing with both his actors, as well as his writing team that includes Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari, and star Paul Rudd.  Rudd also feels right home, having grown into this character with the aforementioned appearances in “Ant-Man” and “Civil War”, but is also seen here clearly in the kind of rhythm that has made Scott Lang feel like the kind of person you would want to hang out with.  When he’s not out fighting bad guys as Ant-Man of course.

     The storyline this time features an entirely different kind of scenario with potentially bigger stakes.  Lang (Paul Rudd) is finishing multiple years of house arrest which is the result of his participation with Captain America during the events of “Civil War”.  He still frequently hangs out with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), although the two are confined to his residence when figuring out inventive ways to entertain themselves.  Apparently, the house arrest situation is so serious, that when the ankle monitor moves an inch off his property, the FBI arrives in full force and searches the premise for any wrongdoing.  I take it the federal government doesn't want Lang reprising his Ant-Man role any time soon.

     Meanwhile, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), continue their research into the Quantum Realm and the ongoing quest to find Pym’s long lost wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer).  In a flashback sequence, we see the original Ant-Man and Wasp, who then were Dr. Hank Pym and Janet, as they save the world at the expense of Janet entering the Quantum Realm with no path for her return.  Now in the present day, Pym and Hope have worked under the radar to find a way into the Realm and attempt a rescue some thirty years later.  Reed has worked a nefarious technology dealer, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), into the mix as the person Hope deals with in order to acquire the parts necessary to build the machine that will take them to rescue her mother.  But there is something else lurking within the shadows.

     A mysterious being, dubbed the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), is also interested in Dr. Pym’s work and seeks to steal it for another use.  All of this leads to Lang re-teaming with Pym and Hope, who has now become the Wasp, in an effort to regain the stolen tech necessary to accomplish their very personal mission.  A lot of this may sound serious in nature, but that’s not what Reed and his team are going for.  “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a bonafide laugh fest, firing both the spoken and visual gags in such a rapid manner that you likely will never stop smiling.  It’s the kind of feel good atmosphere where even the bad guys joke around, or in most cases are made the center of the joke whether they like it or not.  Contributing greatly to this, just as he did in “Ant-Man”, is Michael Pena, who returns as Lang’s fellow convict turned business partner Luis.

     As a duo, Ant-Man and Wasp work well together and are certainly effective against lower level threats.  I say this since both are listed as being a part of next summer’s “Infinity War” sequel, but I’m not exactly sure just how well they will match up against the likes of Thanos, unless Dr. Pym is able to cook something up involving the Quantum Realm.  And while it may be far fetched to think characters like these would make a difference in the bigger picture, it seems plausible that the timing of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” could lead to a more significant role for the pair, particularly since many of the heroes we are counting on have recently vanished into thin air.  Either way, the film serves as yet another reminder of the unstoppable power of the MCU, its characters, and the audiences they command.  And there’s no better example of this than when we sit through the end credits of each film awaiting a mid/post credits scene, which for “Ant-Man and the Wasp” completely abandons the aforementioned comic tone, choosing instead to follow the shocking lead of its predecessor.   GRADE: B+

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” Movie Review


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     There’s no question several interesting story ideas have been marinating in Taylor Sheridan’s  mind over the years, particularly after he arrived on the scene virtually out of nowhere with scripts for the critically acclaimed “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016), the latter of which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  I felt strongly enough about “Sicario” to place it at Number 2 on my 2015 Ten Best Film list, lauding the film for Benicio Del Toro’s tour de force performance as the title character, as well as the creative work behind the camera courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Interestingly enough, many of the people responsible for the success of “Sicario” are not back for the sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, which looks to continue the story told in the first film while expanding on Del Toro’s mysterious hitman, Alejandro.

     Taking over for Villeneuve and Deakins are director Stefano Sollima and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski respectively, but are sans the services of Emily Blunt, as well as composer Johann Johannsson who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.  You could make the argument the impact of the visuals supplied by Villeneuve and Deakins, backed by Johannsson’s haunting score, in the first film are virtually irreplaceable.  Add to that the missing emotional presence of Blunt’s character and performance, and you would rightfully wonder why the studio moved forward on a sequel.  Of course, Sheridan is on board once again, providing another gritty take on the material, this time featuring Del Toro and Josh Brolin’s CIA spook Matt Graver as the leads in a story focusing once again on the brutal nature of the drug war going on daily at the U.S. - Mexico border.

     There are certain aspects of “Day of the Soldado” that seem curiously by the numbers.  Terrorist attacks on American soil are linked to one of the most notorious Mexican Cartels, putting the U.S. Government on its heels as a fearful American public wants answers and a swift response against those responsible.  And the timing of such a storyline couldn’t be more topical when you consider the ongoing immigration debate brewing within our country today and the arguments that side with this very possibility when determining the consequences of who we let cross our borders.  It’s not long after these attacks we see Matt Graver (Brolin) being summoned to the office of the Secretary of Defense to discuss options for potential retaliation.  And given the nature of Graver’s job description and line of work, it’s not difficult to predict exactly what direction he will go.

     Essentially, Graver is given permission to start a war between rival Cartels.  Doing so will pit their soldiers against each other, rather than allowing them to be deployed for various forms of mischief in the United States.  That’s the theory anyway.  To accomplish the mission, Graver contacts Alejandro (Del Toro), who seems to be his go to when it comes to this sort of operation described in the film as “dirty”.  And a plan to kidnap the daughter of Mexico’s most well known drug kingpin, Carlos Reyes, while blaming the deed on a rival, is just the kind of task Alejandro and Graver are well suited for.  It’s at that point, you can see Sollima attempting to create the tension and atmosphere of the Juarez sequence in “Sicario” by staging the ambush of a convoy carrying Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) with the same precision and bravado, and a less effective score provided by Hildur Guonadottir.  It’s one of those sequences that had it come first, the level of suspense may have been adequate, but when it appears in a sequel, thus stripping it of originality, the scene simply doesn't measure up.

     And that’s where the predictable nature of the story moves into high gear, as a series of scenes where Alejandro and Isabel form a notable bond indicate exactly where the third act will go when the higher ups, including Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and his underling, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), order Graver to cover his tracks when the operation goes south.  For a while, it sets up an interesting game of cat and mouse between two men whose aptitude at this sort of thing makes them the top choices when the government needs something taken care of without the mess that comes with an all out war. Problem is, for all of the ability both Sollima and Wolski show in being able to carry on the look and tone of the first film, the emotional core supplied by Emily Blunt is sorely missed and the Isabel Reyes character who is written in to take her place doesn't resonate the same way, particularly given the fact she is the farthest thing from innocent and seems to display many of the same traits her father likely does.  In other words, it’s not important if she lives or dies.

     With talk of a third film already in the works, it would behoove Sheridan and the filmmakers involved to consider a story in which Blunt finds herself mixed up once again with Graves and a now potentially rogue Alejandro, who could certainly be in line to wreak havoc on the U.S., given the events of “Day of the Soldado”. Something the final scene in the film is a likely indication of. And sure, the sequel hits many of the right notes throughout, but all of them are expected ones, robbing nearly every scene of anything resembling the kind of white knuckle tension the “Sicario” filmmakers so expertly created.  Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of story left to be told, and with this being the case, hopefully everyone will be invited to the party next time, both in front of and behind the camera.  GRADE: C+

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Movie Review


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     As much as Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” is renowned as a classic and cultural icon amongst filmdom, I wasn’t overly impressed by 2015’s attempt at rebooting the franchise with “Jurassic World”, which seemed to rely a bit too much on the familiar notes of the original.  But given the massive financial success of the franchise’s relaunch some fifteen years after “Jurassic Park 3” seemingly ran it right off the rails, it is not a surprise to see a sequel arrive in the latest attempt to scoop up another bank vault filled with dino bucks.  Taking over for “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow, J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) provides his take on the material with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, bringing “Jurassic World” stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard back for another thrill ride within a world that can’t seem to get enough of the famed prehistoric creatures.

     There is certainly no doubt Trevorrow, who returns along with writing partner Derek Connolly to provide the script, was given marching orders by the decision makers at Universal to provide a story delivering the larger than life dino action audiences seem to crave.  Not since the original film have the human characters actually mattered or added anything of substance to the plot, and “Fallen Kingdom” continues that tradition by simply inserting its characters into situations where their prime directive is to make bad decisions resulting in mass carnage.  This, of course, means maximum opportunities for said characters to be chomped and ripped apart by the usual assortment of carnivore creations roaming throughout every scene.  And Bayona lays it on thick, particularly given the unusual setting he is working with here.

     Some time after the events of “Jurassic World”, a band of thieves goes back to the park one dark and rainy night in an effort to retrieve a bone from the skeleton of a dinosaur needed for a soon to be revealed nefarious plot back home.  Right away, you realize “Fallen Kingdom” isn’t interested in following the governing rules of reality, since the park, after all that had happened there, is apparently unsecured, allowing these misfits to simply helicopter in and take what they want.  And for some reason, these dummies seem to believe the dinosaurs there are all dead.  Given the set up, I’m sure you know exactly just how south this operation goes, but your required suspension of disbelief certainly will not stop there.

     Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) is the one time business partner of the late John Hammond, who, as you recall, was the creator of Jurassic Park.  Now at an age where failing health seems inevitable, his business exploits are handled by his assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who contacts Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) in an effort to collaborate on a mission to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from Jurassic World, just as an erupting volcano threatens to wipe their species out permanently once again.  Of particular interest is the Velociraptor “Blue”, who was trained since birth by Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a dinosaur who represents the first success in communicating and working with such an aggressive and deadly creature.  But Eli’s attempts at persuading Owen to return to the island and help capture Blue have not been successful, leaving Claire as the one person who might be able to sway him.

     The peril experienced by the characters on the island, resulting from the constant volcanic eruptions, flowing lava, and white hot rocks hurling towards our heroes, is expertly brought to life by Bayona and his team.  These scenes, which include shots of the human characters running side by side with dinosaurs as they desperately try to escape the same threat and demise are some of the best shots in the film.  Of course, we know Owen and Claire, as well as their counterparts, Franklin (Justice Smith) and Zia (Daniella Pineda) , are not going to die a half hour into the story, but the tense scenarios they find themselves in ratchet the fear of their death to a near unbearable maximum.  If Bayona could’ve maintained this pace throughout, we might’ve had quite a film on our hands, but then everything slows way down and confines everyone, including the dinosaurs inside of a house.  Yes.  A house.

     The dinos spend most of the rest of the film in cages, as the actual business motivated reason for their rescue is revealed.  It’s at this point, “Fallen Kingdom” devolves into another monster movie taking place in poorly lit hallways and rooms where the power always seems to go out at the worst possible time.  And where would a good horror film be without its characters making bad decisions, like walking into cages with sleeping dinosaurs, leaving cage doors unlocked, or not properly disposing of people of whom you know are in complete disagreement with your current interests.  It’s the kind of thing Dr. Evil made light of in the “Austin Powers” films.  There’s even a little girl, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), conveniently worked into the second half of the story just in case you’re already bored with the other characters and need someone else to emotionally attach yourself to who also looks to be the main course on some mutant dinosaur’s dinner plate.  Children in peril is all the rage you know.  But, believe it or not, there is some merit to all of this.

     Early on, we meet up with Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who is testifying in front of a government committee on the viability of saving the dinosaurs from extinction.  His advice to let them die as nature intended is ignored, but he brings up a very good point about our society in general.  When we develop groundbreaking technology, we tend to exploit it in ways which have a negative effect that wasn’t initially intended.  He’s talking about the ability to bring back dinosaurs in present day and the need to experiment with different breeds for purposes that are not always involving scientific research and education.  And it’s true.  Even today, when some kind of technology takes us by storm, we, as a society, overuse it until what was once a good thing becomes a bad thing (Think the debut of the smartphone in 2007 and where it stands today as a device people can’t seem to take their eyes off of, even if it means sacrificing your own social skills.)  The ending of “Fallen Kingdom” goes for that “Now look what we’ve done.” kind of scenario in which what was once our greatest fear, has now become a reality.  The only question moving forward is how much will people’s lives have changed by the time the third film arrives in 2021?  Both in the story, and in real life.  

GRADE: C+

“Incredibles 2” Movie Review


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     You might recall when “The Incredibles” debuted in 2004, the superhero genre was in kind of a rut.  Aside from 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X-Men 2”, the crop of studio films being released remained weak after the collapse of DC’s “Batman” franchise following 1997’s deplorable “Batman and Robin”, as well as a number of middling efforts by Marvel that never resonated with audiences (Anyone remember 2003’s “Daredevil”?).  Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” was a welcome surprise, carrying on the already established success of the Pixar brand (“The Incredibles” was the 6th film by Pixar) with what had become a winning combination of colorful characters and the kind of sly wit that kept the adults entertained while their kid’s eyes remained fixated to the images on screen.  Of course, much has changed within the film landscape of the superhero genre these last fourteen years.

     For the most part, DC continues to struggle.  Save for the Nolan “Batman” trilogy and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman”, the company hasn’t yet managed to build any sort of momentum with their classic characters.  But across town, Marvel began their cinematic universe with 2008’s “Ironman” and haven’t looked back, producing nineteen massively successful films to date with a half dozen more in the pipeline.  Whether you take the good with the bad, the fact is, there’s a lot of superhero film content flooding multiplexes on a regular basis nowadays, just as our favorite superhero family makes their return after nearly a decade and a half.

     Brad Bird is back in the dual role of writer and director with “Incredibles 2”, returning to the screen at a time when the market is overstuffed with dozens of superhero films, as well as a newly established standard for meeting audience expectation thanks to the aforementioned success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  Can “Incredibles 2” compete?  The answer to that question will likely depend on whether or not audiences separate the film from the live action competition and view it through the lens of being strictly family fare.  Otherwise, it’s not exactly an even comparison.  Fact is, Bird’s story doesn’t  do much to differentiate itself from the storylines used in countless other films.  Sure, the entire premise and look of the original film was always a sort of retro type superhero story, featuring designs that would’ve been popular in the 60s and 70s, and meant to introduce the kinds of storylines and characters we grew up on to a new generation. But after so many critically and financially successful Marvel films to date, what we see here plays as if it’s a bit recycled.

     The story picks up directly where the first film left off.  If you were expecting Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) to be all grown up, then you may be disappointed.  The first family of superheroes is right in the middle of dealing with the Underminer (John Ratzenberger), as he drills his way into a bank vault and looks to escape by burrowing to freedom beneath the city’s streets.  As was fully explored as a plot thread in 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, those in charge aren't very happy with the city’s destruction caused by the attempts at apprehending the Underminer by the Incredibles and their superhero buddy, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson).  In fact, a law remains intact which bans superheroes all together, forcing Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), to subdue their alter egos or face going to jail.

     After the initial fracas plays out, the Incredibles are asked to attend a meeting with a business man named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who has a plan he believes will allow the people to see the value superheroes provide, thus creating the ability to overturn the law against them.  But just when you would think the best candidate to lead the endeavor would be Mr. Incredible himself, Winston indicates his preference for Elastigirl to lead a mission to capture the latest villain to wreak havoc on the city.  And that, of course, leaves Mr. Incredible in a “Mr. Mom” scenario that plays our exactly like you think, but also creates a number of memorable moments as he and the rest of the family begin to discover Jack Jack’s many powers.  The villain, by the way, is a guy called the Screenslaver, who looks to hypnotize the population and have them commit his evil deeds because of his belief (which is absolutely correct) that people have become overly dependent on their devices and live their lives looking aimlessly into a screen, rather than constructively seeking out the actual experiences they are instead consuming through a phone.  It’s a nifty take on the human condition of today, especially given the fact the original film predates the iPhone by three years.  My, how so many things have changed.

     Children of all ages, regardless of whether or not they have viewed the 2004 film, will love the non stop action, as well as the many other superheroes brought to the fray in order to give our lead characters both worthy adversaries and much needed support.  It’s a sort of superhero assembly, not unlike Marvel’s “The Avengers”, where the survival of all superheroes hangs in the balance, as Mr. Incredible sits on the sidelines tending to his daughter’s boy problems, his son’s uncontrollable energy, and Jack Jack’s ever developing arsenal of super skills.  Still though, I found it hilarious that of all films to lift its climactic sequence from, Bird chose the 1997 clunker “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and the downer of a finale that would see a massive cruise liner barreling towards a coastal city.  But at the end of the day, “Incredibles 2” provides the kind of entertainment parents will love taking their kids to, even if it doesn't quite measure up to the standard set by Pixar’s own sequels, “Toy Story 3” and “Finding Dory” come to mind, or the machine that is Marvel, which has been churning these things out for ten years now.  GRADE: B

“Ocean’s 8” Movie Review


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      After a hiatus of over ten years, the “Ocean’s 11” franchise returns with “Ocean’s 8”, an all female spin off that moves on from the events and characters established in the original trio of films (not accounting for the 1960 film of which the 2001 film is based on) , while introducing all new ones.  Directed by Gary Ross from a screenplay by Ross and Olivia Milch, “Ocean’s 8” centers around the younger sister of Danny Ocean, Debbie (Sandra Bullock), who has spent the previous five years in prison, having been caught doing exactly the kind of work her brother was also famous for.  Apparently, it runs in the family.

     Given the time elapsed since the franchise’s last outing, you would expect the heist the story is built around to be significantly more complex and high tech than what Danny and company tackled in the previous entries.  Actually, the theft Debbie’s crew involves themselves in carries a significant financial haul, but initially comes across on screen as a relatively simple swipe.  So much so, that you may begin to think the need for eight players and their various criminal specialities is bit overkill.  But then you realize the crew is up against a lot more than originally thought.  Particularly when the various twists are revealed in the third act and you realize the leaders of the bunch had plenty more up their sleeves all along.  Otherwise known as the formula all of the films in the franchise are assembled from.

     In the opening scenes, we see Debbie’s release from prison, as well as the answer to whether or not being jailed for your crimes results in rehabilitation or an instant act of recidivism.  It’s clear from the onset that Debbie plans on continuing to do exactly what she is best at, that being stealing from other people for a living.  In the initial moments of the film, she uses a number of ruses to do everything from stealing clothes and perfume, to getting a free stay in a luxury hotel on someone else’s dime.  It’s not long before she makes contact with her former partner in crime, a bar manager named Lou (Cate Blanchett), as the duo begin the early stages of plot to steal a Cartier diamond necklace worth an estimated $150 million.

     After recruiting their team, which is comprised of a computer hacker referred to as 9 Ball (Rihanna), a fashion designer named Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a pick pocket artist named Constance (Awkwafina), a jewelry designer named Amita (Mindy Kaling), and a semi retired thief named Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Debbie and Lou put their spiffy plan into action.  Essentially, they want Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a famous and well know actress, to wear the aforementioned diamond necklace to the annual Met Gala, where they will attempt to steal it right off her neck.  Sounds easy right?  Well, if you’ve partaken in either of the previous three films, you know these plans tend to be multi layered, often allowing the audience a small glimpse of what is actually happening in real time.  And though at face value what we are seeing on screen appears simple enough, there is always more going on behind the scenes.  In other words, slight of hand is always in play.

     As an entertainment, “Ocean’s 8” plays extremely well, maximizing the well chosen talents of each actress within Debbie’s crew and giving each of these ladies opportunities to shine throughout.  A wise choice was made in this regard by going with the character acting chops of Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, and Rihanna, rather than overpopulating the group with actresses of whom we are accustomed to seeing as leading women.  There just wouldn’t be room to give everyone the moments they deserve.  With that said, it is Bullock and Blanchett who dominate the proceedings in the ways you would expect, bringing the necessary hard edge to their characters who are clearly accustomed to pulling off the kind of job depicted in the story with razor sharp precision, leaving no detail unaccounted for.

     In a story where everything must go right in order for this collection of anti-heroes to succeed, the expected plot holes are there should you choose not to ignore them.  This becomes particularly obvious when an insurance investigator seems to have taken the lead in the ensuing investigation into the missing necklace without a representative from the police department in sight.  But you tend to forgive much of this since the ladies bring so many wonderful attributes to the table, leaving you wondering how cool a team up between Debbie and Danny, along with members of their respective crews, would be in the inevitable sequel sure to come down the line.  Although, such a collaboration may not be in the cards since it is made clear early on by Debbie and Lou that they don't work with men.  Considering the egos which would be involved, I can’t imagine why.  GRADE: B

“Adrift” Movie Review

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     Imagine Robert Redford’s 2013 film “All Is Lost” infused with YA stars to give the story appeal to the current generation, along with “Everest” director Baltasar Kormakur’s chops for recreating dangerous and harrowing scenarios, and you’d come up with “Adrift”, the true story of Richard Sharp’s and Tami Oldham’s early 80s journey sailing across the Pacific gone horribly wrong.  Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”) and Sam Claflin (“The Hunger Games”) portray the couple in what begins as a months long love story, but takes a sharp turn when the duo find themselves in a grueling test of survival.  And though there is a certain level of familiarity in the story, the filmmakers are game in putting their own twist on the way it is told, allowing for a number of turns the audience may not see coming.

     Tami (Shailene Woodley) is a young twenty something who has left her hometown of San Diego, California to find herself in a solo globetrotting expedition that ultimately leads her to Tahiti.  She possesses the skills to sail and is well versed in the maintenance and upkeep necessary for boating and sailing, a knack which leads to her to finding work at a boat dock scrubbing the hulls of the yachts kept there by those living the kind of life she probably dreams of for herself someday.  It’s not long before she meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), an early thirties drifter who has built his own sail boat and is currently sailing the world on his own.  At face value, you’re looking at these two characters and thinking they must’ve been made for each other, with both seemingly still looking for that moment in time that will define who they are and what they will ultimately become.

     Kormakur wisely chooses to tell the story in non linear fashion.  Knowing most will have watched the trailer prior to viewing “Adrift”, the director begins the film at the moment where Tami wakes up on the deck of a yacht that is badly damaged, and Richard is nowhere in site.  She screams in horror, looking desperately for the man she set sail with, but also takes note of her own injuries and the situation she now finds herself in.  But then we flashback to the initial moments of her arrival in Tahiti, where she first meets Richard and begins the kind of relationship she has likely been looking for, but never thought she would find.  Richard and Tami seem to live the life of being in a constant vacation.  One in which they sail the clear waters surrounding the locale, hike to hidden waterfalls and rivers, and dine on the fish Richard has caught, all while not having a single care in the world.  

     That world is interrupted; however, when Richard and Tami run into an older couple of whom Richard has made a previous acquaintance.  The couple tells them one of their family members has fallen ill and they have to fly back to California immediately, which means they also need to find someone to sail their yacht across the Pacific from Tahiti to San Diego.  A task they are asking Richard to do for ten thousand dollars and a first class ticket back to Tahiti.  Initially, Tami isn't inclined to participate, citing her feelings of not wanting to be a tag along in Richard’s adventures.  But the love they share after spending several months together ultimately sees Tami agreeing to go, and the two set sail for what would seem to be the kind of once in a lifetime journey two people like them would have never thought was possible.

     It’s unknown how or why Richard and Tami were not informed of the possibility of a Category 4 hurricane falling directly into their path.  Perhaps the technology of the early 80s was still in its infancy and boaters were regularly caught in these types of situations, but as depicted in the film, they quickly find themselves in an impossible situation, not unlike the gut wrenching tsunami sequence in 2012’s “The Impossible”.  The devastation leaves the boat crumbled and with Richard severely injured, meaning a shocked and battered Tami must fight for their survival while finding a way to somehow get home.  As she attempts these arduous tasks, the standard perils of this sort of story present themselves, including the need for fresh water, food, shelter, and the multitude of boat repairs and ingenious fixes.  But what really shines through is the bond Tami and Richard share, both during the flashback scenes in Tahiti, but especially during circumstances where their will is tested and the thought of hope begins to diminish.  Something that is a testament to the on screen chemistry between Woodley and Claflin, who both deliver stunning performances.  In presenting this to the audience, “Adrift” allows us to look past the situation Richard and Tami are in, as we realize they are just thankful to have each other.  Sometimes, that’s all we need.  

GRADE: B