Reviews


“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

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” Movie Review


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     If the continual negative publicity reported about the production of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” over the past year has somehow swayed your perception of the film and its potential merits, let me begin by saying this.  Director Ron Howard, as well as his talented cast and crew, nailed it.  “Solo” is everything you expect it be, thanks to superior production design and world building, an original story by screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasden packing plenty of surprises, and a number of scene stealing actors whose characters may someday warrant their own movies. The film should have no problem meeting the high expectations of the fanbase, while also setting up a number of intriguing possibilities as the “A Star Wars Story” series of films move forward.

     With a completely unwarranted negative connotation attached to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, which came out in theaters less than six months ago, it’s not a shocking development to have seen the backlash against that film spill over to “Solo”, especially given the fact the film’s original directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, were let go by Lucasfilm just weeks before completion of principal photography in the summer of 2017.  As anyone who followed the story knows, Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship and ended up reshooting 70% of the shots originally done by Miller and Lord.  There also seems to be a trend unfolding amongst many in fandom who are leaving event films like “Star Wars” and “Avengers: Infinity War” disappointed because the filmmakers didn’t make the film THEY would have made.  

     And while anyone and everyone is certainly entitled to their own reactions and opinions to a film, the venom unleashed by some toward the talented creators behind the scenes is unwarranted.  Gone are the days where people speak with intelligence about film.  Rather than articulating a fact based critique on the script, characters, direction, etc., the people behind these baseless rants go for the punchline they deem will get them the most likes and retweets, something apparently necessary to satisfy their own fragile egos.  There is very little stopping anyone these days from going and making or writing their own film, so if you have a problem with the choices of Kathleen Kennedy, Rian Johnson, or Ron Howard, I would suggest you try your hand at filmmaking.  Who knows? You could create the next big thing and then sit and watch as the haters bash YOUR work.

     Stepping into the shoes of an iconic and beloved character like Han Solo, albeit a young version of him, is the kind of role that would likely manufacture plenty of anxiety and self doubt for an actor who thoroughly understands what will be expected from the fanbase.  Alden Ehrenreich tackles the role in a manner which indicates his intention to make the character his own, rather than simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of Harrison Ford in much the same way Ewan McGregor did as Obi Wan in the “Star Wars” prequels.  In fact, Ehrenreich’s performance is solid enough that you simply accept him early on as the character, and you never really conjure the image of Harrison Ford in your mind since you know that’s now the older version.  

     The story begins by taking us to Han’s home planet of Corellia, where as a late teen he is one of many youngsters forced to work within a criminal underground in order to survive.  Along with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han is sent to steal a vile of valuable fuel for their boss, but they ultimately decide to keep the loot for themselves and intend to use it as a ticket off the planet and out of slavery for good.  As you view these initial scenes on Corellia, one of the first takeaways is the look of their surroundings and the occupation by the Empire throughout the various buildings and streets.  It’s a dark, moldy, and wet setting colored in drab greys, blues, and yellows that constantly  reminded me of Fiorina 161 in “Alien 3"  We see stormtroopers constantly stopping people and shaking them down in a world we are told from the beginning is lawless and full of crime and treachery.  It’s certainly obvious why Han and Qi’ra want to get as far away as possible, but unfortunately their plan is only successful in getting Han a ride out.

     After a brief stint with the Empire as a would be pilot now demoted to the infantry, Han eventually meets Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), who take him and his newly found friend, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), along on a job promising to make all involved rich enough to buy their own ship and go where they please.  Throughout the story, Howard stages a number of thrilling and memorable action sequences which are sure to be remembered as some of the best in all of the “Star Wars” films.  That he accomplishes this without a single Jedi or lightsaber is a first for the franchise, and notable in that everything centers around a heist that sees the Empire as only a backdrop and the Rebels as mere talk at this point.  

     Everything promised is delivered, including the card game in which Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), as well as the aforementioned first meeting with Chewbacca, and the famed Kessel Run that gave the Falcon the reputation as the fastest ship in the galaxy.  And if that were all “Solo” was, it would most definitely have been the disappointment many had predicted.  But Howard and his screenwriters have plenty more up their sleeves, all of which will be left out here to see for yourself.  It’s not just a variety of Easter Eggs littered throughout the scenery either.

     The stakes are raised significantly in the third act, introducing new potential conflicts that could possibly interconnect with the recently announced “Boba Fett” film, as well as possible appearances by the characters from the recently concluded “Star Wars Rebels” series.  It is in fact that series which the tone, worlds, and characters explored in “Solo” remind me of the most.  A notion that has unlimited possibilities given the various groups and factions who vie for power throughout the story as they make their way in a world ruled by the Empire.  And when we see Han navigate his way through these situations, as well as the relationships inevitably cultivated, a significantly more well developed character is created, something I believe will be obvious the next time you view the Original Trilogy and “The Force Awakens”.  In this respect, “Solo” is not only a necessary film within the “Star Wars” universe, it is an essential one.  GRADE: A

“Deadpool 2” Movie Review


     After the continual success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe under the Disney umbrella, you had to figure rival studios who owned the rights to other Marvel characters would find a way to cash in on the hype.  20th Century Fox actually found success using Marvel comic book characters some eight years before “Ironman” began what we now know as the MCU with 2000’s “X-Men” and the eventual series of sequels and spin offs that followed.  But if there was one potential area that had yet to be explored as of two years ago, it was the thought of an R-rated superhero film and the viability of such a risk given the success of the genre has seemed to depend mainly on attracting kids to the theater in order to achieve the kind of grosses we have seen from recent films such as “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War”.  Of course, as we all know, the rules changed when Fox released “Deadpool” in 2016, a superhero film featuring the kind of continual raunchiness normally found in your average teen sex comedy that singlehandedly launched a very naughty kind of sub genre within the comic book film realm, while breaking every known box office record for an R-rated film.

     Sequels within this genre are inevitable, particularly given the success of the first film, so it’s no surprise that just over two years later, we have “Deadpool 2”, marking the return of Ryan Reynolds as the self described “Merc with a Mouth” and plenty of new characters who function primarily as fodder for Wade Wilson’s relentless verbal barrage of dirty minded one liners.  Taking the reigns from “Deadpool” director Tim Miller is “Atomic Blonde” helmer David Leitch, who brings his own style of colorful, yet intricately choreographed mayhem to what is already an established brand of violent gore infused on screen killings sure to please the most hardcore fans who seem to get off on this sort of thing.  Amongst the incessant foul language and sex jokes are endless gun shots to the head, decapitations, knifings, and exploding body parts galore.  No, this isn’t a film to take a child to, though the theater I watched it in was filled with parents who apparently couldn’t get a babysitter.

     There’s nothing wrong with this sort of entertainment by the way.  And there are several merits within the story, particularly where Reynolds and his co-screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, use the lead character as the center of the joke as it relates to other comic book films such as “Logan”, “Avengers: Infinity War”, and several jabs at the DC Universe.  There isn’t exactly anything new or groundbreaking this time around, but as we often say in life, personality goes a long way.  And Reynolds brings plenty to the table in that department.  And given the R-rating, it’s clear the majority of the jokes are centered around people and movies that only the older crowd will get, with one example being a hilarious rift on a famous scene from 1992’s “Basic Instinct”.

     When we catch up with Wade Wilson/Deadpool, the character takes us through a narrated montage of his latest superhero exploits, as he dispatches various organized crime figures all of the world with the razor sharp precision of his sword.  But not everyone has accepted his over the top methods, with his old friends from the “X-Men”, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) constantly trying to temper the way he unleashes violence to kill rather than capture bad guys and bring them to justice.  One of those situations occurs early in the film and lands both himself and an abused mutant from an orphanage named Russell (Julian Dennison) in prison for their actions.  

     Meanwhile, a soldier from the future called Cable (Josh Brolin) has traveled to the present in order to find and kill Russell, who he has identified as the cause of destruction in the world he comes from.  All of this sets the stage for several impressive action set pieces expertly committed to film by Leitch, which is not surprising given the chops he has demonstrated in this department with films such as “John Wick” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” among others.  But the fact some of these sequences include common scenes like prison escapes and car chases, all of which would feel right at home in one of the “Fast and Furious” films, does “Deadpool 2” no favors in the originality department however.  As a villain, Cable proves to be a worthy adversary, which compels Deadpool to consult with the always hilarious, and consistently underused, T.J. Miller as Weasel, who helps put together a team of misfits, all with special abilities, who are then dubbed “X-Force” in their mission to save Russell.  Unfortunately, only one of these characters, Domino (Zazie Beetz), stands out,  stealing practically every scene she is in.  Anything moving forward will hopefully feature her in a substantially larger role.

     But the story, as you would expect considering the antics of the first film, take a back seat to the comedic roots of the character whose lines are meant to make the audience laugh at the exact moment we see someone’s head splatter against a wall.  And Reynolds succeeds in doing this a number of times, but sooner or later the well runs dry and you realize it’s just another profanity laced tirade like all the others.  That is, until we get to the post credits scenes which are actually funnier than most of what is actually in the film.  Moving forward, you have to wonder if Deadpool will ultimately find his way into an “X-Men” film where he will likely become more of a sideshow comic relief type character, rather than the main player where his act has clearly hit what was already a low ceiling.  GRADE: C+

“Life of the Party” Movie Review


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     A common problem with many of the comedy films hitting multiplexes these days is the perception that audiences expect to laugh scene to scene, regardless of whether or not the material comes across as forced.  “Life of the Party” suffers from this issue and more, in what is yet another gem of a performance by Melissa McCarthy that seemingly goes to waste as she is buried deep within the confines of an overly cliched college comedy of which we have seen so many times before.  McCarthy again teams with her husband, Ben Falcone, who takes on both directing and co-writing duties here, but the result is consistently mixed, as the proceedings often resemble a series of sketch comedy scenes strung together amongst a tired and overly used premise.  To watch “Life of the Party” isn't so much about what might have been, but rather  continuing to wonder when McCarthy will appear within a story worthy of her comedic talents?  Seeing a film like this makes you yearn for those long ago “Bridesmaids” days where she stole every scene she was in.

     In the opening sequence, which is devoid of any character development or introduction for that matter, Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and Dan (Matt Walsh) are dropping off their daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon), at her college dorm for her senior year.  After the obligatory goodbyes and just minutes after driving away, Dan informs Deanna he wants a divorce and has apparently fallen in love with another woman.  Deanna’s reaction is mostly what you’d expect in a film like this, with McCarthy’s trademark physical comedy replacing the need for showing any real emotion resulting from the situation she now finds herself in.  As she proceeds to take Dan’s belongings and burn them in the backyard of their home, she begins to ponder her life moving forward.

     After attending a mediation session to work through the divorce that involves sitting across from Dan and his soon to be new wife, Marcie (Julie Brown),  Deanna decides to go back to school in order to finish the last year of her Archaeology degree, which we now know means she will be joining her daughter on campus as they make their way through their senior years.  And this is the set up that simply utilizes every known college movie plot thread in order to get us to the obviously predictable and sentimental ending.  Almost immediately we are subjected to alcohol soaked frat parties, college sex romps, young female self worth therapy sessions, rivalries between the popular and unpopular, Greek style sorority hazing, getting high, and practically every other college related high jinks we’ve seen in everything from “Animal House” to “Old School”.  The only twist McCarthy and Falcone come up with is the fact Deanna is middle aged and happens to be hanging out with her daughter through all of this. A fish out of water scenario, I suppose.

     Given the comedic pedigree of the actors in the film, there are certainly a number of laughs, mostly at the expense of McCarthy.  Saturday Night Live vets Maya Rudolph and Chris Parnell both have fun in their respective roles, though Rudolph might be a bit over the top at times as Deanna’s best friend Christine.  Matt Walsh (“Veep”) isn't given much to do as Dan, as his scenes are normally just reactions to the craziness of McCarthy’s antics, but his presence in the role fits nicely with what the story needs from the character, that being the kind of self absorbed loser who would tell his wife of over twenty years that he is “trading up”.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Dan arrives with Marcie at the same restaurant as Deanna and several friends, only to find out something surprising about the company she is currently with. The scene is more or less a rift on the big reveal scene in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, but works here as a sort of spring board for the second half of the film.  The various college kids surrounding Deanna in the dorms, classrooms, and at parties play mostly in the background, as we always know who is intended to remain the center of attention at all times. 

     Central to the story is the relationship between mother and daughter, which works best when their scenes take place within the college environment, and particularly when Maddie almost immediately feels it necessary to give her mom a crash course on modern college appearance and etiquette.  Given the fact these events happen within the span of a college school year, Maddie becomes surprisingly well adjusted to her parents having suddenly divorced, especially given the fact her father is set to marry another woman within this short amount of time.  Aside from the initial scene where Deanna tells Maddie her parents are getting divorced (I suppose Dan didn’t feel it was necessary to let her know as well?), she shows no outward emotion to the situation and appears content and supportive at her father’s and Marcie’s wedding late in the film, which brings me to the very first point I made.  Why do comedies have to be funny from start to finish?  Can’t we tell stories that depict life as it really is without feeling the need to add a punchline every few minutes?  If Maddie was devastated in any way, she certainly never shows it on screen, which in turn takes all of the pain out of the divorce and allows the situation to play like a joke when it obviously would not be.  Maybe allowing real emotional build up in these scenes would benefit the funny stuff and perhaps create moments each person in an audience can relate to, thus earning the laughs that “Life of the Party” wants to get out of us in every scene.  When you present characters in a film who ham it up, even in life’s most difficult moments, you take away what makes them human, leaving what amounts to stand up comedy disguised as a feature film. GRADE: C-

“Tully” Movie Review


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     Director Jason Reitman is one of those rare two time Academy Award nominated filmmakers who has chosen to ignore the opportunities that likely come from such accolades in the form of big budget studio projects, and instead has continued to do his own thing.  Reitman’s films are indie style dramadies written with an unmistakable wit, but will always be about something important within the human condition.  Be it relationships, loneliness, or regret, the characters in his films are always flawed and may never actually achieve what it is they are looking to do in the end.  Reitman excelled in bringing these types of characters to the screen during each of the first two times he teamed up with screenwriter Diablo Cody, particularly with 2007’s “Juno” which resulted in a Best Picture and Best Director nomination for Reitman and a Best Original Screenplay win for Cody.  Four years later, they joined forces again for “Young Adult”, a take on how the most popular people in high school tend to end up in life, casting Charlize Theron in the lead role and perhaps setting the stage for their latest project.

     “Tully” brings Reitman and Cody together once more, along with their “Young Adult” lead, Charlize Theron, as they take on the complex and exhausting nature of motherhood in today’s America.  And make no mistake, the filmmakers have made a haunting statement on the traditional family, exploring what really occurs behind closed doors that is often masked by those glossy family portraits people post on Facebook that make it seem as though everything in their lives is fabulous when in truth, it is not.  In the most daring fashion possible, “Tully” examines the perceived role of the mother and the father in a household of three young children, one of which is a newborn, and the issues that befall all of us who have embarked on one of the hardest things to do in life when you are attempting to raise kids.  Keeping it all together.

     Anyone who has brought a child into the world knows it’s difficult.  And the events depicted in “Tully” make a strong case for how the ongoing difficulties we face as a child grows older can effect everything from the relationship between the mother and father to the challenges of  maintaining some semblance of sanity.  The characters in “Tully” occupy a firm standing in the middle class, and though money comes up as an issue at times, they are by no means struggling financially.  Perhaps more importantly, the couple in question here is married and their are no signs of an impending divorce or separation.  Sure, they are mired in a rut couples often find themselves in when family life becomes routine, but this isn’t a story about a single mother who is left with the burden of raising her children and having to work for a living as well.  Instead, Reitman and Cody have created characters who society would likely view as being in the best position to succeed, only to show us as the film progresses that things are never that simple.

     When we meet Marlo (Charlize Theron), she is really pregnant, looking as though a trip to the hospital is just days or hours away.  Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), has one of those jobs where it’s difficult to explain exactly what he does, but it’s also one that sees him gone out of state for weeks at a time.  This leaves Marlo to take care of their 8 year old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland), their 6 year old son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), as well as their newly arrived baby.  And it’s not as if when Drew is home he is attentive to Marlo’s needs either.  Whether he’s at work or home, the primary responsibility of caring for the baby, as well as the other two kids falls squarely on the shoulders of Marlo.  There are also a few important variables here.  First and foremost is Marlo is forty years old and their new baby was a “surprise.”  Second is Jonah is a special needs child, or so they are now being told, since the school administrator has informed Marlo he will not be welcomed back next school year.

     A montage early in the film perfectly demonstrates the difficulties of dealing with the issues surrounding Jonah and Sarah coupled with the needs of a newborn child, as Marlo appears on the brink of complete exhaustion.  When she retires for the night, if Drew is home, he’s already lying in bed playing video games and utterly unreachable with the headset he sports while killing the zombies on the screen.  When the baby wakes and needs to be fed, he’s fast asleep and it’s Marlo who gets up, depriving herself of anything resembling rest only to rise and start the process over each and every morning.  

     That is until she has a conversation with her significantly more well off brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), who offers to hire her a night nanny which he says was a savior for he and his wife when their kids were younger (they actually still have one even though they are older now).  Marlo and Drew have trepidation in allowing a stranger in the home to take care of their newborn, but ultimately Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives at their doorstep and seemingly saves the day with her warmth and proficiency in handling the needs of both the baby and Marlo.  She also proves to be a heck of a conversationalist with Marlo, as the two of them contrast and compare their lives, their goals, and their thoughts on what might have been (in Marlo’s case), and what could be (for Tully).

     Theron’s performance is outstanding and there isn’t a moment in this film where you won’t empathize for her and the strain she is experiencing nearly every frustrating minute of the day.  We almost feel uplifted when Tully arrives and takes on the role of the uncredited helper who has a definitive impact in making Marlo look good in the eyes of her family.  Something that is obviously very important to her.  There is, of course, a catch to all of this, and the ramifications of the arrangement certainly take their toll in an unpredictable way, but the story remains heartfelt and poignant throughout, eliciting the kind of emotion only someone who is a mother will truly understand.

     But what struck me the most was the conditions Drew and Marlo provided their family were not bad at all.  Their kids go to good schools.  They live in a nice home and neighborhood.  And yet this traditional family unit still struggles with day to day life and the curveballs that come with it.  Go figure.  At some point, we were programmed to believe the traditional family unit being intact, along with a stable income and home, will ease the difficulties you face as a parent, which is, of course, completely untrue.  Throw in a divorce (or two) and then watch as things get really interesting!  If “Tully” teaches us anything, it’s you will never really be prepared for the kind of responsibility a child will bring into your life, but one way or another you’ll get through it.  You have no other choice.  GRADE: B+

“Avengers: Infinity War” Movie Review


WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS

     Something I’ve often mentioned when we see film franchises reach the number of installments where the character development starts to rival that of a television series, is we begin to see these films benefit  from this development in earlier chapters, thus meaning you look at a singular entry of that franchise in a completely different way than you would any other stand alone non franchise film.  This notion is an important one when you consider Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War” brings forth the talents of a reported 76 featured characters from the 18 previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries to date.  Given such an impossibly high number of characters to somehow include in the story, “Infinity War” benefits greatly from what we already know before entering the theater, resulting in a narrative that feels even amongst the various superhero’s, giving each of them the moments they deserve without becoming overstuffed.  

     “Infinity War” is the first half of a story being told over the course of two films, with the yet to be titled “Avengers 4” scheduled to unspool in May, 2019.  It requires the viewer to be up to date on the various plot threads established from nearly every Marvel film, but especially those incorporated into 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, 2016’s  “Captain America: Civil War”, 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok”, and 2018’s “Black Panther”.  And while there are already grumblings that certain characters within this massive team up are left with but a few notable moments, the Russo brothers have certainly done an admirable job in creating the set up that allows many of these characters to function within sub groups, inserting them into adventures taking place all over the galaxy.

     If any Marvel film is most represented, it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, given the fact most of the action takes place in worlds other than our own, but also because the baddy in question is none other than Thanos (Josh Brolin), the evil father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).  And as has been teased and hinted at throughout the MCU and many of the post credit scenes, Thanos is on a mission to find and possess each of the six Infinity Stones which now function as the story’s central MacGuffin.  If you have faithfully followed the significance of each stone as they were introduced throughout the MCU films (the Space Stone, Reality Stone, Power Stone, Mind Stone, Soul Stone, and Time Stone), than you know the reason Thanos seeks to acquire each of them.  It is said, put simply, that he would then have the power to wipe out half of all life in the galaxy with one snap of his finger.

     As a villain, Thanos was first teased for the MCU audience during a post credits scene following 2011’s “Thor”, indicating everything that came after would eventually lead to the “Infinity War” storyline and the supposed finality that accompanies it.  The importance of a villain in a film like “Infinity War” can’t be understated, and the fact Thanos is a CGI / Motion Capture character means the filmmakers needed to ensure the various themes that make up his motives and personality are able to carry their own weight.  Emotions based on his actions within the story must resonate with the audience just as they do the other characters on screen.  If not, all we have is another Steppenwolf from “Justice League” barking out angry diatribe devoid of any kind of true meaning.  The Russo brothers certainly were aware of this, and it is clear from the very first scene that not only does Thanos represent one of the finest villains ever committed to the screen, but also one who allows the audience to be a part of his thought process and the emotional baggage created by each of his decisions.

     With so many filmmakers’ finger prints on the various projects that preceded “Infinity War”, you have to applaud screenwriters Christoper Markus and Stephen McFeely for their ability to write these characters in a way that allow them to maintain continuity with their appearances in the various MCU standalone films.  Present as ever are the wise cracking non stop antics of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” crew (Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), & Drax (Dave Bautista) but here they are ultimately combined together with the wit and sarcasm of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), making for some of the most entertaining banter of the film.  That is until Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has his chance to interact with the Guardians crew, providing the kind of laugh out loud moments you’d expect from a well done comedy.  Of course, there’s so much more.  When Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) returns to Earth in order to warn the Avengers of Thanos’ pending arrival, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) resurface to join the fight along with Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the rest of Wakanda in an effort to save humanity.

     Above all, the Russo brothers succeed in raising the stakes high enough to warrant the kind of response that immediately comes from the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as a host of others who will definitely surprise you (the juxtaposition of a certain actor is genius).  They have also created a number of can’t miss crowd pleasing moments that are sure to have you (and the audience you view it with) clapping and cheering as we finally see the battle we always knew was coming, but didn’t know exactly when to expect it.  “Infinity War” is the kind of film we will still be talking about years from now, and will likely be called upon as an example of pop culture reference in much the same way Spider-Man (Tom Holland) does in an early scene where he conjures up a plan based on “an old movie called Aliens”.  

     But it’s not all popcorn and fun.  “Infinity War” has a certain gravitas that elevates the experience far beyond a film whose source material resides in a  comic book.  The Russo brothers have created a film where the emotional resonance between the characters feels as though it has been earned through years of well thought out relationships established in previous MCU material , thus creating that ache in your stomach when you see them in situations of authentic peril and their ability to survive is in question.  All of this culminates in what is likely the finest Marvel film to date and will certainly be considered one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A

“I Feel Pretty” Movie Review


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     Filmmaking is all about risk taking, particularly if your goals center around the creation of something original, rather than continuously going to the same well that has proven successful in the past.  There’s no question Amy Schumer’s new film “I Feel Pretty” was a tremendous risk, as the filmmakers involved certainly must’ve predicted the backlash that would come when the story features a main character who is apparently thought of as ugly and overweight within the fictional world she occupies, but is played by Schumer who is herself a glamorous highly thought of actress and comedian.  In a sort of “Shallow Hal” style scenario, but without the actress donning a fat suit, “I Feel Pretty” attempts to explore themes of self worth and confidence in a society that for decades has predetermined what “pretty” is supposed to look like. 

     Unfortunately, co-writers and directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, making their feature directorial debut here, have written their script using a by the numbers approach to screenwriting that utilizes a common formula we often see in films of this kind.  After the initial gimmick, whatever it may be, the protagonist goes through a phase in which their new found power or confidence consumes them throughout the middle act, only to realize the error of their ways in what is often an overly sentimental third act.  “I Feel Pretty” follows this trajectory from beginning to end in what feels like an eternity since the merits of the device that drive the plot wear off within ten minutes.

     When we first meet Renee (Amy Schumer), she’s buried in a basement at a desk within a labyrinth of wall to wall computer hardware along with her partner Mason (Adrian Martinez).  The duo complete website work for a name brand make up company in New York City, but are apparently too hideous to be seen within the company’s main building that is filled with only the kind of people our culture deem beautiful and worthy of such a job.  Early on, we glimpse into Renee’s social life with her two best friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps), as they attempt to parlay themselves as a threesome on a dating website, but are ultimately disappointed when their profile page garners zero views.  The filmmakers ensure their despair is laid on thick, with each of them declaring their inability to attract the opposite sex is due to their appearance and the numerous flaws each believe they must contend with daily.

     Kohn and Silverstein want us to feel Renee is so incredibly awkward and inept that they stage not one, but two sequences in which she attends a spin class at a trendy club and can’t seem to even get riding a stationary bike down without some sort of mishap.  The second such accident leads to the gimmick I spoke of earlier, which sees Renee falling and hitting her head, only to awaken and suddenly see herself as being pretty enough to be a runway model.  This, of course, is a funny bit when it initially occurs.  When she awakens in the locker room and is being attended to by a club employee, her sudden outburst of confidence is good for a laugh or two, but the film, which sits at just under two hours, attempts to stretch the scenario far beyond what it’s worth, while adding nothing to it in the process.  When you’re talking about a character who looks exactly the same in the beginning as she does the end, there has to be something more to the story, but in this film, there isn’t.

     Renee applies to be a receptionist in the main lobby of her company’s building, a move that obviously has many of the character’s eyes rolling, but her appeal happens to be witnessed and appreciated by the company’s namesake, Avery LeClaire ( a delightful Michelle Williams testing her comedic chops), resulting in her getting the position.  And in similar fashion to Jack Black’s character in “Shallow Hal”, her head begins to inflate as she tastes the kind of social success she had previously only dreamt of, which of course means she finds herself amongst the elite while leaving her real friends on the sidelines.  All of this is predictable from beginning to end.  We know exactly how the budding relationship with Ethan (Rory Scovel), the guy in the film who all of the sudden notices her after her epiphany, will end up, just as we know what exactly she will eventually realize about herself.

     But the real issue buried not too deeply within the confines of “I Feel Pretty” is the fact Amy Schumer herself is not the ugly or obese person her character believes she is.  And when she has the mental transformation resulting from the stationary bike accident, nothing changes in the eyes of the audience.  There’s nothing audacious about the performance when we already know exactly what we’re getting.  Amy Schumer is a Hollywood star, who has become famous for her often raunchy take on her life and appearance in the standup comedy scene, as well as an outstanding starring debut in 2015’s “Trainwreck”. In other words her character Renee is exactly what we would expect in this sort of film.  In every scene in the glamorous world of fashion and make up that her character occupies, we immediately buy into it.  Why?  Because that’s Amy Schumer!  Most already accept her as being “pretty”.  Which begs the question.  Will a mainstream studio film ever be daring enough to actually cast someone in a role like this who actually doesn't fit the societal determined norm of beautiful and let an audience see just how wonderful that person is on the inside?  Not likely in my lifetime.  GRADE: C

“Isle of Dogs” Movie Review


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     If you were to view any of director Wes Anderson’s films, having not watched one previously, the likely reaction would be something along the lines of having never seen anything like it.  In other words, the film would leave you with the vibe of having just witnessed an entertainment that was both original and thought provoking.  Of course, if you’re a fan of Anderson’s work, which now includes 9 feature films, than you know he operates within his own world, creating film experiences significantly different than everyone else’s, but also at the same time very similar to each other.  Anderson, whose most recent efforts include 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, departs to the animated feature realm with his latest film, “Isle of Dogs”,  the story of a young boy searching for his dog on a deserted island just outside of a fictional Japanese city called Megasaki.  Included within the talented voice cast are many of the director’s regulars such as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jeff Goldblum, and a host of others.

     The fact “Isle of Dogs” is an animated feature doesn't at all retract from Anderson’s signature visual style, particularly in the way the camera moves through each scene.  Ever present are his favored tracking shots, quick pans, and zooms that all seem to move and turn at 90 degree angles.  The environments the animators have created retain much of the normal color palette utilized by Anderson in his previous work, though the subject matter here lends to a darker approach, particularly during the scenes within a place called Trash Island.  In what may remind you of similar settings in “WALL-E”, the island has become home to all of the dog population of Megasaki.  In a cruel turn of events, the Mayor of the city, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), signs a proclamation that banishes the city’s canines to the island due to an outbreak of what is dubbed as “dog flu”.  He also seems to have an affinity for cats, as does his entire political party, which contributes to such a rash decision.

     We first meet 12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) as he crash lands a rickety one man plane on Trash Island, having crossed over the body of water that separates the wasteland from Megasaki.  Stunned from the crash, he is greeted by five of the island’s alpha dogs who in this film we are told in the beginning talk as a result of the translation of their barks.  Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) don't really know what to make of Atari and what reasons he could possibly have for his journey to the island.  In fact, given the shortage of decent food, the group first ponders eating him before coming to an agreement of determining his origins and helping him heal from his injuries.

     It turns out the dogs, who all originally came from Megasaki, cant understand a word Atari says, but ultimately, a picture he provides of his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), indicates why he has come, as Spots was once his official guard dog before becoming the first to be sent to Trash Island.  Delving deeper into Atari’s story, we learn he was orphaned at a young age when his parents where killed in an accident, leaving him to become the Mayor’s ward and creating the situation where Spots was assigned to him.  Of course, Atari and Spots have a very close relationship that is not easily broken, particularly when considering the bond Atari has had with the dog since a very young age as shown in a flashback.  So, in essence, “Isle of Dogs” takes us on a rescue mission of sorts, moving about the various areas of Trash Island as guided by the five alpha dogs, looking for possible clues of Spot’s whereabouts.

     In addition to the ongoing rescue mission, an upheaval of sorts against the Mayor and his policies is brewing amongst the younger crowd in Megasaki.  Led by Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a white American exchange student sporting a fabulous afro who has uncovered a conspiracy against the creators of a dog flu cure, a group of unruly teens protests the Mayor during his most recent election to office, causing the fierce dictator to potentially be exposed for his nefarious actions.  It’s the sort of thing that seems to be popular today.  Young kids taking the reigns from the adults of whom they believe are too greedy and self serving to be trusted with important decisions.  Aside from the obvious dog loving angle, that is precisely what Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, appears to really want to say here.  “Isle of Dogs” is all about the underrepresented taking on the establishment and allowing their voice to be heard when the cause is righteous and the masses agree a change is needed.  If only it were as simple in real life as the film presents it to be.  GRADE: B

“A Quiet Place” Movie Review


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     In order to be successful in the oft explored horror genre, a filmmaker needs to change the rules within the setting and the way the characters interact when compared to the endless array of predictable creature features and slasher films that number in the thousands since the 1970s.  Wes Craven did this successfully in the 90s with his “Scream” franchise, as he chose to populate the films with characters whose actions were determined by their own knowledge of horror film tropes established by classics like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.”  2007’s “Paranormal Activity” had its own hook as well, establishing the found footage format and thus creating an entirely different view point for the audience to experience.  It’s clear director, screenwriter, and star John Krasinski had this in mind while creating his new film, “A Quiet Place”, which again turns the genre upside down by changing the playing field and giving his characters the kind of challenges on screen that had previously not been thought of.

     If you follow genre films and television shows, you may have heard commentary referencing a “lack of balls” when it comes to certain characters who appear off limits for being killed off, as they always seem to survive no matter how perilous the situation.  As an example, some believe “The Walking Dead” lost theirs long ago since the core cast remains largely intact and the loss of major characters seems few and far between considering the hopeless circumstances they endure each season.  Krasinski seems to have set out to ensure no one will ever accuse his film of lacking in this area, while utilizing a take no prisoners approach that creates real and unpredictable consequences for everyone involved in what is a dangerous and often cruelly  horrific scenario.

     In the first scene of “A Quiet Place”, we are told through a title card that this is “Day 89”, which then cuts to a family scavenging through an abandoned grocery store, looking for essentials such as medicine and other items needed for survival.  But what led to this situation?  The family, made up of Lee Abbott (John Krasinski), Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt), and their three kids, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) don't make a sound.  They communicate using sign language, and get around barefoot, walking on paths of poured sand in order to mute their footsteps and leave little audible trace of their presence.  Back at their farm, Krasinski’s camera pans throughout the Abbott’s home, often stopping at a make shift radio set up used by Lee in an attempt to find survivors of what ever has happened by way of Morse Code.  The walls surrounding his work space have newspaper clippings pinned on them, which indicate an army of creatures has somehow descended upon the Earth and wiped out civilization as we know it.  Accompanying the clippings are Lee’s own notes that tell us the creature has impenetrable outer armor, but is also blind, utilizing sound as its primary method of hunting and finding prey.

     This, of course, is why the Abbott family, and anyone else who plans on living another day, communicates the way do.  Any sound that breaks silence will be heard and met with the near immediate appearance of one of these creatures who skitter toward any kind of noise with lightning fast ferocity.  I use the word “skitter” purposely, since the creature’s design and movement may remind some of the aliens from “Falling Skies”,  but their actions following the sound of the slightest noise certainly sets them apart as being something you’d rather never come into contact with.  And since the Abbott family has three young children, the reality of their situation often includes their children finding themselves living with the ever-present possibility of an attacking creature.  So much so that if the late Gene Siskel were still alive today, I have to figure he’d frown upon the film given his review of James Cameron’s “Aliens” in 1986 where he bestowed a thumbs down for what he described as the constant threat of death to a child being used for the purpose of creating tension.  Decades later, Krasinski has written and directed a film where these three kids, along with their mother and father live within the kind of constant fear that a film like “Aliens” only touched upon.

     As Evelyn, Emily Blunt, who is Krasinski’s real life wife, turns in a masterful performance that includes some of the most gut wrenching sequences I have ever seen in a film.  Not because the film is graphic or gory (the film carries a PG-13 rating), but rather as a result of the timing of certain life events  that occur at the absolute worst possible time  The sheer combination of silence crossed with the everyday pitfalls of family and parenting creates a multitude of scenarios in which the Abbott’s and the creatures cross paths.  It’s as if the threat continually occupies the methodology behind their every move.  You know they are there, but you don't know exactly when they will show themselves.  This kind of tension begins in the first few minutes and is maintained for the duration of the film’s 90 minute running time, all the while remaining consistently inventive in the way it is shot and clever in how the characters react to certain situations.

     Never once does Krasinski fail to respect the audience by employing the kind of plotting or trickery used in the thousands of films that share the genre with his.  Each and every scene is carefully constructed to hit the audience where they are most vulnerable, particularly those who are parents themselves.  Both Krasinski and Blunt has said in recent interviews that “A Quiet Place” was meant to be a film that cuts deep for parents who are raising their kids in today’s world that continues to become more dangerous each day.  And that is, perhaps, what separates the film from so many others like it.  The thought of something happening to the Abbott’s children is horrifying, and the grim situation the family finds themselves in will strike the kind of emotional chord that is likely to stay with a viewer long after they leave the theater.  GRADE: A