2 ½ (out of 4)
I’ve alluded before that the Marvel Mouse has critics under its gloved thumb, but maybe Venom really is a case of a broad schism between audiences and reviewers. Venom is decent across all spectrums and a Tomatometer as low as modern DC trash and less than half of the MCU's worst is puzzling once you see the movie for yourself.
Of course Sony's output of capeshit isn't what you'd call a respectable track record, let alone the features they produce otherwise. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a blessing for the early days of contemporary super-cinema but Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance and the pair of amazingly inept Spider-Man rehashes do not indicate competence on behalf of the studio. Venom's 100 million dollar budget is stingy given the clear necessity for elaborate visual effects. And the PG-13 rating is a little lenient considering heads are chomped on scene by scene – this film isn't exactly designed to be fun for all ages, although vulgarity and gore for the sake of it a la Deadpool or Logan admittedly wouldn’t have improved anything. Those details plus Tom Hardy's confession that 40 minutes of his favorite bits were pruned from the film portended that Venom was set up to suck.
That said, while it breaks no mold in superhero structure (third act clashes between CGI monsters, Bible-referencing villains, quips aplenty), Venom is not painfully self-aware, tastelessly violent or cringingly unfunny. With a classic origin story at its disposal, actors as adept as Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams at the forefront enhance the weakest lines of dialogue and the conventional genre clichés. The synergetic relationship between Hardy’s Eddie Brock and the gooey alien symbiote Venom becomes an antihero duo just distinctive enough to extol. The action is alright, the pacing is swift and, most advantageously, Hardy's caliber of dramatic acting and equal ability for brusque charm is weirdly well-suited for a disgraced reported dealing with a parasitic host that fits his body like a glove, merges into his conscious mind and transforms him into a voracious villain with or without consent. Nobody will be missing Topher Grace's role in Spider-Man 3 and you won't be thinking of Hardy's other brush with the superhuman as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
An unusual tonal confluence, some rough editing, a climax that makes the titular virulent invader out to be the good guy and a pointless post credits stinger ultimately leaves Venom in the realm of merely satisfactory superhero movies. But the memorable blend of supernatural horror and B-movie sci-fi molds Venom into something more gratifying than it was foreordained to be.
2 (out of 4)
Gregory Plotkin's initial directorial effort was the final Paranormal Activity film subtitled The Ghost Dimension and he served as editor for every sequel in the series. Apart from stitching together found footage flicks to diminishing returns he's also lent his scissored hands to more impressive Blumhouse treats like Happy Death Day and Get Out. Plotkin’s debut proper is Hell Fest which, while far from torturous, doesn't instigate much in the way of diabolical jubilation.
The premise of a murderer walking amongst the make-up, stilts, strobe lights, fog machines and tricked out mazes of a haunted theme park is so obvious you wonder how it possibly couldn't have been conceived before. The idea is promising and the visual realization is respectable, but Hell Fest is so deficient in character and imagination that there's only a moment here and there that doesn't smack of a timeworn formula. Plotkin has a knack for keeping things spruce and practical – his direction is not without instances that impress. It's just that Hell Fest is so damn conventional that it's only tolerable based on the most paltry of pleasures i.e. watching inebriated, lascivious teenagers get what's coming to them from a patient, predatory stalker.
There’s never been many classics spawned from the basic slasher setup outside of the original Halloween, and a knockoff masked madman with no backstory or identity whatsoever is no evidence to the contrary. Maybe this film's psychopath gets upset if young girls don't think he’s scary? The motives are superfluous despite an ending that probably sounded slick on paper. Plotkin apparently hoped to transmute a very doctored story and script – devised by no less than six writers – into a reincarnation of splatter movies' old-fashioned customs. With an ominous and ornate carnival setting and believably stupid 20-somethings, Hell Fest nonetheless comes off as stock, stale and routine rather than a deftly straightforward preservation of a horror tradition.
Though I'm keen to laud realistically vapid dialogue from college-aged kids, there's not a distinctive individual in the bunch. With no one worth following into the infernal revelry and barbarity, Hell Fest isn’t eerie, horrific or even cheesy – the only amusement comes from the secondhand thrills of our leads navigating the grandiose Halloween festival, which is more fun before they become the prey of a serial killer.
If actual haunted hay rides or a similar night out is your cup of tea in October, it's bound to be scarier if you experience the real fakery. Hell Fest is only good for killing time before you start watching good horror – classic or cult films I hope, as Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake is the only encouraging sight on the horizon.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Feig has next to nothing to live up to. The creation of Freaks and Geeks and a few episodes of The Office notwithstanding his output has been primarily characterized by nauseating Judd Apatow-tier improvisational farces. In offering women in Hollywood and ladies in the audience mainstream alternatives in film, the Ghostbusters remake, The Heat and even the overprized Bridesmaids hardly count as reasonable substitutes for exemplary comedies.
A diversion from the rubbish defining his career of late, A Simple Favor is a nimbly scripted respite, a gaily relaxing guessing game that succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Anna Kendrick’s instinctively emphatic talents. The story itself, quickly adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 debut novel of the same name, is the sort of paperback fluff sure to rest on an upper class mother's coffee table – that is, loaded with sex, murder and overreaching intrigue. But before it tries to get cutesy clever in the predictable climax the film is actually pleasantly intriguing.
However, A Simple Favor operates better as a digestible mystery than as a black comedy, feminine thriller or as social commentary – if there wasn’t so much soap opera machination, Favor would be a real chore or just wouldn't have demanded to be made in the first place. Feig's film thrives mostly on account of the casting but at least the dialogue is decently droll and the plotting is expeditious.
While the roles of both Kendrick and Blake Lively are perfectly suited for their strengths, Lively can’t help but play a subsidiary part next to Kendrick’s alluring acting acumen. No part of her character's transformation from bashful, mommy-blogging widower to chic crime-solver feels as far-fetched as everything surrounding her. Kendrick's dainty docility is adroitly exercised while the script also grants the Oscar-nominated actress an excuse to flaunt her ample range.
A Simple Favor brings a brand new definition to the word convoluted in a sinuous story still comfortable enough to get wrapped in, even aside from Kendrick's distinct magnetism. The real solid that Feig did for all of us was any movie without Melissa McCarthy.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Panos Cosmatos first film Beyond the Black Rainbow was a distinguished failure – a visually consummate and narratively superficial sci-fi exercise born of relentless ambition regardless. Eight years later he returns to augment everything he experimented with in his debut. Mandy is a midnight movie masterstroke, undeniably and efficaciously psychedelic and superbly exhilarating.
Beginning with Cosmatos' familiar deliberation and obsessive ponderousness, Mandy unfurls into one of the most balls-crazy revenge flicks ever sincerely committed to celluloid. And despite verging into pure schlock and awe by midway, the direction never falters from painstaking craftsmanship. The most ludicrous moments of frivolous gore or an unCaged Nicolas doing his thing handily harmonize with a world of bad acid, mutated bikers, psycho cults and extra large chainsaws.
Riding right between cogent dignity and his illustrious insanity primed for compilation videos, Cage is cruising in top form. He hasn’t been put to use this appropriately since Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and his remarkable work as Red Miller stands with his most indelible turns. Ripped from his idyllic, isolated home in the woods with his titular girlfriend – an excellent Andrea Riseborough as a sympathetic, artistic metalhead – by strung out hippie freaks christened the Children of the New Dawn led by megalomaniac Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache as a vainglorious deceiver), Red takes up a blood-drenched crusade following Mandy's cruel death.
In the realm of visual filmmaking, Cosmatos' exploits are sensational, meticulous, resplendent – in short grainy, burnished perfection. Fueled by LSD and cocaine, the film's spiritual journey of vindication develops with an erratic, sublime beauty – Mandy is trippy as all hell. Although not exceedingly substantial in thematic or emotional composition, its outrageous pleasures in atmosphere alone aren’t exercised as ostentatiously as in BtBR.
This is an uncompromising cult film that basks in the pastiche and precedence of B-movie slashers and action flicks. As storytelling its the furthest thing from high art yet as audiovisual design (one of the late Johann Jóhannsson's final scores is an ideally ethereal counterpart) Mandy is transcendent. A meditative first act juxtaposes Mandy and Red's pastoral life with the New Dawn's delusional misgivings before the real title card finally appears an hour in. From there the kaleidoscopic medley shifts to deeply gratifying absurdity.
As with Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos style comes long before substance. Yet his restless fastidiousness would make Nicolas Winding Refn seethe with jealousy and the gonzo, perversely surreal results speak for themselves. Offering moments that provoke, mystify, hypnotize and take your brain cells down a path few filmmakers dare to even glance at, Mandy is a mad modern milestone and the best film of the year so far.
3 (out of 4)
John Cho's dramatic flexibility has been interesting to watch unfold – White Castle days far behind him, he becomes the first ever Asian American to headline a Hollywood feature in Searching. Cho spearheads the digitally-inclined drama Searching from first-time director Aneesh Chaganty in a noble debut following a slew of short films.
Unlike the offshoot of found footage features that have capitalized upon the omnipresence of technology in the 2010s – Paranormal Activity 4, the Unfriended films – this movie far exceeds the cheap gimmicks of cyber-minded horror. The facets of its visual storytelling format are not only effective but integral to the exceptional energy of this brisk, pulpy thriller.
The story of Searching affords considerably more than you could bargain for. Chaganty's work might have easily have settled for exploiting Gen Z's ability to exist separate from their actual selves through the instant connectivity of social media and electronic devices. But this is not a simple tale of a dad coming to grips with the taciturn mischief of his missing teenage daughter – Searching is a devilishly twisty, classically constructed mystery chock full of red herrings, rejuvenating revelations and plot turns of escalating intrigue. It won’t quite blow your mind but this cybernated paperback novel of sorts is persistently and appropriately captivating.
With Apple accessories abound, the blatant product placement is sure to be annoying if not distracting if the powerhouse brand isn't your technological go-to. Still, Searching's optic content isn't just logos and internet browsing – the taut editing interlinks desktop displays with FaceTime, security camera footage and television broadcasts to avoid any meandering one might expect from so modest a premise and framework. The scoring by Torin Borrowdale is also an understated asset, humming with morose piano melodies and propulsive electronic clicks – the slinking compositions are able to turn something as mundane as password verification into an absorbing process.
The film has a little too much to explain by its conclusion but Searching barely falters on its path to eagerly entertain – and Chaganty has little trouble in quietly hitting every emotional mark along the way.
2 (out of 4)
Lenny Abrahamson’s last film Room was the highlight of film in 2015 – perfectly performed, emotionally harrowing and cathartic as both a profound drama and a breathtaking thriller. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson four years following Frank, Abramson's latest The Little Stranger is afflicted with quite the identity crisis.
Though not an outright tonal blunder, The Little Stranger has no gauge on its genre. Originating with Sarah Waters' celebrated 2009 novel and continuing to the adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, the eventual materialization cycles precariously between frights and melodrama. The dissonant film is a middling, staid and stodgy comedown following the Abrahamson's brush with Oscar prestige three years prior, largely owed to Brie Larson's revered lead performance.
From the vantage of direction, The Little Stranger is esthetic and elegant – the cinematography switches up many times in a given scene – wide angle, soft focus, handheld and everything in between keeps the film clear of lethargy on the visual frontier. Where The Little Stranger suffers is its severe shortage of narrative momentum – I’m all for well-developed central figures at the expense of structure or action, but there’s scarcely any plot outside of the stale romance of Gleeson's Dr. Faraday and Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres that justifies the inflated runtime.
The cloak of horror the film bestows upon itself is the primary detriment. The sour courtship of our main characters is prudently presented but the jolts of gothic dread in ghostly jump scares – needlessly provided after every thirty minutes of dreary drama – aren't remotely warranted even with a centuries-old British mansion as the major locale. Either commit to angry spirits of dead relatives or tell a forlorn tale of a forced, wearied love affair; the textured gloom of The Little Stranger could aid either choice. Perhaps this storytelling divide works appropriately in the source material but the discordant elements are incongruous when translated into film.
The supporting cast (chiefly Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter) settles into the weathered period ambiance and well-tuned dialects. But whereas Wilson's blunt charisma endears as it should, Gleeson's distant, impersonal nature as the subdued leading man is as underdeveloped here as the typically typecasted roles of his past. The characters themselves still bewitch us far more than the story, which ends with an unforgivable shrug. Just as it flopped at the box office, The Little Stranger will suitably remain unknown.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Without trying to answer the admittedly unbeatable standard set by Jaws, The Meg struggles to separate itself from the corn of recent revivals in selachophobia such as Open Water and Deep Blue Sea. A gnarly concept courtesy of its bestselling source material and a 130 million dollar budget at its idiotic disposal, the film hardly even stands in line with lesser efforts of late like The Shallows and 47 Meters Down.
Jason Statham may thrive when scrambling to keep himself alive in Crank or playing an impassive badass in the Transporter series, but his void of charisma could never have saved The Meg even if his life really depended on it. Unable to shepherd a paltry platter of shark fodder stock characters down a creature feature checklist, Statham fades into the same obscurity belonging to the film's decidedly weak cast.
Inverting the structure of Spielberg's breakout blockbuster classic with a discount James Cameron opening act, Jon Turtletaub's film manages to fall short of the C-tier director's own agreeably dumb output along the lines of National Treasure and its sequel Book of Secrets. The Meg botches just about every angle for maritime, flesh-eating thrills with recklessly impetuous pacing, stale camerawork and a softened, bloodless MPAA rating. The Meg's vacuum of excitement is populated with a collection of stereotypes, including a listless love interest (Li Bingbing), and padded out with prosaic attempts at scares and comic relief. Turtletaub ultimately leaves you with one of the most underwhelmingly moronic movies of the summer, straddling very little of the insanity and B-movie pleasures that its premise promises.
You're honestly better off watching Sharknado or any of its insipid sequels. The only thing monstrous about The Meg is its mediocrity.
1 (out of 4)
Even as the most famous of creepypastas, generating a wealth of internet-generated lore and mythology, it's difficult to claim that Slender Man was worth a movie. Nevertheless, arriving several years too late, this feature resembles nothing even close to a serious effort to spawn a new horror icon.
With a real life incident wherein two Wisconsin teens endeavored to sacrifice their peer to Slender Man in 2014, an online culture responsible for turning the faceless suited stalker into a online legend and an adequate if rudimentary woods-wandering PC game, there was at least something worth incorporating into a film adaptation of the ambiguous, haunting figure. Perhaps its the ambivalence in origin and character that eventually equated to 90 minutes of wholly superfluous detritus.
To call Slender Man cliché is a slight to the tradition of tropes. There isn’t a solitary instant that hasn’t been done and reworked countless time before. The film's only hint of value as horror is in brief, mildly diverting hallucination sequences. Slender Man is also shot on shit-o-vision or some similar lens, where even daytime shots are so incomprehensibly murky that you’ll have to regularly squint at the screen just to distinguish what's happening. Our band of teenage girls are blank slates led by Joey King of The Conjuring (an overrated horror film that deserves nearly as much criticism for securing the viability of The Nun 2, Lord save us) and the uniformly derided Wish Upon.
The actual attempts at eeriness or spooks – though they do not lean as hard on jump scares as the very worst of this strain of flick – are weak bordering on entirely absent. Unresolved storylines, a sparse, illegible plot and a pathetic establishment of rules and background folklore serve only to secure Slender Man as instantly forgettable and torturously trite. The neutered original cut offers an aggressively safe PG-13 rating just to make sure this needless film's existence is even more irrelevant and insulting.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Bo Burnham has ascended from bedroom-dwelling YouTube jokester to the most original voice in modern stand-up in what seems like no time at all. His triptych of comedy specials (Words Words Words, what. and Make Happy) are tremendous works of shrewd intellectual comedy and his old teenage raps still hold up pretty well to this day.
That prodigious level of clout behind Burnham's name is what makes Eighth Grade, his first cinematic effort, so perplexing. A fairly straightforward coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old girl in 2017 seems just a smidge beyond his capacity to communicate honestly. But while there is little authorship that screams Burnham’s idiosyncratic brand of dense wordplay and cynical, postmodern edge, as a fresh-faced director he has engineered one of the most uncomfortable and strangely thrilling debuts of the decade.
Lead Elsie Fisher is, like most of the cast, a non actor and you can’t help but appreciate the candor in which the performances play out as Burnham’s script is recited. Very few directors or writers would opt for as much blemished naturalism in the delivery of dialogue, especially when it comes to teenagers. Every hiccup, stutter, stammer, faltering and vocal imperfection is maintained, just like in real life. This is an acne and all portrayal of the inconvenient cusp of young adulthood, and Eighth Grade manifests truths that are as universally profound as they are blisteringly awkward and at times piercingly painful.
The idea that other movies have explored themes on identity and similar examinations of individuality (that overarching "human condition") seems like stilted bunk next to the way Burnham – a stalwart critic of social media – has commented on self-image in the digital age. I can see most audience members over thirty finding the post-millennial references and petty middle school problems difficult to relate to, but Eighth Grade is fundamentally about the suffocating effect of untamable social anxiety and how our own inability to truly know ourselves – let alone express what that is – keeps our ultimate potential just out of reach. In the era of Snapchat, Instagram and vloggers, the space between our projected personality and our actual likeness has become unrecognizably obscured.
Burnham unrelentingly picks away at the life or death stakes of girls making their way through grade school adolescence as they part from their innocence piece by piece, willingly or not. There's no indie gloss here like in The Edge of Seventeen or The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Eighth Grade's unflinching veracity already puts it in the leagues of the genre's cult classics like Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Anna Meredith's dramatically overcharged electronic score enhances Burnham's nimble accuracy on the subject of social unease. Featuring moment after moment of cringe-inducing realness, the film is like a suspended panic attack punctuated by strange and primitive examples of embarrassment and elation. Not since Synecdoche, New York have I seen comedy and drama so thoroughly interwoven or the trivial pangs of life illuminated with such authenticity. However Bo's goals are the inverse of Kaufman's seismic ambition – Eighth Grade is instead brimming with introspective, infinitesimal truths.
2 ½ (out of 4)
The Hundred Acre Wood has never before been witnessed in live action but its true splendor may belong solely to animated incarnations of A. A. Milne's creations. In regards to Pooh and company, the augmented realism and pathos that Christopher Robin longs to exhibit is undone by its staunch adherence to the limitations of family fare.
Director Marc Forster – a man capable of spinning compulsively watchable action movies out of big-budget disasters in waiting (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) – attempts to recapture the Oscar-lite poignancy of his analogous and superior 2004 film Finding Neverland in Disney's latest Winnie-the-Pooh feature since 2011. Christopher Robin positions itself to comment both on the importance of domesticity (shocker) as well as how we ultimately suppress our childhood impulses in the wake of the professional concerns of adulthood. But the inherent modesty of the film's themes, which sidesteps sincere maturity at nearly every turn, can’t rise above simply criticizing work-obsession and championing basic family values.
Hayley Atwell and Ewan McGregor are lovely individually and as husband and wife here, but their charms only carry the film's insufficient sentiments so far. The Up-like gravity of the Christopher Robin's opening credits montage – chronicling Robin's tragic childhood through his major romance and service in WWII – is more emotionally impactful than the sum of the remainder of the film. Thankfully Atwell's character didn’t fall in love with Steve Rogers in waiting for her husband to return from overseas.
The slapstick is a few degrees too silly set against handsome period aspects, though it will offer kiddies more beneficial entertainment than any Illumination or Dreamworks dreck. There’s no denying how short Christopher Robin is on worthwhile morals and wisdom – I wholeheartedly agree that nothing often leads to the very best of something, it's just not the case here.
2 ½ (out of 4)
The relentless zaniness of Teen Titans Go! is its greatest ally and biggest detriment. As such I didn’t expect much less than frenzied, moderately clever mayhem from a theatrical iteration of Cartoon Network’s popular reworking of their former bread and butter.
The original Teen Titans program happily married serial comic book storytelling with anime-inspired animation in the most delightful show a tween could ask for. Despite the fact that the newer, more crudely drawn Titans – although the upcoming live action version should be at least twice as offensive – are aimed at a decidedly younger audience, these infantile renderings retain some level of their individual charm, albeit with minimal sincerity.
My gripes with Teen Titans Go! To the Movies aren’t any different than the problems I have with the show itself. Robin is an insecure egomaniac, Raven is uncharacteristically chummy and Beast Boy’s new voicing is its own special breed of irritating. But even with very cost efficient animation, the film provides waves of amusement across a sizable spectrum from Dreamworks-tier fart jokes to pleasantly wily exercises of its openly meta premise. The sequence in which the Titans time travel to disrupt famous superhero origin stories is a genuinely funny detour. In the film's wisest move, there's room to finally give Nicolas Cage an excuse to play Superman in some manner by allowing him to contribute to the voice cast.
Both the show and the film are capable of erratic creativity and outlandish stupidity. If Teen Titans Go! To the Movies didn't reverently poke fun at the current superhero climate more often than the equally meta Deadpool 2 did earlier this summer, then this slight kids flick definitely should have debuted on the idiot box.
3 ½ (out of 4)
How is Cruise still grasping at blockbuster greatness 22 years after he began producing his own movies? How much of his determination to deliver authentic spectacle is driven by an avidity to give an audience a rush and how much is dictated by his ego needing a good scratch?
Regardless of any explanation, I defy you to point out a major movie star more willing to lay his body on the line for your moviegoing satisfaction. The Mission: Impossible series has legitimized itself many times over as the action spy brand of the current decade, especially after Brad Bird scraped the genre's highest highs in 2011 with Ghost Protocol. 2015's Rogue Nation proved an admirable follow-up and director Christopher McQuarrie, the first filmmaker to return as commander of another Mission, amplifies all of his respectable accomplishments in that fifth film.
The first act of Fallout is literally everything you could want from Cruise, action movies and mainstream entertainment. First, the opening sting is a helluva twist, deliberately teasing the darkest film yet before neatly pulling the rug out as if to say, "Had ya fooled, didn't we? You know we got your summer escapism covered." The stunt work in the halo jump is gripping. The following segment outdoes Bourne at hand-to-hand combat with a series-best fight sequence just before officially outclassing Bond in an atmospheric speakeasy set-piece featuring Vanessa Kirby as the White Widow, the lovely offspring of arms dealer Max from the original 1996 film.
The second act is all plot, chases and twists. There may be one gotcha moment too many but the tension in the extensive midsection becomes delectably palpable at multiple moments, oddly earned by the tasteful use of dream sequences. And while Mission: Impossible flicks usually peter out by act three, the helicopter-based climax condenses the usual convoluted plot down to a basic ticking clock scenario, coalescing in the most impressive finale the franchise has known. In terms of pure action pageantry, Fallout is copiously stuffed with brand-defining highlight moments. Even though it's the truest sequel to date, this movie could easily be enjoyed without any previous M:I knowledge despite bearing connections to each of its five predecessors in story and homage.
McQuarrie shakes things up as much as possible for those expecting the customary shift in auteurs – which has included Brian De Palma, John Woo and J. J. Abrams – while embellishing classic tropes of both the franchise and spy fare by pushing them to their extremes. Lorne Balfe, right hand man to Hans Zimmer, would make his mentor blush with his stormy, thunderous score and Rob Hardy's muted, supple cinematography is a sensible tonal deviation from Robert Elswit's clean precision. It's all a tireless effort to keep the series aging like the finest wine or like Cruise himself, who at 56 still sells Ethan Hunt's unequivocal gravity. McQuarrie implements serious stakes and an epic runtime and still is able to savor the fun, thrills and gadgetry Mission is known for.
Cruise might have two more movies in him if he's up to it but his supporting cast will likely never be stronger. Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin and Sean Harris all develop the parts they played so well in Rogue Nation while newbies Kirby, Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett keep things energized whenever present. The schtick of Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames is wearing thin – you don't need two computer guys – but the former's comic relief is always integral while the latter should have been permanently seated on the sidelines two installments ago.
As a fan of Cruise and the Mission: Impossible films in general, I could sing the praises of Fallout all day. Every one of these films is very stupid when you break them down by logic but that joyless exercise is left to sheltered YouTube snobs. These films (even II in its own parodic way) are lavishly, emphatically entertaining. Maybe it's just my male adolescence talking, but what summer crowds crave from this genre is practical exhibitionism through substantial, awe-inspiring action, all based in espionage, mystery and a relatively plausible reality. Fallout is that and the whole damn kitchen.
Such overwhelming grandiosity may leave you nostalgic for the noir-soaked prudence of the original film but Fallout at the very least rivals, if not surpasses, the best of this set-piece laden spy franchise.
3 (out of 4)
Boots Riley's auspicious debut has been stirring up conversation since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year and no doubt Sorry to Bother You merits its spot on the lips of acolytes of indie filmmaking for numerous reasons.
Much to the credit of Riley – communist and former rapper/hip hop producer of his music collective The Coup – the messages entrenched in his first film function as an exhaustive rant on the current orientation of cultural consumption, the pressing problems of capitalism, the façade of corporate America and the mechanics of racial adaptation. But it's almost as if, knowing that his scathing lampoon would need the comic beats of mainstream flicks in order to appeal to a wider audience, Boots sacrificed substantiating his many theses in order to awkwardly pause for a few laughs.
It's disappointing because appealing to the whims of commercial interest is the exact slippery slope the film goes to great lengths to illustrate. Riley's own carefully constructed themes and ingenious satire throughout Sorry to Bother You is unnecessarily hampered for the sake of satisfying the most feeble-minded moviegoers. Despite these frustrating blemishes, the film is faultlessly entertaining and fortified with inspired cinematic showmanship. Sorry to Bother You is so audacious and unapologetic that its own abundance of ambition is absolutely admirable.
The idea of our African-American main characters accessing their white voice to excel at telemarketing – a gimmick that utilizes the timbres of Patton Oswalt and David Cross extremely well – leads down a narrative path that recalls the subversive racial and social critiques within Get Out. Except in this case the horror elements that crop up in Sorry to Bother You confine the film into a stubborn quirkiness, weakening the otherwise potent wokeness. But then again there's nothing too subtle about the film's strange cautionary tale – it really wouldn't make sense to underplay the film's near-future dystopian sci-fi sociopolitical commentary. The Dirty Projectors' sonic contributions assist in elevating and complimenting the film's bizarre premise and jocular tone.
Lakeith Stanfield made excellent supporting turns in Short Term 12 and the aforementioned Jordan Peele debut, and he remains an extraordinarily likable performer now as the unlikely protagonist Cash Green. Tessa Thompson is unfortunately typecast as the artistic girlfriend just as she was in Creed. Armie Hammer’s caricature of cocaine-snorting CEO scumbag Steve Lift, however, is something to behold and the sequence involving Cash's experience at Lift's surreal Eyes Wide Shut-inspired house party is loaded with delightfully absurdist moments. I may have been hearing crickets during the most painfully obvious jokes but Riley had me dying at the smartest satirical stabs.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Unlike the everyman thrills of Die Hard or the classic disaster movie elements of The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper seems convinced it isn't a dumb action movie at heart. For that fact alone, and particularly as an obvious rip-off of better dumb movies, it's even more disposable.
In a rush to compress its three acts into as little time as possible, the latest vehicle to honor Dwayne Johnson's still-scorching moment in the sun assumes that mere brevity will forgive the triteness of every component of its dialogue and plotting. The sheer schlock of Skyscraper comes without any wink or nods; each piece of stupid is played straight. If you know exactly what you’re getting into and don’t think for even a minute, I can imagine giving into the film's ever so modest pleasures. For most people though, I'd wager they would jump off this crazy train before the final act even starts.
For the moment or two that actually provide a suspenseful jolt, Skyscraper is teeming many times over with scenes that will have you snickering to yourself. The film’s inherent goofiness – rather jarring against the semi-sincere tone of the whole enterprise – only escalates as Skyscraper’s boilerplate story ratchets up. The film is beyond predictable with every cliché in the action movie template making a cameo. Still, this movie exists because of The Rock and he proves to be as intimidating as he's ever been even with a prosthetic leg, and just as lovable too.
Robert Elswit’s Oscar-winning touch in cinematography was vital in furthering the recent Mission: Impossible resurgence of Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, both of which highlighted tangible action and deep, vivid colors. The lucidity of his hand is lost in Skyscraper as all the half-assed visual effects surrounding our generic set of characters tarnish some creditable visual direction. When you have me fondly reminiscing over the much more palatable mediocrity of 2015's San Andreas, something's gone terribly awry.
2 ½ (out of 4)
When you churn out 20 interrelated superhero movies in 10 years ranging from mildly successful to insanely popular, you earn a reputation. Marvel is synonymous with reliably distracting entertainment and they're just as famous for minimizing risks and straddling the status quo. 2015’s Ant-Man was the MCU's biggest box office gamble in which they conservatively shelled out the smallest budget. Following the film's success, and especially with the series reaching a baffling crescendo in profits thanks to this year’s Black Panther and Avenger: Infinity War, I expected something a little more substantial from Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Not that this newest recess in the MCU doesn’t serve up its own fun-size wallop of minor superhero amusement. Just like the first Ant-flick was a welcome comedown after Age of Ultron, this sequel serves as easygoing levity on the heels of heaviness in the third Avengers. Ant-Man and the Wasp is mathematically fast-paced and buoyant at its best – Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and newcomer Jimmy Woo carry the film through even the most pandering instances with their instinctive comic chops. Abby Ryder Fortson as little Cassie also always puts an adorable face on the humanity of Scott Lang's character.
The biggest disappointment is the film's marketing which spoils just about each and every one of the film's memorable moments for the sake of a fun trailer – only some of the best bits of banter are theater exclusives. Save for Spider-Man: Homecoming and maybe the Guardians films, this is the most straightforward comedy we've seen from the series and for laughs alone Ant-Man and the Wasp is a good time even as hit and miss as it can be.
But with so much potential for inventive diversion from typical capeshit, the film is only so clever in finding cinematic uses for Pym's technology – there are so many cool sci-fi concepts at play but unfortunately nothing ever gets too weird or heady. How strange that Marvel's real risk-taking came from April's Avengers: Infinity War when there were two-dozen or so heroes to make room for. The individual, consequence-free additions to the MCU, like the superior one-offs Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok, are better the less they subscribe to formula.
While Evangeline Lilly's Wasp is everything Ant-Man isn’t (she can fly without a bug nearby and is actually trained for combat) she envelopes the action single-handedly, upstaging our lead at every turn. Lang's regulator malfunctions throughout the entire film, leaving little room for many superheroics from our title character. Lilly is an excellent foil for Rudd, romantic or otherwise, but she spends so much time suited up that the quest to rescue mama Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm is superficial, convoluted and emotionally muffled, especially because it was a key aspect of the last film.
Besides a relatively strong villain for the series – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is not only a neat character to watch but also well-motivated – Ant-Man and the Wasp is a decidedly mid-shelf Marvel film.
2 (out of 4)
Of all the modestly successful original movies of recent years, why did Sicario get a sequel? Without Emily Blunt, Denis Villenueve and Roger Deakins, I checked out as soon as I heard it was in the works. Sure, Taylor Sheridan, one of the most talented screenwriters and burgeoning directors of the decade, penned the new film – his hand is still far from enough to deem Day of the Soldado anything besides yet another extraneous summer sequel.
In an attempt to both emulate and ignore the murky ideologies and gloomy thrills of Villeneuve’s 2015 film, this self-defeating sequel transforms very real topics – terrorism, immigration, drug trafficking – into a vessel for hyper-masculine fantasy.
The first half of the film bears promise – Day of the Soldado offers a glimpse at Brolin’s CIA officer Matt Graver and the characteristics beneath the sinister veneer he wore in the former film. Urged by the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) to turn Mexican drug cartels against each other after several terrorist attacks, Graver and Benicio Del Toro's hitman Alejandro Gillick team up to kidnap the daughter of a kingpin in order to incite ensuing violence, eliminating the need for further US involvement. Everything is vaguely exciting up to that point but once the risky endeavor requires oversight after the mission doesn't go according to plan, well oh no our "protagonists" can’t murder countless policeman without punishment.
Suffering from every strand of sequelitus, Day of the Soldado's symptoms include a pointless subtitle, a lacking narrative, rote dialogue and a standard upsurge in gunfire and explosions. The drama is drawn out but hardly earned – this film could’ve been trimmed by a minimum of thirty minutes and been improved many times over. The brutality of Sicario is expanded with thrice the amount of blood but it’s all so vacuous, just like its thin characterization of the film's two important younger characters.
The first film was a labyrinthine crime film depicting covert and ethically warped government operations but Sheridan’s new script inverts this premise, embracing nihilism as its own form of dour, trivial summer escapism. Moral grayness turns black and the hollowness of the whole affair becomes more apparent second by second of its superfluous final act. This Sicario sequel has all the tact and grace of a CSI spin-off and its parting setup for a third film is hack writing at its finest.
3 (out of 4)
Who doesn’t love Mr. Rogers? That should be the title of this new documentary, which to many is possibly just a warm-up for Tom Hanks' portrayal of the gentle icon in the biopic to come next year. Won't You Be My Neighbor? works as either confirmation of the nostalgia that an entire generation feels for the man's fundamental children's television program or as a fine biography for the current batch that are only aware of the sweater-sporting idol by reputation.
As strictly a celebration of his exceptional virtuosity this documentary is more puff piece than a revelatory comment on Rogers-related history. That said, for all the schmaltz that was part of Rogers' character which ultimately carries over to this soft-edged documentary, it was personally impossible not to shed tears almost incessantly during the film. Rogers' ministry of kindness and well-wishes is just the sincerity and optimism that has steadily become archaic in our society of increasing nihilism and moral flexibility. Given the principle of cynicism that has come to define the early directions of the 21st century, such open, earnest and tender masculinity feels alien in the grim light of Trump’s world. There is an antiquity to Fred Rogers' humble personage that fills you with immense compassion and respect. Disillusioned as he was before his death over a decade ago, God knows how Rogers would reflect on the bitter state of recent years if he were alive.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? taps into the sentimentality and the relevance of Mr. Rogers as it stands today – Fred Rogers' ideals were honorable, but his struggles against the evils of the world throughout his years in the spotlight exemplify the best and worst of openhearted naiveté. The effect he hoped to have on children could not have cured the next generation of the nature vs. nurture problem that always remains but his outright benevolence made a positive impression no matter how small.
As a documentary – a format that prides itself on dwelling on the dirtier truths of its subjects – one might expect less subjectivity and more exposé from Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but Rogers is one of those rare men in media who actually didn't have any skeletons in his closet. I knew very little about Rogers going in and yet, as I’m sure the case is with many people, I was drawn to the film solely by his fascinating personality. The documentary itself I could've watched on HBO and it would have had the same emotional potency. The film succeeds entirely on showcasing an exceptional individual – Rogers' stance toward communicating difficult subjects to children and especially his plea to Congress for funding all exude the noblest forms of bravery and empathy.
2 ½ (out of 4)
It may come as a surprise (or perhaps no surprise at all) that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom may be the best Jurassic Park sequel ever. Mind you, it's a low bar to clear. Just like the way this film's cynical predecessor Jurassic World imitated the 1993 original film, Fallen Kingdom follows the basic bullet points of The Lost World. But unlike Spielberg’s original blockbuster phenomenon, in the case of the 1997 successor there was so much room for improvement.
Our main characters Owen (Chris Pratt as Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) have been scrubbed of their single dimension of depth – now they have virtually no character at all, which is somehow superior since their personalities beforehand were so abhorrently trite. There are other minor betterments: instead of spoiled teenagers we get the least annoying of the franchise's obligatory youngsters (Isabella Sermon) and the mandatory smorgasbord of dino-chow villains of the corporate and military persuasion has Rafe Spall and Toby Jones hamming it up. This offsets Claire's annoying pair of millennial animal rights employees Franklin and Zia (Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda).
No ensemble can match Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough, but this new film is vying for second places in this and plenty other arenas. Fallen Kingdom can’t help but trod all too familiar ground like every Jurassic Park sequel that has come to pass but the overarching structure here feels at least remotely divergent. A sensational roller-coaster ride of a first half almost flies by too fast to make way for a strictly horror-centered finale, more comfortable territory for director J. A. Boyena whose debut was The Orphanage. It's not much, but for once I’m fairly curious where this franchise is going and I haven't seen such a pulp-laden fusion of camp and terror from the series since the first film.
Of course there is inherent stupidity interwoven into the narrative but only because there has to be for these movies to exist. The dialogue is nothing but corn and the storytelling mostly revolves around not getting stomped or eaten, yet Boyena’s proficient direction, unlike the tasteless touches of Colin Trevorrow or Joe Johnston, lets you have your cake and devour it too. You don’t have to wait very long for what you came for and the expected beats play out in lively, well-shot set-pieces.
The Lost World may have had Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and a very bored Jeff Goldblum on its side – the latter of whom makes a rather pointless cameo bookending the story he takes no part in – but Fallen Kingdom has in spades what every other one of these dino-sequels has lacked: dependable B-movie pleasures. There’s no pointless meta-commentary on soft-rebooting, nostalgia or corporate sponsorship that choked the supposed thrills of Jurassic World three years ago. When your characters are less loathsome, it’s easier to feel danger when, for once, we aren’t secretly rooting for the raptors to end the movie ahead of schedule. Fallen Kingdom is about as dumb as movies get and just as fun too.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Apart from the charms of its own loosely based real life tale and a watchable cast, there isn’t much talent going on in Tag that isn’t right in front of the camera.
It's refreshing to see Ed Helms finally finding himself an appealing lead and alongside Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress and Jeremy Renner, the ensemble of Tag has fluent and frequently delightful camaraderie. But the writers of Waiting… and inexperienced television director Jeff Tomsic, in his film debut, don’t bring much to this embellished “true story" besides childlike energy. Yet Tag is as good a comedy as the average summer season can provide. Writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen have some fun parodying numerous genres – action, spy thriller, horror – and abbreviating the Wall Street Journal article to what amounts to a decent comedy premise.
Every player has a hysterical moment or two even if character depth is in short supply. Helms' endearing goofiness, Johnson’s half-baked timing, Hamm’s straight-man charisma, Buress' trademark deadpan and Renner’s conscious badassery are all utilized to their fullest – the cast carries Tag 100%, although the film is thankfully devoid of improvisational padding. Great cameos from recognizable faces in comedy (Carrie Brownstein, Thomas Middleditch) also keep amusement in constant spin. And a typical hip-hop soundtrack is spotted with tasteful, well-timed needle drops – "Shake Your Rump" could make any scene better.
The script feels the need to reflect on nostalgia and aging as the story strains to grasp at some form of thematic or emotional poignency, but the effort just isn't worth it – it's a movie is about a game of tag for fuck’s sake. Too often Tag misjudges the importance of the actual childlike adults that inspired this film considering how blatantly the events and characters have been fictionalized.
3 (out of 4)
Brad Bird never really wanted to devise a sequel to his 2004 breakthrough masterpiece The Incredibles. The worst thing you can say about Incredibles 2, just as a direct continuation of the former film, is that it could never, ever surpass the perfection of the original.
But it's still tough to ignore the new film's comparable shortcomings, few and facile as they are. Obeying the skeletal structure of the first film, Bird works slavishly to make sure Incredibles 2 is as distinctive and special as he can when he is able. His efforts are full of bracing creative decisions and on the whole Bird succeeds unflaggingly at handling the new and the familiar. The only thing that places this second Incredibles deep in the shadow of the original is an unwillingness to match the emotional maturity that made The Incredibles so vivid.
Even if it doesn't entirely sacrifice its appeal to all audiences by catering mostly to kids, Incredibles 2 plays it safe to its own detriment. But Bird makes the most of his own unencumbered imagination and unlimited, Mouse-backed resources to produce a film that not only exceeds nearly every major release this summer, but also most Pixar films. It's easily the studio's best sequel next to either Toy Story continuation – the first hour is the most entertaining stretch of film I've seen all year. The action, scoring, voice over work, dialogue and editing are all terrific. As a true sequel from where we left off fourteen years ago, this is the absolute best we were gonna get.
Yes, our new villain ScreenSlaver doesn’t top Syndrome, but strong social commentary on consumerism reflecting our own reliance on the escapism of superhero movies is just as thought-provoking as the original's contemplation on hero-worship and exceptionalism. One would be expected to nitpick every semblance of sequelitis if this was a careless cash-in like Finding Dory or Cars 3 – but anyone who knows better can register Bird's sound ingenuity and note his antipathy for everything that could have made Incredibles 2 ordinary.
For some, Jack-Jack squaring off against a brave raccoon made it all worth it. For me it was definitely the mesmerizing Elasticycle sequence.
2 (out of 4)
If Steven Soderbergh never took the Ocean's trilogy past the point of breezy diversion, why should Gary Ross’ facsimile of the brand improve this all-female spinoff?
Not nearly as torturous as Twelve but not anywhere near as beguiling as Eleven and Thirteen, Ocean's Eight boasts an excellent cast but the cogs of the film's script never mesh. The characters are underwritten, the plot is contrived even as the story remains painfully simplistic and, most disappointingly, the film fails as a serving of summer escapism. A knockoff of David Holmes' silk smooth score and a few split screens doesn't compensate.
Sandra Bullock does a fine job as Sister Ocean, who just like Clooney's Danny before her is after a big score following extended incarceration. Some ladies in her heist squad are cool cats – Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter play roughly believable accomplices, but the likes of Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina are resorted to their respective stereotypes like the hacker, the pickpocket, etc.
At least this film's final act differs from previous entries – the central heist is wrapped up in a bow by two-thirds the way in. Did I mention there’s no tension the entire film? Every turn for inventiveness or a sly twist is squandered immediately and every hiccup in the plan is resolved far too quickly.
Though Ocean's is as good a franchise as any to revamp with a female cast, I wish there was something more stylistically satiating to savor in 8 than watching attractive actresses hang out and do crafty things.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Though stocked with generic elements spanning the spectrum of horror – family tragedy, creepy kids, occultism and the threat of the supernatural – Hereditary's pulse-blended pastiche is deeply unnerving, particularly in key moments harrowing drama and existential dread.
That said, for as bleak and freaky as the film gets, there’s no denying the movie's generous running time, overambitious stew of styles and unreasonably divisive ending keep this A24 horror joint closer to the disappointments of It Comes at Night and The Blackcoat's Daughter than something as exceptionally beautiful as The Witch. There’s undeniable artistry and intelligent filmmaking choices throughout, but Hereditary's deliberate slow-burning feels calculated rather than crucial. The film's final destination is so removed from its point of origin simply by cheating its way to demons and ghouls with the bait and switch of its title.
Still, Toni Collette is remarkable as ever and the film, especially in its first two thirds, is relentlessly creepy and littered with subtle details. But these assets never pan out to proper fruition and for as bonkers as the ending is, what's behind the curtain is pretty prosaic. The finale falsely bewilders by trying too hard to synthesize reality with the supernatural. By far the best scenes of Hereditary are the tense domestic situations – the spooky shit isn't as unsettling or provocative.
As an ably executed horror hodgepodge, Hereditary is a work of middling mastery. But this dynamic film is a sure cut above the mainstream, jump-scare-laden treacle – Ari Aster shows unmatched promise here but his budding gifts get the better of him.
3 (out of 4)
After beginning like an 80s B-movie with 21st century gloss, Upgrade, as its title implies, becomes increasingly invigorating and remarkable as it progresses. Warping body horror, action thriller and dystopian sci-fi elements into its own low-budget cocktail, Upgrade is quaint, sophisticated conception. It's worthy of standing toe-to-toe with many tentpole summer blockbusters.
Logan Marshall-Green shows off extraordinary range as everyman Grey, whose a loving wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is killed in the same assault that leaves him a quadriplegic. The future generation's hipster Tesla (Harrison Gilbertson as Eron Keen) offers Grey an exclusive chance to return to normalcy with STEM, a breakthrough all-enhancing AI counterpart chip. As a refined revision of templates laid down in Robocop and several similar cyborg and AI premises, Upgrade adroitly imagines a symbiosis of 2001's Hal 9000 and Dave, for example, where the precision of AI polishes and perfects everything connected to your nervous system. Autonomy and morality come into question in the film’s most thought-provoking moments and the brutal and elegantly shot action sequences are just as satisfying as bloody good ass-kicking.
Directed and written by Leigh Whannell (the man responsible for penning the Saw and Insidious franchises), Upgrade is reminiscent of multiple films of its kind yet feels entirely authentic once it gets all its pieces in place and gears in motion. The fact that the ending leaves the tantalizing possibility of an equally interesting sequel is just the cherry on top of a movie that is at least a few degrees more adept than it initially appears. Upgrade is a welcome and unexpected diamond in the rough.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
First Man and
at the El Royale