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, reasonably 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 resulting in the most satisfying show a tween could ask for. Although 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 little sincerity.
My gripes with Teen Titans Go! To the Movies aren’t really 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 clever 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 give Nicolas Cage an excuse to finally play Superman in some manner by letting him contribute to the voice cast.
Both the show and the film are capable of surprising creativity and unbelievable stupidity. If it weren’t for the fact that Teen Titans Go! To the Movies endearingly pokes fun at the current superhero climate more often than the equally meta Deadpool 2 did earlier this summer, it would be easy to argue this slight kids flick 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 a desire to give an audience a rush and how much is dictated by his ego needing a good scratch?
Regardless of the answer, 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 Ghost Protocol in 2011. 2015's Rogue Nation proved a worthy follow-up and director Christopher McQuarrie, the first filmmaker to return as commander of another Mission, improves upon every one 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, gradually teasing the darkest film yet before neatly pulling away the curtain as 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 as the movies officially outclass 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, yet the tension in the extensive midsection becomes deliciously palpable at multiple moments, strangely due to the tasteful use of dream sequences. And while Mission: Impossible flicks usually peter out by the third act, the helicopter-based climax dilutes a typically convoluted plot down to a basic ticking clock scenario, coalescing in the strongest finale the franchise has known. In terms of pure spectacle, Fallout is copiously stuffed with brand-defining highlight moments. Despite the fact that it's the truest sequel to date, this movie could easily be enjoyed without any previous M:I knowledge even though it bears connections to each of its five predecessors by either story or homage.
McQuarrie shakes up things as much as possible for those expecting the usual shift in auteurs – which has included Brian De Palma, John Woo and J. J. Abrams – while improving classic tropes of the franchise and action spy fare in general 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 shift from Robert Elswit's clean precision. It's all a tireless effort to keep this series aging like the finest wine, or like Cruise himself, who at 56 still sells Ethan Hunt's unquestionable gravity. McQuarrie implements serious stakes and an epic runtime while still savoring the fun, thrills and gadgetry that Mission is known for.
Cruise might have two more movies in him if he's up for 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 interesting whenever present. The schtick of Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames is wearing thin, but the former's comic relief is always necessary 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 brain exercise is left to sheltered YouTube snobs. These films (even II in its own parodic way) are profusely, undeniably entertaining. Maybe it's just my male adolescence talking, but what summer audiences crave from this genre is practical exhibitionism and awe-inspiring, substantial action based in espionage, mystery and a relatively believable reality. Fallout is all that and the whole damn kitchen.
Such overwhelming grandiosity might leave you nostalgic for the noir-soaked simplicity 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 earns its spot on the lips of indie filmmaking acolytes for numerous reasons.
Much to the credit of Riley – communist and former rapper/hip hop producer of his music collective The Coup – the messages underlying his first film function as an exhaustive rant on the current orientation of cultural consumption, the pressing problems of capitalism, the facade 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 a Hollywood flick in order to appeal to a wider audience, Boots sacrificed proving his many theses in order to awkwardly pause for a few laughs.
It's heartbreaking because appealing to the whims of commercial interest is exactly the kind of 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 audience members. 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 and depth of meaning 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 echoes the subversive racial and social critiques within Get Out. Except the horror elements that crop up in Sorry to Bother You confine the film into a determined weirdness that weakens the film's 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 help elevate and compliment 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 engaging performer now as the unlikely protagonist Cash Green. Tessa Thompson is unfortunately typecast, just as she was in Creed, as the artistic girlfriend. Armie Hammer’s caricature of cocaine-snorting CEO scumbag Steve Lift, however, is awesome 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-enduring moment in the sun is under the assumption that mere brevity will forgive the triteness of every part of its dialogue and plotting. The utter schlock of Skyscraper comes without any wink or nods; everything 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 moviegoers though, I’d imagine you’d jump off this crazy train before the final act even starts.
For the few moment or two that actually provide a suspenseful jolt, Skyscraper is overflowing many times over with scenes that will have you snickering to yourself. The film’s inherent silliness – rather jarring against the semi-serious 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 crucial in elevating 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 here though as all the half-assed visual effects surrounding our generic set of characters spoil some respectable 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 entertaining flicks and they're just as famous for taking few 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-movie was a welcome comedown after Age of Ultron, this sequel provides easygoing levity on the heels of the heaviness of the third Avengers. Ant-Man and the Wasp is mathematically fast-paced and hilarious at its best – Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and newcomer Jimmy Woo carry the film through even the most pandering moments with their instinctive comic chops. Abby Ryder Fortson as little Cassie also always puts an adorable face on the human element 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 about as straightforward a comedy as 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 – with so many interesting sci-fi concepts at play, 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 Black Panther, 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 so much of the action single-handedly that she upstages our lead at every turn. Lang's regulator malfunctions 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 slight, 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 cool but also well-motivated – Ant-Man and the Wasp is as mid-shelf a Marvel film as it gets.
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 up and coming directors of the decade, penned the new film – his hand is still far from enough to call 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 bears a pointless subtitle, a lacking narrative, rote dialogue and a standard increase 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 would have improved many times over. The brutality of Sicario is expanded with thrice the amount of blood but it’s all so empty, just like its weak characterization of the film's two important younger characters.
The first film was a labyrinthine crime film depicting government operations as covert and ethically warped, 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 bears the tact and grace of a CSI spin-off and its lead-in to 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 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 through to this soft-edged documentary, it was personally impossible not to shed tears almost incessantly throughout 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 standard 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 the humble personage of Fred Rogers that fills you with immense longing and respect. Disillusioned as he was before his death over a decade ago, God knows how Rogers would reflect on the bitter state of these 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 exemplifies the best and worst of open-hearted naiveté. The effect he hoped to have on children could not have cured the next generation of the nature vs. nurture problem that still remains, but his outright benevolence made a positive impact no matter how small.
As a documentary – a format that prides itself on dwelling on the dirtier truths of their 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' attitudes toward communicating difficult subjects to children and especially his plea to Congress for funding all exude the noblest form of bravery and compassion.
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 how 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 follow-up 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 practically no character at all, which is actually better since their personalities beforehand were so abhorrently trite. There are other minor improvements: 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 different. A spectacular roller-coaster ride of a first half almost flies by too fast to make way for a strictly horror-centered finale. After a bit of camp in the second act, we arrive at more comfortable territory for director J. A. Boyena (whose debut was The Orphanage). It's not much, but for once I’m reasonably curious where this franchise is going and I haven't seen such a deft, pulp-laden union 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 more proficient direction, unlike the tasteless touch of Colin Trevorrow or Joe Johnston, lets you have your cake and eat it too. You don’t have to wait very long for what you came for and the expected beats played out in exciting, 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: consistent 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 as soon as possible. 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 true story 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 a comfortable 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 an 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 a good time parodying numerous genres – action, spy thriller, horror – and abbreviating the Wall Street Journal story 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 everything at least consistently amusing. And a typical hip-hop soundtrack is elevated slightly 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 themes and emotional beats, but the effort just isn't worth it – the movie is about a game of tag for fuck’s sake. Too often Tag misjudges the importance of its real life players considering how obviously the film's events and characters have been fictionalized.
3 (out of 4)
Brad Bird never really wanted to make a sequel to his 2004 breakthrough masterpiece The Incredibles. The worst thing you can say about Incredibles 2, strictly as a direct continuation of the former film, is that it could never, ever surpass the perfection of the original.
But it's still hard to ignore the new film's comparable weaknesses, few and facile as they are. Obeying the skeletal structure of the first film, Bird works slavishly to make sure Incredibles 2 is as separate and special as he can when he is able. His efforts are full of inspired creative decisions and on the whole Bird succeeds unflaggingly at straddling the new and the familiar. The only thing that places this second Incredibles deep in the shadow of the original is an unwillingness to reach the maturity or emotional darkness that made The Incredibles so vivid.
Even if it doesn't 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 stands higher than practically 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 half is the most entertaining stretch of film I've seen all year. The action sequences, scoring, voice over work, dialogue and editing are all top notch. 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 deliberation 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’ imitation of the brand improve this all-female spinoff?
Not nearly as convoluted as Twelve but not anywhere near as fun 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 simple 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 virtually no tension the entire film? Every turn for originality or a clever 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 nifty things.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Though stocked with generic elements spanning many spectrums 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 stick with you.
That said, for as bleak and freaky as the film gets, there’s no denying that the movie's generous running time, overambitious mixture 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 slow-burning deliberation feels calculated rather than necessary. The film's final destination is so removed from its origin point 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 fine details. But these assets never play out to proper fruition, and for as bonkers as the ending is, what's behind the curtain is a pretty familiar trope. The finale bewilders in a false sense by trying too hard to synthesize reality with the supernatural. By far the best scenes of Hereditary are the tense familial situations – the spooky shit isn't as consistently provocative.
As a proficiently 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 burgeoning gifts get the better of him.
3 (out of 4)
After starting off like an 80s B-movie with 21st century gloss, Upgrade, as its title implies, becomes increasingly interesting and engaging as it progresses. Warping body horror, action thriller and dystopian sci-fi elements into its own cocktail of low-budget cool, Upgrade is quaint but sophisticated. 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 a chance in an exclusive breakthrough experiment with STEM, an all-improving AI counterpart chip. As a refined revision of tropes laid down in Robocop and several similar cyborg and AI premises, Upgrade cleverly imagines a symbiosis of 2001's Hal 9000 and Dave, for example, where the precision of AI enhances everything connected to your nervous system. Autonomy and morality come into question in the film’s most thought-provoking moments and the brutal and superbly 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 many films of its kind, yet feels utterly inspired 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 lo-fi diamond in the rough.
2 ½ (out of 4)
After the joylessness and drudgery of Disney's first Star Wars anthology film Rogue One, Solo, despite its enormous shortcomings, is the best kind of spin-off you could hope for, especially for an idea as ill-advised as making a Han Solo prequel film. This is a movie that should never have existed, but Solo jubilantly revels in its own limitations, expands the Star Wars universe where it can and most importantly delivers on the promise of these flicks in the first place – the pleasing escapism of a space fantasy.
It could have been comic gold to watch Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s original borderline parody of the very idea of this move, which got them excised from production mid-shoot. Ron Howard’s final film is too serious for its own good, but it’s such a far cry from the tonal catastrophes of The Last Jedi and Rogue One that the orderly simplicity is traditionally satisfying and refreshingly uncomplicated. Even Howard's murkier sense of levity leaves Solo feeling like a Star Wars film proper.
The script keeps the fan service on a leash for the most part and has plenty of time to showcase new elements of the galaxy and seize opportunities for experimental production design. Vertical yachts, space marauders and black hole maelstroms are newer ideas that comfortably exist in this universe. Of course you know what else is awaiting you in this movie – Han meets Chewie, gambles with Lando, gets that blaster, shoots first, blah blah Kessel Run yada yada. It doesn’t really matter when you write a movie around snippets of dialogue that took up a maximum five minutes in the original two Star Wars films.
The plotting is fairly cliché and the discourse dances between dry and decent. The swashbuckling, backstabbings, femme fatale love interests, western stylization and heist movie structure, however, amalgamate into its own familiar blend of space adventure trappings that the Star Wars brand is synonymous with. Rogue One in particular could have used a little more Ocean’s Eleven and a little less Saving Private Ryan in laying out the groundwork for these anthology films. Just like J. J. Abrams will attempt to salvage Star Wars in Episode IX after the clusterfuck that was The Last Jedi, Solo is appropriate course correction for this portion of Disney's fledging franchise. The box office numbers may not reflect that fact, but that's all Kathleen Kennedy's fault.
Even with two visions in direction and costly reshoots, this is no mash-up of Justice League or Fantastic Four-sized proportions. Everything plays out smoothly because the safe screenwriting makes the homage and references (whatever you want to call it) part of the story. The last five minutes reek of studio hackery like the last "Star Wars Story," as an unwarranted cameo by Darth Maul is shoehorned in just to tease the possibility of future installments in the Solo series, and perhaps an Obi-Wan film down the line. With no Jabba the Hut, Boba Fett or Greedo this time around, Solo doesn't blow its load and has space for Alden Ehrenreich's performance to improve over multiple films.
Not to say Ehrenreich is a weak link like many predicted. From beginning to end the acting evolves from scrappy mimicry to the young actor inhabiting his own epitome of a classic character with arrogant swagger to spare. Bewilderingly, Ehrenreich carries the film singlehandedly at a certain point – the mild charm exuded by this otherwise mostly predictable film can be traced back to his surprisingly proficient performance.
3 (out of 4)
The original Deadpool is the highest grossing X-Men film ever and no one saw it coming. Apart from three Bryan Singer films (the two originals and Days of Future Past) and last year’s Logan, 20th Century Fox’s portion of Marvel rights hasn’t made an enormous imprint on modern cultural phenomenon of superhero films, especially with Disney further monopolizing the box office calendar every year.
Yet somehow Ryan Reynolds spewing sarcasm in red spandex tapped right into the domestic zeitgeist – the result was middling, with humor ranging from sharp wit to the lowliest, most smug self-awareness you’d see from any given Seth MacFarlane joint. But we got a decent origin story, some time for smaller X-Men characters and an enjoyable if overrated reflection of our popular interests. The new sequel improves upon just about everything that came before. With a director of considerable style at the command (David Leitch, long-time second unit director for various blockbusters and the auteur behind the baddassery of John Wick and Atomic Blonde), a fatter budget, smart casting, a good villain and an alright story just for kicks, Deadpool 2 surpasses its predecessor with ease.
Stakes get set pretty fast when Wade Wilson's fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) bites it in the opening scene. Embracing emotional underpinnings similar to the first Deadpool, the sequel trades a love story for family film tropes. Wade seeks redemption by attempting to set flame-handed Russell Collins (Hunt for the Wilderpeople's New Zealand treasure Julian Dennison) down a better path in which Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling super soldier, won't have to murder the young boy in order to save his family that ends up killed by his future firey fists. Brolin's turn here marks the distinguished actor's second Marvel villain in a month as he brings another sympathetic bad guy to life as interesting as the universe-toppling Thanos in Infinity War.
New faces like the super-fortunate Domino (Zazie Beetz) are welcome additions to X-universe, but regardless of the increased budget, extended cast and thicker runtime, Deadpool 2 still feels quaint, hand-made and audacious. The jokes are mercifully less abrasive – even with a handful too many outdated references, the metatextual elements are more subtle and satiating than round one of the R-rated anti-hero antics. Leitch's hand in the fight sequences is unswerving and up to his own standards – the major second act set piece is both chaotically hilarious and inventively thrilling.
Like 22 Jump Street, as a meta-sequel Deadpool 2 is as inspired as you can get in terms of modifying and renovating all the elements that worked in the original while telling a very different story. The opening credits sequence parodying Bond and the Marvel-esque post-credit stabs are some of the film's funniest segments. The film in between has plenty to guffaw at, but Deadpool 2 makes room for actual character development before poking fun at DC and the MCU – it's nice to know Reynolds and Leitch have their priorities straight.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Sebastián Lelio is currently reimagining his critically acclaimed 2013 film Gloria with Julianne Moore, but Disobedience is the young Chilean director's first real foray into English language features following his very recent Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman. However, none of the Lelio's capacity for communicating visual poetry or graciously depicting femininity and empathy as he showcased in last year's Best Foreign Language Film carries over to his latest work.
Covering the reunion between two curious females who have been parted since they were teenagers decades earlier, the film's focus is to contrast a secretive lesbian affair between Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) with the austere Jewish Orthodoxy of which the latter of the two women is bound by marriage. Weisz (who doesn't need to change accents with the London setting) acts circles around her much less capable co-star. McAdams fakes it all the way, turning in a performance that would fit better in a well-funded porno. Respectable actors in the supporting cast like Alessandro Nivola are stifled by the overwrought triteness of Disobedience's subject.
I admire each Rachel in their respective element, but there's not really room to breathe let alone emote properly when boxed in by atypical LGBT movie trappings. Hardly even worth comparing to vastly superior recent films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Carol, Lelio's sensibilities in screenwriting rival that of the average paperback novel. Unless you've got a fetish for good-looking actresses dribbling into each other's mouths (not sure I could blame you), Disobedience will leave you with very little.
Speckles of good direction and finely framed cinematography don't overcome the film's perfectly drab composition. Instead of being beautiful or brave, Disobedience is ultimately bland and banal. The film barely goes beyond the basics of its erotic love story amidst oppressive, unfeeling institutions – I can't think of any audiences coming away pleased other than horny old grandmas.
3 (out of 4)
Ten years ago Jason Reitman was one of the few Academy darling directors actually worth his salt, but his relevance to the filmmaking world has all but disappeared recently. The decidedly more dramatic sidesteps of his last two features Labor Day and Men, Women & Children floundered both critically and financially – it seemed we lost whatever was left of the guy who brought us the likes Thank You for Smoking and a masterwork in Up in the Air.
Writer Diablo Cody – who won Best Original Screenplay for her debut Juno and penned Reitman’s last decent film Young Adult – has returned with Tully, a thematic counterweight to her own brand of maternity-centered comedy as well as another well-conceived platform for Charlize Theron’s considerable acting abilities. For Reitman, this third collaboration with Cody is a pleasure, a relief and a decisive return to form.
Removed from the adolescent mindset in any shape or form, Cody’s dialogue is the most observational and naturally funny of her pairings with Reitman. Even with generous helpings of surgically arranged banter, all the film’s hilarity comes from her knack for piercing, unflattering social commentary and an intuition for revelatory character interactions. The tale of Tully finds Ron Livingston's Drew and Theron's Marlo as husband and wife expecting their third child. Mark Duplass plays Marlo’s well-to-do brother Craig who suggests a night nanny during the early stages of infancy, and so Mackenzie Davis' titular Tully helps Marlo get some sleep and get her shit together.
You can hardly believe Theron was the Atomic Blonde herself less than a year ago, as the Oscar winner's substantial range takes her back to an inelegance similar to both her teen novelist character in Young Adult and her legendary performance in Monster. Davis is also worth treasuring, nailing her character's cocktail of alarming sincerity and millennial youthfulness. Through their characters' oddly intimate relationship, the script scales the most human aspects of motherhood. From the nightmares in and out of sleep to the serenity of casually conversing with your kids and asserting your parental instincts, Tully is full of interesting takes on well-explored ideas.
Cody may not have supplied much of a convincing ending, but the quality of her writing beforehand is dense enough that you might even be playing catch-up with the film’s subtleties. In direction, Reitman retains his knack for selective soundtrack choices, elevating every moment of montage and informing tone better than traditional scoring ever could. His ear is what makes him so good at oscillating between seriousness and levity so delicately, and the equilibrium he strikes here is on par with some of his best films.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
Hell Fest, Venom
and A Star is Born