Wonderfully weird, mindlessly marvelous
Aquaman (2018): Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.
So for those that have been following my reviews over the years, you know that I don’t exactly have the best relationship with comic book movies. So that should lend some credence to the notion that I actually enjoyed James Wan’s Aquaman, because cynical Joe can still have fun watching movies. That's exactly what Aquaman is: fun. How do you make a film with a standard cookie cutter story enjoyable? With great execution, amazing colors, and over-the-top sequences, that's how. I think Warner Brothers has finally discovered a formula for success with these spin-offs: limit Zack Snyder's involvement while simultaneously allowing the directors of these films be themselves. We can thank Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman - check out Peter Kosanovich's review here) for that.
So what makes this film so enjoyable? James Wan's fingerprints are all over this film. In a nutshell, the accomplished director takes the Furious 7 formula (his previous big budget action movie) and puts Aquaman in it. And since Furious 7 was a wonderful bit of mindless fun, that means Aquaman is that, but with even more money. My favorite thing about this film are the colors. The production design here is out-of-this-world (or, in the depths of the sea? Does that work? Shut up, Oscar.) and makes the film infinitely more enjoyable. Had Zack Snyder been given more leeway in this project the sets would've been disastrous, given the fact that it's hard to find natural light underwater. (And thus justification to shoot an underwater scene "during the day") But James Wan makes sure every set, regardless of natural lighting, is lush and colorful and fun to look at. Mad props to production designer Bill Brzeski. If this film deserves any recognition from the Academy, it should be for its mesmerizing production design. Or special effects. Those are pretty dang good too. The third act in particular has a ton of absurd sequences that would've looked absolutely ridiculous were it not for the great special effects.
Also, the cast is great. Jason Momoa is fantastic as Aquaman, bringing a level of suave and charisma to a character that's never been known for it. (Deeeeeem abs doe.) The writing is where this film really flounders, (more on that in a sec) but one character that does receive a great arc and a ton of depth is King Orm. (Patrick Wilson) While this villain isn't quite as dynamic as Killmonger from Black Panther, King Orm's motivations are grounded in real-world problems and thus make him a far more sympathetic villain. (2018 has definitely been the year of the villain in superhero movies.) However, King Orm is about the only character who's arc is even remotely interesting. Aquaman goes on a dullishly ordinary hero's journey, and Mera (Amber Heard) is all but wasted as the sidekick that (predictably) falls in love with the male lead. You're never taken by surprise with this story, but, similar to that of Furious 7, you still find yourself having fun with all the mindless action. It is undoubtedly well-made and executed, with a charismatic (though dull) lead and an interesting villain. What more could you ask for out of a big budget action movie?
The Critique: Despite a cardboard cutout of a story, Aquaman delivers a ton of mindlessly enjoyable moments thanks to incredible production design and stellar visual effects.
The Recommendation: if you're looking for a fun popcorn flick this holiday season, look no further!
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Almost Great
Noir films make the best holiday films, don't they?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): A murder mystery brings together a private eye, a struggling actress, and a thief masquerading as an actor.
Happy holidays everyone! The annual tradition continues here at Enter the Movies. For those that are new, (first off, welcome!) every year I take a brief look at a film that is something of an unorthodox holiday film. Past reviews include Die Hard, (which, let's be real, is a holiday film) L.A. Confidential, When Harry Met Sally..., American Psycho, and The Bourne Identity. Now, let's add Shane Black's explosive debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to the list, shall we? So gather round the fire with your chestnuts and eggnog, and let's talk about a violent noir film that just happens to take place around Christmas!
The calling card of this film is its screenplay. Writer/director Shane Black (at the time the established screenwriter of the Lethal Weapon franchise was making his directorial debut) puts on a clinic in how to craft and execute a well-made screenplay. The dialogue is fluid, the acting is natural, (Robert Downey Jr. is basically playing himself in the title role of Harry Lockhart, which always helps) and the pace is almost incomprehensibly rapid. Harry Lockhart (RDJ) narrates the entire film, and this narration style is the calling card for a Shane Black film because of its boldly unique fourth-wall-breaking method. (It's basically Scorsese on steroids) While there are moments where the narration is VERY distracting, (Pointing out a weak moment in the script does not make it better, it makes it worse) I found myself laughing and gasping more times than not. And the editing brings it all together. The transitions here are seamless. If I've learned anything over the years of watching film, a great screenplay can be tanked by poor editing just as much as it can be propped up by it.
Let's talk about RDJ for a second. Harry Lockhart is basically Tony Stark's origin story. The parallels between the two characters are rather uncanny. But, if anything, it goes to show that this acting style works and makes it easy to understand why RDJ was ultimately cast to play one of Marvel's central figures. (And become the top-grossing actor in the business) Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) and Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan) both deliver this Shane Black dialogue with grace as well. While they are both great, the treatment of Harmony's character, and the film's casual treatment of sex (clearly from a man's perspective) is where this movie really shows its age.
And age well, it has not. I get it. It's 2005. We've come a long way since then. However, that doesn't forgive a film for treating its only woman this poorly. Shane Black makes a joke out of how Harmony has slept with seemingly every guy on the planet besides Harry, who of course she offers to sleep with at one point because what else would you expect her to do? Oh, and of course Harry says no because she admits that she slept with his best friend back in high school, and that really upsets him. And it's funny! Aren't you loling so hard right now? Ha! That's one of several moments throughout the 103 minute runtime that were so cringe-worthy I almost had to stop the film to compose myself. (There's a casual Harvey Weinstein-esque producer in this too, of course.) This film rears its ugly overt sexism quite a bit, which is a damn shame because when it's not it's really enjoyable. Because outside of a frustrating MacGuffin that leads to a messy epilogue, the execution here is flawless. Shane Black bursts out in a big way here, even if it fails the Bechdel Test in rather spectacular fashion.
The Critique: Shane Black's directorial debut wreaks of sexism, but still manages to be somewhat enjoyable thanks to its unique storytelling style and fun lead duo.
The Recommendation: I mean, it's worth a watch, just.....brace yourself for dat sexism dough.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 6/10 Above Average.
Happy holidays everyone!! Drink some more eggnog for me!
Raunchy, unapologetic, and batshit crazy
The Favourite (2018): In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
If you're looking for an insane time at the movies right now, look no further. The latest (and greatest) work from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dogtooth) completes an oddball trilogy of films that investigate the human condition via dystopian, supernatural, and now existential views. I believe Lanthimos has been honing his style on his previous two films, crafting works that were memorable but also somewhat flawed in their execution. However, those flaws are nowhere to be found here, and we are gleefully treated to a raunchy, intoxicating period drama on steroids with an out-of-this world story, executed flawlessly, while containing one of the most unique and identifiable footprints in Hollywood today. Safe to say I have a new favorite movie of 2018 so far.
Let's start with the three core characters. Queen Anne, (Olivia Colman) Lady Sarah, (Rachel Weisz) and the newcommer Abigail (Emma Stone) are thrust together almost immediately, and from the opening moments the tone of each character is set. Abigail and her cunning ambition, Lady Sarah's chilling no-holds-barred demeanor, and Queen Anne's relative obliviousness to the events unfolding around her. Yet the one who steals the show (in my opinion, at least) is Queen Anne herself. Despite her obliviousness, her presence is felt in nearly every sequence of the film, regardless of whether she's on screen or not. As her character develops, to say she takes over is something of an understatement. All of this is propped up by Olivia Colman, who's performance as the Queen is one of the best I've seen all year. It is innocent yet chaotic while painting a picture of an incredibly emotional and unstable Queen. The performance even has some "quantifiable" acting by film's end. And, let me tell you.....the ending is a show stopping moment courtesy of Colman. Abigail's casting was initially a head-scratcher, but it didn't take long for Emma Stone to win me over. Her mannerisms are dialed down a bit here, but are more than welcome when they do show up. But, of the three leads, Abigail also has the benefit of the strongest bit of writing courtesy of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. More on that later. Stone's accent isn't the greatest, but coming off of Jamie Foxx's joke of an accent in Robin Hood...... I'll be happy with just about anything. Finally, there's Rachel freaking Weisz. While Colman has the show-stopping scene at the end, and the Queen's presence is felt throughout the film, Lady Sarah has a multitude of show-stopping moments in the first and second act of this film, and Rachel Weisz makes these scenes look easy. She is quick-witted, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. There seriously needs to be a villain role in Weisz's immediate future.
While Abigail has the best writing overall of the leads, all three benefit from a terrific script from Davis / McNamara. Undoubtedly the best script of the year so far, the dialogue is sharp, witty, and unapolagetically raunchy, all while still containing that trademarked Yorgos Lanthimos mystique. After all, where else are you gonna get a movie with an 18th-century dance-off? Or razer-sharp tension around shooting pigeons? I really think this film does a good job of keeping things weird while not making them distractedly weird. It's a long cry from Colin Farrell's unsettling deadpan character in The Lobster.
Another part of the masterful execution here lies in the cinematography and editing department. The cinematography is a massive departure from Yorgos Lanthimos's previous works, so it's not too surprising that he collaborated with a new camera man, Robbie Ryan. I'm glad he did because I freaking love the unorthodox angles and brisk tracking shots. And there are multiple lens changes that make the film look like you're literally watching a peephole into these character's lives. All held together by brisk and fluent editing courtesy of Yorgos Mavropsaridis. Oh, and the score selections are amazing too. This film utilizes an entirely curated score, a rare thing in Hollywood nowadays, and it is breathtaking. Honestly, the sound design in general is amazing. The score is dialed up to eleven at some points, but Lanthimos also isn't afraid to cut to silence when he needs to.
Yes, every aspect of this film is absolutely stunning, and it's a triumphant climax for a director that has made his mark on the business the last four years. This film is very polarizing - a sign of a truly great work of art - but for me it's a masterpiece on every level. In terms of the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, it is likely his most accessible to date, but it is still not for the feint of heart. There is a lot of raunchiness here, and that will likely discourage some viewers. But for those that are willing to step outside their comfort zone and try something new, to say The Favourite is for you is something of an understatement.
The Critique: The best film of 2018 so far, The Favourite is a raunchy, unapologetic, and tense drama featuring masterful performances from its entire ensemble.
The Recommendation: If you're ok with weird and risqué, then this is absolutely for you. If not.....your loss.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect.
Quick Reviews, Winter 2018 Part 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Creed II, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Boy Erased, Robin HoodRead Now
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A total disaster
Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018): The second installment of the "Fantastic Beasts" series set in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World featuring the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander.
I was actually pretty excited to see this new entry into the Fantastic Beasts series. I was a shockingly huge fan of the original installment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in part due to the magical performances of Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, and especially Katherine Waterston. The dynamics between Newt, (Redmayne) Tina, (Waterston) Quennie, (Alison Sudol) and "muggle" Jacob (Dan Fogler) were compelling to me, and were reminiscent of the wonderful relationship of Harry, Hermione, and Ron which grounded the original Harry Potter series. However, writer J.K. Rowling, (who was given full autonomy over this film's script and the direction of this series, for that matter) and director David Yates clearly did not see the groundwork of this series the same way I did. Instead, they chose to focus the second installment of this franchise on the weak and uninteresting villain, Grindelwald, so they could hand over the face of this franchise to.......Johnny Depp? Seriously? (Oscar! Is that really Johnny Depp helming a major movie franchise in 2018? ARE YOU SURE?) I mean, I know there are like five more of these things, but why go all-in on freaking Johnny Depp? No wonder J.K. Rowling went out of her way to defend Johnny Depp after he found himself on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. Most of the decisions made in this film make no sense, and it's all covered by this weird level of "prestige." As if J.K. Rowling fully believes this franchise will be every bit as culturally impactful as the original Harry Potter franchise. All of this combines for an installment that is so bad it honestly makes me want to revisit the original Fantastic Beasts and figure out why I liked that one so much. I am questioning my very sanity, right now. It's not good.
So, uhhhhhhh, good things. Ezra Miller is good! I mean I think Ezra Miller should be in everything ever so of course I would enjoy Credence. Honestly, Credence is basically the only saving grace of this film. His arc is far more interesting than what I remember in the first one: he's more of a flawed character struggling to find his purpose versus a sort of comic book villain that everyone is seeking for some reason. While it will be largely overshadowed by how much of a comic book villain Grindelwald is, J.K. Rowling is doing a pretty good job with Credence thus far. Minus the completely RIDICULOUS "twist" at the end of this film. Also, Dumbledore is cool. Jude Law is essentially playing himself, but I'm ok with that. Also, the "fantastic beasts" are still cool! They look good, as they should in a big budget film in 2018, but it's still worth mentioning when you're struggling to find anything decent to mention in this dumpster fire.
And that's because everything else is awful. Let's start with the core characters: Newt, Tina, Quennie, and Jacob. Their dynamics are not built upon in any way, (it also doesn't help when Tina is only actually in the film for like 30 minutes, but that's neither here nor there) as instead J.K. Rowling chooses to create division between Quennie and the rest of the group that isn't earned in any way and totally contradictory to her character in the first film. I mean, imagine if in The Chamber of Secrets Hermione had decided after reading a few books written by Tom Riddle, "Ya, actually all of these wizards being turned to stone deserve it because y'all have been mean to me, so I'm joining the Death Eaters now." Sure, it would've delivered the shock value in the moment, but it absolutely would've sacrificed the arc of her character in the long run. That's exactly what happens to Quennie here. Her character does a complete 180 for the sole purpose of delivering shock value in this installment. SPEAKING OF SHOCK VALUE. The twist at the end is hilariously awful. Like, I almost laughed out loud at the screen. It doesn't fit into the world at all and does nothing except tell us that J.K. Rowling is all out of original ideas. Finally, gotta take a second and talk about the uninteresting Grindelwald. Why did J.K. Rowling go all-in on this character? He's not interesting or unique and is nothing more than a comic book villain. He's decided that wizards are better than humans, but for some reason isn't immediately rising up against them because........reasons? In the climax of this film it takes like 30 wizards to stop him from destroying all of London, why doesn't Grindelwald just jump into the muggle world and announce he's a wizard and going to take over the planet? Like, even the Transformers franchise figured out that there was no way these giant robots were going to be able to "sneak" around the earth two films in. It doesn't help that Grindelwald is portrayed by Johnny Depp, a dude who has had one single decent film (Black Mass) since he debuted his character in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, Johnny Depp showed us he was the symbol of white male entitlement even before he weathered the #MeToo movement. Now, his overbearing presence dates the film while you're watching it, and the incomprehensible decision by Warner Brothers, J.K. Rowling, David Yates to double-down on the decision to stick with Depp may even spell doom for this franchise.
In case that wasn't enough, this movie isn't even all that good from a technical perspective. Sure, the effects are decent, but the lighting, production design, and cinematography are all..... bad. There are a TON of corners cut in these departments by David Yates, with the highlight being one of the worst chase sequences I've ever seen to literally open the film. This opening scene is shot at night, in the rain, and is so muddy, dark, and incoherent it would make The Lone Ranger proud. Speaking of incoherent, why is this film so dark? From start to finish, so much of this film is shot in dark corridors and on dark sets. Not only does the lighting crew fail to show up at points, but the production designers failed to put any vivid colors on set. Everything is brown, grey, or black. That's something of a trivial complaint, but if you're going to give us a convoluted story and force us to watch Johnny Depp for two hours, at least give us some pretty colors to look at!
In conclusion, in case you haven't figured it out yet, Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindelwald...... it's not good. It's not even worth watching once it hits streaming services. I'll give this franchise one more go because I am somewhat interested in what they do with Credence, (stupid plot twist aside) I am exactly the demographic that grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and hopefully they'll realize we need more of Newt, Tina, Quennie, and Jacob, but I won't lie: we're on thin ice now. I can hardly recall a time a franchise has crashed and burned so spectacularly. (Sure, The Hunger Games comes to mind, but we all knew that Mockingjay was going to be a crapshoot. That makes it somewhat easier to bear.) What a shame this franchise has fallen so hard. Hopefully now it can pick itself back up.
The Critique: A disastrous sequel, Fantastic Beasts 2 loses all the charm of its predecessor, in part, because of ignoring its core characters and instead focusing on its unimaginative and dull villain.
The Recommendation: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE.
The Verdict: 2/10 Garbage.
Quick Reviews, Fall 2018, Part 1: BlacKkKlansman, Life Itself, Bad Times at the El Royale, Mid90s, Beautiful BoyRead Now
Bad Times at the El Royale
Light on substance, heavy on flair
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018): A chronicle of the years leading up to Queen's legendary appearance at the Live Aid (1985) concert.
*Cue the music* I like Queen. I've enjoyed them ever since I could remember. I have many a fond memory of singing my guts out to classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “We Are the Champions.” But I've never considered myself a super fan who knows every bit of Queen trivia, inside and out. I think of myself more as a casual fan of the band. So you can understand my frustration when I sit through a 2+ hour movie about Queen and don't really learn anything new about the band. While that's not entirely true, it is an accurate representation of this film. There is NOTHING here resembling substance. Instead, director Bryan Singer and co. spend (and at moments waste) their time showcasing the flamboyancy of Queen and its iconic front man, Freddie Mercury. Spoiler, right? Bet you didn't know Freddie Mercury was a flamboyant fella!
Ok, ok, ok. Let's not get too depressing off the bat. The best thing about this film is the band. There are two great performances here. The one everyone's talking about is Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He is terrific and is effectively absorbed into the iconic persona. He captures all of Mercury's outlandish personality and witticisms. But the one I really love is Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May. Granted he had the added benefit of having the Queen guitarist on set (May receives an executive producer credit for his work on the film) but…you wanna talk about being absorbed into a role, look no further than this incredible performance. Only time will tell if Bohemian Rhapsody has the staying power to net either Malek or Lee an Oscar nomination for their work. I'm honestly not sure it does, because there are a lot of problems with this film.
Oh ya. I should also mention the live performances are fun. They're certainly enjoyable, but this is where the problems start for Bryan Singer and co. Actually, back up. The problems start with the fact that Bryan Singer's name is on this at all. The troubled director showed a significant flair for the dramatic throughout the production cycle, and clashed at many points with the lead of the film. Singer is nothing more than a powerfuf white man who has power simply because he's a white man, and his POV of Freddie Mercury and Queen is reflected as such. (Also, there's an impending Esquire article that exposes some of Singer's more disgusting habbits, so there's that.) This is very much the PG-13 interpretation of Mercury and his life, as we zip through anything that might be construed as controversial in order to have another live performance or another shot of Mercury's cats. It's ok for a film this grandiose to bite off more than it can chew. The problems arise when it feels like Bryan Singer and writers Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan are merely checking off boxes in Freddie Mercury's life. Show a scene of the band fighting then merely refer to it the rest of the time? Check. Show Freddie Mercury struggling to find acceptance with his family and his father, then randomly tie up this plot line up with no context or background? Check. Do literally nothing but fly over Mercury struggling with his sexuality, short of one good scene between him and his then-wife? (Played by Lucy Boynton) Check. (That one scene is the best scene in the movie, by the way.) But hey, gotta be sure to make time for the LIVE AID performance! Because we really need to see 10+ minutes of this performance and get a legit 3+ song set in a biopic about Queen. Ugh! While these lengthy performances are enjoyable, and Rami Malek / Gwilym Lee are exceptional, Bohemian Rhapsody fails to teach its viewers anything about Queen that they didn't already know, which turns it into a fairly run-of-the-mill rock biopic. And to say a band as rambunctious as Queen deserves better is something of an understatement.
The Critique: While an enjoyable concert, Bohemian Rhapsody fails to show any of the inner workings of Queen, despite its lead's terrific performance.
The Recommendation: …..eh? Easy answer is don't see it because Bryan Singer is a jerk, but if you do go see it, don't expect to do much more than dance along to the Queen songs you grew up with.
The Verdict: 4/10 Below Average
A suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse
Halloween (2018): Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.
Jason Blum can do no wrong. The CEO of Blumhouse Productions, executive producer of 2018’s Halloween, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood you've probably never heard of, Blum and his team at Blumhouse have been behind some of the most successful horror films of the last decade+, for better or worse. Paranormal Activity. Inisidous. Sinister. Split. The Purge. Happy Death Day. And, of course, Get Out. Now, the famous executive and his studio is back for the unimaginitevely titled Halloween, a direct sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 classic by the same name. (Seriously, though, this movie’s good and all, but could we have at least seen a different title? There have 5 films in this franchise called either Halloween or Halloween II....) And, like much of Blumhouse Productions catalog, it's a shockingly well executed film that hits all the right notes at all the right times. So let's dive in, shall we?
I'll cut right to the heart of this film: (don't worry, I'll be here all night) the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Michael Myers is one of the more interesting dynamics I've seen in a modern horror film. Director/writer David Gordon Green spends less time going for the cheap jump scares and more time developing the characters of Strode and Myers, which makes the climactic third act as tense and effective as it is. And tenseness is something of an understatement for the third act, as the cat-and-mouse game between the two leads comes to a head and the scares that are usually cheap become freakishly effective. The decision to have Jamie Lee Curtis double as a producer for the film pays dividends: Curtis had an undeniably major role in painting the picture of her character. Laurie Strode is a traumatized mom and grandmother, struggling to maintain her relationship with her family, while dealing with her own PTSD. And she plays off the classic villain incredibly well.
However, the supporting cast is one of the weakest parts of this film. Strode’s daughter, played by Judy Greer, has a rather shallow and undeveloped arc with a laughable conclusion, while Strode's granddaughter, played by newcomer Andi Matichack, does a good job with the material she's given…..if only that material was actually worthwhile. And don't get me started on Dr. Sartain. (Haluk Bilginer) Yes, it's a horror movie, but compared to some other previous Blumhouse Productions installments, like Get Out, most of the supporting cast is nothing more than meager plot devices with a good moment here and there. Also, I do have to commend the fact that this film features three heroines more than capable of handling themselves, and the film never even makes a thing about it which is even better. Absolutely love.
But, at the end of the day, this is great horror film. It has some good scares, and compared to a lot of modern horror films, has some great character development and suspense between its two leads. For me, it doesn't land quite as well as 2017’s It did, in part because a voiceless, faceless villain is in itself limiting, but it still gets the job done. Ultimately, isn't that all you want out of a horror film?
The Critique: featuring a suspenseful dynamic between its heroine and villain, Halloween features effective suspense and good scares, despite a weak supporting cast
The Recommendation: if you're a horror fan, or a fan of the original film, it's well worth a watch. Even the casual horror fan may find something to like here. However, if you're looking for a gateway into the genre….. this ain't it. (Try Get Out instead)
Rewatchability: Moderately High
The Verdict: 7/10 Good.
First Man (2018): A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Damien Chazelle is BACK. After setting Hollywood ablaze with the 1-2 punch of triumphs Whiplash and La La Land, (in my opinion two of the best films I've reviewed on this blog) the studio executives at Universal decided to give the director a chance to put himself squarely in the realm of “blank check” directors. (To join the upper A-list of names like Spielberg, Nolan, and Fincher, to name a few.) And that, in short, sums up what First Man is: an audition. So does Chazelle pass the bar? ……..yes and no. (Oscar, can I set myself up for a question that I don't answer? No? Well, I'm gonna do it anyway….)
So here's the long-form answer to that question, because it's my job to over explain things. This is an ambitious film. As do most biopics that cover huge ground, the film bites off way more than it can chew, but it manages to show its intimacy in the individual scenes. For example, Claire Foy plays Armstrong's wife, Janet Shearon, and isn't given nearly enough to do. (As would be expected in a film about her husband.) She's basically “the wife,” which shouldn't come as much surprise. But in her criminally limited on-screen time, Claire Foy delivers one of the best “the wife” roles I've ever seen. Shearon’s dominating presence is felt all throughout the film that she's not featured nearly enough in. Makes sense, right? At the center of it all, though, is Gosling's reserved performance of Neil Armstrong. It doesn't bring a prestigious “Oscar-worthy” title with it, but it effectively paints the picture of a quiet and almost socially awkward figure who is probably just as surprised he's a titanic hero of recent American history as we, the viewer, are to discover he was not oozing with charm and charisma. While at many points this is the film's hidden strength, it also serves to be its greatest weakness, as moments that should be intimate and emotionally devastating become as awkwardly uncomfortable as Armstrong, the man, was. If anything, it goes to showcase why this iconic moment in history has been largely avoided by Hollywood cinema over the years.
One thing that has no doubt in its magnificence, though, is the technical side of First Man. This film is a visual marvel, and if you are going to see it try and see it on the biggest screen that you can find. The film features multiple thrilling setpieces, and while it does cheat at points in said setpieces with close-ups of Armstrong throughout the take offs and landings, and unnecessary shaky cam, it does not skimp on all of them. (The take off of Apollo 11 in particular is spectacular.) Additionally, the film's sound design and editing is incredible, to the point that its beauty is downright distracting at times. But expect Oscar nominations for the sound department this Oscar season. Finally, Justin Hurwitz, Damien Chazelle’s personal composer, continues to showcase why he REALLY needs to branch out to every movie ever, because once again his music is spectacular. It's subtle while still memorable, subdued while still dominating. Hurwitz walks all the tightropes. Please, dude. Put yourself in more films ASAP. (Sits by the door and waits for my First Man soundtrack to arrive.)
So one would think after reading all of that, the answer to the question of “Did Damien Chazelle pass his audition to join the upper echolon of Hollywood directors?” with First Man would be a resounding, "Yes." And yet….I'm not so sure because of one real reason, and it's kind of an important one: box office results. See, I have the luxury of being able to jump on a soapbox here because it's Wednesday and the film has been out almost a full week (time-stamping when I wrote this review!) and that's long enough to see the film is performing well under expectations. And I'm worried that Chazelle is going to front the blame for this, and it makes me sad. Because it's not his fault at all. Take a second, step back, and ask yourself: who is this movie for? Who is the target audience? This is where the problems lie, because it's not going for elitist intellectual types. It's going for the American Sniper crowd. A crowd that has effectively turned its back on liberal Hollywood unless the 'Murica themes are over-the-top obvious. (And not showing Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag in the moon does not bode well to showcase those overtly patriotic themes. Honestly, while it's not a necessary inclusion, I'm not really sure why they didn't include it, either. There's my #HotTake, Oscar.) But I'm worried that the studio execs will look at this performance, flip out, and look for someone to blame. And that someone will likely be Chazelle, which is a real shame. However, I sincerely hope Chazelle is given a blank check for his next film because, for picking something that he wasn't even passionate about a few years ago, (he knew almost nothing about the moon landing, and had no interest in it, but reading the book from James R. Hansen changed his mind) I think he did a pretty good job. And while the finished product falls just short of greatness (which is, admittedly, a let down from his previous works) Damien Chazelle further showcases with First Man that he should be a household name among the very top directors in the business. Whether that actually happens, however, is yet to be seen.
My Number: 7.5/10
And the Oscar Goes to.....
A Star Is Born (2018): A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.
Wow. Talk about coming into your own. A classic story re-imagined for the 21st century featuring the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and the silver screen debut of Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born is a truly incredible and remarkable film. Cooper's directorial debut reaches for the stars and succeeds on nearly every level. It was an ambitious undertaking for the prolific actor turned rookie director, to say the least: reinterpret one of the most reprised stories in Hollywood for a modern era, (this is its 4th iteration, and each time the starpower has been there, with actors like James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand playing the lead roles) and as if that isn't enough, might as well put an established pop star with virtually no previous dramatic acting experience in the lead role because....why not? But every facet of the movie works with flying colors, making A Star Is Born one of the best films of the year and an early heavyweight contender for this year's Oscar season. It's well worth the watch!
There's not much this film does wrong, so I'll intersperse it throughout my glowing sentiments about this uplifting film. The heart and soul of this is, of course, Lady Gaga. Almost certainly the favorite for Best Actress this year, Gaga makes the accomplished cast of this film look like amateurs with her iconic performance as Ally. Bradley Cooper wasn't kidding when he said that he fell in love with Lady Gaga's eyes when he decided to cast her, and I can see why: her incredible performance starts with the amount of emotion she can convey with nothing but her eyes. I haven't seen that much emotion one's eyes since Nicole Kidman in 2016's Lion, which is still one of my favorite performances of recent memory.. And that's just one of many things that contribute to her enduring performance. She also has an incredible amount of control over her voice. I know, she's a pop star so this shouldn't be too surprising, but Gaga shows a meticulous level of attention to detail with her voice to convey the emotions she needs to in any given scene. Seriously: Lady Gaga's performance is the best I've seen this year, (sorry, Toni Collette, but I'm still rooting for you to at least be nominated!) and it's worth the cost of admission by itself. And I haven't even mentioned Bradley Cooper or the songs yet!
Which are amazing, obviously. The lead single of this film, "Shallow," is all but assured the Oscar for Best Original Song. Even 2016's La La Land wishes it had music as good as this. Because the crazy thing about this film's music is how diverse it is. It's not like every song in here is a country song. No, no. There's some rock, some pop, some country, there's something here for everyone. And all of it is executed flawlessly. I'm already playing the music on repeat on Spotify, and I suspect this will only increase as time goes on. Oh! And, ya! Bradley Cooper is really, really good! His portrayal of the troubled music star, Jack, struggling with alcoholism is fantastic. He plays off Ally exceptionally well while letting her be the star of the show.
And that, my friends, is the strongest part of this interpretation of A Star Is Born. The 1976 version is really good, don't get me wrong, but there is a frustrating amount of time spent focusing on John Howard (Kris Kristofferson) when the film should be spending 80%+ of its time focusing on Esther Hoffman. (Barba Streisand) Fortunately, the same mistake is not made here. This is Ally's show, from start to (almost) the end. Speaking of, the ending has been updated, but it's still a little messy and the weakest part of the film as it does become a little too much about Jack, despite giving Ally the best solo number of the film to wrap it all up. Either way, it is a HUGE improvement over its 1976 counterpart, so I'll take it. Hopefully the next version will finally be able to smooth this out. In conclusion, though, this movie is fantastic and a great pick-me-up for what's happening in the world right now. It is well worth your time and money at the theater right now.
The Critique: Featuring phenomenal original music and a great supporting cast, A Star Is Born effectively showcases the diverse talents of its lead actress while all but ensuring her (at least) an Oscar nomination.
The Recommendation: You could probably guess this one, but seriously: it's an absolute must-see for everyone!
The Verdict: 9/10 Awesome.
Oscar Talk: Haven't done this in a while! Ya, I keep saying it, and I'll say it again: I will fall to the floor in utter disbelief if Lady Gaga doesn't receive nominations for both Best Actress and Best Original Song. The Best Actor field is shaping up to be a bit more competitive this year, so I'm not sure if Bradley Cooper will join her. If anything, I'd say it would be more likely to see him receive a Best Director nomination. Also, expect a Best Original Score nomination as well, assuming it's eligible for the category. (There are some weird rules with Best Original Score that I don't entirely understand.) Oh, and it's almost a given, but expect a Best Picture nomination as well!
Nowhere near enough Venom
Venom (2018): When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego "Venom" to save his life.
Ok, seriously: what was that? Because I have no idea. I'm sitting here in Darkness Brewing. There's a heavy metal cover of Maroon 5’s “Misery” playing as I type this, and it's not the weirdest thing to happen in my life this evening. It's been a solid 30 minutes since the movie ended, and I still haven't the faintest idea what I just saw. What WAS that? Was it a comedy? A romance? An action flick? I don't know, and I'm pretty sure the movie doesn't know either. To say Venom is a mess is something of an understatement, and there's no doubt that your mileage will vary tremendously with this abomination. That said…..did I have fun? …...kind of? I think I was having fun at the movie’s expense, but fun is fun is fun is fun. Right?
Let me first say that before you completely dismiss my opinion because of my (self-admitted) preconceived biases against the avalanche of comic book films we've seen in recent years…..Venom has always been my favorite supervillain. And I actually quite enjoyed Tom Hardy's erratic and unpredictable interpretation of the antihero Eddie Brock. He is undoubtedly the best thing about this very raw and messy film, as director Ruben Fleischer clearly gave Hardy total creative freedom in portraying the character. Your mileage will vary with this polarizing performance, and, fair warning: if you're not a fan of it, there really isn't anything else here to enjoy, because the rest of this movie suuuuuuuuucks. We'll get to that. But first, I have to send some shoutouts: to Riz Ahmed, who portrays a rather entertaining villain Carlton Drake, as well as the great Michelle Williams as Anne. Anne is not given the screen time she deserves, however I mention her because she's played by Michelle Williams, and I love her and she needs to be in literally everything. Carry on.
You know what is bad, though? Every second of this movie where Eddie Brock/Venom aren't together. Which is…… a lot. Specifically, for the first 45 minutes of this thing Fleischer and co. RUSH through a meaningless backstory for Eddie Brock that features some hilariously bad montage sequences, dialogue, and plot points. Honestly, this would've been a better film had we simply started with Eddie/Venom merging together, because after the first 45 minutes trying to be a cheesy soapbox romantic drama, the film veers HARD right into a shockingly entertaining comedy. I was never really sure if I was laughing with the film or at the film, but I knew I was laughing throughout the second act. That's really all that matters, right Oscar? Doesn't matter how you have fun just as long as you have fun? Well, this fun quickly dissipates in the final act as Venom falls victim to some horrific CGI sequences that even give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a run for its money. Which makes even less sense than it does already because the second act had a fairly enjoyable action sequence in it as Eddie learned what Venom could do on the fly while he mowed down baddies in true PG-13 fashion.
Which brings me to my original point: what is this film trying to be? As it incomprehensibly moves from act to act, from sequence to sequence, the only thing that is certain is that your guess is as good as mine. And that Tom Hardy is nuts when he wants to be. OH. Oscar! Can I talk about the post-credit scenes? Because I want to talk about the post-credit scenes. Because oh my GOD they are TERRIBLE. The first introduces Woody Harrelson and a HORRIFIC wig in a shameless attempt at sequel-baiting that does anything but get me excited for Venom 2, and the second is a tease for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. So literally nothing but long teasers for upcoming Sony/Marvel films. Seriously?????? That's what these obligatory post-credit scenes have become? Teasers for upcoming films? Siiiiiiiigh. Anyway, where was I, Oscar? Right. This movie is unashamedly outlandish and it all hinges on Hardy's polarizing performance. If you're into it, there's enough here to like in between the useless opening act and CGI-thon of the final act, but if not? Stay VERY far away
The Critique: pinning its hopes on a uniquely bizarre performance from Tom Hardy, Venom is an incomprehensible mess of a film that still manages to be somewhat fun, even if you are having said fun at the movie’s expense.
The Recommendation: Seriously. Wait until this thing hits streaming services so you can skip through the first 45 minutes and the ridiculous CGI onslaught at the end.
Rewatchability: Moderately Low
The Verdict: 4/10 Below Average.
A Disaster on Every Level
The Predator (2018): When a young boy accidentally triggers the universe's most lethal hunters' return to Earth, only a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and a disgruntled science teacher can prevent the end of the human race.
I'm not gonna sugar-coat it: this movie sucks. It's filled with unlikeable characters, bad (and at times downright embarrassing for 2018) special effects, and an incoherent plot. Combine that with the…. Uncomfortable real-life storyline surrounding director Shane Black hiring a sexual predator to be in this film, and you have a mess of a film that never stood a chance.
There's not a lot of good to talk about here, but the highlight is certainly the character Nebraska Williams, played by Trevante Rhodes. The actor follows up his career breaking performance of Black in 2016’s Moonlight with the most gripping,charismatic, and memorable character in this dumpster fire. He's the only one with any semblance of a character arc, and the only one I felt any resemblance of a connection to. Literally everyone else here is either despicable or feels like a robot. (cough cough how is Boyd Holbrook a thing cough cough) I think director/writer Shane Black realized this as the shooting went on, because Nebraska’s presence significantly increased as the film went on, and his finale was easily the best of any of the supporting cast. Oh! Oh! Jacob Tremblay is in this as Rory! I love him and he needs to be in everything!
Unfortunately, he's given absolutely nothing to do! As is Dr. Bracket, (played by Olivia Munn, though we do just have to get TWO different scenes where she's naked…. When are we gonna be done with blatantly objectifying women in film for no reason? Siiiigh.) Emily, (Yvonne Strahovski) Coyle, (Keegan Michael-Key) and everyone else in this travesty. They're either forgettable or unlikeable. Let's take a minute and talk about Baxley. (Thomas Jane) There is a “joke” in this film with his character where he talks about a certain part of Dr. Bracket’s body that shouldn't be reiterated here because this is a family review, but it was disgusting, and the people in this scene (besides Dr. Bracket, of course) laugh it off and quickly move on like it was nothing. Combine this with the fact that director/writer Shane Black was totally ok with having a sexual predator in his film until someone noticed, and how the cast has treated Olivia Munn after she spoke up about it and it highlights the glaring and disgusting misogyny of this film.
But hey, at least the cast is kind of diverse, right? Even if the “villain” of the film, Traeger, (played by the great Sterling K. Brown) has literally ZERO reason for being a villain. Shane Black doesn't even bother to give Traeger a single line about why he's acting like a jerk to everyone, and what happens to him involved some hilariously shoddy editing and visual effects. That's right, folks. If you've been sitting here thinking, “Joe, it's a mindless popcorn flick! Treat it as such!” Well, how can I do that when even the visuals are terrible! There are some sequences here, particularly in the third act, that would've looked bad in 2008, let alone 2018. And the film takes itself WAY too seriously to be enjoyable even from a mindless perspective.
That's it. I'm done thinking about this movie. Not even Trevante Rhodes (get this man some work, please!) can save this thing. The Predator franchise has been in a rut (arguably) since its campy 1987 debut with Arnold Schwarzenegger and it's not being saved by Shane Black's iteration. Combine the bad effects, muddy story, and its terrible treatment (both on screen and in real life) of the only woman in the supporting cast, and it leads to a terrible film. Avoid it like the plague!
The Critique: Another horrific installment to this franchise, Shane Black's The Predator is flawed from the ground up, from the robotic and unlikeable cast to the hilariously incompetent visual effects.
The Recommendation: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE
The Verdict: 2/10 Garbage.
Bo Burnham's Debut Shines On Every Level
Eighth Grade (2018): An introverted teenage girl tries to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth grade year before leaving to start high school
Every so often, a movie comes along that blows me away on every level. Films that come to mind include Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, Moonlight, La La Land, and Phantom Thread. Now you can add Eighth Grade to the list. The stunning debut from Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade takes you on an emotional rollercoaster as you follow the very relatable life of introverted eighth grader Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher. The film flawlessly executes every level of filmmaking, and I found myself hanging on every word and every scene. I instantly connected with the kind but shy Kayla, and I think many of us unpopular kids will see a lot of our daily struggles play out in her life, with a modern twist to top it off. (You had Snapchat in 5th grade???) Undoubtedly the best film of the year so far, Bo Burnham instantly cements himself as one of the best in the business with the very definition of a perfect film.
Since I have absolutely zero complaints to speak of, let's gush about all the things Eighth Grade does right. At the center of this film is an incredibly grounded and intimate performance from its lead, Elsie Fisher. Her performance was reminiscent of Sasha Lane in American Honey, or Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Honestly, this entire film feels directly inspired by Sean Baker. Most filmmakers can only dream about making their characters feel as human as the characters of something like Tangerine or The Florida Project. But that's exactly what Kayla feels like. She is subdued and emotional while being awkward and fun. And COOL. She's written brilliantly by Burnham, and feels very human from start to finish. Fisher's performance is right there with Toni Collette’s terrifying portrayal of Annie Graham in another A24 film, Hereditary, for best performance of 2018 so far. However Fisher's performance comes with added bonus of being a debut lead role for the talented young actress, which to me is all the rationale I need to call it the best performance of the year. Kayla is accompanied by character actor Josh Hamilton, who portrays Kayla's father Mark. Their chemistry is wonderful. I feel like it would be hard to sell the awkward father/daughter relationship, but these two pull it off with ease. Additionally, Hamilton has the most emotionally impactful moment of the film in the form of a monologue reminiscent of Michael Stuhlbarg's devasting monologue in Call Me By Your Name that basically comes out of NOWHERE. Even though you're laughing for most of this film, be prepared to rock the ugly cry before it ends. Just warning you now.
This speech is shot flawlessly through the film's incredible cinematography. Most of this film is shot through Kayla's perspective, (which makes Elsie Fisher's performance that much more demanding) which leads to some very claustrophobic and chaotic shots. There's one shot in particular where Kayla is talking to someone and is pacing back and forth, and the shot feels so dynamic thanks to a colorful background and (I think) a telephoto lens. It flawlessly relates the disorienting feeling Kayla is experiencing in this deliriously joyous scene, and it's one of many sequences that convey the feelings of Kayla in any given moment. Mad kudos to cinematographer Andrew Wehde for the flawless execution here. Speaking of newcomers, we have to talk about the experimental score from Anna Meredith. This score is easily the best score of the 2018, and right there with some of my favorites of all time. Honestly I haven't found a score this groundbreaking since Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s score to 2010’s The Social Network, widely considered the most influential score of this decade. Meredith’s wonderful use of synthesizers creates a very modern score, and they layer on top of each other brilliantly. The sound design also hammers the amazing score home. The editing is executed perfectly as well, as the film utilizes YouTube videos from Kayla as voiceovers to create something of a modern montage sequence at various moments. Honestly, for a film that utilizes social media as much as this, I was shocked at how fluid the pacing was in the sequences where Kayla is basically looking at her phone. Sequences that so many other films get wrong, but here Burnham handles them with grace and fluidity.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I love every aspect of this movie, and have every intention of watching it again and again. We've been extremely fortunate these past two weeks at the cinemas between the best summer blockbuster of the year, Mission: Impossible - Fallout and now Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, so do make sure you check out at least one of them. This film is so good. I haven't even talked about the story to this point, but it too blew me away. The film starts out as a comedy but around halfway through the second act Burnham veers the story hard to the right and turns it into a tearful drama with some gripping scenes. This 90 degree right turn comes out of nowhere, but it works! It works so well. Seriously, for a debut feature film Bo Burnham brings the poise of not just a seasoned vet, but a AAA level vet, akin to a Paul Thomas Anderson or Damien Chazelle, and delivers the very best film of 2018 so far and my first perfect 10 of the year. You want a good night at the cinemas? Try a double feature of Mission: Impossible - Fallout and Eighth Grade. Have kids? Just watch Eighth Grade. Its brisk 95 minute runtime will ensure you don't have to keep the babysitter for very long, and Burnham's flawlessly executed piece of cinema will certainly prepare you for what's to come in their lives. Heck, take them with you! Just as long as you go see it. It's worth every penny. Gucci!
The Critique: Featuring a breakout performance from Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade puts debut filmmaker Bo Burnham on the map with an intimate, relatable, and emotional take on the traditional coming-of-age drama.
The Recommendation: I think you could guess this one….it's an absolute must-see for all. And take your kids too! This is about as light an R rating that you'll ever see. The MPAA really needs to revamp their ratings system when something like this is rated R while something like World War Z gets a PG-13 rating. Seriously.
The Verdict: 10/10 Perfect
One of the best action movies ever
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018): Ethan Hunt and his IMF team, along with some familiar allies, race against time after a mission gone wrong.
YES. After months of anticipation, the latest installment in arguably the best franchise in Hollywood right now is finally here. Mission: Impossible - Fallout further cements this unlikely franchise at the top of the over-saturated mountain of existing Hollywood IP, and further cements the franchise's place as the undisputed king of the action genre. (Check out my series review here. I am, after all, a company man. Isn't that right Oscar? No, we'll worry about your healthcare later!) Seriously, if you have even a passing interest action movies, put any predispositions you may have towards Tom Cruise the man or the thought that this is "yet another franchise" aside and see this movie. It truly is one of the best action movies ever made. I had unrealistically high expectations for this film, and Christopher McQuarrie, Tom Cruise, and the rest of the production crew for Fallout somehow met them.
I think it's worth starting with the faults here. The film's story is a little messy and hard-to-follow. Unlike previous installments, including Rogue Nation, this installment did take itself a tad too seriously for what a popcorn flick should be. That's not to say there isn't a significant amount of humor and lighthearted dialogue scattered throughout its lengthy 147 minute runtime, but the tone did seem to be a bit more serious than previous films in the franchise, particularly in the final act. That said, I actually found myself personally getting a little emotional in said final act, but I will readily admit I admire this franchise more than most, so in all likelihood most viewers will be bored during these touching moments. They really serve as nothing more than placeholder moments to let the audience take a breath in between the jaw-dropping setpieces, but they're still a thing and a rather weak thing at that. Honestly, I'm just trying to split hairs here so I'm not constantly gushing about this film. Because it is worth gushing over.
The action setpieces here are some of the greatest I have ever seen. Tom Cruise shows that he can still bring it at age 56 with ease, and watching him hang from the side of a helicopter or run through the rooftoops of London (open palm running and all) is still nothing short of exhilarating. See, Mission: Impossible's insistence on filming as many of the stunts with practical effects, combined with Tom Cruise actually doing most of the incredible stunts throughout are what make Fallout as good as it is. Cruise actually spent three months learning to fly a helicopter in the film's breathtaking conclusion, and the cinematography around this unbelievable setpiece really sells it home. This helicopter chase is one of the most incredible sequences I have ever seen, and while it is the end of a resounding crescendo from director Christopher McQuarrie, there are plenty of other setpieces to get your adrenaline pumping. Heck, one of the early sequences features a spectacular oner that includes a cameraman doing a HALO jump with Tom Cruise, (which I still can't believe they did) which will likely go down as one of my favorite movie moments of 2018. And that's basically the first setpiece of the film! Ya, it's that good.
On top of the incredible action sequences, the film has a marvelous cast that features a surprisingly diverse cast of core characters. It's taken 6 films, but this franchise finally has a strong group of supporting women, led by the return of Ilsa Faust. (the role that put Rebecca Ferguson on the map) We also get two great newcomers in White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and the stern, resolute, and cold-blooded Erica Sloan. (Angela Bassett) Also, August Walker (Henry Cavill) is pretty darn good alongside Ethan Hunt, (Tom Cruise) and he looks pretty sleek with his mustache too. Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) also returns as this film is something of a direct sequel to Rogue Nation, but Lane continues to dwarf the legendary performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman from Mission: Impossible 3. However, he is a formidable villain for Ethan Hunt. And that's who you come to see, right? Yes, once more Tom Cruise handles the mantle and does things that I could only dream of, and is worth the price of admission alone. (Yes, he's not asked to do much in terms of acting here, but he doesn't need to when he's riding through Paris on a motorcycle without a helmet, right?) Tom Cruise is the the centerpiece of this franchise, and his suave and grace during the chaotic setpieces are exactly why. I also have to mention the score. Compsed by Lorne Balfe, Fallout's score is easily the strongest of a franchise that includes scores composed by Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, and Danny Elfman. It's a wonderful breath of fresh air for what's usually a forgettable summer blockbuster score. Also, gotta give a shoutout to director Christopher McQuarrie. Since Fallout doesn't cheat any of its action sequences, every aspect of filmmaking shows up and sells these over-the-top action setpieces, and McQuarrie is a big reason for why it all comes together and continues to work flawlessly. It doesn't really matter that the story is over-serious and confusing at points. You're not looking for a meaningful story in a popcorn flick. You're looking for good ol' fashion fun, and there's plenty of it to be found in Fallout. One of the best films of the year so far, Fallout is a masterfully executed action film, and is exhibit A for why you go to the movies. Don't miss it!
The Critique: One of the best action movies ever, Mission: Impossible - Fallout soars from one exhilarating sequence to the next with flawless execution, with an ageless performance from Tom Cruise holding it all together.
The Recommendation: Yes, this is an absolute must-see for all.
Rewatchability: Very High
The Verdict: 9.5/10 Damn Near Perfect
Hey friends! With the impending release of the sixth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, I figured now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the previous five installments. Hopefully you'll see that while the franchise had some very humble beginnings (I'm still not sure how it continued on after the rather disastrous M: I-2) but hopefully I'll convince you that this franchise has propelled itself to the top of the proverbial action genre mountain with its recent installments. By the end of this you'll understand why Mission: Impossible - Fallout has been my most anticipated release of this summer's slate of blockbusters. So, let's get started!
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
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Why does this exist other than to make Marvel $$$?
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): As Scott Lang balances being both a Super Hero and a father, Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past.
Ahhhhhhhhhh yes. Another movie that could be summed up in two words: it's fine. But you don't come here for two word reviews, do you? So I will do my best to elaborate on this fine Ant-Man sequel. Ok so before you discount everything I'm going to say simply because I have superhero fatigue, (and I'll politely remind you about the fact that there are now 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 20!) keep in mind the fact that, after Thor: Ragnarok turned that franchise around, Ant-Man became the weakest superhero in Marvel's catalog. I think that's a pretty indisputable statement. And, unfortunately, Ant-Man and the Wasp is simply more of the same. If you liked the original, 2015’s Ant-Man, you'll like the sequel and have probably already tuned me out. And if you didn't care for it? Or found it ok, like I did? You'll find this one merely ok as well. However, combine this mediocrity with my cynical superhero fatigue, and you have one frustrated moviegoer.
So, let's start with the positives. Paul Rudd continues to be the best thing this franchise has to offer. His casual and light-hearted demeanor is perfect for a Marvel movie, and Paul Rudd delivers his humorous lines with the delivery you’ve come to expect from Paul Rudd. He made me laugh on several occasions, which is always nice. It's still very weird to see Michael Douglas in a superhero movie, but at the end of the day I’m still not complaining. And Michael Peña is still hilarious. How this dude is not a bonafide A-list star is beyond me. The film also features a decent villain, Ghost, and is portrayed exceptionally well by Hannah John-Kamen, but her motivations are rather shallow and pale in comparison to the previous three villains Marvel has put on screen. (Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War, Killmonger from Black Panther, and Hela from Thor: Ragnarok.) Honestly, Ghost falls into the “it's fine” category far as villains are concerned, but she is saved by Hannah John-Kamen’s performance, as well as some some good editing/CGI. Everyone else is…..fine, but there’s not much to speak of with them. (Including Evangeline Lilly….she’s fine but doesn’t stand out at all.) Outside of the performances….meh? The dialogue is pretty sharp, but I think that's benefited by the actors saying said dialogue. There's also some cool visuals littered throughout the movie. The film is a good showcase for what CGI can do in 2018, but it doesn't really push any boundaries, and the quantum realm it investigates still feels like it's “colorful simply for the sake of being colorful” so it doesn't really add to the film at all. And we don't have any over-the-top performances to entertain us like Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster did in Thor: Ragnarok, so….again. Meh?
When my “positives” paragraph gets mixed in with negatives, you know my cynical side is out in full force. But it's not my fault! Again, like with its predecessor, I felt like Ant-Man and the Wasp was not much more than a bottle episode for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, designed primarily to make Marvel / Disney as much money as humanly possible. And it will still make boatloads of money, despite the fact that this is the 20th installment in the MCU. The story feels like a boilerplate superhero story, and very little happens outside of this standard formula. The villains are boilerplate villains (the other villain of this film, Sonny Birch, was as boilerplate as they come and Walton Gibbons cliché portrayal didn't help matters) and the hero overcomes all adversity to win the day (and the girl) at film’s end. The only scene of consequence in this film occurs in the credits, which is a little frustrating because the events over other recent Marvel films could have (and should have) been utilized better here. Because of the placement of this scene, the sequence doesn't do much outside of wipe out the events of the entire movie preceding it, making this movie pretty useless at the end of the day. And that should be your biggest takeaway from Ant-Man and the Wasp: it has some witty dialogue and some decent visuals, but it adds very little to the overarching MCU. At the end of the day, your money is better spent elsewhere. Also, Stan Lee is in this movie. Again. Marvel seriously needs to stop with his cameos, PLEASE. There's no real reason to wait on seeing this Marvel film until it hits Netflix, (or Disney's impending streaming service) and there are plenty of other films in the theater right now that are more deserving of your money. Sooooo that's my roundabout way of saying “it’s fine” to sum up this Ant-Man sequel. And there's a lot better than “fine” at the movies right now.
My Number: 5/10 Average.
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Let the past die
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018): When the island's dormant volcano begins roaring to life, Owen and Claire mount a campaign to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from this extinction-level event.
Let me start by saying this: I had VERY low expectations heading into the latest installment to the Jurassic Park franchise. (There are now five of these damn things.) I was not a fan of the “reboot” of this franchise, 2015’s Jurassic World, primarily because it was a mindless popcorn flick that tried so hard to be more than that. The film tried to recapture the magic of the original Jurassic Park, which is (objectively) one of the best summer blockbusters ever made, and naturally looked like a complete fool in the process. HOWEVER, much to my amazement, after 25 years of living in the shadows of Jurassic Park, Universal Studios, Collin Trevorrow (who merely co-wrote this one….J.A. Bayona sat in the chair this time around) and everyone else involved finally accepted the reality: Jurassic Park will never be topped or followed up. And, instead of trying to live in its shadow, it does what every other sequel in this franchise should've done: it leans into the over-the-top, CGI dino porn aspect of it all and embraces the fact that it's nothing more than a mindless popcorn flick. That's right, folks: I actually liked Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I'm honestly just as surprised as you are.
Now, that's not say it's a great film by any means: there are PLENTY of eye-roll worthy moments that will likely bother me more on future viewings. On quite a few occasions I found myself thinking, “That's not how any of this works!" whether it be with things like "Chris Pratt crawls away from lava" or really anything relating to science in the movie. (There's a big one involving one character that from a science perspective is a huge revelation that the film could not be less interested in.) Ya, don't expect much in the science or ethics department. Also, the motivations of the villains are really dumb and one-dimensional. “Bad guys want to sell dinos and make money for the sake of making lots of money. And will stop at nothing because of money.” Several great actors are wasted because of this. (Looking at you, Toby Jones.) SPEAKING OF cashing it in, Jeff Goldblum. The dude phones in a totally unnecessary and silly reprisal of the classic Dr. Malcolm from Jurassic Park. I don't even know why he's here! For the marketing, of course, but not much else. Finally, there's a huge moment at the very end of the film (that helps to justify the inevitable sixth installment) that had the potential to be a wonderfully complex and emotional ethical quandry. It was the only time I thought the film was really trying to tackle the ethical questions that Jurassic Park addressed so effectively, which (naturally) led to a SOLID swing-and-a-miss from writers Trevorrow (who may be the worst thing about this franchise) and Derek Connolly. Like, swing-and-look-like-Bartolo-Colon kind of swing-and-a-miss. But, it sets up a TOTALLY absurd sequel that I'm actually excited to see. Because the rest of this movie is just plain, Fast and Furious-esque fun.
Also, PSA moviegoers: I do not understand why parents think it's a good idea to take their five year old kids to this movie. These dinos are scary! Unless your kid really wants to go to this thing, don't force them to it. It's not as bad as something like Deadpool, but there are plenty of horror-esque moments to be found, and there were several crying kids that had to be escorted out by their parents in my screening. Just because you wanna see it doesn't mean your kids want to! Anyway, moving on.
The "fun" aspect is where Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom excels. It's just that: fun, (mindless fun, but fun is fun is fun is fun) and that's really all J.A. Bayona and co. are going for this time around. My enjoyment of it starts with the cinematography. Mad kudos to cinematographer Oscar Faura, who didn't hold back at all with the totally ridiculous over-the-top shots. (One good example is in the trailer and the pic I used for the banner of this review-a wideshot of a T-Rexstanding over a dead dinosaur while a giant volcano erupts in the background. Why is this T-Rex still hunting as the island he lives on is literally exploding? Who cares, honestly.) This film is full of visual overload-shots that Michael Bay dreams about but could never execute because Faura somehow manages to keep the frame chaotic but comprehensible. Oscar Faura honestly makes this film for me, and seeing it in IMAX made these absurd shots that much better. Universal also realized that they had two charming leads on their hands that they didn't let be themselves last time around, so they changed that: Bryce Dallas Howard (in her boots instead of heels, which the film made sure to remind us of) and Chris Pratt are both really solid. They bring a great blend of charisma, wit, and the wherewithal to actually get out the situations they find themselves in. Even better are franchise newcommers Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda. While Smith did occasionally have the stupid moment, he's still a far cry from Jake Johnson. (Not to mention Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins…..yikes remember when that was a thing?) Daniella Pineda, though, stole the show. Her trash-talking, fend-for-herself, no holds-barred portrayal of Zia was extraordinarily topical for the times. (Her character even called herself a “nasty woman” at one point.) She made this film that much more entertaining to watch, and that's really all that matters. This is the first thing I've ever seen Pineda in, but I suspect it won't be the last.
Finally, the biggest strength of this film is what I've been alluding to this whole time: after 25 years, the filmmakers actually decided to lean into the mindless popcorn flick aspect of it all. The film rapidly transitions from one major CGI dino setpiece to the next, only slowing the pacing to take a breath in the final act. (Primarily to set up the next one.) Unlike its predecessor, which featured a lot of eye-roll-worthy moments leading up to its final exhilarating sequence, this film effectively intersperses many fun and exciting sequences among the eye-rolling moments. Many will probably say this film is “the death of the franchise” because it's the one where the filmmakers finally gave up trying to be like Jurassic Park and embraced being a big, stupid, dino movie. I can understand where they’re coming from. I now hold this franchise in the same realm as something like The Fast and the Furious. If you read that and felt like banging your head against your desk, I get it. It takes time to go through the five stages of grief. But if you can reach that fifth stage, if you can accept the fact that this franchise will never even set foot on the volcanic mountain that 1993’s Jurassic Park stands atop of again, you'll have a good time (maybe even great time) with this latest installment. I've accepted this franchise for what it is now - well-made and executed CGI dino porn - and had a shocking amount of fun because yes, this movie is a mindless blast to watch and an over-the-top exhilarating spectacle. I'm not looking for much more out of a summer blockbuster nowadays. You may still want this franchise to deliver a follow-up worthy of the 1993 classic, but if you let the past die (kill it, if you have to) and accept this franchise for what it is today, I have very little doubt that you're gonna have a good time. Jurassic Park is dead. Welcome, to Jurassic World.
The Critique: After 25 years of trying to set foot on the mountain Jurassic Park stands atop of, the franchise has finally embraced what it was destined to become: epic, over-the-top shots of CGI dinos just being awesome. If you can accept what this franchise has become, you're gonna have a surprisingly good time.
The Recommendation: If you've hit that wonderful final stage of grief, it's well worth a watch on the biggest screen you can find. If not, stay away and complain about how bad it is in the comfort of your own home when it hits Redbox.
Rewatchability: Moderately High
My Number: 7/10 Good
It'll haunt you to your core
Hereditary (2018): When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter's family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.
Wow. What a film. So before I even start talking about Hereditary, do yourself a favor: if you have even passing interest in horror, drop everything and go see it right now. This film is EASILY the best horror film since 2015's classic It Follows, with the same levels of fear and terror attached to it all while being significantly more daring and creative in its storytelling. It Follows made its scares on the viewer being able to see the monster methodically and deliberately walking towards its main characters, while Hereditary does basically the exact opposite. Rather, Hereditary takes a The Blair Witch Project-esque route and has its supernatural being be implied and, for the most part, off-screen. This is a significantly harder kind of scary to pull off, (the big pop scare from It Follows is still etched into my very soul) but first time director/writer Ari Aster (OSCAR! Is this seriously his first film? Well done, A24) delivers the kind of "haunt you to your bones" kind of scary that many horror fans, including yours truly, have been yearning for. So, I'll say again: if you have even a mild interest in the genre, go see it now, and deal with the consequences later. I mean, it's worth it, right?
So let's talk about Toni Collette. The veteran actress is erratic and irrational as lead character Annie Graham. She goes all-in for this role and delivers an unforgettable performance that is as meticulous as it is insane. This is by far the best performance I've seen in 2018 so far, and probably the best performance I've seen in a horror movie from a veteran actor, ever. The recognizability of the Oscar nominated actress brings with it a certain level of expectations for the role, but the raw audacity of her performance blows all those expectations out of the water. The looks on Annie Graham's face at several points in this film is etched into my very soul, and we all have Toni Collette to thank for that. (If you've seen the film, you know EXACTLY what I'm talking about too.) Newcommer Milly Shapiro (another great find for A24) is haunting as daughter Charlie, (kudos to the makeup team on this one too) and Alex Wolff delivers the performance of his young career (previously seen in the massively underrated My Friend Dahmer) as son Peter. But the real hero here is first time feature director/writer Ari Aster. (Which is still impossible to comprehend for me, Oscar. I don't believe you.)
The craft here is simply masterful to watch, and the story is as daring as it is creative. This story has proved to be decisive among audiences - the film currently boasts a D+ on CinemaScore, somehow - but I believe the truly great works of cinema often are divisive when they're immediately released. (Let's not forget The Blair Witch Project, now considered a pioneer in the horror genre, was criticized upon release as well.) The scares here are not the mainstream "in-your-face pop scare!" kind. There's very little "slow pan right where a demonic creature is standing, then disappears to build tension" kind of cheap shots. You actually hardly ever see the monster, so for those of you that are skittish at the idea of jump scares, you can rest easy (somewhat) knowing that there are very few of them here. (I wrote a piece on the current norms of the horror industry centering around Unfriended - which is now getting a sequel, proving my point further - which Hereditary does everything it can to break.) No, the scares here are the thoughtful, resonating kind. The kind that keeps you up at night looking at the ceiling in a restless trance rather than staring at the door. The ones that you affiliate directly with the movie, versus just creating some demonic presence in your mind that is whatever you want it to be. These, are the best kinds of scary.
The story here is brilliant, but not necessarily designed for mainstream audiences. There were people laughing towards the end at some points in my screening, and the people sitting next to me couldn't help but comment about how much they hated the thing when it was all said and done. (Hence that D+ CinemaScore) My only complaint about it (and really about the film in general) is the fact that Ari Aster felt the need to overexplain things a few times. (I'm guessing this was a mandate from A24 when they realized they had one of the best films they've ever released on their hands and wanted to market the crap out of it to as mainstream an audience as they could.) There are a few cumbersome voiceovers that are basically just describing what you're seeing at that moment that were distracting and unnecessary, and of course we had to get the stereotypical "Character A finds a book and reads aloud the thing that's going on for the audience to understand" sequence. Also, the film has a lot of technology in it, and it's unfortunate that given how innovative this film is in other aspects that Aster didn't do much from an editing standpoint to show the technology to the audience in a creative way, but that's a rather trivial complaint. This film is absolutely brilliant - the best I've seen so far this year - and if you have even a minor soft spot for horror it's well worth the watch as.....yes. This is the best horror film I've seen in at least a decade. Move over, It Follows.
The Critique: Lead by a brilliant performance from Toni Collette, Hereditary is the best film of 2018 so far and the best horror film of the decade with its unorthodox "haunt you in your bones" style.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for horror fans if you haven't seen it already.
The Verdict: 9.5/10 Damn Near Perfect
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