Film Review: “Widows”

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
20th Century Fox

“Widows” begins with Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners in crime meeting a quick, fiery end, before we even really get to know any of them. But we quickly learn that the ripples from their deaths have major implications on a bitter election campaign in one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods, along with millions in dirty money that needs to be repaid. Unfortunately caught up in all this, is three grieving widows. Veronica (Davis), Rawlings’ widow, decides to use a notebook left behind by her late husband, detailing his next planned heist, to prevent herself from being another victim.

“Widows” is the kind of movie we’ve seen before. Any number of political thrillers, revenge, or crime and heist movies come to mind. But what makes “Widows” unique is how much it subverts tropes or incorporates them into themes that touch upon racism, police brutality, class warfare, gender politics, and more. Sometimes the themes are heavy, layered on thick so that a general audience can understand. Other times they’re casually sprinkled in, only coming through the film’s visual aesthetics or the director’s incorporated camera techniques.

The blueprint for “Widows” could have easily been used to craft a well-made summertime popcorn flick that would have delighted the masses. “Widows” will still delight those masses, but it’s nourishing because of the sustenance it finds in the script and it’s performances. When the film could have easily told the audience what’s happening, it shows it. And when the actors could have easily read through plot points and pertinent topics, they etch everything we need to know on their faces and through their actions.

Davis, who should seriously be on everyone’s radar in Hollywood by now, channels a primal feminine rage about the destruction left behind by the men in her life, whether it be personal or circumstantial. Rodriguez and Debicki, playing the other two widows brought in for the all-female heist, feed off of Davis’ energy. Even in scenes where Davis’ is paired alongside any of her male cohorts, she seems to tower above them in terms of dramatic acting chops.

There is no small role in “Widows” as the likes of Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver, Matt Walsh, and others provide another layer for viewers to peel back. The nuances of every role in this film beef up the main players, but also supply much life to an already bleak backdrop. Steve McQueen has entered the mainstream with a stellar ensemble crime heist film that interjects weighty thematic material that’s easily digestible and relevant. “Widows” is one of the must-see films of the years, for general audiences and cinephiles.

Film Review: “Mid90s”

Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston
Directed By: Jonah Hill
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
A24

I’m not sure who this movie is for. Sometimes coming-of-age films ring true for everyone because it speaks specifically to those who lived the generation it represents and still manages to slip in some universal truths. “Mid90s” seems specifically niche: stoner skateboarders who grew up on “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons and played NES video games. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because the film manages to stretch outside those confines, painting a broad picture of children who’ve come from single parent homes or troubled living conditions. You just have to squint a little hard to see it.

The film focuses on 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic), who actually looks a lot more like he’s 10. He seems to take daily beatings from his older brother, Ian (Hedges), who’s just turned 18. Their single mother, Dabney (Waterston), loves them unconditionally, but seems to have taken a hands-off approach during their pubescent years. Ian and Dabney become background noise in Stevie’s life when he’s accepted into a group of rebellious young boys hanging out at a skateboard shop. This misanthropic brotherhood doesn’t seem to have much in common, but the glue that binds them is their status as outcasts at home, school and in life. The alpha dog of the group, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), also manages to keep them all in line, even when they’re at each other’s throats.

“Mid90s” is the kind of movie “Lords of Dogtown” wishes it was, even though the target audience might fight me on that unpopular opinion. “Mid90s” prevents itself from being overly dramatic and unrealistic thanks to Hill’s raw script which highlights the politically incorrect vernacular of the time while unflinching capturing troubled youth in Los Angeles. However, there are a lot of gaping flaws in how everything is presented. The comedy sprinkled throughout sometimes works, but also undercuts the seriousness of several situations. It also may not be funny for those uncomfortable with how carefree some slurs were used by teens in the 90s. There’s also one scene in particular that quickly goes from uncomfortable to borderline exploitive.

There are flashes of creativity with Hill’s directorial debut, but too often he limits his characters and the stories they have to tell. There’s an inventive subtleness to what Hill reveals about Stevie and his crew, but too often we’re left with more questions than answers. The scope is so narrow that the average moviegoer may find “Mid90s” to be too brash and at times, a bit derivative. But underneath its crass nature, are good-intentions and a unique perspective on growing up that we’ve rarely seen.

Film Review: “Beautiful Boy”

BEAUTIFUL BOY
Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Amy Ryan, Maura Tierney
Directed by: Felix Groeningen
Rated: R
Running Time:  2 Hours
Amazon Studios

Felix Van Groeningen spins a pair of true life father and son memoirs about the latter’s struggle with drug addiction into two really touching turns from both Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in Beautiful Boy. The film opens in limited release today and despite some heavy-handed technical choices, succeeds on the authenticity of Carell and Chalamet’s performances.

Steve Carell is instantly sympathetic as David Sheff, who we meet in the midst of his son Nic being missing for a few days—a not unusual occurrence as it turns out. I was relieved when early on his wife (Maura Tierney, bringing a lot to a smaller role) gave him a hug because you can just read on his face such a high level of fragility. He’s worn down by Nic’s habits and tired but also terrified and barely holding it together, he needs that hug! Meanwhile Chalamet suppresses any temptation to overact Nic’s drug addled tics. Instead he keeps all the manic energy behind his eyes and in his slightly unbalanced physicality. Some of the strongest scenes come when Nic is desperately trying to deny that he’s relapsed to get money from an unbelieving David. The film’s greatest strength is resisting the temptation to come down hard on either side of this struggle. “Relapse is part of recovery” becomes David’s mantra when Nic disappoints but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong when he needs to refuse Nic for his own sake. At these moments Carell is almost painfully affecting (frankly, I wanted to hug him too) and I felt my heart racing at times when he, understandably, has to snap and really argue with Chalamet.

There are number of choices Van Groeningen makes however that jar you right out of the story in drastic ways. The music over the opening of the film when we’re introduced to Dave and young Nic’s relationship is so overwrought I felt as though we’d dove right into the climax instead of the titles. These heavy-handed musical interludes occur over and over either in instrumental or lyrical form but I only felt emotionally touched—because how can you not be?—by the titular John Lennon tune which Carrell sweetly sings to young Nic as he tucks him in.

And while I’m discussing Young Nic, besides Chalamet—who, at most is meant to play Nic in his twenties—not just one, but three other boys are deployed to play a younger Nic in flashbacks. It’s distracting not only for the quantity of actors but because the first young Nic is none other than It‘s Jack Dylan Glazer. Glazer himself is fast becoming as recognizable A Name as Chalamet, so when he also gets replaced by still younger models it starts not to feel like the same character. More like props for David. The film is a vital story for a time when America is seeing an epidemic of young people overdosing but in these odd choices, the film gets in the way of itself. When it backs off and let’s the actors take control, A Beautiful Boy shines.

Film Review: “Night School”

Starring: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish and Rob Riggle
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Universal Pictures

It’s difficult to digest a new Kevin Hart movie without first re-evaluating where one currently stands on the stand-up comedian turned actor. My opinion on him was actually quite positive after last year. His trademark high-pitch scream and short stature served the “Jumanji” sequel/reboot well and my prior frustrations with him melted away in “Captain Underpants.” But Hart is back to his old uninteresting shenanigans in “Night School.”

Teddy (Hart) believes he needs one thing to keep his life on track, a GED. The recently engaged man has lost his BBQ grill sales job and is hard-pressed to get an ideal replacement gig because he never completed high school. His fiancée, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is oblivious to the fact that Teddy is a high school drop out because he’s a decent liar. Despite their years of dating, he’s managed to convince her that he’s successful, and not drowning in debt or uneducated. However she did always know he sold grills for a living.

So to keep up this charade, he gets a minimum wage job, takes the bus daily after wrecking his car, and begins to attend night school. These are all things he doesn’t tell Lisa, despite their recent engagement and step forward in their relationship. Even when she does begin to suspect something is amiss; Teddy unflinchingly goes along with her suspicion that he’s getting cold feet about their marriage. If it seems like I’m focusing too much on Teddy, that’s because this movie focuses way too much on him and his night school cohorts.

It’s a really unfortunate fact, especially consider that the other star of this film is Tiffany Haddish, who plays Teddy’s night school teacher, Carrie. Haddish, who burst into the mainstream last year with “Girl’s Trip,” has some solid quips and one liners, but is relatively declawed in this film. Carrie also represents a strong female personality that fits well into the film’s mold about overcoming adversity, but there are a lot of scenes where Carrie’s persona and approach leaves a lot to be desired.

I actually wanted to like “Night School.” It began on a solid promise that Hart, Haddish, and the surrounding cast could unearth some unexpected comedy gold. There are chuckles to be had, but not enough, mainly due to the fact that “Night School” is stretched thin by its runtime and lack of comedic imagination. Even with two comedians that have more than proven to be a comedic force behind the mic and on-screen, “Night School” gets a failing grade.

Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Starring: John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Runtime: 121mins
Rated R
Annapurna Pictures

Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers opens up with its  many company credits appearing from the bottom of the screen and appearing upwards. It’s an off-kilter way to read them but absolutely fitting when what follows is a distinctly off-kilter western. Set in 1851 during the US gold rush, Audiard’s film has all the pieces of a traditional western–the horses, the saloons, the canned beans– but through its four strong leads is able to explore so much more.

Ostensibly The Sisters Brothers is about Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Phoenix) Sisters, a pair of assassins in the old west who are on a hit job on behalf of their wealthy client, the Commodore (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Rutger Hauer). The Commodore is after a gold seeker, Hermann Warm (Ahmed), whose chemical formula reveals gold just by pouring it into the water. A game changer for treasure hunters. Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris has been tailing Warm as he makes his way to San Francisco and leaving breadcrumbs for the Sisters to follow. Trouble is Hermann and Morris turn out to be oddly kindred spirits and Morris’s designs on Warm’s death start to wane. While Morris wrestles with his duties to the Sisters and Warm’s idealism, the Sisters cope with their own infighting. Eli is grasping at a world where they are free of needing to take on this dirty work to survive while Charlie can see no other purpose for himself than drinking and killing. The setup is relatively simple but in campfire chats and detours, mines a deep well of complex themes at play in this unforgiving environment. There’s an air of tragedy around all the leads that undercuts the masculine bravado that so often drives gunslingers in westerns.

If there are John C Reilly-philes out there–and really, why wouldn’t there be?–these next couple months will be providing them with a wealth of his screen time. Obviously there’s the big Disney sequel with Ralph Breaks the Internet, the more familiar comedy pairing with Will Ferrell in Holmes and Watson and soon after that the UK will see him in the biopic Stan & Ollie. But I will go out on a limb and say that his work here for Jacques Audiard’s contains his most interesting performance of the bunch.  As the older brother Eli, he is the more physically imposing presence of the two but continually reveals more and more layers of sensitivity as the film goes on. He has a token of a past romance in the form of a shawl he treats with reverence, he’s open to trying these newfangled tooth brushes that are going around. Most of all he carries the weight of having to take care of his damaged younger brother who would likely drink himself into oblivion without Eli nearby—not least of all because of their shared troubled childhood. It’s by far the quietest performance of the quartet but it’s extremely touching. The long and winding road that this small family unit takes is at every point unpredictable and where Audiard ultimately goes was unexpectedly affecting. A beautiful and unique entry into the genre.

Film Review: “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro
Directed By: Eli Roth
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Universal Pictures

Did Eli Roth finally direct a decent movie? I kid. But I do wonder how much of his childhood is on screen. I begrudgingly wonder if what makes “The House with a Clock in its Walls” work has a little something to do with the crass director of “Cabin Fever” and “Green Inferno.” However, I’m more likely to praise Black’s infectious energy, Blanchett’s subdued charisma, and the writer of the hit TV show “Supernatural,” Eric Kripke. S

The movie does a fine job establishing Lewis (Vaccaro) and the crummy situation he’s been put in. The 10-year-old boy has uprooted his life after the death of both of his parents. He moves into his uncle’s otherworldly home in New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan (Black) hasn’t connected or talked to his nephew in years, if at all. The unlikely duo are often visited by Jonathan’s lifelong friend and neighbor, Florence (Blanchett). Lewis is an astute lad, and quickly picks up on the fact that Jonathan and Florence aren’t all they seem; Jonathan is a warlock and Florence is a witch (a good one).

I walked into “The House with a Clock in its Walls” having the most basic understanding of what I was in for. I read the book it’s based on in elementary school. The memory of it is so hazy, I can’t quite remember what grade it was or even the nuts and bolts of the book. I do remember our teacher used it as an excuse to bake the cookies that are frequently seen throughout the story. Even with just the faintest of knowledge of what Jonathan and Florence were all about, I still found myself caught up in the film’s gothic tapestry and wizarding hijinks.

Jonathan’s home is a character in and of itself. The stain glass windows change frequently to drop messages or hints to characters in the home, the furniture and lawn decorations act like household pets, eerie clocks and sinister dolls are spread across the home like jump-scare landmines, and there’s an ominous noise at night that sounds like a doomsday clocking chiming to an unfortunate inevitability. The humans inside the house are delightfully quirky as well.

The film builds a lot of momentum, but constantly shoots itself in the foot with juvenile humor, that I can only hope wasn’t in the book it’s based on. Urine, vomit, and poop are not off limits for this film, which is unfortunate because the film itself displays a bit of intelligence that’s sure to put a smile on the faces of adults and kids alike. It really doesn’t need to cheapen itself by undermining its own wit. The film also mishandles the tone of the final act, which involves blood magic, demons and the apocalypse.

The film stays afloat thanks to its delightfully creepy scenery, that’s constantly being chewed on by Black and Blanchett. This is the kind of film that could be cherished by younger audiences for generations, and honestly if it sends a few kids to a library in search of the book, that’s always a bonus. The calendar says September, but “The House with a Clock in its Walls” brings Halloween early for those with a spooky bone in their body.

Film Review: “Lizzie”

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare
Directed By: Craig William Macneill
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr. 45mins.
Roadside Attractions

In many ways, this is the perfect time of year to release Lizzie. As we enter the fall, the movie theaters turn to smaller dramas while basic cable crams its schedules with true crime and hauntings in the run up to Halloween. The axe murders of Abby and Andrew Borden have always figured heavily into the latter. So much so, it occurred to me while watching Craig William Macneill’s carefully crafted depiction of Lizzie Borden that I had never seen a version of this story that wasn’t hyper campy. A quick search on Youtube turns up ample “dramatic re-enactments” and even a Dance Moms routine. Perhaps anticipating that audience, director Macneill serves up Abby’s body mere moments into his film before rewinding back at the investigator’s prompt to Lizzie, “Did your father have any enemies?” Did he ever. What follows is a drama that simmers with tension between its small cast led commandingly by Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

In 1892, Lizzie shares a modest Massachusetts house with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie is old for being unmarried and her community—but her father most of all—isn’t shy about treating her as a pariah. Lizzie having a seizure (or “spell” if you’re old timey) in public only adds fuel to the case for sheltering her. Into their home comes an Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), who Lizzie forms a connection with. Before you can say steamy pizza rolls, they are passing notes and rendezvousing in the family shed.

As far as I can tell, the theory for Lizzie’s sexuality being a part of this case, aside from her never marrying, comes from a later in life “crush” on an actress of the time. Whether or not you buy into this particular take really isn’t the concern of this film which draws strength from the bond between Sevigny and Stewart. When Andrew turns predatory towards Bridget, Lizzie’s anger towards him is stoked as is her motivation to sabotage his affairs. Affairs which include compromising Lizzie’s inheritance. Likewise when Lizzie’s uncle (a snarling Denis O’hare, always a welcome addition) tries to intimidate her, Bridget makes her presence known and he sees himself out. Though their society is rigidly patriarchal, under this roof the men are outnumbered and Macneill makes great use of the confined space to reinforce that. The soundtrack remains sparse, giving dominance instead to the ambient sounds of the household. The creaking wood of the stairs and bedrooms might as well be a character unto itself, and gives the whole piece an extra level of claustrophobia. It works really well for this story which is essentially a slowly escalating war between father and daughter.

As we march on through the final acts, the story does slow down with some time jumps between the murders and the aftermath. It’s as though to let us see how an obviously guilty (in this telling of it anyway) Lizzie might sell her innocence to investigators when really that could have wrapped up more strongly with their credible—if still sensational— take on this infamous case.

Film Review: “The Little Stranger”

THE LITTLE STRANGER
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter
Directed By Lenny Abrahamson
Rated R
Runtime: 1hr. 51mins.
Focus Features
The pitfall of turning a gothic tale into a feature film seems to be Hollywood’s tendency to sell it as a horror film. As most trailers do, they cram the most exciting visuals or scares into two minute bites hoping to draw that genre’s audience while never considering the ill will they’re potentially engendering with such a mischaracterization. It fascinates me as far as choices go in this age of Cinescore post-screening chatter although I can’t begrudge the trailer makers for their need to get butts in seats. I say this all up front because that is the case with Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, an adaptation of the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters. What they really have is a carefully crafted and, critically, a glacially slow paced period drama where the “big” bloody moments are few and far between. To be clear, I actually am more of an ideal audience member for English period drama than horror but even my limits were tested. The talented cast languishes in beautiful atmosphere and effective sound design that amounts to a pile of supernatural McGuffins.
The year is 1949 and Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to Hundreds Hall to check in on the Ayres family’s young maid, Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick so much as she’d like a doctor’s excuse to send her back home. The drafty house’s halls don’t sit well with Betty. This uneasiness is chalked up to youth and inexperience but as the doctor learns, her line of thinking isn’t isolated among the inhabitants. Roderick (Will Poulter), the man of the house and brutally scarred up WW2 vet, also swears by a malevolent presence that’s out for his family. Again, dismissed by the rational doctor as well as Roderick’s caretaker sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). To complicate things, Faraday has a kind of reverence for the place having been enchanted by being brought there as a child in 1919 with his mother, then a member of the house’s full staff. Over all of this lies the spectre of Caroline and Roderick’s dead sister whom the young Faraday had a brief encounter with during that long ago visit. Faraday’s love for the estate drives him to grow closer to the Ayreses, Caroline in particular.

I was excited to check out The Little Stranger, being a fan of Abrahamson’s previous three films (all also adaptations) as well as Domhnall Gleeson who is consistently reliable. The trouble is The Little Stranger can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The awkward romance between Faraday and Caroline occupies far too much screentime for where it ultimately goes while the horror and supernatural aspects of the story pretty much plateau rather than ramping up to a satisfying conclusion. I couldn’t tell if said conclusion was actually meant to be a twist or not because I had connected the dots so so long before the story wended its way to meeting me there and when it arrived, did not add anything exciting. I suspect Waters’s novel made much of the turmoil the Ayres family finds themselves in in Hundreds Hall but the film leans too heavily on its production design to fill in the gaps of its stilted characters.

Film Review: Alpha

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Johannes Haukur Johanneson and Leonor Varela
Directed By: Albert Hughes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

Back in elementary school, my school would take classes on field trips to the Kansas City Zoo at least twice a year. On one of the occasions, instead of checking out the various animals dotting the grounds, we’d instead seek air conditioned or heated shelter to watch movies at the Sprint IMAX Theater. The film fare would usually be a nature documentary or some good-intentioned PG movie. If the Sprint IMAX Theater was still around, I could see “Alpha” being used as an excuse for a field trip.

Set 20,000 years ago in Europe, “Alpha” follows Keda (Smit-McPhee), who’s been left for dead by his tribesmen and father, after a bison hunting expedition. Accompany Keda on his journey back home is an unlikely ally, an injured wolf-dog that he nurses back to health. Pitched as the origins of man’s best friend, this movie is only mildly entertaining because of the elements the human and his four-legged friend encounter. Otherwise it’s a humdrum trip back in time.

According to various news outlets, “Alpha” has apparently been sitting on Sony’s film shelf for about a year, with the release date constantly being pushed back or up for various and unknown reasons. I suspect it has something to do with the film aiming for a vibe like that acclaimed “Quest for Fire” vibe, but instead coming off more like Roland Emmerich’s lazy “10,000 B.C.”

It makes noble attempts at visual storytelling, by having very little dialogue, and when primitive man does open its mouth, it’s gibberish that’s translated through on-screen captioning. It may have actually played better without, forcing audiences to immerse themselves further into the Ice Age experience. Instead the movie dumbs itself down a lot, and even throws in some coming-of-age storytelling tropes in for good measure.

“Alpha” could serve as a starting point for young ones interested in human history, but their parents may find themselves rolling their eyes or checking their phones. Director and writer Albert Hughes has a spotty history, but with “Alpha” has shown a little growth visually and narratively. I can’t help but think that ALPHA may have been a much better and nuanced film in someone else’s hands. There’s a lot of potential, but the finished product, while being polished and dazzling, feels like a mix of unnecessary studio meddling and dog-lover peddling.

Film Review: “The Darkest Minds”

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie
Directed By: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
20th Century Fox

I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s another attempt by Hollywood to build another young adult dystopian franchise. Just seven months ago in January, “Maze Runner” was wrapping up a successful franchise that nearly hit the $1 billion mark worldwide. Enter “The Darkest Minds.”

Based on Alexandra Bracken’s books, “The Darkest Minds” is about a pandemic, called IAAN, which has wiped out 98% of people under 20-years-old, leaving behind a mutated 2%. This 2% is divided up by a color system, designating their mutated powers, with green being the safest and red being the most dangerous. Green means they’re highly intelligent, blue means they’re telekinetic, yellow means they can control electricity, orange means they can control the minds of those around them and red means they control fire. Someone should really flip orange and red in terms of danger.

Red and orange children are immediately murdered by the government once the scientists figure out their color code. Ruby (Stenberg) is an orange, but before they can off her, she uses her powers to convince the lab coat scientists she’s a green. So she’s shuffled in with the rest of what’s left of America’s youth to work camps, while our country figures out the cause and origins of IAAN. I haven’t even touched on Ruby’s parents, the time jumps, or President’s son who is also an orange. By the way, this all is thrown at the audience in the first few minutes so fast that you’d suffer whiplash trying to digest it all.

“The Darkest Minds” is a mix of “X-Men” and “Divergent.” I begrudgingly mention “X-Men” and this film in the same sentence. It’s a very by-the-books film that is only mildly amusing because of its main young actor. Stenberg, who’s actually better than her IMDB suggests, provides an emotional weight to Ruby, even when we’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on with the plot. I give points for the movie making Ruby sympathetic, brave and an endearing female lead, but also subtract points for the cliché beats her character goes through.

There are moments where I thought the film would distinguish itself amongst the pack by tying its dystopian themes to contemporary problems, something most studios seem to be afraid of doing because of today’s political climate. I can easily think of several things that could have been said when scared adults are attempting to control kids because of the power they’re about to wield. Or even the decaying world that older generations are leaving behind for future generations. But instead the writers rely on the tired tropes of being yourself and the generalization of “fight the good fight.”

I don’t want to pile on anymore to a movie that has somewhat good intentions and I’m sure is based on a decent book (I say decent because it has warranted five sequels). “The Darkest Minds” may have been better with love and care, or maybe if it came out during the “Harry Potter” films. It might please a younger audience that’s new to the genre, but for those of us who’ve seen these films come out every year since “The Hunger Games,” the air around these young adult films continues to stagnate.

Film Review: “Eighth Grade”

Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton and Emily Robinson
Directed By: Bo Burnham
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
A24

Cringy. Heartfelt. Anxiety inducing. Unflinching. Heartbreaking. Hopeful. “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s debut film, seemingly has it all, and it does. You can’t call “Eighth Grade” a coming-of-age movie because the character in this film is 14-years-old and about to head into high school. Kayla (Fisher) still has a lot of growing to do and the point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ journey in this film at least reassures viewers that there’s a bright future for Kayla despite a lot of nerve-wracking speed bumps along the way.

Kayla paints a social media portrait that she’s happy, an advice guru, and seemingly has this near-perfect life. She uploads videos onto Youtube detailing her own life, the lessons she learns and how to radiate confidence. She’s also constantly updating her Instagram and Snapchat (sorry for those of you wondering about her Facebook, Generation Z doesn’t use it and it’s not cool anymore). But behind this online facade, Kayla actually doesn’t have friends, no viewers on her Youtube channel, and was just awarded the quietest kid in school (what school official thought that was a good award for the student body to vote on?).

“Eighth Grade” is all about Kayla’s final week in middle school and her preparations for high school. Most people will relate to Kayla’s urge to hit the reset button after a less than stellar outing in middle school. That relatability is what will allow the movie to eventually make your stomach do summersaults and potentially tear your heart in two. But luckily for the audience, Burnham shows restraint and puts away the dagger that he could have easily plunged deep into your heart.

My experience with this film was like the first time I watched Burnham’s stand-up. It was something I had seen before, but it felt new because of how personal and forward it was. Just like his stand-up, “Eighth Grade” pulls no punches in delivering some biting, brutally honest commentary. The apprehension is temporarily relieved multiple times throughout by well-scripted jokes, usually playing off teenage cluelessness and growing pains. Burnham is kind enough to keep everyone, characters and audience, in on the joke instead of making either the butt of one.

So much of Burnham’s soul is laid out in “Eighth Grade,” and not just through Kayla. Her father, played by the great Josh Hamilton, embodies much of what Burnham most likely experienced with his parents or he’s simply conveying his own parental ambitions of nurturing and care for when he becomes a father. But just because Kayla is a girl and she’s being raised by a single parent, doesn’t mean both characters speak volumes for everyone, regardless of gender, color, creed, family dynamic, etc.

“Eighth Grade” is a harrowing, sincere trip through one of the most emotionally vulnerable times in people’s life. I’m sure that some people didn’t have the kind of middle school experience Kayla had, but it’s a refresher for us to remember we’re all human and all feel the same kinds of raw emotions. There are even some solid teaching moments for the tweens who do eventually pile into the theater or watch this film at home. Burnham proved he’s a formidable force in comedy over the past several years, and now with “Eighth Grade,” he’s proven that he’s a formidable force in the film industry.

Film Review: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Pena
Directed By: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There should be a dark cloud hanging over “Ant-Man and the Wasp” after the events in the previous “Avengers” film, but there isn’t. The events in Marvel’s follow-up film take place several years after “Captain America: Civil War” and just before “Infinity War.” Because of that, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” doesn’t ever really take itself too seriously and concludes as a decent dose of sloppy Summer fun.

Two years after “Civil War,” Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) is under house arrest while Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope/Wasp (Lilly) are on the run. Scott is recruited by Hank and Hope after Scott experiences an odd dream involving Hope’s long lost mother, and Hank’s wife. The answer to her whereabouts lies somewhere in the Quantum Realm. If this all sounds a little confusing, it may be because you didn’t watch the first “Ant-Man” or because you don’t remember much from it. Either way, it’s still a messy script.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” feels like it was written by five people (which it was), directed by someone who ignored that script, and then edited by someone who was on the first day of their job. The film supposedly takes place in a two-day span, but the time jumps and editing make it feel like it’s longer in some moments and shorter in others. There’s also a lot of quick edits that make you feel like you’re missing out on a big chunks of film. It’s most likely an attempt to shorten the film’s runtime.

The previous “Ant-Man” was supposed to be Edgar Wright’s singular vision, but Disney monkeyed with that vision making it a little foggy. That fog lingers into this film as other writers try to keep previously established characters in a film that feels like it’d be better suited as a spectator to Marvel’s cinematic universe. Instead of piling on even more, I have to reassert that I still had a lot of fun and believe this is still a decent film.

This film is like a palate cleanser after the dark end to “Infinity War.” Rudd, in the role of dad and hero, is undeniably likable as he charms both the good and bad guys. Even though superheroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor are supposed to be outsiders, Rudd’s Ant-Man feels more like the stranger in a strange land. He quips about the absurdity on screen and seems oblivious to the scope of it all. When Rudd talks about world-building elements of the cinematic universe, it feels unnatural. Rudd works best when he gets to crack a joke and highlight the humanity of Scott.

I could be accused of being a homer because I like Rudd (from my hometown area) and how Ant-Man fits into the world’s narrative. I wouldn’t expect him to fight Thanos one-on-one and I honestly wouldn’t want him to. This film is more catered to Rudd’s strengths and it shows as his charisma rubs off on others in the film. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is like a side story to the main event. Maybe once Disney realizes Ant-Man doesn’t have to fit in to their ever-growing univserse, he can evolve in a story that doesn’t feel overwhelmed and entangled by everyone else’s problems.

Film Review: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Rafe Spall
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Universal Pictures

You can only keep the dinosaurs in the park for so long. That might be the one takeaway the creators of the latest “Jurassic Park” film, “Fallen Kingdom,” took from “Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III.” Instead of doing something unique or different though, the writers and director of “Fallen Kingdom,” did what their predecessors did, create another forgettable, mundane entry into the franchise.

The tongue-in-cheek joy of “Jurassic World” is gone. “Fallen Kingdom” is devoid of fun from the get-go as the film begins with the U.S. Senate debating whether or not to save the dinosaurs from an impending volcanic eruption on the island which has been abandoned for three years after the events of the previous film. The one lone voice of common sense in this movie, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tells Congress that nature is correcting man’s mistake by killing the dinosaurs. He urges Congress to let them die. I agree, but no one wants to watch a five-minute dinosaur film.

Congress rightfully decides to let dinosaurs die. That doesn’t sit right with Claire (Howard), the former operations manager of Jurassic World turned activist. She meets with Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his right-hand man Eli (Spall) to do something about it. The plan that’s hatched is to save a few dinosaurs from each species and take them to a refuge. Of course they’ll need the help of former dino trainer Owen (Pratt), whose expertise will help them catch and save the most dangerous of dinosaurs, the Velociraptor.

The movie spends the first act of the film with old and new characters having dry expositional dialogue that makes you wonder who and what is going on with the Lockwood estate, and most importantly, why you should care. The movie tries to answer some of those questions, but by the end, you still don’t care and you still don’t know what’s going on with the Lockwood estate and some of the film’s new introductory characters. I have to be vague as to not spoil key elements of the film’s final act, but even then I’m a bit confused as to what I could potentially be spoiling.

The film treats the audience like a Marvel movie crowd, expecting us to have kept track of every idiosyncratic character, name, place and word. At times I felt like I had forgotten to study for an exam and that I was failing miserably with each supposed revelation during the film’s runtime. I’m lucky I wasn’t the only one after the screening who didn’t know who was who or what had supposedly transpired between different characters.

As for the dinosaurs, they’re average. There are moments of fun, but they’re few and far between. There’s also a few moments where they’re not as menacing as they have been in the past. It’s mainly because there’s no fear that any of our main heroes or their companions will die. Once you understand that, you’ll know that every scumbag you encounter in this film will meet his or her end. There are a lot more horror movie elements like long drawn out silences before a loud jump scare or a character lurking through the dark intently listening for any bump or bite in the night.

“Fallen Kingdom” is a massive disappointment after the wildly exciting “Jurassic World.” Unlike its predecessor, it’s humorless, boring and lacking any genuine emotion. Three years ago I was optimistic about the future of this franchise, but now I believe it should go extinct.

Film Review: “Tag”

Starring: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress
Directed By: Jeff Tomsic
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Tag” shouldn’t be as fun as it is. Movies based on games (video or board) don’t necessarily have a great track record. Everything from “Super Mario Bros.” to “Battleship” are shining examples of how Hollywood has no problems picking the low hanging fruit in an effort to make a quick buck. There are only a few films that do an admirable or passable job, like “Clue” and “Rampage” (although my only caveat to “Rampage” is that I have to be in the mood for mindless garbage). So I’m a little shocked to say that “Tag” can join the handful of outliers.

Since nine-years-old, Hogan (Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Johnson), Kevin (Buress) and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been playing tag. About 30 years later, during the month of May, the five adults throw decorum out the window and play the game without respect for one’s personal space, job, or therapy session. However, after all these years, Jerry has managed to avoid ever being the one who is ‘it’. The elusive Jerry overanalyzes every situation he’s in to the point where he’s like a trained assassin when it comes to playing the game, spotting his friends out in public when they’re trying to tag him, mentally mapping out scenarios, or predicting what his friends will do several moves ahead of their plans to ensnare him.

So Hogan, Bob, Chilli and Kevin all agree to team up to finally tag Jerry, as he’s about to get married and quit playing the game altogether. Upon my own first glance at the plot, and a watch of the trailer, I would have easily dismissed this movie as a lazy attempt comedy. But there are several moments that are legitimately funny because of the maximum effort on screen by Helms, Johnson, Buress and Ham. Renner plays his character with an incredible seriousness, effectively being the straight guy of the film in an outlandish scenario. He mainly elicits laughs by calculating escape routes and situations like a computer program.

Buress, who should be in a lot more comedies, steals the scenes he’s in with irreverent observations, and what I imagine is off-script improv that feels fitting, but unstructured to the overall narrative of the film. His character’s persona could actually be fitting in any other comedy, regardless of the film’s circumstances. Ilsa Fisher, playing Anna, the wife of Helms’ character, is equally funny as an essential part of the troupe, taking the game more seriously than anyone else in the film, even Jerry.

“Tag” is one of those ideas that seems like it was destined for failure on its first pitch. A movie about this simplistic juvenile game that we all played as children, where we sometimes made up rules on the spot or ultimately yelled at each other over the inane rules we had just made up, sounds like terrible fodder for summer audiences. But there is a bit of credence to “Tag” because it’s based on a Wall Street Journal article about a group of actual friends who’ve spent one month, over the past couple of decades, playing a game of cross-country tag. “Tag” had the potential of falling short or living up to the calamity of its origin story, much like 2016’s “War Dogs,” but it instead exceeded my set expectations.

There’s a lot of manic energy in “Tag,” sometimes culminating into some funny chase sequences and absurd action pieces. Even moments of subdued silliness play well as our characters come to question the ethics of the game, like when they’re about to waterboard someone who isn’t a part of the game. Those moments of moral questioning also prevent our characters from being viewed as mean-spirited and soulless during their antics. “Tag” shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to a sometimes witty, yet immature script, and a cast where everyone brings their own unique brand of comedy.

 

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Film Review: Hotel Artemis”

Starring: Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown and Sofia Boutella
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Global Road Entertainment

Sometimes a movie feels and looks interesting, but it isn’t. That gorgeous outer shell, sometimes in the set design or on the face of its familiar and likable characters, inherently lacks a soul. “Hotel Artemis” is a movie that wants to be loved and adored by its viewing audience. It repeatedly tells and shows the audience that it’s grimy and noir, futuristic and relevant, funny and heartfelt, but it never really proves it’s any of those things.

Jodie Foster (who’s shockingly been absent from the silver screen for five years) plays Jean, a nurse running to and fro throughout the Hotel Artemis, a safe haven for criminals in 2028 Los Angeles. She’s assisted by the bulky and intimidating, yet soft on the inside, Everest (Dave Bautista). The two-person staff somehow operates the multi-room establishment, as they patch up wounds, remove bullets, and use 3D printers to create new organs for criminals from all walks of life.

“Hotel Artemis” shrivels up in the shadow of other, much better, films that it’s seemingly ripping off of. One can’t help but think of the Continental from “John Wick” throughout much of the film’s runtime. I was also reminded of several other grindhouse, dystopian future, and sci-fi films with more developed characters and fleshed out concepts. The film takes place in one night, with the backdrop being riots throughout the city over privatized water and a company hoarding what’s left. That actually sounds more interesting than Nurse Jean’s predicaments.

“Hotel Artemis” is so busy; it manages to glide over some of its storytelling faults, but not all of them. The film lags in certain moments, like ham-fisted exposition delivery in dialogue or lingering on its own visual aesthetics. It succeeds in banter between criminals within the hospital’s confines and slowly peeling back what makes Nurse Jean tick. Even as my mind drifted away from the premise, the movie had this knack for reeling me back in.

The acting talent brought in for this movie is impressive, but they feel like they’re playing down to the material or that they’re simply miscast. Charlie Day plays an all-talk arms dealer that should be replicating his naturally funny and manic strengths, while Sterling K. Brown, who’s shown his dramatic chops on TV, seems neutered in his range for this film. However, others, like Sofia Boutella, play well to their French femme fatale role and Bautista seems at home playing Drax-lite.

Director/writer Drew Pearce, who’s worked on “Iron Man 3” and a “Mission: Impossible” movie, seems a bit incapable of bringing it altogether. Instead of stirring all the film’s themes and ideas into a cohesive vision, he mainly paints everything in messy broad strokes that’s sometimes difficult to digest and unfortunately forgettable. There are a few things that work in “Hotel Artemis,” and in much better hands, it would have been an unforgettable film.