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: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

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: “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 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: 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.

Film Review: “Avengers: Infinity War”

Starring: Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr.
Directed By: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I can’t fathom the immense pressure the creators, directors, writers, producers and studio had going into “Infinity War.” Marvel has spent the past decade crafting content that not only stands on its own two feet, but was meticulously building towards this moment. Since Thanos first reared his ugly purple head in a post-credits scene in the first “Avengers,” fans knew that this monumental occasion was eventually going to happen. With lofty expectations, I’m happy to report that “Infinity War” delivers on nearly every level.

I usually type out a short summary or try to set-up the plot at some point early on in my reviews, but I feel like it’s a moot talking point because if you’ve kept up with the Marvel movies or have a good idea of what’s going on in them, you don’t need me to paint a picture about the Infinity Stones, the Infinity Gauntlet or the fight to save the universe. But I also know you don’t need me spoiling anything, so I’ll stay quiet on the specifics. However, I will say that it only takes the first five minutes of the film for “Infinity War” to knock viewers right in the jaw and set the tone.

Getting every character in one film, give or take a few, is an impressive feat on its own. But what’s cleverly done by Marvel’s creative crew is dividing our favorite heroes into different groups to tackle different tasks. The film pairs similar personalities that bounce or conflict well with each other. It also keeps the movie from being inordinate and having too many egos talking about the same thing or over each other, something that “Age of Ultron” ultimately suffered from. So there’s the possibility that fans of certain characters might be disappointed by the lack of screen time for their favorite hero or character.

That being said, Marvel’s gotten a lot better recently at villain building and Thanos (Brolin) may be the pinnacle. Not only is he fierce and overwhelmingly magnetic in his scenes, he’s a sadistic joy to watch stomping around the scene as he articulates his thoughts on death and the balance it creates. There’s also this shocking amount of softness to the character that we’ve rarely seen before with any other Marvel bad guy, except for maybe the one in “Black Panther.” While most of Marvel’s villains have been evil for the sake of being evil or because of their own vanity, Thanos seems genuine in his wickedness, because he’s not only a conqueror, but views himself as the universe’s scales of justice.

There’s a surprising amount of emotion and laughs mixed into the film’s bleakness and knockdown fights. “Infinity War” is never crushed under the utter weight of its own ambitions, serving up a worthy spectacle for audiences along with a captivating storyline that feels rich in content, but never bloated. This ambitious project, 10 years in the making, is not to be missed, but also raises the stakes even higher for when the Avengers assemble again in 2019.

Film Review: “Super Troopers 2”

Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske
Directed By: Jay Chandrasekhar
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sometimes you shouldn’t give the fans what they want. But the Broken Lizard comedy troupe put themselves in no-win situation by teasing for years and years that they were working on a “Super Troopers” sequel. It became a reality for thousands when they started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. By the end, they had doubled their original crowdfunding target goal. Now that the sequel has arrived, some of those 54,609 backers might keep their wallets in their pocket next time Broken Lizard comes around.

“Super Troopers 2” isn’t a complete misfire, nor is it devoid of joy or humor. So in some regards, it’s the best case scenario for a comedy sequel that comes 17 years after its predecessors and nearly a decade after the last Broken Lizard film. The way the crew gets into this film’s main plot is a bit odd and unnecessarily lengthy. When we last saw the former Vermont state troopers, Thorny (Chandrasekhar), Foster (Soter), Mac (Lemme), Rabbit (Stolhanske) and Farva (Heffernan), they had quickly shifted into their new roles as immature local police officers. This film begins with the exposition that they’ve been fired and relegated to mediocrity as lumberjacks or home construction workers.

But a new opportunity arises when a border dispute between the U.S. and Canada reveals that Vermont’s border actually stretches farther North, encompasses a small Canadian town. So the five disgraced troopers are brought in by their former Captain, John O’Hagen (Brian Cox), to set up a new patrol station and make sure the town transition is smooth. It’s a complicated and unnecessary set-up, only meant as vessel for cheap Canadian jokes, north of the border sight gags and some bad accents.

As I said, the movie isn’t completely devoid of chuckles. I was pleased to see that the film didn’t pull an “Airplane II: The Sequel” and simply rehash every quotable joke from the first film. They can’t help but regurgitate some of the more memorable jokes, like them saying “meow” and Farva’s “liter of Cola” bit, but they’re so minuscule compared to the deluge of jokes this film throws at you. You’re likely to forget how the writers were along the way. But because the jokes are so relentless, when the film does pump the brakes a little, a lot of the film’s weaker elements blossom.

The first film felt like a cast of goofballs carrying out their wildest pranks in a reality where law and order is still a thing. This film seems to live in an alternate universe where common sense and international law doesn’t exist, as if it’s a fan-made film. There are certain elements that feel more like Indiegogo requests rather than natural comedic beats for these characters. The original also had a semi-realistic plot with a passable villain while this one feels cartoonish and intentionally over-the-top. Within that 17 year timespan, the Broken Lizard game may have lost touch of what made their characters originally loveable to more than just the stoner crowd.

A good comedy sequel isn’t impossible to make. In some regards, it can be better by embracing what works best and improving upon the film’s previous faults. But because “Super Troopers” is inherently a cult classic, it could never really live up to that status. The sequel feels more like “Anchorman 2” or “Ghostbusters 2.” While “Super Troopers 2” may scratch that itch fans have been feeling for over a decade and a half, that itch won’t go away because of how unfulfilling this film is when compared to the original. Even if you enjoy yourself, you won’t be quoting this film 17 years from now or asking for “Super Troopers 3.”

Film Review: “Rampage”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Malin Akerman
Directed By: Brad Peyton
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

I remember several quarter eating games from my childhood. Most of them were first-person shooters like “House of the Dead” and “Carnevil” where it didn’t matter how good you were or if you were a sharpshooter, the game was designed to kill you so you’d have to keep pumping in change. Most other games that I would spend endless hours playing at the arcade were fun for a five-year-old boy to play, but inherently dumb because of its repeating pattern and repetitiveness. There were side-scrollers like “X-Men” and smash and destroy games like “Rampage.”

21st century video games are championed for interactive gameplay and in-depth storytelling. The games of the late 80’s and early 90’s could be crowned as mindless time wasters. That’s “Rampage” in a nutshell. How they made a movie out of that is genuinely impressive. One, because it should be towards the bottom of the list for potential big screen adaptations and second, there’s honestly not much to adapt other than the idea of giant monsters smashing buildings, something that’s already been done multiple times.

“Rampage” is like a melting pot of any Kaiju film, “Mighty Joe Young” and that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson charm we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. Johnson plays beefy anthropologist Davis Okoye, who relates more to primates than he does his human co-workers at a San Diego wildlife sanctuary. The introverted scientist can fly helicopters, has a military background, and communicates with a massive albino silverback gorilla, named George, like it’s his frat brother.

The movie quickly picks up steam when George is infected with an experimental gas. The mutating fumes are from the remnants of a company space station that was experimenting with DNA. The gas acts like a steroid to all of George’s senses, turning him into a monstrous creature overnight. He’s bigger, stronger and angrier. He’s not the only creature to get hit with a dose of plot as several other canisters of this harmful gas have landed in rural Wyoming and some Florida swamplands, infecting a wolf and crocodile.

“Rampage” is a tad too long, padding it’s runtime with a lot of unnecessary character backgrounds, silly exposition, and a quick shoehorned message about poaching. It doesn’t help that the show stopping fight between all the monsters, in downtown Chicago, feels like it takes forever to get to. The pace that it moves at feels more like a painful tease rather than an actual build-up. Johnson, like he is in most of the other sub-par films he stars in, does give an otherwise limp noodle script a bit of life.

While in 2017, we learned he’s vulnerable to a complete inadequate script (“Baywatch), 2018 seems to prove once again he can do a lot with very little. While everyone merely acts scared of the CGI monstrosity that is George, Johnson brings some warmth to a cold creature and seems to be genuinely interacting with it. Johnson, along with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Naomie Harris, provide a likeable trio of heroes looking to save lives and the life of George. But after watching scores of service men and women die while civilians flee in terror in the final act, shouldn’t George be lumped in the same category as Superman in “Man of Steel?”

When it wants to be light-hearted, “Rampage” is quite fun, but when it wants to be dark with jump scares, and scenes of death and destruction, it’s off putting to the overall vibe the movie’s trying to establish with George and his nurturing human savior, Davis. There’s fun to be had in “Rampage” as long as you understand that this is a bad movie. But just like the old “Rampage” arcade game I played in my youth, I don’t necessarily feel like I should ever revisit this one or reflect on it as anything more than a cash grab.