“First Man” Movie Review

     “First Man” brings “Whiplash” and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle into what may be perceived by most as the kind of epic and crowd pleasing material the filmmaker should certainly flourish with, particularly given the All-American vibe the story of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon conjures in the mainstream.  But like all gifted filmmakers, Chazelle chooses to follow his own unique path in telling the story, and in the process takes the portrayal of Armstrong to places many are likely unaware of.  For all the unwarranted chatter about how the film depicts the events that took place July 20, 1969, “First Man” is an emotional and thought provoking tribute to the men and women who endured endless tragedy, ridicule, and self depreciation in order for Armstrong to become the first person to walk on the moon.  The flag is always there in the background, but this story is about something significantly more important to Armstrong, as most will certainly agree after viewing the film.

     “First Man” isn’t the glossy effects spectacle which made hits such as “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, and “The Martian” the kind of escapism entertainment the masses seem to crave.  Chazelle is clearly in this to achieve something different.  A film that puts the audience directly into the shoes of the astronauts, often from their point of view and without the presence of shots outside of the space craft.  Instead, we see the same minimized view from the small port holes they are looking through, as the endless movement and shaking, combined with the kind of continuous noise that would indicate the craft could break apart at any second, rocks the senses to a point where you wonder how anyone could think clearly when they really need to.  This isn’t a pretty theatrical experience, but it just may be the most realistic one of space travel ever committed to film.

     Chazelle re-teams with his “La La Land” leading man, Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong as a quiet and focused man with an often brooding personality.  Much of this may be a result of the lingering effects from a recent and tragic loss, but it becomes clear to the decision makers that Armstrong has the chops to succeed under pressure and could be instrumental in NASA’s Space Program and goal to send a mission to the moon.  At times, it seemed as though Gosling was channeling many of the same mannerisms he utilized as “K” in the recent “Blade Runner 2049”, but there are also hints of a man whose singular focus and meticulous efforts are certain to lead to one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

     As Armstrong’s wife, Janet, Claire Foy provides the emotional spark when her husband seems to be in another place all together, at least mentally speaking.  In this era, she’s the stay at home wife who supports her husband’s career and the choices that come with it, all while raising their young children.  Of course, he spends his time training for the worst case scenario, attempting to stabilize a space craft while in a simulator that spins him every which way.  This and other training exercises in which various portions of the mission are tested out, leave many of the participants wounded or sometimes worse.  What Chazelle really hammers home here is the fact the prospects of space travel in 1969 were not easy, which also explains to a certain extent why we haven’t been to the moon since.

     The film is based on the book by James R. Hansen, who is the foremost expert on Armstrong, having spent years at his side conducting countless detailed interviews and gaining a full understanding of his experiences in the space program.  Chazelle explores a number of topics, including the Cold War competition between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to be the first to send a man to the moon, as well as the politics surrounding the event in which the cost of the program became an issue during the Civil Rights movement when activists looked at the venture as a whites only endeavor.  The script by Josh Singer ensures many of these events are worked into the background, but the focus remains on Armstrong’s journey from a test pilot and engineer to the Apollo 11 mission that ultimately achieved a goal once thought impossible.

     In his third stint in the director’s chair, Chazelle has delivered yet another awards worthy film that is certain to remain on the short list for being considered one of the best of the year.  He is clearly one of the finest young filmmakers of his generation.  Stand out supporting performances by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Jason Clarke as Edward White, and the ever dependable Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton round out an impressive ensemble that brings an undeniable chemistry to every scene.  But the most impressive sequence by far is the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon and open the hatch, revealing a barren, desolate sea of wonder and intrigue.  Those moments are some of the best you will see in any cinematic presentation intended to be a realistic portrayal of an important event in our history.  And Chazelle brings so much more to the thoughts going through Armstrong’s mind as he took those iconic steps.  Thoughts that eclipse the need to perform some random patriotic act, and instead resonate within the very things we hold closest to us, but all too often lose sight of.  GRADE A

“A Star Is Born” Movie Review


     Marking the feature writing and directing debut of Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born” revisits the story told in three previous films of the same title produced in 1937, 1954, & 1976, while modernizing key plot elements to reflect today’s climate within the entertainment industry.  And while the story may seem a bit too simple for a film expected to be a major contender come awards season, the performances by both Cooper and Lady Gaga bring an undeniable chemistry and electricity to every scene.  This is easily the best performance of Cooper’s career, besting his turn in “Silver Linings Playbook”, and made all the more impressive given the fact he is also behind the camera as well.  For Lady Gaga, with her performance being no less impactful than Cooper’s, “A Star Is Born” may serve as her feature film coming out party, similar to the kind of music fueled turn by Eminem in 2002’s “8 Mile”.  Together, they provide one of the best on screen duos of the year.

     Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a longtime country rocker whose look and music still gets him recognized on the street in between gigs and during his various tour stops from city to city.  The screenplay by Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters carefully explores what’s underneath this gruff talking Marlboro man of a character, giving the audience a true look into who he is and what has led him to the events we are witnessing on screen.  These are crucial elements to reveal early on, given the fact they will come in to play many times later.  From the visual of the packed houses Jack regularly performs in front of, you wouldn’t exactly surmise he’s a has been, merely resting on past laurels, but early dialogue also indicates he may be at the end of his road in his own mind.

     Perhaps that’s why he looks to pass on what he has learned to someone of whom he sees immense talent and is just waiting for the opportunity to shine in front of a wider audience.  After performing one night, he directs his driver to stop at a local bar which he immediately realizes upon entry is a drag bar filled with patrons there to see that night’s on stage entertainment.  Enter Ally (Lady Gaga), who steps out and onto the small stage and wows everyone in attendance, including Jack who is brought to her dressing room in hopes of meeting her.  Of course, when someone of Jack’s status walks in, those in the room immediately gravitate to his fame, but that’s not why he’s there.  He sees something in Ally.  And he wants to learn more about her.

     As romance ensues, Jack invites Ally to his next concert, having a staff member bring her just off stage to take in the guitar heavy sounds of his music.  But at a moment’s notice, Jack asks her to perform a song they sang together on the night they met, which means Ally singing in front of a massive crowd for the first time.  She hesitates initially, but something in her mind tells her to walk out there, as if this is one of those opportunities which could define her future.  The scene, which takes place early in the film’s first act, is wonderfully cinematic, as we witness a true connection on stage between two people who share a passion for the performance of music.  Now it isn’t exactly surprising when Lady Gaga belts out the words to the song in a manner we are already accustomed to hearing from her, but that’s the small downside to casting an established pop star rather than an unknown.  

     Sparks inevitably fly between the couple, but there are also important aspects of mentorship that shouldn’t go unnoticed and provide the resounding theme to the story.  Early on, Jack explains his theory that everyone has talent, but not everyone has something to say which people will actually listen to.  Artists who once hit it big, certainly want to continue to have an audience who will listen, but maintaining that level of ability and creativity is never easy.  Jack turns to alcohol during these times when he’s not sure his career will persevere and ultimately be replaced in the psyche of his once adoring fans by someone else who provides the latest sound.  When Ally takes off as a solo act, you can feel the pain inside Jack as he begins to realize his time is in the past and his future as in artist is clouded.  He’s happy for Ally, but he isn’t ready to be considered something of the past just yet.  All that is left as he ponders an uncertain future is the bottle, which as we know can lead someone to any number of dark places.

     “A Star Is Born” gains much of its strength from the supporting players who provide much needed comic relief at times, but also heartfelt compassion as those who love Jack and Ally and are there both to cheer for them in the best of times and console them when the realities of the entertainment industry begin to tear them down inside.  Of particular note is Andrew Dice Clay’s turn as Ally’s father, as well as Sam Elliott’s Bobby, who as Jack’s older brother and stage manager maintains a rocky relationship with his younger sibling due to a past neither can agree on.  And while the film is certain to garner attention for the musical contributions of Lady Gaga, there is also plenty to like from Cooper’s debut behind the camera, as he demonstrates the necessary chops to bring this story to life with the vision of a veteran filmmaker.  The result is something that feels less like a major Hollywood production, and more like a character driven indie where the audience finds themselves looking directly into the souls of two people living through the kind of experiences most only dream of.  GRADE: A

“The Predator” Movie Review


     Writer / director Shane Black’s “The Predator” isn’t a great film by any stretch, but it is serviceable, and at least there’s a clear and discernible effort to step outside the lines established by the series’ 1987 original, rather than simply regurgitating what made that film a classic.  It’s no coincidence Black finds himself at the helm of the latest film in the creature franchise, given his appearance in the original as “Hawkins”, which establishes a sort of lineage to the material, but also his chops as a screenwriter, particularly in this genre, are well suited for the material.  Successful outings directing “Iron Man 3” and “The Nice Guys” can’t hurt either, though “The Predator” is set up as more of an ensemble piece, rather than the star driven casts that make his previous efforts more notable.  In this case, the actual star characters aren’t from this world.

     Black sets up the story utilizing a number of familiar 80s tropes, including his positioning of a young child at the forefront of the action and decision making processes throughout the film, which was a hallmark of nearly every Spielberg film of the era.  In the opening sequence, we meet McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a decorated Army sniper currently on a mission to bag a couple of drug cartel kingpins somewhere in Mexico.  But suddenly an unidentified space craft crashes near by, and McKenna, along with his team, encounters the Predator having just landed after his ship was damaged during a battle in space.  McKenna survives, and also manages to lift pieces of armor from the ship, including the Predator’s face mask, while successfully escaping before government agents arrive on scene.

     McKenna is apprehended and brought back to the U.S., but not before mailing the alien items home, where his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), a boy genius, intercepts the package and prods the Predator technology for clues.  This results  in another Predator, flying around somewhere in space, monitoring the location of the devices and soon arriving on Earth for  reasons explained later.  Meanwhile, a secretive government agency enlists the services of Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), looking to tap into her expertise as a lauded biologist from Johns Hopkins University, though the reasoning for her sticking around the entire film is paper thin at best.  

     “The Predator” is a direct sequel to the events of the 1987 and 1990 films in that the leader of the agency investigating our visitors, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), indicates their knowledge of what happened in both films, which leads to the present where the Predator McKenna ran into in Mexico is now captured and being studied.  But in similar fashion to the storyline in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, the government has chosen to keep their operation top secret, and expendable soldiers like McKenna are either killed or sent to a place where they will never be heard from again in order to keep what they have witnessed under wraps.  And as McKenna is being bused to his certain fate along with a rag tag group of misfit ex-military types, all hell breaks loose when the bus arrives at the agency’s location at the request of Casey who insists on interviewing McKenna.

     Black’s script, which was co-written with Fred Dekker, is punched up with a litany of vulgar dialogue delivered mostly by those same misfits I spoke of earlier, which include Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes).  Each are charged throughout with delivering the jokes and one liners that are very much in the same spirit as Black’s “Hawkins” did in the original film.  And given this is the fourth film in the series (unless you count those two awful “Alien vs Predator” mashups), you had to figure the filmmakers would up the gore factor considerably, as the dozens of people killed are shot, knifed, beheaded, slashed, and literally torn apart in the most gruesome of ways.  But that would be expected right?

     Fact is, the Predator creatures and the spiffy weapons and tech that come with them are a novelty that has long worn off given their appearance in five other films, leaving the filmmakers who tackle this material with the gargantuan task of somehow presenting something that feels fresh and original.  Unfortunately, Black isn’t able to come up with a sequence that sets itself apart from any of the previous films or films of the genre for that matter.  It’s much of the same car chases, gun fights, and Predator mayhem we’ve seen done countless times, but instead of playing everything serious, each scene is packed with comedy in the face of death, even from the Predators themselves.  And while some of this will definitely garner laughs from the audience, it’s not enough to carry the entire film.  At some point, there has to be a certain amount of substance, and the film’s third act simply can’t recover from all of the one liners, especially when the human characters begin to do things physically speaking that are either impossible or highly improbable to simply get up and walk away from.

     The characters themselves are probably as entertaining as Dutch and company were in the 1987 classic, but the storyline is choppy and often times more complicated than it really needs to be.  I liked Nimrod Antal’s and Robert Rodriguez’s collaboration on 2010’s “Predators” in which the off world action seemed to resonate with the story in a way that having the title characters invade Earth does not.  Perhaps if you could take Black’s colorful script and inject it into the 2010 film, you just might have the perfect “Predator”.  Of course, we get one of those in “The Predator” as well, but the juiced up version doesn’t bring anything new to the table, unless you really like dogs.  GRADE: C

“The Nun” Movie Review


     As with any successful horror franchise, the decision makers behind them want to ensure the coffers remain full.  And the quickest most expedient method to do so is obviously making more films set within or around the respective storylines of the original.  Both 2013’s “The Conjuring” and it’s sequel, 2016’s “The Conjuring 2” reinvigorated familiar horror tropes and created a seemingly endless array of possibilities for future installments, given the films centered on real life 1970s ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren and their most widely known cases.  The fact one of the opening scenes in “The Conjuring” reveals a secured room in the couple’s home full of demonized relics from the past, was a certain indication there were already budding plans for a “Conjuring” universe.  

     2014’s “Annabelle”, a subpar attempt at giving minor “Conjuring” characters their own spin off, began the process of establishing a horror universe two year before “The Conjuring 2” arrived in theaters.  “Annabelle: Creation” followed in 2017, which leads the series to its latest installment, “The Nun “, an origin story based on the frightening demonic spirit which terrorized the Warrens in “The Conjuring 2”.  Of course, what made the chief antagonist of that film so effectively scary was how little we actually saw.  The painting itself could easily serve as a source of nightmares, allowing for both the characters and the audience to feel the spirit’s presence without actually being in the scene.  With that, origin stories can be a tough sell, as there is really no way around the need to visually depict the character we are learning about.

     And that’s where “The Nun” begins to falter since the consistent up close and personal encounters reveal nothing more than something resembling one of the zombies in Michael Jackson’s thriller video dressed up as a nun.  Of course, the many scenes within a graveyard setting seem to reenforce that thought on a consistent basis.  It also doesn’t help when those comically overused horror cliches become the crutch of nearly every scene.  Convenient aspects of the narrative put the characters in positions to fail, whereas anyone with any common sense would either go the other direction or get as far away from the potential source of harm as they possibly could.  There’s absolutely nothing funnier in a horror film these days, then when the characters make dumb decisions.

     Set in Romania in the year 1952, the story begins with a nun taking her own life as an entire abbey has been overrun by an evil spirit, leaving the once holy place as a dark and deserted crumbling building in what appears to be the middle of nowhere.  In other words, a great setting for a horror movie!  A local from a distant town happens upon the building and discovers the hanging corpse of the nun, deciding to move her body into the building’s refrigerator until authorities can arrive.  Word of the incident spreads to the Vatican, who then dispatches Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a priest who investigates miracles and otherworldly occurrences.  Accompanying him is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a nun who, as we are told countless times throughout, has yet to take her vows, and doesn’t appear to have any business in this story whatsoever (Taissa is the younger sister of Vera who plays Lorraine Warren in “The Conjuring”).  The duo arrives in Romania and connects with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), the local who found the body of the dead nun.

     They make their way to the abbey, and as you might expect, the creep factor is ratcheted up to full volume the second they enter the secluded building’s dark and creaky rooms.  The person that greets them is a cloaked figure who speaks in the voice of an older woman and sits on a throne located in the center of the main room.  They never see her face, nor do they know who she is or what standing she has within the abbey.  And yet, when she tells them they must stay the night because the answers they are looking for won’t reveal themselves until the next day, they happily comply.  If it’s me, I’m hightailing it outta there!  You can always come back right?  But of course, these lame and over serious characters decide to stay, setting up the obligatory “things that go bump in the night scenarios” we’ve seen in countless films before, including both “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2”.

     While the director of “The Conjuring” films, James Wan, was off hopefully saving the DC Universe with the upcoming “Aquaman”, Corin Hardy takes the reigns on this one, with a screenplay by “It” scribe Gary Dauberman.  But the filmmakers are unable to recreate the tone and underlying feeling of dread that allowed the previous films in the series to set themselves apart from the $5 Walmart Blu ray bin where you typically find the kind of horror film “The Nun” actually is.  There is not one notable set piece to be found in its 96 minute running time , nor is there anything someone over the age of about 12 would consider scary.  Now I’m not gonna say the third act is preposterous since we are talking about fictional things which don’t exist anyway, but the manner in which the situation is resolved completely defies any kind of logic the film might’ve hoped to have.  There is welcome connective tissue presented both at the beginning and the end that links the events in the film with “The Conjuring” films, but all that really does is remind you of the sharp drop in quality we have just witnessed.  GRADE: D

“Mile 22” Movie Review

     The gritty action drama, “Mile 22”, the fourth collaboration between director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, explores the international espionage meets black ops genre with plenty of real world sub text, even though the story itself is fictional.  First time scribe, Lea Carpenter, provides the various goings on based on a story by Graham Roland, which takes the viewer into the operations side of an off the radar hit team, but within circumstances that tend to feel all too familiar.  For Wahlberg, who seems to specialize in these types of roles, the proceedings bring back much of the same imagery employed in “Lone Survivor” and “Patriots Day”, only this time the plot devices are the oft used “weapons of mass destruction materials which have fallen into the wrong people’s hands" scenario.  A storyline we just watched a few weeks ago in “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”.

     Nonetheless, Berg moves from scene to scene via a frenetic pace and with razor sharp efficiency.  Melissa Lawson Cheung and Colby Parker Jr. turn in a tightly wound 95 minute edit that never once seems to hold a shot for more than a second.  It’s the kind of film that wants to show you a lot, but knows you’ll stop paying attention if any real exposition delays the arrival of the next action sequence.  Welcome to the video game era of filmmaking.  

     The opening sequence gives us our first taste of James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) and his team of operatives in action.  As drones bring a watchful eye from the sky, the team hears carefully formulated instructions and intelligence updates from Bishop (John Malkovich), giving the team every advantage as they move closer to their target.  That target happens to be a Russian safe house located in an unsuspecting middle class neighborhood where we are to assume those inside are planning all sorts of atrocities against the United States.  With a perimeter set around the house, two of the team members employ a ruse by knocking on the door and asking for directions.  With sudden and brutal force, the duo, led by Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan), enter the home when the door is answered, followed by others in the team who then sweep for hidden bad guys and look for techno stuff like hard drives and computers.

     As with most operations of this type in movies, not everything goes as planned, as the team loses one of the members, and the order is given to kill all of the occupants inside.  And this is just the tip of the ice berg.  When the team returns to a fictional country’s American Embassy, they immediately begin to grapple with the validity of one of Kerr’s sources who provided the intel on the target.  That source, a local police officer named Li Noor (Iko Uwais), abruptly turns himself in at the Embassy, while carrying what appears to be a hard drive in his hand.  His terms are simple.  The drive, which comically is said to have a mechanism that will automatically self destruct the device in eight hours, contains password protected information on the locations of some kind of radioactive dust that can be used to construct a devastating dirty bomb.  Noor requests to be flown out of the country and into the United States where he will request asylum in exchange for the password to the drive.  Time is, of course, in the essence.  

     The film’s title simply refers to the number of miles between the Embassy and the air strip where the plane awaiting Noor will be located.  And you can bet Silva and his team will have plenty to deal with on the way.  In addition to Silva and Kerr, the team also includes Sam Snow, played by Ronda Rousey who finds herself back within her “The Expendables 3” element, displaying plenty of ability to handle a weapon and match up against the never ending supply of henchmen available to the other side.  And if you have seen “The Raid: Redemption” and “The Raid 2”, then Uwais needs no introduction either, bringing his patented brand of Indonesian marital arts to the already bombastic sequences of gun play, explosions, and killings of all kinds.  In between, we are treated to an endless supply of F words, which seems to be the chosen level of conversation these super spies prefer to engage in, plus the notion that the team’s leader, Silva, is himself a psychopath.  At a minimum, he’s certainly on edge, as is demonstrated by the rubber band he wears on his right wrist that he constantly snaps against his skin throughout the entire film.

     Overseeing all of this is a group of nameless Russians whose scenes are intercut with the action, as well as closeups of Trump and Obama bobbleheads that grace the work stations of the “Mother” team keeping a close eye on our ground operatives.  It’s as if to say the filmmakers view our relationship with Russia as that of being in another Cold War, only this time being fought within a treacherous maze of zeroes and ones as the battle is now significantly more high tech than the bombs and bullets that made up our past fears.  And in similar fashion to popular television shows like “24” and “Homeland”, or even the aforementioned “Mission: Impossible” films, “Mile 22” tells the story of the men and women whose job it is to stop terrible things from happening before any of us could ever imagine it.  Problem is, all of this has been done before, and at a much higher level.  GRADE: C+

“BlacKkKlansman” Movie Review


     Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” stands as the director’s finest work in years, and certainly his most important given our society’s current state of division on the topic of race.  By telling a true story dated in 1979, Lee sets out to indicate an obvious juxtaposition between the era on screen and the politics and agendas we deal with today, making the case that not much has changed as people have only dug in further within their beliefs.  If Lee is correct, than our future as a country is bleak at best.  And I don’t believe he intended on making a cautionary tale, but rather a demonstration of our current state of affairs, and the potential consequences of continuing to follow along this same path.  Much like recent films such as “12 Years A Slave” and “Mudbound”, “BlacKkKlansman” reminds us of our often sad and regretful history, but has a unique way of slapping you upside the head in order to ensure you realize all of this is still going on right now.

     In the opening scenes, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) arrives for his interview with the Colorado Springs Police Department, wide eyed and prepared to fulfill his dream of becoming a police officer.  In fact, he is about to become the first African-American police officer in the department's history, a distinction those interviewing him are obviously aware of as they prod him with questions involving his potential reaction to other officers using racial slurs around him and towards him.  The answers to these questions all come in the form of carefully pronounced dialogue so as to make one think he is simply speaking like a white person would (He later tells someone he speaks both regular English and Jive), which is to say he presents himself in a way that ensures he will get the position, avoiding the stereotypes that come with the use of street jargon.  This, of course, will come in handy later.  Ron gets the job, but is relegated to the records room where his day to day duties include fetching records for less than patient white officers who look to test the rookie’s patience with unnecessary below the belt comments about suspects whose skin color is the same as his.

     There are; however, people within the department who champion Ron’s advancement, including Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), one of the men responsible for his hire, and someone who would seem to benefit from the success an African-American officer could bring to the agency.  After a short stint in his first assignment, Ron is transferred to Narcotics in order to work undercover during a planned speaking engagement at a local college featuring a known Black Power advocate named Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins).  This leads to a fledgling relationship with the organizer of the event, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who seems engrossed by Ture’s teachings and as a result believes all cops are “pigs”.  An incident involving a racist local cop the night of the event only fuels her beliefs, as well as those around her, putting Ron in the precarious position of maintaining his cover and not divulging his true identity.

     Chief Bridges again transfers Ron, this time to the position of Intelligence Detective.  Soon after, a chance reading of an ad for the local Ku Klux Klan chapter sparks an undercover phone call by Ron to the chapter’s recruiter.  And guess what? The two of them hit it off over the phone!  So much so, that Ron is summoned to meet the chapter’s members in person, which puts in motion an operation that has his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), attending the meetings posing as him.  Doing so indicates the hateful and despicable group is up to no good, which pushes Ron and Flip into a full fledged investigation into the chapter in order to find out what nefarious act they are planning.  Is it just hateful talk? Or will they follow through on the terrible crimes they are describing to one another all in an effort to spread their moronic message and hurt innocent and unsuspecting people?  As the plot advances, Lee sets up quite the scenario, all of which is told in a manner where you could easily believe much of it could and does happen today.

     Working from the actual Ron Stallworth’s book, Lee and screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott skillfully weave each scene to echo today’s unquestionable racial divide.  Remembering when the story takes place, you have characters who converse about the hate filled rhetoric of Klan leader David Duke (played in the film by Topher Grace), only to ponder how unlikely it would be that someone with much of the same beliefs could someday find their way into the White House.  There are a number of obvious references throughout the film that point to the connection some believe exists between the Klan leader and our current President.  And there is no question at all what Lee’s intent is by telling the story in the first place.  A villainous creep named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, played by none other than Alec Baldwin, spews a hate filled racist monologue as the film opens, cut against scenes from 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” and 1939’s “Gone With The Wind” in an effort to point out how black people were portrayed in film throughout history.

     When the film ends, rather than running the end credits, Lee cuts directly to startling footage from a year ago in Charlottesville, West Virginia, as hoards of white supremacists and neo Nazis  marched in protest of the removal of several Confederate statues located on the college campus there.  We then see President Trump’s press conference in the aftermath where he tells the press each side was culpable for what occurred and failed to denounce the actions of a clearly racist faction that is still very much alive within our society.  Lee’s inclusion of this segment wasn't necessary to get his point across, given the superlatives of “BlacKkKlansman” does that just fine and with a razor sharp effectiveness.  Adding the Charlottesville footage seemed like overkill after he so skillfully told a story that to any intelligent member of the audience would certainly drive home the point he is trying to make.

     If you have watched the HBO series “Ballers”, than you are already well aware of John David Washington and his ability to play against the likes of Dwayne Johnson and steal the show with effortless charisma and charm.  “BlacKkKlansman” allows Washington a role which not only exhibits his enormous talents, but also one that tells the world he has without question arrived and is a force to reckoned with.  One of things I really loved was how he exuded the passion for being a cop and doing what was right, even in the face of adversity coming both from his superiors, as well as Patrice and the Black Power movement who see him as a sell out.  Driver is also solid as his Jewish American partner who he himself contends with consistently hiding his true heritage in order to be accepted within the mainstream.  But it’s Spike Lee who expertly puts all of this together, resulting in an often hilarious take on subject matter that would otherwise be difficult to watch.  “BlacKkKlansman” is one of the best films of the year, and stands as one of Lee’s best amongst his already impressive body of work (“He Got Game” & “Clockers” are two of my favorite films).  The only problem is us.  Will we heal our divide?  Or will the hate in this country be the final nail in society’s coffin?  GRADE: A

“Eighth Grade” Movie Review


     There’s an unmistakable authenticity during every moment of writer/director Bo Burnham’s feature debut, “Eighth Grade”, a coming of age story providing a modern twist on everyday life as experienced by angst-ridden middle schoolers, as well as the pitfalls that come with our social media driven society.  Depending on your age and whether or not you’ve had children of your own, the story Burnham sets out to tell may prove shocking when you realize the lead character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is an accurate portrayal of today’s junior high aged children and the challenges they face daily to fit in, while constantly being bombarded by the highlight reels of others on Instagram and Snapchat and the feelings of not measuring up to what others are perceived to have.  As painfully ordinary as Kayla is, we quickly realize this is the new normal.  A notion we may dismiss as nothing more than a cautionary tale, but would be wise to examine further in order to avoid devastating future consequences for our children.

     George Carlin used to talk about how all a young child needed to play and entertain himself for hours was a stick found somewhere in the backyard.  You could dig holes, play with the critters you might unearth, and enjoy nature the way it was intended.  Today’s kids don't seem interested in the backyard anymore, instead choosing to spend hours cooped up in their bedrooms aimlessly staring at the social media feeds of their peers, as they conjure ongoing plans to trump up their own profiles in an effort to show their lives are full of good times and enviable experiences as well, even when it’s not truth.  You almost can’t help but feel bad for Kayla during the first handful of scenes in which we see her filming herself in her bedroom for a YouTube channel she has concocted where viewers will learn about her philosophies of teen existence.  Problem is, no one is watching, all the while others in her class enjoy the popularity of well followed Instagram feeds filled with likes, comments, and direct messages inquiring about their utterly fabulous lives.  It’s really sad, isn’t it?

     Yes, instead of focusing on learning, today’s kids are engulfed in a constant state of techno driven psycho babble, scrolling and posting their way through endless gigabytes of photos, videos, emojis, and poorly written text blurbs that do nothing for them other than activate an array of negative impulses.  And we, the parents, are actually allowing this to happen at an alarmingly young age.  Perhaps no circumstance in “Eighth Grade” better demonstrates the plight parents face with their kids than a scene where Kayla and her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), are having dinner at home.  Mark is desperately trying to connect with Kayla through real conversation, but finds it difficult since she is busy looking at her phone and has a pair of headphones in her ears.  Rather than disallowing her phone at the dinner table, Mark attempts to talk over whatever it is that is currently distracting Kayla, but her response proves disrespectful, as she ignores her father in favor of her social media feed.  It’s as if her only concern is what other people are doing at the moment.  People who likely no more than acquaintances, if that.

     And if the social media influences aren't enough, Burnham ensures the elephant in classrooms across the country today is addressed by having his characters receive in school instruction from a Police Officer on how to react when an Active Shooter threat is present on campus.  None of the kids really seem to take it seriously, as they sit under their desks during a drill and simply whip out their phones to see who posted what in the few minutes since they last checked.  Meanwhile, Kayla checks her YouTube account, revealing to the audience that most of her videos haven't even been watched one time.  Things do look up momentarily; however, when she is invited by the mom of the most popular girl in school to her daughter’s birthday party, but soon the dread of fitting into an uncharted social situation begins to envelop Kayla’s mind to the point where she isn’t sure if she really wants to go.

     Through all of it, Burnham injects a number of positive and heartwarming moments in the third act that give Kayla some light at the end of the tunnel as she prepares to transition from middle school to high school.  The aforementioned birthday party becomes an opportunity to meet Gabe (Jake Ryan), a kid who shares a lot more in common with Kayla than does her middle crush and resident bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael).  In addition, high school shadow day introduces Kayla to Olivia (Emily Robinson), a super positive senior to be who brings Kayla under her wing and exposes her to some of the obstacles ahead.  Still though, one has to wonder how this generation will ultimately succeed with so much superfluous information constantly pinging within their brains.  Add to that, the constant threat of a tragic school shooting and it’s a wonder these kids actually learn anything.  A thought that really makes you respect the job our teachers are doing on a daily basis, as they contend with an ever-growing list of impossible issues in the classroom.

     There have been several films over the years that have explored the relationship between kids and social media with varying degrees of extreme circumstance.  On one end of the spectrum, you have 2013’s “Disconnect”, which examined, among other things, the effects of cyber bullying and the devastating potential consequences that can result. On the other end, you have 2015’s “Unfriended”, which exploited the topic by using social media as a plot device furthering a supernatural horror premise.  Burnham, perhaps for the first time in a film, has indicated the very ordinary nature of every day children and their consistent exposure to these digital platforms without working in some extreme consequence to their behavior.  In other words, this is something everyone is doing, even though they know it might be bad for them, or as “Eighth Grade” demonstrates, it has apparently become a societal norm.  A norm that somehow has resulted in a near one thousand dollar phone in every kid’s pocket.  I guess we must’ve ran out of sticks. 


“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” Movie Review


     The “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, having launched in 1996, has now spanned over two decades and six films, which in most cases means some sort of reinvention in order to keep the story fresh and ultimately consumable by today’s audiences.  Somehow, the “M:I” films have maintained a similar tone and story structure, while also keeping the core actors intact from film to film, and simply introducing a different foil in the form of a villain, or at least someone whose loyalties to one side or the other remains in question throughout.  With the formula remaining consistent, the filmmakers behind the “M:I” franchise have taken a page out of the uber successful “Fast and Furious” film franchise by upping the ante each time out with death defying stunt work and action sequences that seem to get even more heart stopping and outrageous from film to film.  

     Returning to his writing and directing duties, of which he proved incredibility skilled the last time out with “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”, is Christopher McQuarrie with “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”, an all out action fan’s dream of a film whose two and half hour running time seems to go by as fast as a two minute roller coaster ride.  To say the least, what McQuarrie and his talented actors and crew have accomplished here is something often not seen when a franchise reaches its sixth film and hasn’t rebooted with new lead characters.  “Fallout” rocks you to the core with a series of breathtaking set pieces that continue the franchise’s ability to deliver the kind of creative and jaw dropping excitement which clearly outpaces the last installment and sets the bar high enough that one can’t imagine how they’ll top themselves in the next one.  Put simply, this is first class work by all involved.

     Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, and his IMF team, yet again, has their hands full with a terrorist organization hell bent on setting off a nuclear bomb and creating, as they say throughout, the kind of suffering necessary to essentially reset human kind and change the world permanently with one swift blow.  During the film’s first act, as we see Hunt and his team, including Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), attempt to recover a suitcase full of plutonium that has fallen into the wrong hands, I began to think about how often filmmakers use nuclear weapons and the necessary ingredients needed to construct them as the McGuffin which sends our globetrotting heroes from location to location in an effort to keep these dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands.  The filmmakers certainly could’ve gone that direction, but fortunately, the twists, turns, and double-crosses this series is famous for go well beyond the standard “terrorists in possession of nukes” formula.

     Given the past exploits of the IMF, as well as the uncertainty of their most recent operation, the CIA inserts an agent named August Walker (Henry Cavill) on Hunt’s team, as they embark on a mission to contact a broker who can lead them to the plutonium.  Cavill provides a tremendous presence, injecting a notable brute force in the manner his character prefers to handle situations which meshes well with Cruise’s Hunt and proves to be a worthy partner when muscle is needed to dispatch the henchmen they inevitable come into contact with as they move closer to their target.  Cavill's work far exceeds his turn as Superman in “Man of Steel” and “Justice League”, as well as his role as a CIA operative in 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, and is clearly the best performance of his young career. We also welcome the return of MI6 Agent Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who runs an operation parallel to Hunt’s, but whose interests might differ.  Hunt’s “Rogue Nation” nemesis, Soloman Lane (Sean Harris), also makes a haunting return.  McQuarrie’s script expertly puts these characters in positions where their intentions remain in question as the third act leads them into a multitude of scenarios you won’t see coming, leading to an appreciation for the craft on display here.

     Cruise, who at 56 years old still remains an astonishing physical presence, pushes his character to the physical extreme, showcasing the ability to not only complete dangerous stunt work, but also the fitness to sprint long distances, scale buildings and rock walls, and jump from roof top to roof top in a manner which shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.  His work in this film will amaze you, and will certainly be enough to adequately remove the thought of his most recent misfire, “The Mummy”, from your mind and replace it with his portrayal of the character he was clearly born to play.  By the time the next installment arrives, Cruise himself may be pushing 60, but I wouldn’t bet on any sort of evolution in the character where he slows down and uses brains instead of braun.  It’s just not how Cruise and his character are wired.

     As for the “M:I” franchise, “Fallout” is as satisfying an entry as we’ve seen in any long running film series, and stands as one of the best films of 2018 thus far.  It’s entirely unlikely we will see another film this year that will pack this kind of adrenaline fueled punch, while also maintaining the smarts and intelligence we often note when viewing the other films in the series.   “Fallout” is the sort of film that will leave you shaken as you walk out of the theater attempting to process and piece together everything you’ve just witnessed and experienced.  Rather than allowing the film to delve into the category of disposable and forgettable entertainment, McQuarrie and Cruise ensure “Fallout” will imprint itself within your psyche and stay awhile.  GRADE: A   

“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” Movie Review

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

     Not long ago, I was reading an article in the local paper which explored the question as to whether artists should be required to play their hit songs during concerts, in addition to the less popular songs comprising their current album which is the likely reason for their tour in the first place.  This thought came to mind while viewing “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”, the new sequel/prequel to the enormously successful first film, “Mamma Mia!”, which came out almost exactly ten years ago this month in 2008.  

     The lengthy time frame between films could easily be explained, given the difficulties the filmmakers most certainly experienced attempting to unearth another set of ABBA pop songs for use within the story, something which the filmmakers luckily inherited the first time around since that film was based on the pre-existing stage show.  But has writer/directer Ol Parker taken a tremendous risk with the sequel in attempting to build a new story around songs that never became popular some 40 years ago when they debuted?  And does he succumb to the temptation of having his all-star cast simply sing hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” all over again so as to ensure fans don't leave disappointed?  The answer is a combination of both, just as you might've guessed.

     There’s one thing you should know going into “Here We Go Again”.  If you're expecting to see Meryl Streep once again leading the cast as Donna, you’re bound to be disappointed.  She appears in one scene during the entire film.  The audience is told why almost immediately, and the result is an emotional letdown that quickly makes you wonder if the story moving forward can survive without her.  The film certainly benefits from the extended flashback sequences that take up nearly half of the running time and in some ways make up for Streep’s absence, but each time we are back in the present day, the story seems to falter, particularly given the fact there are no real stakes this time for any of the characters involved.

     Essentially, that present day story revolves around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her near complete renovation of the once falling apart Greek hotel once owned by her mother, Donna (Steep).  To celebrate, she has planned a grand opening day party, inviting her three dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Harry (Colin Firth), as well as Donna’s former band mates, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).  So the gang is certainly all here, and game as ever to perform ABBA’s back catalog titles, glamorously choreographed as they are.  But as I said, the emotional weight to any of this is gone and what there is in the form of a few minor plot twists are all but resolved about half way through, leaving the third act to feel as though they couldn't think of anything else for the characters to do before wrapping up and rolling the credits.

     In the flashback sequences, we see the flings mentioned in Donna’s diary in the first film play out, as she meets Harry, Bill, and Sam for the first time at some point in the late 1970s.  Played by Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, and Jeremy Irvine, the trio find themselves in the company of a young and independent Donna, taking the form of Lily James, who provides a wonderful early look at the character during a time where she was still trying to find her purpose in life.  Problem is, the few minutes all of this is addressed in the first film seems adequate to me.  Is it really necessary to watch as she meets these three guys in different situations over a period of about three weeks, just so things we already know are memorialized on screen.  Quite frankly, there isn't much to it either.  

     Each of these scenes provides an opportunity for a musical number, but the staging of these scenes carry zero weight since we already know the outcome.  We already know Sam was engaged.  We already know he leaves to break it off, only to return for Donna and find she has moved on with someone else.  The adult versions of all of these characters fully explained that in the first film.  If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s getting to see the early exploits of Donna’s band, with a young Tonya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and a young Rosie (Alexa Davies) performing at the Greek hotel for the very time and winning plenty of new fans in the process.

     Some of this; however, is so pedestrian, that you can’t really blame Parker for going back to the well and having his characters perform a few of the ABBA songs you’ll actually know in order to maintain the lively and happy tone the first film so masterfully displayed.  A sequence in which a fleet of fishermen approaching the island by boat gleefully singing Dancing Queen to the delight of onlookers awaiting their arrival is sure to bring an instant smile to your face, but scenes like these are few and far between. 

     The filmmakers knew this, and even go as far as to introduce Cher into the mix, appearing as Donna’s absentee mother (Sophie’s grandmother) for a party she was apparently not invited to, so as to liven up the ending a bit.  And given her talents, it’s no surprise she is belting out lyrics just minutes after her entrance.  It’s as if the entire cast was suddenly invited to a Cher concert where she does exclusive covers of ABBA b-sides!.  Not all of this is exactly a bad thing however.  “Here We Go Again” still manages to be a fun time at the movies and there’s no doubt the entire cast had a really good time putting it all together.  One has to question the creative decisions involving Streep’s character, but at least the filmmakers understood the importance of playing the hits we all came to see.  GRADE: C+

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Movie Review


     The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to amaze, as its now 20th feature film, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, flies into theaters barely two months after the massively successful “Avengers: Infinity War” shook fandom to its core with the jaw dropping reality of half of the universe’s inhabitants disappearing with one snap of Thanos’ finger.  Given the fact the first “Ant-Man” (2015) set the stage for what has become the lighter side of the MCU, you’d have to figure the filmmakers would have a problem utilizing the same comical tone after what we just saw transpire in “Infinity War”, but the work around here is a rather obvious one.  “Ant-Man and the Wasp” takes place after the events of “Captain America: Civil War”, and before the events of “Infinity War”, giving way to what is essentially a continuation of the first film, albeit with the consequences of “Civil War” directly influencing the narrative.

     Returning for the sequel is director Peyton Reed, whose work on the original more than justified his suitability for the project.  Sometimes, certain types of material are found to be exactly what the filmmaker was born to do, and it certainly appears this is the case with “Ant-Man” and Reed, particularly given a now proven sense of comic timing with both his actors, as well as his writing team that includes Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari, and star Paul Rudd.  Rudd also feels right home, having grown into this character with the aforementioned appearances in “Ant-Man” and “Civil War”, but is also seen here clearly in the kind of rhythm that has made Scott Lang feel like the kind of person you would want to hang out with.  When he’s not out fighting bad guys as Ant-Man of course.

     The storyline this time features an entirely different kind of scenario with potentially bigger stakes.  Lang (Paul Rudd) is finishing multiple years of house arrest which is the result of his participation with Captain America during the events of “Civil War”.  He still frequently hangs out with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), although the two are confined to his residence when figuring out inventive ways to entertain themselves.  Apparently, the house arrest situation is so serious, that when the ankle monitor moves an inch off his property, the FBI arrives in full force and searches the premise for any wrongdoing.  I take it the federal government doesn't want Lang reprising his Ant-Man role any time soon.

     Meanwhile, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), continue their research into the Quantum Realm and the ongoing quest to find Pym’s long lost wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer).  In a flashback sequence, we see the original Ant-Man and Wasp, who then were Dr. Hank Pym and Janet, as they save the world at the expense of Janet entering the Quantum Realm with no path for her return.  Now in the present day, Pym and Hope have worked under the radar to find a way into the Realm and attempt a rescue some thirty years later.  Reed has worked a nefarious technology dealer, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), into the mix as the person Hope deals with in order to acquire the parts necessary to build the machine that will take them to rescue her mother.  But there is something else lurking within the shadows.

     A mysterious being, dubbed the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), is also interested in Dr. Pym’s work and seeks to steal it for another use.  All of this leads to Lang re-teaming with Pym and Hope, who has now become the Wasp, in an effort to regain the stolen tech necessary to accomplish their very personal mission.  A lot of this may sound serious in nature, but that’s not what Reed and his team are going for.  “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a bonafide laugh fest, firing both the spoken and visual gags in such a rapid manner that you likely will never stop smiling.  It’s the kind of feel good atmosphere where even the bad guys joke around, or in most cases are made the center of the joke whether they like it or not.  Contributing greatly to this, just as he did in “Ant-Man”, is Michael Pena, who returns as Lang’s fellow convict turned business partner Luis.

     As a duo, Ant-Man and Wasp work well together and are certainly effective against lower level threats.  I say this since both are listed as being a part of next summer’s “Infinity War” sequel, but I’m not exactly sure just how well they will match up against the likes of Thanos, unless Dr. Pym is able to cook something up involving the Quantum Realm.  And while it may be far fetched to think characters like these would make a difference in the bigger picture, it seems plausible that the timing of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” could lead to a more significant role for the pair, particularly since many of the heroes we are counting on have recently vanished into thin air.  Either way, the film serves as yet another reminder of the unstoppable power of the MCU, its characters, and the audiences they command.  And there’s no better example of this than when we sit through the end credits of each film awaiting a mid/post credits scene, which for “Ant-Man and the Wasp” completely abandons the aforementioned comic tone, choosing instead to follow the shocking lead of its predecessor.   GRADE: B+