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Watch the first two stories
18 December 2018
I'm not sure if I have ever seen a more eclectic mix of stories. Sure, going in I understood that this movie was comprised of six independent vignettes, but I assumed they would have some similar elements other than they all take place in the old west. Nope. That's it. That's the only common thread between them. Other than that, they could not be more different.

The first of the stories will tickle you. It's the one for which the movie is named, and it delivers something silly, fun and oddly hilarious. Buster Scruggs galivants around as if he is the baddest man on the planet, who also happens to be well-mannered and charmingly whimsical in his way of speaking. He has his fun with a bar full of criminals and later breaks into a song dance that is equal parts delightful and unexpected.

James Franco stars in the second vignette as a bank robber who tests his fortune at skirting death without ever losing his sense of humor. It's a perfect Coen brothers story. From there, the stories shift into the bleak and depressing with startlingly abruptness. The third story (starring Liam Neeson) is so depressing that it still hasn't left me and may not for some time.

Each subsequent story crushed me deeper into despair until the entire film ended on an existential conversation that left me sad and scared.

It's tough to review a film like this in its totality because the separate stories within it vary wildly in plot, tone, and quality. I give the Coen brothers credit for their audacity and willingness to attempt something so bold and unusual. I also give them credit for making a few excellent stories. But I also dock them for making one overflowing bucket of sadness, and one heady, meandering debate about life and probably lots of other things that probably went over my head.

On the whole, actually, never mind. I don't want to give an overall rating. My advice is to watch the first two then stop. You'll likely leave entertained and free from the despair that comes in the following tales.
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Creed II (2018)
Ryan Coogler's deft touch could have made this great
15 December 2018
The best moments of 'Rocky/Creed' movies are the ones that make you feel something. Creed II contains a few of those-perhaps not as many as you'd like but a few. Adonis "Donny" Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) continue to share charming, effortless chemistry, leading to a few of those moving moments. Other moments come ringside when Donny and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) exchange motivating words as the music swells, our pulses rise, and we slide to the edges of our seats. These moments are present in Creed II, but they don't pack the same punch as they have at their best, like in the first 'Creed' or 'Rocky.' There's something missing in the buildup and execution of these moments, and I suspect that that something is the delicate touch of director Ryan Coogler and the originality of first film in the series. Being the seventh film in this franchise, Creed II faced an uphill battle in the originality department. By now, we all know the beats and how the story arch is likely to play out. But this story felt like it should have been the first and most obvious one pitched in the writer's room and one that should not have been the final choice. It's tricky to describe what I mean without mentioning spoilers, so suffice it to say that we've seen this story before, and we all could have seen it coming this time. The story is made of 99% recycled material, which is something I like in plastic and paper products but not in movies. On top of the major issues with the plot, there are a few puzzling details, like why is Rocky so poor? He was the heavyweight champion of the world for nearly a decade, Philadelphia made a huge statue of him, and he is instantly recognized by adoring fans on a regular basis, yet for some reason, no one has any interest in his restaurant. Rocky, hire a manager! You could be raking in millions each year if you had someone helping you out. Another issue, and this one seems more pressing, is the confusing struggle that Donny has to find his motivation for the fight against Viktor Drago. Drago is the top contender in the world, and Donny is the heavyweight champion of the world. Drago is talking mountains of trash. Drago's dad killed Donny's dad in the ring. Those are all great reasons for Donny to want to fight him. I don't see the struggle. Fortunately, Michael B. Jordan is one of the most charismatic and energetic performers we currently have in Hollywood. His vivacity infuses the tired story with enough life to get by, and he absolutely pulls off all the training montages, even though he spends half his time doing neck curls, for some reason. In the end, we have the fight everyone wants. It's satisfying enough despite the mixed message that it sends about not giving up but also knowing when to throw in the towel because you're dangerously injured and could literally die in the ring. We live in a world where we know the dangers of concussions in sports and the devastating long-term damage that they have on the lives of athletes. I find it hard to ignore, which makes these brutal fights a little bit tougher to watch, and it makes the victory celebrations a little less sweet because the only way to really win is to retire healthy.
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Some good, but too much bad
27 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It's not Rami Malek's fault. Let's make that clear. He comes through with a fittingly outrageous performance and should be commended, especially considering all the mistakes taking place around him. His prosthetic teeth are cartoonish, but he pulls them off just fine. He also pulls off the voice, the posture and the curious wandering eyes that that make manifest his burgeoning sexuality that slowly becomes clear to him.

'Bohemian Rhapsody' the movie's greatest problem is that there is no clear message or meaning. It's intentionally eclectic and mixed, but this concept works much better for the song than it does for the feature film. It never quite reveals what it's meant to say. If it only meant to pay cutesy fan service to the adoring Freddie Mercury and Queen fans of the world, then it's a job well done. If it meant to offer any other sort of statement about sexual expression or friendship or the creation of music, then it's mostly a miss.

The movie's greatest failure is its insistence on submitting constant winking in-jokes about Queen. When Mike Myers' music executive character says that no one will ever sing along to Bohemian Rhapsody while riding in a car, we all chuckle. Or, at least, we're supposed to. The crowd around me certainly did, but I just rolled my eyes. Moments like are not as clever as the filmmakers believe them to be.

The other greatest failures come from an inability to make moments believable. The lip syncing could be overlooked (even though it's awful) because no actor can reasonably be expected to make that perfect, but it's the director's issue for not choosing alternate angles to hide the mouths. Worse than the lip syncing is Freddie's relationship with his father. Dad is a classic conservative who disapproves of Freddie's lifestyle (the singing more so than the homosexuality, we're led to believe), and that's the entirety of their relationship until the cringeworthy resolution near the end. It's not even worthy of being considered manipulative because it's so weakly executed.

Another thing: did Freddie really not know he was gay until Queen had been a smashing success for years? Everyone else seemed to know and accept it. That seemed to be a bizarre choice of the writers.

If you love the music and absolutely adore Queen, you'll probably like this movie. But if you look to poke any holes at all in film itself, you'll spring a few dozen leaks. Freddie deserved better than this.
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Widows (2018)
Thrilling and thought-provoking
27 November 2018
Steve McQueen, the Academy Award winning filmmaker behind '12 Years a Slave,' directed the hell out of this movie. Since 'Widows' is a heist flick, some may view this directing choice for McQueen as a step down from the power and pervasiveness of his most recent film. But that's not the case. With the way McQueen moves the camera and frames his shots, he displays a wizardry of creativity and a mastery of his craft. He shows us that no genre of film is taking step down if it's handled correctly.

Within the opening moments of this elevated thriller, it's evident that we're witnessing something made by a true pro. Crucial plot points are unveiled via dialogue-free or dialogue-light scenes that allow the actors room to convey story in other ways. There's a couple lying together, clearly deeply in love. There's woman with a black eye swatting away the hand of a consoling husband. There's a man trying unconvincingly to assure his wife that he has their store's finances under control. These rich backstories and fully formed characters reveal themselves in abrupt scenes but somehow never feel rushed. These scenes tell us so much by saying so little.

After introducing these soon-to-be widows and their soon-to-be late husbands, we watch a flashback of the violence and destruction that led to their deaths. The husbands were criminals, and they stole a lot of money from a lot of bad people. Now Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who happens to be one of those bad people and who happens to be a running for political office, wants his money back. He and his enforcer brother (Daniel Kaluuya, perfectly chilling in a way that's not at all over-the-top) make it clear that the widows have only a few days to pay two million dollars, or they will suffer the same fate as their husbands.

Veronica (Viola Davis), the widow of the criminal group's leader steps up as the leader of these blindsided woman and shares her husband's notebook, which contains the plans for a job that will land them five million dollars. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) agree to join, but the fourth widow doesn't show up to the meeting for some unclear reason.

It's Davis' show, and the film would struggle without her flawless performance. She's the glue or the straw or the foundation or something. She's essential-that much is certain. But she's far from the only standout. Kaluuya is stellar, as always, and Debicki as well as rising star Cynthia Erivo jump off the screen. McQueen certainly knows how to make actors pop. Credit him as well as each performer.

In addition to the thrilling action and interpersonal drama, there is also a healthy dose of social commentary. It's delivered with just the right degree of subtlety. It's never too overt of condescending, but it's noticeable if you want to pay it attention.

This movie has a lot going for it. Call it an elevated heist. Call dramatic thriller. Call it whatever you want. By any classification, this is a brilliant film and one that deserves plenty of consideration come award season.
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The Grinch (2018)
Don't waste your time on this one, just watch the original
10 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The thing about a remake is that there needs to be a reason to make it. When remakes have no reason to exist (other than to make a quick buck or millions of them), they fall flat, usually due to a lack effort. And therein lies the issue plaguing this 2018 version of Dr. Seuss' holiday classic about the mean-green-grumpy Grinch-it's a dull final product that likely resulting from a lack of effort. We know the Grinch stole Christmas, but who stole this movie's creativity?

Just about everyone knows the classic Grinch story, but this one is a little bit different, so let's run through it. There's cheery, wintery town called Whoville filled with many delightful people called Whos. The Whos love Christmas, and they know how to celebrate the holiday right. They don't just deck the halls, they deck out the entire town with decorations, lights and a mountain-sized tree. It's all glorious.

One young Who named Cindy-Lou (Cameron Seely) has an adventurous spirit and a kind heart, as central figures tend to have in these sorts of movies. She feels for her exhausted single mom who struggles to balance her time at work and at home taking care of Cindy-Lou and the twin boys. So, Cindy-Lou decides to ask Santa to help her mom by doing... something. Exactly what help Santa would provide is unclear, which makes any resolution problematic because we can't recognize the help if it arrives. If you think I'm overanalyzing this movie aimed at children, you're probably right.

Any Who... living in the giant mountain adjacent to Whoville is The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Grinch I remember as a child was a ruthless and nasty figure. Establishing him this way early on is crucial because it sets up a redemption story. This new Grinch starts off mildly rude at his worst and genuinely considerate at his best. A few half-hearted attempts to display his wickedness that fail and instead make him appear funny. The rest of the time, The Grinch is mostly pleasant. This robs viewers of the need to root for him to change because he's a decent guy the entire time. He politely interacts with an overly-jolly old friend, Mr. Bricklebaum, voiced by Kenan Thompson, who is doing some variation of his SNL character, neighbor Willie. Thompson's jubilance is good for a few laughs, the only ones you'll find in the movie. Despite his best efforts, his limited screen time doesn't afford him enough opportunity to earn this movie an overall label of "funny."

The rest of the attempts at humor are comprised mostly of cutaways that play like watered down versions of ones you'd see on Family Guy. There's also a dusting of lazy Who-based puns, like the inclusion a place called Who Foods, a play on Whole Foods. Like the rest of the movie, the jokes clearly were made with little effort.

There isn't much else to say. This is a pointless remake that doesn't need to exist. A remake that has a reason to exist should provide a fresh voice while simultaneously honoring the past creation. This film does neither. If you want to watch a story about The Grinch, you'd be much better off revisiting the original cartoon classic or the more recent live-action iteration starring Jim Carrey.
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Halloween (I) (2018)
The Best Halloween Film since the Original
27 October 2018
You know the Halloween mask, you remember the iconic score, and who could forget the terror? They're all back in this sequel to the horror classic, and so is Michael Myers. There's certainly reason to be excited. For everyone holding their breath as they wonder if the new movie will meet the hype, feel free to exhale. This one doesn't disappoint.

The original Halloween from 1978 is a masterpiece. It's a film as influential to the genre as any that came before and any that have come since (aside from Black Christmas, but that's another discussion for another time). The Halloween films that followed are ... well, let's be diplomatic and call them "varying in quality." Over the course of those wildly uneven seven sequels, big baddie Michael Myers was shot in both eyes and blown up. He went into a coma, awoke from the coma and nearly died. He was nursed back to health and later electrocuted. Did you see all that? Do you remember it? If not, don't worry - none of that information is relevant to this movie.

What we have here is a direct sequel to the original film. Director David Gordon Green and co-screenwriters Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley pick up the story 40 years after that infamous Halloween night. Right away we see the fingerprints of a filmmaker who is really going for it. Not a single shot is dull. The camera whips between tight zooms and unnerving kinetic sequences of the mental hospital that houses Michael Myers (reprised in the role by Nick Castle in certain scenes). He has been institutionalized all this time and is now being transferred to a maximum-security prison to live out his remaining days.

Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the babysitter who lived, has been living a bit differently. She has spent 40 years collecting guns, shooting her guns and preparing to kill Michael with all her guns. She strikes a delightful balance between paranoid lunatic and total badass. Sadly, the downside of Laurie's radical behavior is the effect it has had on her relationships. She's twice divorced and has a daughter she rarely sees because of the aforementioned paranoia and guns.

Of course, we as viewers know that her obsession in preparing for Michael's return is not unfounded. During the facility transfer, Michael escapes. After a quick pit stop to pick up his favorite mechanic uniform, Michael heads off to say hello to a few babysitters and find Laurie.

Because he tends to say hello less with words and more with the business end of giant knives, the sheriff (Will Patton) and Laurie catch wind of what's happening soon after he arrives in town. Then comes Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), Michael's latest psychiatrist. Laurie greets him with, "Oh, you're the new Loomis," as she practically winks at the camera. It's one of the film's many nods to the original - including the use of the stalker cam, the opening credits and a certain balcony scene.

As those three figure out their plan, Michael continues increasing his kill count. He soon works his way through the town's teens and crosses paths with Laurie's granddaughter, who is fresh off a disappointing night at the school dance. That's where the film loses focus. Laurie is a compelling enough character to carry the story largely on her own with only small doses of help from her family. The high school plotlines don't need to exist and only do so to provide disposable bodies.

Later, the sheriff and Dr. Sartain spot Michael stumbling down the sidewalk. The doctor firmly declares, "He's property of the state. We mustn't harm him." First of all, no. The state would be perfectly content with harming a mass murderer to protect innocent lives. Second of all, "mustn't"? Get real. Laurie was wrong about Dr. Sartain. This dweeb's got nothing on Loomis.

A few of the best and most frightening sequences of the film follow, and Green is fine in his direction of these moments. He doesn't quite set the atmosphere in the masterful way that Carpenter did, but he knows how to build suspense and execute a scare. And between Green's skill for suspense and a few sprinkles of humor throughout, we end up with the best Halloween film since the original.
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First Man (2018)
Excellent Understated Biopic
16 October 2018
The opening scene will take your breath away. I don't think a single cell in my body flinched for a solid five minutes as I watched Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) fight to keep his craft from floating away into space. The scene is spectacular visually and in every sense of filmmaking execution. It's also a bit misleading.

The rest of the movie, aside from the moon landing, is remarkably tame. It's quiet. There are virtually no loud outbursts or emotional speeches. This story is about people doing their jobs, completing their missions. Gosling understands this and plays to Armstrong's stoicism perfectly. He is often an understated actor, choosing to let his subtle facial movements and glints of the eyes do as much talking as what actually comes out of his mouth. Neil is much the same except even less outwardly expressive. He clearly comes from a generation that did not display emotion. They suffered in silence, which no doubt frustrated many family members, especially spouses.

Armstrong's wife Janet (Claire Foy) is a classic case of a spouse desperate to glimpse beyond his emotional shield. She restrains for the most part, but her building frustration is apparent throughout. When she finally does unleash her emotions, it's startling. Her outbursts stand out in such stark contrast to the silence that we see from the other characters. Foy is smart and measured with every choice she makes, and she never comes across as unhinged or overly supportive to a point of unbelievability. She's strong as a quiet devoted partner and strong when she senses the need to speak up. Look for her to add another award nomination to her resume come that time of year.

For as great as Gosling and Foy are, Damien Chazelle is the star of this movie, just like he has been the star of every one of his movies. I don't mean this as a bad thing. They guy is simply so skilled at what he does that his impact stands out among all the other standouts in his movies. He doesn't take the conventional approach to a space movie, which is to hammer viewers with showy visuals and action sequences. He's careful not to overdo it those areas, instead focusing on Armstrong's psyche and life outside the space shuttle. Chazelle crafts a personal, intimate film and shoots it in a creative way that uses a variety of framing choices so the closeups never feel stale.

This is a giant story told on a deliberately small scale. The choice to focus on Armstrong's objectively less captivating homelife rather than the moon mission is risky. Only the most talented of filmmakers, which Chazelle is, could pull it off. "First Man" is another showcase of Chazelle's mastery. He's one of the best directors currently working. The fact that this film may eventually be considered Chazelle's 6th or 7th best and is still this excellent, is a tribute to his talent.
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A Remarkable Achievement
8 October 2018
Sometimes weighty expectations can crush a movie before it has any chance to pop. With "A Star is Born," a moving trailer and excited murmurs from film festivals, created seemingly unreachable levels of hype. Then, somehow, it reached them.

In Bradley Cooper's directorial debut, he manages to instill life and a reasonable degree of freshness into a movie that had already been made three times previously. He clearly has a knack for capturing intimacy, and he uses that skill to make a movie that it deeply personal to himself, to co-star Lady Gaga, and to the characters they portray.

It's a remarkable achievement that this movie works. Cooper certainly deserves heaps of credit for his directing acumen and committed acting performance (he worked with a vocal coach for months to lower his speaking voice a whole octave). His voice is low, rumbling, and worn. He sounds like someone who has just finished coughing for four and a half days straight. It suits the character, Jackson Maine, who struggles with drinking and drug use, all while still managing to perform nearly every night in front of thousands of fans who adore his music.

One night he stumbles drunk into a bar and sees Ally (Gaga) performing. She wows him with her talent and inspires him ways that we sense he hasn't felt in years. In an approach that vacillates between creepy and romantic, he woos Ally by accepting her as she is, not who she thinks others want her to be.

The next night when she attends his show, he whisks her on stage to sing the song they wrote together. The crowd goes berserk and soon the two are touring the country together. As her level of fame rises, he warns her that she must dig deep into her soul to create her art or she will lose everything.

They each fight their own battles, his with drugs, alcohol and demons from his past, and hers with not letting fame change her. Cooper's character has more to work with, but it's Gaga who shines brightest on screen. We're all well aware of her immense musical talent, and now we know that she's also an exceptional actor, one who could find herself seriously in award conversation later this year.

She may not be the only one from this film in the award conversation. Cooper's acting and directing will rightfully garner consideration as well. He aptly handles an ambitious, emotional story that does not hold back in any way. Its lack of humility should probably cause its downfall, but that's not the case. Credit both Cooper and Gaga for pulling this off. It looks like two stars have been born.
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Venom (2018)
It's occassionally fun but mostly dumb
5 October 2018
Venom the movie, much like Venom the character, is a sloppy, amorphous mishmash that attempts to be too many things and ultimately fails at all of them. At various times, it tries its hand at horror, slapstick comedy, self-aware comedy, romance and drama. That's an ambitious combination that would make any movie difficult to take seriously, let alone one with a wisecracking alien blob monster.

The chilling opening scene shows a private space exploration mission return to Earth with samples of alien symbiotes. Shockingly, something goes wrong, one sample escapes and jumps between human hosts, searching for the best fit. It's a chilling sequence that sets the tone for a much darker story than what actually follows.

In a jarringly clunky transition, the story jumps to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy doing his idea of a New York accent) and his fiancé, Anne (Michelle Williams) living happily in San Francisco. Hardy goes all in on playing the anxious, twitchy guy who is great at his job but is also kind of a loser and has the most peculiar gait. He walks the way someone would walk if you told them, "hey, walk in the weirdest way possible, like in a way that no one would ever actually walk." It's completely transfixing.

Eddie's awkward walk aligns with his natural tendency to create awkward situations. He is a successful reporter who is known for pushing boundaries, so it's only too obvious what he will do when interviewing shady billionaire, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), for what is supposed to be a puff piece.

In another less-than-stellar transition, the timeline fast-forwards six months and shows Eddie's life in shambles. This might have been affecting if any of this felt earned, but certain essential scenes are absent and were likely trimmed in editing to put the final runtime under two hours. Choices like these give the entire film a rushed, erratic feel of something that had ideas but didn't know how to piece them together into a fluid story arc.

Meanwhile, all this has happened and still Venom has yet to make an appearance. The movie spends too much time on nonessential plot points and takes too long to reach the most compelling and entertaining parts. In other words, the movie is called Venom, so put Venom in the movie.

When Venom finally shows up, the movie finally has life. Sort of. Venom and Eddie exchange banter that occasionally delivers winning punchlines, a few of which caused outbursts of laughter throughout the theater. That's great. The problem is the dozens of other jokes that were met with crickets or confusion. This might be due to Venom's abrupt language advancements. He quickly evolves from monosyllabic commands of "food!" to offering insightful romantic advice. It's another case of unearned plot and character development.

But the worst parts of the movie are the incomprehensible and nearly unwatchable action sequences that didn't follow any discernable rules of continuity or visual logic. I didn't know where to look and half the time I didn't even know what I was looking at. That's the downside of fight scenes that rely too heavily on CGI. The climactic fight scene involves a bizarre swirling tornado of Venom and another blob monster that is meant to resemble a warrior-like battle, but the comically wide-open mouths and tongue swinging turns the display into something that looks more like a sloppy teenage make out session.

It's a dumb scene in a dumb movie that never quite figures itself out. Marvel has made many great movies over the past 10 years. Venom is not one of them.
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Night School (2018)
Hart and Haddish manage to make a funny movie out of mediocre material
28 September 2018
Night School, a comedy starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, delivers exactly you would expect from a comedy starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. It peppers in plenty of jokes, some hit while others miss so badly that they can hardly be recognized as attempts at humor. There's such an eclectic mix of silly, sweet and ridiculous that's the result of six writer patching together the script. It easily could have been a disaster if not for the talented ensemble of on-screen talent.

Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee once again displays his aptitude for letting Haddish showcase her personality. She is equally a force when imposing her gruff edge and when showing her softer side as a no-nonsense teacher who leads the night school class for those prepping for the GED. That's where she meets Hart's character, Teddy, a serial hustler in life who lost his sales job and now must pass the GED to begin a new job in finance and impress his successful fiancé. Everyone in the night school class has their own reason for being there, but I question the logic of it all in 2018 because their desired career opportunities would be more likely to require a college education than only high school.

Nevertheless, Hart's classmates include a mom who got pregnant in high school (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a oddball conspiracy theorist (Romany Malco, who is hilarious in his limited role), and large man who is an even larger doofus (Rob Riggle), to name a few. Give Riggle credit for his commitment. He consistently pours his heart into every line with the sincerest of effort, even the ones he must have known had no chance at eliciting even a chuckle. Some of the other performers have more to work with but each achieves maximum laughs from the mediocre material.

The jokes mostly come from the most obvious places, which comes across as lazy writing. There's about three too many sight gags, one of which is admittedly hilarious despite being disgusting to point that it's impossible not to look away. The other physical humor ploys, including over-the-top comic violence, grow tired quickly.

The script hits the pause button on jokes, it unveils a heart beneath it all. These tender moments aren't exactly masterful, more like gooey to the point just shy of eye-roll worthy. But them credit for trying. All considered, this movie earns a passing score that could have been better if the filmmakers had just put in a little more work.
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The Predator (2018)
Empty, Silly Humor and Violence
25 September 2018
'The Predator' is pure fan service for 80s moviegoers.

It's everything you knew it WOULD be and nothing you imagined it COULD be. It delivers what is expected in hefty doses, but it fails to become anything of greater substance. It's amusing and violent and funny, but it is also ultimately empty and forgettable.

There's a joke a minute, and at times the movie seems more concerned with one-liners than actually constructing a coherent story. To be fair, many of the jokes do land, but they do so in a way that meanders from what matters in each scene, so they end up serving as distractions. Much of the film consists of loud, violent (and a share of humorous) distractions that certainly entertain but don't do much else. And maybe that's all director Shane Black was looking to make-a fun, disposable movie that fans will forget shortly after leaving the theater.

Black clearly wasn't attempting to make something that he wanted to be taken seriously. It's too silly for that. There are mountains of both intentional and unintentional comedy littered throughout. At times, it's difficult to tell which is happening. The special effects are laughably bad in certain instances, but maybe that was a nod to the original? Again, it's difficult to tell.

There's also an outrageous claim about the next step of human evolution that is simply passed off as plausible even though it is the exact opposite of plausible.

I haven't even mentioned the plot yet because it's hardly relevant. But here's the gist: a group of soldiers encounter a predator on Earth, and it kills everyone except the one truly excellent soldier, who subsequently steals the predator's gear. An accidental misuse of the gear signals another predator to come to Earth. So now we have two. And the second one is a BEAST. Predator 2.0. Then yada yada, the humans fight the predators and what not.

The plot doesn't matter much. This is about the spectacle. The spectacle puts on a decent show, but it's not nearly as impressive as it needs to be. So, ultimately, you'll walk away with an empty feeling, wishing this movie had tried to do more.
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The Nun (2018)
A Steady Stream of Predictable Jump Non-Scares
24 September 2018
What had me most excited to see 'The Nun' was its trailer. The trailer is terrifying in the best way, which is a combination of fun-terrifying and terrifying-terrifying. The mysterious figure lurking in the background, the creepy whisper, a well-executed jump scare-it's all there. Such an auspicious trailer seemed to promise an equally fulfilling feature film, but that was most definitely not the case. This one is a giant miss.

'The Nun' tells the background of the haunting and horrifying demon, Valak, who poses as a nun. It's a brilliant idea. Turning one of most trusted and purely benevolent entities (nuns) into a mysterious demonic form is pure nightmare fuel. Aside from blatantly looking creepy, part of what makes the demon nun so scary is the mystery of it all. A backstory detracts from that. Once we understand more about this demon and know how to defeat it, we're that much less afraid. With that in mind, a story like this, which spends a lot of plot time on exposition of Valak, seems doomed to fail.

Other poor choices also doomed this movie from the jump. There's a character in it named Frenchie, who is funny and charming and comforting. All of the qualities are wonderful in most movies but completely out of place in this one. The movie takes itself extremely seriously but is constantly undercut by how funny this guy is. With his effortless (and possibly unintentional) humor he hijacks any chance this movie had of successfully scaring its viewers. I don't blame the actor for this, and I think he could thrive in the appropriate film. Casting him was a filmmaking mistake.

Not that the movie would have worked that well with a more serious character replacing Frenchie. All the jump scares are carried out in a familiar, predictable pattern. The camera follows the main character, then she hears something, then the camera pans to the sound but there's nothing there, then the camera pans back to her and something is behind her. Boo! Then repeat this sequence 30 more times until the jump "scares" did nothing more than elicit a yawn. There's virtually zero effort given, and the demon nun is used to about 30% of its potential.

Similarly, the CGI did nothing to aid the scares. It too often looks too fake, almost cartoonish. The further away from reality that the movies takes us, the less scary it becomes. If the demon looks obviously fake, then we start thinking about how all of this is obviously fake, and we become less afraid. Practical effects are much more effective in these instances.

Overall, this movie left me massively disappointed. A creepy character is misused, another character is miscast, and I felt misled about this movie's potential. 'The Conjuring' universe has some excellent films and some duds. This one is a dud.
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Searching (III) (2018)
Best Yet of the "Computer-Screen" Movies
10 September 2018
A story told entirely through a character's laptop screen - it's an increasingly popular gimmick that's now been done enough times that it can no longer be called fresh. But, thankfully, this is best execution of the style to date. Aneesh Chaganty dazzles in his directorial debut, displaying a mastery of the medium, crafting a compelling film narrative told entirely through someone's laptop activity.

The movie comes out hot with a mostly nonverbal tale of love and family that's shades of 'Up' and nearly as affecting. An emotionally warping scene like that to kick things off lets us know immediately that we're in good hands. The music choices give a strong signal of this as well. I firmly believe that music choices in the opening minutes of movies are as reliable an indicator of the movie's quality as you'll find.

This moving love story tells that us the family is close, or, at least they were before mom died. Now dad David (John Cho) is raising his daughter Margot (Michelle La) as well he can, but they seem a bit distant. When Margot mysteriously goes missing, he finds out just how little he knows about his daughter.

He and police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) scramble to find out what happened to Margot - was she kidnapped, catfished, or did she runaway? The work they put in to unravel this mystery is frantic and exhausting. They track Margot's car on traffic cams, they contact all of her Facebook friends, and they dig for anything of use they can find on her laptop. The level of detail displayed in the investigation is so thorough that it's as much an education in snooping as it is entertainment (not that parents should follow these steps to snoop on their own kids!)

It's a constant thrill ride throughout, even as conventional storytelling techniques seep through the cracks at the end when the laptop screen gimmick proves too challenging. One answered question leads to five more unanswered, and a few false endings and twists will leave you breathless. In movies, there are twists and then there are TWISTS. "Searching" has TWISTS. Enjoy.
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Emelie (2015)
Eerie, Moody Thriller
9 September 2018
Led by the committed performance of Sarah Bolger, 'Emelie' unfolds as a creepy and atmospheric slow burn through the first hour or so, then it shifts into a kinetic, violent thriller. It never quite becomes what I consider to be a horror flick, though certain moments will evoke horror in viewers, as the twisted babysitter torments the three siblings in increasingly unsettling ways.

The music sets the tone early - right from the opening scene. A girl mentions to her friend on the phone that she isn't happy that she's been roped into babysitting tonight, then she's abruptly kidnapped by a passing car. Cut to a dad picking up a different girl and driving her to his house to babysit, and we immediately suspect that this "babysitter" is not who she claims to be. At first, she plays nice with the kids (two boys and a girl), returning to the oldest boy the game that his mom took away and letting them all paint on the wall. But her façade only holds up for so long. After she subjects the children to a particularly scarring video, they become suspicious of her, and I become suspicious of the film's concepts. The babysitter's goals and the film's goals are not in harmony. She wants something and needs to behave normally to get it, but the film wants to scare us, and to do that she must behave abnormally. At some point the film leans too heavily toward the scare efforts, which makes the babysitter's actions and plan far less believable. The first hour or so sets the mood. It's creepy and unnerving in a tame way that's particularly effective, but this approach is then abandoned in favor of one that resembles a more conventional violent thriller. Then we see the classic tropes: Characters make illogical, flat-out-dumb decisions and viewers are ambushed by a few jump scares. The stylistic turn mostly works but is nonetheless disappointing. The early moody creepfest had me so uncomfortable that I had to watch through the partially obstructed view of my fingers. It was cringey to the maximum. Though the second half of the film contained more action, I felt less suspense. The reveal was far less affecting than the eerie unknown.

Perhaps if the filmmakers put a bit more effort into the babysitter's backstory and plan, the entire movie would have held together more effectively. A few alterations could have lifted this from a watchable thriller to a terrific one.
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It's a Winner
7 September 2018
In Sierra Burgess is a Loser, debut director Ian Samuels and writer Lindsey Beer concoct a conventional teen story. It's the latest in the line of John Hughes-like rom-coms Netflix has pumped out in recent months, and it's one of the better ones, even though it won't win many points for originality. Sierra Burgess is reminiscent of Cyrano De Cergerac Sixteen Candles - featuring a new redhead, Shannon Purser (Barb of Stranger Things), in place of Molly Ringwald's role - and centers on a millennial-pandering catfishing plot.

Sierra (Purser) and her best friend, Dan (RJ Cyler, a bubbly comic force), are obsessed with getting into an elite college, though Sierra is out of touch with how that's done in today's world. While Dan embraces the need to make an impact in the digital sphere by getting his vlog on BuzzFeed, Sierra asks in frustration, "Can't you just rely on your straight A's?"

"What is this, the 90s?" Dan scoffs.

Sierra wishes that were true.

In a school where everyone is aggressively 2018, Sierra resists the staples of modern life. She rolls her eyes at the other girls taking mirror selfies in the bathroom. She markets her help as a tutor with a flyer on the school tack board rather than on social media (where someone might actually see it). Most importantly, she wears clothes that are just old enough to be out of style but not old enough to be vintage chic. Since she's smart and clearly self-aware, it's as if she actively crafted her entire persona to not fit in. She sees herself as a rebel. Others see a loser.

When the school's mean popular girl, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), pretends to give a jock, Jamey (Noah Centineo), her number but actually uses Sierra's number that she swiped from the tutoring flyer, a texting flirtation begins. Sierra and Jamey the jock, who turns out to be a total sweetheart (because Centineo is too likable to be anything else), hit it off. But memes and witty repartee only go so far. Turns out even in 2018, people still want to talk on the phone. After that goes well, he wants to meet in person. Sierra realizes that she needs help from the girl Jamey thinks he's falling for.

Sierra convinces Veronica to help - in exchange for aid in Veronica's mission to woo a pseudo-intellectual college jerk. Veronica is her mean self at first, but this is a considerate movie, so the mean girl comes with a backstory that explains her nastiness. After one quick peak behind the curtain, Sierra sympathizes with her. And with a simple gesture of genuine human kindness, something Veronica clearly doesn't receive often, the two form a friendship.

From there, the story follows a fairly predictable trajectory, as conflict arises and each character fails then later has a shot at redemption. The film has its flaws: A scene meant to deliver an emotional gut punch rings false, and a separate supposedly "magical romantic moment" is blissfully unaware that it's completely messed up. Fortunately, the vivacious performers and chipper dialogue provide enough charm to hold everything together.

Like so many rom-coms, Sierra Burgess has fun early on but struggles and rushes when the time comes to wrap up. This one doesn't so much stick the landing as it does narrowly avoid a crash, but in the end, everyone is on the ground safe, satisfied and heart-warmed. Netflix understands that is what viewers crave most, so it can chalk this one up as another success.
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Completely Nonsensical movie with an Overrated Ending
31 August 2018
This is a film mostly known for its twist ending, which I won't spoil. Maybe I should spoil it, though, because this film came out over 30 years ago. But, I still won't spoil it. I'll just talk about other interesting parts of the movie.

'Sleepaway Camp' has a simple premise: kids and counselors spend their summer at a typical sleepaway camp, and everything seems normal and happy. Then someone starts killing people. Boom! There's your horror movie.

The two primary characters are cousins, Ricky and Angela. Ricky is an outgoing, fun kid who is very protective of his extraordinarily shy cousin. Nearly everyone else at the camp, aside from a couple kind counselors, is either a sexual deviant or an outrageous movie bully.

As the kids arrive at the camp, one cook utters in the grossest way possible something along the lines of, "fresh meat." Then another cook replies, "man, those kids are too young." Then the first cook says, "there's no such thing as too young." Then they all chuckle at their perverted co-worker's lust for children. It's the first of many alarming sexual misdeeds. They only get worse from here.

There's attempted forced sexual contact. There's a 16-year-old that sets up a date with a 60-year-old man. None of this is presented as unusual. The same goes for the mysterious deaths that happen in the camp. The guy in charge just sweeps everything under the rug, insists that these are accidents, and lets the kids stick around, even though one of them is clearly a murderer. It's lazy, unbelievable writing that's completely irrational, but it happens anyway because if anyone behaved rationally, everyone would leave the camp and the movie would be over.

The murderer's identity is meant to be a mystery, but it's pretty obvious early on. His or her identity is hidden by use of first-person camera-reminiscent of 'Halloween'-during the murders, which are depicted in gruesome fashion.

Within the film exists a puzzling paradox. The story is told with a light touch, but all the events are dark and disturbing. Every vicious insult or creepy remark rolls off the back of the recipient (except for the killer, who seems to be the only one remotely bothered by the atrocious behavior of everyone at the camp).

The awfulness of the murders and bullying are exceeded only by the acting. Not a single actor was any better than abysmal. It's extremely obvious that they're acting; none of it feels real.

Overall, the movie is mostly terrible, but fans rave about the ending, which is moderately surprising, I suppose. But it's certainly not enough to redeem the crap fest that made up the preceding 90 minutes.
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An Absolute Delight
26 August 2018
Netflix has been scorching the rom-com game this summer. As other major movie studios have neglected this beloved genre, Netflix has capitalized on this underserved market by releasing a steady stream rom-coms just about every week. The latest, 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before,' is perhaps the best yet.

Sometimes, I just want a movie that will make me smile. It's such a simple wish that often goes unfulfilled when watching movies. But not this time. During this movie, I couldn't stop smiling. I smiled so much that it made my mouth sore.

Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a delightful 16-year-old who doesn't realize how delightful she is, lives her love life in fantasyland. She enjoys romantic novels and daydreaming about love, but she's afraid to pursue it in real life. She's forced to reckon with this when the five love letters she wrote to her crushes are mysteriously (but not really mysteriously because the culprit is obvious) mailed to each of them.

One letter went to (gasp!) her sister's ex-boyfriend Josh (Israel Broussard), who Lara Jean has secretly crushed on for years. Another went to Peter, the ex-boyfriend of Lara Jean's nemesis.

This guy who plays Peter, Noah Centineo, looks to be one of the breakout stars of 2018. He's ridiculously charming in a Mark Ruffalo kind of way. He will also star in the upcoming Netflix film, 'Sierra Burgess is a Loser,' so look for more big things from him in the future.

After finding out that she likes (or at least used to like) him, Peter suggests he and Lara Jean enter into a fake relationship. It's perfect-he can make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and she can convince everyone that she isn't in love with Josh. The two of them make rules, ones that seem destined to be broken at just the right moment. Even in the earliest stages of the fake relationship, they have obvious chemistry, both as characters and actors. Condor is a bit flat in her performance, but Centineo effortlessly lifts her up, and lifts up everyone, really, each time he appears on screen.

The story is decidedly 2018. The dialogue includes biting remarks like, "you don't even post about me on Instagram anymore!" Instagram comes up a lot. The litany of present-day references and apparent progressiveness of the overall film made me wonder why the writers made the Asian girl a terrible driver. Is it supposed be that self-aware type of joke that pokes fun at a silly stereotype? Maybe, but it didn't play that way.

The only real complaint I have is the casting of Lara Jean's sister. The actress is 30 years old and looks old enough to be Lara Jean's mom. That opening scene becomes confusing very quickly when this 30-year-old woman kisses her teenage boyfriend, and we find out that we're supposed to believe she's 18. Fortunately, the sister leaves for college, and we can forget about how weird that moment was.

'To All the Boys' likely won't surprise viewers with any twists-it's not going for that. But, it remains charming throughout, even if it has its ebbs and flows. Once the story passes the effervescent 30-minute opening spurt, it goes somewhat flat. It's like a soda that's lost its fizz-it's still sweet and pleasant enough, but it's not quite the same. Though I must admit, I gobbled it all up, even the hokey message about putting yourself out there because you never know what might happen.

Bottom line: the movie is delightful. I'm smiling now just thinking about it. Give it a watch. You'll be glad that you did.
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Perfectly Fine, But a bit Overhyped
25 August 2018
'Crazy Rich Asians' is garnering mountains of praise, some of it is totally justifiable and some a bit more dubious.

For making a U.S. movie with an all-Asian cast, it deserves commendation. For decades, Asians have been underrepresented (or flat out not represented) in American cinema, so this cast is a welcome sight.

As far as the dubious praise-I just want to manage expectations. This is a perfectly adequate rom-com. But it's being billed as an all-time classic, which is unfair to viewers and to the movie, itself.

Look, I liked it, okay? It's FINE. The story flows along at a leisurely yet comfortable pace, as we meet the starring couple, and he invites her to his home in Singapore for his brother's wedding. The two characters are likable enough, as are the actors playing them, especially Constance Wu-she's spectacular.

Wu plays Rachel Chu, who finds out on the plane ride to Singapore that her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) comes from one of the wealthiest families in the world. Rachel sees their house and their lifestyle. She's awed but not enamored. The world of decadence and luxury isn't something she needs or something that she even seems all that interested in.

The filmmakers, on the other hand, cannot get enough of the glamour. Sweeping shot after sweeping shot of a giant ship and a giant house and a giant rooftop party loses its impact after a while. Yeah, these people are rich, we get it.

But, that's the life they lead, and they are proud of it. Nick's family immediately judges Rachel harshly, looking down on her for any reason they can find (not that any of the reasons are good ones). Basically, they're snobs, some of them. Nick certainly is not and neither is his sister, so there's hope for the upcoming generations of the family. But it's Nick's stuffy mother and traditionalist grandmother who insist that Rachel isn't right for him.

The film's strength's lie in the character building and in the dialogue, which aids the character building. Every character feels realistic and thoughtfully written. In addition to Nick's family and friends, Rachel also meets the family members of her college roommate (Awkwafina, funny but a tad overhyped), who are new-money rich and hilarious. Ken Jeong, playing the dad, slays with every line, including the doozy, "finish your food-there are starving kids in America!"

Throughout the story we're treated to quotable lines, like that one, in both funny and emotional context. The movie knows when to get serious and how to do it.

So, what didn't I like? For one, there's a character that's supposed to be creepy-funny, but is actually creepy-creepy. That's a nitpick, I know. There are larger flaws, but I don't want to mention them in much detail because they're spoilery. There's a bonding moment between Rachel and Nick's sister that happens far too abruptly and didn't feel deserved. There some small details that don't make sense when given a touch a scrutiny. There's also a massive issue with the story's resolution, once again, because it's too abrupt. I can't decide if it's laziness, mediocre writing, or a choice made to set up the sequels (it's probably the last one).

I'll reiterate: I liked this movie. It's perfectly fine. If there's a sequel, I'll definitely see it. I just don't view it as an instant classic, as some viewers would have you believe.
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Spike Lee at his best
21 August 2018
Spike Lee's talent never left. As is the case with great filmmakers, his perspective, his style and his vision have been present in all his work. As is also the case with great filmmakers, some of his work simply towers above the rest. 'Blackkklansman' is one of those towering achievements.

The film is difficult to classify because it transcends a single genre. At various times it's funny, dramatic, suspenseful, provocative. Often, it's many things at once. The one consistency of this heterogenous mixture, is excellence.

The story revolves around a college graduate, Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first black person to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Playing Ron is John David Washington, who, like his father, Denzel, carries himself and speaks with composure and power. He has a way of calmly making his presence felt without ever posing a threat, which is why the police chief believes he can command respect and handle the abuse he will surely take from the racist civilians (and fellow officers).

Ron quickly wins a chance to go undercover at a speaking event for a former black panther leader. His task to learn if the speaker is looking to incite violence (he's not). After a successful first mission, Ron is assigned to undercover work, and, one a whim, calls the number for the local KKK that he read in the paper. Buttering up the Klan-or as they call themselves, the organization-with fake white supremacist talk, he arranges a meeting. Since he's black, he teams up with a white officer, Flip (Adam Driver, who is spectacular in his role), to form the combined Ron Stallworth. It works like a charm because, as the real Ron says, "with the right white man, we can do anything."

Spike Lee is fair in his portrayal of everyone. Within some of the Klansman, there exists a puzzling contradiction-they're polite, courteous, and charismatic, but they're also despicable racists. Klan national director, David Duke, gracious to all the people all the white people he meets, but also says things like, "blacks are an in inferior race. It's a fact." Topher Grace plays Duke, a challenging role, with nuance and something that resembles likability (aside from the racism, obviously). Duke and a couple other Klansman are the kind of people that you could meet without knowing anything about them, and you might describe them as gentlemen. That is, until they slip a racist comment into conversation.

Other members of the Klan are slobbering, disgusting overt racists. Both types of people feel real, because they both are.

The police are portrayed fairly too. Some are evolved, others are trying but not quite there, and others are just as appalling as the slobbering, disgusting overt racist Klansman.

Spike Lee is at his best, as he typically is when working with material about race in America. Subtlety isn't always his strength or his intention, hence the mix of over-the-top and subtle racism. He opts to hammer home his message at the film's closing with some footage of last year's march in Charlottesville and the sound bites from a certain political figure that followed. Some viewers may argue that this footage wasn't needed. I think the film would work fine without it, but it certainly adds an extra punch.

The film's narrative is so utterly fascinating as a crime story that the elements of race could be removed and the movie would still work. But, it's the poignant social commentary that elevates the project to best picture contention.

There's so much going on that it's definitely a movie that needs to be watched twice. As great as it is the first time, I imagine that it's even better on the second viewing.

In any case, 'Blackkklansman' is one of the best movies of the year and one we will likely be thinking about for a long time.
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Slender Man (2018)
It's as lifeless as Slender Man's blank face
18 August 2018
Sometimes a single line of dialogue can stand out in such a way that you instantly realize that a movie is awful. For 'Slender Man,' that line came from Joey King.

"He's like a computer virus except he gets inside your body and messes with you!" Oh, so you mean like a virus? Why didn't you just say, "he's a like a virus."

Several times throughout the film, that sort of hack writing shows its ugly face (as opposed to Slender Man, who technically can't be ugly because he has no face). There are zero clever lines delivered. Most of dialogue sounds like it was written by a Twitter bot designed to simulate mundane teen talk.

The putrid writing isn't limited to the dialogue-the characters themselves contain about as much detail as one could write on a Post-it note. I think of the four main characters as, girl A, girl B, girl with a sister, and token non-white girl. They're essentially indistinguishable from one another. The only difference is that some are slightly more talented performers, and, of course, the most talented girls are the first to disappear from the story.

What's really striking about the girls is that, even though they're allegedly best friends, they don't even seem to like each other. At one point, I girl makes a catty, resentful remark about her "friend's" trophies. Later, she says, "I thought you didn't care about track. I thought you cared about Chloe." (It's a miracle that I remember her name).

That moment is striking for a couple reasons. One, it doesn't seem like something that should be said between good friends, and, two, I hardly realized the girl ran track. Probably because it's never shown in the movie. I imagine the track angle played a larger role in an earlier draft then removed, but this line was left in. Editing isn't the movie's strength.

When the girls aren't making odd comments to each other or expressing all the liveliness of a folding chair, they're attempting to appear scared. To show that they're scared, they basically do an impression of a panting dog that's trying to speak. It's a lot of breathing and stammering. Acting is also not this movie's strength.

All the above flaws are enough of a turnoff, but the worst offense of this movie is that it's scary movie that's not scary. It's painfully dull and devoid of anything that may actually make it entertaining. It's as if all the interesting scenes were removed. Why, I'm not sure. Maybe they also cut out the parts that made this appear to be a coherent story.

'Slender Man' is one of the worst movies of 2018. It's not a scary movie that's so bad that it's secretly kind of fun. It's just a bad, boring movie. I recommend a hard pass.
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Love, Simon (2018)
Important, sure, but it's also just a terrific movie
16 August 2018
Viewers can look at this movie and say that it has value for its importance, and I think that's true. I would also say that this is just a terrific movie. Period.

Simon (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior. He loves him family. He has wonderful friends. He's an upstanding student and is headed to respected university next year. He's pretty much a typical, likable teenager. But he has a big secret: he's gay.

When another kid at school, who is also secretly gay, posts an anonymous message on a popular school social site, Simon contacts him using his own anonymous email. They connect and encourage each other, eventually inspiring one another to come out to friends and family. It's fun little 'You've Got Mail' style relationship.

The story is consistently well-told, moves at a brisk, light pace. Comic relief always arrives at the ideal time to ease the tension when needed. Tony Hale is an absolute riot playing the overzealous vice principal who tries awkwardly to connect with students. Natasha Rothwell is equally hilarious and entertaining as the incredulous drama teacher. The only complaint I have is that these actors disappear for an extended stretch in the film's middle.

In addition to the humor, you'll see a few wonderful filmmaking displays, such as a cut from characters beginning to walk up stairs in one setting to them exiting the top of a stairwell in another. There's a delightful montage of kids coming out to their parents as straight, as a part of Simon's internal monologue wondering why gay kids are the ones who have to "come out." "Why is straight the default?" Simon wonders. Not a bad question. It's that level of creativity and thoughtfulness that elevates what could have been a pedestrian coming-of-age story into a terrific one.

If you seek a heart-warming story that won't elicit eye rolls, look no further. 'Love, Simon' is delightful story that will speak to many kids who are looking to feel less alone.
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The Meg (2018)
Mostly a Mega-Disappointment
13 August 2018
There's a scene during The Meg when I expected a character to say, "you're gonna need a bigger boat." Sadly, no one does. So, in a story that's so clearly reminiscent of Jaws, an opportunity for a moment of self-aware fun is wasted. It's emblematic of the entire movie - all the pieces are in place for something entertaining to occur, but the payoff never comes.

The Meg has all the ingredients needed for a summer blockbuster and then some. It features a megalodon, a 90-foot-long prehistoric mega-shark that also happens to be one of the most perfectly named animals ever, Jason Statham, one of the marquee action movie stars of our time, and Rainn Wilson, who gave us one of the funniest television characters of the past 20 years: Dwight Schrute on The Office.

Take my money now. As Renee Zellweger says in Jerry Maguire, "you had me at mega-shark."

Boasting this embarrassment of riches, the movie practically screams FUN. With all these assets at their disposal, it's easy to envision filmmakers bringing to life this concept's illustrious potential on the big screen. There could be actors hamming it up in a stupendously silly summer epic flooded with ridiculous one-liners and "are they really doing this?" moments. It could be glorious.

There's just one problem: that's not what this movie is. Rather than lean into the absurdity and have a little fun, The Meg tries to sell a story about a tortured man of the sea who is now seeking revenge on the animal that attacked him (no, Herman Melville did not receive a screenwriting credit). The story is not affecting enough to elicit any noteworthy emotional responses, it's not smart enough to be scientifically sound and it's not over-the-top enough to reach a level of pure popcorn entertainment. Everything comes up short. Instead of a towering tidal wave, it brings only a gentle rolling tide. Jason Statham plays the revenge-seeking seaman named Captain Ahab, erm, I mean, Jonas Taylor. After he was called crazy for believing that a giant unseen animal attacked his underwater vessel, he's summoned back into action by billionaire doofus, Morris (Wilson), who funds a deep-sea research facility. Morris needs Jonas to save his team of researchers, who are currently stranded at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, where they hoped to discover hidden marine life.

The megalodon, or as his friends call him, the meg, eventually emerges from the depths and wreaks havoc on the facility and all sorts of fancy exploration vehicles because, apparently, megalodons love the taste of metal. The meg later swaggers his way over to Sanya Bay in China, where he can capture local swimmers and the film's producers can capture the foreign movie-viewing market.

It takes 90 minutes of unnecessary scientific exposition to reach an enjoyable stretch. The plot revolves around a 90-foot prehistoric shark reappearing in 2018 - there's no reason to attempt to make any of this seem plausible. In addition to the superfluous fake science scenes, there's an insufferable amount of undeserved emotionality. Again, this story should focus on the giant shark, not half-hearted romances and pseudo-dramatic deaths. The eye-roll-worthy sentimentality clashes with the adjacent raucous action and silly jokes (yes, there are some of those, just not nearly enough). Weepy drama has no place here. This should be a zero-tears movie.

It's hard to tell exactly what the filmmakers were going for; the goal should have been so obvious, but there's clearly uncertainty, which explains why the tone is so uneven. The result is a mixed bag with too much emphasis on the wrong elements. It's not quite a mega-disappointment, but it's definitely a missed opportunity.
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Tomb Raider (2018)
Vikander infuses the character with Charm and Likability
8 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The film opens with great promise. We see a much different version of Lara Croft than the superhero-like voluptuous object of desire portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the previous iterations. This Lara (played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander) is immediately revealed to be vulnerable and beatable. She trains in an MMA gym (which she can hardly afford) where her larger and more powerful opponent literally beats her soundly in a bout. She delivers packages by bicycle and participates in a dangerous and illegal bicycle chase game in which the winner earns $600 (she loses). She's charming, likable and even relatable.

Of course, she is still Lara Croft, daughter of the presumed-dead billionaire, Richard Croft. Though no one has seen her father in seven years, she has long refused to accept the inheritance because that would also mean accepting that he's really gone.

When she reluctantly agrees to sign the paperwork and take what he left for her, she uncovers clues of the mission that led to her father's disappearance. Through lengthy exposition told via videos made by Richard (the classic "if you're seeing this, I'm dead" videos that only happen in movies), she learns that she must travel to Hong Kong and find a captain whose ship will take her to an uncharted island in the dead sea.

Once she arrives in Hong Kong, a group of street thugs steal her bag, so she chases them through the harbor, eventually putting her MMA training to good use and securing the bag. Then she meets Lu Ren, whose father also disappeared seven years. The two set sail for the mysterious island.

Now, this all happens within the first 30 minutes of the film. Everything afterward goes downhill.

They crash their ship, barely manage to swim to the island, and meet a nefarious crew of mercenaries who seek the same treasure Lara's dad sought. We witness Lara use her wits, tenacity and toughness to fight the bad guys and prevent them from capturing the treasure because it's extremely dangerous. Or something.

That's all well enough, but none of the action sequences match what takes place in the beginning of the film. The opening MMA fight, the bike chase game and the chase through the harbor are shot more creatively, and they elicit more intensity than anything that happens on the island. Even scenes, like Lara hanging over a waterfall or Lara hanging over a cave's pit (she does a lot of hanging in this movie) fall flat.

This is despite Vikander's best efforts. She plays the part with grit, expressing her will through her eyes and agonized groans as she is cut, beaten and knocked around by the villains and the elements. Credit director Roar Uthaug for never sexualizing Vikander, but instead filming her as an athlete.

All things considered, this is a decent movie. It's certainly better than either of the two 'Tomb Raiders' that starred Jolie. What's frustrating is that it started so strongly and certainly should have been better. The villain (Walton Goggins) is dull and feels half-written. The story is unsurprising and leaves many questions unanswered that look a lot like plot holes.

That said, it's a fun watch. If Vikander decides to make a sequel, I'm certainly willing to see it.
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Eighth Grade (2018)
Cringe-worthy, Honest and Deeply Empathetic
7 August 2018
'Eighth Grade' is a movie you'll be talking about for a long time. Bo Burnham, one of the O.G.'s of teen YouTube stardom, has given us an agonizingly rich and authentic look at what life is like for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a shy 13-year-old girl in today's social media obsessed world. Burnham, directing his first feature, doesn't spare any detail and doesn't alter any truth.

This film is exceedingly honest. It doesn't depict Kayla's experiences the way we might think they should be for an eighth grader or the way we might want them to be-they're simply presented as they are. Pool parties are a source of unbearable discomfort. First sexual encounters are not always pleasant. Kids with exploding hormones and little impulse control randomly shout unfunny phrases at assemblies in the hopes of earning a laugh.

The storytelling has the feel of a nature documentary. We can almost hear the narrator describing Kayla's attempts to navigate her fascinating and frightening terrain. Playing the vulnerable character who's far from the top of the food chain, she's just trying to survive.

Kayla, like so many kids her age, is a shy girl pretending to be confident. She posts advice videos to YouTube on how to be yourself, something with which she still very much struggles. As she records one video, she slowly rolls her chair farther away from the camera, indicating a declining level of self-assurance. This mirrors her real-world peer interactions, in which she stammers and laughs halfway through sentences as she begins to doubt herself and shrink with embarrassment, not that the self-absorbed "listener" bothers to notice.

All the kids stare at their phones constantly. These modern mean girls barely bother to muster up the energy put others down with a passive-aggressive remark because that would involve speaking to another person. Instead, they inflict harm by neglecting to acknowledge an uncool kid's mere existence. As cruel as that sounds, these popular kids aren't presented as villains. This is simply their way of handling their own insecurities. There are no villains in eighth grade-they're all just kids trying to figure out their lives and trying to figure out themselves.

And the adults don't know how to handle any of this. Kayla's dad wants to connect with her, but is met with constant rejection. He smartly gives her space and only requests her attention to remind her how much he loves her. In one scene, Kayla asks if she makes him sad, and he fervently reassures her that she makes him profoundly happy. Like Kayla, he can't always find the right words, but he successfully expresses the feeling.

That scene is a microcosm of the entire film. Its dialogue isn't readily quotable or particularly memorable, and that's okay. What is actually said isn't as important as the meaning behind it.

Parents can keep this in mind when they have conversations with their own kids, possibly directly after watching this film. Many kids and parents will likely watch it together since it carries an "R" rating (it's ironic that a film that accurately reflects the lives of eighth graders is deemed too adult for them to watch on their own). And parents should watch this with their kids, so they can both understand each other a little bit better. They'll both be better for doing so.
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Kodachrome (2017)
Typical Dramatic Family Road Trip Movie
6 August 2018
'Kodachrome' isn't going to win any awards for originality. The family cross-country road trip story has been done before, often better than this.

The hook: Ben (Ed Harris), a world-famous photographer, is terminal. Before he dies, he wants to drive from New York to Parsons, Kansas to develop old rolls of Kodachrome film that he's been saving for years. Accompanying him are his nurse Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) and his estranged son Matt (Jason Sudeikis), who reluctantly agrees to join and only does so because he wants to meet with a band in Chicago and convince them to sign with his label.

Each of the three have their demons. Ben is an insufferable jerk, Matt is divorced and dysfunctional, Zoe is also divorced and dysfunctional. But they're all together by choice, so they're still trying.

If you think you can tell where this is going, you're probably right. Pretty much scene-by-scene it's predictable. This certainly lessens the impact, but the performances and dialogue will keep you engaged.

Credit goes to the actors and the writers for making these characters and relationships feel lived in and real. The tension and acrimony between father and son showcase themselves almost immediately. Their dialogue cuts deeply, and the cruelty of the barbs they exchange startles.

Zoe plays the role of conscience, doing her best to help these two hard-headed boys settle their differences before it's too late. As soon as Matt puts his sword away and begins to show a lighter side, Zoe notices, and the viewers notice her noticing. Again, it's not hard to predict where any of this is going.

Zoe's character is frustratingly underwritten and underused. But the Matt and Ben relationship is well executed. The hostility feels real and so does the longing to connect, despite what has happened in the past.

The film offers some mixed messages about letting go of the past, which haunts each of the main characters in some way. A crucial monologue urges them to move forward, yet they're driving across the country to develop old film and preserve old photos. It's also ironic that a movie that romanticizes film is streaming on Netflix.

This film has meaningful messages to share, even if it's not entirely clear about everything it's saying. If you don't mind a formulaic family drama with moving and warm moments, this movie isn't a bad pick.
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