Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Uncle Drew

I don't know how much about Uncle Drew I will remember two weeks from now, but I will remember it being a genuinely pleasant experience while I was watching it.  When you consider that this is a feature length movie inspired by a series of Pepsi commercials, and that the soda company is listed as the production company behind the film (Watch out for those product placements!), that's probably the highest praise you can give it. 

This is a surprisingly charming and goofy movie that has a lot of energy and even some genuine laughs.  Yes, it's predictable as all get-out, and the screenplay reads like every underdog sports movie cliche mixed together.  But, it has a big heart, a talented cast who know how to sell this admittedly tired material, and it just has a positive energy to it that is infectious.  The movie stars Lil Rel Howery (who played the scene-stealing TSA agent in last year's Get Out) as Dax, a down on his luck basketball coach who works at Foot Locker to pay the bills, and has a girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, a big comic stand out, as always) who walks all over him emotionally, and is spending him into the poorhouse.  Dax hopes to lead his team to victory at the annual Rucker Classic - a legendary outdoor-court tournament in Harlem featuring some of the best freelance players in the country, with the aim that it will change his luck in life.

All of Dax's hopes are riding on his star player, Casper (Aaron Gordon of the Atlanta Magic), carrying his team to a big win.  But then, his arch nemesis and rival coach Mookie (Nick Kroll, who is quickly becoming Hollywood's go-to actor for comic jerks) swoops in, and steals his entire team, as well as his girlfriend.  He now has no team, no apartment, and seemingly no hope, until a local barber tells him about the legendary Uncle Drew (NBA star Kyrie Irving, unrecognizable under some very good old man make up), a player from 50 years ago who supposedly was one of the all time greats, but has since gone missing, and no one has seem him in decades.  As luck would have it, Dax happens to bump into Uncle Drew at a street game, and after seeing how Drew handles himself in a game against some trash-talking young punk players, Dax knows that he needs Drew to be at the head of the new team that he is forming.

Uncle Drew has just one condition - He will only play with his old team.  The two hit the road in Drew's vintage old van, complete with eight track player, and the heater constantly blasting even though it's summer. (Old people are always cold, you know.) They drive cross country to gather up Drew's old teammates before the big game, and the team eventually includes Preacher (Chris Webber), the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller), the wheelchair-bound Boots (Nate Robinson), and the appropriately-named Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neal), who is holding a grudge against Uncle Drew after an event surrounding a woman that both men loved back in the day.  They are also joined up by Preacher's wife Betty Lou (three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie), who joins the team after spending a majority of the movie chasing after them in her own vehicle in a series of slapstick chase sequences.  Boots' sweet and attractive granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) also comes along for the ride, and plays the role of Dax's new romantic interest.

Look, I'm not saying that Uncle Drew isn't derivative.  You can pretty much predict every moment that's going to happen before it does.  If the old guys walk into a night club, of course there's going to be a dance contest against some young folks who were dissing them.  And if you honestly can't predict the outcome of the big climactic game, you probably haven't watched any form of media in the past 70 years.  But there's a sweetness to this movie that won me over, and even some genuinely big laughs.  It's not surprising that the stars like Howery, Haddish and Kroll are good, but what is surprising is how good the professional basketball stars are playing their characters.  They're not just walking around under a lot of make up to make them look older, they're genuinely creating characters.  Maybe not deep or rich characters, but ones who are likable and that you find yourself caring about before it's over.

If I must be honest, I probably had more fun watching this than the overhyped and idiotic Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  At least this movie has a genuine charm and energy to it that the movie about dinosaurs lacked.  I'm not saying this is a great movie or anything.  But it is a sweet and winning one.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I saw 2015's Sicario, and I know I had plans to review it, but for whatever reason I never did.  I honestly don't remember why, but I think I was just bogged down with work and other things at the time.  It's something I've long regretted, as it was a dark, gritty and powerful film that was worthy of praise.  I don't know if a sequel was exactly necessary, and it definitely pales a little bit in the face of the original.  The absence of the original film's star, Emily Blunt, is also definitely felt, and it's odd that Day of the Soldado does not even mention her character and what happened to her.

That being said, this is still a worthwhile film, thanks to the performances of the two actors who did return, Josh Brolin (who is pretty much owning the summer of 2018 at the box office) and Benicio Del Toro.  And even if it doesn't have the impact of the first, it's not without its moments of genuine tension.  It simply lacks the overwhelming sense of dread and urgency that Sicario had.  In its place, the sequel gives us a fairly more straightforward, if not at times convoluted, plot that still does manage to recreate the edge of your seat sensation.  The fact that only the screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, is the sole behind the scenes talent to come back for the sequel does not hamper things at all.  Despite a new director and cinematographer, the movie still feels like it has a similar tone and look to the first.

Since Emily Blunt is gone, this brings Brolin and Del Toro to the forefront of the picture, and fortunately, they both give performances that are worthy to carry the film.  Brolin's Matt Graver is a no-nonsense CIA operative who manages to be fairly cool and collected in just about any situation, even when he is employing torture to interrogate a suspect.  As for Del Toro, his hitman character Alejandro, remains unflappable in the face of mounting tensions that bring the two men together once again.  We don't know a lot about Alejandro, but we're not supposed to.  He is a hardened killer who still pines for the family that he lost.  That's about all we know, and Del Toro is able to make the character work, giving a performance that is cold and lethal at times, but can also be heartbreaking at others.

The plot kicks off when the two men are brought together again to aid the American government.  There has been a rise in domestic terrorist attacks in the U.S., and the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) and one of his followers (Catherine Keener) have decided that the best way to keep America safe is by clamping down on the U.S. and Mexico border, which the terrorists are using to enter the country.  It is soon decided that a war between the drug cartels, who control the tunnels into the southern U.S. states, would be to their advantage.  They bring Garner in from North Africa to lead the campaign, and he in turn brings Alejandro into the job.  The plan is to kidnap Isabel (Isabella Moner), the preteen daughter of a cartel kingpin who has a connection to the murder of Alejandro's family, and make it look like it is the work of a rival cartel.  If the cartels wind up killing each other over these staged events and kidnapping, then the U.S. government doesn't need to get their hands dirty.

Of course, things are not that simple.  It turns out the Mexican police that are aiding in the mission are dirty, there's a lot of betrayals and backstabbing, and naturally the government decides to pull the plug on the whole operation when it starts to go south, leaving Garner to have to make some hard choices.  As for Alejandro, he eventually becomes the protector of Isabel when they get separated from the rest of the group, and have to rely on each other in order to make it to the border.  Their relationship makes up the central heart of the film, and it can be quite touching at times as they learn to trust each other.  Young Isabella Moner is able to hold her own in all of her scenes with Del Toro, and shows a natural screen presence for a child actress.  And while he never quite loses his antihero status, Alejandro does get to show a somewhat more softer side that Del Toro is able to make work.  Their relationship ends up being the most important one in the film, and they're a big reason as to why the film ultimately works.

Day of the Soldado does not have the kinetic impact of the first, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is still a strong, exciting and at times emotional follow up.  At the very least, it's an edgy summer movie that's been built for adults from the ground up, which is a rare thing in the current superhero-inflated market of blockbusters.  Supposedly there is another sequel planned, as the film was planned from the beginning as a trilogy.  I don't know if a third installment is exactly one I'll be dying for, but I would be happy to see another return to these characters if we get the chance.


Friday, June 22, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

If 2015's Jurassic World was a soulless attempt to cash in on the nostalgia audiences held for the 1993 original film, then Fallen Kingdom is simply soulless.  It exists only because the last movie made a fortune at the box office.  I know, I know, all sequels exist for that reason.  But you occasionally get one that truly wants to continue the story, or dive deeper into the world. (Last weekend's Incredibles 2 is an example.) This is a far more garden variety sequel that just throws non-stop action up on the screen, while making no attempt to engage the audience.  For all the rampaging dinos and narrow escapes that the film throws at us, the whole experience ends up being as thrilling as cardboard because there is nothing to care about here.

I actually had hope walking in, as this film was directed by J.A. Bayona, an up to now blameless filmmaker who knows his way around a thriller. (His 2007 haunted house movie, The Orphanage, is one of the better examples of the genre in recent memory.) This is his first big budget studio production, and sadly, he has become another casualty of the Hollywood Blockbuster Machine.  There is none of the grace, personality or care that he has shown in his previous films.  Anybody could have made this.  Yes, the movie has been expertly made, but so what if there is nothing here for those in the audience to grab onto?  This is a film that gives us nothing to think about, and nothing to discuss when it's two plus hours are up.  It's a cynical and mechanical device that gives us a lot of special effects, but creates no sense of wonder.  The dinosaurs are like targets in a video game, and the human characters either blunder their way through one close call after another, or in the case of the villains, make one bad decision after another. (One villain actually walks into a cage with a dinosaur for no other reason than he needs to be killed off.) The script reads as if it were written on a bunch of post-it notes, hitting the expected plot points, but not going any deeper than that.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are back as the lead heroes, Owen and Claire.  I didn't find their characters all that interesting last time, and they're even less so here, as the movie treats them as generic action heroes who cling on ledges, carry big guns and smash through glass, but never have any meaningful dialogue.  They are brought back together by the slimy businessman Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who claims he wants to save the dinosaurs that were left on the island, because a volcano is about to erupt that will wipe them all out.  His nefarious plot is to actually bring the dinosaurs back to the mainland, and use them to create cloned weaponized versions that he can sell to world leaders and billionaires.  They head to the island to track down the surviving dinosaurs, and are aided in their mission by the feisty animal expert Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), whom the movie forgets to give a personality to, and tech guy Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), who stands out as being one of the most obnoxious comic relief sidekicks to ever grace a movie.  He spends a majority of his screen time screaming in a high-pitched tone whenever a dinosaur shows up.  He brings nothing to the experience, other than making you wish something nasty happens to him.

And keeping with tradition with the rest of the series, there is a child in peril shoehorned into the plot.  This time, we get little Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the granddaughter of billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who is behind the whole "save the dinosaurs" mission.  She's a precocious little movie kid who gets to go on a lot of adventures as she explores her grandfather's sprawling mansion, uncovers the villains' secret plot, discovers secret passageways, and makes daring escapes across narrow walkways.  If the screenwriters had shown just a little bit more restraint, they would have just called her character "Nancy Drew", and be done with it.  She's in the movie to appeal to the younger audience.  The film would be no better or worse without her.  The whole script is made up out of plugged-in elements that have been inserted because they worked in the past, or because the writers couldn't think of anything better.  There is nothing organic or natural about the storytelling here.  It's all rehashed, and it makes no effort to hide it.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom even fails on the basic level of providing thrills to the audience.  There is nothing particularly exciting here, and no moment where the audience catches their breath.  The dinosaurs are forced to simply run through the sets, never really interacting all that much with the human actors.  The villains are your typical generic military and businessmen types who have been overcome with greed, and act really stupidly because of it.  Just think of the wonder the very premise of Jurassic Park brings to your mind.  It is a franchise about dinosaurs existing in the same world as modern man.  Any child with an imagination could dream up countless possibilities just by reading that sentence.  And yet, the filmmakers here go out of their way to give us a cynical and brain dead experience that just throws a lot of action and movement up on the screen in order to fool the audience into thinking something is actually happening.  When it's all over, we leave completely unchanged and unfulfilled.

There are movies out there that can make you feel, make you excited, and even thrill you.  Don't let Jurassic World steal your time with an experience that will make you feel nothing.  As popcorn entertainment goes, it's the cinematic equal to dumping all the popcorn out of the cardboard box it came in, and eating the box itself.


Saturday, June 16, 2018


Tag is a relentlessly mean-spirited comedy that turned me off early on, and was never able to win me over.  It has a premise that seems to suggest a good time at the movies, but when I left, I felt nothing but hatred for the characters at the center of it.  The movie is about five guys, all friends from childhood, who for over 30 years have spent the month of May playing the game of tag.  Why do they do this?  To feel young, they say.  And at one point, one of the guys even says, "It brings out the best in us".  I might have believed this if the movie didn't go so far in making the five guys such violent, aggressive, insufferable a-holes. 

The movie is inspired by a true story of a group of 10 guys from Spokane, Washington who would always get together once a year, and set up elaborate games where they would try to trick each other into getting tagged.  This went on for two decades, and when the story was picked up in an article in the Wall Street Journal, someone in Hollywood bought the film rights.  We see some video clips of the actual people playing the game at the end of the film, and it shows us what the movie itself lacks - Namely, a sense of fun and enjoyment.  In the movie, the characters play the game not on friendly terms, but mostly to be jerks to one another.  They not only use the game to interrupt important events in their lives like the birth of a child, the funeral of a father, or a wedding, but they even go so far as to implement torture when they threaten to waterboard someone.  As the movie got meaner and dumber with each passing scene, I started to feel dirty watching it.

The gang of idiots at the center of the game are played by a talented crew who can't rise above the material.  First we have Hoagie (Ed Helms), who in the opening scene gets a job as a janitor (even though he is already an established veterinarian) at the company where his friend Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) works at, just so he can tag him while he's at work.  Next up is Chilli (Jake Johnson), a guy whose sole ambition in life is to smoke as much weed as possible.  We also have Sable (Hannibal Buress), who spends a majority of his screen time commentating on the action in what sounds less like dialogue, and more like an improvised stand up routine.  The four guys have decided to band together and tag their fifth friend, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has never been tagged once in the 30 years they've been playing the game.  Jerry's wedding is coming up, and there's talk that he's planning to retire from the game undefeated, so they have to defeat him now before the month of May is over, and this year's game is over.

Jerry has apparently never been tagged, because of his incredible speed and martial arts skills, which he frequently uses to avoid his friends.  We see him dodging, choking, rapid-fire punching and even setting up booby traps to evade his friends from tagging him.  At one point, he even hires a Mexican to pose as him in order to throw his friends off.  Uh-huh.  And at one point where it looks like the guys have cornered Jerry and are going to end his 30-year winning streak, he has his pregnant fiance (Leslie Bibb) come in and fake a miscarriage so that he can escape.  Witnessing all of this is a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis), who follows the guys around to get the story, but the movie forgets to give her a single personality trait, so she mostly just watches events unfold in stunned disbelief.  Also involved is Hoagie's wife (Isla Fisher), who is probably more aggressive and gung-ho about the game than the men are. 

If Tag is dismal as a comedy, it becomes downright unwatchable when it tacks on a sentimental ending, which plays by the unwritten rule that most recent adult comedies must go mushy and soft in the last half after devoting a majority of the movie to jokes about masturbation and including every four letter word and obscene insult in the English language.  Yes, it turns out that one of the guys is terminally ill, and is afraid that this will be his last year playing the game.  You see, it was never about tagging Jerry, it was all about having one last all-out game before he dies!  Let me tell you, when the movie threw in a weepy bedside hospital scene, I was so moved I wanted to throw up.  The movie's final moments depict all of the guys (including the one who is going to die) running down the halls of the hospital playing their game, and generally disrupting the staff and other patients around them.  I don't remember the last time I prayed for a movie to fade out and bring the end credits.

To be fair, there is one moment of honesty in the film, and seems to be inspired by real life.  It's when a woman that both Bob and Chilli are competing over calls them "idiots".  I wanted to cheer for this woman who said what nobody else in the movie has the guts (or brains) to say.  But, out of respect to the other people in the theater watching, I remained in my seat.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Incredibles 2

I remember walking out of 2004's The Incredibles, and thinking it was the best superhero movie I had ever seen.  Of course, that was a more innocent time for superheroes in the cinema.  Sure, we had the X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise, but things had not yet reached critical mass with the Marvel Cinematic Universe taking hold, and seemingly releasing a new movie every two months or so.  There was no such thing as a shared Universe, and Robert Downey, Jr. was considered a risk in Hollywood.  And with this Pixar animated film, writer-director Brad Bird had given us not just a satisfying action film, but one that was emotionally driven and filled with smart humor.

It also ended on a note that seemed to suggest a sequel was all but inevitable, and would expand upon the world and the characters we had fallen in love with.  The "inevitable sequel" has taken 14 years, and obviously a lot has changed in that time.  The good news is that Incredibles 2, while not the genre-defining movie that the original felt like so long ago, is fresh and not the least bit tired.  These still feel like the characters from the original, and the world has been expanded on enough so that the sequel feels appropriately bigger without sacrificing the heart that lies within the story, which has always been the theme of family.  This is a smart and extremely fun animated film, the kind we always hope for from Pixar.  It may have taken longer than we had hoped for Brad Bird to return to his creation, but at least he has given us a worthy follow up.

The movie picks up at the precise moment the previous film left off, with the villainous Underminer (voice by Pixar regular John Ratzenberger) declaring war on the surface world, and creating a path of destruction through the city.  Of course, the heroic Parr family is there to stop him.  We are quickly reintroduced to the family of Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), young son and speedster Dash (Huck Milner), and little baby Jack-Jack, who must suit up and battle evil, even though the world still does not trust superheroes in general.  The Parrs do manage to stop the crime, but not without great damage to the city.  Instead of being thankful for the help of the superhero family, the police grill them, and actually state that things would have been better if the Underminer had gotten away with his scheme, as the bank he tried to rob had insurance and there would have been less destruction.  It seems that superheroes (or "Supers" as they're called here) will forever be mistrusted because of their abilities.

There is hope for change, however.  A young tycoon by the name of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) has been a fan of the Supers ever since he was a child, raised by a father who believed in them even after the Supers were forced to go underground and keep their powers secret.  Seeing the Parr family in action has inspired him to set a plan into motion to improve the image of the Supers in the eyes of the government and the public, and bring them back out into the spotlight.  With the help of his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston has created technology that works as a body camera on a superhero suit, so that they can record their heroics and show the public that the Supers are here to help.  The Deavor siblings choose Elastigirl to serve as the face of their new program, as her methods of heroics are much less destructive than that of her husband, Bob, and they believe she will be easier to sell to the public.  This leads to Elastigirl going out and doing good around the city, while Mr. Incredible is left at home to take care of the kids.

A majority of the film is split into parallel storylines, as Elastigirl goes into action and gets to meet fellow superheroes like Void (a heroine who can create portals) Screech (an owl-like hero) and Reflux (elderly, but still in the game), who are happy to be getting attention once again.  As for Bob, he has to deal with his son's confusing homework, daughter Violet's dating issues, and little baby Jack-Jack suddenly displaying not just one, but several super powers at will and seemingly at random.  He can multiply himself, set himself aflame, warp through time and space, and pass through solid matter.  If there is a character who can be described as stealing the show, it's definitely Jack-Jack, as the scenes depicting the little tyke discovering his powers are some of the most hilarious in the film.  And of course, a new villain is bound to show up.  This time it's the mysterious Screenslaver, who can hypnotize people through any monitor and bring them under their control.  The movie tries to keep the identity of this villain a secret, but anyone halfway alert probably will not be surprised when the big reveal comes.

Even if it's not that surprising when it comes to its plotting, Incredibles 2 excels at humor, and some of the most beautifully realized action sequences I have seen in an animated film.  The standout is a scene depicting Elastigirl trying to stop a runaway train, which is so fluid and beautiful you just want to soak it in and admire the work that went into designing it.  Even when the movie is not trying to thrill you, it dazzles you with the detailed animation, which is certainly what we have come to expect from Pixar.  But outside of the visuals, this is just a very tightly constructed screenplay that Bird has given us.  Things flow naturally, and there's no real lag or down time.  Nothing feels unnecessary here.  And even if the movie never feels as groundbreaking as the first one did 14 years ago, it constantly feels fresh, exciting and thrilling in a way that few family films are.

I also am happy to report that nothing comes up short here.  Not the voice acting, not the writing, and certainly not the memorably jazzy music score by Michael Giacchino.  This is one of those times where everything works to create a solid entertainment.  This is a movie that could have so easily gone the easy route, and just played on our nostalgia, as so many sequels to movies from over 10 years ago usually do.  But the filmmakers here are not that lazy, and have a real story to tell.  They care about these characters, and we can tell from the voice performances that the actors are happy to be back as well.  Everything about this movie is tuned to the point that it doesn't feel like it's been 14 years since the last one.

Even with the current cinematic slate of superhero movies, Incredibles 2 still manages to stand out thanks to its retro 1950s look, which brings to mind the Golden Age of comics.  This alone would be enough to make it interesting, but fortunately the movie goes further in creating a complete experience for the audience.  This movie just works.  Oh, does it ever.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

Ocean's 8

Ocean's 8 is a light and breezy summer entertainment that not only serves as a nice balance to the usual bloated blockbusters we get this time of year, but it also holds a cast of truly talented women who are truly having a blast.  It's as much fun to watch them as it obviously was to make.  And while the movie does make the occasional comment on how women are viewed in today's society, it wisely never gets sidetracked with making a statement.  It just wants to be a fun little heist film, and it succeeds. 

Director Gary Ross takes over for Steven Soderbergh, who directed the previous three Ocean's films, and has the role of producer this time around.  Ross, a filmmaker with an uneven track record (his best directing effort remains his first one, 1998's Pleasantville), would seem to be an odd choice to follow a director like Soderbergh, but he shows tremendous skill here in keeping the film moving, and in creating an ingenious crime for his main characters to pull off.  It's only during the lengthy epilogue that the movie turns a little sluggish, but it's not bothersome.  He also is clearly having a lot of fun poking fun at the celebrity and fashion worlds, and revels in both by including a number of cameos who are willing to poke fun at themselves or the industry they work in.  And by setting the action around The Met Gala, the annual fashion extravaganza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he gives us a setting we have not seen very often in the movies.

Sandra Bullock gets to take over as the ringleader of the crime as Debbie Ocean, sister of George Clooney's Danny Ocean from the previous movies.  From the very opening scene where Debbie is giving a performance to the parole board to let her out of prison after serving five years for a scam she was running with a man she loved (he turned on her, and pinned the crime on her), Bullock is commanding, funny, and more than capable of taking over the franchise.  As soon as she is free, Debbie makes tracks for New York City, and immediately begins scamming free luxury items from a department store, and a hotel room.  One of the joys of the film is how it uses real world locations throughout the city that are immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent ample time there.  As Debbie enjoys her freedom, she begins to set about a plan she was working on the entire time she was in prison.

This means assembling a team, and we get to witness the fun of Debbie gathering the women who will help her on her latest job of stealing a one-of-a-kind, $150 million diamond Cartier necklace from the starlet who’s wearing it in the middle of the Gala without anyone noticing.  She handpicks each member of her team for their specific skills that will be required to bring her plan into reality.  The first one she turns to is her old friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), who is a former partner of hers.  Bullock and Blanchett have an instant chemistry together, and the wordplay that they share gets some of the biggest laughs of the film.  From there, we are introduced to the other members of the team including a faded fashion designer with just enough clout to get them into the event (Helena Bonham Carter), a jeweler who hopes to use the money from the job to start a life of her own away from her mother (Mindy Kaling), a con artist and pickpocket (recording artist Awkwafina), a former criminal who is trying to lead a normal life in the suburbs with her family, but finds Debbie's offer too good to resist (Sarah Paulson), and a hacker who goes by the name of Nine Ball (Rihanna).

And then there is the young starlet who will be wearing the rare necklace, the actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway).  She obviously is playing the most important job in the plan, even if she doesn't know it.  The way that Hathaway dives into her character, creating a frequently funny portrayal of celebrity makes her one of the more valuable players in the film.  All of these women are great fun to watch, and the screenplay by Ross and Olivia Milch gives everyone a chance to shine.  But it's actually watching the job come together, and the thrill of seeing it get pulled off that makes the movie so much fun to watch.  It's thrilling seeing just how precise these women can be, and the job itself is thought out and executed so well that it's undeniably thrilling.  And like the best heist movies, nothing is quite what it seems to be, and we get some last minute twists and turns that are not only surprising, but a lot of fun.

Ocean's 8 exists simply as escapism, and I think it succeeds.  Could some of the characters been drawn a bit deeper (Kaling, in particular, is given little to work with as a character)?  Absolutely.  But, the movie is such a good time, there's little use in complaining.  It's the kind of movie you may not remember much about six months from now, but you will at least remember it with a smile as you think back on the film.


Hotel Artemis

With a fairly unique premise and an interesting start-studded cast, one would hope that Hotel Artemis would be that rare summer action film that truly grabs your attention.  But in the hands of veteran screenwriter and first-time director, Drew Pearce, the movie ultimately ends up becoming fairly forgettable and slight.  There is some strong talent here, and a few good ideas, but they never rise above a script that fails to make us care about these people.

The story is set in 2028, and finds the city of L.A. in the middle of a massive riot that has spilled out onto the streets due to a water shortage.  A greedy corporation has control over the water supply, and are only doling it out to a privileged few.  It's an interesting nightmarish scenario, but unfortunately, the film treats it only as a backdrop for the action, which is set within the walls of the Hotel Artemis, which is actually a secret hospital for criminals who get specialized care from a world-weary Nurse (Jodie Foster, in her first screen role in five years), and her massive orderly who goes by the name of Everest (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy).  There are certain rules that the Nurse adheres by at her clinic.  You must be a member to gain access, no guns are allowed, no cops are admitted within, and no killing of the other patients, so criminals must leave their rivalries and personal grudges at the door. 

If you guess that all of those rules are going to be broken as a number of "guests" descend upon the Hotel during this night of rioting, you would be right.  The first to arrive are wounded brothers Sherman (Sterling K. Brown from This is Us) and Lev (Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta), who just escaped from a botched bank job, and got involved in a shootout with police during their escape.  A master assassin (Sofia Boutella) is there as well, and she has an obvious agenda for being at the Artemis, which will be made clear as the night goes on.  Also present is an obnoxious arms dealer (a very obnoxious Charlie Day), who seems to want to pick a fight with everyone he comes in contact with.  Things become even more intense when the crime lord who owns the Hotel (Jeff Goldblum) has to be checked in, and his violent and trigger-happy son (Zachary Quinto) is a hot-head who doesn't like to follow orders or listen to anyone other than his father.

We also get a subplot involving the Nurse having to make a personal decision when a wounded police officer (Jenny Slate) turns up at the door, demanding to be let in.  It seems that she has a history with the officer, and the Nurse finds that she must break her own rule of no cops being allowed inside, and has to do her best to hide her from the rest of her clients.  To its credit, the movie does move at a pretty good pace, but that's mostly because Pearce never slows down long enough to develop any of his characters.  We do get a tragic backstory for the Nurse, and how she has never set foot outside of the building for decades, but it never quite strikes the right emotional chord, despite the best efforts of Foster, who is clearly trying to make something out of her character. 

Despite its large and diverse cast, Hotel Artemis sadly is not that interested in creating some people we can get behind or complex relationships.  Instead, the movie fills itself with endless shootouts and bloodshed, as well as just about every four-letter word repeated over and over making up a majority of the dialogue.  The movie has plenty of opportunities to create interesting scenes, as these criminals from different walks of life and of different degrees of power within the crime world find themselves in the same place, and eventually having to trust and or fight one another as the evening turns chaotic and violent.  Sadly, the movie never quite grabs this potential, and simply turns into just another action film that just so happens to have a better than average cast than you might expect.

If I must be honest, I did admire the design of the grungy Hotel where the action is set, and there are some interesting song selections on the soundtrack.  There's even a darkly comical moment or two that the film could have used more of.  But these positives can't hide the fact that Hotel Artemis should have been a lot more interesting, and should have done more with the cast that it managed to attract.



There are certain things about Hereditary that I don't understand, but on the whole, the movie is creepy and effective, and I am recommending it.  It is supremely crafted, and contains some wonderful performances as first-time feature writer-director Ari Aster creates a mounting sense of dread in his slow-burning thriller.  It's only during the film's final 20 minutes that the movie flies off the rails, and seems to be trying to be weird just for the sake of being weird.

Toni Collette gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Annie Graham, an artist who is desperately trying to finish an exhibition of dioramas based on her own life, while also trying to deal with her own mixed emotions over the recent death of her mother.  She is a wife and mother herself, with a family who seems to exist in order to redefine the word dysfunctional.  Her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is sad-eyed, and seems to be uncertain where he fits in within the world, his social life, or even at home.  Her youngest daughter Charlie (Broadway child actress Milly Shapiro) is an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old with dead eyes and a fixation on making creepy drawings in her little notebook.  Her supportive husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is doing his best to hold the family together, but even he seems to be emotionally spent by his efforts.  They also have a cute little dog, who is so friendly and spunky, that you just know it's not going to make it to the end credits as soon as it trots into the picture. (Only hell hounds are allowed to survive in paranormal thrillers.)

The family is dealing with the recent death of Annie's mother in different ways.  It seems to have hit Charlie the hardest, as she was particularly close with her grandma.  Annie starts going to a support group for those who have lost a family member to deal with her emotions, where she meets a friendly woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who seems eager to help her move on.  But at home, things are slowly unraveling.  Little Charlie (unknown to the family) is exhibiting behavior at school that verges on the realm of the psychotic, such as when she finds a dead bird, and cuts its head off with some scissors.  As for Annie herself, she is trying to throw herself into her work, but she keeps on seeing visions of people who should not be there, watching her from the dark corners of her workshop.  There are subtle hints throughout that something supernatural is at work, but for the first hour or so, the movie mostly plays out like a dark family drama about loss.

Aster's screenplay slowly draws us into the world of the Graham family, and little by little raises the tension as it delves deeper into the characters and their individual histories.  It's in no rush to get to the genuine frights that come during the second half, but I was never restless, because the performances are just so mesmerizing, and even lift the material up a few times when it seems like it shouldn't be working as well as it should.  Collette, in particular, is the best thing that could have happened to the film.  Her performance is so complex and emotional, it is a joy to watch.  There are also some moments where she just owns the screen, such as during a confrontational family dinner that comes late in the film.  Wolff and Byrne are given slightly less emotional roles, but they are still quietly effective as two men who are being forced to watch their worlds slowly crumble around them.  And young Milly Shapiro, making her big screen debut (she's best known for starring in the Tony-winning musical, Matilda, on Broadway), is certain to become a poster child for "creepy horror movie kid" after people see her here.

It's hard to talk about why Hereditary works so well for so long without going into spoilers, and this is definitely a movie you should see with as little knowledge as possible.  I will try my best to be vague, but as the movie does start to head more to the realm of the paranormal, it also delivers some genuine shocks and a sense of uneasiness that few films can create.  Even the simple sound of someone clicking their tongue against the roof of their mouth can create a sense of paranoia and dread here.  There are also some extremely gruesome and bloody images that can be hard to look at, but they also create genuine power and emotion, because they are incorporated into the drama, and are not just bloody shock imagery.  For his first time directing a feature, Ari Aster shows a remarkable command of vision, creating tension and atmosphere, as well as drawing us into the terror with dialogue and character rather than cheap thrills.  And when the thrills do come, they are genuine and disturbing.  It's a difficult balancing act, but he shows a real confidence through the first two Acts of his story.

That's what makes the final half somewhat of a disappointment.  While it's not enough to derail the film as a whole, it does seem like Aster starts throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his screenplay, and some of it just doesn't work.  He also starts throwing in some tributes to classic horror films, ranging from The Exorcist, The Shining, and Rosemary's Baby.  I wouldn't say that he was exactly being derivative here, but you can definitely see the influences, whereas before he seemed to be going with his own personal vision.  As things get crazier and more intense, the creepiness actually starts to fall.  He goes so over the top that he actually gets a few bad laughs from the audience.  Here is a movie that is so quiet and confident during most of its running time that it's kind of a shame to see it turn into a giant gimmick near the end, with a lot of forced "spooky" imagery.  I really want to go into more detail, and explain what works and doesn't, but I really can't.  You'll just have to see for yourself and find out if you agree.

Hereditary works so well for so long that it can't help but feel like somewhat of a disappointment when the movie decides to throw all subtlety out the window during its last half.  But, because what works here does work so splendidly, it's definitely worth seeing.  Even if you're not usually drawn to horror, there is enough drama here to grab you, and Toni Collette's performance alone makes it worthwhile.  Ari Aster has made a strong debut, and I hope he continues down this path, and continues to improve.


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