A true Spike Lee Joint.
As it pertains to films that deal with the subject of race and race relations among marginalized minorities, one filmmaker’s name stands out: Spike Lee. Lee’s “joints” have not only led to his iconic status as a filmmaker, but also a case study in how to incorporate the difficult subject matter of race into film, most notably “Do the Right Thing”, “Malcolm X”, and “Jungle Fever”. Over the last decade or so, however, Lee appeared to have taken a break from his racially centered films, waiting for the right project to work his legendary craftsmanship. That project appears to have come in the form of “BlacKkKlansman”, based on the true story of the man who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan, Ron Stallworth.
Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a young African American man who becomes the first black police officer to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. After being transferred to the department’s intelligence division, Stallworth notices an advertisement to join the Klu Klux Klan’s Colorado Springs chapter, and begins to infiltrate “the organization” by impersonating a white man. With the help of fellow undercover Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Stallworth uncovers a potential attack on African American activists, all perpetrated by the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace).
“BlacKkKlansman” is yet another tremendous film to be added to the legendary filmography of Spike Lee. Lee is able to seamlessly transport the audience to the 1970s, not just with the style and look of the characters, but by also highlighting the racial tensions during that era. Scenes of black student union rallies and protests, police officers abusing their power, and of KKK meetings and ceremonies put you right in the middle of the era, and will have you feeling uneasy at the seemingly impending war many of the characters discuss. Lee’s directing style is also ever present in the film, and “BlacKkKlansman” might be his most stylish film to date. After seemingly losing a step, the film serves as a reminder of just how talented and in tune Lee is with his craft.
The true story in and of itself, though exaggerated in parts for dramatic effect, is not only brought to life by Lee’s direction, but by the excellent cast as well. John David Washington’s turn as Ron Stallworth could turn out to be his star-making turn, as he is able to convey the struggle Stallworth has with not just infiltrating the Klan, but also his perceived unwillingness to be down for the liberation of black people due to his profession as a police officer. Adam Driver continues to show his versatility with his turn as Detective Flip Zimmerman, and gives another underrated performance.
Laura Harrier proves there’s life after modeling and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” with her turn as a black-rights activist and love interest of Stallworth, showcasing her abilities as an actress. Topher Grace gives a chilling performance David Duke, the head of the KKK, one that will make audience forget his nice guy persona on “That 70s Show.” Other chilling turns come from Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, and Paul Walter Hauser as members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Klan, as they instill a fear in the audience as to what dangers they are about to cause.
Perhaps the greatest strength of “BlacKkKlansman” is its ability to connect its setting to the current state of America. Footage of the horrific violence that occurred in Charlottesville in August of 2017 will serve as a stark reminder that while America has made strides in terms of improving race relations, the current America we live in today resembles that of the films setting. The footage of current President Donald Trump refusing to denounce the Neo Nazis who perpetrated the violence echoes the dialogue of the Klan members in the film, including that of David Duke, who continues to spout his hateful speech to this very day. Lee is able to connect the themes of race and hate expertly throughout the film, but saves his best for last with the parallels he makes from one era to another.
“BlacKkKlansman” is an American classic. Its true story and subject matter are timeless and will serve as a wake-up call for Americans as to what is currently happening to the country. With a terrific cast, expert production, and careful direction, Lee is able to make his latest joint not only one of his best in years, but one of the best joints in his legendary career.
Rating: 4 out 4 stars. Pay Full Price.
“BlacKkKlansman” stars John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Corey Hawkins, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin. It is in theaters now.
The most impossible mission yet.
Star driven action franchises are far and few between nowadays in Hollywood, no thanks in part to the comic book film craze and every studios’ desire to create a cinematic universe. One star driven action franchise that has stood the tests of time has been “Mission: Impossible”, an action vehicle starring Hollywood stalwart and everyone’s favorite couch jumper, Tom Cruise, based on the popular television show of the same name that aired from 1966 through 1973. To put it in perspective, the first “Mission: Impossible” was released back in 1996, and has seen numerous sequels over the last two decades. The latest sequel, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”, has crashed into theaters with the promise of being the most action packed mission there is, but does the film live up to its “impossible” name?
Two years after the capture of “The Syndicate” leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leftovers of “The Syndicate” have reformed into a new organization called “The Apostles”, whose mission is to cause catastrophic terror on a global scale. Their mission becomes a more of a possibility after the IMF’s (Impossible Mission Force) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team fail to capture three plutonium cores to members of the group for their new client, John Lark. With the fate of the world at risk, Hunt must unwillingly team up with C.I.A. assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill), whose orders are to kill Hunt and his team should they fall out of line, before the world experiences a global catastrophe.
What has made the “Mission: Impossible” series last as long as it has is its willingness to up the ante with its action sequences. “Fallout” unequivocally lives up to its “Impossible” name with its prolonged action sequences, including a tremendous sky diving through a storm scene, a bathroom brawl, thrilling car chases through France, and numerous standoffs. Perhaps the most thrilling sequence of the film occurs at the films climax, a helicopter chase in Kashmir that truly epitomizes an impossible mission. But even at two-and-a-half hours, the film operates at a brisk pace, thanks mostly in part to the non-stop action. It’s clear Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed Cruise in 2012’s “Jack Reacher” and 2015’s “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation”, has an eye for thrilling action sequences, and should see more work come his way with another showing of his masterful direction.
Tom Cruise has had a legendary Hollywood career that spans nearly four decades, and his trademark intensity and snarky quips remain as effective as ever. Cruise may be the film’s star, but it’s Cruise’s willingness to perform his own stunts during the action sequences that takes center stage adding an element of vulnerability to this mission. You’ll gasp and cringe at every blow Cruise’s Hunt takes throughout, making the film even more effective in its thrills. Cruise doesn’t hog the spotlight like the first two “Mission: Impossible” outings, however, as Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Rebecca Ferguson all return and contribute to the mission, making the film the closest adaptation to the iconic television series yet. If anyone in the cast doesn’t quite deliver, it’s Cavill, and while it’s clear Cavill isn’t much of an actor, his physically imposing presence contributes well to the film’s action.
“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” lives up to its title name. Its director somehow outdoes himself with more impossible feats of action direction, making it the most action-packed film in the series. Its star may have a death wish as it pertains to performing the dangerous stunts, but it lends itself well to this thrill ride that sees every member of the cast/ team contribute in a memorable fashion.”Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is an adrenaline rush that operates at a brisk pace that will undoubtedly thrill audiences, making it the most impossible mission in the franchise.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars. Pay full price.
“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” stars Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley, Angela Basset, Michelle Monaghan, and Alec Baldwin. It is in theaters now.
How can I resist ya?
Musicals can be hit or miss in Hollywood. Not all translate well to film, especially if they were originally intended for the stage instead of the silver screen. This still didn’t stop Hollywood from cashing in back in 2008 on “Mamma Mia!”, based on the 1999 Broadway jukebox musical of the same name featuring the music of the pop disco group ABBA. Despite opening against “The Dark Knight”, “Mamma Mia!” enjoyed a long run at the box office with a final tally of over $600 million worldwide, leading to Universal to kick the tires on the possibility of a sequel. Nearly a decade to the date of the release to the first film, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” finds itself dancing into theaters, but with the tepid reaction to the first film, there was a question as to whether or not audiences would be able to resist the film.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” sees Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) prepping for the grand reopening of her mother’s, Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), hotel. With Sophie and her three fathers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) all scrambling to ensure the re-opening is a success, Sophie thinks back to how her young version of Donna (Lilly James), met the younger versions of her fathers, while a surprise arrival of Sophie’s grandmother Ruby (Cher) could potentially ruin the re-opening.
As a person who despises ABBA and recalls how enraged he became when “Dancing Queen” came on the bar loudspeakers during his final senior stumble in college, one would think “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” would be an absolute headache to sit through. Throw in the fact the first “Mamma Mia!” is a bit of a mess and one of my least favorite actresses in Meryl Streep of all time in the mix, and you’re bound to have a disaster on your hands, right? Shockingly, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” doubles down on the musical numbers that made the first film so popular by playing ABBA’s B-side tracks with a sprinkle of their smash hits, and the result is actually one of the better Hollywood film musicals since “La La Land”.
One aspect of the film that helps it rise above the original is the story. The backstory of young Donna and how she came to court her younger version of her lovers and how she ended up in Greece is quite charming, filled with witty dialogue and well staged musical numbers. Also bolstering these scenes are Lilly James, who makes a star making turn as the young Donna. James’ willingness to go all out during the musical numbers is a sight to behold, and her usual acting abilities are on full display as well as it pertains to her interactions with her three suitors, making her a dual threat actress to watch for years to come. While her younger male counterparts suffer the same fate as the older ones experienced in the first film where it is painfully obvious they’re here for looks rather than pipes (save for the younger Sam, played by Jeremy Irvine), they show decent enough acting chops to warrant future castings in other films.
Sure, there are times where the present day story of Sophie and the reopening reaches paint by numbers status, but Seyfried’s singing abilities and the dynamic between Donna’s old friends manages to carry the film. While Sophie’s fathers once again cannot sing a note, the trio of Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgård are definitely having a blast making a fool of themselves to the songs of ABBA. Even though her time onscreen is reduced to more of a cameo, even Cher is able to leave and impression with her rendition of one of ABBA’s most notable songs, and who would’ve ever though she and Andy García would ever share screen time together?
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is the most pleasant surprise of the summer. For those of you who despise musicals, romantic comedies, and ABBA, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” will makes you question whether there is truly a benevolent god. But with its surprisingly good dialogue, solid backstory, and well staged musical numbers, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” may have you feel that you can dance, you can jive, all whilst having the time of your life and become the dancing queen.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars. Pay matinée price.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” stars Amanda Seyfried, Lilly James, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Andy García, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Julia Walters, Alexa Davies, and Cher. It is in theaters now.
Die Hard with a Plastic Leg.
Over the years, Hollywood has had the tendency to churn-out copy cats of popular blockbusters, chief among them 1988’s “Die Hard.” “Speed” was “Die Hard” on a bus. “Under Siege” was “Die Hard” on a boat. “Sudden Death” was “Die Hard” on one of the biggest sports stages, the Stanley Cup Finals. “Air Force One” was “Die Hard” on a plane. “Snakes on a Plane” was “Die Hard” on a plane, with snakes. But what happens when you combine “Die Hard” with another beloved Hollywood blockbuster like 1974’s “The Towering Inferno”, add in the most popular action star Dwayne Johnson and take away one of his legs just to seemingly make it a fair fight? You get “Skyscraper”, Dwayne Johnson’s latest vehicle in an attempt to become this generation’s Schwarzenegger.
Johnson stars as Will Sawyer, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran turned security accessor for skyscrapers after a rescue mission leaves him with an amputated leg but is fitted with modern prosthetic leg. Sawyer is tasked with accessing “The Pearl”, the tallest building in the world located in Hong Kong, China built by Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) designed to be a literal city in the sky. However, Chin has something on terrorist kingpin Kores Botha (Roland Møller), who unleashes a plot involving setting “The Pearl” on fire in order to attain what Han has on him. With Swayer’s wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and kids trapped inside, Sawyer must scale the building to save his family before the building comes crumbling down.
“Skyscraper” is undoubtedly a retread of the aforementioned “Die Hard” combined with the aforementioned “The Towering Inferno” with current action star of the moment Dwayne Johnson in nearly every single frame of the film. Unfortunately, the film comes across as a tired knock-off of the two, and with Mr. Johnson already appearing in the zanier “Rampage” earlier this year in which he teams up with an giant albino gorilla to fight a giant flying wolf, seeing the seemingly invulnerable Johnson scale a building to save his family seems unimaginative and unimpressive. It doesn’t help matters the film is clearly pandering to a Chinese film audience in the hopes of obtaining high box office receipts, which appears to be plaguing the industry with the release of each new film every week.
Dwayne Johnson is s more than capable action star, and his turn as Sawyer marks one of his finer solo performances. The rest of the characters in the film, however, are reduced to types. Neve Campbell has proven she’s a decent actress, but her role as Swayers wife doesn’t rise above “the wife”. Chin Han’s Ji is nothing more than the eccentric Asian architect with a secret, while many of his Asian co-stars serve as the pandering to China pieces that will hopefully entice people of that nation to see the film. Roland Møller comes across worst as the film’s main villain, a terrorist who believes having an accent constitutes as having a personality.
Working in the film’s favor, however, is just how ridiculous the action is. The further the film devolves into Johnson, best known as his WWE persona “The Rock”, attempting impossible feats of ability on one leg, the more fun “Skyscraper” becomes. Can the Rock defeat an adversary who pulls off his prosthetic leg? Can the Rock jump into the building off a crane while being shot at? Can the Rock dead-lift a bridge to hold it steady for his family to make it across safely? Can the the Rock use the magical powers of duct tape to tip toe his way around the outside of the building? Can the Rock climb up his prosthetic currently entangled in rope and climb that same rope and pull up his leg in time to get into a safe-house door? It’s ridiculous moments like these that make “Skyscraper” enjoyable if one is willing to go along for the ride, and those who do will find the humor necessary to enjoy the film.
“Skyscraper” may be a clone of a clone that lacks any sort of distinction from the films it borrows from, but it’s a rare star vehicle that can be enjoyed. If one abides by Johnson’s/ The Rock’s line “This is stupid” during the film’s over-the-top action sequences, then you’re in for a good time. “Skyscraper” may not be reinventing the wheel in the action genre, but it’s perfectly fine star vehicle that coasts off being “Die Hard” with a Plastic Leg.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars. Pay low matinée price.
“Skyscraper” stars Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, and Hannah Quinlivan. It is in theaters now.
No escape. No plan. Mostly hell.
Despite a brief resurgence at the start of this decade, by 2013 the teaming up of old action stars had lost its luster considerably. This did not stop Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger from making their long awaited team up in the underrated “Escape Plan”, and while many praised the two’s chemistry, the film underperformed considerably at the North American box office. The film did big business overseas, however, including a $40 million haul in China, the largest overseas market. With the tease of a sequel at the end of the first film, Stallone has taken it upon himself to cash in on a rising foreign movie market while still maintaining a presence in North America with the direct-to-video sequel “Escape Plan 2: Hades” and create his latest franchise in the process.
“Escape Plan 2: Hades” sees Stallone returning as Ray Breslin, a prison escape artist expert who has found a way to monetize this unique skill with his company. After a hostage job gone bad, Breslin’s apprentice, Shu Ren (Xiaoming Huang) takes time away from the company to protect his cousin Yusheng (Chen Teng), a satellite tech millionaire with a target on his back. When the two go missing and wake up in an undetectable prison called Hades, it’s up to Breslin and his associates, consisting of up and comer Luke (Jesse Metcalfe), tech expert Hush (Curtis Jackson), and punishing weapons expert Trent DeRosa (Dave Bautista), to locate them and plan another escape from a seemingly inescapable prison.
Marketing for “Escape Plan 2: Hades” would leave you to believe Stallone and Bautista are the focus of the film. But if you had watched the trailer closely and paid attention to other direct-to-video films that boast A-list stars, you’d know this isn’t the case. This is Chinese star Xiaoming Huang’s movie, as he subs in for Stallone. While Huang isn’t much of a screen presence due to struggling with his English, he’s capable of delivering good action with his martial arts background, which suffices enough for the least demanding of action fans.
That’s not to say Stallone isn’t in the movie much, he just takes more of a secondary role in the film. He gets his time with a few action sequences, and the film attempts to make up for his lack of screen time with Huang by having him be a voiceover that acts as Shu’s thought process of planning an escape. It’s Dave Bautista who feels underused most in the film, but he seems resigned to cash in this check while waiting for his next Marvel project as Drax.
Jesse Metcalfe barely resonates as a beefy rookie in the film as he attempts to recapture his “Desperate Houswives” fame. One can barely tell the difference between Metcalfe and Wes Chatham’s Jasper Kimbral, another member of Breslin’s team whose arch is beyond predictable. Jamis King doesn’t even reach eye candy level that’s how much of an afterthought she is, and it’s obvious rapper turned actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson needs to pay a few bills by reprising his role from the first film. The only one who gets anything out of his small role isTitus Welliver, who seems to be enjoying himself as the villainous “zookeeper” of Hades.
The film has all the trappings of a direct to video film: bad acting, laughable special effects, and choppy editing. While the action itself is somewhat competent, it’s the film’s underused premises and lack of explanation that truly made it destined for life on the direct to VOD market. A group of hackers called “Legion”, who appear to be pale rejects from “Mad Max: Fury Road” and speak only one phrase just because, and the prison’s system of selecting which days are fights days and why they are doing so has little rhyme or reason. There are numerous times you’ll have to stop the film and ask aloud “Wait, what?”, and at times you yourself will ask how it took one movie studio and five production companies to make this film.
Other than a nice way for Stallone to add to his grandchildren’s college funds, there’s a reason why “Escape Plan 2: Hades” wasn’t released in theaters. Despite an inkling of an interesting idea, the film is a largely bland and derivative sequel that makes the first film look like a masterpiece by comparison. Stallone die-hards and undemanding action fans may find something worthwhile, but most will be left without an escape and without a plan, languishing in movie hell.
Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars: Rent it.
“Escape Plan 2: Hades” Stars Sylvester Stallone, Dave Bautista, Xiaoming Huang, Jamie King, Jesse Metcalfe, Wes Chatham, Tyron Woodley, Chen Teng, Titus Wellive, and Curtis Jackson. It is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD now.
More a Jurassic World theme park ride than a movie.
Back in 2015, the arrival of “Jurassic World” was a historic one. It had been nearly a decade and a half since the much maligned “Jurassic Park 3”, and eager audiences paid their hard earned dollar in droves in en route to the largest opening weekend of all time (for 6 months) and one of the highest opening weekends of all time. With the dinosaurs once again becoming a money printer for the studio, a sequel was greenlit quickly, and three years since the world welcomed its return, the park has reopened once again for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”
Three years after the events of “Jurassic: World”, a group of mercenaries funded by the estate of John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), has extracted remains from Isla Nublar, the park’s abandoned island, despite push-back from the US Government and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). The park’s former operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is contacted by Lockwood’s aide, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to partake in a mission to relocate the remaining dinosaurs to a new sanctuary, including the velociraptor Blue. Despite initial rejection, Claire’s former flame and velociraptor trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), partakes in the mission as well. The two discover the Lockwood estate’s plans are not the virtuous mission it was pitched as, and must find a way to stop the estate from taking the cloning of the extinct creatures to a point of no return.
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” isn’t so much a movie as it is a theme park ride, much like one you’d see at the Universal Studios resort. Though it gets off to a slow start after its action packed opening, the film’s first act is a non-stop action thrill ride filled to the brim with scientific impossibilities, explosions, chases, and most importantly, dinosaurs. This undoubtedly is the high point of the movie, and once the film leaves the self titled “Fallen Kingdom”, it somehow devolves into even more preposterous territory.
The second and third acts of “Fallen Kingdom” may take place mostly on the Lockwood estate, but attempt to tackle the similar issues its predecessor dealt with, namely the introduction of a new super dinosaur that could one day be used not only as an attraction, but a weapon. There’s a tinge of Universal’s classic monster horror films in there with the dinosaurs lurking within the creepy, tucked away estate in Northern California, but it’s much too silly to truly generate scares for anyone over the age of 8 years old. Other interesting theories and conflicts arise such as the endangered species and cloning dilemmas, along with asking the question of if the creators and trainers of such clones are just as responsible as the ones who are selling and exploiting the creatures, but they’re half baked ideas that are largely forgotten for humans versus dinosaurs al la “Home Alone” style.
Chris Pratt seems to be using these films as an audition tape to become the next Indiana Jones, and while a capable action star with presence, still hasn’t grown much as an actor. Bryce Dallas Howard manages to be more of a force than a damsel in distress in the last film, but her idealism of the extinct creatures despite evidence proving they should remain extinct is beyond eye rolling. The mysterious child of the Lockwood estate, played by Isabella Sermon, never rises above annoying kid in movie status, while Rafe Spall, Toby Jones, and Ted Levine all sleepwalk through their villainous roles. Goldblum barely gets out of his chair at a senate hearing to collect a paycheck, while James Cromwell would like you to hold his beer as he barely gets out of bed for his.
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” isn’t necessarily a let down, but a sequel made because of a surging of 90s nostalgia that has yet to die down. With the heat of the summer upon us, audiences will look to “Fallen Kingdom” as an escape for summer pop-corn fun, which it is more then capable of being. But for a film that actually raises interesting questions that remain pertinent to today’s society, it’s a shame “Fallen Kingdom” plays it relatively safe and settles for dumb summer fun.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars. Pay low matinée price.
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” stars Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, and Jeff Goldblum. It is in theaters now.