All the top 10 lists Nick has scripted for WatchMojo.com, the 7th largest YouTube channel in the world throughout 2014.
Nick's film review column at Filmfestivaltoday.com.
A comic strip sadly inspired by the real life of Nick Spake.
At the age of fifteen, I launched NickPicksFlicks.com, a website dedicated to the art of film. Since then, I have worked as a published film critic for Arizona State Press, Ahwatukee Foothills News, Nerd Repository, Film Festival Today, Arizona Filmmaker Magazine, and East Valley Tribune. Entertainment writing has also given me the opportunity to interview several big name celebrities, including Emma Stone, Chris Evans, J.J. Abrams, Emma Roberts, and various others. My life hit a roadblock in 2013 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, but I refused to let having cancer prevent me from writing film reviews and finishing college with a 4.0 GPA. In May 2013, I graduated from Arizona State University, achieving a BA in Theatre and a minor in communications. Teaching me just how precious life is, my disease further influenced me to reach out to others through my writing. Today, I'm happy to say that I am currently cancer free. As of September 2014, I have worked as a freelancer writer for WatchMojo.com, which recently surpassed 16 million subscribers on YouTube. This video content site has acted as a creative outlet for me to write top ten lists about movies, television, video games, and pretty much everything else. Out of the hundred scripts I've contributed to them so far, I'm primarily proud of the Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, Another Top 10 Super Bowl Commercials, and Top 10 Worst Movies of 2014. In 2015, I joined the Flickreel family as a critic and columnist. In 2016, I joined Story Monsters magazine as a film critic and can't wait to bring you all more movie reviews.
5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
Predator: Resurrection ***
Much like “Ghostbusters” and “The Terminator,” “Predator” is a brand that Hollywood keeps trying to resurrect, even though it clearly peaked decades ago. While nothing has come close to topping the 1987 classic, we still go into every follow-up with our fingers crossed for a worthy successor. “The Predator” is the forth entry in the series, or perhaps the sixth if you consider those “Alien v Predator” movies cannon. The film doesn’t bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it does mark Shane Black’s return to the franchise over thirty years after playing Hawkins. Getting behind the camera for this sequel, Black aims to do the original justice while still making the project his own. In the same vein as “Alien: Covenant,” the results are entertaining enough, although you won’t exactly be clamoring for more once the credits roll.
The setup is fairly standard as another Predator lands on earth and crosses paths with a soldier named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). Through a series of contrivances, a Predator mask winds up in the possession of McKenna’s son (Jacob Tremblay). These scenes play out like an edgier “Flight of the Navigator” or “E.T.” Tremblay does an authentic job at portraying a character with asperger syndrome, further demonstrating that he’s one of the best child actors in the business right now. In order to protect his son and the world, Quinn joins forces with a badass group of military men. Also in the mix is Olivia Munn as Casey Bracket, a scientist with enough brain and brawn to go around.
Although the first “Predator” is often regarded as a Schwarzenegger movie, it was really an ensemble piece with memorable characters and one-liners audiences still quote to this day. Fortunately, if there’s one thing Black gets right in “The Predator,” it’s the chemistry between the cast. Bolobrook not only has a great dynamic with his Tremblay, Munn, and Yvonne Strahovski as his ex-wife, but his crew as well. Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane in particular bring a welcome sense of humor to the film. You can also feel the genuine camaraderie between Trevante Rhodes, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera as well. Even Sterling K. Brown manages to take a fairly stock villain and give him a passive aggressive, slimy charm.
Where the humans all shine, the least interesting part of “The Predator” is sadly the Predator itself. Sure, the Predator is cool and has a few new toys to play with here, but gone is the sense of mystery that hooked us in to begin with. The Predator works best as an enigmatic foe that the audience doesn’t know much about. Because of this, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to build a franchise around the Predator with each installment delving deeper into its origins. To this movies credit, though, it does humorously point out that the Predator should really be called the Hunter.
Even if the Predator isn’t very interesting this time around, our investment in the humans does add gravitas to the action sequence, which – being a Shane Black production – are well-executed. Granted, the CGI can occasionally come off as lazy, but Black still works in plenty of practical effects to balance matters out. You also have to give the studio props for green-lighting a hard-R action movie, especially after “The Meg” wimped out with a PG-13 rating. Between the comedy, the cast, and the set pieces, there’s a solid film in here that’ll amuse fans of the franchise. If you’re expecting something that’ll breathe new life this series, however, be prepared to wait for the next step in evolution.
It's simply the best ****
Audiences may go into “A Simple Favor” expecting something along the lines of “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train.” It certainly earns comparison to those films, having numerous twists entangled within even more twists. The movie also draws parallels to a dark satire like “Desperate Housewives,” however. It isn’t afraid to take the tropes you’d typically find in a mystery novel and flip them upside down. At the same time, the film still flows like a classic detective story with a tight plot and killer payoffs. Particularly calling “Game Night” to mind, it makes the most out of what appears to be a simple premise and emerges as one of the year’s more pleasant surprises.
The always enjoyable Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, who – as her name suggests – can come off as a bit overwhelming. The other moms and dads envy Stephanie’s ability to juggle being a single parent, volunteering at the school, and still having time to do her mommy vlog. Stephanie develops an unlikely friendship with Black Lively’s Emily, a charismatic woman who prioritizes work and martinis above parenting. When Emily suddenly goes missing, Stephanie channels her inner private investigator to figure out where she went. Matters only get more complicated, though, as Stephanie grows closer with Emily’s husband, played by Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Kendrick is perfectly cast as a supermom who seems innocent on the surface, but has several skeletons locked away in the closet and isn’t afraid to get dirty. It’s Lively’s mysterious performance that catches the audience off-guard, however. Lively has demonstrated serious acting chops in films like “The Shallows” and “The Town,” but we’ve never seen her quite like this before. It’s almost as if Lively is parodying a “Gossip Girl” character, but still manages to come off as genuinely complex and even intimidating. From the moment Emily storms onscreen, the audience isn’t entirely sure what her deal is. Is she a caring best friend or merely using Stephanie to get something else? Is she an outrageous socialite or a complete sociopath capable of unspeakable deeds? All we know for sure is that Emily commands every room she enters, making her desirable to all those who encounter her.
The fact that Emily is such a wild card is what ultimately makes “A Simple Favor” so much fun to watch. Granted, there are a few twists that are fairly easy to sniff out. For every moment the audience sees coming, though, there’s another that pulls the rug right out from under us. Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, the plot developments never come off as forced or tacked on. Everything feels like it was carefully plotted out, which makes the viewer want to rewatch the movie in hopes of catching clues that might’ve eluded them the first time around.
Jessica Sharzer adapted her screenplay from Darcey Bell’s novel, striking a pitch perfect balance of legitimate thrills and witty dialog. Director Paul Feig hit a bit of a rough patch with the divisive “Ghostbusters” reboot, but he’s back in full-force here. While it’s not a laugh-per-minute comedy like “Bridesmaids” or “Spy,” “A Simple Favor” is perhaps Feig’s most stylish and sophisticated film to date. The art direction and costume design practically come off as Hitchcockian, albeit a bit more colorful. Like some of Hitchcock’s more comedic efforts, “A Simple Favor” leaves the audience wondering if they should laugh at the characters or fear for them, which is always a sign of a fascinating film.
It doesn't really compel you **1/2
“The Conjuring” series has repeatedly taken me by surprise. Just when it seemed like supernatural horror movies had officially run out of gas, the original film breathed new life into the genre with strong performances and a chilling atmosphere. The sequel was every bit as invigorating with some of the franchise’s best art direction, cinematography, and character moments. Sure, “Annabelle” wasn’t anything special, but that just made “Annabelle: Creation” all the more surprising with its slow-building tension and effective backstory. Universal’s Dark Universe may never get off the ground, but the Conjuring Universe is one worth delving deeper into.
“The Nun,” the latest spinoff set in this universe, shares a fair deal in common with its predecessors. The ensemble is universally great and the creepy imagery can be downright inspired. That being said, the film doesn’t really bring anything especially fresh to the table. For a series with loads of potential, it often feels like the filmmakers are repeating themselves here. Since the plot plays out in a fairly predictable fashion, you rarely find yourself leaping out of your seat or even flinching. As a date movie or rental, this is perfectly adequate escapism that more or less delivers what it promises. In a year that brought us “Hereditary” and “A Quiet Place,” however, one can’t help but desire something more.
Set about twenty years before “The Conjuring,” this prequel takes place at the Cârța Monastery in Romania where a nun has committed suicide. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is called upon to investigate this most heinous death. He’s accompanied by a nun in training named Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera Farmiga’s real-life sister and an “American Horror Story” alumnus. They receive some additional help from a local named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who discovered the deceased nun’s body. As sinister hijinks ensue, it becomes clear that the trio is dealing with is Valak, the demon nun previously seen in “The Conjuring 2.”
Back when we were first introduced to Valak, she immediately struck terror into the audience with her gothic presence. It was so unsettlingly seeing Valak emerge from a painting and into our shadowy reality, making for a masterclass of craft and pacing. Nothing she does in this movie is nearly as spooky, however, relying far too heavily on jump scares. For a spinoff, the filmmakers don’t do much to flesh out Valak’s origins and whatever backstory we do get comes off as muddled. It’s weird to think that Valak can do a lot more physically than Annabelle, but the motionless doll still seemed to have more personality.
Director Corin Hardy is no James Wan, but he does a solid job at capturing the look and feel of the other “Conjuring” movies. What he fails to do is leave a unique signature that sets the film apart from all the rest. “The Nun” blends in with all of the other “Conjuring” movies much like how “The Incredible Hulk” or “Thor: The Dark World” blend in with the other MCU movies. That doesn’t make it bad, but that does make it a bit too safe and by the numbers. If the Conjuring Universe is going to keep up the momentum, it needs to take more chances and try new things with the following spinoffs. Maybe Annabelle and Valak can team up to form their own version of the Avengers.
It ain't easy being blue ***
If “The Happytime Murders” had come out in the late 90s or early 2000s, it’d likely be praised as a boldly original comedy unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Much like animation, there was a time when audiences didn’t associate puppets with sex, violence, or profanity. While people still generally think of Big Bird and Kermit the Frog when it comes to felt protagonists, the raunchy puppet genre has become strangely popular over the years. The gold standards are the Tony-winning “Avenue Q” and the cult classic “Team America.” This idea has also been explored with the Dracula musical from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the short-lived sitcom “Greg the Bunny,” an episode of “Angel,” and even Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles.” While taking more of CGI route, Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” played with the premise of a vulgar character stuffed with fluff as well.
Just because an idea had been done before, however, doesn’t mean something new can’t be brought to the table. In this film’s case, the something new is a spin on the buddy cop genre. It’s a grim world where humans and puppets live side by side with the latter being treated like second-class citizens. Bill Barretta, whose best known for his work with the Muppets and “Dinosaurs,” gives a hard-boiled performance as Bill Barretta, a former cop who faced persecution in the department for being a puppet. It’s like “BlacKkKlansman,” except our hero is blue here. Now working as a private investigator, Phil gets wrapped up in a mystery revolving around the murders of the Happytime Gang, who broke new grounds for puppets on television. Phil eventually teams back up with his old partner Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy – who’s one of the few comedic performers who could act opposite a grizzled puppet while keeping a straight-face.
We also get some funny work from Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary and Elizabeth Banks as an old flame. The film appropriately belongs to the puppets, though, who all have creative designs and are always assuming to watch, especially when they’re being ripped to shreds. It’s actually quite amazing how the filmmakers make stuffing look as graphic as blood in a bizarre cross between “Sesame Street” and “Hill Street Blues.” That being said, there are time when the filmmakers could’ve gotten more inventive in how they kill each puppet. The first time you see a puppet get shot in the head, it’s a riot. The third time, you start to want a bit more variety.
The same can be said about the movie’s gross-out factor. In the first half, there’s a hilariously disgusting moment at a pornographic shop and a sex scene that makes ingenious use of silly string. The second half doesn’t have anything nearly as shocking, though, except for maybe a “Basic Instinct” reference. A hard-R satire like “Sausage Party” worked so well because the creators kept finding new ways to top the absurdity and the tastelessness. “The Happytime Murders” starts to settle down as it goes on, however, missing several opportunities. What the second half does have going for it is a fun mystery that’s not without its predictable moments, but ultimately has a satisfying payoff, both from a comedic and storytelling standpoint.
The film was directed by Jim Henson’s son, Brian, which is both surprising while also making perfect sense. Although this is somewhat new territory for Henson, “The Happytime Murders” has his signature visual flair, making for his best-looking production since “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Puppeteers have been around for a while now, but this film still manages to make us wonder, “how did they do that?” Todd Berger’s screenplay additionally has echoes of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Zootopia,” two other unconventional buddy cop movies with themes of prejudice. As entertaining as the results can be, one can’t help but wish the film pushed the envelope a little more and really went all-out with these ideas. Perhaps they’ll expand upon the premise in the sequel: “The Great Happytime Caper.”
Crazy Good Time ****
Quality romantic comedies are a rarity in this day and age, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is among the best of recent memory. The plot isn’t anything revolutionary per se, as you can predict pretty much everything that’s going to happen if you’re even remotely familiar with this genre. Even if the story isn’t unique, however, the film’s signature certainly is. In what could have been a very by the numbers adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel, the filmmakers go all out with a lot of clever one-liners, style in spades, and a winning ensemble. Speaking of which, this film has the distinction of being the first major Hollywood production with a mostly Asian American cast since “The Joy Luck Club,” which came out a staggering 25 years ago.
Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” makes the leap from television actress to bona fide movie star as Rachel Chu, an economics professor who’s dating Henry Golding’s Nick Young. Rachel is oblivious to the fact that Nick comes from an insanely wealthy family, although she starts to catch on during a first-class flight to Singapore. In town for a wedding, Nick introduces Rachel to his assortment of relatives, who range from delightfully quirky to condescendingly cold. Rachel soon finds that it’s going to be an uphill battle impressing Nick’s stern mother (Michelle Yeoh), who outright tells her that she’ll never be enough. Nick, meanwhile, is torn between returning to Singapore permanently for the sake of his family’s business or staying in New York to start a life with the woman he loves.
On paper, that setup really doesn’t sound like anything new. As is the case with any romantic comedy, though, it’s what the actors bring to the table that matters most. Fortunately, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a film that bursts with personality. Wu is a natural screen presence and we get surprisingly swept up in Rachel’s story as she tries to make a good first impression. Nick thankfully isn’t restricted to being a bland boyfriend archetype and his chemistry with Rachel never feels insincere. While Nick’s relatives aren’t all especially welcoming, the film wisely doesn’t turn any of them into a one-dimensional villain. Yeoh even brings a great deal of depth to Nick’s mother, striking just the right note of being controlling and concerned. All the while, rapper Awkwafina steals the movie’s best lines as Rachel’s old college buddy.
I haven’t been a huge fan of Jon M. Chu’s previous films, which include “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Jem and the Holograms.” His hyper style is perfectly suited for this modern Cinderella story, however. Where a lesser director would’ve taken a more straight-forward approach, Chu packs every shot with extravagant sets and colorful costumes that’ll make the viewers feel as if they’re at a party. Speaking of which, the big wedding is one of the most inventive you’ll ever see, turning the aisle into a babbling brook. There’s always something visually interesting to get wrapped up in, but not at the expensive of the character development or heartfelt love story.
Following the Oscar So White social media campaign, the industry has responded with several high-profile films centered on African Americans, including “BlacKkKlansman” and “Blindspotting.” The lack of Asians represented in Hollywood pictures has been even more prominent over the years, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is a significant step in the right direction. Of course, having a mostly Asian American cast doesn’t automatically equal a good or even progressive product. Just look at Margaret Cho’s short-lived sitcom, “All-American Girl.” What makes “Crazy Rich Asians” stand out is that the film respects its characters and doesn’t resort to cheap stereotypes. It’s a genuinely charming romantic comedy that audiences will remember in the years to come and will likely be viewed as a turning point for Asians in film. In that sense, perhaps “Crazy Rich Asians” is more revolutionary than I initially implied at the beginning of this review. That’s fitting, seeing how the movie’s message is to look deep into a person’s soul before completely judging them.
Shut up, Meg ***
“The Meg” is kind of a difficult movie to review. You wouldn’t think that’d be the case, as it’s been marketed as a big, dumb shark movie and – to a certain extent – “The Meg” delivers just that. At the same time, though, it’s hard not to be disappointed when considering what could’ve been. For those who don’t know, director Jon Turteltaub originally set out to make an ultra-violent movie with a hard-R rating. Turteltaub was forced to leave the bloodiest scenes on the cutting room floor, however, in order to meet the requested PG-13 rating. Granted, an R-rating doesn’t automatically equal a good movie, but the premise for “The Meg” is perfectly tailored for an over-the-top gore fest. While the final product isn’t without salvageable attributes, it constantly feels like the filmmakers are holding back.
The film largely revolves around at an underwater research facility that encounters a giant shark known as a Megalodon, which comes roaring out of extinction. With a crew in jeopardy, the facility enlists Jason Statham’s Jonas Taylor, a former rescue diver who had a falling out with the team years ago. Just when it looks like it’s safe to go back in the water, the Megalodon makes its way to the surface and heads towards a beach. It’s naturally up to Jonas to stop the swimming/eating machine, along with a flirtatious oceanographer (Li Bingbing) and the billionaire who financed this expedition (Rainn Wilson).
Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, and Ruby Rose round out the supporting cast, which is refreshingly diverse. Of course the audience is really only here for two players: Jason Statham and the shark. If you want to see Statham fight a 75-foot, bone-crushing fish, then “The Meg” essentially delivers what you paid for. As ridiculous as it might be, watching Statham narrowly escape death while battling a shark is admittedly amusing. The fact that Statham manages to maintain a straight face throughout only adds to the fun. The Megalodon, while obviously CGI, is still a visually interesting creation. The production values on the whole are surprisingly impressive, which is both a strength and a weakness.
Going into “The Meg,” audiences are probably going to expect a silly monster movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. So in a strange way, the film might’ve benefited if the visual effects were a little cheesier, as it would be in the spirit of a B-movie. The tone of the film can occasionally feel uneven as well. Sometimes, “The Meg” relishes in its absurd nature, calling “Snakes on a Plane” and “Piranha 3D” to mind, but never quite reaching “Sharknado” territory. Other times, it feels like it’s trying to be a legitimately well-crafted movie reminiscent of “Jaws.” The opening even plays out a lot like Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, building tension by keeping the shark concealed at first. Is that really what viewers want out of a movie called “The Meg,” though? Well, to its credit, the film is at least a better prehistoric thriller than “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”
There’s a highly entertaining movie somewhere in “The Meg” and the parts that ultimately work are worth the price of admission. In order to meet its full potential, however, the filmmakers needed to take the setup to the next level. Don’t settle for being the diet version of “Deep Blue Sea.” Give us action sequences that defy all logic. Give us gratuitous profanity. Give us shamelessly graphic violence that goes for the R rating. Perhaps we’ll just have to wait to see the unrated director’s cut (fingers crossed).
America First? ****1/2
In the wake of the #OscarSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns, it’s safe to say that Hollywood is taking notice. “Black Panther” became the highest-grossing domestic release of 2018 and “Blindspotting” stole the show at Sundance. While it’s great that we’re getting all of these empowering movies, Spike Lee was making racially charged films long before trending hashtags were even a thing. While Lee’s directorial outings have been hit-and-miss, he’s given us some of the most provocative, challenging, and important films of the past thirty years, most notably “Do the Right Thing.” “BlacKkKlansman” is among Lee’s greatest cinematic achievements, mixing black humor and brutal honesty in a screenplay that’s as timely as it is entertaining.
The plot sounds so preposterous that you’d swear it was conceptualized as a blaxploitation picture or a “Chappelle's Show” sketch. Believe it or not, the film is based on the autobiography of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective who managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the late 70s. Speaking over the phone, Stallworth is even able to fool the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace). Stallworth can’t carry this ruse on alone for obvious reasons. So, when the KKK asks to meet him in person, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) steps in. Of course, Zimmerman is also put in a highly uncomfortable position, being Jewish. Nevertheless, both Ron and Flip convincingly play their roles, so much so that the Klan considers making Stallworth head of their local chapter.
The humor here strikes just the right balance of cringe-worthy and topical. As well-written as the script is, it’s the ensemble that makes the at times jaw-dropping dialog work. Washington previously had a bit part in Lee’s “Malcolm X” along with his father (Denzel) and is best known for his football career. He delivers a breakthrough performance as Stallworth, portraying him an ambitious detective who wants to prove his worth while also sticking it to the man. He has an especially strong rapport with Driver, who maintains a straight face even when saying the most heinous things to win over the Klansmen. The film also demonstrates the broad scope of racism, with Jasper Pääkkönen as a white trash extremist who holds nothing back and Grace playing a white-collar bigot who tries to mask his hate-filled stupidity with a fancy wardrobe.
While you’re not always proud of yourself for laughing at the film’s politically incorrect moments, you can take solace in knowing that all of the actors are in on the joke. That being said, “BlacKkKlansman” is much more than a social satire. While the film takes place nearly forty years ago, its themes ring all too true in today’s world. It’s probably not a coincidence that the film opens with a cameo from Alec Baldwin as an ignorant narrator and ends with a speech from Baldwin’s “SNL” counterpart, President Donald Trump. Playing Trump’s “Very fine people” comment alongside footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally could’ve come off as too on the nose in another film. “BlacKkKlansman” earns this moment, however, as it masterfully demonstrates the parallels between Trump’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan and David Duke’s “America First” slogan.
While “BlacKkKlansman” can be a harrowing experience when considering how little has changed over time, it does leave us with an encouraging portrait of law enforcement. Taking into account all of the black victims who have needlessly died at the hands of trigger-happy cops, the police have developed increasingly hostile reputation as of late. Although “BlacKkKlansman” doesn’t shy away from the abundance of racist cops out there, it mainly focuses on officers who strive for equality and don’t deserve to be labeled as pigs. You wouldn’t think such commentary would come from Lee, given how some of his previous movies have depicted the police. “BlacKkKlansman” reminds us that law enforcement isn’t always as black and white as it seems, however, which is just another reason why the film is a must-see.
From Russia Without Love **
From Paul Feig’s “Spy,” to the “Austin Powers” trilogy, to the original “Get Smart” series, the spy genre has always been a great source for satire. That’s not the only thing “The Spy Who Dumped Me” had going for it, what with a gifted cast, an Emmy-nominated co-writer, and an up-and-coming director. One would hope this might be that one summer comedy that takes you by surprise. The only real surprise here, however, is how lazy the film ultimately feels. What we’re left with is a waste of the talent involved, as well as a waste of our time.
Mila Kunis is Audrey, a slacker stuck in a meaningless job who spends most of her time playing video games. Audrey’s losing streak is capped off with her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) leaving and seemingly dumping her. She finds out in the worst way, though, that Drew is actually a CIA agent with some dangerous people on his trail. Through a series of contrivances, Audrey gets roped into a deadly mission along with her eccentric best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon). Also in the mix is Sam Heughan’s Sebastian, who - much like a Bond girl - could either be an ally or enemy.
Okay, so the story really isn’t anything special, but that’s the case for virtually every buddy picture. What matters is that the leads have strong chemistry and enough funny one-liners to go around, as demonstrated in films like “The Heat” and “Pineapple Express.” Alas, the writing here is on par with the uninspired plot and the actors struggle to elevate the material. Kunis has proven through movies like “Ted” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” that she’s a capable comedic actress, but she feels misdirected and underwritten in this bland role. McKinnon goes into overdrive and manages to score a few laughs, but not nearly as many as the filmmakers are hoping. It’s a shame since McKinnon has always been an MVP on “SNL,” but has yet to find a film project tailored to her abilities.
What about the villains? Do they bring any laughs to the table? Not even one. Like so many other modern action comedies, the filmmakers unwisely decide to make the bad guys threatening instead of humorous. They don’t even make memorable foils for our heroes. The main hechwoman played by Ivanna Sakhno is a stone cold gymnast who’d feel more at home in a movie like “Skycraper” than a comedy.
That’s the biggest problem with “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Aside from squandering its ensemble, the tone is all over the place. Half of the time, the film tries to be a legit action picture along the lines of “Rush Hour” or “48 Hrs.” Other times, it goes for a quirkier approach, which really doesn’t mesh well with the ultra violent and even mean-spirited scenes. It’s not impossible to balance darkness with lightheartedness or action with comedy. “Game Night,” for example, was not only well-plotted and cleverly written, but also delivered some well-choreographed set pieces without overshadowing the laughs. “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” meanwhile, plays out like a mission that’s better left forgotten than accepted.
So that's what MI6 stands for ****1/2
It’s been well over twenty years since the first “Mission: Impossible” movie hit theaters. After all this time, you’d think that the franchise would’ve run out of gas or have gotten a reboot with an entirely new cast. The sixth installment in the series is not only the best yet, however, but one of the most enthralling action films of the 21stcentury. In the same vein as “The Fast and the Furious,” this is a rare string of movies that's improved with each passing entry. Of course where the “Fast & Furious” movies are just plain fun, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” goes beyond simply being blockbuster escapism. It tells a well-crafted story with immensely likeable characters at the core. That in itself is a seemingly impossible mission accomplished.
Tom Cruise refuses to slow down as Ethan Hunt, the IMF agent who’s defied death almost as many time as James Bond. Hunt’s latest mission blows up in his face, however, resulting in the escape of Sean Harris’s Solomon Lane, the same antagonist from “Rogue Nation.” Although Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt is MIA, Hunt assembles the rest of his usual crew, including Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). It’s Rebecca Ferguson who steals the show as the captivating Ilsa Faust, whose loyalties once again fall into an ambiguous area.
Cruise has been the face of this franchise for two decades now and it’s clear that he’s still having a ball in arguably his career-defining role. Even if Cruise decides to retire his character one day, “Mission: Impossible” has evolved into an ensemble piece with several supporting characters who are more than capable of carrying a spinoff. “Fallout” brings a few new players into the fold, including Angela Bassett as the calculating head of the CIA and Vanessa Kirby as the seductively named White Widow. Then there’s Henry Cavill’s August Walker, who – like so many other characters in this series – may or may not be what he seems. Cavill is so charismatically crafty here that he’ll completely make you forget about the mustachegate controversy surrounding “Justice League.”
Above all else, “Fallout” is skillfully made spy thriller, earning comparison to modern classics like “Skyfall” and “Captain American: The Winter Solider.” The story is full of clever twists and turns that astonishingly don’t feel too convoluted or forced. Even when the filmmakers fall back on old tricks, such the classic mask reveal we’ve seen a dozen times before, they still manage to catch us off-guard. Like the franchise on the whole, there are some tropes that never get old, whether it’s a nail-biting countdown or Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme music. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is that this “Mission: Impossible” movie actually builds upon plot points established in previous films, such as Ethan’s marriage to Michelle Monaghan’s Julia. Seeing all of these narrative threads tie together is a nice touch, although you’ll still have a blast even if this is your introduction to “Mission: Impossible.”
While Christopher McQuarrie’s script deserves praise, it’s his direction that makes “Fallout” a knockout. McQuarrie blends practical effects with CGI so flawlessly that you can rarely tell what was shot on location and what was filmed in front of a green screen. Cruise has pulled off some astounding stunts throughout this series and he sets a new standard for himself in “Fallout,” from a motorcycle chase, to a HALO jump out of an aircraft, to flying a helicopter during the pulse-pounding climax. Cinematographer Rob Hardy deserves serious Oscar consideration, as does for Eddie Hamilton for his breathtaking editing. Going above and beyond, there isn’t a facet of this film that feels phoned in, making for a mission that’s impossible not to accept.