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/Film 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.
Feel free to contact Nick at Nickspake1@gmail.com
5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
The Glass Initiative ***1/2
When “Unbreakable” came out almost nineteen years ago, most people went into the theater expecting a spiritual successor to “The Sixth Sense.” Instead, M. Night Shyamalan gave us a superhero movie, a genre that had lost much of its street cred on the heels of “Batman & Robin,” “Steel,” and “Spawn.” Only four months before “Unbreakable” came out, though, the original “X-Men” kicked off a long line of successful comic book adaptations. Since then, entire cinematic universes have been constructed around heroes who started out on the printed page. In the MCU, Samuel L. Jackson has brought the Avengers together as Nick Fury. In “Glass,” he reprises his role as Elijah Price to assemble a different breed of heroes.
The reveal that 2016’s “Split” was a secret sequel to “Unbreakable” stands out as one of modern cinema’s finest twists, rejuvenating Shyamalan’s incredibly inconsistent career. Shyamalan has had his fair share of misfires and some of his more laughable habits are still present in “Glass.” The writing isn’t without its self-indulgent moments and the symbolism is often on the nose. On the whole, however, Shyamalan has a lot of fun with the characters he’s created, connecting them in inventive, unexpected ways with clever worldbuilding and colorful visuals. It takes us back to a time when we were actually excited to see what Shyamalan has planned next, which is perhaps the greatest twist of all.
Bruce Willis reprises his role as David Dunn, the unbreakable man who has protected the streets of Philadelphia for nearly two decades, earning the alias of The Overseer. Spencer Treat Clark is also back and all grown up as David’s son, who has always encouraged his father to follow the path of a superhero. David meets his physical match upon crossing paths with Kevin Wendell Crumb, once again played by James McAvoy, who embodies a total of 24 personalities, including the fearsome Beast. Both men soon find themselves caged in a mental hospital with the brittle Mr. Glass, who has seemingly become catatonic after causing that tragic train accident years ago. All three are placed under the watch of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who believes her patients are suffering from the delusion that they’re gods living among mortals.
It’s great seeing Willis and Jackson back in these roles after such a lengthy hiatus. David has essentially gone from being a reluctant hero to embracing his fate, portraying a character with the grit of Batman and the strength of Superman. While Jackson is subdued for a good portion of the film, he eventually emerges with a devious plan worthy of Lex Luthor. McAvoy, meanwhile, once again steals the show as The Horde, slipping in and out of various different characters in the blink of an eye. As over-the-top and even humorous as McAvoy can be, he still brings a degree of fear and even tragedy to his character(s), even if you wish the filmmakers provided more insight into his backstory. The film also includes welcome returns from Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, a young girl Kevin previously kidnapped, and Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s longsuffering mother.
From a psychological standpoint, the whole setup of “Glass” may seem weak at first. Staple spends much of the film trying to convince our heroes and villains that they have no real supernatural abilities. While she brings some logic and reasoning into her arguments, the audience knows that Shyamalan isn’t going to copout with such easy answers and if he did we’d just be left feeling cheated. There are also several things about this mental hospital that make absolutely no sense, at least until we get to the final act. This is where Shyamalan brings things full circle, delivering on this trilogy’s true potential.
Without giving too much away, Shyamalan gives us one satisfying twist that’s topped off with another twist… and then yet another! Some may call the ending preposterous, but for a superhero movie set in a universe from the mind of Shyamalan, it feels just right. What’s more, it leaves the door open for more additions to a series packed with potential. So, where exactly can Shyamalan take the story next? Well, if David and Kevin exist in the same world, who’s to say that Cole from “The Sixth Sense” can’t join in with his superpower to see dead people?
If Beale Street Could Talk
Beale Street Blues ****
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is about an African American man who is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. The film isn’t so much about fighting the power, though, as it is about feeling powerless. Almost everyone in the film, from the rape victim, to the accused, to the family members involved, can identify with the hollow sensation of not being able to do anything in a horrible situation. The only people with any power are the ones who have rigged the quote unquote law. If Beale Street really could talk, it’d tell us that injustice is around every corner. Since it can’t, however, these injustices must speak for themselves and we can only hope people will listen.
Like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the characters here spend much of the story searching for answers only to come up emptyhanded. Occasionally it looks like everything might come together, but that makes it all the more depressing when there’s another dead-end. That’s not to say the film is all gloom and doom, however. For all the hardships our characters endure, there is a beautiful romance and message about persevering even when the corrupt system comes out on top. Beale Street may be overrun with prejudice, it’s also a place where love flourishes.
KiKi Layne gives a stunning breakthrough performance as Tish, a young woman who finds herself pregnant with the baby of Stephan James’ Fonny. These two share lovely chemistry that couldn’t feel more authentic, but are pulled apart when Fonny is accused of raping another woman. This amounts to an especially uncomfortable conversation between Tish and Fonny’s parents where the hateful words said are even more shocking than the acts of physical abuse that ensue. Tish thankfully receives support from her own family, particularly Regina King in a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance as her fiercely dedicated mother. Although Tish holds onto hope that Fonny will be freed in time for the birth of their baby, history shows that she’s wishing for the impossible.
Rather than following a conventional three-act structure, “If Beale Street Could Talk” feels more like a series of memories. Many characters pop up and are never seen again, but each leaves a significant impact. Another standout performance comes from Brian Tyree Henry as a friend who’s haunted by the time he spent in prison and is even more haunted by the prospect of one day going back there. The most uplifting moments are when Tish and Fonny are alone together, separated from a world of racist cops and feuding family members. Whether or not love conquers all in the end, the passion these two have for each other is forever unyielding.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up feature to the Best Picture-winning “Moonlight,” reuniting him with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell. “Moonlight” is the more unique film of the two, but Jenkins brings the same personal touch to this adaptation of James Baldwin’s highly relevant novel. Between “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “Blindspotting,” “The Hate U Give,” “Sorry to Bother You,” and “Widows,” 2018 has been a phenomenal year for diversity in Hollywood and stories about race relations. “If Beale Street Could Talk” demonstrates that there’s still a lot to be said, which will hopefully inspire more films as powerful as this one in 2019.
The Notorious RBG ***1/2
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often regarded as someone who peaked later in life, as her popularity has only skyrocketed since President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court 25 years ago. Of course, if you’re familiar with Ginsburg’s full backstory, you’d know that she accomplished a great deal before becoming one of the first female justices. For all we know, Ginsburg probably could’ve accomplished even more had it not been more a sexist society that’s come a long way since the 60s and 70s, but still has a long way to go. Given today’s political climate, the United States needs Ginsburg now more than ever. With that in mind, it’s fitting that 2018 brought not just one, but two films about her.
Earlier this year, Ginsburg’s life and achievements were thoroughly explored in the documentary “RBG.” “On the Basis of Sex” doesn’t cover as much base as that film, but it does shine the spotlight on a case that would help define both her legal career and fight against sex discrimination. It’s not the most profound movie ever made about gender, sexism, and equality. Had it not been for Ginsburg’s influence, though, it’s possible that many of those other films would cease to exist. On that basis, this is a more than admirable representation of an American trailblazer.
Felicity Jones gives one of her best performances as a young Ginsburg, who sticks out like Elle Woods when she arrives at Harvard Law School. The university only recently started accepting women and still undermines female students around every turn. Ruth does receive unwavering support from her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), although he needs her support just as much upon being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Through thick and thin, Ruth and Martin always treat each other as equals with neither trying to assert dominance in the household. The rest of the country sadly doesn’t share this outlook, as not a single law firm will take Ruth on after she completes her education.
For a while, Ruth seems content with shaping the country’s youth as a professor. She sees the potential to shape the country on the whole, however, upon learning of a man taking care of his invalid mother who’s been denied a tax deduction due to his sex. Exemplifying how gender discrimination doesn’t solely apply to women, Ruth decides to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Along the way, she receives help from his family and a journalist (Justin Theroux) who knows how to work the system. Ruth must also go up against her old Dean from Harvard, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston).
“On the Basis of Sex” is ultimately an involving legal drama with a message that carries weight even to this day. If there’s a downside, it’s that there aren’t a ton of surprises, as director Mimi Leder and first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman hit most of biopic beats one would expect. For all the familiarity, though, the film does its subject matter justice with a strong ensemble and a lesser known chapter in U.S. history worthy of further examination. Unlike the person at its center, “On the Basis of Sex” might not change the world, but it does leave us hopefully for a better tomorrow.
A Disney Sequel That Works, Can You Imagine That? ****1/2
Much like how the lightsaber was passed from one generation to another in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Mary Poppins Returns" marks the passing of the umbrella.
Read full review at Story Monsters.
Transformers: Fully Loaded ***1/2
2007’s “Transformers” might not have been a masterpiece, but it was a visually engaging and self-aware blockbuster, as well as the most ambitious giant robot movie ever made at the time. Director Michael Bay just kept giving audiences the same exact thing over and over again through the next four sequels, however. With each passing film, the characters grew more obnoxious, the stories became more convoluted, the explosions got more redundant, and the runtimes dragged on longer, but of course that didn’t stop audiences from throwing their hard-earned money away. After “Transformers: The Last Knight” failed to make a billion dollars, though, the studio seemed to finally get the message: give us something different already!
After almost a decade, this franchise finally delivers something new with “Bumblebee.” Well, “new” might not be the best choice of words, as it’s not without a few overly familiar moments. You can draw parallels between this film and numerous other friendly robot movies, from “The Iron Giant,” to “Short Circuit,” to “Big Hero 6.” There’s also clearly echoes of “E.T.,” which isn’t surprising since Steven Spielberg is an executive producer. That being said, the characters are likable, the story is easy to follow, the action is inventive, and it clocks in at just under two hours. What’s more, the female characters aren’t treated like sex objects and the product placement is restricted to a tiny plug for Charmin toilet paper. Above all else, it feels less like a Michael Bay movie and more like a legitimate “Transformers” movie.
While Bay remains a producer, he hands directing duties over to Travis Knight, who made the exhilarating stop-motion epic “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson take the franchise back to its roots and the setting back to the 1980s. In the midst of a war between the evil Decepticons and a group of freedom fighters, a yellow Autobot lands on Earth where his memory is wiped and his speaking function is impaired. Taking on the form of a Volkswagen Beetle, our titular robot is discovered by a teenage mechanic named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who names him Bumblebee. As Charlie trains her new robot buddy and grows closer with a nerdy neighbor boy (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), two Decepticons are hot on Bumblebee’s trail, as is a military man named Jack Burns (John Cena).
Hiding an alien creature in a suburban household isn’t anything new and the filmmakers seem aware of this, even referencing “ALF.” While there are tropes we’ve seen before, there are several things that set “Bumblebee” apart. For starters, Steinfeld is a wonderful actress and sells every moment she’s onscreen. It never feels like she’s talking to a blank space where a CGI robot was inserted later. You believe that she’s forming a genuine connection with Bumblebee, who gets a great deal of emotion across through his body language and wide, emotive eyes. It’s a sincere relationship that’s been missing from the “Transformers” movies for some time.
Cena has a lot of fun in his role as well. It would’ve been easy to simply portray him as another stick-in-the-mud army man architype who never gets the joke, but Cena actually steals some of the film’s funniest lines. While there are moments where the character succumbs to a few frustrating clichés, he’s given just enough redeeming qualities to even out. Plus, they don’t turn him into a bumbling idiot either. Heck, he’s the first one to realize that the Decepticons might not be entirely trustworthy, seeing how “deception” is part of their name.
The action is very much in the tradition of the classic “Transformers” animated series. The CGI characters have a cartoony charm, but they feel real, making for plenty of rock ‘em sock ‘em action that never gets too excessive. Unlike Bay, Knight thankfully lets the camera sit still for more than five seconds. On top of that, Knight and Hodson know how to balance action with heart. The greatest flaw with the past four “Transformers” movies if that we never cared about anyone involved or what was going on. Here, we not only grow attached to these characters, but become more invested in them than we ever thought possible. In that sense, this one is definitely more than meets the eye.
The Artist Formally Known as Vince Chase ***1/2
When it was announced that Warner Bros. was moving forward with the DC Extended Universe, the projects that seemed to have the most potential were “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League.” Fans were more skeptical of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” as both characters were strangers to the big screen. Aquaman in particular isn’t the easier character to bring to life, what with his silly costume and even sillier powers. In an ironic turn of events, though, the DCEU movies audiences were most excited for fell short of expectations while “Wonder Woman” ended up being one of the best superhero movies ever made. “Aquaman” doesn’t reach the same heights as the DCEU’s finest hour, but it doesn’t sink to the lows of this franchise’s worst offerings either. At its best, the film gives us a modern, identifiable, and even badass interpretation of a character we never expected to be done justice in Hollywood.
While Jason Momoa previously appeared as Arthur Curry in “Justice League,” this solo outing delves deeper into his backstory. The son of a mortal lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), Arthur is the rightful heir to the underwater kingdom. Having been seemingly abandoned by his mother, his loyalties remain to the surface world. Arthur is convinced to fight for the throne, however, when his half-brother Orm, aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), plans to wage war against humanity for polluting the sea. Arthur is aided by a future aquatic queen named Mera (Amber Heard), his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), and a school of other creatures under the sea.
“Aquaman” struggles in the pacing department during its first act, as we’re bombarded with a lot of complicated exposition, not to mention characters who aren’t given proper introductions. It doesn’t help that the Atlanteans almost sound like they’re gargling whenever communicating underwater, making it difficult to catch crucial plot details. Fortunately, most of the dialog-heavy scenes take place above land while the ocean is reserved for action set pieces. That being said, this is easily the most visually interesting DCEU to date. Much like Gotham City in Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” Atlantis practically splashes out of the comics and into reality. It’s a phenomenally crafted location that leaves you wanting to learn more about its culture, technology, and history. Even when an effect is obviously computer-generated, you can always sense the creativity and passion that went into making it.
As rocky as the first half-hour or so is, “Aquaman” eventually finds its footing as a breezy treasure-hunting movie. The fate of Atlantis depends on Arthur and Mera uncovering the long-lost Trident of Atlan, taking them to the Sahara Desert, Sicily, and several other scenic spots. The film is actually very much in the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” movies, which managed to take themselves seriously while still being playfully self-aware. Likewise, the film’s depiction of Aquaman strikes a solid balance of godlike and down to earth. He’s someone who will fearlessly swim headfirst into battle, but is still the kind of guy you can have a drink with.
Arthur’s character arc admittedly would’ve been more compelling if he had a stronger antagonist to go up against. While his motivations are relatable, Orm is a fairly bland villain when stacked up against Killmonger or Loki. Arthur actually has a far more interesting rivalry with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s David Kane, who’s given a legitimate reason for wanting Aquaman dead. While we do get to see Kane suit up as the bug-eyed Black Manta, his alter ego’s screen time is restricted to one fight against Arthur. This action sequence alone is so dazzling, though, that you look forward to seeing a rematch in the inevitable sequel.
Director James Wan and company have turned in a refreshingly self-contained adventure that works as both a standalone outing and a piece of a larger cinematic universe. The filmmakers never forget that this is Arthur Curry’s story, which has just enough pathos, splendor, and fun to stay afloat. In a year that brought up “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” it’s not a game-changer by any means. After hitting some rough waters, though, it succeeds in fishing the DCEU out of trouble and redefines Aquaman for a new generation.
Dick: Not the One With Kirsten Dunst & Michelle Williams ****1/2
Given today’s political climate, you can see why some people long for the days when Dick Cheney had the country in the palm of his hand. When the credits roll on “Vice,” though, the audience is left seriously contemplating which poison they’d rather gulp down. That’s not to say Adam McKay’s film is “liberal propaganda” or “fake news.” The film’s depiction of Cheney – while far from positive – feels surprisingly human and at times even identifiable. You might not agree with Cheney’s politics. You might flat-out despise him as both a politician and a person. Walking out of the film, however, we are given better insight into how Cheney developed into a modern Shakespearean villain. As he did with “The Big Short,” McKay accomplishes this with a sharp wit, biting commentary, and an all-star ensemble.
From “The Machinist,” to “The Fighter,” to “American Hustle,” few contemporary actors have transformed themselves more times than Christian Bale. He goes through his most radical makeover yet in “Vice,” portraying Dick Cheney from his early political days as an underling of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to the height of his power as Vice President of the United States. This could’ve backfired in so many way, but Bale looks the part with a significant weight gain coupled with spot-on makeup. Physical appearance aside, what’s even more remarkable is how Bale escapes into the role, capturing Cheney from various perspectives.
While the film doesn’t shy away from Cheney’s most controversial moments in office, it also presents him as a dedicated family man. He shares an especially strong rapport with his wife Lynne, played by Amy Adams in a resilient performance that channels Lady MacBeth. Cheney’s even depicted as a loving father when his youngest daughter (Alison Pill) comes out of the closet, immediately accepting her despite his ultra conservative beliefs. Had his political career ended with George H. W. Bush’s administration, his legacy would likely be viewed in a very different light. As we all know, though, the world’s perception of Cheney would be forever changed when he signed on to be George W. Bush’s Veep.
Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Bush falls somewhere in between Josh Brolin’s performance in “W.” and Will Ferrell’s impression on “Saturday Night Live.” Bush takes a backseat to #2 in this film, which is fitting since Cheney was always the one running the show. From the beginning, Cheney can see that Bush’s presidential campaign is more about earning his father’s respect. Bush’s lack of experience makes it easier for Cheney to take advantage of his position, particularly after the World Trade Center falls. As he climbs up the political ladder, Cheney slowly becomes more and more heartless, both literally and figurative. Bale is so slick and persuasive in the role, however, that you can understand why many people supported Cheney, who truly felt that what was best for his own ego was also best for the country he served.
The cast is rounded out with wonderful work from Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, and Jesse Plemons as a mysterious narrator, all of whom resist the temptation to plunge their performances in satire. That being said, “Vice” is also a wickedly funny picture with an equilibrium of brutal honesty and ingenious fourth wall breaks. Although it juggles multiple different tones, everything about “Vice” feels perfectly balanced, standing out as the most well-edited film of the year. It’s not often that a movie manages to be both a ton of fun and a harrowing portrait of the world we live in, but “Vice” gets people fired up in all the best ways.
A Spider-Verse of Possibilities ****
Back when Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie hit theaters in 2002, we all thought it would go down as the definitive version of the web-slinger and nobody would ever replace Tobey Maguire. Since then, however, there have been multiple reboots with Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland inheriting the role. Although he’s finally part of the MCU, Sony has spun their own web of projects centered around Spidey, including the animated “Into the Spider-Verse.” At this point, anything “Spider-Man”-related should feel redundant, but there are several aspects that set “Into the Spider-Verse” apart. For starters, it’s well aware that Spider-Man has become overexposed and we’ve heard Peter Parker’s origin story one too many times. Thankfully, Peter Parker isn’t the protagonist of this film, although we still get a fresh take on the OG Spider-Man.
Ever since he made his debut in 2011, comic readers have been clinging to see fan favorite Miles Morales on the big screen. Shameik Moore takes center stage as Miles, a Brooklyn teen who’s brilliant but lazy. Aside from attending a charter school, Miles has an otherwise average life with loving parents (Brian Tyree Henry & Rio Morales), a fun uncle (Mahershala Ali), and a cool crush named Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). His universe is turned upside down, however, when Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super abilities. While that might not sound like anything new, this is where matters get interesting. The villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has developed a super collider that allows multiple realities to cross paths. Miles thus runs into an alternative version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who – similar to Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi” - has grown tired in his old age and is ready to call it quits as Spider-Man.
Peter isn’t the only Spider-person Miles encounters, as it turns out Gwen is from another universe where she protects New York as Spider-Woman. There’s also Nicolas Cage as the brooding Spider-Noir, Kimiko Glenn as the anime-esque Peni Parker, and John Mulaney as Spider-Ham, no relation to Spider-Pig from “The Simpsons Movie.” Each of these characters has their own distinctive style and movements, making for a lot of fast-paced interplay. One can’t help but wish there was more time dedicated to some of the supporting players, particularly Zoë Kravitz as Mary Jane Watson and Lily Tomlin as a badass Aunt May. Of course, they’re not the focus of the story. The heart of narrative lies in the dynamic between Miles and Peter, as one learns how to be his own Spider-Man and the other discovers that there’s still more good he can do.
“Spider-Man” movies are known for packing in too many villains and “Into the Spider-Verse” comes dangerously close to repeating this mistake. In addition to Kingpin, the film also features Kathryn Hahn as Doc Ock, Jorma Taccone as Green Goblin, Marvin "Krondon" Jones III asTombstone, and a few others. To the film’s credit, though, each villain plays a vital role in at least one inventive set piece that furthers the story. So, it’s not hollow fan service, as was the case with Venom in “Spider-Man 3” and Rhino in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” On top of that, the film does a much better job at establishing the main villain’s motivation. Kingpin is a ruthless thug whose appearance alone is daunting, but we do understand why he’s willing to go to such extreme lengths to get what he wants.
Akin to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s beyond impressive that the filmmakers are able to juggle so many character as well as they do while still finding room to tell a compelling story. What’s more, every frame of “Into the Spider-Verse” is a visual marvel. Much like how “The Lego Movie” felt like a brickfilm on a multi-million-dollar budget, this film actually makes the audience feel as if they’ve been sucked inside a graphic novel. This isn’t surprising, as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller worked on both of these modern animated classics. The attention to detail is so great that viewers can even spot those little bumps one would find on a comic’s printed page.
In the same vein as “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” “Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated incarnation that succeeds in outshining some of its live-action counterparts. If I had to rank all of the Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi's “Spider-Man 2” would still come out on top. “Into the Spider-Verse” would swing into second place, however, with its self-aware humor, dazzling animation, and unbound imagination. Going into the theater, you might share Kisten Dunst’s sentiment that Sony and Marvel have been “milking” the franchise. By the time the credits roll, though, you’ll find that the possibilities are truly endless.
Mad Max's Moving Castle **1/2
Watching “Mortal Engines,” you never doubt the filmmakers’ high aspirations. It’s clear that they want to make an epic adventure that really triggers the imagination like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or “The Lord of the Rings.” Speaking of which, the film was produced and co-written by Peter Jackson, who reunites with several major players from his Middle-earth trilogies, including director Christian Rivers. It’s possible for a movie to be too ambitious for its own good, however, and “Mortal Engines” sadly bites off more than it can chew. While you certainly feel the size of the picture, you rarely feel the gravitas the filmmakers are aiming for.
Based on Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel, the story sets itself in a post-apocalyptic future where the idea of a mobile home has been taken to another level. Entire cities are assembled on wheels, leaving behind tire tracks the size of canyons. On the moving city of London lives a young historian named Tom (Robert Sheehan), who crosses paths with a mysterious outsider who goes by Hester (Hera Hilmar). When Hester fails to assassinate a devious historian named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), Tom gets caught in the middle and is forced to go on the run with her. Trekking through the wastelands and flying through the skies, the race is on to stop Valentine from unleashing a superweapon that’ll turn entire cities into junk piles.
“Mortal Engines” opens with a thrilling chase that plays out like the monster truck edition of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The production design and visual effects are down-right awe-inspired with rich detail packed into every corner. Like “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Castle in the Sky,” and other Hayao Miyazaki films, the technology depicted here is so inventive and you want to know how every little thing works. Of course, Miyazaki’s movies also usually have strong characters and involving plots, which is where “Mortal Engines” falls short.
The performances are universally good and the characters aren’t bad per say, but they’re not particularly involving either. Tom and Hester are to this movie what Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. You tolerate them fine, but every time they’re onscreen you wish Jack Sparrow would come back and Johnny Depp is unfortunately nowhere to be found here. Weaving is always a charismatic screen presence, but his villain is fairly by the numbers. Jihae scores a few cool moments as a resistance leader who joins forces with Tom and Hester, but she comes off as underdeveloped nonetheless.
The only intriguing dynamic in the film is between Hester and a cyborg named Shrike (Stephen Lang), who takes her in after the murder of her mother. Looking like a Terminator crossed with Ghost Rider, Shrike is a ruthless machine, but still has essence of humanity in him. He can see that Hester is overwhelmed with pain, which he wishes to take away by turning her into a machine as well. Hester seems strangely okay with this, that is until she kind of flips on a dime. That basically sums up the problem with “Mortal Engines.” It has a lot of fascinating ideas, but doesn’t allow enough time for them to fully materialize.
While it runs circles around something like “Jupiter Ascending” or the “Warcraft” movie, the characters still back a backseat in “Mortal Engines.” There’s so much going on here that at times it’s hard to even remember what our heroes are fighting for. If this film was going to work, the plot needed to be simplified with more focus. Seeing how there are four novels, maybe a television series would’ve been the best direction to take, be it live-action or animated. As is, though, “Mortal Engines” is admirable for its marvelous craft and capable cast, but it's otherwise an epic you can easily skip.