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About 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.

Rating Scale

5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

The Grinch

Despicable Green ***


It’s impossible to talk about Illumination’s “The Grinch” without also discussing the previous adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ cherished children’s book. We can all agree that the animated television special from the legendary Chuck Jones is a perennial classic that’ll never grow old. The live-action Ron Howard movie, on the other hand, has aged about as well as an expired can of Who Hash. As someone who was 10 when the film came out, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for it, due in large part to my unconditional love for Jim Carrey. The 2000 film is by no means a faithful interpretation of Seuss’ vision, though. The latest version falls somewhere in between. At times, it captures much of the warmth and charm of the original. Other times, it can feel like a manipulative commercial that came from a store.


We all know the basic plot of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” although this film naturally introduces a few new subplots and characters to reach a feature run time. Like the live-action movie, this version also delves into why the Grinch’s heart is two sizes too small, but the filmmakers thankfully keep the backstory quick and simple. Most of the focus is dedicated to the Grinch assembling his devious plan, often resulting in slapstick reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. Perhaps that’s fitting since both the Grinch and Looney Tunes have Chuck Jones in common. I addition to his trusty dog Max, the Grinch also enlists a reindeer named Fred, who basically exists just to sell toys, but still gets a few laughs with his roly-poly physique.


As the Grinch, Benedict Cumberbatch strikes a solid balance being both dastardly and likable, although he lacks the gravitas Boris Karloff brought to the role. Ironically, Cumberbatch probably could’ve created something similar had he stuck with his natural English accent. Using his American voice, he sounds like Hugh Laurie as Dr. House. Then again, House was basically a Grinch without the green fur. Being an Illumination production, it’s also hard to watch the Grinch’s evolution from naughty to nice without being reminded of Felonious Gru. Even the Grinch’s iconic theme music sounds an awful lot like the title song from “Despicable Me.”


Weirdly enough, the best part of the film isn’t the Grinch, Max, or Pharrell Williams as the Narrator. (God forbid Illumination ever make a movie without Pharrell’s involvement). The scene-stealer is little Cameron Seely as the Minion-sized Cindy Lou Who. In every other interpretation of “The Grinch,” Cindy has always been a straight-forward nice kid. Here, however, she’s a wild, imaginative, adventurous child, but still possesses a kind heart and wants nothing more than to help her overworked mom (Rashida Jones). There are more layers to her as a character than ever before and she’s the one aspect of the film that’s actually a step up from the other versions.


That being said, there’s really no competition concerning what’s the best “Grinch” adaptation overall. Being based on a picture book that was just over 60 pages long, the 1966 special was perfectly paced at 26 minutes. At 86 minutes, this film doesn’t overstay its welcome per se, but it’s not without drawn-out filler and several gags that come off as out of place. While directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney have a better understanding of the source material than Ron Howard, they also miss a few opportunities. Some of the most important lines from the book aren’t even included.


“The Grinch” is a mixed bag delivered by Santa himself. For every shiny new toy there’s an itchy sweater. Even if another adaptation really didn’t need to exist, however, the film does deserve credit where credit’s due. Anyone who appreciates Christmas scenery will enjoy the movie’s vibrant colors and the inventive design of Whosville. While there is a bit too much focus on pop culture references and pop songs, it does take time for some tender, touching moments as well. Considering the target demographic, the film will delight children and their parents will find it cute enough. If you hold “The Grinch” high up on a pedestal, this version probably isn’t going to win you over, but at least you’ll take solace in knowing it’s the second-best adaptation out there.

The Girl in the Spider's Web

The Girl in Sony's Web **1/2


Just as we’ve gone through three cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man, Claire Foy is the third actress to portray Lisbeth Salander on the big screen. It’s weird to think that both of these franchises are being released by Sony, which has become a literal spider’s web. What’s even stranger is that Lisbeth and Peter Parker seem to have more than a distributor in common. Lisbeth has essentially gone from master computer hacker to unstoppable vigilante. Not only does she serve up her own brand of justice, but Lisbeth now apparently possesses superhuman strength and reflexes. She can sneak up on someone out of nowhere and then disappear the second their back is turned. Even her car and motorcycle almost look like they were stolen from the Batcave. Plus, at one point her nemesis wears a mask that resembles Screenslaver's from “Incredibles 2.”


The new direction “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” takes isn’t necessarily unwelcome. Compared to the Swedish adaptations of “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest,” this addition to the “Millennium” series at least moves at a faster pace with a slick style. The film’s use of shadows, colors, and angles actually look as if they were inspired by a graphic novel. While it makes for an occasionally fun action thriller, Fede Álvarez’s film can’t compete with the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or its American remake. Where those two films found the ideal balance of gritty realism, gripping mystery, and genuine character dynamics, this one boils down to a basic popcorn flick.


“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” isn’t exactly a sequel to David Fincher’s 2011 film, as the cast has been completely swapped out. At the same time, the film takes place after the events of the initial “Millennium” trilogy. Even if you haven’t been keeping up with this series, though, the story here is self-contained enough for newcomers to follow. Lisbeth once again finds herself wrapped up in a criminal conspiracy, although this one raises the stakes with nuclear weapon codes. The plot only thickens when our heroine’s reunited with her twin sister (Sylvia Hoeks), who loves the color red almost as much as Lisbeth adores black. To get out of this tangled web, Lisbeth enlists the help of a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant), a fellow hacker/NSA agent (LaKeith Stanfield), and of course journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason).


Foy has been on a phenomenal winning streak as of late with her work in “The Crown,” “Unsane,” and “First Man.” She makes for a charismatic, empathetic, and all-around badass Lisbeth who’s easy to root for. That being said, Foy does have the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, who transformed themselves into Lisbeth. Foy may don the same wardrobe and makeup, but the audience is more aware that they’re watching an actress playing a character. Gudnason, meanwhile, feels miscast as Mikael, especially stacked up against the late Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig. The age difference between Lisbeth and Mikael always added another layer to their unique relationship, but the two both appear to be roughly in their late 30s here. Where in the other films Mikael acted as a way for the audience to peer into Lisbeth’s soul, he’s now nothing more than a standard love interest who contributes little.


“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is without a doubt a well-crafted movie and the cast turns in solid work for the most part. What the film lacks is a purpose to exist. While its entertaining in parts, we don’t really walk away from the experience with a better understanding of who Lisbeth is. The relationship between Lisbeth and her sister had potential, but even that comes off as rushed and underdeveloped in the end. Lisbeth Salander is bound to go down as one of the 21st century’s best characters, but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is perhaps her only story worth telling.

Boy Erased

Boy, Interrupted ****


Watching “Boy Erased,” it often feels as if the audience has slipped into a parallel dimension. One could easily see the film’s disturbing premise playing out in a series like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Then it hits us that the film isn’t just based on a true story, but also touches upon an issue thousands of people have been affected by. In 2018, you wouldn’t think that we’d need a movie that explains why gay conversion therapy is inhumane. Since we live in a world where the American president is considering eradicating the term “transgender,” though, “Boy Erased” couldn’t be more essential.


Lucas Hedges broke out as one of our most impressive young actors with his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in “Manchester by the Sea.” He’s continued to shine in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” and “Mid90s” with “Boy Erased” marking his latest acting tour de force. In this adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir, Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a closeted homosexual who comes out to his devoutly Christian parents. Jared’s father, a Baptist pastor played by Russell Crowe, only sees two paths his son can take. He can either attend a conversion camp or shatter all ties with his family. Although Jared’s doctor (Cherry Jones) insists that there’s no “cure” for being gay, he decides to enroll in the program regardless.


Joel Edgerton is one of those actors you might not know by name, but you’ll definitely recognize him from his underappreciated work in films like “Warrior,” “Loving,” and others. In addition to writing and directing “Boy Erased,” he also gives a chilling performance as Victor Sykes, a so-called therapist who believes he can knock the gay out of his patients. Sykes subjects the young adults to physical abuse, most notably in a gut-wrenching scene where he convinces the family of one boy to beat him with the Bible. What’s just as harrowing, however, are the scenes of emotional abuse. Sykes’ hate-filled comments trigger flashbacks of “Full Metal Jackson,” making every moment Jared spends at the program feel like Vietnam. Some of Jared’s friends actually look as if they’ve been in combat, perhaps either because they’re being beaten at home or because they’re inflicting self-harm.


Nicole Kidman gives a particularly powerful performance as Jared’s mother, a trophy wife who tries to remain composed at all times. As she begins to see just how much pain Jared is in, though, she must make a choice between standing by her husband’s wishes or doing what’s right for her son. Jared’s father isn’t as open to accepting his son, but the film wisely doesn’t turn him into a villain. Although it’s acknowledged that Jared’s father is indeed a flawed man, we can visibly see just how torn he is between loving his son and wanting to stand by the ideals he’s always lived by. The film doesn’t even really paint religion as an evil institution. Rather, it demonstrates how some people use religion to force their beliefs on others as opposed to applying the Bible’s teachings towards creating a more loving world.


“Boy Erased” is by no means an easy film to get through. In addition to the horrors Jared faces in conversion therapy, it also explores sexual abuse. In one of the most unsettlingly rape scenes of recent memory, we’re reminded that the #MeToo movement doesn’t only apply to female victims. As brutal as the narrative gets, though, we are given an encouraging message: you can’t change someone’s sexual orientation, but you can change how you treat your fellow man.

Bohemian Rhapsody

We are the champions ****1/2


The production behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been an uphill battle, enduring almost a decade of delays with much of the talent involved leaving over the years. At one point, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was actually set to star as Freddie Mercury, giving us all “Brüno” flashbacks. The film faced its greatest hurdle yet when Bryan Singer was fired in the midst of shooting, requiring Dexter Fletcher to step in and wrap up the project. Despite not receiving a directing credit due to DGA rules, Fletcher still finished the project in time. After changing so many hands, though, is “Bohemian Rhapsody” a kind of magic or does it bite the dust?


Thankfully, the end result is a joyous celebration of Queen, reminding us why their music remains immortal and why there’s never been a frontman as unique as Freddie Mercury. From a historical viewpoint, there are details you can nitpick about the film’s depiction of Queen. From a storytelling perspective, though, the film more than captures the band’s spirit. Given the larger than life persona Mercury would often personify onstage, a more romanticized tone is perfectly in tune with his life story. At the same time, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t shy away from Mercuy’s inner demons and closeted lifestyle, as some feared would be the case. What we’re left with is a hugely entertaining biopic that finds just the right balance of the real life and the fantasy.


Rami Malek won a Primetime Emmy for his performance as the socially awkward, subdued Elliot in “Mr. Robot.” As Freddie Mercury, Malek further demonstrates his remarkable acting range, becoming a rock god. It would’ve been easy for Malek to turn a figure as flamboyant as Mercury into a caricature, especially with an enlarged set of false teeth. From the second he storms onto the screen, however, Malek becomes Mercury with all the right moves, from his distinctive accent to his eccentric mannerisms. Granted, he didn’t pull off this illusion alone, as the filmmakers used a combination of Malek’s voice, Mercury’s voice, and sound-alike Marc Martel’s voice for the singing portions. Malek’s delivery is so passionate and spot-on, though, that it never feels like we’re watching a lip sync battle.


While Malek is bound to soak up much of recognition, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an ensemble piece that does justice to Queen’s three other members. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello are all turn in charismatic work as Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, respectively. You never doubt the family dynamic these four artists share. Egos may clash, but there’s always a feeling of comradery and affection between them, even during their worst moments. Above all else, they’re willing to fight for each other’s creative visions, especially when going up against EMI executive Ray Foster, who refused to release the six-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Ironically, Foster is played by Mike Myers, who fought to include the now iconic rock single in “Wayne’s World,” giving it a second life.


The most intriguing relationship in the film is between Mercury and longtime partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Mercury’s sexual orientation has been widely discussed over the years, with some claiming he was gay, others believing he was bisexual, and others arguing that he was beyond labels. In any case, one thing the film makes clear is that he had many male sexual partners, including his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and boyfriend of several years Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). After finally confronting Mercury about his sexuality, Mary doesn’t dedicate her life to being his beard, but she doesn’t abandon him entirely either. You can sense these two possess a mutual love and respect for one another, despite not being able to satisfy each other emotionally or sexually. It’s the kind of dynamic we rarely see in films about the LGTB community, but it comes off as surprisingly genuine here.


While it’s debatable if Mary Austin was the love of Mercury’s life, she most likely knew him better than anyone else. Of course, as Roger Taylor put it, “In real life nobody knew Freddie.” That being said, it would be impossible for any film to completely embody a figure as enigmatic as Mercury. “Bohemian Rhapsody” does something just as extraordinary, however, making us believe that a fallen music legend has returned, if only for a short period. It accomplishes this through Malek’s transformative performance and a rousing mix of Queen’s greatest hits.


Queen was more than a rock band. They transcended the genre, combining elements of heavy metal, disco, gospel, and more. “Bohemian Rhapsody” in particular is arguably the closest any rock song as come to channeling the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. Likewise, the song’s film counterpart evokes both the fun of attending a rock concert and the spectacle of attending a night at the opera. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the climax of Live Aid performance, which serves as the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop.

Suspiria

Wha... what was that?! ***


“Suspiria” is a film I really don’t want to review. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s good either. Some films are so mystifying, ambitious, and straight-up bizarre that it’s hard to say if they’re strokes of genius or self-indulgent messes. On one hand, “Suspiria” is a cinematic experience that’s too indescribable to even review. On the other hand, any film that can be described as indescribable needs to be studied in great depth. And so, here we are.


Now that she’s been freed from Christian’s Grey’s restraints, Dakota Johnson can finally open her talents up to more intriguing roles. In “Suspiria,” she goes from fifty shades of grey to draping herself in fifty shades of red, which is one of the few colors that stands out in an otherwise deliberately bleak film. As Susie Bannion, Johnson plays a naturally gifted young dancer who’s eager to prove herself at the Markos Dance Academy. She quickly catches the eye of dance director Madame Blanc, played by an icy Tilda Swinton. Although you may not realize it while watching, Switon also transforms herself into a male psychotherapist and a grotesque creature that appears towards the finale. Just as Swinton masterfully disguises herself, the dance academy isn’t what it seems either with a coven of witches working behind the scenes.


There are a few things I can say about “Suspiria” without a degree of uncertainty. It’s unnerving, it’s visually arresting, and it has the distinction of being one of the few movies released in 2018 that made me drop my jaw on multiple occasions. Of course, I could say the same thing about Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” What separates “Suspiria” from that modern horror masterpiece lies in the pacing department. Even at its most understated, “Hereditary” never felt slow or dull. “Suspiria,” meanwhile, lags at 152 minutes with many scenes that feel like unnecessary filler. For a film that prides itself on being surreal and experimental, there’s surprisingly more exposition than needed.


Had “Suspiria” been trimmed down by at least half an hour, it could’ve been one of 2018’s most tightly-plotted thrillers. That being said, at its best, director Luca Guadagnino has made a fiercely creepy thriller that knows how to overwhelm its audience with an uncomfortable sentiment. Not since Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” has a movie so hauntingly integrated dance choreography into a horror story. There’s a particularly sinister possession scene where the audience can practically feel every joint move and every bone break. For many viewers, this is the point that will either have you walking out of the theater or hooking you in for the long haul.


This remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic clearly wasn’t designed to appease everyone. For those who enjoy a good detour into insanity, “Suspiria” is a dreamlike art house picture that’ll plague your nightmares. To get to the truly bloodcurdling portions, though, you also have to sit through a lot of drawn-out moments that are simply boring. The film is kind of schizo as it leaves you yawning one minute and your mouth hanging open in shock the next. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, “Suspiria” is a hard film to define, but perhaps the only way to pin it down is to watch it again… or maybe even dedicated an entire film class to it.

Mid90s

It was 1990-something... ****


Somewhere between the mid-2000s and early 2010s, society seemed to develop an obsession with everything retro. Given the economy, political climate, and rise of terrorism, it’s understandable why people want to go back to a simpler time. If we could actually go back to another decade, however, we’d likely find that there’s no such thing as a “simpler time.” The 80s and 90s had their charms for sure, but it’s not like they weren’t without problems. So many modern movies fondly observe the past through a pair of nostalgia goggles. “Mid90s” isn’t afraid to interpret the era through a clear lens, delving into the confusing and brutal parts of growing up while still offering glimpses of hope.


Jonah Hill makes a promising directorial debut with this honest depiction of a 13-year-old boy’s journey through mid-90s life. Sunny Suljic couldn’t be more genuine as Stevie, who’s at the age where he’s starting to lose interest in Ninja Turtles and is more into skateboarding. Funny to think that Suljic was previously seen as a skateboarder in “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.” Stevie is tormented at home by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up on a regular basis. Their mother (Katherine Waterston) does her best to keep it together, but can sense Stevie growing more and more distant. Trying to figure out who he is, Stevie eventually falls in with a group of older skaters.


Stevie’s friends are mostly played by unknown actors, which adds another layer of authenticity to their performances. Na-kel Smith leads the pack as Ray, who affectionately takes Stevie under his wing. The gang also includes the quiet Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the jealous Ruben (Gio Galicia), and the reckless F**ks**t (Olan Prenatt). Needless to say, most of their conversations consist of four-letter words, as well as some casual racial and homophobic slurs. The way Hill’s screenplay represents the lingo of the time couldn’t be more spot-on, almost coming off as improvised. What’s more, the delivery is so natural that it never feels like acting, as if we’re really eavesdropping in on a conversation between kids from the grunge era.


With a loose plot, “Mid90s” is basically 84 minutes of Stevie hanging out with his friends and that’s pretty much all we need. Like “Boyhood,” “Moonlight,” and “The Florida Project,” this film is less about telling a flowing story and more about capsulizing a chapter in a young person’s life. Even if you weren’t a skater growing up, chances are you knew kids like Stevie and his friends. We can also understand Stevie’s desire to prove himself, which leads him to make several unwise decisions. What’s refreshing is that none of Stevie’s friends pressure him in a mean-spirted manner. They sincerely care about his well-being and have his back, even if they’re not exactly the best role models.


Hill certainly gets the look of the 90s down, occupying scenes with skateboards, Super Nintendos, and CD players. More importantly, though, he captures the decade at its bleakest, as our protagonist copes with anger, uncertainty, and isolation. Through his friends, however, Stevie finds that he’s not alone and there’s always somebody out there who’s having an even harder time getting by. Of course, these life lessons don’t just apply to kids who survived the mid-90s, demonstrating that some things never change.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? 

The McCarthy Redemption ***1/2


Melissa McCarthy’s career trajectory has been eerily similar to Tom Hank’s. Both started primarily working in television, but eventually broke out on the silver screen with Academy Award nominated comedic performances. Hanks starred in a few less than stellar films following “Big,” such as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Turner & Hooch.” Of course, he made a huge comeback in 1993 with “Philadelphia,” which redefined him as a more serious actor and even resulted in a Best Actor victory. Likewise, McCarthy has hit a couple rough patches following “Bridesmaids,” such as “Identity Thief,” “The Boss,” and “Life of the Party.” The ironically titled “Can You Forgive Me?” reveals a completely different side of McCarthy and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if her powerhouse performance accumulate to a Best Actress win.


McCarthy plays Lee Israel, whose 2008 memoir provided the basis for this film. Lee is a talented writer who even had a few books published back in the day, but she’s since fallen on hard times. Lee’s agent (Jane Curtin) is unable to get her work due in part to the subject matter she wishes to write about. On top of that, Lee is notoriously impatient, rude, and antisocial, unwilling to play nice in order to get what she wants. Lee’s only friends are her sickly cat and her eccentric drinking buddy Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant in a delightful supporting performance. Since Lee and Jack are both gay, there refreshingly isn’t any hint of a romance between them. Lee would like to ask out a timid bookshop owner (Dolly Wells), but her own insecurities get in the way.


Desperate for money, Lee finds that she has a talent for mimicking the voices and writing styles of late celebrities like Fanny Brice. After making a couple hundred bucks for a letter she forged, Lee decides to pursue a new career path as a criminal. At first, Lee fails to see the downside since she’s finally making cold hard cash while also pursuing her passion. Of course, it isn’t long until people begin to question the authenticity of Lee’s letters. Soon enough, the FBI is hot on Lee’s trail, meaning she could face serious jail time.


Through humor and brutal honest, McCarthy brings out the humanity in Lee. Between her criminal activity and all-around unpleasant attitude, this is a person we should despise. Yet, we oddly sympathize with Lee and even relate to her actions. Lee wants nothing more than to make a living off her writing, something any starving artist can identify with. She simply can’t work a room like other writers, though, hence why her name carries no weight. It isn’t until Lee starts signing her work with someone else’s signature that she finally starts to feel respected. Just as every forgery is a fake, however, Lee’s feelings of self-worth stem from an insincere place.


Although McCarthy’s performance is great, the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same heights. For a movie with a lot of buildup, the narrative loses some momentum in its final act where the drama and tension never feel as high as they should be. There’s definitely an interesting story to be told here, but not necessarily a fascinating one, at least when you compare Lee Isreal to an imposter like Frank Abagnale. In many respects, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the anti-version of “Catch Me if You Can.” There’s nothing romanticized or glamorous about Lee’s portrayal. Given the character’s uncompromising nature, though, perhaps that’s fitting.

Halloween

H4O: Forty Years Later ****


It goes without saying that the original “Halloween” is a magnum opus of horror. Despite clearly being a product of 1978, John Carpenter’s film still holds up phenomenally with its slow-building tension, chilling atmosphere, and daunting antagonist. The sequels are a different story, however. While the other films in this franchise aren’t exactly good, they certainly have an interesting history. Michael Myers was supposed to die for good in “Halloween II,” he was taken out of the equation entirely in “Halloween III,” and made a comeback in “Halloween 4.” Two more disappointing sequels later, “Halloween H2O” retconned everything following the second film and served as the final nail in Michael’s coffin. Of course, seeing how the next film was called “Halloween: Resurrection,” the final nail obviously didn’t stick.


After getting a Rob Zombie reboot, as well as a second “Halloween II,” you’d think another film would be the cinematic equivalent of beating a dead horse. Yet, David Gordon Green’s addition to the series, simply entitled “Halloween,” is a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to say if this is the sequel we’ve always wanted or the sequel we never knew we wanted. After all this time, however, it’s highly satisfying to see a successor that does the original justice, acting as both a homage and a worthy continuation of the story. The film doesn’t surpass its predecessor and likely won’t go down as a game-changer, but it is the most fun and personal “Halloween” sequel to date.


Green and company once again erase much of the muddled continuity, only recognizing the first film as canon. It’s also established upfront that Laurie Strode, once again played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is not related to Michael Myers, once again played by Nick Castle, as well as stuntman James Jude Courtney. Michael has been locked up for forty years, but the emotional scars he imprinted on Laurie that fateful Halloween night never left. Much like a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, Laurie acts as if she’s still in constant danger, unable to leave the war behind. Laurie's paranoia caused her to grow distant from her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer in an especially effective performance. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is more sensitive to her grandmother’s condition and wishes to unite her family. As Allyson tries to bring everyone together, Michael prepares to tear them apart as he escapes from incarceration. 


It’s never made clear why exactly Michael is drawn to the Strode family, although the mystery surrounding their dynamic only adds to its unsettlingly nature. Michael's creep factor always stemmed from not knowing if he really was the boogeyman or just a freakishly strong psychopath. Either way, he commands the screen here with his overwhelming psyche and nerve-wracking presence. Granted, it’s kind of hard to believe that a man in his early 60s could step on someone’s head and crack open their skull like a Jack-o'-lantern. If you’re willing to give into a little suspension of disbelief, though, you’ll find a well-crafted and even character-driven thriller.


The film likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without Curtis. Few performers get to revisit their career-defining role decades later and she doesn’t miss a beat. Curtis evolves Laurie from a likeable, strong-willed heroine to a fiercely complex soul with several different layers as a character. Every actress in the film turns in strong work, making for a slasher flick that embraces female empowerment. Come to think of it, the men here are all pretty idiotic by comparison. The smartest male character by far is a little boy played by Jibrail Nantambu, who realizes that it’s usually better to run from Michael than to try and fight him off.


Green skillfully captures the look and tone of Carpenter’s film while also incorporating a modern element. The standout set piece is a tracking shot that follows Michael through a neighborhood of houses, leaving us overwrought with suspense as we wonder what he’ll do next. The screenplay, which Green co-wrote with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, is playfully self-aware, although it never goes into flat-out satire territory. Carpenter even returned to work on the film’s score, which, much like the “Star Wars” theme, never fails to get the blood rushing. It all builds to an electrifying climax that may or may not be Michael’s last stand. In any case, this feels like the right place to end Laurie’s journey, sending her into the night on a high note full of tricks and treats.

Beautiful Boy

I learned it by watching you! ****


They say relapse is part of recovery. Some people might take this phrase the wrong way, assuming that it gives addicts permission to repeatedly fall off the wagon and for rehab facilities to not take as much responsibility for their patients. No matter how you interpret these words, one thing is clear: when it comes to addiction, temptation is always staring you in the face and anyone can give in at any time. Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” has an evident understanding of how relapse and recovery are intertwined. It pulls no punches and provides no easy answers, but that’s exactly what makes this adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir so effective.


Steve Carell revealed a completely different side of himself in “Foxcatcher,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He continues his string of powerful dramatic performances as David, a dedicated father who’s shocked to learn that his teenage son is addicted to meth, amongst other drugs. Between his supporting work in “Lady Bird” and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” Timothée Chalamet secured his place as last year’s breakthrough actor. As Nic Sheff, Chalamet once again demonstrates why he’s one of the most impressive young actors of his generation. A model student who gets accepted to several colleges, you’d never know that Nic is a meth addict based on a conversation with him. That just goes to show how susceptible we all are to addiction.


After hitting rock bottom multiple times, Nic sincerely tells his family that he wants to get clean. Nic commits to attending AA meetings, taking regular drug tests, and checking in with his sponsor. Along the way, he receives unconditional support from his father, as well as his step-mother (Maura Tierney) and estranged birth mother (Amy Ryan). A more straightforward film would’ve closed the curtain at this point, but Nic’s inner demons aren’t so easily silenced. Just when looks like his junkie days are in the past, Nic shows us that old habits die hard.


Nic is a character many viewers will grow frustrated with. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking watching this promising young man continually get his act together only to flush his sobriety down the toilet. Alas, anybody who’s battled addiction knows that this vicious cycle is all-too common. Although “Beautiful Boy” is authentic in its portrayal of Nic’s struggles, it’s just as much about the hardships his parents endure. The film constantly flashes back between David’s perception of Nic as a child and his current state, which will resonate with anyone who’s watched a loved one transform over time due to substance abuse. Eventually, David needs to choose whether to aid his son yet again or finally accept that no matter what he does, Nic will likely get himself killed. His decision isn’t as simple as one might assume.


“Beautiful Boy” is far from the first movie to tackle this subject matter. Its themes can be traced all the way back to “The Lost Weekend” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Of course, this is exactly why addiction is such a prevalent topic. Even if it’s not as ambitious as “Requiem for a Dream” or “Trainspotting,” the performances are raw, the screenplay is genuine, and the filmmakers never lower themselves to cheap melodrama. The ending isn’t the happiest, although it’s not the saddest either. It merely reinforces the notion that recovery is forever a work in progress.

First Man

First! ****1/2


There’s a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which NASA grows desperate for ratings as audiences become less and less interested in space launches. Of course, when you really think about it, few sights known to humankind are more majestic than a spacecraft blasting through Earth’s atmosphere. The notion that anyone could find space exploration boring is truly baffling, especially since most of us will never even get to sit inside a rocket. Ever since we put a man on the Moon, though, there’s been a real “been there, done that” mentality about space travel. Even the Apollo 13 mission generated little public interest until the astronauts involved ran into “a problem.” By today’s standards, going to the Moon may sound like a fairly doable task. People forgot, however, that leading up to 1969, the idea of man stepping onto the Moon’s surface was not only imposing, but seemingly impossible.

 

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” captures all of gravitas that made the Apollo 11’s mission nothing short of historic. Outer space has been the setting of so many iconic movies. Some films even succeed in simulating the sensation of being in orbit, most notably Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” In a strange way, though,“First Man” takes us to uncharted territory, as if we’re seeing the vast recesses of space on the silver screen for the first time. What makes this especially interesting is that most of the film actually takes place on our planet, focusing on the sheer dread and uncertainty of venturing to another world.


In a role that Gary Cooper likely would’ve played in another lifetime, Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, who will naturally become the first man ever to walk on the Moon by the time the credits roll. Landing on the Moon is far from the most difficult thing Armstrong ever went through, however. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Armstrong and his wife Janet Shearon, wonderfully played by Claire Foy, cope with the fact that their daughter is dying. Science has come far enough to send a man into space, but it can’t save a two-year-old girl with a malignant tumor. Although Armstrong often appears composed, underneath he feels broken, withdrawn, and overwrought with grief. Whether Armstrong’s at a friend’s funeral or in a rocket cockpit, his daughter’s death follows him everywhere and it’ll take traveling over 200,000 miles away from Earth for him to let go.


Armstrong was often described as a reluctant American hero and Gosling nails this to a T. It doesn’t require much more than a simple facial expression to know that the weight of the world is bearing down on his shoulders. He didn’t become an astronaut because of the fame or glory. Most of the time, he doesn’t even come off as very enthusiastic about his job. At the same time, he accepts this daring mission knowing full well that even a basic wiring problem aboard the spacecraft could result in immediate death. Armstrong doesn’t appear phased by the possibility of dying. What does scare him, however, is having to sit his two living children down and tell them that he may not come back alive.


Chazelle previously made “La La Land,” my personal favorite movie of the past decade. His follow-up film is a complete detour from his other works, further exemplifying his incredible range as a director. Along with Gosling and Foy, Chazelle gets universally strong performances from Jason Clarke as Ed White, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton. The combination of Linus Sandgren’s cinematography and Tom Cross’ editing creates a claustrophobic sensation that places us in Armstrong’s shoes at all times. Composer Justin Hurwitz goes from the City of Stars to literally touching the stars with a musical score that embodies the infinite wonder of space. What’s more, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer deliver a deep character study that avoids obvious symbolism.


Speaking of obvious symbolism, it’s worth mentioning that “First Man” has stirred up some drama due to a report that the filmmakers omitted the planting of the American flag. Those demanding a boycott of the movie are completely irrational, especially since the film DOES in fact show the American flag on the Moon in the final act. Anyone who skips the film over this quote unquote “controversy” will be missing out on one of the year’s most awe-inspired cinematic experiences. More importantly, the ending reminds us that the Moon landing wasn’t just a giant leap for Americans, but a giant leap for mankind.

Bad Times at the El Royale 

The Hateful Seven ****1/2


“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a thriller sure to draw comparison to the works of Quentin Tarantino, calling “Jackie Brown,” “True Romance,” and especially “The Hateful Eight” to mind. The film also has echoes of artists like Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen brothers, and Vince Gilligan. Even with so many parallels, it still emerges as one of the freshest and most fun times you’ll have at the cinema this year. Director Drew Goddard previously brought us “The Cabin in the Woods,” which also seemed to tread on familiar territory at first glance. Like his previous directorial outing, though, “Bad Times” ultimately takes us so some truly unpredictable places.


Akin to “And Then There Were None” or the screen adaptation of “Clue,” the film centers on a group of strangers who arrive at the El Royale hotel. Each guest signs in with a suitcase of secrets and a catchy name. Jeff Bridges is perfectly cast as Daniel Flynn, who’s committed more sins than his clerical clothing suggests. Cynthia Erivo, who’s best known for her work in Broadway productions like “The Color Purple” and “Sister Act,” gives a stunning breakthrough performance as Darlene Sweet, a soulful singer struggling to make it against the prejudice backdrop of 1969. Dakota Johnson gives her best performance as Emily Summerspring, a rebel on the run with her sister (Cailee Spaeny). Jon Hamm also hams it up as Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman who’ll need something much stronger to clean the crime scene about to unfold.


Working behind the desk is a nervous concierge named Miles Miller, played by Bill Pullman’s son, Lewis Pullman. Miles is seemingly the only employee at the El Royale, which only adds another layer of mystery to an already enigmatic destination. This is one of those movies where the environment is so rich that it feels more like a character than a setting. The production design mixes the glamor of Hollywood with the sleaziness of Las Vegas. As a matter of fact, the hotel is located smackdab in between California and Nevada with a line running straight through the lobby. Likewise, all of these characters walk a fine line between being lost and found.


Each guest strives to get through a stormy night with the promise of receiving a fresh start in the morning. With the arrival of a charismatic cult leader played by Chris Hemsworth, however, it appears the sun may never rise again for any of these people. The El Royale thus serves as an allegory for purgatory. On the surface, it seems like a getaway spot where troubled souls can escape their sinful pasts. Behind all of the smoke and mirrors, though, every visitor is being watched and judged. When the time comes to check out, they can either exit through the golden gates or be engulfed by hellish flames.


Although the runtime clocks in at 140 minutes, Goddard’s script never feels slow or overstuffed. Ensemble pieces aren't easy to execute, but Goddard juggles each character without once dropping a ball. Everyone’s story arc is equally engaging and you never find yourself wanting to fast-forward through one subplot to get to another. The star-studded cast, sharp screenplay, and smashing direction are complemented by Michael Giacchino’s musical score and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. Like “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” may not become an overnight hit, but it’s destined to become an overnight cult classic.

22 July

Not to be confused with Mile 22 ***1/2


Few directors know how to submerge the audience into chaos quite like Paul Greengrass. Where the shaky cam technique can come off as distracting and self-indulgent in so many other thrillers, Greengrass never fails to deliver a masterclass of cinematography and editing, creating a documentary style that feels all-too real. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in “United 93,” which to this date is still the most convincing depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “22 July” opens with an intense sequence that almost revivals the entirety of “United 93.” What follows is also dramatically compelling, but the film ultimately goes from near greatness to pretty goodness.


As the title suggests, the film revolves around the Norway terrorist attacks that occurred on July 22, 2011. As with many of his other projects, Greengrass casts virtually unknown actors as opposed to big names, making the experience all the more authentic. Anders Danielsen Lie is chillingly effective as Anders Behring Breivik, a lone terrorist who plants a car bomb in Oslo. This is only the first phase of the attack, as Breivik infiltrates a Workers' Youth League summer camp and claims 77 lives. In a lesser director’s hands, this sequence could’ve come off as manipulative and melodrama with a pretentious musical score playing over obvious symbolism. Through Greengrass’ lens, however, the action is brutal, uncompromising, and straight-up haunting.


This sequence is especially unnerving in a world where both terrorism and school shootings remain among human’s greatest issues. We feel as if we’re right beside the teenage victims as they run for their lives and take cover. Your heart will sink as Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is shot down and his younger brother (Isak Bakli Aglen) must make the impossible choice of going back or running. If the entire film was set on this island, “22 July” could’ve been one of the best thrillers of recent memory. For a film called “22 July, however,” much of the story focusses on the aftermath.


Breivik is inevitably captured by the authorities, which was always part of his long-term plan. He wants his day in court in order to explain the sick reasoning behind his irredeemable crimes. Jon Øigarden gives an especially strong performance as Geir Lippestad, a family man and layer who despises Breivik’s actions. Like Tom Hanks’ character in “Bridge of Spies,” though, he feels every person is entitled to equal representation and takes on Breivik’s case, knowing that it likely won’t end well for either of them. The rest of the film also chronicles the grief and trauma the survivors endured, mainly following Viljar’s road to recovery.


While the second and third acts of “22 July” are by no means bad, the film peaks early with that phenomenal opening. This movie suffers from the same problems as “Sully,”coincidentally another Tom Hanks flick. Both films depict some of the most fascinating and important events of the past decade. The repercussions of these events are interesting to learn about, but the ensuing courtroom drama isn’t nearly as engaging as what came before. That’s not to say that court room dramas can’t be gripping, but it’s hard to get that invested when the verdict is evident from the get-go. It doesn’t help that “22 July” is about 20 minutes too long at just under two and a half hours.


Despite falling short of its full potential, “22 July” is an intriguing history lesson for those who didn’t follow the Norway attacks as they were unfolding. Even if you did watch the news coverage back in 2011, the film is still a relevant reminder about the many problems surrounding gun politics. As a Netflix release, it’s definitely worth streaming, although you’ll want a big screen television to appreciate the film’s scale. It may not be one of Greengrass’ best films, but “22 July” does warrant comparison to “United 93” and “Captain Phillips,” the latter of which also starred Tom Hanks!

Venom

Feed me, Seymour! **


Sony’s history with the “Spider-Man” franchise is truly fascinating. The original “Spider-Man” broke new grounds for the superhero genre. “Spider-Man 2” was praised as one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time, as well as one of the best Marvel movies. The studio took a huge step backwards with “Spider-Man 3,” however, which packed in more subplots than it knew what to do with and tried to pass off Eric Forman as Eddie Brock. Sony was given a fresh start with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” but its 2014 sequel repeated too many of the same mistakes. Spidey finally found a proper home in the MCU, but Sony is still trying to make their own cinematic universe happen with “Venom” serving as the first entry. Unfortunately, the film has more in common with Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” than “Iron Man.”


Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a charismatic yet cocky journalist. The most entertaining performance in the film comes from Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake, an evil genius who always has a dastardly monologue prepared. Although it should be obvious to everybody, Eddie is the only one who realizes Drake is bad news and tries to expose him. This results in Eddie losing his job and his fiancé (Michelle Williams) within the first several minutes. So basically, the film starts off like every crappy romantic comedy. Brock eventually finds an ally in a scientist (Jenny Slate), who reveals that Drake has been testing an alien symbiote on homeless people. Eddie comes into contact with the symbiote and inevitably finds himself sharing his body with an alter ego named Venom.


To address the elephant in the room, yes, Tom Hardy is a better Venom than Topher Grace. Of course, that’s kind of like comparing Matthew Broderick in 1998’s “Godzilla” to Aaron Michael Johnson in 2014’s “Godzilla.” One actor was painfully uncomfortable to watch, but his successor is just forgettable. It’s a shame because we all know that Hardy has great range as an actor, playing his fair share of heroes and villains. He’s not given the chance to create a compelling Venom or Eddie, however, as the screenplay never decides what their dynamic is supposed to be.


There was potential here for a gripping Jekyll and Hyde story, but the scenes between them are more reminiscent of Andrew and the Hormone Monster from “Big Mouth.” Seymour and Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors” also come to mind, given Venom’s desire to eat everyone in sight. Actually, Hardy stated that Ren and Stimpy provided inspiration for his performance, which should give you an idea as to why the movie’s tone is all over the place. You thought “The Last Jedi” went overboard with its humor? Well, in this movie we have Venom calling Eddie a “pussy.” Sometimes it’s legitimately funny, other times it’s so awkward that it’s hard not to laugh, and most of the time it’s just distracting, especially when you play the cheekier scenes against the dark, edgy moments.


Just as the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be, neither does its titular character. The film keeps building up Venom as an anti-hero, but we never see him do anything that heroic or villainous. Most of the time, it’s not even clear what his motivations are. We never understand why Venom forms an attachment to Eddie or why either of them cares so much about taking down Drake. If Sony wanted a standalone “Venom” movie to succeed, they should’ve just had him be a straight-up baddie and made Eddie’s descent into villainy the focus of the story. The anti-hero approach could’ve worked if they continued to evolve Eddie’s character in a sequel, but everything comes off as too rushed.


Director Ruben Fleischer previously made the wickedly fun “Zombieland,” but he feels out of his element here. The talented cast is forced to read from a screenplay riddled with pacing issues and several ideas that never mesh together. Compared to some other modern superhero movies, “Venom” is still more competent than “Batman v Superman” or “Fant4stic.” After multiple failed attempts, though, it’s evident that Sony is never going to get Venom right. It’s never a good sign when the best part of a movie is a preview for an upcoming movie. That being said, Sony hopefully has a much better project just around the corner.

A Star Is Born

A star is reborn ****1/2


There’s a rule in Hollywood that the remake never lives up to the original. “A Star Is Born” isn’t just a rare exception, but the rarest of exceptions. The versions starring Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand are among the most iconic musical dramas ever made. Most contemporary audiences aren’t even aware that both of those films were remakes of the Janet Gaynor classic, meaning we’re now on version number four. The fact that “A Star Is Born” keeps receiving the remake treatment isn’t what’s baffling. It’s that each remake has worked to a certain degree, which is virtually unheard of when it comes to other acclaimed films.


It wasn’t until I watched this latest interpretation that I finally realized why “A Star Is Born” keeps getting successfully remade. Between 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018, show business has gone through some radical changes. At the same time, however, showbiz hasn’t changed at all. Because of this, there will always be something new that can be brought to “A Star Is Born,” but the themes, story, and characters at its core remain timeless nonetheless. Bradley Cooper’s film is the best kind of update imaginable, capturing today’s entertainment climate while also encompassing the perennial highs and lows of being famous.


Stefani Germanotta, or Lady Gaga as she’s better know, is one of the defining artists of her generation. It wasn’t until she performed a “Sound of Music” tribute at the 87th Academy Awards, though, that Gaga demonstrated her true range as a performer. Gaga brings that same magic to her captivating performance as Ally, a waitress who’s told she’ll never make it as a singer. When a country western musician named Jack Maine (Bradley Cooer) stumbles into a drag bar by chance, he becomes entranced by her magnetic voice. He offers her a shot at stardom and soon a romance blossoms between the two of them, leading to fame, success, and heartbreak.


The chemistry our leads share never hits a false note. Their relationship stems from a place of sincerity that comes off as natural and both actors completely escape into their roles, making you forget that Gaga and Cooper are among the most recognizable people in the world. The audience buys their immediate connection and the hardships they endure draw comparison to many real-life celebrity couples, especially Johnny Cash and June Carter. The raw vulnerability each actor injects into their performance makes for one of the most deeply emotional cinematic experiences of the year.


The two make beautiful music together in more ways than one, as Gaga and Cooper can not only sing, but also worked on to the phenomenal soundtrack. With a long list of other contributing artists, including Diane Warren and Mark Ronson, “A Star Is Born” joins “La La Land” as one of the best original musicals of this generation. The film has no shortage of tunes that are worthy of a Best Original Song Oscar, but the most passionate is the duet “Shallow.” Most importantly, the music here actually advances the familiar story, making it feel fresh, modern, and exciting.


The entire ensemble shines bright with Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle both turning in surprising performances as Ally’s father and Jackson’s old friend, respectively. Sam Elliott is a strong Best Supporting Actor contender for his work as Jackson’s older brother, acting as a parental figure who fears his surrogate son will drink himself to death. Cooper is in a particularly unique position that could earn him five Oscar nominations, serving as the film’s director, lead actor, co-writer, co-producer, and one of the songwriters. The spotlight belongs to Gaga, however. She may already be a big star, but her performance here is like watching a star be reborn right before our eyes.