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 19 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, Top 50 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes of ALL TIME, and Top 10 Best Movies of 2018. 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
That'll do, Dumbo. That'll do. ***1/2
Live-action Disney remakes work best when they do their own thing. Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” seemed afraid to stray away from its animated predecessor, occasionally coming off as a pale imitation. “Maleficent” took the “Sleeping Beauty” story in a completely different direction, but settled on being another “Wicked” wannabe. Something similar can be said about Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which was largely banking off the success of “Narnia,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and other fantasy epics. Burton’s back in the director’s chair for Disney’s new interpretation of “Dumbo,” but this time around he thankfully brings more heart and majesty to the table. It’s one of Disney’s better live-action offerings, as well as a step up from Burton’s other reimaginings like “Planet of the Apes” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Burton is actually a fitting choice to helm this tale of an elephant with unusually large ears. From “Edward Scissorhands” to “Ed Wood,” Burton has always specialized in stories about social misfits. Dumbo himself remains virtually unchanged with wide blue eyes and wider ears that enable him to fly. What has changed, however, are the characters surrounding Dumbo. Gone are the mean-spirited elephants who outcast Dumbo and the jive-talkin’ crows who motivate him to fly. Even Timothy Q. Mouse’s role is downsized to a glorified cameo. In their place is a circus troupe of colorful characters, including Danny DeVito as the ringermaster. Huh, maybe he’s the long-lost twin brother of the ringmaster from “Big Fish.”
Of all the Disney films to remake, “Dumbo” is a suitable candidate. That’s not to say the original 1941 classic is bad by any means. At only 64 minutes, though, it’s one of Disney’s shortest efforts, leaving room for new characters and more exploration. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins are both charming as Milly and Joe, respectively, two children who live at the circus with their recently widowed father (Colin Farrell). Having lost their mother, the two children identify with Dumbo when his mama is taken away. Upon learning that little Dumbo can use his humungous ears to fly, they encourage the elephant to soar with the help of a magic feather.
Dumbo may struggle to stick the landing at first, but soon enough he’s flying to the top of the tent with a trapeze artist (Eva Green) on his back. Deviating from the original film, the second act takes Dumbo out of the circus and to an amusement park called Dreamland. Burton’s signature visual eye is at its brightest here, creating a world that’s old-fashioned while simultaneously being futuristic. The park’s design is ironically quite reminiscent of Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Even more ironic, the owner of this park is a greedy businessman who just wants to use Dumbo to make money. Unfortunately, this is where the movie starts to falter a bit.
V. A. Vandevere is the slick entrepreneur who makes it clear upfront that he’s going to be a villain, but of course nobody at the circus realizes this. As if that’s not cliché enough, Vandevere’s motivations are all over the place and his character arc just doesn’t feel natural, even by one-dimensional bad guy standards. Honestly, he’d bring the film to a screeching halt if it weren’t for one thing: he’s played by Michael Keaton! You can tell that Keaton is having a ball with every word that comes out of his mouth here. He gives Vandevere the charisma of Ray Kroc and the eccentricity of Beetlejuice. He also has a butler who looks an awful lot like Alfred from Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Although the character isn’t especially well-written, seeing all of these Keatonisms at once is undeniably entertaining.
While not without its low points, “Dumbo” is an otherwise steady flight. When stacked up against the other Disney remakes, this one probably has the most in common with “Pete’s Dragon.” You can see the original’s influence shining through, but the filmmakers more or less shake up the formula to the best of their abilities. The performances are universally likable, the production design is spectacular, and Dumbo himself is a visual wonder. The first film remains the definitive version, but there are enough modern updates here to make the remake worthwhile. The film ultimately takes off, despite not reaching new heights.
Not a Restraining Order Movie **1/2
“Five Feet Apart” is the latest entry in the dying teenager tear-jerker, a genre that’s become increasingly popular ever since “A Walk to Remember.” As far as these movies go, the best is probably “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was elevated by a wise screenplay and a career-best performance from Shailene Woodley. On the other end of the spectrum is “Everything, Everything,” a film that started off with potential and then completely jumped the shark with an infuriating twist. “Five Feet Apart” falls somewhere in between the aforementioned films. At its best, this is well-acted, well-intentioned romance with a few genuinely effective scenes. At its worst, it resorts to a lot of formulaic and forced moments.
Haley Lu Richardson from “Split” and “The Edge of Seventeen” is almost hard to recognize as Stella, a seventeen-year-old living with cystic fibrosis. Of course, at times it feels like she’s barely living at all, being confined to her hospital room and unable to come within five to six feet of anyone. On the plus side, her laptop keeps her connected with loved ones and her best friend Poe, who also has CF, is never too far way. Cole Sprouse of Jughead fame plays Will, the hunky new CF patient on the block who’s accepted that he’s probably going to die and thus lives life on the edge. This upsets Stella, who pushes Will to take his condition more seriously and get on a stable regimen. Will eventually starts to follow suit and as he spends more time with Stella, she’s motivated to take more chances. After all, you only live once.
The best part of “Five Feet Apart” is the chemistry between Stella and Will. Their courtship isn’t without its clichés, right down to the fact that they’re opposites who don’t get along at first. As the two become more comfortable with each other, though, a charming romance does begin to blossom that’s not without its sincere moments. More often than not, the way these two talk about the life-threatening condition they share feels honest and the film doesn’t shy away from harsh reality. Richardson and Sprouse are obviously very attractive people, but both fully commit to these roles, spending much of the film with tubes in their noses, rings under their eyes, and mucus coming out of their mouths. There’s an especially imitate scene where both strip down to reveal their scars. As close as they become, it appears a physical relationship of any kind will always be out of the question.
For all the scenes in “Five Feet Apart” that ring true, however, there’s another that feels like a cheap shot. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final act where somebody makes a choice that’s not only unbelievably stupid, but also completely out of character. I actually heard other audience members groaning in the theater over this decision, which snowballs into something even more contrived. In moments like this, the film regresses from the insightful coming-of-age story it could’ve been to an episode of a CW melodrama. Granted, the target audience for this film is probably anyone who watches “Riverdale,” but “Five Feet Apart” could’ve been smarter while still appeasing the teen demographic.
If you’re looking for a sentimental story designed to trigger the waterworks, “Five Feet Apart” is passable for what it is. The performances do go a long way and to give the filmmakers credit, they don’t copout with the happiest ending. For those looking for something more, though, there are better films that tackle the teenage experience and the tragedy of life being cut short. It’s by no means one the best date movies out there, but at the very least it might keep people away from some of the lesser Nicholas Sparks adaptations.
The Return of the Dragon Prince ****
In an era dominated by animated franchises, few have matured as well as “How to Train Your Dragon.” Perhaps that’s because the filmmakers have actually allowed the characters to grow. Hiccup isn’t the scrawny kid we met nearly a decade ago, developing into a strong leader who can command an army even with the nasally voice of Jay Baruchel. As much as Hiccup has changed, his relationship with Toothless remains as charming as ever. Their story reaches its climax in “The Hidden World,” which delivers the best ending we could’ve hoped for. While not as fresh as the original film or as enthralling as its 2014 follow-up, director Dean DeBlois leaves us on a deeply satisfying note that feels just right.
Acting as alphas of their packs, Hiccup and Toothless have turned Berk into a human/dragon utopia. Not all is well in the rest of the world, though, as a notorious dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is determined to make the Night Furys go extinct. Hiccup is convinced that the only place they can live in peace is a hidden dragon world his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) spoke of. With the aid of his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup sets out to find a new home where his people and their dragons can co-exist. The dragon world and the human world may be inevitably separated, however, as Toothless is drawn to a Light Fury.
The best moments in this trilogy have always relied less on explosion and more on atmosphere. Once again, the filmmakers manage to get so much across through visual storytelling alone, particularly when it comes to Toothless and his girlfriend. From an adorable first date on the beach to an intimate flight through a storm, the spark between these two just lights up the screen. Hiccup naturally grows concerned that Toothless may be drifting away from him, but at the same time understands that his old buddy needs to stretch his wings. This isn’t the only life change Hiccup may be headed for, as he considers taking the next step with Astrid. “The Hidden World” isn’t just about letting go, but also looking towards new horizons, offering bittersweet messages that tie into the franchise’s overarching themes.
As wonderful as this film is, there are a couple areas that hold it back from being one of the all-time greats. Hiccup’s Viking friends get a laugh every once and a while, although they still come off as interchangeable and underdeveloped. If there’s one character who could’ve used more fleshing out, it’s the villain. Abraham undeniably crafts a menacing presence with a voice that slivers into your ear like a snake, but Grimmel’s motivations and backstory are fairly by-the-numbers for a story such as this. Then there’s the titular Hidden World, which looks phenomenal with miraculous attention to detail packed into every inch of the screen. It’s kind of a missed opportunity that only a few minutes are actually spent there, however.
Nevertheless, any gripes with the film are small potatoes when you stack them up against its strengths. The dynamics between our main characters are meaningful, the animation is increasingly vivid, and the action draws comparison to some of the best fantasy epics ever made. What’s more, it feels like the entire series has been building to this moment, closing the book exactly where it should. Of course, “Toy Story 4” is coming out in a few months even though the previous film seemed pretty conclusive. Maybe “How to Train Your Dragon” will also have more stories to tell later down the line, but for now, this is a flight off into the sunset we can all be happy with.
A Cold Day in Hell ****
Ever since redefining his career in “Taken” over a decade ago, Liam Neeson has become synonymous with playing grizzled old men who kill their way through hordes of henchmen, typically on some sort of revenge quest. Fifteen minutes into “Cold Pursuit,” a remake of a 2014 Norwegian film, it appears Neeson is going to give us more of the same. As the plot unfolds, however, Hans Petter Moland’s film becomes more like a Coen brother’s picture, particularly “Fargo.” In addition to sharing a snowy setting in common, both movies feature a plucky female police officer who wants to see justice served and villains that aren’t as competent as they think. There’s a particularly gruesome death towards the end that likely took a page from the infamous wood chipper scene. Even with all these parallels, “Cold Pursuit” still emerges with a unique voice and one of Neeson’s most entertaining performances.
Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, a snowplow driver and a pillar of the Rocky Mountain community. Nelson’s family life is obliterated, however, upon learning that his son died of a heroin overdose. Growing increasingly distant from his wife (Laura Dern), Nelson is just about ready to commit suicide until he learns that his son’s death is linked to a drug cartel. Nelson begins to assassinate his way up the ladder with a head honchonicknamed Viking (Tom Bateman) awaiting at the top. With an impulsive tendency to shoot first and ask questions never, Viking jumps to the conclusion that a rival drug cartel is behind these murders, sparking a gang war.
Part of what Nelson an interesting protagonist is that he’s not a retired CIA agent like Bryan Mills. He’s not a cop like John McClane, a war veteran like John Rambo, or a hitman like John Wick either. He’s just an ordinary guy with nothing left to lose, giving him the drive needed to take out the criminals at the bottom of the cartel’s totem pole. Nelson doesn’t become a one-man army overnight, however, quickly realizing that Viking is out of his league. After all, Nelson has never killed up until this point, learning everything he knows about disposing bodies from crime movies. Nelson thus turns to his retired criminal brother (William Forsythe) for help, opening the door to several more colorful characters.
Although “Cold Pursuit” starts off as Nelson’s story, it slowly grows into an ensemble piece that sees various people get roped into a colossal mess. We get great supporting performances from Julia Jones as Viking’s strong-willed ex-wife, Domenick Lombardozzi as a cartel enforcer living a closeted lifestyle, and Tom Jackson as an aging drug lord. Bateman is the real scene-stealer, however, having a ball with every second he’s on screen while still crafting a legitimately creepy presence. Where so many villains in modern black comedies are played with a straight face, Viking is the winking devil we deserve. Hot on the cold trail is Emmy Rossum as a detective who senses that snow is about to hit the fan.
This entire movie is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It starts off small, but eventually gains momentum and grows much bigger. This naturally leads to more and more people getting caught in the crossfire until the snowball finally reaches its end. As grim as the film is, Frank Baldwin’s screenplay finds the gleeful humor in the macabre. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times it’s over-the-top, but the film is always a blast. As far as revenge movies go, this one is best served cold.
It's like "Alive" with Hannibal, except there's strangely no cannibalism ***1/2
From “The Revenant,” to “All Is Lost,” to “127 Hours,” man vs nature movies have become increasingly popular in recent years. It’s debatable where exactly this genre stemmed from, although 1993’s “Alive” remains one of the defining survival movies for many. The harsh, freezing environment in “Arctic” is bound to give you flashbacks of watching Frank Marshall’s film in the theater over twenty-five years ago – assuming you were even alive back then. Of course, Joe Penna’s feature directorial debut has a few major differences. For starters, there’s no cannibalism, which is ironic seeing how it stars Mads Mikkelsen of “Hannibal.” The film’s success largely rests on Mikkelsen’s shoulders, as his co-star is incapacitated for a majority of the run time while the only other significant players are a pilot who’s DOA and a polar bear.
Ever since gaining mainstream attention in “Casino Royale,” Mikkelsen has been frequently typecast as diabolical villains. It’s an archetype that certainly suits his talents well, even amounting to a portrayal of Hannibal Lecter that rivaled Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance. Mikkelsen has more layers to him as a performer, however, and his range is on full display in “Arctic.” He delivers an emotionally raw acting feat as Overgård, who has been stranded in the Arctic for an unspecified amount of time. Converting his crashed plane into a shelter and rationing whatever fish he manages to catch from the frozen waters below, Overgård has seemingly accepted that this is his new normal. He’s given a glimmer of hope upon encountering a helicopter, but the possibility of a rescue is sent spiraling to the ground due to strong winds.
While the pilot dies in the crash, Overgård is able to salvage a nameless young woman from the rubble (María Thelma Smáradóttir). Lugging her back to his camp, he attempts to nourish his new companion back to health. With supplies running low and nobody coming for them, it appears Overgård’s only choice is to head out into the snowy wilderness where he may either find a haven or certain death. As if the odds weren’t against him already, the woman is still in no condition to walk and must be pulled every step of the way.
On a budget of only $2 million, “Arctic” is about as minimal as a movie can get. There’s barely any dialog whatever, but the audience can always tell what’s running through Overgård’s head judging from his expressive face. Penna has crafted an impressive visual story, framing Iceland in a way that’s both threatening and majestic. Overgård’s dynamic with the woman is also surprisingly involving, despite the fact that they never share more than a couple words with each other. It would’ve been easy to write in a token romance, but their relationship is wisely kept platonic with Overgård staying by her side without ever wanting anything in return.
If there’s a downside to “Arctic,” it’s that the survival genre is so oversaturated. Had it come out several years ago, this might’ve been viewed as a bold piece of experimental filmmaking. After “Cast Away,” “Everest,” and a few other films already mentioned, though, it can feel routine at times. That being said, even at its most familiar, the film is gorgeously shot, exquisitely acted, and makes the most out of its intense setting. It’s not revolutionary by any means, but that’s no reason to give it the cold shoulder.
The Return of the King ***1/2
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is a modern take on the Arthurian legend, although it has more in common with “Harry Potter” or “Percy Jackson.” Of course, both of those young adult franchises were clearly influenced by the story of King Arthur. In that sense, you could argue that Joe Cornish’s movie brings matters full circle.
Read Full Review in Story Monsters!
Sadly, Not a Firefly Movie **
Just last week, numerous critics ripped “Glass” a new one, notably taking issue with its twist ending. While “Glass” was far from a perfect film, it has nothing on the ridiculous twists and turns in “Serenity.” This film is so preposterous, so confused, and so utterly insane that it would make even some of M. Night Shyamalan’s dumbest outings call BS! It plays out like a Lifetime Movie of the Week if the writers of “Lost” took over half-way through, accumulating to a tonally inept mess. What’s especially mystifying is that the project somehow managed to attract mostly Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated performers.
Maybe they were drawn in by writer/director Steven Knight, himself an Oscar nominee. Knight, to his credit, is a talented filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take chances. His ambitions paid off in 2013’s “Locke,” which managed to make a long car ride dramatically compelling. In “Serenity,” however, Knight dives into the deep end and immediately sinks, as if he never even took a single swimming lesson. The creative choices Knight makes here are baffling to the point that “Serenity” is almost worth seeing if you’re a fan of entertainingly bad movies. Unless you’re in the mood for some serious shark jumping, though, you might as well jump ship now.
Those Lincoln car commercials are no longer the lowest point of Matthew McConaughey’s post-McConaissance career. In “Serenity,” he plays Baker Dill, a down on his luck fisherman who needs to prostitute himself to make ends meet. He describes himself “a hooker without a hook,” which is just one of the many horrendous lines this film has to offer. Baker spends most of his days on a boat with friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou), trying to catch a giant fish that always gets away. Captain Ahab has even bigger white whales to fry, however, as his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island. Trapped in an abusive marriage with Jason Clarke’s Frank, Karen asks Baker to take her husband out on his boat and feed him to the sharks. Although Baker is reluctant at first, he starts to come around for the sake of the son he shares with Karen, who spends most of his time on the computer.
Hathaway is a wonderful actress, but her entire performance sounds like a bad impression of a film noir dame. Clarke is cartoonishly over-the-top in his role, practically announcing how sadistically cruel he is every time he enters a room. Then there’s McConaughey, who hasn’t phoned it in this much for a major motion picture since “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” The film features a number of other players, such as Diane Lane as Baker’s love interest and Garion Dowds as a young man who believes he brings good luck, but they serve no real purpose in the grand scheme of things. You could literally leave their scenes on the editing room floor and nothing would be lost.
The effortless performances and melodramatic setup aside, “Serenity” at least keeps us slightly engaged until a mysterious stranger played by Jeremy Strong explains what’s really going on. About 40 minutes into “Serenity,” you’ll likely start to suspect the big twist. At first, you’ll think to yourself, “there’s no way this movie could possibly be that stupid.” Well, the movie IS that stupid, changing gears faster than somebody with schizophrenia. Not only does the second half in no way match the tone of the first, but it tries to tackle ideas we’ve seen better represented in countless other projects, from “The Matrix,” to “Inception,” to “Black Mirror.”
Say what you will about “Glass,” but at least the twist ending in that film had an ounce of logic to it. The twist in “Serenity” makes absolute no sense and gives no insight into the character it revolves around. If anything, the twist just leaves you asking more questions about this person’s mental state. Watching such lunacy unfold leaves the audience feeling as if they’ve suffered a psychological breakdown. Walking out of the theater, all you can do if shout at the top of your lungs, “Serenity now! Insanity later!”
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?