2018 Summer Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

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Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) are assigned to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman. (Source: Vox)

Hearing the story about a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s sounds too good to be true. No one can direct a movie like that than Spike Lee, whose 1989 controversial film Do the Right Thing became his first monster hit. It showcases the racial tensions during a stifling summer day in Brooklyn. The tone shifts almost seamlessly–from straight-up hilarious to unflinchingly powerful. The situations the characters get into couldn’t be more relevant than in today’s society.

Over the course of 30 years, he directed what many people consider to be some of his greatest films–He Got Game, 25th Hour, and the brilliant heist film Inside Man–as well as some failures–Miracle at St. Anna, Chi-Raq, and the remake of Oldboy. Spike joins with three other writers and producer Jordan Peele (Get Out) to create BlacKkKlansman, another film relevant to current events.

The year is 1979. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel) becomes the first African-American detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department. He begins to work in the filing cabinet upon hire, in which he finds boring. Until, one day, he gives a call to the local Ku Klux Klan, led by David Duke (Topher Grace), after finding an ad in the newspaper convincing readers to join. He poses as a white racist, due to the dismay of his co-workers. He joins with with the more experienced Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish. Together, they decide to take down the KKK.

Never have I seen a movie this year that would make me laugh so hard one minute, and send chills down my spine the next (once the movie was over, everybody left the theater speechless). Spike shifts the tone–from humorous to dramatic–constantly throughout. His unique visual style and phenomenal soundtrack–ranging from James Brown to Emerson, Lake and Palmer–come to excellent use in a setting like this.

Washington couldn’t have been a better choice to play Stallworth, the humble, smart, doesn’t-take-shits-from-anybody police officer, sporting the short afro and ‘70s-era attire. He takes a lot of risk during his investigation, he would get into trouble every step of the way, even if he told his new girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) about the whole situation. He and Driver work off each other so well together when they infiltrate the Klan, with Driver’s Flip posing as Stallworth. Grace, who looks so much like the actual David Duke, showcases his typical offbeat personality while delivering a performance that will grow on people for days after seeing it.

BlacKkKlansman may not win everyone over. This is one of those movies, however, where it’s going to spark discussion for many years to come. It’s funny, powerful, haunting, and timely. It definitely deserves a lot of attention during Oscar season. Well done, Spike!

4/4

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2018 Summer Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Film Title: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Young Donna (Lily James) sings with The Dynamos in the sequel to the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! (Source: Variety)

Based on the popular stage musical, the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! was a campy, silly, and harmless yet somewhat enjoyable film. It featured a great cast singing their own renditions of ABBA’s greatest hits (as well as some overlooked ones)–some good and some bad–on a beautiful island on the coast of Greece. The classy yet overhyped Meryl Streep was the heart and soul of the movie. Ten years later, the original cast are back in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. They join other talented actors to sing, dance, jive, and have the time of their lives. The sequel is like a B-side of a vinyl record. Nobody asked for another one of these movies, but if there is one surprise to come out this summer, it’s definitely this one!

This movie is a prequel/sequel; going back and forth between 1979 to the present day. One year after the events of the first film, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away from…who knows what? Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is struggling with her marriage with her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). She invites her relatives to the grand reopening of the villa, under the management of Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia), on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi dedicated to her mother’s memory, while unaware about the arrival of an estranged guest (Cher).

Meanwhile, in flashbacks, the audience learns how young Donna (Lily James) graduated from Oxford University with her friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies). She decides to travel around Europe where she falls in and out of love with three handsome beaus–Swedish sailor Bill (Josh Dylan), Irish architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine), and English banker Harry (Hugh Skinner)–who would become Sophie’s possible fathers (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, respectively). To tell their story, they sing and dance the night away.

A sequel might not have been the most necessary, but it’s interesting to see how the story started and continued after the original, where Sophie’s actual biological father being left ambiguous. Being a fan of ABBA, how hard is it to resist?

James made a brief singing debut in the 2015 remake of Cinderella, where she sang a snippet of the English lullaby “Lavender’s Blue” and the famous “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” during the credits. She also sang a little in last year’s action film Baby Driver. This movie, however, features the performance of her lifetime.

Her spectacular performance captures the bubbly, energetic and optimistic spirit of Streep, with her long, curly blond hair and infectious smile–not to mention, amazing singing voice. It’s hard not to smile and tap your toes during her delightful rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher” in the opening scene at her Oxford graduation. From that moment on, she’s on fire! She joins along with a talented young cast; particularly Irvine, in which I’m surprised to see him deliver another good performance seven years after War Horse.

It’s a shame Brosnan doesn’t have the same beautiful voice as Irvine’s. I still can’t get over his botched rendition of “S.O.S.” from the original. Thankfully, he doesn’t sing a whole lot–with the exception of “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper”, but that’s with the entire cast. Other than that, the song covers in this movie will have you dancing in the aisles–from the hilarious rendition of “Waterloo”, set in a Napoleon-themed restaurant in Paris, to a seductive version of “Why Did It Have to Be Me?”, set on Bill’s sailboat.

Writer/director Ol Parker joins Richard Curtis to bring forth some really funny moments–as well as some great one-liners, too–and really emotional ones. Robert Yeoman (a frequent collaborator of Wes Anderson) brings forth gorgeous cinematography–I particularly love the editing trick where the camera pans away from one character and cuts to another (i.e. the “One of Us” sequence).

While I smiled through the whole movie, it did have its fair share of narrative flaws. For instance, do we really have to know Bill has a twin brother? There are times in which the film feels forced and rushes a bit. Nevertheless, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a rare sequel that slightly outshines the original. The spirit of Streep still remains intact. Be on the lookout for cameos by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

Also, thank God for Cher and her version of “Fernando”!

3/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) hangs on the edge in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

The popular Mission: Impossible series, based on the television show that aired from 1968 to 1973, has come a long way since the 1996 original. Audiences weren’t expecting a spy thriller that required them to pay close attention. Tom Cruise makes a perfect protagonist in Ethan Hunt, who would eventually go to new heights. Due to the film’s success, five sequels were made; using a different director in each of them to generate a different style.

Mission: Impossible II is a typical popcorn flick from director John Woo. It is ridiculously stupid, but it still kicks ass. To be fair, Cruise’s hair is easily the best character in the entire movie. Mission: Impossible III goes back to serious mode. And it marks J.J. Abrams first feature-length film. The handheld camerawork and the constant close-ups definitely show it’s an Abrams feat. However, the series has improved with both Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, with clever writing, brilliant sets (Hunt scaling the Burj Khalifa probably being the most memorable in the series), and awesome characters. Not to mention the technology evolving and becoming more advanced. Christopher McQuarrie has taken over for Brad Bird as the director of the most recent two entries. With Fallout, he returns to bring another terrific thrill-ride (with a brain) to the silver screen.

After a failed mission, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) race against the clock to disengage three nuclear bombs containing plutonium, used by a terrorist group known as The Apostles–the predecessor to The Syndicate, led by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Along with CIA agent August Walker (a mustachioed Henry Cavill), the IMF must prevent mass destruction, or else they will be disavowed.

The cast brings great work into their performances. From the comic relief of Pegg’s Benji to the suave nature of Rhames’ Luther to the fierce energy of Ferguson’s Ilsa and Cavill’s Walker to the slyness of Alec Baldwin’s Alan Hunley, Tom Cruise’s Hunt will always be the heart and soul of the franchise.

Cruise never ceases to amaze me; not only with his acting abilities (particularly Hunt’s spy knowledge), but he risks his entire life to perform his own death-defying stunts. On the verge of 60, he’s still in incredible shape. Whether it would be running and jumping off rooftops, doing a HALO jump–in one long take!–during a lightning storm (rendered through CGI, of course), riding a motorcycle through the streets of Paris, or chasing the villain through the mountains of Kashmir in a helicopter, he can do it all!

Speaking of action sequences, the helicopter chase is the best you will see all summer. With McQuarrie’s clever use of camera angles, fast-paced editing, gorgeous setting (kudos to Rob Hardy’s cinematography), and Lorne Balfe’s thrilling score, it makes for one white-knuckling moment that I will never forget. This movie also contains the most brutal bathroom fight, some of the most intense chases, and so much twists and turns.

Fallout is everything a Mission: Impossible movie should be: edge-of-your-seat suspense, a sense of humor, and thoughtful storytelling. Not only is it the best in the series since Ghost Protocol, it’s easily the best blockbuster of the summer. Fingers crossed for more M:I films.

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Leave No Trace

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A father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) try to find their way home in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. (Source: The Atlantic)

Remember a quirky little movie from 2016 called Captain Fantastic? It starred Viggo Mortensen as a father of six. They have been living in the forests with their vintage bus for who knows how long. Once the mother dies, they step into a scary place known as the “real world.” Earning its cult status since it premiered at Sundance, Mortensen saves that uneven movie from being a total disaster.

Eight years later, Leave No Trace marks the return for writer/director Debra Granik after 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which introduced Jennifer Lawrence into stardom. It might have a similar concept to Captain Fantastic (considering they are both set in Pacific Northwest), but this is a much superior film.

Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, Will (Ben Foster) is an Army veteran suffering from PTSD, who lives with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, in her first major role) deep in Forest Park, just outside Portland, Oregon. There is always something to do; they gather kindling to make campfire, read books, play board games, and cook food. They keep tarps overhead and sleep in sleeping bags to keep warm. The only time they go into town is when Will sells his prescription drugs to earn money for groceries and propane.

One day, Tom spots a jogger. Soon enough, the authorities separate them for questioning. Tom is placed in a detention center for young girls. Will struggles to answer true/false questions on the computer. Together, they struggle coming terms with a new environment.

Who knows why Granik waited so long to release another movie. But–she picked the perfect time to release this movie. Along with co-writer Anne Rosellini, she never shies away from her love of rural America (Winter’s Bone was set in the Missouri Ozarks) and nature. Kudos to Michael McDonough’s cinematography, the vibrant greens of the forest invite the audience to a different world that Will and Tom live in. There are no villains in the story at all. The authorities and Social Services treat the two with respect. Eventually, they help them relocate to place they might call home.

From 3:10 to Yuma to Hell or High Water, Foster has never been better as the demanding father learning her daughter the ways of survival. He must learn how to live with a roof over their heads. While he prefers to head back to the forest, Tom, on the other hands, resists living in this new environment. Unlike most kids her age, she never relies on a cell phone to communicate. She walks to a farmhouse nearby where she meets a boy who participates in 4-H meetings. She makes prized possessions such as a seahorse pendant necklace and miniature toy horses. McKenzie’s performance is truly one-of-a-kind, and one to look out for in the future.

With its PG-rating, Leave No Trace is a mature story about father and daughter living in a society unlike their own, which will more likely appeal to teens and adults. It’s subtle. It’s powerful. It’s intense. It’s devastating. It’s one of the year’s best films!

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

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Scott (Paul Rudd) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly) suit up in Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Source: IMDb)

Ant-Man was one of the funniest films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite the ordeal with filmmaker Edgar Wright. It features one of the funniest actors in Paul Rudd as an awkward criminal fighting crime wearing a suit that makes him become the size of an ant. While the narrative brings little to nothing new to the table, its fast-paced humor, wonderful action, and funny characters makes it such a sleeper hit.

Rudd and co-stars Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Peña reunite with director Peyton Reed to give another hilarious, fun ride in Ant-Man and the Wasp.

After the events of Civil War, former criminal Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to be a good father to his fearless daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). One day, he reunites with Hope van Dyne (Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas). They learn about how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) disappeared in the quantum realm in 1987. They help together to create a quantum tunnel to save her. With the help of Luis (Peña) and his security crew, the tiny heroes suit up while the “Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) and black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) are on their tails.

I cannot picture a better duo than Ant-Man and the Wasp (the first MCU film to feature a female character’s name in a title). Rudd and Lilly play off each other’s roles almost to perfection. Their interactions are almost impossible to hold in your laughter. Not to mention when Luis tells his stories with the funny narration (some of the best parts of the first film). It’s definitely not without its heart and wall-to-wall action. The chase through San Francisco showcases the breathtaking and funny special effects. Since 2008, these movies have gotten better with its visuals. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a great follow-up to Infinity War. It will be a quick eight months once Captain Marvel arrives.

3.5/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) trains Blue in a flashback in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (Source: Variety)

I enjoyed the first Jurassic World, which became one of the highest-grossing movies of 2015. Not only did it have good actors and fun suspense, I found it to be a touching tribute to the wonderful prehistoric world Steven Spielberg brought to the silver screen 25 years ago. However–some distractions did kill its magic. Not to mention the ridiculous moment when Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire runs around in high heels (as if they were sneakers). She goes on the run again, this time, in black boots, in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the latest from director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible). Of all the blockbusters coming out this summer, this might be the most disappointing one so far.

After the dinosaurs wreaked havoc in the scientifically-advanced theme park, the owner Claire Dearing (Howard) and Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) arrive at the abandoned Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs, despite the U.S. Senate ruling against the operation. Along with Zia (Daniella Pineda) and Franklin (Justice Smith), two members of Claire’s dinosaur protection program, the group notice the island is going to be wiped out by a volcanic eruption. They later learn about Eli Mills’ (Rafe Spall) plan after saving the genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

This movie, now becoming one of the highest-grossing films of this year (hitting over $1 billion worldwide), does have its moments. The scene on the island during the volcanic eruption early one is one of the best action set pieces you will see this year; with its gorgeous visuals (the dinosaurs look as great as ever), tension and Michael Giacchino’s thrilling score. The climax of the film really showcases Bayona’s talent as a filmmaker with its dark, Gothic atmosphere. But–if the best parts of the movie are the first and last acts, that’s not a good sign.

While Pratt saves the movie from being an absolute mess, the cast is trying way too hard in a story containing very little humor and a darker atmosphere. It’s basically a carbon copy of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, with Mills (who is a stereotypical villain) making the most powerful dinosaur on the planet while planning to relocate the dinosaurs with the help of Gunnar (Toby Jones). With little to no surprises, characters making stupid decisions, and the stupid twist involving Mills’ daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), it falls short from being good. While not the worst in the franchise, it’s better than Jurassic Park III.

2/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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The life and legacy of Fred Rogers is explored in the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Source: IMDb)

I watched an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood this morning where Fred talks about how balloons are made and Prince Tuesday, in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, being worried about his parents not coming home. Mr. Rogers’ message really hit home. “Children need to be able to believe their parents, and Prince Tuesday needed to know that his mother and his dad really did mean what they said about coming home.”

If you have never watched a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, your childhood must have been boring. Fred Rogers always had a gift of teaching children the world around them as well as learning how to love and be loved. He always meant what he had to say in front of the camera. In an imperfect world, he talked to the young viewers as a way they could understand. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the latest documentary from director/producer Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). He dives deep into the most humble, down-to-earth, and complex human-being who ever lived.

Born and raised near Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers hated how children’s television shows, back in the 1960s, were presented. They would always display cartoon violence or slapstick (“It’s not all clowns and guns”). After attending graduate school for childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh, he decided to star in a show on WQED, in which he would eventually host for more than 30 years. The show contained colorful sets, puppets (not to mention providing the voices of all of them), and, most importantly, life lessons to teach to the kids around the country. The documentary mixes interviews from his friends (from Yo-Yo Ma to Francois Clemmons), his wife Joanne, and his two sons talking about his life and legacy, home footage of Fred Rogers, and gorgeous hand-drawn animated sequences that play out as his dreams as Daniel Tiger, who represents his childhood anxieties and feelings; trying to understand the meaning of what’s going on.

While seeing the documentary, I learned about the man I never knew. For instance, Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. It makes sense considering his Christian beliefs of “love your neighbor, love yourself” worked well for the show. His soothing voice, beautiful music ability, and bright personality is what made the show shine. He never talked down to the young viewers. He gave them full understanding about everything including the meaning behind number 143 and assassination, following the death of Robert F. Kennedy.

Rogers was no stranger to criticism and rumors. This included being a Navy veteran, being gay, and having tattoos. Of course, they were all false. Also, on a monumental day on May 1, 1969, he spoke before the Senate to defend the cutting of $20 million in PBS funds, proposed by Richard Nixon.

Rogers had a delightful sense of humor. He always had fun with his crew on the set, especially when they pull pranks on one another (their stories had the audience in stitches). He didn’t care for the parodies of the show, from Johnny Carson to Saturday Night Live. While he idolized Eddie Murphy, he found his parody Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood to be quite offensive.

With the world infested with segregation and the Vietnam War being in full swing, black men were thrown out of a “whites only” pool by guards pouring bleach on them. However, in one episode, Rogers invited Francois Clemmons (who was black and gay) to be on the show to sit and talk with him dipping his feet in the wading pool. He told Clemmons he likes him just the way he is. No matter what race, gender, or disability, he treats everyone as equals. His song, “It’s You I Like”, showcases the true love in one another.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a perfect documentary for this day and age. It’s definitely something that would make people learn more about Fred Rogers and his show. I doubt there will be another person like him. He will always be my role model. This is easily one of 2018’s best!

4/4