Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give.

This movie is extremely important in what it talks about, but that doesn’t always mean it’s a good movie, or that is succeeds in what it’s trying to do. So let’s dive in and see if this movie manages to hit all the right notes.

The gist.

Starr Carter (Amanda Stenberg) is living dual lives. At home, she lives in a predominantly black neighborhood and feels comfortable being herself, as opposed to when she goes to a nice private school where she has to pretend to be “Starr 2.0.” At home, her parents (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) try to teach her about safety out in the world, but that doesn’t stop tragedy from striking. Starr is riding with her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) when he is shot by a white police officer. What ensues is a battle between her speaking up for the victims or laying low and maintaining the status quo in her small town. We also have Common starring as her uncle, who also happens to be a police officer, and Issa Rae (Insecure) as a lawyer who wants Starr to speak loudly about what happened. Anthony Mackie also stars as the local drug dealer who wants Starr to stay silent. We also have Starr’s white best friend (Sabrina Carpenter) and white boyfriend (K.J. Apa, Riverdale).

What works?

This is an important topic. We’ve seen situations exactly like the one outlined in this movie happen in real life, so it’s a potentially great way to talk to kids and teenagers about these tragedies, especially as a way to show non-people of color why these tragedies are part of something larger. As an educational tool, this is going to be very valuable.

Some of the performances deserve recognition as well. The standouts for me included the two parents, played by Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby. They showed two sides of the coin on how you might want your children to act in this situation, while both caring for their daughter. They play well off each other, though the tension between them (as their daughter chooses what route to go) is incredibly realistic.

What doesn’t work?

Like I said, as an educational tool, this movie will be valuable. As a film, I think it hits some major problems.

Many of the performances don’t feel authentic, instead veering towards high-drama CW-style dialogue. The biggest problems are K.J. Apa (who comes from the high-drama world of Riverdale) and Sabrina Carpenter, who was a Disney channel star and singer. These are also the two most prominent white characters in the movie, who get their fair share of “Why is this such a big deal?” dialogue that is naturally a little more dramatic.

And I’m on the fence about the lead, Amanda Stenberg. I wasn’t put off by her performance at all, but it didn’t induce the sort of intensity that this movie deserved. I didn’t cry, which is a problem. I cry during commercials and yet somehow this movie didn’t punch me in the stomach the way that it should have and I feel like most of that should have come from her performance.

Overall…

As a film, this falls short. It’s a valuable story and there’s some great parts about it, but when you leave the theater, it doesn’t have the sort of impact you’d expect. I got more chills from the final five minutes of BlacKkKlansman than I did in this entire movie. Maybe rent and watch with your family, I don’t know if it should be your top pick for full price at the theaters.

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Review: First Man (2018)

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First Man.

This is the third film by director Damien Chazelle, following Whiplash and La La Land. While those two shared a common theme of music, this movie is a tad more unrelated.

The gist.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is working at NASA, with the end goal being to land on the moon, though they have quite an uphill struggle before that can happen. As the movie begins, tragedy strikes his family, resulting in a much more personal movie than I expected, following how Armstrong ran from his friends and family, throwing himself into his work. His wife (Claire Foy from The Crown) tries to reach him, as do his fellow engineers and astronauts including Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, and Patrick Fugit.

What works?

Ryan Gosling here is playing a character that has seen tragedy and has gone to more funerals than anyone should have to go to. He’s broken and disheartened and somber. Gosling’s performance is superb in its subtlety but it also means our main protagonist is rather boring and dull to watch, for large sections of the film. Great performance, though not necessarily very engaging.

The emotional heart of the movie comes from Claire Foy, who knocks it out of the park in her first big Hollywood film. She gives us the emotional response that we want from Gosling’s character; she gets to swing for the fences. She really carries the weight of this film.

What really works here is how authentic the movie feels. It feels like it’s shot in shaky cam style or in first-person, making us feel like we’re there on these adventures. The visual effects are also seamless, doing some incredible stuff but without making a big scene about how elaborate it is. It all feels very real and very dated, so it totally works.

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What doesn’t work?

This movie was a bit mis-marketed. The trailers showcase epic launches and death-defying moments. Those happen, yes, but a majority of this nearly 3-hour movie is much more calm. It’s dialogue-driven, it’s about characters coming to grips with eventually going on this adventure. This may mean that you might feel swindled or betrayed. The film opens with a big moment and then it calms down and stays calm for nearly an hour. It’s not an action film, so you need to know that going in.

Now knowing that… does this film succeed? As a character-piece, is this a solid movie? I’m torn. This is not even in the same league as Chazelle’s past accomplishments. Both La La Land and Whiplash stick with you, they have moments that punch you in the gut. Here, it all felt rather muted, likely because our main character is stoic and distant. Our characters don’t really change much, things just happen to them. The ending is not the satisfying and predictable ending that I had kind of hoped for. I don’t know if the climax was worth the journey.

This movie also had a problem with its supporting cast. Let me try to explain this without spoiling much… There are a lot of brown-haired white guys in this film and the movie moves them around in a way that you lose track. Someone will die and it’s a struggle to remember which person that is. At one point, I swore Armstrong was in space with another guy that I had never seen before. The movie doesn’t adequately set these people up, so when they have an important moment, we have no idea who they are. It might’ve been wise to streamline the cast at the expense of realism.

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Overall…

First Man is a movie that will likely get some buzz come Oscar season but I don’t think it will win anything. It’s close, it’s got some decent performances (Claire Foy might be the only one who snags a nomination) but ultimately it’s a bit of a slog, watching a distant and emotionless protagonist. Those of you that live for Oscar-bait character pieces will love this, but everyone else might have a struggle with the runtime.

3

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Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

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Bad Times at the El Royale.

In this film written and directed by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the WoodsMarvel’s Daredevil), we follow a small group of strangers who all convene at the El Royale, a hotel that straddles the line between California and Nevada, set in the late 1960s. We’ve got Jeff Bridges as a priest who seems desperate to find something, Cynthia Erivo as a backup singer trying to make her own way, Jon Hamm as an appliance salesman, and Dakota Johnson, whose impatience and lack of courtesy makes the others suspicious. The bellhop of the establishment (Lewis Pullman) is doing a horrible job, though his anxiety leads us to believe there’s something he’s hiding as well. Lastly, we meet an enigmatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) who intertwines with some of our characters’ stories.

What works?

This is a small cast and they each have substantial moments to shine. Jeff Bridges has been hit or miss for me lately, but this role is a standout for him. There are a lot of layers to his character that he fully embraces. I was also pleasantly surprised by Dakota Johnson, who I’ve really only seen in the Fifty Shades series.

The real stars of the show though? Relative newcomers Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo. Pullman stars as the bellhop who has seen and done some horrible things, drawn to the priest who visits (Bridges), in hope of absolution. Erivo stars a singer who is venturing out on her own and just happens to get caught up in the craziness of it all. She holds her own against heavyweights here, she’s going to be a big star soon. She’s already starring opposite Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez in the upcoming Widows.

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In general, I want to applaud the movie’s style. The soundtrack is incredible. The editing and stylistic cuts I found to be super engaging. The colors are vibrant and bold. It’s a fresh looking movie.

The story, which echoes back to films like 10 Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express, is a standard storytelling device, but its the characters that make this plot stand out. We are told via flashbacks about each of our guests and we slowly learn more and more about why they’re there. It’s a satisfying structure, classic in feeling but fresh in execution.

What doesn’t work?

While most of the cast get to shine here, the letdown for me was Chris Hemsworth, who takes awhile to show up and when he does, he didn’t carry the gravitas that I was expecting. I’m sure some folks will applaud Hemsworth’s performance here, it is drastically different than anything he’s done, but I didn’t find his eccentricity to be that threatening. It was silly at points, getting the audience to laugh in moments that were meant to be terrifying.

Because of this, I felt the third act was a little underwhelming. Hemsworth becomes the major focus, somewhat taking the spotlight from other characters and their arcs that I found much more interesting.

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Overall…

Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting film and many of you should have a good time but I wouldn’t call it “great.” The performances are mostly brilliant, including the best Jeff Bridges performance in years and surprising new actors Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo. The plot is typical for a “people stranded at a certain location” movie but it works because the characters are so intriguing. The movie has style, a great soundtrack, and plenty of twists and turns, though the final act and an iffy performance by Chris Hemsworth kept this just under the bar for my highest accolades.

4

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Review: A Star is Born (2018)

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A Star is Born.

This movie was a bit of an x-factor for me. I wasn’t sure if it’d be incredible or if it would tank. It features Bradley Cooper not only as a singer but he’s also behind the camera for the first time, both of which could have gone sideways fairly quickly. On the opposite side, we have Lady Gaga who is undoubtedly an incredible singer but can she act? Let’s see!

The gist.

Established rock legend Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is spiraling out of control, dependent on drugs and alcohol to get him through. His life is changed when he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) perform and he starts to carry her to stardom. We also have Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, and Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother and often caretaker.

What works?

Let me tell you up front, this movie is phenomenal, for a lot of reasons.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga carry this entire film and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oscar nominations for both of them. Cooper was the stronger performer of the two, as Jackson’s life spirals out of control, but they both do incredible work here. They also deliver some truly beautiful music. I would wait to listen to the soundtrack til after you see the movie, the songs carry much more weight with context.

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Behind the camera, Cooper also does some incredible work. This movie is cinematic and intimate, not shying away from extreme closeups and long shots of silence. He manages to milk every emotional moment for everything it’s worth. We may be surprised and see a Best Director nomination for him as well.

As a story, this is a rollercoaster. You’ll laugh, you’ll feel inspired, you’ll feel hopeless, and you’ll feel absolute heartbreak. It’s all perfect though, as the journey we’re taken on is paced just right. The movie’s a tad long, nearly 2.5 hours, but in the end, it was all necessary.

This all works because of what Cooper and Lady Gaga have delivered. This feels like an authentic relationship. Their interactions and conversations feel real, their chemistry absolutely convinces you that you’re watching real life unfold.

I can’t say enough good things about this movie. If there’s justice, you’ll be hearing more and more about this film leading up to the Academy Awards.

What doesn’t work?

My only complaint is the long runtime. It can drag a bit in the last third but I was thankful for those moments when the credits rolled.

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Overall…

A Star is Born is going to undoubtedly be one of my favorite films of 2018. It features an incredibly emotional story with powerhouse performances. The soundtrack is beautiful, the movie shot perfectly, and altogether we’re given something very special here.

5

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Review: Venom

Venom.

We live in a weird world, where comic books have come to life on-screen in some really successful ways. They’re mainstream now, with most of the top-earning movies of all-time being comic book films. But it wasn’t too long ago that movies were disconnected and the quality was really low, where we’d get standalone movies like Catwoman and Hulk.

If you need some history for Venom, our title character is the polar opposite of the hero Spider-Man, even wearing the same spider icon on the chest (in the comics at least). However, Sony is choosing to create a series of Spider-Man films that … won’t feature Spider-Man. This film, about his most popular villain, is completely disconnected from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I’m going to review Venom without considering this. It would have been great to have these worlds connected, as they should be, but that’s not the case. So, on its own, is Venom a good movie?

The gist.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a popular investigative journalist on televised news. His girlfriend (Michelle Williams) is a lawyer, working a case involving what’s called the Life Foundation, ran by an eccentric genius (Riz Ahmed) who wants to find a way for people to survive in space after the Earth is inhabitable. The Life Foundation discovers these alien beings called symbiotes which can latch onto a host and ideally allow them to survive on other planets, though the side effects include this symbiote taking a very active role in the host’s life. Brock is accidentally exposed to one, named Venom for some reason, and his life is turned upside down as he must battle this alien’s inner thoughts and urges.

What works?

The most important piece of this film is Venom himself. He’s such an exaggerated character, both in look and personality, that it might seem impossible to bring him to life. I want to give credit to Venom’s design here, that he looks great. He’s imposing, he’s threatening, and the symbiote is used in interesting ways, meaning the fight sequences can be quite cool.

I also appreciate the attempt to make this film into a horror film. It doesn’t work most of the time, but there are glimpses into what could have made this movie really special, it’s just not executed properly. Director Ruben Fleischer made Zombieland almost ten years ago, but since then he’s been doing comedies and episodes of television, so his horror chops feel a bit out of practice.

Unfortunately that’s about it.

What didn’t work?

I’ve seen a lot of people giving praise to Venom because they love the character. I’ve seen people trash on this movie because of its lack of Spider-Man. I’m going to zoom out and look at this as a film without comic book context.

This movie is bad. You might have a fun time, you might enjoy moments, but at almost every level this film fails.

Venom somehow manages to be really boring. We don’t see the Venom character for almost 45 minutes. We spend our time with Tom Hardy, who gives a strange performance that feels out of place for the horror tone it’s trying to achieve. We also get zero context for who this symbiote is, there’s absolutely no “here’s why they’re here” or “here’s what they want,” the symbiote suit exists in this movie to purely do cool things but without any sort of context or explanation.

The movie also uses the symbiotes in different ways that all feel somewhat contradictory. Venom, who can communicate and looks humanoid and even understands human slang, is very different than a symbiote who grafts onto others and it turns them into zombies, mindless and shuffling across the globe, from Malaysia all the way to San Francisco somehow.

Our supporting characters are both useless. Michelle Williams is the love interest, kind of, but has zero chemistry with Tom Hardy and ultimately serves no purpose in the story or his evolution as a character. Likewise our villain played by Riz Ahmed is a disappointment too. He’s not scary, he’s not menacing, and even his motivations are unclear. He seems obsessed with leaving Earth but we have no idea why.

Let me talk about the visuals. The main visual effect is that of the symbiote. While not being a suit, it seems to be a liquid, but it doesn’t look like a liquid. At one point, it latches onto someone’s chest and is absorbed through their shirt but just disappears, instead of leaving any sort of residue or anything. The symbiote also appears as flashes, mostly when Venom is fighting for control over Tom Hardy’s body. It flashes and covers his face, terrifying people around him. But then other times, it must creep over his head and cover his face like a mask. So the rules of what these symbiotes are and what they’re made of are loose and unclear. I know it’s an alien, so our rules of physics may not apply, but it doesn’t seem to have any set of rules whatsoever.

Because of this, our fight scenes also get confusing, especially once Venom starts to battle other symbiotes. It turns into a Transformers fight scene, with moving pieces and quick edits, resulting in a climax that is confusing and frustrating to watch. This movie is also only PG-13, so the fight scenes never show you the brutality that you’re expecting. Venom bites off multiple heads but we don’t see a drop of blood in the entire film. It cuts and never shows you any sort of impact. One major fight scene has smoke grenades so you conveniently only see flashes of Venom. This means that most fight sequences are underwhelming, disappointing, and unmemorable.

Overall…

I wanted to love Venom, I really did. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit the mark for me. There were people in my theater laughing and clapping, so this movie is obviously for someone. For me though, I found the storyline a bit boring, the visuals underwhelming, and the PG-13 rating to undercut the movie’s potential. Tom Hardy delivers a performance that I found grating and Riz Ahmed is incredibly boring as our villain. I’d say that fans of the comics might have a better time, but I’ve been a fan of Venom since I was a kid, and this movie still fell apart for me.

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Review: Night School

Night School.

It was only a matter of time until comedy powerhouses Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish came together. Does this combination result in the funniest movie of all time? We’ll see.

The gist.

Teddy (Kevin Hart) is a high school dropout, though his successful girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) doesn’t know that. In order to get a great new job with his best friend (Ben Schwartz), Teddy must secretly enroll in night school to get his GED. It’s taught by Tiffany Haddish’s character, and the class includes comedians such as Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Romany Malco, Anne Winters, Al Madrigal, and Fat Joe. The Principal of the school is SNL alum Taran Killam.

What works?

Here’s the good thing. If you like Kevin Hart, he does (as usual) the same old thing he’s been doing. At this point, you should already have a good idea what to expect here. It’s nothing new, but that also means if you’re a fan, you can go into this feeling fairly confident.

We also have Tiffany Haddish, doing exactly what she usually does. If you find either of them typically hilarious, this movie will probably be up your alley.

I also appreciated that this movie surprisingly dove a little deeper into the aspect of learning disabilities, as we slowly discover why Kevin Hart’s character didn’t graduate high school. This is pretty superficial though, and even kind of made fun of, as they resort to MMA fighting in order to “get him to focus.” I’d be curious if folks with actual learning disabilities resonated with this or found this appalling.

What doesn’t work?

If you’re not a fan of Hart or Haddish, obviously this won’t be for you. This also won’t be for you if you’re expecting something new or exciting from them. Both of them are somewhat muted in their performances. Kevin Hart isn’t as crazy as usual. Tiffany Haddish is way toned down compared to her performance in movies like Girls Trip. This means even if you’re usually a fan, this movie still might disappoint you. I often stared at the screen blankly as jokes missed the mark again and again.

Our supporting cast is also a little off. Every character rattles off one-liners but these mostly fall flat. They’re all meant to be weird and quirky but it quickly becomes annoying in some cases. Romany Malco as the conspiracy theorist who believes robots are aiming to take over the world starts funny but quickly that joke becomes overused, and almost every character has something like that.

I praised that the movie incorporated learning disabilities but it’s often as a punchline. “I’ve got learning herpes!” exclaims Hart as he learns his diagnosis. There were more than a few opportunities to actually give this movie heart and it failed to capitalize on it.

In the end, this movie is average. You’ll forget it quickly, it does nothing new or unique and doesn’t even showcase its main talent in meaningful ways.

Overall…

Night School is a little underwhelming. If you’re a diehard fan of comedic heavyweights Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, they both hold back here and don’t deliver the crazy antics you might be expecting. If you’re not a fan, this movie won’t convince you. It’s a predictable journey, with an eclectic though somewhat annoying supporting cast. I found myself watching the jokes happen, though it didn’t make me laugh hardly at all. This is an underwhelming and ultimately forgettable comedy.

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Review: The House with a Clock in its Walls

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The House with a Clock in its Walls.

The award for worst name of a movie this year goes to… Well, probably The Meg. But The House with a Clock in its Walls is a close second.

The Gist.

10-year-old orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, Daddy’s Home) moves in with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), whose home holds a deadly secret. It turns out Jonathan is a warlock (or “a boy witch”) and he begins teaching Lewis how to use magic as well. Their neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) also uses magic, so the three of them must use their skills to stop a dangerous enemy from resurfacing.

The movie is surprisingly directed by Eli Roth, known for directing the Hostel films and other horror films like Cabin Fever.

What works?

This movie is much better than the trailers would lead you to believe. This felt like an average Goosebumps type of story where the kid must save the day. And yes, that’s true here, but the movie also manages to do some things really uniquely, though it may throw you for a loop.

This movie, with Roth behind the camera, is actually pretty scary (though admittedly my tolerance for frights is very low). This felt like an homage to Crimson Peak in how it tried to deliver gothic horror, though it was through the eyes of a child. There are images that would be quite frightening for a child, I imagine. While it may be unexpected, it at least gives this movie some personality beyond its cliche story, which also manages to deliver a few dark and somewhat disturbing plot points.

If this makes the movie sound more interesting to you, this might be up your alley. But be warned, it tries to do both things. It’s gothic and dark and surprisingly morbid, but then there is a story of a young quirky boy and plenty of fart jokes courtesy of Jack Black. It’s an interesting marriage of genres but I feel like it’s a narrow scope of audiences that would relish in both worlds.

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What doesn’t work?

Often times my “what works” section doesn’t work for everybody, so I have to repeat myself here. If you’re not interested in darker subject matters, this movie likely might be too much for you. I’d also caution anyone who wants to bring kids, this movie might be too scary or too adult. Not to spoil too much, but our lead child actor does a blood ritual at one point in the movie, which is way darker than anything I expected.

Tonally the movie also misses in the comedy arena too. Most jokes fall flat, obviously aimed at young audiences. Fart and poop jokes are everywhere, very much at odds with the darker tone.

It also doesn’t do anything too unique with Jack Black or Cate Blanchett. It hints at deeper stories that the book could’ve gone into, but the movie is relatively shallow and both actors stay firmly in their comfort zones. And relative newcomer Owen Vaccaro doesn’t really have the spark to make him stand out.

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Overall…

Like my last review of A Simple Favor, this movie also tried to balance two things and missed doing both. It tried to be a family friendly adventure, though was darker than most kids might appreciate. It then tried to make them laugh with jokes that almost always missed the mark. It’s an interesting movie and some of you may appreciate what it’s trying to do, but I can’t confidently recommend it unless all of the cons for this movie sounded like non-issues for you.

2

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