Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island

★★★

The lame, boss! The lame! Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island is dumber than a doornail, but not without its charms. The whole enterprise kinda plays like an extended, rebooted pilot of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s television series. Only the filmmakers take the show’s template and overlay cinematic/thematic elements from sources such as the Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel vehicle Frequency and the Final Destination franchise atop it.

I have to give Fantasy Island this – it’s certainly progressive for something that seems to solely exist to display its diverse cast in various states of undress. There are Hispanic, Asian, black and gay characters. The crux of the film finds its eclectic ensemble coming to the titular island in order to live out their deepest fantasies. There’s the ugly duckling-turned-swan, Melanie (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale), who’s seeking revenge against Sonja (Portia Doubleday) for bullying her in high school. There’s Elena (Maggie Q), who regrets turning down the marriage proposal of Rocklin (Robbie Jones) five years earlier and longs to be a mother. There’s Randall (Austin Stowell), a cop who wants to be a hero. Last but certainly not least are Bradley (Party Down’s Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang), step brothers who want it all and serve as the flick’s primary comedic relief. Facilitating these fantasies is Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña, surprisingly menacing stepping in for Ricardo Montalbán), the island’s steward who advises that there’s only one wish per person and all wishes must be played out to their natural conclusion.

Fantasy Island has been advertised as a horror film … albeit a PG-13 one … but in actuality it’s more of a thriller with fantastical (See what I did there!) elements. Directed and co-written by Jeff Wadlow, the picture is sort of all over the place … there are zombies, war sequences and enough cheesecake to elicit memories of USA Up All Night. Wadlow has been a bit of a mixed bag as a filmmaker. In 2005 he made the boarding school slasher flick Cry Wolf (also PG-13 … boo!) co-starring Jon Bon Jovi, current Sam Winchester/future Walker, Texas Ranger Jared Padalecki and Lindy Booth (the cute redhead from the Dawn of the Dead remake … now relegated to Hallmark movie hell). He followed this up with 2008’s guilty pleasure banger Never Back Down, a Karate Kid for the Monster Energy crowd and my first exposure to actor Evan Peters (American Horror Story, recent X-Men outings). The flick was slick enough that I thought Sean Faris and Cam Gigandet were gonna become Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt respectively … instead they simply remained Sean Faris and Cam Gigandet. A young Amber Heard was also on hand playing a character named Baja Miller, whom my wife and I affectionately call Baja Gordita. In 2013 Wadlow helmed Kick-Ass 2, which was a huge step down from its Matthew Vaughn-directed predecessor and yet featured an inspired performance from Jim Carrey. I never did see Wadlow’s next few films – a Kevin James Netflix original called True Memoirs of an International Assassin and fellow Blumhouse joint, Truth or Dare (also co-starring Hale). With a reported budget of 7 million USD, the money’s certainly onscreen in Fantasy Island. The film looks as if it could cost three to four times as much. Wadlow smartly peppers the picture with crackerjack character actors like Michael Rooker and Sons of Anarchy’s Kim Coates, who lend the proceedings much-needed gravitas and cheesy humor … and all in a few days of filming no less.

Fantasy Island leaves itself wide open for a sequel. If the budget remains low and the box office is big enough there will likely be another installment. I had a good enough time that I’d be open to a return trip to the island. My biggest takeaway however is that more movies need to feature characters feeding hand grenades into pitching machines.

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) 

★★★★ 

Birds of Prey was pretty fuckin’ dope. It kinda plays like a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Tank Girl. It’s a strange cocktail of deviance and decency. The lead actresses all slay and Ewan McGregor appears to be having a blast playing the Big Bad. It’s cool to see a major motion picture directed, written and fronted entirely by women. Birds of Prey is gurl power AF in its conception and execution, but never preachy about it … it’s too busy setting up its next elaborately-executed fight sequence or paying off a punchline. 4.25/5 stars.

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen

★★★★½ 

Matthew McConaughey is the central figure of The Gentlemen and the most prominent fixture in the picture’s advertising. That said, while great in the film he’s not in it a ton and probably gives the fourth best performance. I was more impressed by Charlie Hunnam, Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell – all of whom shine brightly here. The soundtrack is chock full of bangers – I especially enjoyed a sequence set to El Michels Affair’s cover of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” This is a return to Guy Ritchie’s roots and can stand toe-to-toe with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. It’s arguable that the picture is unnecessarily complicated, too clever by half and unrelentingly un-PC. That was true of Ritchie’s calling cards and it’s true here, but who really gives a Phuc when the flick’s this fucking fun. You either dig this stuff or you don’t. I mostly just wanted a tartan tracksuit and a pint of Gritchie afterwards. Long live and God bless the Toddlers!

Just Mercy

Just Mercy

★★★★★ 

Just Mercy is the best film of 2019. The fact that it got no Oscar love is an immense oversight and injustice. Jamie Foxx’s performance was the one hyped before the movie dropped (and he’s admittedly very, very good), but this is undoubtedly Micheal B. Jordan’s movie. I feel privileged as a moviegoer that I’ll hopefully get to see decades upon decades of Jordan’s work. Sidney Poitier passed the baton to Denzel and now the baton is being passed to Jordan. There’s a bunch of performances worthy of nominations here – Jordan’s, Foxx’s, Brie Larson’s and Rob Morgan’s. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and the film itself deserved Academy love too. More important than Oscar consideration is that Just Mercy could actually effect change. We need more Bryan Stevenson’s in this world – the more people who know his story and the stories of the men he advocated on behalf of the better. 5/5 stars and my highest recommendation … also, bring Kleenex.

Bad Boys for Life

Bad Boys for Life

★★★★ 

I’m not gonna lie – I got a big ol’ nostalgic, movie nerd boner seeing that Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films lightning logo up on an IMAX screen.
Bad Boys for Life is a lot of fun, but it’s probably my least favorite of the franchise. There’s a cool twist that I didn’t see coming. There are also some horrendous special effects and new characters that I liked and loathed in equal measure. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bring it though. The filmmakers also reprise a character who I was overjoyed to see return. This installment simultaneously has the most heart while being the most violent.
The flick leaves the door wide open for another sequel. Given the commercial and critical reception to this one, it’s Bad Boys for Life indeed.

Underwater

Underwater 

★★★½ 

A movie made for those who wanna see Kristen Stewart run around in her underpants while sopping wet and get thrown through the air repeatedly in slow-mo. Underwater alternates between visual dynamism and incoherence. The monsters are pretty cool-lookin’ … what you see of ’em. The cast is generally pretty likeable … yes, even T.J. Miller … too bad he seems like such a shitbag in actuality.

1917

1917 

★★★★ 

Take Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, Gravity and Battlefield 1, throw ’em all in a blender, hit puree and the result is 1917.
Sam Mendes’ movie is undeniably beautiful – it’s one of the best-looking films of the year as shot by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins. It also sports a splendid score from Thomas Newman. All that said, it’s kinda boring.
Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk mop the floor with this movie. 1917 lacks the tension of Gravity. The picture kinda feels like it’s on rails like Battlefield 1, but your buddy’s hogging the controller and you’re stuck simply watching. 1917 ultimately packs some emotional wallop in the late goings, but most the movie you’re stuck with ciphers you don’t really get to know. The picture also strains the realms of believability – there are some A-Team gunfight dynamics at play here – our primary protagonist is pretty much a crack shot and the Jerries can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
Ultimately, 1917 AKA Saving Leftenant Blake is a technical marvel that veers into emotional hollowness. It’s more sizzle than steak, but what sizzle …

Little Women (2019)

Little Women 

★★★★★ 

Quite simply Little Women is exquisite. Greta Gerwig improved upon the already impressive game she displayed with Lady Bird to make one of 2019’s absolutely best films. Its cast is uniformly excellent. The costumes, sets and cinematography are stunning. Alexandre Desplat’s score is gorgeous. Gerwig fucking with Louisa May Alcott’s chronology further plumbs emotional depths. Feminist, humanist, funny and moving – Little Women’s a damned near perfect movie. The student’s exceeded the teacher as the new Gerwig > the new Noah Baumbach.

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

★★★★ 

If A Hidden Life were 45 minutes shorter it’d be a masterpiece. The movie kinda reminded me of The Irishman in that after the first hour I thought this was the best film I’d seen all year … then each fell into the trap of repetition. Both movies depict mob mentality and our protagonist is every bit as stubborn as Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. This is easily the best Terrence Malick movie since The Tree of Life. This thing is undeniably exquisite-looking and sounding. If I had my druthers it’d get Oscar nominations for cinematography and its score.
It’s kind of amusing to see August Diehl play a character that’s the antithesis of his Inglorious Basterds role. Diehl is an interestingly handsome actor – he kinda looks like a combination of a younger Christopher Walken and Americana statesman Jason Isbell. I could watch the dude ride a motorcycle all damned day. I can’t decide if Diehl’s character is virtuous, prideful or both, which makes the film interesting even if it’s overlong.
“Christians” who are still supporting 45 should be required to watch A Hidden Life before hitting the voting booth in 2020 for a glimpse at what truth faith looks like. 4.25/5 stars.

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell

★★★★½ 

Richard Jewell was fairly fuckin’ outstanding. I didn’t see it as being particularly politicized. It’s first and foremost the story of a simple, decent man being railroaded by the powers that be. Additionally, it chronicles the relationship between that man and his mother as well as the man and his friend/lawyer. Kathy Bates is the one getting all the awards buzz (much deserved – especially for her press conference scene), but I thought Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell were equally excellent.