Summer is officially over. The leaves are crisping, the air has that unmistakable chill, and movie studios are releasing junk that would have been swallowed whole amidst the summer blockbusters, but would also crash and burn during awards season. So instead of watching The Nun or The Predator, let’s grab a pumpkin flavoured something and reminisce about the summer that was.
I won’t be covering any movies I’ve previously reviewed, though I’ll provide links to those at the bottom of this article. So, instead of Infinity War or that Han Solo movie you probably forgot existed before I reminded you of it just now, let’s start with the first of June and a little movie called:
The anti-blockbuster, this is the rare kind of movie that looks like it cost ten times what it actually did. It’s a stylish, mean, and unrelentingly brutal sci-fi actioner that recalls the works of Paul Verhoeven and John Carpenter. Set in the near future, Upgrade follows Grey Trace who, after his wife is murdered, ends up upgraded with an AI chip that enables him to unleash violent retribution on his wife’s killers. Is it possible that this conspiracy goes all the way to the top? While everything about it (Grey Trace – really?) sounds generic as hell, the movie rises above its pedantic underpinnings, and delivers continuously exciting and distinct action set-pieces, nice cinematography, and wry humour. At the very least, it’s a good way to tide one over until John Wick 3 comes out.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
While I’ve cooled on Infinity War since seeing it a second time (the part of my review where I call it a masterpiece will haunt me forever), I still think it’s an impressive feat, and the decision to end it on such a downer note is bold by blockbuster standards. Unfortunately, this downer note seems to have directly inspired Ant-Man and the Wasp to double down on Marvel’s usual MO, which is telling a story that continually reminds you there’s absolutely no reason for it to exist. The characters don’t change, nothing really happens, and the third act is a messy combination of low stakes, grimy CGI, and humour that aims for a chuckle and mostly misses. The more I see of the Marvel Universe the more each movie seems like a smaller and less significant piece in a puzzle I’m not sure I want to finish.
Sorry to Bother You
Here is a movie so chock full of ideas it’s in constant danger of imploding. The mere fact that it doesn’t would be impressive enough, but, like a juggler adding ball after ball, Boots Riley creates a whole that is substantially more than the some of its parts (even if a few balls get dropped along the way). At its core a satire about oppression and the tools we can use to fight it, Sorry to Bother You also takes the time to examine virtually every problem facing America today. While it stumbles in it’s overly simplistic depiction of television and social media, and probably could have stood a few more drafts of the screenplay, the majority of the film hits, and hits hard. The movie’s depiction of code-switching is particularly nuanced, and the truly bonkers finale succeeds in portraying the absurdity of capitalism, and its deadly serious repercussions. It’s also fiercely funny and features a dream team of diverse actors playing interesting characters. Watch it, and watch it again.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
I try to avoid phrases like “If you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside,” but if you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside. Taking a page from The Godfather: Part II (!), Here We Go Again is both prequel and sequel, detailing Donna’s time in Greece in the 70s, and modern-day Sophie’s struggles to continue the family legacy. Lily James plays young Donna and delivers probably my favourite performance of the year, sparkling with emotion, a zest for life, and a goodness so innate it makes me smile just thinking about it. Director Ol Parker injects a surprising amount of flair into the proceedings, and with clever digital effects creates the dreamlike sensation that both storylines are taking place concurrently. Largely ignoring the continuity of the first movie, this film exists as an entity all its own; a delightfully polished entertainment machine that all but dares you not to love it.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The very definition of a summer movie, the absolutely epic Fallout attempts to answer the question: can anything kill Tom Cruise? Whether he’s plummeting towards the ground in a helicopter he’s piloting, plummeting towards the ground during a HALO jump, or plummeting towards the ground while falling from a helicopter, Cruise seems only to have the audience’s interests at heart. Luckily, director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to shoot and edit action so Tom Cruise’s terrifying daring-do actually looks as impressive as it is. The movie’s labyrinthine plot is merely a vehicle to justify why Tom Cruise is doing things like roaring down a Paris street on a motorcycle with no helmet, or breaking his ankle jumping across London rooftops. It all culminates in a final half-hour filled with enough tension, spectacle, humour, character moments, and madcap action to fill an entire movie. Mission: Impossible is one of the best franchises currently going, and Fallout may be its finest entry.
I would have trouble coming up with a more misguided premise than that at the heart of Christopher Robin. Essentially a blend of Atonement and Hook, this movie is every bit as awful as that queasy concoction sounds. The film begins with a dreary summary of Christopher Robin’s post-Pooh life, including, but not limited to, losing his father, watching people die on the battlefield, and neglecting his family so he can work harder at a luggage factory. Needless to say, at this point most of the children in the audience had started loudly asking their parents if they could maybe go home and have an early bedtime. By the time Winnie the Pooh reenters Christopher’s life at approximately the 900 minute mark I was debating an early bedtime as well. Pooh is once again gamely portrayed by the legendary Jim Cummings but the small amounts of humour he injects into the movie only serve to highlight how miserable the majority of it is.
Spike Lee is one of my favourite filmmakers, though I still have some catching up to do on his filmography. Do the Right Thing is a strong contender for the best film ever made, and Malcolm X is a full-on masterpiece. BlacKkKlansman isn’t quite on that level, but I think it’s every bit as good as Inside Man or 25th Hour. It features a bit too much of Lee’s trademark excess, but for every flourish that took me out of the movie (a scene involving two characters discussing blaxploitation films is exceptionally jarring), there’s another that simply blew me away with its audacity. There’s a sequence where Lee takes a filmmaking technique pioneered by D.W. Griffith in the horrifically racist The Birth of a Nation, and uses it to highlight the difference between black and white radical organizations. New York Times, take note.
The film tells the sort-of-true story of black police officer Ron Stallworth who posed as a white man on the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. As a police procedural the film is solid, but as an examination of race in America it’s a knockout. Lee doesn’t shy away from police racism and brutality, and for every victory Stallworth and his team achieve, there is devastating defeat. The final minutes of BlacKkKlansman will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.
Stallworth is played by John David Washington and he makes for a terrific lead. He’s charismatic, vulnerable, and funny – expect an Oscar nomination. His partner is played by Adam Driver, one of the best actors working today, and he’s in full Driver mode here. His character poses as Stallworth when he has to meet the Klan face to face, and Driver does an incredible job acting like he’s acting. Laura Harrier plays the leader of Colorado College’s Black Student Union, and her and Stallworth strike up a relationship marred slightly by him lying to her about being a cop who tried to infiltrate her organization. Rounding out the cast is Topher Grace giving his best performance as friendly mega-racist David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. Lee could not have picked a better actor to embody Duke’s putrid affability.
If you can’t tell from the amount of space I’ve devoted to it, BlacKkKlansman is my favourite film of the summer, and maybe the year. Highly, highly recommended.
Crazy Rich Asians
At its best, Crazy Rich Asians is a top notch romance. Constance Wu gives a star-making performance as Rachel Chu, a woman struggling with love, family, and identity, and when the film focuses on these aspects it’s wonderful. Unfortunately there are also a great deal of jokes that don’t land, disturbing amounts of wealth fetishization, and a disastrous subplot that serves only to set up an inevitable sequel. Michelle Yeoh plays a supremely worthy foe to Rachel in the form of her future mother-in-law, and can say as much with her eyes as most actors can with every tool at their disposal. Every scene with her and Rachel is impossible not to enjoy. The men in the film are largely forgettable, though Ken Jeong does get off a few good one-liners, Awkwafina leans into her usual shtick, and Jon M. Chu does a serviceable job directing, though he often seems more interested in filming the excesses of the rich than the rich themselves. Basically, it’s a rom-com – good stuff, bad stuff, occasionally troubling moral implications, all blended into a surprisingly enjoyable cocktail.
Our rapidly advancing technology has been a challenge for the thriller genre. Entire plots can now be solved with a phone call and tense scenes at libraries have been replaced by slightly less tense scenes of the protagonist bringing up Bing.com and carefully typing in the words “Northfield Killer.” Enter Searching, a thriller that not only embraces technology, but weaves it into every facet of it’s storytelling. The entirety of the film plays out on screens – laptops and phones primarily – and what could feel like a stunt in lesser hands never does here. Like all great “gimmick” films – Boyhood and The Blair Witch Project come to mind – the movie convinces us that there was simply no other way to tell this tale. John Cho gives a terrific performance as a father searching for his missing daughter in a maze of text messages, Facebook posts, and chat rooms. I don’t throw around the word “Hitchcockian” lightly, but this genuinely feels like the kind of experiment the Master of Suspense would rise to, and likely execute just as well.
And with that, the summer comes to a close. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good one. Now excuse me while I go decide what horror movie to watch, because it’s officially scary movie season!
PS: as promised, here are the links to the rest of my summer reviews: