by Philip Price
Director: Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence & Vanessa Hudgens
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
As an individual who holds a special place in their heart for what was the pinnacle of everything a 16-year-old boy could want from a movie it always felt something like destiny that “Bad Boys II” arrived in theaters eight years after the original in the summer of 2003 shortly after I turned 16. “Bad Boys II” was undoubtedly one of the first R-rated features I saw in theaters and I saw it simply on the basis of loving both Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (I'd bought the DVD of Lawrence's live stand-up show, “Runteldat,” the year before and Smith had always felt near and dear to me as my dad exposed myself and my siblings to The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff's records at such a young age that they would lead to my brothers and I performing his songs at our elementary school talent shows) and so, with no point of reference for why there was a roman numeral in the title I saw “Bad Boys II” multiple times that summer. The fact it was a sequel to a movie I hadn't seen didn't matter. What I witnessed was Lawrence and Smith unhinged and completely free to do, say and act however they wanted and while I didn't yet know who Michael Bay was I can remember thinking after seeing “Bad Boys II” that I loved the style of the movie; not just the grandiosity of it, but the saturated look of every moment as we didn't just take it at face value that the movie took place in Miami because the movie made us feel like we were IN Miami...and the movement of the camera-while calling attention to itself, certainly-was still some of the coolest, most inventive camera work I'd seen up until that point. Cut to seventeen years later and for one reason or another a third ‘Bad Boys’ film never materialized until now. Is it kind of a shame Smith and Lawrence didn't make another ‘Bad Boys’ flick in their forties thus saving the appropriate title of “Bad Boys For Life” for the fourth installment that could very well be the film we now have as the third in the series instead? Yeah, it's kind of a bummer, but the extended break also admittedly marks the return of Lawrence and Smith to the big screen as these characters as something truly special and something that-just as I'm beginning to genuinely feel older and rapidly approaching the age Smith was when he made “Bad Boys II” - no other franchise could have done at this moment in time as “Bad Boys for Life” both takes me back to what it felt like during that youthful summer when the sun never felt like it would set while also bringing me into the present and reminding me how critical it is that we keep moving forward and don't get too caught up in the past.
For those not lucky enough to have an emotional tie or nostalgic connection to the property, “Bad Boys for Life” will likely prove to be nothing more than a run of the mill buddy cop film with some solid chemistry to admire between its two leads, but as someone who feels molded not necessarily by the characters or ideas the franchise spouts, but by the energy it exudes and the insight into the singular vision of certain filmmakers like Bay, “Bad Boys for Life” is a welcome addition to both stars filmography as it not only works on a base level of ticking all the boxes each ‘Bad Boys’ film should tick, but it also works as an examination of where these two men are at in their lives as cops, as fathers, as partners and how these broad actions and sustained relationships will ultimately define their legacy. In other words, “Bad Boys for Life” gives Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) real-world obstacles to grapple with yet remains relatively light on its feet so as to not bring the mood of the party down too much; instead nudging both the characters and the audience into acknowledging that while the party can't last forever we should simply feel lucky the party ever started at all.
Part of the journey is the end as Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man would say and to that extent franchise newcomers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who are directing from a script originated by Joe Carnahan (“The Grey”) along with Peter Craig and Chris Bremner pick-up with Lowery and Burnett in real time, seventeen years later as they are brought face to face with some new issues (getting older, retirement, passing the baton to the next generation) and some old ones (drug cartels, a difference in how they approach situations, giving Joe Pantoliano's Captain Howard a heart attack) as a new threat arrives in Miami as personified by Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) and her son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), the newly appointed leaders of the vicious Miami drug cartel who have a personal agenda against Mr. Lowery and several other high-up government officials in the city. While Mike is as primed and ready as ever (the 2020 Porsche Taycan is his luxury car of choice this time around) Marcus is set to retire as he has recently become a grandfather and wants to enjoy days being home with his family, helping to raise his grandchildren and finally getting some of that "quality time" with the wife, Theresa (once again played by Theresa Randle). As these things go though, Marcus is pulled back into the fray "one last time" in order to help Mike bring down Aretas and the cartel as they team up with the newly created AMMO elite team made up of young hot shots such as Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Rafe (Charles Melton) as led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a Captain who Mike clearly has a history with of which neither of them want to discuss, but which neither of them can seem to let go of either.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in “Bad Boys for Life,” but El Arbi and Fallah navigate the waters of the nearby Atlantic with a surprisingly assured hand as they don't necessarily mimic that of what Bay did with the first two films, but they definitely draw from the style and presence of the location in the same way (even if some of this was shot in Atlanta) as everything that occurs around our two leads is both hyper-stylized while containing such a high-octane level of kinetic energy that-even for those who recognize the tropes of the buddy cop bit-can't help but to be swept up in the pace of the plot and the intermittent action set pieces that, to the credit of the filmmakers, are much more comprehensive than that of what Bay evolved into over the course of his ‘Transformers’ tenure. Moreover, what separates “Bad Boys for Life” from its predecessors even further is the fact that it not only mines our heroes personal lives for jokes, but it treats them-arguably for the first time-as sources of pain and conflict that bleed over into the actions they take daily on the job. Sure, Lawrence's Marcus has always been the one to be more cautious and less hasty while Mike has always taken up the role of the loose cannon, but it becomes evident very early on in Carnahan's screenplay that these default archetypes aren't something these two can play out forever or at least, in the fashion they are accustomed to. What I truly appreciate about “Bad Boys for Life” though, is its willingness to say "no" and this is in regards both to the arc of the characters and resurrecting old jokes just for the sake of a callback. There is a scene in which Smith's Mike literally begs for his partner to come out of retirement to help him with this one last job, but Marcus refuses and knows he has to refuse because as much as he wants to believe his partner he knows this won't be the last time. While, yes, Marcus of course ends up re-joining Mike on "one last mission" there is strong enough reasoning to support this turn in the character while still allowing for Marcus to maintain his position of being wise enough to know when the time has come to close one chapter and begin another. Smith's Mike doesn't comprehend these ideas or maybe he doesn't care to even try and grasp the concept of mortality, but as the film continues to unfold it becomes all the more impressive how the film forces these truths into Mike's face as it seems what it's been getting at the entire time is the source, the place from which Mike's obsession with the badge and the gun derives.
I don't want to make “Bad Boys for Life” sound too pontifical because it's still very much a ninety-minute buddy comedy blown up to two hours that is bolstered by well-executed set pieces and the undeniable chemistry at the heart of it, but I have to imagine that even without a pre-existing connection to the characters or previous films that one might be moved at the depths the film goes to here in an attempt to try and humanize our protagonists rather than simply relegating them to cartoons ready to jump on a scene and shoot some folks before breaking into song. Carnahan's script uses the 25 year’s worth of history between the characters to draw out the conflict they face in this new film and the companionship that inevitably brings them back together. Sure, the way in which the plot eventually wraps itself back around feels a little too safe, but in an age of cinematic universes and a world where “The Fast & the Furious” has become a behemoth of a franchise this is to be somewhat expected. Does “Bad Boys for Life” do the thing where it makes us look back at the previous films with renewed perspectives even though when those films were made the performers had no awareness of what are now canon facets? Yeah, it definitely does and are Hudgens, Ludwig and Melton being brought in with the hopes of creating a likely spin-off franchise featuring the new generation of Miami detectives? Definitely, but while there are a few hoops to jump through here in terms of legalities for being a franchise in the year 2020 the level of enjoyment one gets out of the film as a whole is still the bottom line and while it's almost a foregone conclusion that Smith and Lawrence will deliver in these roles they really do deliver in these roles once again. Neither actor misses a beat and even more relieving is the fact the chemistry and the relationship doesn't feel stale. These guys have been partners for going on 30 years and through the three films we have seen this partnership in its infancy, its prime and now in its back half as real decisions have to be made concerning where the two of them want to see this partnership lead. Through this, Lawrence is as sharp as he ever has been; spitting out one-liners left and right with ten times the amount of hits than misses whereas Smith (who is now 51 by the way) is as smooth and charismatic as ever even if he is realizing time leaves no man behind, not even the great Mike Lowery. The bottom line being that “Bad Boys for Life” successfully replicates the aura and energy of the first two films and thus delivers a fun, entertaining ride with one of our (or at least my) favorite on screen duos while offering some surprising layers to a relationship that could have possibly been played out by this point. “Bad Boys for Life” isn't waxing poetic on ephemerality and legacy, but it's considering them among the explosions, laughs, car chases and cuss words and really...what more could you ask for?
by Philip Price
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman & Colin Firth
Runtime: 1 hour & 59 minutes
At the risk of spoiling a truly grisly moment in writer/director Sam Mendes' latest film, there is an instance not 15 minutes into the film when our protagonist, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), injures his hand on a barbed wire fence. It is not this injury that is cause for the gruesome winces “1917” is sure to induce though, but rather that moment comes a minute or so later when Schofield's mission partner, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), knocks into him as the two hurriedly slide into a trench so as to not be spotted by enemy planes overhead. It is in this moment that occurs shortly after the film has set the stage for our expectations of what we might expect war to really feel like that it then shows us the reality of those expectations in turn aiding the audience in realizing that no amount of preparation or precedent could ever prepare one for the true nightmares that are the unspeakable things one human can subject another human to. It is in this quick, but effective moment that remained with me for the duration of the film's nearly two-hour runtime that emphasizes the power of the film in general over the would-be gimmick of the single-take experience in that not only does Mendes' and cinematographer Roger Deakins' technique provide an enticing challenge for seasoned filmmakers such as themselves, but it is in the challenge of balancing that technique with the ability to tap into something real, something raw and something that speaks to who these two men were in their souls that keeps the audience engaged.
Successful or not, the technique of it all will largely go unnoticed by general moviegoers and in turn only make the immersion greater even if that general moviegoer isn't aware of what's creating said effect. Mendes and Deakins have proven time and time again they have the skill to pull off exactly what “1917” does, but for them to ultimately have the artistry to pair that craft with the character's drive to simply do the right thing in accomplishing their mission, a mission that will save hundreds of lives, while being surrounded by the ugliness of humanity on that mission is what makes the immersive quality of the single shot idea worth the trouble; the technique elevating the film to something unexpected not in that it is a dazzling technical achievement, but an emotionally involving experience with real stakes and a clear perspective.
by Philip Price
Director: Nicholas Pesce
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir & John Cho
Runtime: 1 hour & 34 minutes
Andrea Riseborough is the kind of actor who, even in a movie like 2020's re-make/sequel(?) of “The Grudge,” goes to the extent of having her character sport certain tattoos that are never brought up, but that she probably knows the backstories of which undoubtedly inform some of the character choices she makes even if those tattoos only make it into a handful of shots in the final film. This is kind of the perfect distillation for the ratio of talent involved versus the quality of the final product for this new take on Takashi Shimizu's “Ju-On” property. Meaning, there is a depth to the writing, directing and acting here (or at least a certain level of credibility) that is lost in the final edit; glimpses of what could have been only showing up in a handful of moments in the final cut.
If you've seen writer/director Nicolas Pesce's 2016 feature debut, “The Eyes of My Mother” then you know the filmmaker is adept at tackling the unsettling and framing it within such an atmosphere that it truly becomes one of those situations where you want desperately to look away, but can't help but to continue to watch for fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, with his latest all one really wants to do is look away and not for fear of missing out on what happens to the film's characters, but because we largely don't care about what's happening to them in the first place. As stated, there are hints at reasons as to why we might be inclined to care about any one of the recognizable faces on screen and the peril they're facing whether it be John Cho and Betty Gilpin's plight as new parents, Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye grappling with mortality or Riseborough and Demián Bichir coming face to face with their fears, but the screenplay spreads these scenarios and characters so thin with such disparate connections to one another that it's difficult to become invested in any of them and easier to simply give up on all of them.
Besides the fact no one was necessarily asking for another installment from this franchise there seems to be no particular motivation even from Pesce's script to try and tap into the core idea of what the curse at the heart of “The Grudge” is really about; a curse that is born when someone dies in the grip of extreme rage. Shimizu's original short films, like this new version, operated as seemingly unconnected vignettes that are pulled together by police investigating the various, strange events, but whatever it was that made those original films launch the franchise “The Grudge” has become today has been lost in translation in this latest iteration.
by Philip Price
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx & Brie Larson
Runtime: 2 hours & 16 minutes
The third film from director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle”) stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson in the true story of a Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (based on a book written by the actual Stevenson) who goes to Alabama in the late eighties to defend the disenfranchised and wrongly condemned including Foxx's Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death despite evidence proving his innocence.
Every single word in that description would lead one to believe “Just Mercy” is an inevitably powerful film that is both timely and timeless as it touches on the indifference to inequality and justice in our society as its been fated to have been constructed; a world with a “justice deficient” as Stevenson would describe it, so why then...does everything about “Just Mercy” feel as formulaic as the old gospel hymns referenced within it? There's no taking away that this is a good movie, but there's no denying it goes down exactly as you expect it to also. That isn't to say the story isn't important or to criticize the story the film is telling, but more it is a recognition that Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham (“The Shack”) might have done more to execute this in a fashion not so routine; to find a way of conveying the story in unexpected ways rather than resting on the fact the true story is compelling enough on its own.
It is because the story of McMillian, Stevenson and their eventual friendship is so compelling on its own that saves the film though, as their story outlines the deeply-rooted issues of injustice through the inherent nature of their environment and the type of people it is capable of turning out. I would say it seems crazy that as recently as the early nineties there were still people who could sleep at night knowing they'd taken a man's life away simply to save face in their own job and further, knowingly allow an actual murderer to continue to run free, but we all know the kind of 2019 we're living in. So, while the story of McMillian and Stevenson is meant to exemplify why we should all seek real, absolute justice and in that quest come to understand that people can be more than the crime they commit and that people who have fallen down still deserve basic rights, the straight-up depiction of this story can only carry “Just Mercy” so far while the kernels of what might have lent to a more personal, harrowing and touching experience are very clearly present and only needed to be tapped into more precisely by both the screenplay and the director.
Does that make “Just Mercy” a bad film? Not by any stretch. This is a strong, sturdy courtroom drama in some sense though it's not fully devoted to that genre while at other times can be something of a smaller, more focused character piece. Much to my surprise, the performances are probably the least satisfying thing about the film. They are serviceable and do well to convey the necessary plot points, but Jordan with all his appeal and charm can't help but to feel a little out of his depth here and maybe that's intentional, maybe that's to reinforce how Stevenson actually felt at the beginning of this crusade, but it comes across as more of an ineptitude in terms of embodying the character than it does a choice for the character. Larson and O'Shea Jackson Jr. have very little to do unfortunately, though Jackson's lack of development is more understandable than Larson's who is playing a legit supporting player while Rafe Spall continues in his series of performances where he plays the vindictive little guy out for blood. That said, the performance that naturally stands out is Foxx who, as McMillian, chooses to believe he was put in this position to help his fellow inmates on death row rather than be angry every moment of every day about the injustice his life has encountered. Foxx is the only real, flashed out person in the film alongside Rob Morgan’s tragic turn as fellow death row inmate Herbert Richardson. In many ways this lack of attention on the performances helps to reinforce the facts of the story as they are what transcend all the lights and hoopla heaped upon the film for what might otherwise be a fleeting awards season. The focus on the facts of the story instead lend credence to the idea “Just Mercy” might actually serve to be inspiring.
And much like Jordan’s performance, Cretton’s direction-while more or less doing its job-feels a little out of its depth in that there is no flash to the proceedings. It’s important to note that adding “flash” doesn’t necessarily have to mean overtly exaggerated camera tricks, distinct visual styles or showy performances, but more it doesn’t have any flash in that it feels as straightforward as can be about an issue that has many layers and caveats that certain sections of the audience won’t understand or won’t be in tune with because they’ve been privileged enough to have never experienced such things. It might be that Cretton himself wasn’t aware enough to tap into such facets, but it could also be intentional in that Cretton is really just trying to send a message and ensure the story’s powerful message is heard loud and clear, but this doesn’t so much feel like the choice of the filmmaker as it does a consequence of his own lack of skill and insight on the subject. Again, it’s not that all of this culminates to result in a bad movie, but maybe not as good of a movie as this story and this struggle deserve.
by Philip Price
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver & John Boyega
Runtime: 2 hours & 22 minutes
If one was to go back and watch the prequels ("...but why?!?" you cringe!) with as objective a perspective as possible, with the allowance of framing them in a new light given the events of the ‘Star Wars’ universe that have unfolded since their release it's not hard to see that Emperor Palpatine has always played the role of puppet master; at first hedging both sides against one another before fully giving in to his true Sith tendencies and converting a young Anakin Skywalker to follow him on that path.
And while J.J. Abrams initial film in this sequel trilogy, “The Force Awakens,” seemingly had no interest in resurrecting the long, thought-to-be dead Emperor there is sound reason (believe it or not) in bringing this antagonist back to round out all three trilogies in a way that makes for a resounding stanza ... just as George Lucas always intended.
It's about rhyme; a recurring metrical unit where the past predicts the future. There is a great sense of scope and history in these films and while Disney has admittedly fumbled a massive opportunity with these sequels, “Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker,” seeks to try and rectify the lack of cohesion in this latest trilogy and bring everything together through that aforementioned scope and history in a fashion that is both meaningful to our new heroes while imparting the identity of those original heroes to inspire this new generation to continue to work towards the betterment of the galaxy. Yes, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ more or less crams two movies into one and yes, it is genuinely disappointing that this series wasn't better constructed from the beginning given how much this world means to so many people, but taken what we're given Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio are able to connect the dots in a satisfying enough way where the right questions are answered, some mysteries remain yet feel destined to be unraveled on Disney+ while other inquiries are made that no one seemed to be asking, but are quickly brought up and resolved just as swiftly.
It's impossible to please everyone and as much as I hate to admit it as a long-time, but not die-hard fan of the franchise, the discourse around these films is often toxic and demeaning. It's OK to simply enjoy whatever brings a smile to your face and more often than not, as I sat experiencing ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ for the first time, I had a smile on my face.
by Philip Price
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart & Jack Black
Runtime: 2 hours & 3 minutes
Much like the challenges a sequel faces in trying to stand on its own while recapturing the magic of what made the original so special, the teenage characters we met in 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” have found it difficult to completely move on from their own experiences within the video game world; longing to reclaim such feelings of empowerment and intelligence while not being constrained by their earthly forms - the separation of this experience and actual reality has been tougher for some more than others. This is especially true for Alex Wolf’s character, Spencer, who has spent his freshman year at college feeling completely invisible and unworthy of the long-distance relationship he and Martha (Morgan Turner) are having to actually work for.
In this way, “Jumanji: The Next Level” begins not by jumping straight back into the central gag, but instead by offering a surprising study of why someone in their seemingly logical mind would want to risk their life by going back into the game in the first place. This was always going to be the conundrum for a sequel to the reboot (I feel ridiculous writing that, but it is what it is) as there was no choice other than to either have the same people return to the game or have the video game land in new hands, but regardless of who would be controlling the avatars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black were still going to be the stars. And so, in Jake Kasdan’s sequel (co-written by Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) this somewhat weighty approach is taken in order to explain how another sequel is even possible and while this along with The Rock’s Danny DeVito impersonation, Hart’s superb turn as Danny Glover and Awkwafina’s eventual turn as DeVito are all equally appreciated ‘The Next Level’ ultimately skimps on the weight of the main idea that’s powering it (not to mention it being the one facet that might allow a hint of the original film’s tone to seep into this new series) in favor of broader comedy and bigger set pieces. It’s not that these aspects are bad, cheapen the experience or even feel lazy, but more that ‘The Next Level’ is very much like vanilla ice cream that could have sprung for sprinkles or syrup, but chose not to not because of cost or fear of diluting the inherent flavor, but more out of convenience. Safe without being boring, fun without being interesting, ‘The Next Level’ is simply fine.