End-of-Season Movie Wrapup

Ranked by Our Resident Reviewer
By BILL GEIGER | Aug 29, 2018

One moment we’re sitting at the bay, sipping our sparkling water and watching the patriotic fireworks from Beach Haven and Tuckerton across the bay, and the next, we’re staring down the barrel of Labor Day and real life, for those not lucky enough to live here year ’round. So it is we come to the final CineScene column of the summer. Here we assess the films we discussed, throwing out a yea if we thought the film strong, or a nay if we thought it weak or conflicted in any way.

But first, we’ll move on to some capsule reviews of some films of recent vintage; then we’ll open up the summer vault and see what rises to the top.

“Christopher Robin” is an interesting film for those of us who have grown up running through Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and his pals in A.A. Milne’s imaginary world. Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is now an adult, with little time for Pooh, who is, we know, a bear of very little brain (but one of very big heart, as CR tells him late in the film).

It appears CR has fallen victim to that malaise nearly every adult faces; we all know what happens to Jack when he’s all work and no play. Plus, he has a daughter, Madeleine (Bronte Carmichael), whom he is fast-tracking to a prestigious school where she’ll have to board; she is bitterly disappointed at having to leave home. What’s more, he’s been given the job of reorganizing a department in his company in order to make money, which will mean laying off many of the workers. Oh, bother.

The narrative technique “Christopher Robin” uses is the old page-flipping method, giving the film a throwback look. It’s very charming, by the way. As things fall more and more apart for CR, who comes to pay him a visit but Pooh, who needs help back in Hundred Acre Wood because it appears all of Pooh’s friends are lost. So with symbolism charging along in takeover mode, CR has to go back with Pooh to help him find all his lost friends.

He succeeds, but he loses his notes for work, then hurries to get there on time for an important meeting. The film then enters its most bizarre moments, when the denizens of Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood enter the real world, bringing with them CR’s notes. CR’s wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), gets to meet all of her husband’s childhood friends, and the point of view shifts so that now everyone can see his friends from Hundred Acre Wood. CR finally learns what’s most important in life.

I’m not saying that the part of the film where Pooh and friends are in the big city of London is not a pure leap of faith, but if you can get past that POV shift, I think the film will touch a lot of heartstrings. Marc Forster, by the way, directed “Christopher Robin.”

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In “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” two best friends forever Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon) become international women of mystery after Audrey’s boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), unceremoniously dumps her. Drew shows up one day to claim some stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment, but what he’s not aware of is there is a team of assassins congregating there to finish him off, much to the dismay of the women. It is then he tells Audrey and Morgan he’s a spy and asks them to be couriers for him to Vienna.

Since he’s being delayed by death, how can they say no? From then on they adopt the personas of spies themselves, and head to Vienna to make the exchange. All of the spy movie tropes are there, including numerous shootouts, car chases, car chases with dead people in the car, harsh interrogation techniques, people pretending to be someone else, bad guys in plain sight, and lots of questions as the ending looms.

Luckily for Audrey, although she doesn’t really know it until near the end, she has a guardian angel named Sebastian (Sam Heughan), an MI-6 agent who was working with Drew when things went wrong. He saves them several times from his own corrupt teammates, including his team leader, Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), and he sort of shields them from his own superior, Wendy (Gillian Anderson). Wendy seems to know the score, and she puts up with the two amateurs as long as she gets the smuggled item home safely.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” gives women the lead role in taking down a bad group of spies who would harm others and destroy large-scale operations and agencies. Most of the fun in this film comes in the self-assured nature of the two women, and Mila Kunis is a totally believable Audrey. Her rage at Drew, her video game experience allowing her to pick up a handgun and shoot a spy like shooting some target in the game, and her ingenuity in understanding how the game is played, how to give decoy packages and how to surprise the enemy give her the top billing she deserves.

Kate McKinnon can be somewhat outrageous, and if you remember my review of the female “Ghostbusters” film from 2016, I was a little hard on her. I thought Kate actually hurt that film. Not this one, though. She is practically a born sidekick, and works best in that context. In this film, she was fine, as were the female characters in this female-buddy film. It was nice seeing Gillian Anderson in a solid role. “The X-Files” keeps intruding into her life, making her miss more roles like these. That’s a pity.

Susanna Fogel directed “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” While it wasn’t the best film I’ve seen this summer, it’s still solid summer entertainment.

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Here’s a history lesson plus a cautionary tale plus an adventure flick all wrapped up and presented as a Spike Lee joint – “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s a true story of Colorado Springs policeman Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by speaking to one of the representatives and then having officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) go to the meetings as his surrogate, all the time wearing a wire. Stallworth and Zimmerman do so well with this that their conglomerate person eventually becomes the head of the chapter.

Stallworth’s time in Colorado Springs back in 1971 was not easy. He was the only black officer in the department and faced daily racial bias and pressure. Lee makes sure to film shots over the nearby Rockies showing the beauty of the place, and then lifts up the rocks in the landscaping outside of the police department to show the creepy-crawly things underneath. Life wasn’t all well and good for minorities in 1971, no matter where you were in the country.

Stallworth’s initial duties in the Colorado Springs Police Department are in Records, where he’s treated poorly by his fellow officers and begins to doubt his choice of job. He asks to go undercover, and is assigned to watch a Black Power rally and speech by Kwame Ture (i.e. Stokely Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins). Stallworth has cultivated his mighty Afro and fits right in. He even catches the eye of the protest rally’s organizer, the Angela Davis-like Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).

After the rally he’s reassigned to the intelligence division of the department. While there, he sees an ad in a newspaper to join the KKK, so he calls the number and, in his best white voice, speaks to the head of the local chapter, one Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and is invited to come to the next meeting. Enter Zimmerman as Stallworth’s alter ego. Now the game’s afoot.

Intelligence begins reporting a possible incident, so Stallworth wants to move his induction to the Klan up as quickly as possible. So he calls the Klan’s national headquarters and speaks to David Duke (Topher Grace), the national chairman, about possibly expediting his application. Duke is so taken with Stallworth that he decides to come to Colorado Springs to induct the candidate himself.

Unbeknownst to everyone is the plan several members of the local chapter have to bomb the civil rights rally of Colorado College. One of the wives of the Klansman is chosen to carry out the bombing. Both Zimmerman and Stallworth are on the fringes of the plan, and the real Stallworth is given the job of protecting Duke at Stallworth’s induction ceremony. When the wife, then the few members leave the big dinner the local and national Klan chapters throw for the new guy, the real Stallworth suspects something, so he runs off for a look, informing the police of the possible intent.

When Stallworth eventually sees who is going to place the bomb, he tackles the woman. The police arrive, and tackle and hold Stallworth, even though he declares that he is a police officer. Zimmerman arrives later and helps Stallworth, and the bomb winds up killing the Klan members.

Spike Lee ends his film with footage of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. He timed the film’s theatrical release with the one-year anniversary of the rally, and showed footage of the protesters, the violence of the attacks against the counter-protesters, then the car smashing into the counter protesters. He showed footage of President Trump’s comments on the attacks, and the film ends with a dedication to Heather Heyer, the lone person killed in the car attack.

I have to say this film was the kind that stuck with me above all others this summer, but in a scary way. When Stallworth was with the Klansmen, their animus toward minorities, their attempts at cross-burnings and their violent mindsets all creeped me out. Then when Lee juxtaposed the Charlottesville violence and the far-right mindset, I was left numb. This is homebred terrorism. I guess this is what we should be worrying about.

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If you go see “The Meg,” it might be good to have read Beowulf – maybe not the whole thing, but at least to the part where Grendel’s mother comes on the page. In many ways the sailors who stalk and kill the young Meg are like Beowulf: They don’t understand that there’s a mother Meg out there who wants to protect her son, and she is not a happy camper when she discovers him dead. So she goes on the attack, and like all these monster movies, the boastful, the proud, and the weak will be sacrificed for the greater good. Hey, it’s like a Greek tragedy: If you have hubris, you’ll be eaten. There’s always a bigger fish.

So the summer of 2018 would not be complete without a giant, prehistoric “Jaws” to come and ruin the day at the beach. Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) has to battle the behemoth, for it was he who first encounters it in the deepest abyss known to man. Taylor is an expert at deep sea rescue, so he’s sent to rescue the remaining crewmen from a submarine who are still alive way down in a trench in the Pacific.

He gets most of the men out, but has to sacrifice a few in the process, an action that doesn’t endear him to one other crew member in particular, the ship’s doctor, Heller (Robert Taylor). In the now time, there’s a study station in the Pacific that is very near one of these deep trenches. Taylor’s friend Heller works on this station. An obnoxious billionaire named Morris (Rainn Wilson) who thinks he can manipulate everything is funding it. When one of their submersibles gets stranded, who ya gonna call? Jonas Taylor.

In the process of getting the crew of the submersible out, the crew and Taylor allow the Meg to escape, and a 70-foot Jaws comes calling. The film has an international cast, and is entertaining, especially for us down here on the coast. I think “The Meg” is a diverting summer film, and it’s nice to see Statham back in action. Last time we saw him was in one of those “Fast and Furious” movies, I think. He has the right demeanor for this kind of film. He easily can move from being the hero to being a brooding crewmember, but you know he’ll save the day. He may even get the girl, the enchanting Suyin (Bingbing Li).

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The summer movie vault has three levels and 25 films. The top-level films get the “yea”; they pass muster and gave me a general sense of satisfaction. The middle-level films are often just a hair away from the top level. The low-level films get the nay; they are the bottom dwellers, often with nothing to recommend them. Let’s venture into Davey Jones’ locker to find those sunken films first.

The “stinker of the summer,” a dubious distinction if ever there was one, was “Life of the Party” with Melissa McCarthy. This one was so bad it made me cringe, and all attempts at trying to wring sentimental feelings fell flat. Close on its heels was “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which thrust the ultimate blasphemy upon us all – a character supposed to be the young Han Solo who clearly was not. We already got the young Han Solo in the original “Star Wars: A New Hope;” we know Han Solo burst fully grown out of the head of George Lucas in 1974 – a year after Harrison Ford was in “American Graffiti.” No more young Solo stories.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” wound up on the bottom, too – though it could have been in the middle layer. I put it on the bottom because of the ominous turn the story took. The point of keeping the dinos on Isla Nublar was to keep them sequestered from the featherless bipeds, as Aristotle called us mortal humans. Whenever there was a problem with the theme park, and there were enough problems to foster several films, the dinos would roam free on the island.

But “Fallen Kingdom” brought the dinos back to the good old U.S.A., and saw them released at the end. There are two ways this idea could end, and neither is good for us humans. Not to worry for the film franchise, though. That end we just discussed could cover at least three more films and earn the franchise a lot more $$.

Next is “Uncle Drew.” I seriously tried to like this film, even with the present and past NBA and WNBA stars playing, but upon reflection, it’s just a rehash of a lot of stuff we’ve all seen before in films about teams that face great adversity, go through some major letdowns, and then rise to the top. That’s pretty much the storyline of all the major sports films ever made.

At the time I might have been a little more positive, but “The First Purge” as a title is better left as a way of explaining that feeling you get when as a teen or young adult you have imbibed more than your system can handle, and you spend the next several hours wrapped around the toilet throwing up offerings to the toilet god. So just forget it and move on.

Of our last two from the stinko files, “Hotel Transylvania 3” and “Skyscraper,” only one is surprising. While the kiddies might have liked “Hotel,” for an adult, what a load of crap! The jokes weren’t funny, and the story was strained. With “Skyscraper,” and I write this in hushed tones, has the Rock fallen from Mt. Olympus? As I write this, is he falling headlong from the skyscraper, even after he jumped from a crane onto a floor filled with broken glass? And with a prosthetic leg to boot? While “Skyscraper” was much more entertaining than that animated hooey, its credulity was beyond strained.

For the middle-of-the-roaders, I’m thinking the one that rises to the top, almost breaking into the top tier, is “Christopher Robin,” a sweet and heartfelt film that has such an abrupt change in narrative gaze that it shakes the film to its core, but might manage to stay afloat nonetheless. That would be your call, dear viewer.

Other films that almost made it are “Adrift,” which has a major shift in narrative too; “Ant-Man and the Wasp”; “Equalizer 2”; “TAG”; “Ready Player One,” notable because it’s Spielberg’s take on virtual reality; “The Spy Who Dumped Me; “Eighth Grade,” a film that defines the awkwardness of 12- and 13- year-olds; and “Book Club,” which defines the awkwardness of 60- and 70-year-olds.

For purely entertainment reasons, both “The Meg” and “Sicario” are high on the list of the middle tier. “The Meg” is a good man vs. shark movie, even if the shark is between 70 or 80 feet and basically prehistoric, and “Sicario” is another look at how our law enforcement handles the hard-to-define cases, using a shadow organization within the government. Besides, it’s fun to watch Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin work the room. They’re good together.

I had the chance to see a few independent films this summer, which I seek out as a way to balance the traditional “summer” fare. The two I’ve seen, plus the Bo Burnham film “Eighth Grade,” provided me with some good anti-Marvel Universe moments this summer. Fred Rogers came alive this summer in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” his startling ideas about how adults can, and should, speak to children resonating throughout the film.

Then I saw “Pope Francis, A Man of His Word,” and learned a lot about the Holy Father that I did not know, plus, I had a chance to see how he manages the issues he faces, particularly global poverty. With the current crisis growing in the church from the grand jury report throughout Pennsylvania about priest sexual abuse, everyone is going to be looking to hear what comes from the pope about the bishops who allowed predator priests to keep living and working near children. If nothing comes from the Holy See, look for more fireworks.

“Ocean’s 8” was pretty good, a worthy successor to the other “Ocean” movies. That one makes the short list of top films. So, too, does “BlacKkKlansman,” for the reasons mentioned above. Plus, the scariness of the homegrown terrorism that the Klan represents is tangible. Good film. See it with friends so you can discuss it afterward.

Two Marvel Universe films made the cut for top tier films this summer, so “Deadpool 2” and “Avengers: Infinity War” deserve some mention. You can’t go wrong with “Deadpool,” and Ryan Reynolds has cornered the market on the wiseguy stuff. The film was solidly told, and the storyline smart.

For the “Avengers,” there’s a lot to process in this one, and if you can follow each group’s little slice of the narrative’s pie, and can understand the long reach of each infinity stone, maybe the film will mean something to you. Basically, as I see it, there are two levels of meaning. Understanding what each infinity stone gives the Titan who is wearing it is one level, and the basic level of what the “Avengers: Infinity War” movie tells us in the narrative is the other.

You’d have to have followed all the Marvel Universe movies whenever they mentioned “infinity stones” to come up with the former level of meanings. You’d have to just sit and watch “Infinity War” to come up with the other. I guess you can pay your money and take your choice.

This brings us to the “CineScene” top movie of the summer – and truthfully, this one had it all. Double crosses, triple crosses, shootouts, car chases, helicopter chases, lots of running. And even some lovin’. We’re talking “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” While it wasn’t as profound as other top films in past summers, the sheer rollicking nature of the film, the disguises and deceptions, the fights, all were solid and provided exquisite summer entertainment. If you want an example of a film that’s a paradigm of what a summer film should be, “Fallout” is it.

And just like that, it’s Labor Day weekend. I hope you enjoyed our bi-weekly discussions of some interesting films. We may not always be in agreement on what we’ve seen, but at least we can agree to like films. I hope to give you the benefit of my imperfect knowledge of cinema in next summer’s CineScene.

Keep watching movies.

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