By Lynn Venhaus
In the grand tradition of summer blockbusters, the action-packed sci-fi thriller “The Tomorrow War” arrives in the new world on the home screen – Amazon Prime, to be exact.

While these kinds of digital visual effects and high-octane combat sequences are best-suited for a large screen — remember “Independence Day” on the holiday weekend in 1996? – this ‘90s-throwback film will be a crowd-pleaser with the charming everyman Chris Pratt leading the way.

It’s Christmastime 2022, and during a televised world soccer game, a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 with an urgent message: Thirty years in the future mankind is losing a global war against deadly alien invaders. To save the human race, soldiers and civilians in present time are drafted to be transported to the future for seven-day duty.

Joining the fight are Pratt as family man and high school teacher Dan Forester, who teams up with a brilliant scientist from Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski) and other draftees to save the world and rewrite the fate of the past.

Pratt is naturally in his wheelhouse – a veteran soldier, now a loving husband and father and high school biology teacher, whose leadership skills bolster the impossible fight against these relentless “white spikes.”

The vicious teeth-and-tentacles enemies are swift beasts, designed like a multi-limbed puma/wild dog hybrid with reptile features, not unlike prehistoric creatures. Visually, they are disgusting, and when harmed, burst with icky goo oozing out. They aren’t all that original looking, and neither are the video-game effects.

Most of the ordinary humans are helpless against these hulking packs, who are everywhere. But not Pratt, the scientific military minds in the field – and his ragtag assortment of supporting characters.

The group he is attached to in training camp turns out to have interesting backstories and personalities to make their bond strong. Actors Sam Richardson, terrific as talkative Charlie, Edwin Hodge (Aldis’ brother) as tough but glum Dorian and sarcastic, anxious Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) become fierce fighters.

Ever-reliable Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, as Dan’s estranged father and a rogue techie, joins the group on a perilous mission – but that’s another subplot.

There are several plotlines going on – with significant twists – to keep the story humming, even if it resembles other sci-fi dystopian thrillers with similar villains. And despite the multiple threads, there is surprising emotional depth in a few characters.

Screenwriter Zach Dean, who wrote one of my favorite under-the-radar atypical thrillers called “Deadfall” in 2012, has mixed the explosions with a sturdier story, no matter how generic it looks.

Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski

However, it is still time travel, which always makes my head hurt, so it’s best not to think too hard about the back-and-forth jumping. When it gets too crazy in regular logic, just enjoy the performances.

Pratt, after starring in “Jurassic World” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” embodies both the brawny action hero dedicated to saving lives and the likable guy-next-door committed to his wife and daughter. He is more serious here than jaunty, but capable of shouldering the dilemmas.

Betty Gilpin portrays his wife with a furrowed brow, and the exceptional Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who played young Gloria Steinem in “The Glorias” and is in the new “Black Widow,” is impressive as daddy’s girl Muri, a whip-smart 8-year-old.

The women integral to the mission stand out — Yvonne Strahovski, Emmy nominee for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is compelling as the brainy scientist racing against time, and Justine Matthews is forceful as officer-in-charge Lt. Hart.

Director Chris McKay, Emmy winner for “Robot Chicken” who helmed the delightful “The Lego Batman Movie,” confidently makes his live-action debut. He may seem an unlikely choice for such a big visual-effect extravaganza, but he has smoothly guided the action – and not at the sacrifice of story.

Composer Lorne Balfe, who has scored the recent “Mission Impossible” films and has specialized in tentpole action films, provides the requisite bombast.

While the film doesn’t stray from the usual archetype of doomsday adventures, there is a noticeable oomph that is unexpected. Sure, the movie checks all the boxes in the successful blockbuster formula but is unique enough to be worth a look during these pandemic times.

That certainly helps because it is a 2 hour and 20-minute commitment. But the cast is what elevates it beyond the same-old, same-old.

Jasmine Matthews

“The Tomorrow War” is an action sci-fi thriller directed by Chris McKay and stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge and Ryan Kiera Armstrong.
Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references/action/language/intense sci-fi violence, the run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime starting July 2. Lynn’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Director Steve McQueen’s “Red, White and Blue,” the third installment of “Small Axe,” provides a heartbreaking look at racism within policing, and a thought-provoking, brilliantly acted character study.

“Red, White and Blue” depicts the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a forensic scientist living in London during the early 1980s with his West Indian family. Yearning to more directly impact the community he resides in, Leroy considers joining the local police force. After his father, Kenneth (Steve Touissant), is beaten by a couple of officers seemingly at random, Leroy’s motivation to become involved heightens, despite Kenneth’s fierce objection.

While Leroy understands the difficulties that this career choice entails, he believes, somewhat idealistically, that he can shift attitudes and mindsets from within it, helping to combat the flaws pervading policing. Although Leroy receives support from his loving wife, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), and family friend Jesse (Nadine Marshall), who works as a liaison for the Met, he soon finds himself ostracized by his own community and encounters challenges that leave him scarred and exhausted, yet ever aware that major systemic change must occur.

Featuring an absolutely incredible lead performance, and a story that viscerally showcases the difficulty of fighting a system much larger than any single person, “Red, White and Blue” is a sobering exploration of injustice and family bonds, providing some of the most powerful moments of the entire “Small Axe” series.

Similar to “Mangrove,” McQueen spends ample time establishing who Leroy is as a person and detailing his relationships with friends and family members, particularly his father. Leroy is an admirable, strong-willed individual with a warm heart and diligent work ethic, who’s determined to make a noticeable impact in the police force. He puts in his all, even outperforming a number of his peers in police training. Boyega is an endearing presence throughout the film, portraying Leroy’s skepticism and self-doubt later on with heartbreaking impact. 

Indeed, “Red, White and Blue” grows increasingly grim as it goes on, as Leroy’s own end goals seemingly slip away from him. The film frequently slows down to focus on Boyega’s reactions and Leroy’s self-reflection. As Leroy looks at himself in the mirror, for example, dressed up in uniform, we understand the inner conflict he feels, and appreciate the threats and dangers he faces in this line of work. With only one other person of color on the force with him, Leroy feels adrift and alienated practically wherever he goes, lacking figurative reinforcements to help him achieve his vision.  

Although he receives some aforementioned support from family members, Kenneth adamantly opposes Leroy’s decision to become a police officer — believing that Leroy is squandering his education to become involved in an organization pervaded by prejudice, putting his own and his family’s way of life at risk. In fact, this father-son relationship remains the film’s emotional core, providing two valid yet conflicting mentalities that provide much food for thought.

 Finding a balance between Leroy and Kenneth’s views is quite challenging — a balance between comfort and risk, between change and maintaining the status quo. McQueen depicts them both as weathered, wise individuals eventually sharing an understanding that they exist in a world where change is often slight and difficult to achieve, yet always worth fighting for, even if it means starting from scratch. As a result, “Red, White and Blue” lacks clear resolution or a sense of catharsis, ending on a note of meditative reflection that resonates with me long after the credits rolled. 

Despite the film’s intensity, however, there’s still much to relish in “Red, White and Blue,” just like the other “Small Axe” entries. McQueen’s attention to period detail is on full display, with a soundtrack featuring Al Green songs that infuses the proceedings with added emotional and symbolic weight.

The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner is outstanding, once again, containing numerous shots — especially during an atmospheric, nail-biting sequence where Leroy tracks down a criminal on his own — that have etched themselves into my psyche.

Even though I wish McQueen would have shown more of Leroy’s life story, such as his founding of the Black Police Association, the power of “Red, White and Blue” is undeniable. This is yet another fantastic entry in McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, tragic yet essential viewing. Although little has seemingly changed regarding policing between then and now, the film remains a testament to bravery, heroism, and perseverance to confront social issues that remain sadly relevant today.

“Red, White and Blue” is part of the “Small Axe” anthology, directed by Steve McQueen, that is a part of a TV mini-series on Amazon Prime. The drama’s run time is 1 hour, 20 minutes. Alex’s Rating: A

By Alex McPherson

“Mangrove,” the first installment of director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series, is harrowing, inspirational, and relevant to our modern social climate.

McQueen’s film focuses on the events leading up to and including the 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine in London. Entrepreneur and Trinidaddian immigrant Frank Crichlow (portrayed by Shaun Parkes with emotional nuance) opens a business in Notting Hill called the Mangrove, intent on providing good food and better vibes without attracting unwanted attention. The restaurant soon becomes a popular community hub, especially for West Indian individuals.

Unfortunately, the local Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) harasses both Crichlow and other people of color with malevolent glee — ordering several destructive raids on the Mangrove in the process. Played with blood-boiling effectiveness by Spruell, PC Pulley firmly believes in the subordination of Black people, attacking a location where many find comfort and respite.

 Before long, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (powerfully portrayed by Letitia Wright), a founder of the British Black Panther Movement, as well as activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), help persuade Crichlow to protest against police brutality at the Mangrove. Their attempted peaceful demonstration is turned violent by the police. Facing serious charges, the film then becomes an intense, nail-biting courtroom drama, as the Mangrove Nine confront injustice and police brutality in the face of monumental obstacles and risks to their personal safety. 

“Mangrove” is visceral, empathetic, and deeply moving — showcasing the fraught yet essential nature of activism within a systemically oppressive world. The film also remains both empowering and sobering in light of the continued fight for social justice in 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, the film captures a wide emotional spectrum — joy, hatred, anguish, defiance, hope, and perseverance — and depicts a story of determined individuals ever-so-slightly chipping away at the institutional racism that has dominated human society for so long and continues to do so. 

“Mangrove” contains numerous upsetting, sobering moments, but McQueen’s film doesn’t exploit its subjects for dramatic purposes. Rather, McQueen sets the scene perfectly — helping us understand what’s at stake, appreciate the challenges faced by the Mangrove Nine, and understand the comforting essence of the Mangrove itself through immersive filmmaking techniques and lived-in characterizations. 

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner isn’t afraid to linger on images (a kitchen pan rolling back and forth along the floor after a raid; a silhouette of Altheia giving an impassioned speech with her fist raised) to lend them additional impact. Similarly, the script doesn’t brush over the characters’ contradictions and inner struggles — spotlighting Frank, Aletheia, Barbara, and Darcus for the heroes they are without rendering them one-dimensional.  

Crichlow, for example, is trying to start fresh after previous run-ins with the police at his former establishment. He is weathered and fatigued, extremely reluctant to fill the activist role he’s pressured to adopt. His mindset contrasts with Aletheia’s, who stands firm in her efforts to protest and to not surrender to larger forces. This leads to several fascinating, suspenseful interactions as the film progresses, as Crichlow weighs the benefits of giving in against the symbolic weight of the Trial for British society at large.

When the film reaches the courtroom — represented as a foreboding, larger-than-life presence — “Mangrove” doesn’t feel as manipulative or crowd-pleasing as something like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” There’s no White Savior here, thank god, only intelligent, brave individuals confronting the very real forces of evil seeking to silence them. 

A couple of defendants — Altheia and Darcus — actually served as their own counsel in the proceedings, subverting the system to make stark condemnations of it and refusing to let others control their fate. Darcus in particular, portrayed with fervor by Kirby, gives a nuanced, impassioned speech that speaks to humanity’s long past of prejudice and the need to overcome it today. 

By its conclusion, McQueen encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how much we haven’t progressed, in terms of social justice. Even though efforts might seem fruitless, “Mangrove” reasserts that the fight must continue.

“Mangrove” is part of director Steve McQueen’s television mini-series, “Small Axe,” on Amazon Prime. Alex’s Rating: A+

By Lynn Venhaus

Teen politics take on a more sinister edge in “Selah and the Spades,” especially when the stakes are high at a prestigious prep school.

Five factions rule an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), 17, is the head cheerleader and golden girl who runs the dominant group, The Spades, supplying drugs and alcohol to the students. In an effort to maintain control when tensions escalate between the cliques, Selah takes on a protégé, photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), who is a sophomore and turns out to be a quick study.

So can Selah hold on to her power, even when she has a falling out with her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome)? Senior year proves to be intense, frustrating and not definitive at all. And these kids, in a different league, seems to operate as mob families.

First-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe uses a stylized, polished approach to present a heightened reality, and it is rather frightening how ugly everyone is on the inside while being consumed by outward appearances. And if this is the way the modern high school social cliques scene is, be afraid, be very afraid.

No matter what the status is, rich or poor, why do most high school kids feel they have to be somebody else and not themselves?

Poe has some good points here, but it’s mostly posturing. Most of the action is depicted after-school and underground, rarely any classroom time. The administration just seems to shake its heads at the antics and not have a grasp at all. Most of the kids are snooty mean girls and boys, so who do we root for? The poor, shy kid on scholarship who doesn’t realize her power, but when she does, it’s intoxicating?

That would be newcomer Paloma, and Celeste O’Connor is indeed a breakout here. As the lead girl, Lovie Simone impresses but Selah is too cold and calculating to elicit any feel-sorry emotions from the audience, let alone identify. She is obsessed with maintaining control and spends much of her energy trying to keep her power.

The power struggles aren’t all that interesting (and the head “Bobby” will get on your last nerve). The amount of drugs casually consumed is rather alarming too. But before I start sounding like a crabby old woman who didn’t hang out with the cool kids at the malt shop, this movie is hard to warm up to, let along relate. Its connection to reality is limited – OK, maybe the depiction of high school is legitimate but doesn’t ring true, or I could be incredibly naïve.

However, you do want something good to happen, especially with Jharrel Jerome as the best friend. Jerome, Emmy winner for his performance in “When They See Us,” a Netflix mini-series on the Central Park Five case, is an outstanding performer, destined for good work. He played Kevin as a teenager in “Moonlight” and is a terrific presence here.

For as much as this movie is about growing up, Selah never really grows and the ending is a muddled mess (and way too dark). This movie premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, so it has sat awhile. Yet, the director was tagged as someone to watch. She does show promise, as does the cast, but it never does rise to that special level people would be expecting and it could have achieved.

And that is very much like high school.

“Selah and the Spades” is a drama written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, starring Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome and Celeste O’Connor. It’s rated R for teen drug content and language. Run-time is 1 hr. 37 min. Lynn’s Grade: C+