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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Monthly Archives: June 2016

Schindler’s List (1993)

Not everything’s in black and white. Except for, well, this movie.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German industrialist and Nazi party member, who came to Krakow in 1939 and capitalize on everything that was happening in this area at that time. Schindler is already a rich man, but he sees a way to get richer, so he decides to use various Jews who are being pushed from one ghetto to another, to his good use. Not only does he employ them for the easiest tasks, but he’s making all sorts of money off of it, too. With the help of Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), Schindler is basically able to keep going with this form of slave labor. However, what makes Schindler less terrible than he sounds, is the fact that these workers are called “essential”, meaning that they stop in the factories, and away from the gas-chambers. While Schindler doesn’t care too much about this at first, eventually, once he begins to see all of the pain and cruelty the Nazis are making the Jews suffer through, he decides to wage a small war of sorts, trying to get every single Jew he can find into his factories, so that they don’t have to die. Sometimes, it works. Other times, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Yes, people: Liam Neeson did act before Taken!

Yes, people: Liam Neeson did act before Taken!

It’s difficult to do a review on Schindler’s List because, well, what else is there to say about it? By this point, it’s basically like reviewing water – “Yeah, it’s pretty good and all, right guys?” Some people obviously don’t like it, but others still and to this very day, love it with all of their hearts. Is there any problem with that? Absolutely not, as it’s one of the very rare movies that, no matter how many times you see it, still is able to conjure up feelings of anger and rage that only grow stronger as the movie goes on and on.

Then again, why you’d want to watch this movie more than once is totally up in the air!

Regardless, what Schindler’s List proved back in the day, and especially now, was that Steven Spielberg wasn’t afraid to get as heavy and as dark as he possibly could. Sure, the Color Purple showed some people the truly messed-up and scary feelings he was battling deep down inside of his soul, but if anything, Schindler’s List releases them on full-blast. No man, woman, or child is safe from Spielberg here and that’s how it should be when doing a movie on the Holocaust; there’s no bright, shining sun here, it’s all sadness, almost all of the sadness.

But like I said, it needed to be, in order to get what it’s trying to say, which is basically as simple as can be: The Holocaust was a terrible time for our world. While this may not be any groundbreaking news to anyone out there who has ever picked up a book or a newspaper, still though, Spielberg really does make you feel the chaos and wretchedness of the Holocaust, without ever pulling back. One sequence in particular is when the Jews are all moved from their ghettos, to the camps, and while you assume that the sequence is over once all of the Jews are in the camps, all safe, warm, and cozy, surprisingly, it isn’t. It continues to go on, while showing more and more Jews who tried to stay behind and hide in their homes, all get caught, gunned-down and treated awfully, even if they were trying something incredibly admirable.

This is all to drive home the fact that, yes, the Holocaust was horrible. Spielberg’s camera constantly focuses in on everything happening, without ever making it seem like we’re watching a movie of his, or a movie in general, and more or less, a viewpoint from someone who was actually there. This makes the movie all the more terrifying and also give you that feeling of suffocation that, no matter where you go, you cannot hide from the Nazis.

They love it that way, too.

Spielberg is smartest when he tones himself down and here, he totally does. The cheesy, overly sentimental moments, at least for the longest time, are all turned down so that Spielberg himself can just focus on the story, these characters, and most of all, this setting. It would have been very easy for Spielberg to pass judgment on each and every Nazi here, but believe it or not, he actually just shows everything for what it is; people get killed for stupid reasons, Nazis act out in vicious, inhumane-like ways, and human rights are violated every way from Tuesday, and yet, no judgement from Spielberg. He shows everything as it is, just as it would have been back in the day, which makes the movie all the more disturbing.

But Spielberg doesn’t just wallow in the sadness – in fact, he does feature a story here and a pretty compelling one at that.

He's just English enough to be classified as "German".

He’s just English enough to be classified as “German”.

What’s perhaps so interesting about Oskar Schindler and his story here is that we never get a full grip on just who he is, what he cares about, what he believes in, or exactly why it is that he’s doing all that he does here. Sure, he definitely wants to profit off of the helpless Jews and he also wants to have a whole lot more power to his name, but does he really care about all of this so much? The movie never makes a clear decision on what it is that Schindler is all about, and that’s perfectly fine; Schindler is as much of a mysterious to us, as he is to those around him. We watch him interact with Jews and Nazis alike, acting and speaking in two, entirely different manners; with the former, he’s soft and caring, whereas with the latter, he’s respectful, but also tricky and figuring out any way he can con these men into giving him what it is that he needs, or better yet, wants.

In fact, after watching Schindler’s List for the, ahem, second time, I’ve come to the conclusion that Oskar Schindler wasn’t entirely a good person and that’s alright – in fact, he’d probably prefer it as such. What’s so great about Liam Neeson’s performance is that while he always appear to be the hero in the story, the things that he does and says don’t always show this; sure, he was trying to save Jews from being wrongfully killed, but at the same time, didn’t he just want to make a quick buck without having to pay anyone else for it? Neeson makes us constantly think that the man is some sort of later-day saint, without ever fully converting and showing off his good features, and allowing for us to be confused by just who, or what kind of man this guy was?

The questions remain long after the movie, but still, they’re worth bringing up.

It’s also worth bringing up that Spielberg allows and dedicates some time to the Nazis and, incredibly, allows for them to be fleshed-out as much as they can possibly be fleshed-out. What Spielberg is trying to show with these Nazi’s, is that even though they’re going around, killing Jews because of silly orders they were given, sometimes, they don’t always like to do that; most of the time, they’re just bored, teen-like guys who need to blow-off some steam and don’t really have any other way that doesn’t involve shooting people for no reason.

Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Amon Goeth shows us exactly what it is that we need to know about these Nazis. While he himself is a terrible excuse for a man, the movie also shows that there is some breath of humanity in him that, despite never coming out, does exist. Fiennes is startling in this role; being both scary, twisted and naive, all at the same time, but never overdoing any of it. He could have definitely been an over-the-top, wacky and wild Nazi villain, but he plays it at just the right level to where we definitely hate him, but also realize that he’s a human being and unfortunately, he has way too much power and time on his hands.

Then again, same could be said for Hitler.

Consensus: Smart, provocative, well-acted daring, disturbing, and downright emotional, Schindler’s List is the high-mark in Spielberg’s career, and with very good reason.

9.5 / 10

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The Color Purple (1985)

Men are always bringing women down. Doesn’t matter the race.

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) has had a pretty rough life. At a very early age, she was impregnated not once, but twice by her daddy and rather than getting the chance to raise the spawn of his seed, they were taken away from her and sold to a family that was willing to pay a healthy price for the children. And honestly, Celie couldn’t do anything about it. After all, she was an African-American woman living in the South, during the early-1900’s, where not only did black people of every kind face all sorts of harsh treatment and inequality throughout society, but most of all, women especially. But the pain and torture for Celie doesn’t stop there; eventually, she gets married off to the wealthy, but equally as abusive “Mister” Albert Johnson (Danny Glover). While she’s given a spacious place to live in and a few stepchildren to care for, mostly, Celie’s time spent here is filled with utter torment, and Albert is not only a mean person, but one that does not care about making it known about his extramarital affairs – something that would absolutely upset Celie, however, she’s just too numb to feel anything. The only glimmer of hope in Celie’s life is the idea that one day, possibly, she will be reunited with her sister, who is apparently out and about in Africa, learning all that there is to learn of the native land.

Cheer up, Celie. At least your sissy may still be alive, right?

Cheer up, Celie. At least your sissy may still be alive, right?

Steven Spielberg, in hindsight, may have been an odd choice for this sometimes cruel source material. Considering that he isn’t a man of color, but also, at this point in his career, wasn’t always known for his deep, dark and disturbing dramas. If anything, he was most known for the summer blockbusters he churned out to both critical, as well as commercial acclaim. Nowadays, we know and can usually depend on Spielberg for these kinds of dark dramas, but in 1985, it was a hard idea to fathom that Spielberg would take source material as coveted and as regarded as this.

But still, Spielberg being Spielberg, he makes it his own.

The Color Purple is, by all means, a very disturbing flick. Right from the very beginning, when we find out that Celie’s father has been raping her, impregnating her, and giving her children away for money, it’s a huge shock. Most movies/stories would have that be its final twist at the tail-end, when people aren’t ready or expecting hard, messed-up truths like that to come out. But nope, Spielberg allows for the movie to get as grim as can humanly be, right off the bat; it’s not just a shocker, but a smart move, as it allows for the rest of the film to play out as terribly disgusting and inhumane as can be.

But it’s all worth it, as odd as that sounds. Spielberg isn’t just allowing for Celie’s story to play out, one scene after another, in which she is assaulted in every sorts of way imaginable. Sure, you could definitely pin-point the movie as being all of that, but honestly, it doesn’t feel like that. The movie moves at a steady pace where we’re able to be horrified by the atrocities, but also get an understanding of who these people are involved with said atrocities; in fact, that actually helps the movie a whole lot more as we learn to care extra for Celie and those around her who may be on the receiving, or giving end of certain assaults and whatnot.

It may not sound like much, but it goes a long way to help us grow more immersed with these character’s lives and the world around them.

And because of that, the Color Purple can sometimes be a rough movie to sit through. In a way, you almost wish that Spielberg himself would look away, or take a moment to pause from all of the brutality and instead, move the plot forward, but all of the rough and nasty edges are what sort of make this story all the more heartfelt. Had Celie, as well as those around her, had been assaulted once or twice throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hours, the movie wouldn’t have as much of an emotional impact. But because Celie and all of the other women are treated so awfully, basically throughout, it makes a whole lick of difference and makes us feel like their situation is way worse than we could have imagined.

Those eyes, though.

That look, though.

Though Spielberg is one for sentimentality (like he shows in the last-act), he still doesn’t forget about the mean realities in life that plague our society. That’s why, for all of the silly choices Spielberg makes – like, for instance, allowing for a score to play just about throughout the whole run-time in a rather obnoxious manner – he still gets the meat and the crux of the story right. This is a story about women – black women, in particular. And they aren’t growing up in any certain time like today – it’s the South and it’s the early-1900’s.

The times weren’t pretty and they don’t deserve to be seen as such.

And as Celie, Whoopi Goldberg is quite great. There’s a lot of staring and crying that she has to do, which may make it appear like she doesn’t have a whole lot of range, but what Goldberg is doing so well, is that she’s bottling everything about Celie up that, once we get to a certain point, we see that she’s about to ready to explode. And yes, when she does in fact, explode, it’s a great scene and reminds us all why Goldberg, her View-shenanigans aside, is a great actress and is more than willing of that Oscar she achieved some sixteen years ago (yes, I know it was for Ghost, but you can almost think of it as an “apology Oscar” from the Academy for not giving it to her here).

But it’s not just Goldberg who is great here. Playing the strong-willed and sassy Sofia, Oprah Winfrey reminds us that she’s a great actress too, showing us a funny and honest character who, despite always having something to say, may also be her own worst enemy and is almost deserving of her own movie entirely; Danny Glover is downright terrifying and vile as Albert, but rightfully so, and in some brief instances, we do get to see a certain level of humanity, making us see this man for what he is: A human; and as the lively and sexy Shug Avery, Margaret Avery shows us the more positive sides to being a black women living at this time and also awakens something of a sexual desire within Celie that brings out the best in both of them.

And thankfully, the women here all got Oscar nominations. Though, of course, they didn’t win.

Big surprise, right?

Consensus: Though it isn’t without the occasional misstep and Spielberg indulgence, the Color Purple is still a hard-hitting, effective and surprisingly emotional tale of racism, bigotry and violence that’s as disturbing as it should be.

8.5 / 10

Do it, Celie! What you've got to lose!

Do it, Celie! What you’ve got to lose!

Photos Courtesy of: Blu-Ray, Cinematic Fanatic

Finding Dory (2016)

Stop getting lost, you damn fish!

Nearly one year after finding Nemo and returning him home safely, Dory (Ellen DeGeneras) and Marlon (Albert Brooks) have figured out a way to stay close to one another, where they can always be there for each other, just in case something goes awry again. And because of Dory’s short-term memory-loss, this means a whole lot, what with her always wandering off, never having a clue of where she’s at, or even what she’s doing. At first, it’s just small things that Dory gets mixed up with, but one day, she somehow gets lost in the ocean, leading her to some sort of aquarium where she encounters all sorts of lovely and colorful characters of the sea. But while Dory’s there, she begins to remember that she accidentally left home when she was young and is now just remembering that her parents may be looking for her. So Dory does whatever she can to find her parents, while seeming to forget everything that’s happening and relying on the help and kindness of former friends she knew when she was younger, as well as a new pal, the crabby octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill).

You da man.

You da man.

I hate to say it, but I wasn’t expecting much from Finding Dory. Say what you will about the original and how good it is, but compared to a lot of other Pixar flicks, it’s probably the weakest of “the very best” (which may sound silly and like a non-complaint, but does mean something when you compare almost all of the Pixar movies side-by-side), and not to mention that a movie that literally substitutes “Nemo”, for “Dory” and features, yet again, a lost fish in need of being found and saved, already sounds boring, unoriginal, and most of all, unneeded. If anything, I was expecting another Cars 2.

Which is why I can say that I’ve come out Finding Dory more than pleased to announce that it’s way better than I expected and yes, another home-run for Pixar.

In fact, it may be better than Finding Nemo.

I know, shocking, right? Well, the reason why Dory works a little better than Nemo is because the groundwork has already been laid-out and it would have been easy for everyone involved here to just rehash the same story again, without any bit of excitement or freshness added to the proceedings. But somehow, Finding Dory finds neat, creative and interesting avenues, peaks and valleys to tell its story, without ever seeming like its hitting the same beats the original did – even if, yes, it totally is. Where as any other sequel would have just done the typical thing that most sequels do to popular flicks (more of everything that made the original so charming), Dory changes certain things up; it not only introduces new characters that absolutely rival the lovely ones of the first, but also adds on a new setting that goes beyond and out of the sea, but it’s a welcome change-of-pace.

And this obviously all to say that Dory‘s story is pretty damn exciting; once we get the idea that Dory loses her train-of-thought/memory about every minute or so, the movie plays out like a G-rated Memento of sorts, with her asking people certain things that may help her quest out a bit more and also, thinking long and hard about where she came from and what’s next. It’s actually pretty fun to watch and it’s absolutely difficult not to get wrapped-up in all the excitement and anticipation, watching and waiting for Dory to reach her destination. And with that destination, we’re never too sure what’s at the end for her; while every other movie of this nature that makes it abundantly clear that their adventure will turn out good and give everyone a happy ending, the way Finding Dory is structured, makes you believe that possibly, quite possibly, Dory may not reach the goal that she wants.

She may complete her journey, but she may not get what she wants and honestly, that’s the one main reason why Finding Dory moves at such a great pace, that it almost never slows up.

Mhmmm. Tuna.

Mhmmm. Tuna.

If there are times that it does, it’s only to give us more backstory on certain characters, as well as Dory’s own life. And because this is her own solo movie, Dory gets a whole lot of attention here that really works and makes us feel for her a whole lot more; while a whole movie dedicated to her character, I must admit, had me feeling as if she was going to be grating the whole time, actually works in hindsight. The movie shows us that Dory’s story is a sad one and though she is indeed a fish, you could take her story and place it in a human’s life, and it would still hit hard. Pixar movies work best when they have you relating to their inanimate characters and here, Dory hits a real sweet spot that I didn’t expect to see coming.

That said, Dory’s not the only character worthy of attention here. In fact, it’s Ed O’Neill’s Hank character that just about steals the show, making his one-dimensional grump of an octopus, actually come-off as a sweet, endearing and sympathetic figure, even when it seems like he’s acting out in pure self-interest. Of course, Albert Brooks is here as Marlon, but he’s pushed to the back of sorts, so that DeGeneras and Dory can get all of the attention and it’s fine, but honestly, I kept coming back to Hank and had that feeling that we may, sooner or later, be seeing Finding Hank sooner or later.

Hopefully sooner, than later, and not another thirteen year wait like we had with this one.

Consensus: Heartfelt, emotional, compelling and above all, exciting, Finding Dory finds a fresh new voice in this well-worn story, making it a Pixar classic and better than the first.

9 / 10

Okay, now stay with your friends, Missy.

Okay, now stay with your friends, Missy. One movie is fine, but two?!? That’s too much!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

Sometimes, the best jokes are the ones that almost kill you.

Ben (Paul Rudd) doesn’t really know where he’s going with his life, nor does he know what he wants to do with it. After tragedy that struck him and his ex-wife, he’s now left all alone. Although he was a writer, at one point in his life, he seems too depressed and sad to even bother picking up a pen and paper and jotting down a new story. That’s why, when he decides to become a licensed caregiver for the physically handicapped, it’s a huge surprise; not just to him, though, but also to the people who employ him. After taking the classes and becoming certified, Ben lands the job of taking care of Trevor (Craig Roberts), a young kid from England who happens to be suffering from muscular dystrophy. While Ben has no experience in taking care of people professionally, he eventually gets the hang of everything because he and Trevor get along. But the one issue holding them back is the fact that Trevor doesn’t seem all that interested doing anything else in his short life than just watching TV; Ben, on the other hand, believes that Trevor needs to go out and explore the world.

Cheer up, boys. You're still getting paid.

Cheer up, boys. You’re still getting paid.

The Fundamentals of Caring is perfect for Netflix. After suffering through not one, but two Adam Sandler flicks, it seems like Netflix wants to remind people that they do consider quality over popularity, and with the Fundamentals of Caring, they show that they do care for their users. They know that some people, in this time of the year, where the sun is always setting, the air is getting stickier, and the weather is getting hotter and hotter, will just want to sit inside their cool houses and escape it all by watching whatever is on Netflix that piques their interest. However, they don’t want heavy, emotionally-strong dramas, nor do they want anything that takes a lot to think about with their constant twists, turns, and moments of interest.

Sometimes, people just want to watch something that they don’t have to think about too much and just enjoy at face-value, and that’s why the Fundamentals of Caring is a perfect movie for the online streaming service. It’s the kind of movie that you can tell was your typical Sundance dramedy, where people suffer and are occasionally sad, yet also, come to terms with their sadness, say clever things, hug a lot and, at the end of it all, end up becoming closer to one another and better people than ever before. We’ve seen this kind of movie before and most of the time, it’s pretty damn annoying and boring.

However, there’s something slightly fresh about this movie’s take on that familiar plot.

Mostly, that’s due to the fact that the cast is so good and talented that no matter what they’re given, they can do wonders with. People will initially be struck surprised by how much Paul Rudd seems to be downplaying everything here as Ben, but give it some time and trust me, he becomes Paul Rudd, as we all know and love him. However, there’s something slightly different to this character than what he’s used to playing; he’s a whole lot more sad and clearly dealing with some demons, so when something is bothering him, you can tell just by looking at him. Rudd is always known for improvising, saying silly things and just generally being a likable presence, but here, he really dials it down and shows that he’s got true acting-chops.

I don’t know if anybody was ever doubting him in the first place, but if they were, here’s their proof that they can use in a court of law!

Craig Roberts is also solid as Trevor, another character that could have been grating and overbearing, but somehow, it works. Roberts has just the right level of smart and insecurity that makes his Trevor more sympathetic; sure, it’s easy to care for him because he’s suffering from such a terrible disease, but he’s also kind of a jerk, too. The movie doesn’t hold back from the fact that someone like Trevor, in his situation and all, could use it to his advantage to make the people around him feel bad for him and wait on his every word. A similar theme was explored in Still Alice, however, here, Roberts shows that there’s more to Trevor that makes him appear as just another teenager who uses mean bits of comedy as a crutch to hide his deepest, darkest insecurities.

Sex? With Selena Gomez?!? Uh oh. Someone better tell Biebs.

Sex? With Selena Gomez?!? Uh oh. Someone better tell Biebs.

Growing up, am I right?

Anyway, him and Rudd have a great chemistry that shows these two growing up beside one another, helping the other realize something about life. The movie can tend to get a tad sappy and melodramatic, but no matter how far it goes into these avenues, Rudd and Roberts always make these characters seem real and worth it – there’s a sense of raw energy between the two that makes their scenes crackle and pop with the same fire that you’d probably see in a Judd Apatow movie when there’s no script and everyone’s just rolling with whatever they can think of.

And at the end of the Fundamentals of Caring, everything happens exactly as you’d expect it to. But for some reason, that’s fine. The movie’s enjoyable and lovely enough, never being too dramatic, nor too funny either – somehow, it found just the right amount of drama and comedy to balance everything out. Some may definitely be expecting more and may also be disappointed that the movie doesn’t light the entertainment world on fire quite like everything else Netflix has done, but hey, it’s the summer.

Stop complaining. Just crank up that AC and check it out. Forget that the Do-Over may be recommended to you at the end.

Consensus: With a solid cast and a careful attention to drama and comedy, the Fundamentals of Caring works, being both a coming-of-ager, as well as an earnest look at coming to terms with one’s sadness.

7 / 10

"Here's to you, kid."

“Here’s to you, kid.”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016)

Wow. Vampires may be cool again.

Leah (Leila George) is in college and, not surprisingly, a lot is happening to her – some good, as well as some bad, although it may not originally appear as that. After much training and working, Leah finally gets the lead in her school’s take on Macbeth, alongside a fellow acting enthusiast Pearl (Emily Meade). The two are cast in the lead roles by their director (James Franco), who not only sees it as a ballsy move on his part, but a revolutionary one, as well. Leah and Pearl, while initially awkward and not quite sure of how to approach one another turn out to, surprisingly, fall in love. Leah is ecstatic about this new point in her life, as well as is Pearl, however, the later’s holding a little secret to herself that may make, or break the relationship in one fell swoop: She’s a vampire. And yes, in order for Pearl to live, she has to suck on human’s blood – something that she feels Leah won’t be down with and, well, how could you blame her? It’s only a matter of time though before Pearl tells Leah just what’s up with her and they can figure out just where to go from there, if anywhere at all.

"Not enough blood do you think?"

“Not enough blood do you think?”

Lifetime is surprisingly getting better and better as we speak. While they’ve been on the butt-end of every bad joke for the past two decades or so, in the past few years, they’ve actually shown themselves to be quite able of producing quality material. Sure, their other TV shows that aren’t UnReal don’t really do much, but the fact that it has a show as good as UnReal on in the first place, ought to tell you something. And heck, even their movies, although sometimes way too silly for their own good, are still okay enough to surprise even someone like me.

That said, does that make them invincible? Nope, not really. That’s why a movie like Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, while obviously trying to piggy-back off of the odd success of last year’s fun A Deadly Adoption, still earns points because it’s better than what you’d expect from a network such as Lifetime. After all, it appears like the movies they produce are mostly just done because they’re fun, over-the-top, and slightly serious flicks that only got off the ground in the first place because A-list actors and talent wanted to do something exciting with their off-time.

And with James Franco, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? gets a lot of help from the fact that it’s a bit schlocky and silly, yet, at the same time, better than you’d expect.

It can definitely be silly whenever it wants to; the fact that it never stops bringing up various points about vampire movies and the way they use their sex to express themes about humanity, while all appearing in a movie where vampires exist and use sex to express something about who they are, is never hidden. But that’s okay. The movie never tries to be all too serious to the point of where people watching it will miss the point of what it’s trying to do, nor does it ever get so crazy that you forget it has any sort of story, or message in the first place.

It’s just another Lifetime, after-school special that just so happens to be “okay”.

Obviously, it’s hard to expect this out of every Lifetime movie made from here on out, but what’s so interesting about this flick is that it does try to do something neat with its characters and its cooky plot. While you can definitely take the idea that these outcasts are in fact “vampires”, you could also look at it in another way, in how the movie tries to represent that as homosexuality; something that nobody really comes out in this movie and deems as “bad”, but some people don’t feel comfortable with, even despite the fact that this is the year 2016.

Someone needs to teach these millennials a thing or two about Gen-X.

Someone needs to teach these millennials a thing or two about Gen-X.

Case in point, Tori Spelling’s Julie, the mother of Leah, who obviously has a hard time coping with the new information that her daughter may, shockingly, be a lesbian. Her character isn’t against the reality, but doesn’t seem to expect it, or if anything, understand it. She’s an old-fashioned mother who should have probably been played by Dianne Wiest or Diane Keaton, and not a much younger Spelling, but hey, it brings up some interesting ideas nonetheless. The odd thing about Spelling is that she’s perfect for this role, however, for a much different, far more wild movie; she’s constantly showing up and camping it up, when everyone else seems to be playing it straight-laced and serious. While you could chalk this up to be her just being a bad actress, honestly, I feel as if she’s okay when given something to work with (the House of Yes), which means that her work here shouldn’t be taken as a negative – just as something that doesn’t work here, but would totally work in something else.

Like, I don’t know, say the original flick.

Anyway, the rest of the cast from Spelling is fine, too. Leila George is bright and spunky as Leah, a young woman who seems to be making that transition into adulthood, where she starts to learn a bit more about herself, as well as what she wants, as time goes by in this confusing, but ultimately beneficial time; Emily Meade has impressed me in the past and here, she does a good job as Pearl, someone we’re never too sure of, which works for her character; and James Franco, despite making it out to appear as if he’s in the thing the whole time, he actually only shows up every so often, looking as smug and as delighted as can be with whatever is going on here and honestly, that’s all we need from Franco, right?

Especially in something that’s made-for-TV and, above all, on Lifetime.

Consensus: Though it constantly battles itself between whether it wants to be serious at all, or just wacky and wild, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? still works because it’s entertaining and way better than you’d ever expect a Lifetime movie to ever be,e specially given the plot-synopsis.

6 / 10

Same-sex vampires? Not on our televisions!

Same-sex vampires? Not on our televisions!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Free States of Jones (2016)

Turns out, most racists don’t enjoy being on the end-side of a gun.

In 1863, Mississippi farmer Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) served as a medic for the Confederate Army, where he treated and helped all sorts of soldiers who were either severely injured, slowly dying, or dead on arrival. Either way, it was terrible for Newt to be around and it made him see some unimaginable things that no man should ever have to see. And once his nephew dies in battle, Newt decides that he’s had it with the war and returns home to Jones County, his hometown. There, he safeguards his family, but therefore, is branded a deserter and chased by all army officials who are either looking to steal citizens goods and crops, or just looking to capture Newt and whoever else may be ducking the war. So now Newt has to run for the swamps and in there, he finds a fellow band of slaves, also trying to hide out and be free from the slavers, leading both Newt, as well as the slaves to create a union where they’ll fight-off the evil and corrupt army with all that they’ve got. It’s dangerous, but it leads to one of the biggest uprisings in U.S. history.

Always follow Matthew McConaughey, kid. Always.

Always follow Matthew McConaughey, kid. Always.

Director Gary Ross clearly has good intentions with Free State of Jones; in fact, so much so that it actually comes close to ruining the movie. There’s a lot that Ross has to cover and talk about here, and because of that, the movie runs in at nearly two-hours-and-19-minutes. For some, this may not be much of an issue, because there’s plenty to watch and learn about, but for mostly everyone else, it will just be a long, boring slog that never seems to end, never knows where it wants to go, nor ever seems any interest in actually exploring anything deeper than its message, which is, essentially, slavery was bad.

That’s it.

Free State of Jones, for its whole run-time, narrative choices, tricks, trades, and detours, eventually ends on a typical note that racism was bad, hating people for their skin-color is bad, and yeah, you should just be nicer to people. While this is definitely a fine statement to have in everyday life, this doesn’t really seem to break any new ground, nor open people’s minds up, especially when the movie is as long as this one is. And while I’m sure that this makes it appear that I didn’t like this flick, I’ll have you know, it’s quite the opposite. Sure, it’s messy, odd, confusing at points, and flawed, but there were bits and pieces of it that worked and interested me, long after having seen it.

Ross definitely has a lot he wants to talk about here and because of that, the movie can sometimes feel like a jumble; it’s also made even worse by the fact that his narrative-structure isn’t always the smartest to use. For example, he uses a lot of typeface that tells us what historical moments/occurrences are happening between scenes, as well as using a bunch of old-timey photos of certain characters and settings. And heck, if that wasn’t bad enough, he also frames it all with a story taking place in 1949, where a descendant of Newt Knight is trying to argue his race and family’s history.

They’re all interesting ideas to bring to a movie that covers as much ground as this one does, but are they the right ones?

Well, that’s kind of the issue with Free State of Jones – it takes a lot of risky steps, but doesn’t find a lot of them paying-off in the end. If anything, they seem to take away from the strength and the power of the actual, true story itself, in which a lot of bad things happen to good people and for all idiotic, except that, once again, this is all from history. Ross has an agenda and has something that he wants to say about the South, America’s history, and racism as a whole, and they’re all noble, but at the same time, it also keeps Free State of Jones from being a better movie. Sometimes, it’s just a little too messy and disjointed to really keep moving at a certain pace.

But for me, the pace actually worked for me. Ross isn’t trying to cram everything down our throats and at our eye-sockets all at one time – he takes his time, allowing for certain details about the story and these characters to come out, slowly, but surely. It’s very rare to get a big-budget, summer flick that doesn’t feel the need to go all crazy with explosions, guns, violence and a big, screeching score right off the bat; sometimes, all a movie needs to do is settle itself down to keep us on-track with everything that’s going on. Does it always work? Not really, but the times that it does, it helps make Free State of Jones a more interesting piece of history that, quite frankly, Hollywood seems to get wrong, or steer away from.

Even while holding that gun, Matty knows he's the man.

Even while holding that gun, Matty knows he’s the man.

And this is all to say that yes, Free State of Jones is violent, bloody, gruesome, and ugly, but in all the right ways. The movie is depicting a time in U.S. history that we all don’t like to look back on with smiles, so therefore, Free State of Jones gets as graphic as it humanly can about all of the mean and nasty injustices and deaths that occurred during this time. After awhile, it all gets to be a bit jarring, but that’s sort of the point; war, or even for that matter, violence, isn’t pretty, so why should a movie depicting it so much be?

Well, to answer that question: It shouldn’t.

And yes, the cast is quite good, even if it does sometimes feel as if they don’t always have a whole lot to do. Matthew McConaughey is as charming and likable as he can possibly be as Newt Knight, and it works in the character’s favor. You want to love his winning and charismatic smile, but you also want to believe that he is absolutely willing to sink to the lowest depths of humanity to protect himself, as well as those that he loves so much. Mahershala Ali plays Moses, a former slave who has some of the more emotional moments of the movie and quite frankly, they’re definitely needed. As for the women, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell, play two interesting characters in Newt Knight’s life that, honestly, I would have liked to see their own movie about.

Maybe in another flick, perhaps?

Or then again, maybe not.

Consensus: Disjointed, uneven and a bit nonsensical, Free States of Jones doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, narratively speaking, but still offers up plenty of interesting truths about America’s bloody, brutal, and sometimes upsetting history.

6 / 10

"To freedom! I think!"

“To freedom! I think!”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Blow Out (1981)

Sound guys never get the respect they deserve.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound-effects technician for movies who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, mistakenly captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. While Jack feels as if he may be a bit paranoid, especially from what everyone around him says, he still believes it to be true and makes it his mission to stop this assassination at once. Along the way, he meets Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a young lady who befriends Jack and gives him a second chance at life, even if looming under the horizon is someone looking to kill both of them.

No matter what Brian De Palma does as a director, he will always been known as one of the more successful Alfred Hitchcock impersonators, but you have to think about it: Any director that laces themselves into a dark and twisted tale of suspense and paranoia, is essentially doing Hitchcock, right? Well, yes, and kinda no. De Palma is obviously channeling Hitchcock here, but he lets it all work out on his own just by having an underlining sense of dread and tension throughout. Right from the goofy first-shot to the painfully depressing last one, we are immersed in this story as we have no idea how everything is going to turn out.

Who's worse to work with? Celebrities, or owls?

Who’s worse to work with? Celebrities, or owls?

You could say that’s how Hitchcock movies are, but by the same token, so are De Palma’s movies, too.

In fact, it’s the great ones that really keep you on-edge, which Blow Out definitely is.

Instead of just letting the story tell itself off, De Palma allows himself to bring out some real tricks up his sleeve. The camera is constantly moving around in this film to give us this frantic feel that Jack is going through but even when it isn’t, it still had me on the tip-of-my-toes, because there’s still an air of tension. Scenes like when Jack is deconstructing the film to match the sounds with the images is a surprisingly neat scene because of how much detail De Palma layered this scene and to also show easily manipulated film and audio can be, just at the switch of a button. But other times when the camera is moving, it really messes with your head like one scene where the camera is going around on a 360 axis in Jack’s studio as he is frantically looking around for his lost footage that seems to have been replaced, or taken from him. It’s a cool scene that shows you what De Palma can and could do with the most generic plots, just by tilting the camera one way or another.

And sure, you could call them “gimmicks”, but they really do help keep this unpredictable story moving, even when it seems like De Palma himself wants to take some time out of the mystery and build characters. Which wouldn’t have been a problem so much had the characters been all the neat in the first place; like, say, for instance, Nancy Allen’s Sally. Trust me, I know why she’s in this movie and why De Palma feels the endless need to have her role mean something in the greater-scheme, but really, her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character is stale and Allen, at times at least, wasn’t always the best actress to call on for these sorts of things.

That Brian De Palma: A true American.

That Brian De Palma: A true American.

But of course, with one bad performance, comes one, very good one and this is where John Travolta comes in.

Travolta does a great job letting us feel the type of paranoia and craziness that’s going inside of his head throughout this whole mystery, however, what really makes this character and performance work is how they treat him. When you usually have a hero-like character in these films, they are treated like latter-day Saints that can almost do no wrong whatsoever and always fight the good battle. The difference here is that this character, no matter how much evidence he proves or no matter what he says, he’s always looked at as a bit of a conspiracy-nut just because he’s a little strange. Never has a film really made us look at a hero, the same way as everybody else did in the film, quite like this before and it works in making us realize that maybe we can’t be too sure that he’ll eventually come out on top after all. And if he does, at what cost? It’s a great piece of character development that De Palma proves he can do very well, and Travolta gives off his best performance of the whole 80’s decade, his career almost died in.

Thankfully though, thirteen years later, he was saved.

Also, bonus points for being in Philly and featuring a kick-ass villainous performance from John Lithgow. Honestly, you can’t have enough movies set in Philly, nor can you have enough of John Lithgow just being a scary and sinister human specimen that we definitely know he’s capable of being.

Consensus: Despite the usual missteps found in some of De Palma’s work, Blow Out is an intense, unpredictable, weird and downright bleak conspiracy-thriller that never clues you in on what to think or believe, but for all of the right reasons.

8.5 / 10

John was still very confused in 1981.

John was still very confused in 1981.

Photos Courtesy of: Criterion, One Perfect Shot

Storytelling (2001)

Read me a story, daddy. Especially ones filled with rape, racism, and teenage angst.

Two different stories that never connect, are told to us through the parts known as “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”. “Fiction” is the story of a young college student (Selma Blair) who gets her emotions all wrapped up in a bunch when her boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) breaks up with her, leading her to fall into the arms of her cocky, but charming professor (Robert Wisdom). “Non-fiction” is the story of a middle-aged, failing documentarian (Paul Giamatti) who gets inspired to make a movie, following a young, confused teenager (Mark Webber) and the rest of his dysfunctional family, that just so happens to have a lot more going on between them than meets the eyes.

Is it too wrong to say that she had it coming to her?

That blonde hair will drive any man wild

Todd Solondz movies are of required-taste and if you can get through them without batting an eye or feeling awkward, then good for you. For me, I still can’t help but feel like this guy is just messing with me, to mess with me. And I hate to say it, but it works well, even though I feel as if I’ve seen and heard it all by now. But still, he continues to push the envelope, even if that aspect of his directing makes him of a provocateur, and not a film maker.

Hell, even in this movie, he makes fun of what people have had to say about him in the past. They call him “shocking for the sake of being shocking”, “racist”, “a bigot”, and even go so far as to be called the dreaded “P-word”: “pretentious”. For a film maker like Solondz to take all of that criticism in stride, really does deserve some credit because he not only throws it right back in those hater’s faces, but even shows them why they may be right as well.

That said, this is where the movie hits its slippery-slope in the way.

The idea of having two, separate stories told in one movie definitely makes it feel like we’re going to get double the trouble with what Solondz has to offer, which is true, but not in the smart, sly way he’s done it before. Instead, all of the dirty stuff that happens here, feels deliberate, as if Solondz himself is trying really, really hard to get a reaction out of us, simply because the material he’s working with doesn’t have that much steam to pile on through. Both stories seem interesting on their own, and even the points he brings up go along with them as well, but it just feels like a missed-opportunity for Solondz to really give us something worth thinking about, rather than landing on the same, two feet that he landed with before.

And yes, you can expect there to be plenty of sex, awkwardness, explicit content, and random conversations about the slimy stuff in our bodies. And yes, sometimes, it works. Other times, it doesn’t. Storytelling feels like the kind of flick Solondz perhaps needed to get off his chest after something as ambitious as Happiness, but still, it also makes it feel more like a greatest hits album, rather than actual greatness itself.

Either way, the stories do sort of work.

With “Fiction”, the idea of young teens falling for an older demographic because of the seniority they show, is actually pretty scary. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, Solondz gets a little bit too ahead of himself, gives us an over-long sex scene (unedited, no red boxes in my viewing), and a couple uses of the “N word” that was supposed to get a rise out of us I assuming, but instead, felt like it was Solondz getting a bit too wacky and explicit for his own good. The aftermath of this scene is smart and funny, however, I still continued to scratch my head wondering, “What was the point of all that?” Is everything we write on paper already considered “fiction”, or is everything after that “real”.

No matter how many licks, we may never know the answer.

Then, we have “Non-fiction” which is oddly longer than the first entry into this flick and shows it’s length as well. It isn’t that I didn’t feel like there was an interesting bit of storytelling to be had here with the loser documenting the stuck-up, egotistical family, it’s just that the targets it’s meant to be satirizing doesn’t quite work as well because it’s all too obvious and easy. The idea of having a film maker, make a movie that’s already pretentious as it is, in your already-pretentious movie is so obvious, that it’s almost too dumb to really take seriously, so that when it does begin to go down the path of making fun of those people who have talked crap on Solondz work in the past, it feels more like a kid saying, “hate to say I told ya so!”, rather than somebody making a legitimate statement about the films he makes. Like I said before, it’s an opportunity that seems missed, even if this story has the most disturbing ending I’ve seen in a long, long time.

"Hi, it's me Paul. Again. Yes, I am depressed. Again."

“Hi, it’s me Paul. Again. Yes, I am depressed. Again.”

Yep, even Happiness‘ ending loses to this one.

Consensus: Even at a measly and meager 87 minutes, Storytelling feels like a collection of interesting things that Solondz can, and is perfectly able to do, however, with no real payoff.

6 / 10

Let's face it: we've all wanted to do the same thing.

Let’s face it: we’ve all wanted to do the same thing.

Photos Courtesy of: Thecia.Com.Au

Happiness (1998)

Is all sex good? Or only some? Ugh! High school didn’t teach me anything!

Three sisters (Jane Adams, Laura Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson) all seem to be facing problems in their lives, but they aren’t the only ones. A husband (Dylan Baker) is struggling with being the right role model for his son, while also struggling with his pedophile-like ways; a socially-awkward man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can’t bed the woman he wants the most; and an aging, married couple (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) run into problems when one-half decides to sleep around and see whether or not they can be happy.

As is usually the case with Todd Solondz’s movies, almost every aspect of these stories are in some way, form, or shape, disturbing. It doesn’t matter whether they concern two people coming together, finding love, or some aging-couple trying to figure out if they are good enough for one another, because somehow, someway, Solondz is going to find his way to make it as disturbing as he can. For most writers/directors, this blatant attempt at really messing with our general taste for decency would seem rather showy and annoying, but for Solondz, it can sometimes works very well because the characters in his flick tend not to have much decency, either.

Just go for it, bro. What have you got to lose?

Just go for it, bro. What have you got to lose?

Then again, when you’re human, who needs such a silly thing as “decency”?

And that’s basically the whole point of Happiness: What it means to “be human”. A lot of the movie has to deal with sexual coming-of-age, masturbation, pedophilia, aging, philandering, and all of that other happy, joyful stuff, but the movie still treats all of these matters with some respect. Rather than having each story seem like it could only happen in a movie, where people speak and act as if they are in a movie, Solondz makes it seem like every character is a real-life person, you just don’t know it because underneath the whole charade and appearance, their real selves are waiting to come out.

Solondz knows that he is uncovering some real, brutal truths about what makes us human here, and he does not shy away from it in the least bit. This is refreshing to see because you need a guy who’s going to slap you in the face, tell you what’s going on in reality, and never let you forget about it. Sometimes, the grotesque dirty talk can be a tad overboard, but he still kept it grounded to where you could see people having conversations like this everyday. It’s just all a matter of what type of people I’m talking about because, as this flick will show you, there are some strange human specimens out there that are just waiting to be noticed, loved, and find happiness.

But hey, we’re all human, so don’t we all deserve a little bit of love, respect, and, well, happiness? Solondz argues this idea, but because his writing is so smart, it works. We care for these characters and understand them, even if we know that they’re sad and sometimes vile creatures.

And yes, the cast is so good that it helps us watch them more and more.

Out of the whole flick, Dylan Baker probably has the hardest role to make work, because of how creepy and unsettling his character is, but yet, also has to stay relatively sympathetic as well, to sort of make us feel like we can see where the hell he is coming from when he wants to touch little boys. It’s not supposed to work, but somehow, he makes it work. As the perfectly-named Bill Maplewood, Baker plays that type of dude you see in the park with his family, that looks so regular, happy, and joyful, but, deep down inside, is the most dark and disturbing soul imaginable. He’s that one in a million dude that seems to find away to hide who he really is from the outside world. Baker not only makes this guy creepy as hell, but also makes him seem like a real person in the way he is so desperate to make himself pleased and happy, that he will go to the end of the Earth to achieve it. It’s not an easy role, but it’s one that Baker plays with effortlessly, allowing us to see everything there is to see about this man.

But yeah, he’s not the only solid one in the cast, as there’s plenty more.

The era of blind dates; they'll never end.

The era of blind dates; they’ll never end.

Playing another creep in this movie is Philip Seymour Hoffman as that weird dude in high school, who you never talked to, got shoved into lockers, was too afraid to take showers after gym class, and never spoke a word to anybody. However, the thing about Hoffman’s character in this movie is that he seems like the quintessential geek that always looks at porn and breathes down the hot girl’s neck, but you feel as if there is more to him than just that heavy-sweating and non-stop boners. Hoffman makes this guy interesting, as if more and more layers are going to be popping out of him at any second, but you never really get that and to be honest, we didn’t really need it. We see how he can be nice and find his true, inner-self, but there does come a point where you wonder just who he really is, other than that nerd you stay away from on the street.

And then there’s Jane Adams as the youngest of the three sisters who seems to be having the most problems with her life, for the main reason that she just can’t seem to get a grip on things. She knows that she wants to be happy, make money, be loved, find that special someone, start a family, and be successful, but she just doesn’t know how. The story that she has where she gets all hot and ready with a student of hers (Jared Harris, who has an odd Russian accent here) doesn’t really light up the screen, but the way she acts and looks the whole movie does. You can tell she’s confused, scared, and upset with where her life has gone, but you can also tell that she’s searching for the answers whenever they come to her quick enough.

Only time will tell with this poor soul.

But those three performances are, unfortunately, where the compliments for this cast and these characters somewhat stop, because they don’t all work. The problem I seemed to have had with Solondz’s framing-device is that there seem to be about five different stories going on at the same time, and maybe only two-and-a-half of them are even interesting. The others? Ehh, not so much.

The one story that should have really re-located our hearts to our stomach should have been the one with Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser as the old, married-couple that are hitting an incredibly rough patch. So rough, that the one thinks that it’s time they call “a break” for a bit. What’s bothersome about this subplot is that it’s rarely focused on, but when it is, it seems to bring everything else down with it because it doesn’t tell us anything new or doesn’t even seem to be turning it’s wheels. It seems to just give Solondz a bit more freedom to play around with old people banging. It doesn’t work and only took away from the film. But there’s other stories here that are at fault as well, but mainly it’s Solondz’s.

Once again, he wants to disturb us, and that works.

Mission accomplished, I have to assume.

Consensus: Not everything in the dark and disturbing Happiness works perfectly well, but it’s amazing cast really does allow for these characters to come off the screen.

8.5 / 10

Daddy's got some issues he's got to work through.

Daddy’s got some issues he’s got to work through.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Aflixionado, Claude’s Corner

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Dollhouse1Growing up was actually pretty weird. Like, did I actually do all of those things?

Middle-school student Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) is having a lot of growing pains that seem to all just be piling-up on each other, one after the other. She’s not only teased and bullied at school for looking the way she does, but when she goes home, the kind of place she expects to be “a sanctuary” of sorts, she gets heckled and criticized there by all of her family. Basically, she can’t win, no matter where she goes; after all, she’s the middle child between her nerdy older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) and her perky younger sister Missy (Daria Kalinina), who seem to gather all of the attention from their desperate parents. But now Dawn feels as if she’s got something going on for her life when she meets a cute, but much older boy (Eric Mabius) whom her brother knows and doesn’t want around Dawn. However, the only person who she seems to get the most attention from is the local bully named Brandon (Brendan Sexton III), who not only threatens to rape her, but seems like he actually wants to hurt her. That is, until the two actually do meet up and for some reason, Dawn’s life may be forever changed.

Weird kids never get the window seat!

Weird kids never get the window seat!

Todd Solondz is definitely a writer/director with a style of his own that, if you aren’t more than willing to accept and roll with, his movies can tend to be a miserable slog. With the exception of maybe Happiness, all of Solondz’s movies seem to hold shelter under the same umbrella where characters are constantly terrible to one another, saying mean, cruel and nasty things, and generally acting out in weird, sometimes sadistic ways. Solondz wants to say a lot with this stylistic choice of his own and for the most part, it can work, but other times, it can feel like he’s straining himself just to be more and more miserable than before.

Welcome to the Dollhouse feels like the perfect middle-ground for Solondz and his trademarks – for better, as well as for worse.

While a solid portion of the story wants to deal with a coming-of-age tale, there’s also another portion that seems perfectly fine with just seeing how far and willing these characters are able to being absolutely awful to one another. For instance, Dawn is clearly the least-liked out of her whole family, so much so that her parents clearly favorite the younger one over her and also want to rip down her playhouse she has out back. There’s some humor in the idea that no matter how hard Dawn tries, she can’t get a break from the rest of her family, but it’s also a joke that gets replayed way too often, and after a short while, just becomes cruel.

Solondz may show us that he does care about Dawn, at the end, throughout, it’s kind of hard not to think that there’s at least some part of him enjoying poking the stick at Dawn when she’s down, out and in need of an arm to pull her back up. Some may disagree with this notion, but it’s what continued to bother me throughout the movie – in fact, more so than any of the times that the Brandon kid dropped the word “rape”. In a way, Solondz is trying to poke fun at the reason for why that word is being used, especially from that character – everything else, especially the stuff that seems directed at Dawn, mostly seems like him getting his rocks off for the sole sake of getting his rocks off.

That said, Heather Matarazzo is quite great as Dawn Weiner and it’s no wonder why she actually did something with her life and career after this. At only 12 years of age, Matarazzo is able to find just the right bits and pieces of subtlety to make Dawn more than just your average nerdy, little girl; she’s got a heart and soul to her that wants to be loved, but is also damn confused about what love actually is. Solondz may throw a lot at her, but Matarazzo is a smart enough actress, even at such a young age, that she gets through it all, making us love this character even more, flaws and all.

Typical family din-dins.

Typical family din-dins.

The rest of the characters don’t fare as well as Dawn, but some at least show some semblance of humanity that’s very hard to come by in Solondz’s movies.

Matthew Faber’s Mark is just a nerd who can’t seem to do anything with his band; Daria Kalinina is basically told to play a brat and, well, as Missy, that’s exactly what she does; Eric Mabius is good as Steve Rodgers, highlighting that this guy may actually just be a genuine nice dude, even if Dawn is a little creepy; and then, there’s the aforementioned Brandon, as played by Brendan Sexton III. His character, as well as his subplot, is perhaps the most interesting thing that Welcome to the Dollhouse has going for it, because it not only surprises, but also is a little sweet, too.

Initially, the relationship that Brandon has with Dawn may seem just like another bully-nerd kind of thing going on, eventually, it starts to show different shadings. It shows that, at his heart, Solondz really does care about these young characters and how they connect with one another, even if they really don’t have a single clue how to express their connection, or even got a single clue of what’s going on. Some of Solondz’s more affectionate moments come out in the scenes between Dawn and Brandon, and honestly, I would have been fine with a movie just about them both.

Obviously, minus all of the usual despicable Solondz trademarks.

Consensus: With enough attention to its character, Welcome to the Dollhouse gets by on what could have been perceived as Todd Solondz getting too deep into his character’s own depression and misery, even if it can sometimes come off that way.

6 / 10

Love at first hate.

Love at first wet willy. 

Photos Courtesy of: The Vern’s Video Vortex, Design Sponge

Miracles from Heaven (2016)

And we thought that the Giving Tree was blessed.

The Beams are your ordinary, middle-to-upper class family living down South, where they breed and take care of dogs, go to church every Sunday, and almost always have time for one another. That’s the way they’ve always been and quite frankly, that’s how they’re going to always be. However, the Beams’ lives all change when the middle daughter, Anna (Kylie Rodgers), begins to start throwing up randomly, holding her stomach, and not really being able to hold anything down when she eats it. Why is that? Well, the Beams go to many specialists and try to figure out just what the the hell is going on, until they finally get the right diagnosis and it’s a bit of a shocker: Anna suffers from an incurable disease, pseudo-obstruction motility disorder, which basically means that her intestines cannot process food. Though the doctors have given her medicine and ways for her to eat food without, well, actually chewing or swallowing, the Beams start to lose their touch with all of life, especially God himself. But then something happens to Anna that will forever change the Beams family, as well as everyone else around them.

Even Jen's questioning some of this.

Even Jen’s questioning some of this.

Faith-based movies like Miracles from Heaven seem to turn everyone off for the sole fact that they don’t ever try to hide who they’re made for, or what message they’re going to get across. While certain directors and writers out there in the world (Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, etc.) all make it known where they stand on a certain issue, or have a clear agenda from the very beginning and don’t ever seem to get as much hate as, for some reason, these seemingly well-intentioned, downright harmless faith-based movies that get all sorts of shade of thrown at them. Why is that?

Well, it’s because they’re preaching and, in ways, no better than a preacher you’d see standing in front of a mass of people on Sunday morning.

Personal beliefs aside, most of these faith-based movies, regardless of the ham-handed messages they pass-off, tend to be pretty bad. They look cheap, sound cheap and seem to be a huge waste of some pretty great talent who, for one reason or another, needed a paycheck so bad that they just felt inclined to get stuck in one of these movies. The same thoughts were going through my mind while watching Miracles from Heaven; another seemingly well-intentioned, harmless faith-based movie that knows exactly what it wants to say, isn’t hiding from that fact one bit, and is just trying to cheer the whole family up.

But Miracles of Heaven, for a good part of the flick, works, if only because it focuses on the anguish, the pain, the sadness, and the desperation that a situation like this would have. Director Patricia Riggen is not a very skilled director, however, she chooses to keep her focus less on all of the Christianity for the first-half or so, and just allows for us to grow closer to this family, their dynamic, their personalities, and just why their story matters. Sure, they’re are carbon-copies of every white family from the South ever put to screen, but they’re likable enough that I actually cared about what happened to them, their finances, and their overall reputations, when things begin to go south for  dear little Anna.

And yes, most of that has to do with the fact that Jennifer Garner is very good here and clearly way too good for this kind of wacky, sometimes silly material. She’s the kind of actress that can take this lame stuff, and actually do something of interest with it that may not always feel as powerful as it should be, but at least garners some idea of legitimacy. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you get good actors to handle a stupid script; if they’re engaged, then it might just work out.

Is that God himself? Or just another Magical Negro stereotype?

Is that a reincarnation of God? Or just another Magical Negro stereotype?

That doesn’t always happen, but hey, when it does, it’s a nice sight to watch.

That’s why Garner’s performance, as the matriarch of the family, does have some honesty and truth to it, even in the goofier moments. While this may lean more towards questioning the actual true story itself (which I will try my hardest to refrain from), Garner works her way through some bad material and adds a tone of realism to it that you can feel. Martin Henderson is fine as her hubby, even if he’s never really in the flick; Queen Latifah is pleasant enough that even if her role is so stupid, it’s still enjoyable enough because it’s Queen Latifah and how could she not be having fun; Kylie Rodgers is an okay child actress, even if she doesn’t have a lot to do except cry in pain practically the whole time; John Carroll Lynch plays the local preacher who, really, I wold have loved to see get his own movie, if only because I know there’d be some sort of way that Lynch would make him a creep; and Eugenio Derbez, showing up as the one doctor who tries his absolute hardest to help this disease, is a nice and pleasant surprise that I wish we got more of.

But truly, it’s Garner who helps this movie work.

Even when, you know, it gets bad.

For example, the last-half of Miracles from Heaven gets pretty awful, pretty quick that it made me rethink everything I saw before it. Everything gets explained, people start acting out in ways that they would have never acted before, and all of a sudden, everything’s all “important”. It probably is to the target audience of this, but for me, someone who wasn’t in that audience, honestly, it’s hard not to get really bothered by it. Faith-based movies will never stop being made, released, or able to make money, but lame ones can definitely cease – it just has yet to happen (excluding Risen).

What do I got to do to make that happen dammit? Pray?

Consensus: As corny and melodramatically sappy it can get, Miracles from Heaven benefits from having a realistic and compelling tone for a short while, until it begins to start preaching its rump off.

5 / 10

Oh, little white girls. So privileged, but hey, it's not hard to cry for them.

Oh, little white girls. So privileged, but hey, it’s not hard to cry for them.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Black Film

Genius (2016)

It takes a lot to be considered “a genius”. Like, for instance, an overlong novel.

Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) has published and help edit a lot of books, some of which, are revered classics. Perkins had already previously published works by the great American writers Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), both of whom have all sorts of riches to their name. Now, a young writer by the name of Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), wants his shot at getting his work published. And once Perkins sees what Wolfe has to offer, he’s absolutely astonished; not only is the work great, interesting, and exciting, but it’s quite long. Obviously, people aren’t going to want to read a 500+ page book, which means that it’s up to Perkins and Wolfe to come together and figure out what should stay, and what can go away. While Wolfe loves his work too much to let every little detail be taken out of the text, he eventually learns to shut up and give in, even if he, nor his girlfriend, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), are all too happy about it. Then again, neither is Perkins, which makes him constantly battle himself, as well as his wife (Laura Linney), who has stuck with him through the thick and thin.

"500 pages left to go! Woo-hoo!"

“500 pages left to go! Woo-hoo!”

In case you couldn’t tell by its title, Genius thinks very highly of its subjects – or more importantly, it thinks very highly about Thomas Wolfe and all of the literature that he has brought to the world. There’s no problem with that, either; Look Homeward, Angel, while overlong, is definitely a book worth reading, if only once, just to say that you did and well, you did get into some sort of trance because of it. However, being too petrified of the lengths of his other books, I’ve always strayed further and further away from Wolfe’s work; I know that he’s a literary genius and very well-loved in that world, but honestly, it’s just too scary for me.

Then again, Genius is a movie that’s all about the fact that Wolfe himself couldn’t take himself away from making his books way longer than they had any right to be. And in a way, there’s something exciting about watching as an author gets their writing dissected, toyed around with, and prodded by someone who is, essentially, just trying to make a quick dime off of it. That same conflict actually comes up an awful lot in Genius; the choice between loving a piece of work for all that it is, or trying to take the things you love about it and make it more accessible to people who are willing to pay for it.

What do you do?

Well, Genius has that discussion a few times and asks those questions, yet, never seems too interested in ever answering them, which is a problem from the very start, as it seems like director Michael Grandage and writer John Logan love Wolfe so much, that they aren’t able to focus on much else. They want to make the movie about the book-editing process and all of the pain and agony that comes with killing your darlings, but also, give a shout-out to the man himself for the pieces of writing that he graced the world with.

Once again, is there any problem with that? Once again, not really. However, there’s also something to be said for a movie that can never quite figure out what it wants to be; while it wants to hold a magnifying glass up to Wolfe and his persona, the movie never makes much of a strong judgement on him, either. It actually shows that, in between all of his drinking, smoking and sexxing around, he was just a brilliant writer who couldn’t help himself and, darn it, his work should have been left the way it was!

Uh oh. Crazy's back.

Uh oh. Crazy’s back.

It’s actually quite odd and, by the same token, annoying. Genius has all of the right elements to be a very good movie, not just about Wolfe, but the writing-process and book-selling business as well, but it kind of misses its mark to do so, in favor of just featuring Wolfe running around, yelling like a crazy man, and holding his hat in his hand, with Perkins just sitting by, smiling and chuckling to himself.

Once or twice is fine, but practically the whole, entire movie? Oh, come on!

And it’s a bit of a shame, too, because the cast is pretty damn stacked. Firth is fine as Perkins, if only because he does a lot of sitting around and staring, as opposed to speaking and letting people hear his terrible American accent (which was shown-off to even worse affect in Devil’s Knot); Laura Linney doesn’t get to do much as his wife, except just stand around and berate him for doing his job; Nicole Kidman has a couple of good scenes, showing how, slowly, but surely, Aline Bernstein was losing her marbles; and Jude Law, well, let’s just say he does probably everything that was asked of him and it was the wrong thing to do.

However, I can’t hate on Law for doing what he was told; the script called on for someone to constantly be howling and acting wild, and it’s what he gives. In a way, there’s some joy to be had in watching him play it to the rafters with this performance, but after awhile, once we figure out that there’s not much more to him than just that, it can get draining. The movie attempts to show us a deeper, darker side to this persona of his, but it still features him yelling and howling about, which never seems to end, or be toned-down in the slightest. If anything, it made me want to watch something like Dom Hemingway again, where Jude Law got a chance to play it wild and over-the-top, yet, was also rewarded in the end.

Here, he’s just doing it because that’s what he was told to do and there’s no real pay-off for him, or in this case, for Wolfe, either.

Consensus: Genius has a fine cast that helps the sometimes boring material, actually work, but at the same time, still feels like it can’t make up its mind about itself, nor have anything interesting to say about its figures.

5 / 10

I'd look like them too, if Nicole Kidman was coming my way. Then again, I guess I'm just a simpleton, so my opinion doesn't count.

I’d look like them too, if Nicole Kidman was coming my way. Then again, I guess I’m just a simpleton, so my opinion doesn’t count.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Central Intelligence (2016)

Buddy-comedies are severely lacking in muscle-bound weirdos.

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) was the most popular guy in high school. His nickname was “the Golden Jet”, he was homecoming king, and he did this awesome back-flip that made everyone go crazy. Essentially, he was the man. However, after high school, he never really amounted to much. He works as a drone at an accounting firm and seems to be having problems with his wife. But now with the 20 year reunion looming on the horizon, Cavin gets a random message from a former classmate of his – the nerdy and obese Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson), who hasn’t been seen, or heard from since he was publicly shamed at the homecoming pep-rally. Now, though, Bob is jacked, muscular and absolutely willing to kick anyone’s ass, even if he’s still a little weird and really clingy to Calvin. Why? Well, because Calvin was the only nice kid to Bob when nobody else was. And when they’re hanging out, Calvin and Bob are having the times of their lives, until the CIA rolls up, guns a blazin’, wanting Bob’s life, and accusing him of all sorts of wrongdoings, with poor Calvin in the middle of it all.

Get it? He's more muscular and manly than him! A ha!

Get it? He’s more muscular and manly than him! A ha!

If there was ever a comedian whose stand-up I absolutely love, adore and get a kick out of, every time I watch it, it’s Kevin Hart. However, if there was a comedian whose stand-up I love, but whose movies are pretty awful, it’s still Kevin Hart. Dwayne Johnson is sort of in the same boat; while I love his persona in and out of the ring, his movies tend to be “meh” at the very best. Sure, he’s had some winners, but really, they don’t always offer a lot for him to do, except occasionally be charming, yet, always look big, tough and as muscular as a normal human being can look.

You’d think that together, they’d make a movie that’s just as lame as their own respective projects, which, if you did, you’d be wrong.

In fact, I was quite wrong here and you know what? I’m glad. See, Central Intelligence is the typical blockbuster, big-budget, buddy-action flick that’s going to make tons of money because of its stars and that’s all fine and dandy, but honestly, we’ve seen that manipulative system been done before. Does it make the studios richer? Well, yes, but it still takes away from the fact that you have two great stars, teaming up together in something and you give them absolutely nothing to work with.

And sure, you could sort of make the same argument about Johnson and Hart in Central Intelligence, but honestly, it’s a tad different. For one, they both have some funny material to work through, even if it doesn’t always deliver or hit the right notes. While some of the jokes are standard and never really laugh-out-loud material, what Hart and Johnson are able to do, what with their charismatic and lovable personas, is make the material better by just being together, side-by-side, on the screen, and appearing as if they’re having the greatest times of their lives.

That’s why a lot of Central Intelligence works – these two are so fun and lovely to watch, that when you put them together, it’s actually quite joyous to watch as they’re chemistry builds and builds over time. Although Hart is playing the straight man here, he still dials it down to just the right notch where he isn’t a totally boring simpleton; a lot of the yelling, the fast-talking, and schticky things that we usually know and sometimes, love, him for, are here, but they aren’t dialed-up to eleven, as they have been in other movies that solely rely on him. Central Intelligence isn’t that movie, because, after all, it has Dwayne Johnson to work with and he’s having an absolute ball.

And everyone’s better off because of it.

Get it? He's goofier than him! A ha!

Get it? He’s goofier than him! A ha!

Johnson’s very funny here, as he has definitely been in the past; imagine him in Be Cool, but with some better jokes and plotting for him to roll with. But there’s more to the character of Bob, that makes Johnson’s performance better. For instance, the fact that Bob himself is still, when you get down to it, a sad, lonely and embarrassed 18-year-old chubby kid, even if he does look like the Rock. It’s quite funny and could have definitely been overplayed, but Johnson finds just the right fit for this role because he fully commits himself to this kind of silly, effeminate role, without ever making it seem like he’s above the material, or actually in on the joke that’s happening.

And yes, it deserves to be said that Central Intelligence, when it isn’t featuring a whole bunch of car-chases, guns, shootings, and bloodless, PG-13 violence, it does try to be serious and melodramatic, and it doesn’t quite work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see that there was an effort on the part of everyone involved to make this more than just your typical broad, buddy-comedy, but at the same time, it still doesn’t quite hit its mark. If anything, the movie can sometimes feel like it’s straining itself to be “important”, or “about something”, and it just feels honed in.

Granted, I didn’t want to be bothered with anymore of the CIA-conspiracy plot, but still, there’s definitely some stuff that could have been trimmed-down here, or at the very least, taken out altogether. Still, I’ll take what I can get with this summer and if that’s the case, then Central Intelligence was just fine.

Fine enough to make me forget that Kevin Hart movies tend to suck.

Consensus: Building off the wonderful and playful chemistry between Johnson and Hart, Central Intelligence isn’t always funny, but definitely features some nice bits of humor, to weigh out all of the senseless action, twists, and turns that we don’t really care about in the first place.

6 / 10

Get it? He's taller than him! Woo-wee!

Get it? He’s taller than him! Woo-wee!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Inside Job (2010)

Can’t trust anyone. Not even mom and dad.

The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 will always and forever be considered one of the most heart-breaking, tragic moments in recent memory. Director Charles Ferguson, using his smarts, his wit and his intelligent ways, acts like a journalist to figure out just how the hell it all happened. After all, from what Ferguson can tell is that this was a problem almost everyone within the financial world expected, however, no one wanted to actually accept as fact and continue living their very rich, luxurious lives as is, uninterrupted. And these are the same kinds of people that, through Ferguson, will be called-out and shown the error of their ways, yet, will they ever learn anything? And while we’re at it, what about the country as a whole? Will we ever learn anything, either? Or, will we just continue to keep on bailing out the some fools who put us in these financial messes in the first place?

Tisk tisk tisk.

Evil.

Evil.

It’s actually quite odd watching Inside Job after the Big Short since, in a way, they’re kind of the same movie. They both are dealing with the financial crisis, how it happened, who as to be blamed, what was trying to be done in order to stop it, and a little bit of the result. However, what made that movie more accessible, aside from all of the big-names in the cast and whatnot, was the fact that it actually lended a helping hand to the everyday movie-goer out there who may have not known some of the trickier titles of certain things associated with the finanical world. Don’t get me wrong, director Charles Ferguson, solely through the sooting, yet smart voice of Matt Damon, tells us certain things we need to know in order to give us a clearer and better understanding of what the hell everyone’s talking about, and what it’s ultimate reason for existing is, but there’s not nearly as much hand-holding here, as there was in the Big Short.

Which means, yes, be ready to be a tad confused. However, watching this after the Big Short definitely helped me, as there were a lot of key phrases and terms that I needed to know going in, and considering that I already did know them, it was basically smooth sailing from there on out.

Well, then again, not really.

See, Inside Job is dealing with some pretty infuriating material and real-life consequences here, and it also makes it an even harder pill to swallow when you consider that Ferguson is not backing down, or away, from a single part of it. Every person he has the chance to interview, he does; every small detail that helps explain what happened with this financial crisis, he tells; and every finger that needs to be pointed, well, he points. Ferguson is the kind of documentarian that the world needs more of – not because he has the balls to actually go up to a person who may need a hard line of questioning and actually do said thing, but because he takes a lot of narrative choices on what is, essentially, dry material. Some people out there in the world may not give a single lick about finances or mortgages – Ferguson knows this – and in trying to have some of us actually care, like at all, he reminds us that all of these issues are still going on in the world we currently live in and unfortunately, they’re not getting much better.

Eviler.

Eviler.

Okay, maybe there has been some improvement since 2010, but still: Ferguson knows and understands that this is a huge issue that needs to be discussed and addressed, but he also doesn’t want to be the only person doing it. He wants to fill everybody in on all of the corruption and all of the wrongs that have been committed from those who, honestly, should know better. But instead, they’re more concerned with whether or not they have three yachts, instead of two, rather than caring about how all of the riches and rewards they get and benefit off of, other people lower down the food chain, take the hard end of.

Yes, Ferguson is clearly on a soap-box here and he should definitely be allowed to be – the guy has something that he wants to say, but really, just allows for the people he interviews, or, in some cases, doesn’t interview.

After all, some of the guiltiest people that Ferguson has no issue of mentioning, either don’t show up on camera at all, or when they do, they’re absolute dicks about it all. A few people, for instance, actually seem as if they’re nice, easygoing people who are absolutely pleased with participating in a documentary about the financial-crisis and the world of finance. However, that all changes when Ferguson himself decides to switch things up, ask them the hard questions about their guilt and their professionalism, and all of sudden, their moods change. There’s quite a few people in this movie that happens with, to great comedic-effect, but the point has been proven: These people are guilty and they deserve to have their faces shone in the spotlight.

Cause, like we’ve said before, they’re the reasons for our economy’s downfall. And yet, we’re still the ones we’re paying for and caring about, if only because they dug themselves too deep into holes that they couldn’t get out of. Either way, despite all of this ranting and raving, yes, please see Inside Job, if you already haven’t done so. It will make your blood boil and your wallets bigger.

Consensus: Smart, intense and exciting, Inside Job is the right kind of documentary that doesn’t back down from asking the hard questions, while searching for whatever answers it can find in this sometimes confusing world of finance.

9.5 / 10

Evilest, More Evil, and Most Evilest of them all.

Evilest, More Evil, and Most Evilest of them all.

Photos Courtesy of: CTCMR

Wall-E (2008)

Save the world. Save the robots. Get off your rumps.

It’s been nearly 700 years and yep, us humans have destroyed the planet we all loved and called “home”: Earth. After years and years of negligence and laziness, Earth has become nothing more than just one huge, ever-expanding trashcan. But where have all the humans gone? Well, somewhere up in the sky, they’ve all retreated to a paradise of sorts, sitting down on their lazy butts, getting fatter and fatter as the days go by, eating and drinking everything that comes in their way, and being able to move around, solely by a chair. But while they’re all enjoying the heck out of their fat lives up in the sky, trash compactors are left on Earth to clean up their mess and make life on Earth sustainable again. However, it appears as if all of the trash became too much for the trash compactors, as only one still exists and seems to be working: Wall-E. And yes, being all alone on Earth can definitely be a problem for a little robot like Wall-E, who wants nothing more than some sort of love in his life. Eventually though, he gets that in the form of Eve, a robot sent down from the paradise-in-the-sky who may, or may not have sinister intentions for Earth, the human existence, or even Wall-E himself.

But don’t tell him that! That boy is smitten!

True love if I was ever able to see it happen between two bots.

True love if I was ever able to see it happen between two bots.

Anyway, yeah, Wall-E‘s another typical Pixar home-run, in that it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think, and it makes you happy and absolutely proud that there’s still a small part of you that’s still a child. You may work a typical, 9-to-5, have a wife, kids, dog, car, and drink beer, but deep down inside, you’re still a six-year-old kid who wants to hold his mommy’s hand when he gets sad. Or then again, maybe you’re not that at all.

Either way, you get my point: Pixar has been working with this formula for as long as they’ve been around and guess what? Wall-E is no different.

But there’s a little something more to it that makes it worthwhile in the long-run.

You can tell that director Andrew Stanton definitely has a huge affinity for silent films, as well as the classics of yesteryear, in how he appreciates the simplistic messages of love they spout-out, and also likes how they all rely on an emotion and tone, told solely through the way everything looks. Automatically, when you’re thrown into this new and desecrated Earth, there’s already this sad, lonely and depressed feeling when watching Wall-E, all by his lonesome, do nothing but clean-up, watch old movies, long for someone to hold hands with, and have conversations with a invincible grasshopper. Then, all of a sudden, Eve comes in and everything seems a lot more goofy, joyous and believe it or not, hopeful. Yeah sure, the Earth is close to being nearly destroyed, but hey, at least these two robots found their possible soul-mates, right?

Well, that’s why Stanton’s direction is so smart here; he does a lot without telling us anything us, but rather, just showing us everything we need to know. Eve talks in perfect, Siri-like English, whereas Wall-E barely makes sense and for some reason, it’s better that way; hearing these two speak to one another isn’t the point of this flick, or even their romance. In all honesty, it’s all about the raw and sweet emotions that the feeling of love, or that idea of being connected with someone out there in the world can make you feel. Sure, call it maybe a tad too serious for a Pixar movie, but hey, what can I say?

This is the kind of stuff that gets me going.

Such a cuddly little robot. Until he kills you and takes over the whole world.

Such a cuddly little robot. Until he kills you and takes over the whole world.

Of course, about halfway through, the movie’s tone changes from carefree and pleasant to, of course, more convoluted, tense and plot-heavy, but for some reason, it still works. It definitely shouldn’t – the change is so drastic, that it almost feels like the powers at be got to Stanton and had him get things going – but where the movie goes without itself after this switch is interesting. It certainly does become an obvious farce, but it’s a funny one that drives home its environmental message as well as it could have, without totally pointing and wagging its finger in your face.

Okay, maybe the movie is trying to tell us humans to “stop leaving your trash everywhere and sitting on your rumps all day”, but still, is that not supposed to be something we should hear? I mean, heck, I’m sitting down now as we speak and I already feel like I’ve got to get up and do something with my life. Wall-E knows that it has a story and a plot to work with, aside from all the gooey and heartfelt emotions running throughout, but the mix-and-match between both sides gels so well together that, honestly, I’m shocked.

But at the end, Wall-E still takes itself all the way home.

While it definitely gets a tad bit lost in some odd and relatively annoying political shenanigans involving Fred Willard (!) as the President of the United States (!!!), Stanton is still able to bring us back to where we were at in the beginning: Wall-E searching for that one and special someone to sit down and watch movies and hold hands with. It will bring a tear to your eye the right way and it will remind you that true love does and can most definitely exist.

Even if the true love does exist between two robots in a post-apocalyptic future version of Earth.

Consensus: Fun, hilarious, smart and tender, without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard to be any of them, Wall-E drives home an environmental message that matters, while also not forgetting about what really makes a great family flick for everyone in-mind.

9 / 10

Pictured: America, circa 2026

Pictured: America, circa 2026

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Screen Musings

Finding Nemo (2003)

Animals lose their kids, too. It’s not just humans.

Marlin (Albert Brooks) is an obsessively overprotective Daddy clownfish, but with good reason. Some time ago, when he and his late wife had just welcomed all of their children to the sea, because they weren’t paying enough attention, somehow, they all got swept away, and the wife died. There was one left, however, and it turned out to be Marlin’s sole child: Nemo. And needless to say, yes, Marlin is very uptight and worried about Nemo, so much so that Nemo himself feels as if he needs to venture out there into the world a whole lot more than he’s allowed to. However, all of that adventuring gets Nemo caught by a bunch of humans and thrown in some dentist’s office fish-bowl. For Nemo, this is a new world, but it’s one that he doesn’t quite love just as much as he loves the sea. But Marlin will not stop until he finds Nemo and brings him home safe, once and for all – now, though, he’s got the help of a fellow fish, Dory (Ellen DeGeneras), who may actually be more of a problem than a solution.

How I imagine Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneras talk to one another in real life.

How I imagine Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneras talk to one another in real life.

Finding Nemo came out at a time for Pixar that was definitely crucial. They were still hitting it out of the park with each and every flick they offered, but by 2003, you could start to tell that maybe, just maybe, Pixar’s appeal was starting to wane. Sure, a sequel to Toy Story works perfectly, because who doesn’t love talking toys, but talking sea-creatures? And one that involves one fish being lost and, hopefully, found?

Well, regarldess, none of this talk matters. Finding Nemo wasn’t just a hit commercially, but it also showed that everything Pixar was able to do with their first couple of movies, they were still able to carry-on with and remind everyone that they were the voice and brand-name to be reckoned with when it came to the world of animation. Nowadays, it seems as if they’ve fallen a tad off the ladder, but still, Finding Nemo, as it still lies, works.

The visuals, for one, are as beautiful as they ever have been. Given that the story literally takes place under the sea, it only makes perfect sense that every bit of Finding Nemo be as eye-engaging and beautiful as the bit before it. Heck, even after it being over 13 years of this thing being out and about, you’d think that at least some portion of it looks dated, or doesn’t quite hold-up; technology has, believe it or not, gotten a whole lot better and Pixar has definitely shown this. But nope, it’s still a beautiful movie.

And I’m not just talking about the visuals, either, although they are quite great to look at.

The greatest aspect of Finding Nemo is that it wears its heart on its sleeves practially the whole way through. It all starts off somber, tragic and absolutely upsetting for the first five minutes, but sooner than later, turns into this pleasant, relatively sweet story about overcoming one’s fears, adversities, and own handicaps to get something in life, as well as making one’s self better. While, yes, you could most definitely chalk that same message/theme to every other Pixar movie ever released, the fact remains that it still works and hits close to home here, even if you also get the idea that maybe Pixar wore it on a bit too strong?

Maybe? Eh?

Then again, maybe not. What Finding Nemo works best in is that it allows for its story to hit the emotional archs and all that, but also bring on the funny, too. There’s so many silly and lovely side characters that, honestly, it’s not hard to want to see a movie about them. There’s the sharks going through AA for blood; there’s the sea turtles who live the rock ‘n roll lifestyle like bro-ish surfers; and most especially, there’s the sea creatures stuck in a fish bowl who want nothing more than to escape this unforgiving prison. Of course, Finding Nemo gives all of these characters their chances to shine, but what matters most is that none of them feel like throway gags that Pixar thrown in there to create more toys, or because, well, they were bored; each and every character serves a greater purpose to the story and helps it move along.

Cowabunga dudes!

Cowabunga dudes!

And yeah, while I’m on about the characters, I might as well say that the voice-casting is probably the ballsiest, yet, smartest bit of casting Pixar has ever done. Albert Brooks’ gruff, yet slightly neurotic voice is perfect for the overly neurotic and scared Marlin, who is easy to warm up to, especially since we know that Brooks is such a lovely presence on the screen. But it’s strange that he was cast in the role, because honestly, he wasn’t all that big at the time of this release; it’s hard to say if Finding Nemo helped revitalize his career (he’s not on the screen at all and half the people who saw it probably have no clue who Albert Brooks is), but hey, if it’s a role that utilizes him well, then so be it.

But really, the star of the show is Ellen DeGeneras’ Dory.

Now, despite this too being a voice-role, Dory’s the character that definitely regenerized DeGeneras’ career for the greater good of society. The character allows for her to get as high-pitched and silly as she wants, without ever seeming as if she’s over-doing it to a huge exteme. In fact, it’s the right bit of goofiness and charm that works well for this character, as well as DeGeneras, because even if we do want to strangle Dory at times, it’s still hard not to want to see her and be around her more.

Probably why she’s getting her own flick, now that I think about it.

Consensus: Just as you’d expect from Pixar, Finding Nemo is a heartfelt, sweet, honest, fun, and downright hilarious tale of adventure, family and love, which is what makes it all the more great.

9 / 10

Yeah, now you're lost.

Yeah, now you’re lost.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Warcraft (2016)

Another day, another good video-game, another “meh” video-game adaptation.

Looking to escape from his dying world, the orc shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) utilizes dark magic to open a portal to the human realm of Azeroth. Supported by his fierce fighters, Gul’dan organizes the orc clans into a conquering army called that they call “the Horde”. Among them is one such orc named Durotan (Toby Kebbell), who not only has a new family on the way, but also appears to be more of a free-thinker than the rest of his fellow orcs. Sure, he’ll follow rules and orders, but he questions them, too, and doesn’t seem perfectly set out to just die for a cause he knows little to nothing about. On the opposite side of the spectrum, and looking to unite and protect Azeroth from these orc invaders is King Llane (Dominic Cooper), the mighty warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the powerful wizard Medivh (Ben Foster). As the two sides begin to battle one another and inch closer and closer to a finale, they also start to question whether or not all of this hate, anger and violence is the answer after all.

Orcs don't have dental plans?

Orcs don’t have dental plans?

So yeah, Warcraft is an adaptation of the video-games and really, I’m not going to get down to which ones it’s necessarily using as a platform, nor am I going to go into great deal about the video-game itself because, well, I don’t have much experience with it. Sure, I’ve played it once or twice and have, often times, enjoyed myself, but really, it just wasn’t my bag, unfortunately. I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard, but regardless, none of that really matters because it did nothing to my expectations for this movie, except knowing that it was another video-game adaptation.

However, this time, it was directed by one Duncan Jones.

Jones, in my mind at least, is still 2-0; Moon is a great movie and Source Code is just fine. However, what Jones shows as a director is that he’s willing and perfectly able to take simple genre movies and give us something completely different than what we can expect. Sci-fi is definitely the world in which he likes to lay-out and put his toes in the sand in, but he also aims for a little something higher, as he knows that sometimes, the best sci-fi isn’t the kind that alienates everyone except for the die-hards – sometimes, it’s what gets the alienated to feel apart of something that really matters.

That’s why Warcraft, while it may be definitely running and gunning for its key audience, does everything that I’m sure said audience expects. There’s a lot of magic; characters talking in strange languages we don’t understand; battle-scenes; and yes, a whole bunch of CGI. Does that make the movie bad? Not really. In fact, I’ll give Jones credit for at least doing almost all of these aspects well; the story may be incredibly lacking, but when the action is on the screen, it’s never boring and it helps that the powers these orcs and these human warriors have, is at least clearly enough spelt-out to where we understand what sorts of powers lie on both sides.

Then again, the story is pretty lame and it’s what causes the whole film to fall by the wayside.

Jones definitely seems like his main concern was getting us to believe in this universe and if that was indeed the case, then a job well done on his part. This majestical, fantastical world that Jones has made for the big screen not only works at capturing the imagination, but also makes you want to wonder about it more. While in the game, you could go almost anywhere and everywhere you wanted, here, we’re unfortunately to places that look great, but ultimately, we want to travel out into ourselves.

Poor, Paula. When will her agent just go away.

Poor, Paula. When will her agent just go away!

And honestly, that’s the biggest issue with these video-game movies, not just Warcraft. People want to play these games so much, that when they don’t feel as if they are, they aren’t enjoying anything. That’s why the action scenes, as few as they come by, are exciting and fun for the time being, because they give you that idea that you’re playing a video-game, as opposed to just watching one being played by somebody else. But whenever that action goes away, and the story kicks in, Warcraft loses any sort of sizzle, spice, or fun it had going for itself.

If anything, it can just be boring.

Cause honestly, by now, it doesn’t matter how much you dress it up, or what sort of different brand-name you give it, the battle between good and evil will always be the same. Warcraft wants to appear as if it’s some new breed of story-telling, but honestly, is just a less compelling take on something like Lord of the Rings, or better yet, the Hobbit. And if anything, those movies had something of a clear plot going on that made sense of everything – Warcraft tries to have that, but never makes sense of itself.

And really, I feel like Jones got lost here and was left without a paddle to swim with. He took on this project from the very beginning, so it’s not as if I feel sympathy for him, but honestly, it’s not hard to see someone struggling to keep their cool together, even when the rest of the film is falling around him. This isn’t to say that Warcraft is terrible either – for the key demographic, it gets just about everything right – but also, that’s about. Outsiders looking in may continue to look elsewhere because, for some reason, they missed-out on playing a video-game.

Shame.

Consensus: Despite getting everything right for the people who are going to trek out to see it, Warcraft still suffers from a boring story, a lack of strong characters, and never the sense that it wants to be more than just a “video-game movie”.

5 / 10

"FREEDOM! OR SOMETHING!"

“FREEDOM! OR SOMETHING!”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

Can Windex heal marriages?

Toula (Nia Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) have been together for quite some time and now that their daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) is old enough to start thinking about what she wants to do with the rest of her life, they can’t help but feel a tad bit hopeless. Both have their own lives going on separately, and even if they do have a date every so often, it seems as if the spark is lost. But to add some insult to injury, now Toula has to worry about what her parents are doing, now that everyone’s found out that their marriage-license was never signed, making the marriage “invalid”. Toula’s parents feel differently about the situation; while her father (Michael Constantine) wants to just get it over with already so that everything can be official, Toula’s mom (Lainie Kazan) instead wants there to be some time and dedication laid out for it so it doesn’t just feel all rushed and the romance is left out of the proceedings. It’s going to take a lot for Toula to get her whole family in check, which is why she decides that it’s time for another big, fat Greek wedding, however this time, one that will be a tad different than the one before.

No stronger bond than a mother and her mamma's boy.

No stronger bond than a mother and her mamma’s boy.

There’s no denying that Nia Vardalos loves everything about her Big Fat Greek Wedding stories and characters. She loves the idea of being Greek, the traditions that family’s try to pass down from each generation to the next, and she also loves, in a way, how crazy everyone and everything can get within these families, which is why most of My Big Fat Greek Wedding one and two is, essentially, the same and chock full of that. Greek family members are always frowning on the new generation, women are told to get married before their eggs dry up (even if they’re only 18 or so), outsiders are looked down upon because of their non-Greek heritage, and yes, everyone else around them just doesn’t get it.

After all, they’re not Greek, so why should they?

And this is all to ask the simple question: Does My Big Fat Greek Wedding constitue a sequel? Well, no, not really. In fact, it’s pretty damn clear that the movie is made-up so that Vardalos herslef can get the whole gang back together, have some laughs, get a tad bit nostalgia and, yes, get some money in the meantime. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a heart or soul to be located here, but it’s hard not to feel a tad bit manipulated when you know that this is a sequel that the world could have waited for longer, or to have never gotten.

While the central plotline is the marriage between Toula’s parents, there’s a whole lot going on around them all that it’s obvious the movie’s just using the “wedding” as a crutch; essentially, if it’s in the title, you kind of have to deliver on the promise. And that’s fine, but nothing going on is ever all that interesting; Toula and Ian’s marriage gets some bits of intrigue when they fight and rant about the cost of marriage and how they’re growing up, but honestly, that’s about. There’s a random subplot involving Joey Fatone’s character, who had maybe ten minutes of screen-time in the first; there’s Paris’ own personal and professional life; and there’s also one involving Toula’s dad finding out if he’s actually related to Alexander the Great or not.

Many years later and guess what? They still want to topple all over one another!

Many years later and guess what? They still want to topple all over one another!

Sure, none of this should really take up a whole 90-minute flick, but for some reason, it actually does and they’re straining. You can tell that Vardalos wants these characters around and to matter, so in order to do that, she creates some more stories for them to grow and work with. It’s not as effective as it was in the first movie, because, well, everything was fine, fresh and brand-spankin’ new – now, these characters don’t have much of a shock or surprise value.

I can imagine that lovers of the first (of which there are many) will see My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, knowing full well that they’re going to be happy with it and that’s fine. Vardalos isn’t trying to recruit anyone who may not already be interested – insted, she’s just doing a little something for herself and all of the damn fans who wouldn’t stop bothering her about another movie. It’s smart, too, because the movie goes down a lot smoother than you’d expect.

The acting is fine and can be, at a few times, quite sweet, but really, nobody here ever gets to shine through of being cariacature. And yes, that’s fine; the way Vardalos has written each and everyone of them makes it appear as if they’re sitcom players, but deep down inside, they have some feelings. Sometimes, it’s too hard to look past the corniness, but eventually, because everyone here is charming and all that, it’s hard to fully matter.

In fact, just shut up and enjoy the wedding.

Consensus: Unnecessary, yes, but also still pleasant enough, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 brings back together all of the beloved characters and gag from the first movie, to a lesser extent.

5.5 / 10

The fam's back! Let the binge-drinking begin!

The fam’s back! Let the binge-drinking begin!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

David Blaine was more convincing.

After fleeing from the public eye, the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Lizzy Caplan) Dave Franco) have now decided to get back in the game of stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor, all for the beloved and mysterious “Eye”. However, they all land themselves in some deep water when a billionaire who’s money they once took (Daniel Radcliffe), wants them all to do another heist, but for him only. The Horsemen have no option, so obviously, they set out to make sure that the heist goes as perfectly planned as possible, even when there’s the unpredictable factor of magic around. Meanwhile, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is still trying his hardest to keep his disguise, while also trying to hatch together some sort of plan his own plot against Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man whom he blames for the death of his dad, some many years ago. But eventually, he’s going to have to run into the Horsemen and help them get out of this sticky situation, alive, well, and still capable of performing tricks for the greater good of society.

Lead 'em, Jess-man.

Lead ’em, Jess-man.

The first Now You See me was fine. At the very least, it was a lazy summer blockbuster that used fancy, cool-looking visuals as a way to say, “Oh, wow. Magic!”, when, in reality, all they were doing was trying to hide the fact that there were no real believable plots or twists in their own story. Instead, they were just phony, but because they’re taking place within a story that features a bunch of people performing and acting out magic tricks, then yeah, fine, they don’t need to make any sense.

But honestly, that was the least of my problems with that movie and, to a greater extent.

While I can get over the sheer manipulation of their twists and turns, I can’t get over the fact that Now You See Me 2 has more characters than the first, but at the same time, still doesn’t develop any of them. And that’s a huge problem when you take into consideration that the characters from the first movie still have nothing to them other than, uh, well, that they’re “magicians” and uh, yeah, that’s about it. Sure, they all have backstory, but a personality other than snarky? Not really.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, had it not been for some of the great actors in these roles, these two movies, as well as the characters themselves, would just absolutely fail. No one really has anything going for them and because the actors themselves are so vibrant and fun to watch in almost everything else they do that isn’t this, it’s kind of hard not to feel disappointed. You know that almost everyone here is better than what they’re being offered, yet, they don’t seem to care about that fact; they’re getting paid, so why the hell should they better?

If anything, though, Now You See Me 2 does remind the world that Lizzy Caplan deserves every role offered to her, if only because she truly is the real deal. Even though a lot of the material handed to her is pretty bad, she handles it all so perfectly; she’s called on to be the smarty-pants, call-it-like-it-is character who says whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and to whomever she oh so pleases. It’s a role that she seemed pitch perfect for in Mean Girls, however, hasn’t done in quite some time. Thankfully, she gets a chance to do that here and shows that this isn’t just a man’s playground – sometimes, a woman has to come in and show everyone else up.

And yeah, everyone else is fine, too.

Harry's evil? Oh my!

Harry’s evil? Oh my!

Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, and Dave Franco all do what they did in the first and it’s what they always do best: Just read lines. Newcomers like Jay Chou and Daniel Radcliffe almost don’t matter, because the script seems to have so much going on at times, that when it comes time for them to actually matter to the plot, it’s hard to care. Chou himself feels like a shameless way of ensuring that Now You See Me 2 will be an international hit, whereas Radcliffe, bravely playing against-type, never seems serious or evil enough to play someone as twisted and sick as he’s made out to be here.

In fact, I’d say that’s how it is for the rest of the movie. Because everyone involved with Now You See Me 2 takes itself in such a jokey way, none of it ever registers as being a really gripping, emotional, or thrilling movie. That’s fine and all, if all you want to do is entertain people, without offering anything beneath the surface, but sometimes, you need an extra push or pull to make it work. Now You See Me 2 exists in a world where everyone follows each other with a joke about something that isn’t funny, or makes no sense, yet, no one seems to really care; they’re all just laughing, smiling and moving on with their day.

Once again, that’s fine, but Now You See Me 2 isn’t a really fun movie. There’s maybe one or two sequences that really work, but other than that, there’s just too much talking going on about stuff that nobody cares about, or has any clue of, and way too many surprises that make literally no sense. Yes, I know that’s the beauty of film, in how they can transport us to this world where realism and simplicity doesn’t exist, but seriously, I need to have some grasp on reality. It doesn’t need to be firm – it just needs to be there so that I’m reminded that once the movie’s over, I can go home and just sit down, wait and pray that they don’t announce a third movie.

Just please. No.

Consensus: Squandering an immensely talented cast, Now You See Me 2 is an obvious cash-grab with little-to-no personality, a confusing, almost nonsensical story, and a bunch of characters who, quite frankly, are hard to care about at all.

3.5 / 10

"Rain, rain go away, that's what all my haters say."

“Rain, rain go away, that’s what all my haters say.”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Come on, ghosts! Let’s try and play nice now, ya hear!

With all of the hype and infamy surrounding the Amityville horrors, paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have become something of overnight celebrities. Everyone wants to know more about them, but they also want to question them more and figure out if everything that they say, or do with ghosts is actually real, or all just a put-on. For this reason alone, Ed and Lorraine decide to take something of a sabbatical from the paranormal-busting world and just focus on getting back to reality, where they can continue to raise their family in a carefree, quiet environment. However, when they hear about a family being terrorized somewhere in England, the Warrens can’t help but feel inspired for one more battle against the dead. This time, though, they may have met their match. And with Lorraine losing her touch with reality and starting to battle more and more with the dead and dark spirits that have been haunting since she started seeing them, it’s all coming to head and this may be the most dangerous mission they’ve had to work with yet.

Oh, those silly, little children. Always seeing dead people.

Oh, those silly, little children. Always seeing dead people.

The first Conjuring, if anything, was a fun horror movie. While a lot of people shrieked, screamed, hooted and hollered during it, the movie, at least from my point-of-view, wasn’t all that scary; sure, it had some jumps here and there, but it seemed like the movie was less about the jumps and more about the tension, the suspense and the thrill of waiting to be scared and actually having it happen. James Wan is a smart director in that he doesn’t just throw everything at us, altogether and at once – he takes time to build his pieces, so that we get a clear picture of what we’re heading into, only to then pull the rug from underneath us and have us not knowing just what the hell to expect next.

That’s why, underneath it all, the first Conjuring was a fun movie. It wasn’t great and it, for me at least, wasn’t this terrifying experience that made me go home scared of turning the lights off when I went to bed. It was a normal horror movie in that it had a simple premise, a simple ghost, and simple characters, without trying to go any further on any of that; it had a ghost who needed to be taken out of a house and well, that’s exactly what happened.

But the only reason why I bring so much of this up is because the Conjuring 2 is a step-up from the original and shows that James Wan isn’t just trying to make the same movie, over and over again.

Sure, he has the scares, the jumps, the spooks, and the ghosts on full-display here, but once again, there’s more to it than just that. In making it seem like the almost indestructible Warrens are up against the grain here, Wan has made sure that this ghost is as evil and maniacal as you can get. In fact, I’d say that the first hour of the movie is dedicated solely to this family getting slowly tormented by this spirit who, for lack of a better word, just wants people out of “his house”. Why? Well, the movie goes into a little bit of that, too, but it doesn’t always matter, because the scares are there and we know that when the Warrens come around, everything’s going to be all fine and dandy, right?

Well, no. Not really.

Wan makes the Conjuring 2 out to be a do-or-die experience where anything could go wrong, at any second, and the unpredictable nature of the spirit takes over the story and has us hoping for the best, but also expecting the worst. After all, it’s a horror movie, so obviously, bad stuff has to happen to good people, regardless of whether we want it to, or not. Wan knows this, which is why he actually allows for there to be character-development with all of the characters, not just the Warren’s.

Because the family getting terrorized by this spirit is, after all, a middle-to-low class family just getting by, with a husband who is out and about, living a different life with a neighbor, a daughter who sees things in her sleep, and a boy who has a stuttering problem, we really sympathize with them. We aren’t doing it because, oh yeah, ghosts suck and all of that, but because do they really deserve this? Obviously, no family in their right mind deserves it, but Wan really does make us ache for these characters and it’s why we really want to see the Warrens show up and, essentially, save the day.

Pretty.

Van Gogh would be proud.

But once again, Wan is a smart enough director to know that not everything can be so simple and laid-out, even in a horror movie like this. Surprisingly, there’s more to the relationship between Ed and Lorraine than the first movie ever touched on and through this second installment, Wan shows us that they really are each other’s world and without the other, they’d be nothing in this life, or the next. It’s actually kind of sweet and makes these two characters appear less as just “religious ghostbusters”, and more as a married-couple who want to help those around them, while also trying to make sure that they still come home to one another, alive, well, and happy to go on another day on solid ground.

And really, that’s why the Conjuring 2 is better than the first.

Wan seems like he’s more interested in going darker and deeper into this story than ever before and not just leaving everything on the surface-level. The movie does run a tad too long, however, a lot of the reason why it’s over two hours, is because there is more time dedicated to character-development, as well as more opportunities for Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to work with material that is, fine at best, but still gives them something to do, rather than just yell at goofy-looking spirits.

In fact, yeah, let’s try and work on those spirits next time, okay VFX team?

Cool.

Consensus: By adding an extra level of depth and emotion to the proceedings, the Conjuring 2 packs more of an emotional wallop to go along with all of the effective jumps and scares.

8 / 10

Does she not have any posters?

Does she not have any posters?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire