Advertisements

Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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

Monthly Archives: November 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)

Being comfy is key to fighting crime.

George Beard and Harold Hutchins (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) have been friends for as long as they can remember. Mostly, they’re love for comic-books and pranks have what kept them together and such good friends for so long, but it looks like that may all start to end, with Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), the evil and pissed-off principle of their school, none too pleased with all of their hijinx. He plans on separating them and putting them into two different classes, which is a nightmare that Harold and George have had wanted to stay away from all of their lives, but now, may become all too real. However, the two decide to hypnotize Mr. Krupp into believing that he’s one of their creations, Captain Underpants, a superhero who, get this, fights crime, in his underpants. It’s something that George and Harold love to use to their advantage, but when an evil-doer like Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) comes around, promising to rid the world of laughter, the two decide that it may be time for their little joke to be used for the greater-good.

How we picture all of our elementary school principals.

Needless to say, Captain Underpants, the books, were a great part of my childhood. Every edition was better than the last and while they were no doubt filled with insane deals of potty-humor, that was kind of the point. They were much smarter books than they were given credit for, sometimes not just making me laugh, but my dad as well. Which is why when I heard they were making a movie of it, immediately, I got so defensive.

That, or I just didn’t want to be reminded that I used to laugh at something so childish and silly as this.

But hey, that’s why Captain Underpants is pretty charming: It knows what it is, makes no mistakes, and definitely doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Instead, it’s a silly little movie aimed for the whole family, because while there are a chock full of jokes aimed at the kids, there are also plenty others that the parents will appreciate, too. It’s what every animated-movie should strive for, but in fear that the box-office returns won’t be so excellent, so many stay away from.

Two hipsters in-the-making.

Thankfully, director David Soren and writer Nicholas Stoller know what they’re working with and try not to go above and beyond what’s already here. If anything, the movie runs into the problem of never seeming to settle down, with constant jokes, visual-puns, and bright, big colors, shapes, sizes, and general craziness, coming out of nowhere. It helps when a movie is always moving, never slowing, but it can also help when a movie realizes that the best way to work is to not constantly throw everything including kitchen-sink, at us all at once, but instead, a few things, and maybe not the kitchen-sink, at us, one at a time. Call me a slow-poke and too grown-up, but I don’t know, I like my movies to take a chill-pill every so often.

Even in my kids movies.

Consensus: Keeping the same heart and soul of the goofy source-material, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie doesn’t forget about the kids, nor does it forget about the adults, either.

6 / 10

What’s so funny? Let the guy live!

Photos Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

Advertisements

Power Rangers (2017)

We’re already on 90’s nostalgia?

In Angel Grove, there’s a threat lying somewhere in the sea and her name is Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). What does she intend on doing? Well, it seems like she wants to destroy the world and there’s only one team that can stop her: The Power Rangers. But who are exactly are the Power Rangers? Well, they’re a rag-tag group of teenagers who, through sheer chance and a Saturday detention, are all gifted with special powers that make them ass-kickers. There’s Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the star-quarterback who, after totaling his car, is stuck with an ankle-bracelet and has to throw away all hopes of a college scholarship; there’s Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a former cheerleader who wants to become something much more than just another one of the “bad girls”; there’s Billy (RJ Cyler) an autistic loner who doesn’t have many friends, but is incredibly smart and great with technology; there’s Trini (Becky G), who may be something of a rebel herself, for certain reasons; and then, there’s Zack (Ludi Lin), a teen who has to deal with his mother slowly dying and wants to do all that he can to make her last few years, happy ones. As one, they must band together to take down Rita and save the world.

Hologram or not, always listen to whatever Bryan Cranston says.

Even though it didn’t work wonders at the box-office and isn’t perfect, I sure do hope that the Power Rangers is granted a sequel. It’s the rare blockbuster reboot of a nostalgic series that’s smart, funny, diverse, and kind of fun, but never seems like it’s trying too hard to be something it isn’t. There’s references, Easter-eggs, call-backs, and hell, a few cameos from the old series that could have easily been lame fan-service, but instead, just feel like a nice way to remind the older fans of what once was the Power Rangers, and what’s soon to be next Power Rangers.

Or maybe not. Who knows?

Either way, I certainly hope so.

Cause what’s interesting about Power Rangers is that it’s a superhero flick, mixed with a bit of a high-school drama where the drama actually brings some heart, heft, and emotion to whatever the hell else is going on with the sci-fi. In fact, it’s very rare, but the characters here are much more interesting than any of the action, or exposition that gets thrown at us. Director Dean Israelite and writer John Gatins seem to actually care about these characters and rather than just having them written off as “types” that we’re so used to with these kinds of high school flicks, they become so much more; the fact that they are more, than what they represent, is even more of a welcome change-of-pace for a genre that seems to skip by this sort of stuff, even if it matters.

And though they’re all ridiculously hot and sexy, the cast is actually quite good in their roles. Everybody brings a great deal of charm and fun into roles that could have been boring and lifeless, with Cyler being the particular stand-out, balancing funny and sadness, sometimes, altogether and at once. They all seem to get along, too, with the chemistry working much more as they get used to one another and understand just who the other person is, where they come from, and why they deserve to be looked at as more than just another “jock”, “slut”, or “nerd”.

Eat your heart out, Michael.

That said, it’s not all great.

When it comes to the exposition and all of the crazy action, Power Rangers can lose itself a bit. While I know that this is the one thing that most fans will want to see with a Power Rangers movie, it’s a bit disappointing that some of it can be so silly and over-the-top, yet, not really fit with the rest of the movie. Like, for instance, Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa – while she’s clearly having cackling her way through every line, she’s not in the right movie. She’s perfect for a Michael Bay flick, for sure, but one where it actually seems like some heart and soul went into everything else, it doesn’t mesh.

Even the action itself by the end seems like a rehash of the Transformers movies, except this time, with a lot more cohesion and less chaos. It’s still fun and well-done, but once again, it still feels like filler for a movie that was trying to do something slightly more than we’re used to seeing. Does that in and of itself warrant it a sequel? Most definitely. But unfortunately, Hollywood may disagree with me on that.

Oh well. Another treasure of my childhood gone to waste, before my very eyes.

Consensus: With more time and care put into the actual heroes themselves, Power Rangers is much better than it has any right to be, even if the action and sci-fi stuff can get a tad tiresome.

6.5 / 10

So hip. So trendy. So not the 90’s. Boo!

Photos Courtesy of: Lionsgate Films

The Circle (2017)

Sharing is caring, guys. Now what’s your social-security?!?

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is just another young adult wasting her life away at her soulless job, taking calls and punching in data. She wants so much more, but she doesn’t know just what that is. That’s why when she gets the opportunity of a lifetime, she grabs it and doesn’t let go. The high-tech company is called the Circle and although Mae will be working an entry-level job there, it’s enough to get her foot in the door and hopefully, give her a chance to take care of her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, tragically enough). But while there, Mae realizes that something’s up with just about everyone who works there; they all want to know what she’s up to, they have so much information on her and her life, they want her to participate more, and oh yeah, they want see what Mae is up to, day in and day out. While Mae is initially for it, attaching a camera to her shirt so that the whole world-wide web can see her every move, it starts to take a negative toll on her, as well as those around her. But the CEO (Tom Hanks) is taking notice, so what can be so wrong about that?

Nerds, please don’t rejoice.

Despite a great cast, a great director (James Ponsoldt), and oh yeah, a great writer (Dave Eggers), the Circle is far from great. In fact, it’s the kind of misguided and ridiculously messy piece of techno-junk that should have been better because of the themes about privacy and the internet it touches on, but also seems like it was written maybe a decade ago and never really updated to really reflect current-day issues. I’d expect less from people who probably didn’t know what they were doing, or talking about, but everyone here not only knows better, but they should definitely know what they’re talking about.

So what gave?

Well, whatever the real reasons are, the Circle seems like a rushed-job that, at about halfway through filming, everybody sort of gave up on and you can sort of tell. The editing is so choppy and amateurish, even certain character’s words don’t match up with their mouths. Even worse is that when there are opportunities to create real, genuine tension, the movie mixes-and-matches with its cuts, as if it’s too afraid you’ll get bored by just one static shot on Tom Hanks, or Emma Watson, or John Boyega, or Bill Paxton, or Karen Gillan, or hell, anyone else here! Why so many talented and smart people seem to fell for this thing, is totally beyond me, because you can even tell that the script, no matter how many times it was rewritten, just didn’t fully come together.

For instance, it’s supposed to be a thriller about the internet-age taking advantage of people and their lack of privacy, but also doesn’t seem to understand that the real world is far too smart to take a huge company like this seriously. Like why would someone as young as Mae be so cool with signing her life away, when she knows that the only way for it to end, is for it to end horribly wrong? Her character is confusing too, in that she seems like she’s a smart fire-cracker who may be a tad bit naive, but the way she acts when she’s at the company is far too idiotic to take serious.

The most lovably evil corporate-heads ever.

It also doesn’t help that Emma Watson isn’t very good in this role, either.

Sure, a lot of it’s the awful script and the haphazard direction, but a great deal of it is that Mae has to go through a great deal of emotions throughout and it doesn’t seem like Watson has that range. She’s either too quiet, or pouty, but without ever expressing rage or sheer anger. It’s odd, really.

And sadly, nobody else fares any better. Like, you’d think that the prospect of Tom Hanks playing something of a bad guy would bring about some interest, as mild as it may be, but even his character seems weirdly-written. He’s not nefarious in the sense that he’s trying to take over the world and kill everybody, but he’s just a little shady in the sense that he wants everybody to broadcast every second of their lives, every day, no matter what. So, does that make him a bad guy, or the people who fall for his crap just really, really dumb?

Who knows? Actually, who cares. This movie sucks.

Consensus: Even with a solid cast and crew on-board, the Circle never comes together, seeming like it doesn’t know what it’s talking about, or doesn’t know what it wants to say about literally anything.

3 / 10

See this face and that expression? Get used to it for two hours.

Photos Courtesy of: EuropaCorp / STXfilms

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

Who needs one Fast & Furious franchise, when you could have so, so many more?

It’s been many years since we last saw him and as it turns out, daredevil operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) wasn’t doing too much. He was just living big, rich and with plenty of hot, sexy women around him, having all of the fanciest and coolest parties around. But now, he’s being asked to come out of retirement for another job, with this one, hopefully, being the last. Together with a band of trusted nut-jobs just as crazy as he is, Xander must race against time to recover a sinister weapon known as Pandora’s Box, a device that controls every military satellite in the world. But of course, the job isn’t as easy as it seems, what with his arch-rival Xiang (Donnie Yen) looking to take Xander down and, possibly, even a government-conspiracy behind it all.

The only scene with Donnie Yen where there isn’t 20 cuts-a-minute. Maybe.

Return of Xander Cage is clearly trying to make the original xXx look a subtle indie flick, and in a way, that’s fine. The first, while not at all perfect, is often too tame and to held-back by its own edginess to be anything more than just a lackluster attempt at creating a James Bond for the MTV-generation. Now, it seems like the MTV-generation has gone the way of the Dodo and it’s up to its sequel to be the James Bond for the Snapchat crowd.

For better, as well as for worse.

Look, there’s no denying that Xander Cage knows what it is and isn’t making any sort of apologies for itself and that’s fine. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s stupid, it makes literally no sense, it destroys all laws of physics, and yes, it features some of the corniest one-liners in the history of corny action movies. But it’s also a bit too much, which may make it seem like I’m just another self-serious movie-goer who expects high-art with everything he sees.

Is some of that true? Yeah, why not? But trust me, I know and expect Xander Cage not to be an Oscar-worthy film; I just expect it to be a solid action-flick that takes itself somewhat seriously, gives me fun, exciting action set-pieces, and oh yeah, maybe even a believable, charismatic character here and there. It doesn’t have to fly me to the moon or knock it out of the park with every aspect of its creation, but it also doesn’t have to be a total joke of a movie that, without the fancy special-effects, ensemble cast of characters, and huge budget, me and my buddies could have made, drunk off of our asses, tongue-firmly-in-cheek.

All the ladies need a little Vinnie D.

But nope, Xander Cage is, instead, a $85 million movie that plays like a B-movie you’d find in the Wal-Mar bargain bin.

Does that make it a bad movie? Not really, because it sets out to do exactly what it wants to do – be loud, big, and stupid-as-hell – but there’s a fine line between “having fun”, and just “being idiotic”. Xander Cage crosses that line right from the get-go and never seems to even bother to go back; the large stunts, for instance, while awfully imaginative, are clearly so fake, you can almost see the green still left on the screen. No character has a single bit of serious dialogue, with talented actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Donnie Yen, Rory McCann, Tony Jaa, and hell, even Diesel himself, really chumming their ways through the whole thing, making it seem especially obvious that they’re in it for the money and not much else. It’s a shame too, because large blockbusters like this can actually have something resembling a heart, a soul, and hell, even cohesion (like the Fast & Furious franchise), but nobody here seems to be bothered with that.

They’re just throwing whatever at the wall, seeing what sticks, and rolling the camera.

And trust me, that’s not as fun as it sounds.

Consensus: Big, loud, expensive, crazy, stupid, and ridiculous, Return of Xander Cage is exactly what it wants to be, but also doesn’t become much else beyond that.

5 / 10

Fur coat off. Sexy.

Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Sweet Virginia (2017)

Wow. Virginia’s an angry place. Who’da thunk it?

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is an ex-rodeo rider who has seen his better years go by. After a career-ending injury, he’s been managing the Sweet Virginia hotel, where instead of riding on top of bulls, he’s riding on top of guests for being too loud or not paying. It’s a sad life he lives, but if there is one glimmer of hope, it’s Bernadette (Rosemarie Dewitt), who he wants to be more serious with, despite the fact that she’s married. But their lives begin to change when her brother (Jonathan Tucker) is randomly killed, leaving her and his wife (Imogen Poots) left with the bulk of the estate to deal with. And to add a little bit of sizzle to their lives, in walks Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a guest at the hotel who takes a liking to Sam, in a rather creepy way. But who is this guy really? Is he behind any of this? Or, is he just a lonely traveler, navigating throughout the world on his own, without a care in the world?

“Daredevil? Yeah, my series is way better. Buzz off.”

It’s interesting that Sweet Virginia came out the same weekend the Punisher was released on Netflix, as they both feature Jon Bernthal in a lead role, but both also display two different sides of him. In the Punisher, he’s a mad, sad, and scary man with a rough past, and an even rougher set of skills that he uses to kill people in some of the most disturbing, heinous ways imaginable. In Sweet Virginia, Bernthal plays a sad man with a rough past, but he’s also a lot sweeter and more gentle than Frank Castle; whereas Castle wold much prefer to break the bones of those who do him wrong, Sam would like to just hash it out and see if the issue can be solved.

It’s a neat contrast that highlights why Bernthal is such a good actor, because he’s able to be both likable and charming, but also a tad bit dangerous. Which is to say that Bernthal is quite good here, but he’s not the main-draw – it’s really Christopher Abbott’s insanely crazy role as the unhinged and wildly unpredictable Elwood, a character who keeps Sweet Virginia shaking at its core. It such an effective performance that when everything seems all sweet, happy and simple, you can’t help but forget that somewhere out there, lurking in the shadows, is this genuine nut-ball who isn’t afraid to do, or say, whatever comes next to him.

Once again, it’s another sure sign that Abbott is slowly becoming one of our better actors.

How could a face like that be so evil?

Which is why Sweet Virginia, as good as the cast may be, can sometimes seem like it’s depending on them just a tad too much. The story is there and while it’s definitely about these small, sad lives in this equally as sad, small town, it just never becomes as tense as it should. There comes a point where we sort of see it going where it has to go and while it may want to shock and surprise, it doesn’t really do that. It’s more of an interesting character-study that also happens to feature a bunch of blood, violence, guns, and crime.

That said, the performances are still more than enough reason to sit around and watch everything that happens. We get to learn more about them, who they are, what makes them tick, and just why they have a movie about them. Dewitt’s Bernadette, while she could have easily come-off like a cheap floozy, cheating on her husband, taking advantage of the depressed Sam, actually turns out to be a genuine person who wants a love in her life that’s meaningful for once. Even Imogen Poots widow character, although unlikable, is still fascinating in her reasons why. We grow to learn more about these characters as time goes on and although the plot may come second, that’s quite alright with these performers.

Consensus: With a solid cast, including a terrific stand-out from Abbott, Sweet Virginia works best as a slow, contained and rather tense character-study.

6.5 / 10

Who’s hair is more gelled?

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films

Crown Heights (2017)

Once again. Not. Much. Has. Changed.

Colin Warner (LaKeith Stanfield) is just another teenager living in Brooklyn. He’s an immigrant from Jamaica who is getting used to his surroundings, has a girlfriend, a job of stealing things, and oh yeah, plans on going to college. If not now, then at least sometime soon. That all changes, however, when the police arrest and charge him with murder. Colin has no clue who the victim was or who actually did it, but the police say they have witness-testimony of someone who looks like Colin, so it has to be him, right? Well, no, but still, Colin gets locked away for a little over two decades, without any sign of hope whatsoever. The only breath of fresh air he has is that his best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), is fighting for his innocence on the outside and doing all that he can to get a retrial and to prove that once and for all, Colin did not murder someone.

A conjugal, or dream? Who cares, right?

If it weren’t for the true story behind it, Crown Heights would have been another conventional, run-of-the-mill biopic about injustice and racism in America. Even if it wasn’t based-off of a true story, it would still hold an amount of truth and harsh honesty that with the current prison-system we have in America, makes it all the more of a bitter pill to swallow. But as it is, on its own, true story-aspect or not, it’s still a conventional, run-of-the-mill biopic about injustice and racism in America.

In a way, you want to give it a passing-grade because it’s a story that can be told one too many times, but you also don’t want to get past the fact that it really doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table that the Hurricane didn’t already do, almost 20 years ago. If anything, Crown Heights proves that the human spirit is the most powerful force of all and the fight for justice, should never wane, no matter how many years go by, no matter how much money is lost, and how much hope is lost in the wind. It’s a little schmaltzy and most definitely cheesy, but hey, it’s true.

Oh, and yeah, it’s a true story.

Eagles best corner-back. Just saying.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin does try, time and time again to really let this material jump off the screen, but it doesn’t ever happen. There are times when it flirts with true tension (like whenever it’s in the courtroom), but it never becomes more than just a sad story of an investigation gone wrong and a life possibly lost to an already corrupt justice system. As it is, it probably would have worked much better as a documentary, where we would have been able to get all of the information thrown at us, with such quickness and velocity, that it didn’t matter if we already knew how it ended. Documentaries allow for a human-face to be shown and it’s why true-crime documentaries are currently the bee’s knees today – they can be quick, fun, sad, exciting, and most of all, suspenseful.

Crown Heights never comes close to that and it’s a shame. Even LaKeith Stanfield, who is slowly becoming a leading-presence to keep an eye on, seems wasted on a role that keeps him playing one-note, the whole way through. He’s either sad, wistful, or crying and it can get to be a bit draining. Due to him being in jail, too, Stanfield doesn’t really get to do all that much with those around him, except for the scenes he has with Asomugha or Natalie Paul’s Antoinette. Everyone here tries, but like I said, if the material just isn’t there, there’s only so much they can do.

Consensus: Crown Heights is an unfortunate story, trapped in an unfortunately dull and lifeless movie that, without a great deal of truth behind it, would have been another cable-TV movie-of-the-week.

5 / 10

Too many faces like him, going through the same crap as him.

Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios and IFC Films

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – With a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (2017)

Oh yeah. That movie named after that R.E.M. song.

In one of the biggest roles of his already amazing career, Jim Carrey was set to portray one of the oddest comedians of our day: Andy Kaufman. But because Carrey wanted to do the role justice and honor the legacy of his late hero, he went full-on method throughout the role, literally speaking and acting like Kaufman, regardless of whether or not the cameras were actually rolling. The footage itself has been locked away in a vault for nearly 20 years, but now it’s out and we get to see the true mayhem and craziness that took place, both on and off the set of Man on the Moon.

Jim & Andy will probably give people much more admiration for Jim Carrey, the actor, as opposed to the persona that he constantly plays out there in public. As of late, Carrey seems to have had a screw-loose and with the personal tragedies that he’s hit, it’s no surprise. It’s sad and awful, but it also calls into question why he’s acting the way he is: Was he always this crazy and we just didn’t care? Or, is he genuinely having a nervous-breakdown, but nobody knows whether or not to take it as serious because it’s one of the world’s most known funny-men, Jim Carrey?

Can’t tell who’s playing who here.

Either way, Jim & Andy will remind you that, first and foremost, Jim Carrey is a great actor. He may not always show it and may not always care, but when given the opportunity to, he can work wonders and have us forget about Fire Marshall Bill for a few hours. You could chalk Jim & Andy up to being a puff-piece for Carrey and to show the great workman that he is, or you could chalk it up to being an honest, behind-the-scenes look at Carrey, in character, for a movie that, honestly, hasn’t really stayed around as much as people would like.

But still, that aside, Jim & Andy is a solid piece of work that gives us complete access to the sheer craziness that was the production of Man on the Moon and it works mostly because director Chris Smith was able to track down this footage, get the “okay” from the studio, from Carrey, and just let us soak it all in. It makes sense why the studio wanted to hold on to this footage for as long as they did; Carrey does look like an asshole, but it also makes the rest of the production highly unprofessional and a little amateurish.

Yeah, I don’t know what he’s been smoking, either. Hopefully he stops?

But that’s also what makes Jim & Andy so much fun to watch.

We get to see a Jim Carrey like never before and because he’s the only interview here, hear him like never before, either. Sure, he, as well as the movie itself, get a bit too carried away with all of the philosophizing about life, comedy, entertainment, and the meaning of the universe, but when it’s just focusing on Carrey in-characetr, practically egging on everyone around him, it’s truly astonishing. We sit there wondering how long or far this could go on for, and whether or not Carrey himself ever regrets it.

In all honesty, the answers aren’t all that easy to come by, which makes Jim & Andy something of a mystery. It’s not as particularly as deep of a documentary as it hopes it is, or wants itself to be, but it is a solid documentary that pulls back the curtain, shows us the man beyond the laughter, the funny-faces, and the general goofiness, and reveals a hard-worker who did anything and everything to make the role work to perfection. Even if that meant literally making a joke out of one of the greatest directors ever (Miloš Forman), or making a mortal enemy out of Jerry Lawler, it was all for the tribute.

Even if, yeah, the end-result was something magical, within something that was a tad mediocre.

Consensus: Raw, funny, entertaining, and surprisingly chaotic, Jim & Andy is the kind of interesting documentary that doubles as a look at the life of Jim Carrey, but also doesn’t reach the ambitions it sets for itself.

7 / 10

“That means that Mighty Mouse, is on his way!”

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Always truth in advertising.

After months of her daughter’s rape-murder investigation stalling, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides that it’s time to let the world know of her annoyance and pain. She gets the grand idea of renting out three billboards, right outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which read: “RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. It’s enough to get her point across, but also to piss-off everyone in town, including Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), who has cancer and is just trying to live out the last few years of his life in peace and solitude. However, the whole town turns on Mildred and her sense of anarchy, which makes her public enemy #1 in the eyes of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a police-officer who uses his mouth and knight-stick, more than he actually uses his head and code-of-conduct. In fact, that seems to be a general problem with this little town of Ebbing, wherein minorities are still mistreated, corruption is still swept under the rug, and oh yeah, rape-murder cases, where all sorts of DNA is to be found, don’t ever get solved.

Just bone already. He’s got a few months left. Might as well.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh has proved with his movies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and this) that he doesn’t really care about what people like, don’t like, what’s considered “politically correct”, or not. He likes to write despicable, sometimes inhumane characters who say what they want, do what they want, and whenever they want, regardless of what kind of audience is out there to accept it and see it for what it is. In a way, that makes McDonagh a true risk-taker and a brash talent to keep an eye on.

It’s also why Three Billboards will really rub people the wrong way, as well as it should.

McDonagh writes a lot of questionable dialogue, for sure; the use of the word “retard”, the n-word, and “c**t”, to name a few, are spewed quite a few times by just about every character. Obviously, this is meant to shock and surprise us, but it’s also meant to get us closer and closer to this town, these characters, the lives they live, and give us an even better idea of what small-town America look, sounds, and acts like, post-Trump. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of cursing, a lot of misogyny, a lot of racism, a lot of corruption, and oh yeah, nobody gives a shit, because we’re supposed to be making America great again.

Whether or not McDonagh intended for this metaphor to be drawn or not, doesn’t entirely matter; it’s what how we view the movie, in this context that matters most and it’s why I’m able to give this movie, like his others, a pass. McDonagh doesn’t seem to love or entirely adore the way these characters are and the way they talk, but he’s more so fascinated by them and if anything, it’s why Three Billboards works much more than it should. It’s the kind of movie that likes to beat-up and make fun of its characters, while also realizing that they’re human, accepting them, and asking for us to do the same.

And at the same time, still being a very smart, well-written, hilarious, and sometimes tense dramedy that doesn’t know when to stop making jokes, or being mean.

And yet again, there’s something fun about that. McDonagh’s dialogue, while highly stylized and unrealistic, is also snappy and filled with something to laugh, while simultaneously, think about. A whole diatribe about how the clergy and the Crips and Bloods aren’t too different from one another, while seemingly out of left-field, is also a bit of dialogue that only McDonagh could make work, regardless of if it matters to the plot or not. McDonagh has a couple of speeches that are just like this – they don’t really matter to the plot, but they’re fun to listen to – but they also seem to exist in this world where everyone’s always thinking and having something smart to say, even if they themselves may not be all that smart to begin with.

Love him, or hate him. Actually, just love him.

But like I said, it’s the three-dimensional characters here that really allow for Three Bilboards to go above and beyond just being a bunch of funny pieces of dialogue, strung-together with a rubber-band. Frances McDormand, as per usual, is amazing as Mildred Hayes, a role that seems to have been written for her, only because it’s the same role she’s been playing for the past 30 or so years. Yet, it never gets old. She’s still sassy, rough, tough, and seeming like the smartest person in the room, but she’s also a human being, with a real heart, soul, and sense of humanity that shows up in surprising, but earned ways. A lot of McDonagh’s dialogue, coming out of the wrong mouths, just wouldn’t work, but thankfully, McDormand’s isn’t one of them.

Why am I talking about Frances McDormand’s mouth?

Anyway, she’s aided by a solid supporting cast who, like McDormand, know what material they’re dealing with and make it work. Harrelson’s Willoughby is a tragic and sad soul, and builds a nice chemistry with Mildred; Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son who’s all sorts of angsty, but still fits; John Hakwes shows up as the abusive and mean ex-husband, and is surprisingly effective; and Peter Dinklage, when not seeming like the butt of every dwarf-joke thrown his way, still gives us a sweet character who genuinely seems to love and appreciate Mildred. Then, there’s Sam Rockwell who, once again, proves why he’s one of the best actors working today. As Dixon, he’s still got that charm we all know and love him for, but there’s something deeper, darker, and meaner to him than we’ve seen before. It’s a slight change-of-pace for Rockwell, but it’s a welcome one that gives us a character we learn to love to hate and it will hopefully give Rockwell some sort of Academy love.

Then again, probably not.

Consensus: As per usual with McDonagh, Three Billboards is rash, brash, mean, and a little distasteful, but by the same token, funny, well-acted, unpredictable, and even heartfelt, once you get past all of the cursing.

8.5 / 10

I guess billboards are still a thing, post-Y2K.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Coco (2017)

It’s basically Day of the Dead. Without Romero. Or political allegories.

Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) dreams of one day becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Somehow, because he want so desperately to prove the talent that he has, Miguel ends up in the Land of the Dead, where he’s stuck there with all of his dead-relatives, as well as the dead-relatives of practically everybody else on the face of the planet. There, Miguel meets Hector (Gael García Bernal), who concocts a plan with him: He’ll help Miguel get to Ernesto, if Miguel helps Hector be remembered by his family left on Earth. See, the one rule of the Land of the Dead is that if nobody on Earth remembers you, then you automatically go away forever and it’s a fear that’s about to become very real for Hector. And as for Miguel, he has to find a way to become human, once again, before he is stuck in the Land of the Dead for the rest of his life – something that sounds a lot cooler than it actually is.

Get ready for every human-dog duo’s costume next Halloween.

Pixar is at the point in their existence where they’ll continue to crank-out hits, no matter what. They could be originals or five sequels to Cars; they could be good, or bad; or hell, they could be literally about anyone, or anything. As long as the ideas themselves are well thought-out, fun, and most of all, family-friendly, then who the hell cares what they are?

And it’s why Coco, Pixar’s first original flick since the meh Good Dinosaur, feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s idea is weird for sure, but it’s actually fun and well thought-out, almost to the point of where you never want to leave this world that they are in, nor do you ever want to stop learning more and new interesting things about it. Co-directors and co-writers Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina seem to really appreciate this wacky, wild and colorful world and while they definitely do leave the rules of this universe up to scrutiny, they also realize that it’s not necessarily the point.

Just enjoying the picture show in front of you is all that matters and it’s why Pixar, while not always perfect, at least makes a solid dent in the ball.

*record scratch
“Hi, I’m Miguel. You’re probably wondering how I got here.”

It’s also great to see Pixar, for what seems like the first time in general, or in forever, give us a lead character of color and drop us into a world chock full of diversity and hell, without a single white person. You can even call some of the jokes and witticisms that the movie makes at the Mexican heritage a little too “on-the-nose” and “stereotypical”, but it also seems like Unkrich and Molina playing around with these same said stereotypes and turning them on their heads. There’s actual heart and levity behind them and it helps make the movie seem less like an offensive-sketch, and more like an ode to a heritage that still believes in an afterlife that isn’t so dependent on God, or constantly praying to the Lord above.

If anything, it’s more of a movie about family, the stories we tell, and how our legacy is constantly changing with the future generations to come. It’s nothing new or ground-breaking, especially in the world of Pixar, but it’s so sweet, so well-handled, and so honest, that it works. It jerks for the tears, but when they do come (and oh trust me, they will come), they feel earned and worth it, rather than just forced out of us like we’ve come to know and expect with most other animated-flicks like Coco.

Or at least, not with Pixar. They’re on a roll again and it’s getting crazy scary.

Everybody else, look out.

Consensus: The story and themes are a tad familiar, but the bright, colorful and lovely world created within Coco isn’t and it makes for another winner courtesy of Pixar.

7.5 / 10

Free Bird!

Photos Courtesy of: Disney

Mudbound (2017)

Have the times really changed all that much?

Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) meets Henry (Jason Clarke) and all of a sudden, her life changes forever. She falls in love, gets married, has two kids, and together, they all move to work on a Mississippi Delta farm, where they’ll hopefully be able to stay there in peace, love and harmony. They live next to Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) Jackson who, despite all of the troubles and turmoils they face at the hands of racism, still do what they can to get by. For Florence, she’s mostly made to work for the McAllan’s, as both a nurse and caretaker, whereas Hap gets by as a sharecropper. They’re neighbors in the sense that they live next door to one another, but don’t really know how to connect in any sort of way. That all changes when WWII ends and their family-members return, with both mental and physical scars to bare. Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is struggling with getting over his fellow soldier’s deaths and Hap and Florence’s oldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), doesn’t know if he wants to stay in America, where he’s hated and disrespected, or back to Germany, where he fell in love and was adored for the first time. Together, the two forge something of a connection that causes all sorts of issues in the Jim Crow South.

They’re besties, but could they be much, much more? The possibilities!

Dee Rees’ debut, Pariah, was something of a small wonder. It was intimate, heartfelt, sad, funny, and most of all, insightful into the way certain people of color and sexual-preferences come-of-age. It was kind of disturbing in the sense that never flinched away from an argument or a conflict it didn’t like, but was also the rare kind of movie that we don’t get to see too often of, let alone from a black lesbian film-maker.

That said, it’s even crazier to think that Rees would be handed the keys to such a large, ambitious, and over-stacked project like Mudbound, but once again, that’s why it’s great Netflix is around. They’re able to take the risks and chances that most mainstream studios are too afraid, or too dense, to ever even consider. If it was bad, Mudbound would have proven to be a different kind of mistake, but a mistake that took a risk, for once.

But that doesn’t matter because Mudbound is quite great.

Though it’s much bigger and grander than Pariah, the heartfelt and simple emotions of Pariah are still to be found in Mudbound; they’re just much more mix and matched this time around. Rather than getting one or two subplots about people’s problems, we get three, or four, or hell, maybe even five. Can it feel like a bit of overkill? Sure, but Rees knows to give every character they’re own backstory, lives, and reasons to matter in a large story like this.

It doesn’t help that the narration can get in the way of everything, but when it’s all settled and gone, Rees depends on the ensemble, all of whom are amazing. While I was a tad bit skeptical of having Australian Jason Clarke and British Carey Mulligan, play these two roles as deep and dirty Southerners, they fit in well with the roles. Clarke’s subtlety works wonders for a character who were never sure of being a total racist, or just a kind one who’s trying to get by, but also knows that there’s a lot of tension between both races. Mulligan’s great too, even though she does do the sad, pouty-face an awful lot.

Cheer up, Carey. No seriously! Stop being sad!

Maybe that’s just her trademark by now.

Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige are also quite good as Hap and Florence, with Blige really proving her acting-abilities as the heartfelt, but stern helper of the McAllan’s. Jonathan Banks also shows up as the incredibly angry and racist daddy of Henry, who always snarles his way into every scene, going on and on about blacks, whites, and the war. While this is a tired-type in these kinds of movies, Rees does her best to show that there’s much more to him than just a sad, old man. Perhaps he’s the way he is, because of the way society mandates it? Or perhaps, he’s just an angry, old codger who needs to shut his pie-hole? Either way, there’s something there that Rees touches on to make it seem like so much more than we’re used to seeing.

But at the heart of the film is both Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, both of which give Oscar-worthy performances. The two create a bond that the movie really relies on and doesn’t use to just preach and pander; it’s made to show us that two sides can connect and get along, but also to make us all realize that each and every person is the same, with their own trials and tribulations to overcome. They both have a lovely chemistry that, at times, can feel a little homoerotic, until you realize that they’re literally just in pain and have nobody else in the world to connect with – the fact that they found each other and are able to gab away, is more than enough healing for both.

Currently, these two are some of the best actors we have around and it makes me hope and wish that more great is left to come.

Hopefully.

Consensus: With an incredible cast, Mudbound finds Dee Rees taking on much more ambitious source-material, but not ever forgetting to find a humane, powerful pulse through it.

8 / 10

America: Been randomly pulling over black people ever since the invention of the wheel.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Last Flag Flying (2017)

Can’t get old. Just can’t.

Thirty years after serving together in the Vietnam War, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and the Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) reunite to help bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in Iraq. Even though it’s typically routine in these kinds of cases, Doc doesn’t want his son’s body buried at Arlington National Cemetery, so the three decide to take a trip back to his hometown of New Hampshire. It’s a road-trip, in the sense that they do a lot of travelling, whether it be by train, bus, or car, and that all three chew the fat and realizing how different each of their lives have been since they last all served and saw each other. But no matter what, no matter how old they get, how grey their hair turns, or how much they change in general, they will always be members of the Army and that is something that they wear with absolute and total pride.

Somebody didn’t come dressed.

A lot of people will hate Last Flag Flying because it’s literally just all talking, it’s slow, and it’s barely concerning itself with a central-conflict. It’s literally about three old war buddies, getting back together after all of these years, hanging out, drinking, smoking, eating, talking about the good old days, the not so good days, and oh yeah, driving to a destination that keeps changing somehow. It’s not the kind of movie you see on a Friday night, before you head-off to the clubs, nor the kind of movie you go to after a few drinks – it’s the kind of movie you see if you want chill-out, hang for a little bit, enjoy yourself, and who knows, maybe even tear-up a bit.

Some will say that’s lame and boring. But I came pretty close to loving it.

Also, it’s a movie directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, so what the hell do you expect? It’s not a movie that entirely cares about getting on with plot and trying to throw us twists and turns to keep us alive and awake; in fact, the few times that the movie does attempt to do this, it’s a little weird and clumsy. But when the movie is just the guys hanging out, talking, it’s probably more compelling than any set-in-stone plot could have taken care of.

Most movies nowadays think that just having a bunch of good actors, playing well-written characters, and working with a smart script, doesn’t really do the ticket. In a way, that can be true; it can sometimes be boring, slow, and pretentious, to a fault. But it can also benefit your movie, depending on how it’s all paced.

Linklater, as he does with all of his movies, doesn’t seem to be in any kind of a rush with Last Flag Flying, which is why it’s sort of like spending a weekend with your grandpa or uncle. Fun times will be had, beers will be drank, cigars will be smoked, and nostalgia will overtake, but it’s so easygoing and peaceful, that it’s almost like it never happened in the first place. I know that makes it sound like Last Flag Flying is just a senseless, forgetful bit of drama, but it really isn’t.

It has a heart, a soul, and a great trio of actors showing up and putting in some great work.

Hey, when Jackie don’t feel like acting anymore, might as well call up Bry. That’s what they call him in the biz, right?

As expected though, right?

Oddly enough, Last Flag Flying is a quasi-sequel to Hal Ashby’s the Last Detail, in the sense that the setting and plots are different, but the characters are still the same. It’s pretty odd and a bit distracting; you can tell that Cranston is doing the loud, obnoxious Jack Nicholson role, whereas Steve Carrel is doing the silent, stern, and demanding Randy Quaid role. But really, it doesn’t matter because the three are so good here, you forget about those movie-legends and remember that these three are even better.

Carrel’s silence is deafening throughout the whole movie, because he’s arguably the biggest star out of the three here, yet, doesn’t have much to do or say. He’s sort of like a macguffin in that the movie needs him to keep moving, but he literally never has anything to say, so it’s almost like he isn’t here. Laurence Fishburne’s role, while initially seeming like it’s going to be cliche, turns into something sweeter and darker, even if there feels like there’s more about him to be developed. Then again, that’s kind of the point; he’s closed-off such a large part of his life already, so why wouldn’t he close off much more portions of his life?

Then, there’s the aforementioned Cranston who, in the Nicholson role, is pretty great.

Sure, it’s loud, showy, and a tad annoying, but that’s truly the point of his existence. Also, Cranston himself is so endearing and charming, you grow to just love and accept the guy for who he is, what he represents, and why there are so many more men and women out there, just like him, doing the best that they to get by for a country they put their lives on the line for, and didn’t get all that much in return. It’s a shame, but it’s why we still have movies like this made.

Consensus: Despite being incredibly talky and meandering, Last Flag Flying also features smart, funny writing, with three great performers in the leads, that makes it go by so much quicker.

8 / 10

Hold those hands, Bry! Come on!

Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

Wonder (2017)

It’s 2017, kids. Grow up.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is a normal, 10-year-old kid. He has ambitions of one day becoming an astronaut, he loves his mom (Julia Roberts), his dad (Owen Wilson), his sister (Izabela Vidovic), and his dog). But he’s also been born with facial differences that, to the world around him, is scary. Those who know and love him, don’t care, but the outside world isn’t quite accepting of Auggie and the way he looks. It’s why he’s stayed away from a mainstream school and chooses to where an astronaut’s helmet, just about everywhere he goes in public. But now, that’s all about to change. Finally, after many, many years, he’s going to an actual school, with actual other classmates, and without the helmet. It’s going to be a brand new life for Auggie and it’s not just going to change him, but those around him. For better, as well as for worse.

It’s hard to really get mad at a movie like Wonder. It does everything that it sets out to do – which is, to make us cry our eyes out – and it’s just so damn sweet, so innocent, and so nice about itself, that even the thought of kicking it, let alone thinking of doing it harm, is also too much to even handle.

Don’t trust him, Auggie! All kids are evil!

But here I am, talking a little bit of smack about Wonder, against my better wishes.

Which isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, because it absolutely does. Co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky seems to have a knack for setting up these very raw and emotional scenes, giving the right cue, and then, watching as the tears begin to run. He does it at least 10-15 times here, and while not every time works, the moments in which it does, it’s hard to not think about. In a movie that’s as mild-mannered and as child-like as Wonder, it’s also a movie that isn’t afraid to get to the heart of some matters and pick at our inner-most weaknesses.

In a way, it’s kind of a sick movie, but it’s the kind of sick movie that made me happy to tear-up a little bit. It not only reminded me that I am a human, with a heart, and feelings, for once, but also that small, well-natured movies can still exist and not necessarily knock it out of the park, but be enjoyable and pleasant enough to get the job done. Even despite it being released in the heart of awards-season, Wonder is no doubt a family-movie, made for the family, and not really made for the 80-90-year-old Oscar-voters.

It’s a movie made for people who want to cry a little bit, feel all warm and gooey inside, and possibly beg for someone to hug them.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

The only issue that I, the angry, cynical d-bag that I am, have is that often times, it feels like Wonder is juggling way too much and doesn’t know how to really settle itself down, so instead, takes some easy short-cuts. For instance, rather than Wonder just being about Auggie and his adventure into being accepted in the school-system, it’s also about everybody else around him and who may have been impacted by his life. There’s his sister, his sister’s best-friend, and two friends at his school, who all seem to get their own little subplots to go along with his, which is nice to see for once.

There’s a sitcom in there somewhere.

It would have been easy for Wonder to just be all about Auggie, without ever really focusing on those around him, when in reality, that isn’t the case in real life. And the subplots we get, while a little jammed-in, help bring some more heart, emotion, and thought, to a movie that was already brimming with it. Chbosky isn’t afraid to take small risks like these and it’s nice to still see, even if it also feels like the movie would have probably worked best as, I don’t know, a miniseries.

Because while you have Auggie’s adventure getting the most of the attention, all of the other characters, while getting their times in the spotlight, still don’t feel fully realized. We get at least ten or so minutes with them, to help give us some context, and then we’re back to Auggie. In some cases, like with Noah Jupe’s Jack, we get a better understanding of his home life, but then it’s all we apparently need and we’re back to the main crux of the story, which happens to be Auggie. It doesn’t quite work as well as it should; rather than feeling like it’s giving us a much more fuller, clearer picture, it instead leaves strands of plot, sometimes dangling in the air.

Some movies can do that and get away with it. Wonder is not that movie.

Instead, it’s a movie that makes a slight step above an after-school special, with a great cast, a great director, and a solid team of writers, but still, the execution is just a tad bit off. It’s the kind of movie that all kids and families should see, because it literally speaks about how kindness can make the world a much better, much safer, and much nicer place, but it’s also the kind that’s not quite perfect.

Did it need to be? Nope, not really. But it flirts with the idea of being that and it’s a shame when it doesn’t get to that level.

Consensus: Even with noble intentions and a heartfelt direction, Wonder feels like it has too much within it, to feel complete, even at a near-two hours.

6 / 10

If Julia Roberts is your flesh and blood, facial deformity or not, you’ll turn out fine.

Photos Courtesy of: Lionsgate

Justice League (2017)

Just not the same without Superman. He’s not in this, right?

After the rather tragic death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world is in desperate need of a superhero. And with the current uprising of evil super-villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), the world is in desperate need and they need it quick. Enter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who decides that it’s time to get together all of the best and most powerful of superheros to take down this foe. There’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who we know has supreme strength and can kick all sorts of ass, when she isn’t playing with the heart and emotions of Bruce. There’s Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who can not only talk to fish, but kick all sorts of ass, too. There’s Barry Gordon, aka Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run just as fast as he runs his mouth. Then, there’s Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who uses his robot body to do, well, whatever he damn well pleases with it. Though it takes some time, the gang gets together and decides that it’s best to save the world from ultimate destruction, but for some reason, they’re just not as powerful as they think. All they need is one more hero and they’ll be set.

But who?

When you need a Quicksilver, but your movie just not funny enough. Or at all.

No matter what, I am always rooting for DC. While Marvel is clearly kicking all sorts of ass in the superhero-movie world, I still hold out hope that one day, DC will give them the opponent they probably need and deserve. And with this past summer’s Wonder Woman, hell, I thought that maybe DC was getting their act together and was ready to put up a fight. Then, after Zack Snyder had to tragically bow-out, and they were able to gather up the talents of Joss Whedon, things were looking even brighter and better. It seemed like, oh man, DC showed up to the duel and was ready to go all the way, last corporation standing, do or die.

Unfortunately, quite the opposite happens.

In fact, Justice League seems like another five steps back, when it should have definitely been the same amount, but at least forward. But for some reason, the same issues that have been plaguing their past few films (except for the aforementioned Wonder Woman), seem to still be coming up: Their just too uneven and disjointed to fully work as one, cohesive whole. Whereas Marvel seems to have a formula that they will never stray away from, it’s one that works; their movies are the right combination of humor, action, quirkiness, character-work, drama, world-building, exposition, and excitement that when they decide to mix it up every so often, it never feels like it’s going to fail. It’s a near-perfect formula that works for them each and every time and it’s the same kind of formula that DC is trying to imitate, but just can’t seem to completely comprehend.

One of the main reasons for that, at least here, may be that Whedon’s script and Snyder’s direction just don’t mix-and-match well. Like, at all. For instance, Snyder’s direction is so gloomy, so serious, and so moody, and Whedon’s bits and pieces of script are so light, silly, and in ways, meta, that they feel like two different movies. One is trying to be Dawn of Justice (not as bad as people say, especially compared to this), and the other is trying to be both Avengers movies (both are pretty solid).

And like I said, the two just don’t fit.

Just kiss already! Get this testosterone done with already!

There are some moments of pure fun and excitement to be found, however, they are incredibly fleeting. After the initial half-hour and we’re done with all of the annoying exposition, world-building, and sort-of origin-tales, the movie sort of comes together in that the gang’s all in one place, fighting, picking each other’s look apart, and oh yeah, actually building character. It takes so long to get to this point, that when we’re actually there, it’s hard to notice – but when it is there, it’s quite fun and worth watching.

Same goes for the action which, regardless of who directed it the most or not, still works. Each superhero gets to show-off their own superpower and it feels worth it. It’s almost enough to get past the fact that the movie seems sorely underwritten and so rote, but hey, at least it’s not a total slog, right?

If anything, Justice League has me at least somewhat curious to see what they do next and where they go with these solo films. After all, the main reason why some of these characters just don’t work is because we hardly even know them in the first place; Cyborg’s backstory is constantly being brought-up to us and it just gets to be annoying, because we don’t care. We’re supposed to be getting those movies in the upcoming future, but we sort of need them desperately and now.

Cause without them, DC’s just not going to be able to put up the fight that they oh so want to put up.

Consensus: Even though they get an “A” for effort, Justice League is another sign that DC has a lot of work to do, especially on its characters, its script, and its oversall management of their promising franchise.

5.5 / 10

The male-gaze is back, fellas. Yay for misogyny!

Photos Courtesy of: Warner Bros. Pictures

Lady Bird (2017)

Don’t grow up. Like ever.

Marion (Saoirse Ronan) is just like any other kid growing up in California. She longs for a life out in the North, wants to get out of her small, dilapidated home, constantly fights with her mom (Laurie Metcalf), gets along swimmingly with her father (Tracy Letts), and wants a little something more. That’s why, with this being her senior year and all, she’s poised to do right by herself, and whether that’s by studying her ass off so that she can get into the college of her dreams (NYU, of course), or by being with the hottest, most interesting guys in school, it doesn’t matter. She just wants to get by this year and if she learns a little life-lesson every so often, well then, so be it.

Despite being awfully pretentious and a little too whimsical herself, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird is surprisingly not like that at all. In fact, it’s a very straightforward, understated, subtle, and moving coming-of-ager that takes a look at a time in all of our lives, when everything was a lot nicer, sweeter, and a whole lot simpler, even if, at the time, it didn’t feel like that at all.

Don’t fall for those charms, Lady Bird! All men are the same!

Movies like Lady Bird are so up my alley, that in all honesty, I don’t even try to hate them – I know that they’re going to work their nostalgic magic on me, so it’s best to just succumb and accept it for what it is. But what makes Lady Bird so particularly special is that it seems to understand and respect that coming-of-agers can fly around a bunch of bulls**t about love, adolescence, growing up, and figuring out just what it is that makes us all tick the way we do when we’re so much younger. Gerwig’s direction, while sometimes a little too quick and snippy, feels mannered in the sense that we get these literal small snapshots into the senior year of this girl, when everything’s right on the cusp of changing and she, nor anybody else around her, really knows.

In that sense, it’s pretty sad and almost tragic. But it’s oh so beautiful because, once again, Gerwig brings no b.s.

She understands what it is about these kinds of tales that make us all swoon and feel all warm inside, while also smack our heads in annoyingly awkward, but fond memories. Lady Bird never talks down to its subject, nor does it really judge anybody else, either; it’s fair, well-mannered, and understands that the best way to have us all relate to these young, sometimes pretentious kids, is to remind us that they’re all kids, going through the same stuff we probably did, or still are going through. That means that yes, Lady Bird touches on certain issues like drugs, sex, alcohol, growing up, careers, picking colleges, unemployment, depression, family-turmoil, faith-struggles, friendships lost, anxiety, addiction, and so on and so forth, but it never feels like too much, or too little.

Everything is given plenty of time to shine and remind us that, once again, these were once our lives. It may be Gerwig’s life that’s being portrayed on the screen, but it’s still easy to feel some semblance of understanding. And it’s not as if the movie’s just getting by on pure, high school nostalgia, either – it’s a downright funny, sad, and downright touching look at this one girl’s coming-of-age – but the heartfelt memories don’t hurt, either. They help have the movie hit closer to home and feel less like it’s just Gerwig bragging about her upbringing, and instead, inviting us to register her life, with ours and grow more compassion as time goes on.

“Stop being a bitch, okay?”

Which is to say that I’m definitely excited and interested in whatever the hell else Gerwig wants to do behind-the-camera. In front of it, I’m fine with not seeing too much of for a short while, but hey, that doesn’t matter here.

What matters is that Gerwig knows how to direct a smart movie that isn’t just all about the actors, but the look, tone and general feel. That seems to be the problem with most directorial debuts from actors – they know how to get great performances out of their casts, but when it comes to everything, like plot or the visuals, it just doesn’t quite work. It can sometimes feel under-cooked and a little dull, which is why it’s always nice to get the rare occasions that work splendidly, such as this.

Sure, the performances all around here are great, with Laurie Metcalf stealing the show as the supportive, yet also brutally honest mama, but they aren’t the crutch that Gerwig hopes and depends on. She’s got more tricks up her sleeve and it makes me hope and wish for the best, whatever she decides to do next.

Possibly Lady Bird, Ten Years Later? Who knows?

Consensus: Honest, sweet, funny, well-acted, and a little sad, Lady Bird is a bright directorial-debut from Gerwig that not only doubles as a moment of self-reflection, but a great bit of nostalgia for when days were simpler, if also a whole lot more dramatic and emotional, for some damn reason.

9 / 10

True pals. For life. For now. At least.

Photos Courtesy of: A24

Step (2017)

This is why they outlaw dancing!

It’s senior year and for some students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, times are going to be tough. When they aren’t juggling school-work, boyfriends, work, family-issues, and just general things that most teens have to go through, oh yeah, they got this little thing called college coming up. For some of them, they already have their decision made and now all they have to worry about is how much money they’re going to get from their choice. However, for others, the choices aren’t so clear and as the months continue to go by, and slowly but surely, the senior year begins to fade away, so do the bigger, brighter and better opportunities for colleges that these girls want to get into. But through it all, the girls are always able and willing to fall back on their dance team, that’s not only one of the better ones in the State, but a perfect release from their stressful day-to-day lives.

Clearly channeling Bey.

Step is an interesting documentary because you could easily seeing as just being about this high school dance team and leaving it at that. And for the first half-hour or so, that’s what it is; it’s interesting and entertaining, but still a little conventional and sort of like an afterschool-special. Then, director Amanda Lipitz shows her true intentions by having the movie focus less on the dance team itself and instead, use it as a springboard to focus on the actual members themselves, their lives, their hopes, dreams, ambitions, and wishes for what the rest of their lives may turn out to be.

Aka, what college they’re going to.

And in that sense, Step is a very intriguing documentary because it literally focuses on these gals in one of the most important moment in their lives, where all of a sudden, everything becomes far more serious and adult-like. In a way, it’s kind of sweetly nostalgic – that feeling of having to choose a college, or better yet, what the hell you want to do with the rest of your life, while also saying goodbye to childhood. It’s sad and heart-breaking, sure, but it also brought me back to my good old days and made me feel warm, just as I bet this documentary intended to.

Don’t know what this move is, but if the kids are all doing it, then it must be hip and cool, right?

It’s also smart because Lipitz doesn’t forget to focus on these girls as they are becoming full-fledged, adult women and it’s all the more compelling because it feels like no frills are being taken. We see them all for their mistakes, problems, and issues, as well as their accomplishments, skills, and lovely qualities that make them worthy for a whole documentary to be about them. In fact, the ones who make the most mistakes are the ones to watch the most, because through them, it’s easy to remember the decisions we’ve all made in our pasts, and how some of them worked out and didn’t.

In other words, it’s insightful, but also incredibly sweet and lovely to watch. It brings us back to the good old days, while also not forgetting that these women’s lives and their stories are what matter the most. In a way, it’s actually more interesting to see them struggle with the day-to-day, like get good grades, or have to keep a steady boyfriend around, rather than seeing their dance-moves.

Sure, they’re good dance moves, but do we really need to see them all to make us feel that these girls are, in any way, special?

Probably not. But okay, I guess it helps.

Anyway, Step is the one movie you should see. Don’t let the possibility of it being dancing for an-hour-and-a-half scare you in any way, shape or form. It’s mostly just about a bunch of women, getting ready for adulthood, being on their own, and having to understand what it all means.

Remember those days?

Consensus: Heartfelt and sweet, Step takes a smart, insightful look into the lives of a few girls and brings us all back to a time when everything was a lot simpler, but also painstakingly important.

8 / 10

Respect and power to ya girls.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight

The Transfiguration (2017)

An actual vampire in Brooklyn.

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a troubled young teen living in Brooklyn. After he walked in on his mother’s dead body, he and his brother (Aaron Clifton Moten) are doing their best to get by. Milo spends most of his time reading, watching movies, and planning stuff in his countless notebooks, whereas as his brother, absolutely depressed, can’t seem to get off the couch for anything. Milo’s life is changed, however, when he meets a fellow troubled teen by the name of Sophie (Chloe Levine), who just moved in a few floors up with her grandmother. She’s already pretty messed-up, but the two find solace in their own little screwed-up lives, where they sit around, occasionally talking, drinking, reading, going to the beach, the amusement park, or just being in one another’s company. It’s actually very sweet, despite the fact that Milo also happens to be a vampire and needs to feast almost every other Wednesday, or else he’ll, as expected, die. Which may sound easy to find and do when you live in the hood, but believe it or not, it really isn’t.

Eat your heart out, Edward Cullen.

Writer/director Michael O’Shea pulls something off incredibly interesting here in that he combines elements of a hood movie, with a vampire-tale. And it’s kind of weird because even without all of the horror-stuff of Milo having to trap people, to find blood, and start chowing down, the movie’s already pretty scary and dangerous; just watching Milo get picked-on and teased by the local gangs is more than enough to create an air of tension. But nope, O’Shea doubles down and at times, it can almost be too much.

But when you’re doing a horror movie, isn’t that kind of the point?

Hell, isn’t that the point when you’re trying to make any sort of movie?

And with the Transfiguration, it’s a job well-done on O’Shea’s part because when he isn’t focusing on the hood, or horror elements, he’s focusing on these two, sad, lonely, and utterly depressed teens who couldn’t be any more adorable in their own misery. O’Shea isn’t afraid to keep things slow and mannered, giving us all we need to get to know and understand where these two kids come from, why they would ever become friends in the first place, and it grows us even closer to them. Cause we know that no matter how much fun they may have, falling in love and becoming the best of friends, we know that there’s always a world of violence, hurt, anger, depression, and oh yeah, vampires.

So young. So sad. So in love.

Like I said, it’s a bit too much and it can get a tad bit jumbled. But like I said, too, O’Shea doesn’t forget about the characters here and they’re the main reason why the Transfiguration works so well: They actually matter. Eric Ruffin is stunning as Milo, because he seems so creepy, so out-of-place, and so aloof, you couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. He’s a cute kid who you desperately want to love and adore, but there’s also a great deal of danger and weirdness to him that’s hard to look away from, or deny, and it takes over the role. Ruffin himself, as a young talent, does a lot with very little and it’s a solid showing on his part, never allowing us to fully trust or love this character, because we never fully know when the other shoe will drop and the fangs begin to show.

Chloe Levine is also equally as charming and lovable as Sophie, mostly because the movie never dumbs her down for our own sake. She’s screwed-up, a little crazy, and altogether twisted, but she’s also just in desperate need of a friend and her scenes with Ruffin never ring a false note. They have a sweet little bit of chemistry that feels honest and beautiful, which is a nice diversion to get away from the pain and destruction that takes over the rest of the movie.

But hey, it goes to show you that the best horror, whether all that scary or not, always works best when there’s actual emotion behind it all.

Consensus: Though it jumbles a bit much, the Transfiguration is an interesting, compelling, well-acted, and altogether upsetting piece of horror that also doubles as an effective coming-of-ager, set in the harshest and most unforgiving of lands.

7.5 / 10

Yup. Not weird at all.

Photos Courtesy of: Transfiguration Prods.

Newness (2017)

These millennials and their sad hook-ups.

Martin (Nicholas Hoult) and Gabi (Laia Costa) meet late one night through a hook-up app and they do just that. They go out, have a few drinks, hit it off, go back to one of their places, have sex, and move on with their lives. However, both feel as if there is something far more serious and meaningful at play here, so they decide to give this relationship thing a shot. At first, it works and they’re both incredibly happy. But as time goes on and on, they begin to start feeling the separation from the rest of the outside world and decide that instead of closing themselves off to one another, they’ll have an open-relationship, where either is able to do what they want, with whomever, so long as it’s okay with the other person. Gabi finds comfort and solace in an older gentleman (Danny Huston), but Martin, already reeling from a divorce, seems to be having a much tougher time getting used to the dating world and doesn’t know what he wants. Gabi doesn’t either, but they’re both two young, attractive people living in L.A., during the 21st century, so why float around from person-to-person?

Always looking at screens. Damn kids.

Director Drake Doremus has a rather hushed, muted style that’s worked well for his past two features (In Secret, Equals), because they could have both been very over-the-top, loud, and soapy melodramatic pieces of romance in anybody else’s hands. However, in his hands, he decided to play everything down in a much moody style, where he paid much more attention to how the camera flowed and how the movie sounded; the script came second and while that’s not always the best idea, it worked for him. The movies aren’t perfect, but they’re a sure sign that whatever bad blood he received with Like Crazy (a fairly underrated film, honestly), he knows how to dial it back – sometimes in a manner that alienates his audience more so than it invites them into his sad, sad world of repressed emotions.

But all that seems to be lost with Newness, his latest with writer Ben York Jones, in which the emotions are felt, only because they’re projected bright, big, and loud for the whole world to see. In fact, it’s as if Doremus wanted to hit back at the haters who have been getting at him for his movies being so quiet and decided that the best way to shut them all up was have an extra-talky movie, where characters went on and on about how they felt, and whether something was bothering them or not. That’s fine for most romantic-dramas and hell, it worked for Doremus with Like Crazy, but here, it’s way too over-the-top.

So much so that it feels phony.

It’s weird because you get the sense that Doremus understands and knows how real people, in their day-to-day lives, talk and communicate with one another. He’s not smarmy, nor is he cynical – he just has a knack for catching on with dialogue. But with Newness, the characters speak in such an mannered-way, it’s as if they’re reading off of cue-cards written by Nicholas Sparks. Think a character’s upset about an action caused by their partner? Don’t worry, they’ll spend 15 minutes yelling about it.

Three’s a party.

This isn’t to say that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life relationships, but to see a movie about it, where the only real objective is to show how awfully painful relationships can be for Gen-Y, it doesn’t quite work. It’s all too depressing and meandering and makes it feel like Doremus and York Jones are just stretching an hour’s worth of material to nearly two, which makes all of the arguments and yelling seem overblown and sappy. It can be a bit of an annoyance after awhile and all you really want for the characters to do is shut up, break up, and move on already.

In fact, it’s that simple.

The only possible saving-graces are the performances, but even they aren’t enough to save the day. Nicholas Hoult is hot and charming, but he’s sort of a blank-slate here; Laia Costa, despite being cute and spunky as hell, feels out-matched when the movie gets sappy and silly; Danny Huston shows up as a genuinely nice guy, who then turns into just being fodder for another argument Martin and Gabi can have; and Matthew Gray Gubler, showing up again as the voice-of-reason for our male romantic-lead, does just that.

Wait, does that role for him sound familiar? Stick with what ya know, I guess.

Consensus: Newness tries its hardest to be smart, insightful, and disturbing, but mostly feels like a melodramatic, over-the-top piece of sap that’s given some indie-cred because it’s shot beautifully.

4.5 / 10

Like relationship, or Tinder? Ugh!

Photos Courtesy of: Giant Interactive

Mayhem (2017)

The higher-ups just need to know what they’re dealing with.

Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is having a pretty crappy day. After being unjustly fired from his job, he discovers that the law firm’s building is under quarantine for a mysterious and dangerous virus, in which people start acting out in violent ways and killing one another, but for some reason, no cause for punishment is to be found. So Derek, who now has the virus, begins to act out too, taking down people who have done him wrong and have pissed him off to the high heavens, with the FBI outside, trying their best to contain the violence to this one firm’s building. And along with co-worker Melanie (Samara Weaving), Derek plans on attacking and taking down the executives, once and for all. Issue is, they’re on the top floor and it’s going to take a whole lot of violence to wade through, just to get to one of them, let alone all of them.

Level up. Get ready…

Mayhem is a crazy movie, but it’s also actually grounded enough in reality to where it works better than you might expect. Director Joe Lynch seems to take this idea of absolute and total carnage, but rather than just trying to one-up himself, each and every chance he gets, he actually gives us a story, with characters, and a real sense of tension in the air. It’s not just sick, disgusting, and sometimes disturbing violence, for the sake of shock-value, but sick, disgusting and disturbing violence, with a reason and a cause.

Which is, yes, to disgust us. But it works.

Lynch and co-writer Matias Caruso also do something else smart with Mayhem in that they set all of the carnage and brutality in a world that isn’t too unlike ours. While the mayhem-inducing virus itself, may be a bit silly, the movie uses it as a way to act out all of its craziest, most violent fantasies of taking down the higher-ups within a corporation, who don’t care one bit about the bottom or those below them – instead, they’re just more concerned with more money, more power, and more control, regardless of who they stop on, or kill, when they’re up to the top. In the context of what Mayhem is doing, this is actually taking literally and because of that, the movie feels a lot more honest and realistic than you’d expect.

It’s still over-the-top and crazy, but it is, once again, grounded to give it a sense of time and place. Also, not to mention that the violence is pretty crazy and fun, making Mayhem a nutty movie that has some social-context, but also doesn’t spend too much time preaching, but instead, just chopping all sorts of limbs off. It’s not afraid to get weirder, deeper, and darker, and it’s a brave take on this kind of a movie that we’ve seen many times before, but in this case, doesn’t feel like a drab.

Take. Them. Down.

Not unlike the Belko Experiment, which was already way too depressing for its own good.

It’s also nice to see Steven Yeun get a leading-role like this immediately after his stint on the Walking Dead. As a Korean-American actor working in Hollywood, it will be interesting to see where Yeun’s career goes; he fits perfectly both as a supporting-player, but also, as we see here, a rather rough and tough leading-man who has charm and bravado, sometimes in the same scene. There’s some depth to this character, but Yeun generally seems to be embrace this character’s more sinister-themes lying underneath everything else.

Same goes for Samara Weaving who, from what I’ve seen so far, is becoming more and more of a powerful and likable presence on the screen. She’s absolutely beautiful, but she’s also the kind of beauty that isn’t afraid to dirty herself up, play around with her image, and get down in the mud, to roll around a bit. Here, she has to play something of a stickler that begins to lose her uptightness and just let loose, and it works – she’s lovely, charming, sweet, but also a little scary.

In other words, a dangerous beauty. So look out, people.

Consensus: While it is no doubt a nutty movie, Mayhem also brings in some social-context to go hand-in-hand with all of the violence and over-the-top features.

7 / 10

What happens when you literally mean “unpaid intern.”

Photos Courtesy of: RLJE Films

Patti Cake$ (2017)

Give us all a beat. We can rap over it.

Patty (Danielle Macdonald) is just like any other young kid living in New Jersey: She dreams of a much better, richer, and happier life outside of the one she currently has. Instead, in her case, she hopes to one day be one of the biggest, best rappers around. It’s a dream that most people around her to just give up on already, but it’s one that she wants to achieve and alongside her best-friend, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), she thinks it could happen. All she needs to do is get her name out there, which in turn, means getting a record-deal, getting on a stage, and achieving enough noteriety for her rapping-skills. In order to do this, though, she’s also got to bunker down and start saving up money, which as a result, keeps her away from her family who are already having a bit of a problem as it is, with her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) near-death, and her mother (Bridgett Everett) always drinking and going home with random guys.

Watch that glow.

Patti Cake$ is a sweet movie that I wish I liked more. It’s like a much funnier, much nicer version of 8 Mile, what with the rapping and all, but it just never takes off or really goes beyond being formulaic. Sure, it’s another one of those interchangeable rags-to-riches stories, with a woman in the lead-role, but it’s still a conventional story that follows every line, beat by by (pun intended), and doesn’t really seem to have anything smart or interesting to say about these kinds of stories.

It’s just diverse and a little weird, which is fine too, I guess?

I mean, that’s why the movie’s still okay enough for me to recommend; it’s just different and charming enough to work. It’s the kind of crowd-pleaser that doesn’t ask much of the audience, except to have a certain understanding of hip-hop music and a general belief that dreams can still come true, even in today’s dark and cynical times. Which, once again, is fine, but it doesn’t really do much else beside that; it’s just a little weird, a little odd, a little funny, a little dramatic, and a little bit of all these different things, rolled-up into one.

And does that really equal something altogether compelling? Not totally. And it’s why Patti Cake$, try as it might, never fully congeals to something particularly ground-breaking, not that it really needed to, either. Writer/director Geremy Jasper seems to have an interesting idea on his hands and seems to take this material seriously enough to have us care for the characters, but also seems to really not be putting much other thought into the story itself.

Like Chuck D and Flavor Flav.

But man, those characters. At least they save the day.

As the titular Patty, Danielle Macdonald is pretty great because she’s chock full of sass and attitude, but also feels like a young kid. She’s confused, interested, and a little annoyed, but she’s always hopeful of what the future may be able to bring and it’s nice that the character treats her with a great deal of love, humanity and respect. Her rapping-skills are quite good, too, which helps give her character an air of authenticity, even if the songs that she ends up making are absolute and total garbage, but hey, that’s neither here, nor there.

However, the real stand-out is Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri, Patty’s best-friend/hype-man. Jheri’s a bit of a goofy character, in that he’s essentially a sidekick, who’s always there to push Patty forward and to continue on with her dream, but he’s also much more endearing, too. He’s genuinely looking out for her and wants the best her that she can be; the fact that he’s not in it for personal-gain, gives us one of the movie’s only real surprises. He’s charming and funny, but also kind of sweet, and he’s basically the heart of the movie.

Just why wasn’t it better?

Consensus: Even if it’s charming, Patti Cake$ is also a rags-to-riches, inspirational story with barely any shocks or surprises, that utilizes a good cast to its only real great strength.

5 / 10

There’s the mixtape’s cover.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight

Beach Rats (2017)

Some places are still behind with the times.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is just another young teenager, living in Brooklyn, with his mom, his sister, and his dying father, aimlessly getting by another summer. He spends most of his time with his friends, drinking, smoking, running around, playing hand-ball, and generally just doing whatever it is young guys do nowadays. Frankie also has something of a girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein), who he doesn’t quite know if he wants to make into something more seriously, or just keep doing whatever it is that he’s doing. Cause whenever no one is looking and he’s all by himself, Frankie also likes to go on men-only chat-rooms, find men, talk to them, meet up with them, and oh yeah, hook up. It’s something that Frankie is still confused about, but it’s also something that he’s doing his best to keep to himself, particularly because his friends would probably hate him and his girlfriend would break up with him. But honestly, Frankie doesn’t know what he wants yet.

Boo ya sell-out!

As she did with her first movie (It Felt Like Love), Eliza Hittman perfectly captures the teenager’s gaze, where everything surrounding you is big, bright, beautiful, shocking, and surprising. While her direction is definitely aimless and in ways, a little meandering, it’s worked for her so far because she’s getting us inside the heads of these young characters, who don’t really know or understand the world quite around them just yet, but look and listen to everything with amateurish eyes and ears. It’s a brave directorial-style to work with, but especially so since this is her second flick so far and shows that she’s got a niche and going to stick to it.

Does it help that her story is a little wonky?

Probably not, but Hittman’s able to get past that, cause Beach Rats is less about the story, the twists, and the turns, as much as it’s about the mood, the look, and the overall feel. The constant images flowing past our eyes, while carefully crafted and put together, also feel a little random, but work; putting is closer in the mind-set of it being summer, where anything and everything is possible. It’s a moody flick, for sure, but it’s the kind of mood that has you longing for youth, while also hating youth, too.

So yeah, it works like that.

It’s okay. Make-out with that dude. Please.

But no matter what happens with the story, Harris Dickinson is pretty great and it’s through him that Hittman is able to get the most mileage out of this movie. Dickinson, despite being British, fits into this role perfectly; he’s hunky, chiseled, handsome, and ridiculously masculine, just like the guys around him. But he’s also rather sweet and sensitive, and Dickinson shows us a real raw and sympathetic edge to a character who could have easily been conventional and boring. Rather than just turning out to being the self-loathing guy gay who acts out violently because he doesn’t want to like what he likes, he turns into a much more sad character who doesn’t know what he wants to be and is constantly being told to look, or be in one way that he can’t quite relate to just yet.

It’s a smart direction from Hittman, but an even smarter performance from Dickinson, because they both cancel each other out. We never know exactly what he’s thinking, or what’s going through his head, but his body-language shows it all. Hittman seems to love and respect this character, warts and all, and it helps us see him for just another lonely, confused, and rather depressed kid who’s constantly having to hang out with all of these rough, tough dudes, when in reality, he just wants to be himself.

Damn. Growing up sucks. But being young is even worse. Glad I’m past that.

Consensus: Not much of a real story, Beach Rats plays out more like a compelling mood-piece, capturing youth, angst, and self-identity, with a great performance from Harris Dickinson in the lead.

7 / 10

Put a shirt on dammit! Making us all look bad!

Photos Courtesy of: NEON