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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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

Category Archives: Movies

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Creepy dolls? Eh. I’ve seen worse.

Sam (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto), used to be the happiest couple around. He, a toy-maker, her, just a lovely housewife, with the whole community behind their backs. Then, tragedy struck and all of a sudden, they pushed away the outside world. However, they are still kind enough to let a nun (Stephanie Sigman) and a couple of orphan girls to stay in their big old house for a certain amount of time, so long as they follow a bit of rules. The main one: Don’t go into Esther’s room. Do you think these kids listen? Hell no! This obviously starts a lot of bad stuff, including the constant appearance of an even freakier doll named Annabelle, who the girls all seem entranced by, but don’t know exactly why. Is it a demon? A prank? Or just their little imaginations running wild?

“Let me have a decent meal in peace!” – Annabelle

The first Annabelle movie was, in all honesty, a piece of crap. It was slow, boring, and felt like it had really know story, was written over a weekend, and given all sorts of money for the sole sake of tying up with this horror-universe that the Conjuring practically created. That’s why a sequel, in my eyes, just didn’t sound all that enticing.

Then Lights Out director David Sandberg showed up and suddenly, I was color interested, and with good reason.

For one, Sandberg knows how to shoot this kind of horror; the camera tilts and constant swoops, may be a bit nauseating, but they help what could have been a very easy and tame horror flick, hit a lot harder. We’re always left in the dark with what’s going to happen next and rather than taking its good old time, Sandberg starts off from the flood-gates and keeps on going. In a way, he keeps the horror fun, if not all that terrifying.

Yup. Crosses save the day.

Which is to say that Annabelle: Creation is a much more “fun” horror movie, than actually a “scary” one, and that seems to be the case with me and most horror movies out there nowadays. It isn’t that I can’t get scared, or even jump a little bit during horror movies, it’s more that I can’t quite get scared by the ghosts, ghouls, and creatures that lurk somewhere in the dark. My thought is that the real world is scary enough, with an even more threat to my life, so how are these evil characters from a movie supposed to genuinely scare me even more?

Well, they don’t. That’s why when I go to a horror movie, it’s just for some fun. If the scares happen, then so be it.

With Annabelle: Creation, the scares never quite came for me, but that doesn’t mean Sandberg doesn’t at least try his best. You can tell that he’s sort of working with a relatively weak and unoriginal script, as well as part of a franchise that’s being used to just set everything else up, but he makes it all work by just showing us a knack for telling horror stories that may not always be terrifying, but know how to have a good time.

And in today’s day and age, I think we all need a little bit of that. Right, people?

Consensus: While maybe not entirely frightening, Annabelle: Creation is still, heads, shoulders, knees, and toes above its predecessor in terms of quality and overall entertainment-value. Too bad it feels so damn corporate.

6 / 10

“Ready when you are.” – Annabelle

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

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A Ghost Story (2017)

Man. Ghosts really do have it rough.

A young, loving couple (Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck) who, despite their issues, seem to get along enough that they’re willing to make it work. Then, an unexpected tragedy happens and all of a sudden, both of their lives are changed forever. But somewhere, in the backburner, lies a ghost, who is constantly hovering and watching over every little thing that happens in this house. Over time, the house changes and we start to see new people come into this house, with all sorts of new lives and adventures. But through it all, the ghost remains. Alone. Sad. And without any clue of what the hell is actually going.

In other words, the life of a ghost is a pretty sad one.

Rooney.

The real beauty of A Ghost Story isn’t that it was shot in secret, made for $100,000, and featuring a very recent Oscar-winner, but that it literally goes everywhere and anywhere, and we literally have no idea what to expect from it. It’s the kind of small, mysterious movie that even going on further and further about it, what happens to the story, where it goes, what it wants to do, or hell, even what it’s trying to say, would almost be certain to spoil the movie.

The only thing that I can truly speak of is to the true talent of writer/director David Lowery who, so far, is really proving to be the top-tier talent in film. Cause with A Ghost Story, on paper, it seems simple and easy – a ghost literally hovers around from one life, to another, essentially. But it’s so much more than that. It’s sad, tragic and upsetting, sure, but there’s also bits and pieces of unexpected humor, heart, light, and yes, believe it or not, fun.

Not to mention that, oh yeah, this movie’s beautiful.

Casey.

Not just through the way it looks, sounds, or even feels – it just is. Considering the small budget, you can tell a lot of the money went into the way the film is presented and it works; the very tightly-round aspect-ratio, at first, is distracting and probably unnecessary, but ends up being another weird addition to an already original movie. The movie takes on a lot of different and crazy ambitious themes about life, death, love, afterlife, and existence as a whole, but no matter what, Lowery doesn’t get too bogged-down by trying his best to discuss this, time and time again, hammering it into our heads. He lets the story breathe, move at its own pace, and be as surprising as humanly possible.

And like I said before, the story does go to some truly unexpected and wild places. To say anything more would be a problem, for both you, as well as myself. Just know that wherever Lowery goes, it works. A Ghost Story is the kind of movie you make when you have the absolute drive and creative inspiration that you just can’t settle down anymore. Lowery, even after making the studio-heavy, audience-friendly Pete’s Dragon, didn’t need a whole lot of money, financial back-ups, or even all that much help to get this out and it shows.

He wanted to make something weird, original, and damn beautiful. And guess what? He succeeded at that.

More of this. Please.

Consensus: Despite being an awfully odd movie, A Ghost Story is still a mannered, smart and interesting take on all aspects of life, with a pitch-perfect direction from Lowery.

8 / 10

And ghost. What more do you need to know?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

Well, maybe Bond is a lot cooler.

It’s been a year since we last caught up with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and well, let’s just say, things are still kind of the same. Baddies still want to kill him and he’s still got to find ways on how to not only kill them, but save those lives around him. And while he’s definitely looking forward to living a life on the straight-and-narrow, he’s pulled back in when a new threat arises in Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a dangerous, but very light and happy drug-dealer who’s trying to end this war on drugs as we know it. Back with his usual band of misfits, like Merlin (Mark Strong), Eggsy is ready to stop Poppy once and for all, but this time, with the help of another spy company, Statesman. And if that wasn’t enough for Eggsy, it turns out that his mentor Harry (Colin Firth), who he had long thought was dead, is still alive and trying to get his skills back. But that’s obviously going to be a lot harder than he expects, especially what with this mission continuing to threaten more and more lives.

Somehow, it works.

The first Kingsman, while definitely in poor-taste, was no doubt a Matthew Vaughn film, for better and for worse. It was stupid, loud, dirty, dark, violent, and oh yeah, pretty fun. It’s the kind of movie that didn’t really know if it wanted to be smart, or just plainly dumb, but either way, it was fun and got by mostly on the charm of its game-cast, as well as Vaughn himself who takes this kind of material, makes it his own, and doesn’t allow for us to forget about that. There’s something actually kind of awesome and relatively brave about that, because while so many people will get on his case for his mistreatment of women and other issues within society, he still doesn’t care; he takes it in stride, moves on, and continues to make some fun movies.

That’s why the Golden Circle is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from his side.

For one, it’s a sequel which, already, causes some problems. Meaning, it’s louder, more over-the-top, longer, and densely packed with so much stuff, it’s almost overkill. I get Vaughn’s enthusiasm for having the opportunity to hang with these characters again and in a way, it makes it feel like less of a hack, studio-job, and much more of a passion-project, but there’s so much going on here, it can’t help but feel stuffing. At nearly two-and-a-half-hours, Vaughn may have a lot to say and a lot to do, but in all ends up jumbling together, making the first one seeming like a tight, well-paced adventure.

This new one, unfortunately, takes too many weird side-roads to get where it needs to go, especially since the script isn’t nearly as smart as it may think it is. The first one ran into that same kind of a problem, where it’s almost like it thought it had something neat and smarmy to say about intelligence movies of its nature, but really, just wanted to shoot people and objectify women. Once again, if that’s your bag and you can pull that off, then good for you,

Hey, everyone. See this? It’s Julianne Moore having fun. Let her have more of that!

The first one could and did. This one? Maybe not so much.

Still, every opportunity I get to think of the problems I had with this movie, in terms of its story and jam-packed story-line, I still remember that there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, too, in particular with the action-sequences that Vaughn has no problem with making so absolutely insane and crazy, it’s hard to expect it anywhere else. There’s just a certain bit of flair and energy to these sequences that aren’t found much elsewhere, and it’s hard not to get swept-up in it all, even if you know that when they’re done, it’s time for 20-25 minutes of more random bits of dialogue.

But hey, the ensemble seems to be having fun with it, so is that entirely a problem? Well, not really. Taron Egerton fits this role of Eggsy like a glove; Firth shows back up and gives us a bit more depth to a character that I think we already had enough of; Strong comes back and brings some heart and fun to a character that deserved more depth and, finally, got it this time around; Julianne Moore gets the opportunity to vamp and have fun here as Poppy Adams, and yes, makes every moment worth it; Pedro Pascal proves to be a bad-ass as another secret-agent, Jack Daniels; Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry, despite a whole lot of promise by the ads, aren’t in this whole lot, although they make the best with what they can; and oh yeah, there’s a secret musical-guest that’s a pretty nice addition and a whole lot of fun. Don’t know if it’s a spoiler or not so I’ll just shut up and say that this person, along with everyone else, made the experience a little bit better.

Not a whole lot, but a little bit. And that’s all that really matters.

Consensus: Bloated and overly ambitious, the Secret Circle, unfortunately, suffers from a great deal of sequelitis, but due to Vaughn’s knack for exciting action and a fun cast, it still works.

6 / 10

Somehow, skiing just got pretty bad-ass.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Stardust (2007)

Better than Goldust’s brother.

Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man from the town of Wall, a small, quaint and lovely little town on the border of Stormhold, a magical kingdom where all sorts of crazy things happen. To hopefully win the heart and the hand of his girlfriend Victoria (Selma Miller), Tristan enters the magical world to collect a fallen star, in hopes that he’ll obviously win her over, but prove that he is quite the man that he always thought he could be. After little issues here and there, Tristan eventually collects the star who, to his surprise, is a woman named Yvaine (Claire Daines). However, Tristan isn’t the only one who’s looking for Yvaine; numerous witches, Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses also want this star and will do anything to get it, by any means. So now, Tristan’s job just got a whole lot harder. Not to mention that he and Yvaine, while initially not being able to get along with one another at all, start to see each other as equals and even, well, connect. In possibly more ways than Tristan has been able to ever do with his possible future-wife.

A pretty hot star.

Matthew Vaughn is probably the perfect director for a Neil Gaiman book, because no matter how strange, or action-packed, or even tense things get, Vaughn remembers not to take everything all that seriously. Meaning that we do get a lot of jokes aimed at the material, but it’s also very funny in the same way that the Princess Bride was – it respects the fantasy-genre up until the point of where it realizes how ridiculous it truly is. That’s a lot of Gaiman’s material and while there’s been plenty of attempts at recreating the same kind of odd-style that he has, Vaughn’s perhaps the closest one to achieving that.

And yes, it also helps that the movie is buckets of fun, reminding us that, when he isn’t trading quips and smart-ass remarks, Vaughn knows how to keep the action moving and exciting. Cause Stardust is a little over two-hours and about a bunch of silly witches and knights battling it out for a star, it can be a bit too much to ask for a non-lover of the fantasy genre. And yes, I am one of them.

However, Stardust is a much different tune.

It’s in on its own joke, it never really relies too much on exposition, or world-building, or certain other tricks and trades of these kinds of stories that can tend to make them a bit annoying. The story itself is already pretty straightforward and thankfully, Vaughn doesn’t try to over-complicate things; he keeps it simple, effective and most importantly, fun. He could have done anything he wanted with this movie and I wouldn’t have cared, because he knows how to keep it fun, even when you least expect it to remain as such.

That’s Michelle Pfeiffer? Uh. Yeah. Time has not done well for her.

And a whole bunch of that fun extends to the cast, too, who are, as expected, game for this kind of silly material. Charlie Cox, in a pre-Daredevil role, shows a great deal of charm as Tristan, a dork-of-a-man who we like right from the get-go and sort of stand-by, no matter where he goes, or what he does. Claire Danes is also quite great as Yvaine, the star with a whole butt-load of personality. Danes knows how to make this wacky material work and come-off not so wacky, and yes, her and Cox have a neat little bit of chemistry that transcends most other movies that are just like this.

In that we actually care and want them to get together in the end.

The rest of the cast is, thankfully, having a ball here. Michelle Pfeiffer shows up as the main evil witch, vamping it up and having an absolute ball; Robert De Niro may seem out-of-place, initially, as a pirate, but really blends in with this goofy-world; Mark Strong is, as usual, charming and a lot of fun as Prince Septimus, Tristan’s ultimate foe; and well, there’s plenty more where that came from. The real joy is just getting a chance to see everyone here show up, have a good time, and not make us feel like we aren’t involved with it, either.

We are and that’s the greatest joy of all.

Consensus: Despite its silliness, Stardust wears its heart and soul on its sleeve, with a fun and exciting pace, matched by an even more charming ensemble.

8 / 10

There were a lot of Italian pirates back in those days, people! Come on!

Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Ruby Sparks (2012)

Secretly, all men want a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to spend the rest of their lives with.

Writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is sort of like the literary definition of what it means to be a “one-hit wonder”. The guy had that one book that practically took the whole reading world by storm, and then somehow fell off the face of the planet without a clue or idea of what his next book might be. As his fans continue to wait more and more desperately for what he has next to bring to the table, he can’t seem to get his head around the fact that he simply has nothing. That is, until he starts writing about the latest creation in his head: Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). At first, Ruby only appears to him in his dreams and in his writing, but suddenly it becomes all too real and Calvin realizes that he actually has a real-life girlfriend that goes by the name of “Ruby Sparks” and will do anything and everything he writes about her doing.

And there you have it: The male fantasy, given to one geeky, antisocial writer. What a waste!

"Hello? Police? Yes, I have an intruding-hipster in my house that won't stop making all my meals vegan and telling me how the man is wrong, man. I need back-up assistance!"

“Hello? Police? Yes, I have an intruding-hipster in my house that won’t stop making all my meals vegan and telling me how the man is wrong, man. I need back-up assistance!”

Ruby Sparks, like a lot of other indies of its own kind, deals with an originally wacky and quirky idea, but you know what? It milks it for all that it’s worth. It’s hard to take it entirely seriously, until you realize that, after awhile, the movie itself is in order to deal with the greater aspects of life, like, for instance, love itself. Ruby Sparks shows us how no matter where we go in life, no matter who we date, or no matter how much we try to change the other person, that idea and sense of love will always be there, as much as we may injure and toy around with it. A person can change their look, style, views, friends, favorite places to eat, etc., but they can’t change the inner-self that makes them a person, especially one that deserves to be loved by anybody or anyone. People forget about that because you think about that one person not being with you and how much he/she has changed without you around to talk or be with, when in reality, they are still the same person, just with some changes here and there.

In other words, the bolts and crannies may be loosened, but the gears are still turning and moving the way they once did.

 

So yeah, Ruby Sparks can be funny and a little silly, but it’s also very deep and has something to say. Where it begins to run its unfortunate course is within the actual characters themselves of Calvin and Ruby. You see, the double-edged sword behind Calvin and Ruby is that you love them when they’re together and being all cute with one another, but once they get away from all the cuteness and start getting semi-serious, mad, and sad, then, you begin to realize that they aren’t as likable as you had once imagined. I don’t know if Ruby can count since she is practically a character that was made on the page and does next whatever Calvin rights her to do, but he sure as hell can since he’s not a real nice dude to begin with.

Maybe I’m alone on this boat, but I’m not always there rooting for the “troubled-soul of a writer who can’t come up with an idea and treats everybody around him like crap”-aspect of most movies. I do get that writers going through writer’s block tend to be awful to those around them, no matter who it is around them, but Calvin turns out to be just an unpleasant guy that you can’t really seem to be happy with when he’s happy, or even sad when he’s sad. You just sort of don’t care. Or, if you do care, it’s mainly for Ruby since the poor gal actually loves the dude for who he is, rather than what he should be in her mind, something he can’t seem to avoid with everybody he runs into.

Prefers long walks on the beach. Wow, that Ruby girl is so unique....

Prefers long walks on the beach. Wow, that Ruby girl is so unique….

That’s not to say that Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano aren’t good in this movie, whether they be together or separate, it’s just that their characters aren’t written as well as the ideas and thoughts of the premise were. That’s especially surprising since Kazan wrote the screenplay herself, and you’d think that there would be more to her characters than just stock, but that’s sadly not the case. Dano does what he can to make Calvin a nice, charming-enough dude to stand to be around, but it doesn’t amount to much other than another case of a guy who can’t seem to check himself into reality just yet. Kazan is good as Ruby, which also helps since the chick is literally as cute as a button that I hope to see more of in the near-future.

But not like a hipster. Please, no more of that.

Though the leads don’t knock anything out the park, the supporting cast is at least better and worth mentioning. Chris Messina plays Calvin’s slightly jealous, envious brother that wants to have the same advantages that Calvin has in his easy-going life, but just can’t because he’s married, has a kid, and a little thing called “responsibilities”. Messina is great at these types of roles and always finds a way to make them the least bit likeable, even if the characters he plays do seem a bit dick-ish, at a first glance. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas play their parents that are the old-school, stoner hippies that haven’t realized ‘Nam ended some time long ago; it’s nice to see Elliott Gould working again, even if it is just a small-role as Calvin’s just-as-inspired therapist; and Steve Coogan, once again, plays a dastardly character.

Consensus: The idea behind Ruby Sparks is smarter and more thought-out than the actual characters, but Kazan’s writing always remains compelling and interesting, even when it does detour in obvious territories like the fight every couple should have, or the thing that’s keeping them from really loving each other. However, this time, it’s with a twist!

7 / 10

"The girl of his dreams", or, "A girl he can't see because the sun is practically beaming down on his face."

“The girl of his dreams”, or, “A girl he can’t see because the sun is practically beaming down on his face.”

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight

Undertow (2004)

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After his wife tragically dies, John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) moves with his sons Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) to rural Georgia in hopes of getting away from their pain and agony, and instead, focus a life on raising pigs. Both Chris and Tim themselves are dealing with this awful amount of grief in the only ways they know how; Chris constantly rebels and fights with his dad, whereas Tim, who looks up to Chris, wants him to stop being such a jerk and just get along. Then, life for the family changes a bit when Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) returns from a long-stint in jail. While Deel seems like a charmer to have around, he’s still got a great deal of resentment towards John, for not just stealing the woman that he loved, but possibly being the favorite of the two sons. It’s because of this that Deel sees an easy way out tries to steal a stash of gold coins, but then, another tragedy happens, breaking the family apart even more and forcing both Chris and Tim to fend for themselves.

It’s hard to hate someone this handsome.

Undertow isn’t David Gordon Green’s worst, nor is it his best. It’s somewhere slap-dab in the middle of being just mediocre enough to be seen, but also, a little too dour and disappointing, considering all of his other work. It’s still small and gritty, like we know best from him, but it’s also got this darker, more sour-feeling that’s not always seen and because of that, it can be a little off-putting. Granted, nobody really expected to have a good time from a David Gordon Green film before the arrival of Pineapple Express, but still, it goes without saying that Undertow is a pretty morbid movie.

And usually, yes, that’s a good thing.

But not here.

One of the main issues with Undertow that no matter how hard he tries, Green can’t seem to get past, is that it never quite picks-up the momentum it wants. Going for this dirty, dark and gritty Southern-Gothic look and feel, Green really sinks himself deep into a tale about murder, family-issues, and the loss of life. But what does he do with any of that?

Rather than having anything smart to say about grief, or death, or anything of this nature, the story mostly relies on the two kids, on-the-run, trying their best to keep away from their cartoonishly evil Uncle. It’s supposed to be an exciting, almost adventurous piece of thriller, but really, it never goes anywhere we either don’t see coming, or really care about. It’s as if Green set-out to make something smarter and deeper, but really just get all wrapped-up into the beautiful scenery that he could kind of care less about really exploring certain stuff.

It also doesn’t help that, unfortunately, the performances aren’t all that good, either.

As I just mentioned before, Josh Lucas’ Deel is a pretty over-the-top and wild character that, from the very beginning, is so evil and dastardly, it’s almost no shock what he begins to do next. The movie does attempt to give him some development for being the way that he is, and why he’s so bitter, but it doesn’t quite register – it almost feels like Green trying to make up something for him being an evil bastard, rather than just having him be an evil bastard. Even Lucas himself tries, however, he can’t quite get past how thinly-written this script and this character is.

Yup. There’s that sour-puss look we all know and adore.

Same goes for Jamie Bell and especially Devon Alvan as the two youngsters here. Bell fares better-off because he’s actually a very good actor and is capable of being both intimidating, as well as vulnerable, at the same time. But Alvan just doesn’t quite have it. Like was the case with Lucas, the script doesn’t quite help them out, but Alvan’s delivery and performance is in a much goofier and sillier movie than is offered here and just feels absolutely out-of-place. You can almost feel Bell trying his damn best to carry each and every scene he has with him, which makes it just a bit harder to watch.

But not for the intended reasons, though.

All that said, there’s still something about Undertow that’s worth watching and it’s that Green has a knack for finding beauty in even the darkest of stories and yes, he finds it here. Even when it seems like the story, the characters, or hell, the conflict is ever going anywhere, Green keeps things moving as best as he can, making it, at the very least watchable. Is it more of a disappointment because he followed All the Real Girls with this? Most likely, but he has done worse, so maybe time has been sort of kind to this.

Sort of.

Consensus: Without much of a narrative-drive, Undertow can sometimes feel like a predictable slog, but is at least helped out by Green’s need and want for trying something new and invigorating, even if it never fully pays off like he wants it to.

5 / 10

Nothing like an annoying little brother to ruin the older brother’s adventure.

Photos Courtesy of: MGM

Strong Island (2017)

Has much changed?

Despite a relatively rough upbringing, Yance Ford’s family was a pretty simple and lovely one. Her parents got along and were clearly in love, she got along well with her sister, and oh yeah, she was incredibly close with her older brother, William Ford Jr.. And while everything was looking all great and wonderful for them all, it all changes when William is shot and killed in a parking-garage. But why? What lead up to all of this? Could it have been prevented? If not, then what else could have happened? And well, how did the guy who shot and killed William, get away with it? These questions, as well as many more, are all brought up and, possibly, even answered.

But probably not.

The one thing that keeps Strong Island away from being the most perfect documentary I’ve seen this year, is that it really does leave a lot left up in the air when all is said and done. For some odd reason, it’s being advertised as a true-crime documentary, on Netflix, which means that tons and tons of people will be flocking to see this great injustice being done and how they can come up with their own theories about it, much like they did with the Jinx and Making a Murderer. Sure, while there’s a murder in the center here, the movie doesn’t just keep its focus solely on looking at the facts and thinking of other conclusions, as much as it asks questions, gets the answers, and then continues to ponder them, over and over again, until it’s all burned and etched into the ground.

Happy days. They never seem to last.

But still, the fact that it’s kind of a true-crime documentary, does make it feel a bit disappointing, when we get to the end and realize that there’s a lot left to discuss. It may be deliberate and probably the point, but it’s hard not to feel like there’s something more just waiting to be explored and taken another look at. When we will get that, who knows?

Honestly, though, it really doesn’t matter.

Strong Island is still, all issues aside, a very powerful and moving documentary that will take you by surprise with its methodology. Yance Ford goes out of his way to ensure that we get the full story and nothing but the truth, which helps us not only trust him, as a film-maker, but also all of the facts that are being thrown at us. Some of them may be bull-crap, but for the good part, Ford has gotten together a real rag-tag group of smart and trustworthy people who leave their souls out here on the line, with each and every interview. Having them talk directly to the camera, too, may seem like a bit of an Errol Morris rip-off, but it still works and seems like the only way you could tell something as tragic and as upsetting as this: Without ever shying away one bit.

Remember the name. Remember the face. Please.

And with Strong Island, while Ford talks about the murder and the botched investigation into it all, really, it’s a movie about forgiveness, regret, guilt, and above all else, family, the bonds that are created by it, and how, when push comes to shove, blood is thicker than water and it’s all we’re going to have. Ford gets the chance to interview two of the last surviving-members of her family and not only do they offer a lot to the whole product, they also genuinely make us think long and hard about our own families, as dysfunctional and/or weird as they may be.

Then again, every family’s got a little something weird going on, so it’s okay.

Like I said, though, these interviews take up the whole film and while they can sometimes get a little long-winding and especially, repetitive, we soon find out that, oh wait, that’s the point. The movie isn’t trying to be the most polished or assured piece out there as much as it’s just going where the stories and the interviews take it; the fact that it’s a beautiful movie to look at is helpful, but still. It’s the kind of movie that takes time to get used to, but it’s worth it. Each and every sigh, tear, and painfully awful silence.

Consensus: Even though it leaves a lot up in the air by the end, Strong Island is still a powerful and incredibly emotional doc about family and an injustice, giving us a fresh, diverse voice in Yance Ford.

8 / 10

Like any family: Happy and loving. Man, what a world we live in.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

First They Killed My Father (2017)

What a world we live in.

Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) is just like any other 5-year-old girl. She loves her Ma (Sveng Socheata), her Pa (Phoeung Kompheak), and the rest of her family. Her father’s a government worker, so of course they live a relatively cushy, pain-free life where they get to have all sorts of food and watch all the TV they want. It’s a pretty nice life for a five-year-old, but it all changes when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975 and forces Loung and her family out on the streets. For the next year, Loung’s life will consist of travelling to camps across the country, where they will be interned and forced to work, follow rules, and do whatever those with all of the power say they have to do. Loung has no clue what’s going on, nor should she; however, her family does and it’s why she ends up getting split-up with all of them, and sent to a child soldier camp. There, she learns the gruesome art of killing and all of the fun tricks and trades that come with it. But Loung wants her family back and she’s absolutely determined to find them, wherever there may be. But in Cambodia, at this point in time, danger lurked everywhere you looked.

Five-year-olds – they never have a clue what’s going on! Damn kids!

First They Killed My Father is probably the best movie Angelina Jolie has directed so far. Granted, that’s not saying a whole lot, but it still proves that there truly is some talent and skill underneath all of that obvious ambition and passion fully on-display. Whereas her past three movies have all felt like she had something to say and didn’t quite know how to get it out onto the screen, or better yet, what to even do with it, First They Killed My Father shows Jolie getting her point across, but in the most simple way possible:

By just letting the story play-out, exactly as it would for a five-year-old like Loung.

And that’s the actual beauty of First They Killed My Father – everything we see, hear, feel, is all through the eyes, ears, and gaze of Loung. In this sense, the movie almost feels like a dream, constantly swishing and swooshing from one event, to the other, but it’s effective. It gives us a human look and feel on the true brutality of the Cambodian Genocide, but doesn’t ever feel like it’s dramatizing it; it feels like we are in her head and because of that, it’s hard not to look away.

And yes, for the first hour or so, First They Killed My Father is a small, somewhat quiet, and incredibly subtle picture about a very large, very disastrous, and very disturbing part of our planet’s history. Jolie doesn’t seem to be in any particular rush to tell this story, or get any point across – she just tells the story, like it’s meant to be told, without her getting in the way and ruining everything. That seems to have been the problem with mostly all of Jolie’s flicks, as she constantly finds herself somehow getting in lost in translation, or not really knowing how to make certain stuff work, but this time around, she’s got it down well enough to where it registers and never lets us forget that, oh yeah, she’s quite talented.

Waste of perfectly good bamboo.

That said, still not a perfect movie.

If anything, it’s a very impressive one that shows us Jolie is capable of making a good movie, if not a great one. But for now, First They Killed My Father will have to stay in the group of the former, especially with the final hour. See, what happens about halfway through, is that when the story does escalate into becoming something far more violent and action-packed, it feels different; we still see everything through the eyes of Loung, but the movie’s pace picks up and it’s a tad jarring.

Rather than remaining a quiet, almost meditative flick, everything’s all ramped-up, with blood, guts, limbs, bombs, and weapons flying everywhere. It’s still somewhat effective, because it never takes us away from the true tragedy of what actually happened, but it does feel like a different movie entirely and because of that, it can’t help but feel a little messy. It took me out of the film a bit and had me forgetting about the previous hour I just saw, where a director was truly soaking in the material, not getting in the way, and not being too over-the-top about it.

That all changes, unfortunately, and shows that we’re still a bit away from getting Jolie’s masterpiece. Maybe someday very, very soon.

Consensus: Artfully and surprisingly tastefully directed, First They Killed My Father is a dramatic and moving improvement on Jolie’s past flicks, but also keeps her a slight bit away from achieving true greatness.

7.5 / 10

With this and Beasts of No Nation, maybe Netflix’s niche is child-soldiers? I don’t know. Just saying.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin

After a devastating terrorist attack kills the woman of his dreams, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is pulled into a dark, unrelenting world of tracking these terrorists down and getting his own sort of revenge. But just as soon as he gets close enough to do so, he’s whisked away by the CIA who, having tracked all of Mitch’s actions in the past year or so since the attack, like what they see and feel as if they can use it to their own advantage. However, Mitch is a bit of a hot-head and while he has the skills to shoot a gun and kick all sorts of ass, he needs to know how to control his temper so that missions can be completed, without any issues whatsoever. That’s when Mitch is sent to an isolated boot-camp, headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Marine who is quite the ass-kicker himself. Together, Stan and Mitch track down a terrorist (Taylor Kitsch), who has plans of starting a global war, but once again, it all comes down to whether or not Mitch can control himself, when the push comes to the shove.

Do they allow those kinds of hair-do’s in the CIA? Or should I say, hair-don’ts!

The first 40 minutes or so of American Assassin are actually pretty good. Director Michael Cuesta, who, oddly enough, has made quite the name for himself in small, rather disturbing indies, doesn’t really speed things up, as much as he lets it all play out in front of our own eyes, in a very mannered-way. In a way, that makes the violence all the more shocking and graphic. Sure, having an R-rating attached certainly helps things, but rather than seeming like an action set-piece in a big-budgeted movie, American Assassin‘s action, in the first-half at least, feels like it’s going for something colder, darker, and deeper, than just blood, guts and terrorists doing bad thing.

Then, it all goes away.

At about the half-way mark, the movie then realizes we need a mission, we need a story, and oh yeah, we need some sort of conflict that isn’t just Mitch and Stan constantly dick-measuring – there needs to be a baddie, a reason, and oh yeah, way more action. When this happens, American Assassin eventually turns into a very dumb, over-the-top, and surprisingly safe action-thriller that wants to keep on being dark and meaningful, but is just too silly for its own good. It’s as if Cuesta may have gotten thrown out of the director’s chair about halfway through production when the powers that be eventually realized he wasn’t making the Bourne rip-off they so desperately wanted.

Cause even in something like Bourne, at least the politics of that movie, while challenging, at least feel fully realized. The action happens for a reason and while it is no doubt played-up for thrills and chills, it still comes from a very dark, realistic place, in a world where these sorts of things happen each and every day. In American Assassin, the politics are way too troubling and one-sided, almost to the point of where I wonder whether it was made before, or after Trump got elected.

In other words, it’s so jingoistic that it borders on xenophobic.

Kick some ass, Mikey. Do it for ‘merica!

Then again, the villain is a disillusioned and paranoid former-soldier from the South, so I guess that kind of saves it? I’m not sure, actually. What I am sure of is that for the final hour or so, American Assassin gets pretty rote and well, boring. It’s action isn’t all that exciting, it’s script continues to get sillier, and yeah, we see where it’s always going. The first-half had at least some surprises and excitement to it, because it felt a little fresh, but once that goes out the window, we’re back to crazy action-sequences that you can see perfectly fine, but do you really want to?

The only real saving-grace above this all is Michael Keaton, who feels like he’s way too good for the material and may have signed-up for something else entirely. Still, as the strict and mean Stan Hurley, Keaton gets a lot of mileage out of being the angriest and possibly, toughest guy in the room, despite himself being quite tiny and over 60-years-of-age. Still, it’s a testament to the kind of actor Keaton is, because he helps this thing move, probably when it shouldn’t.

As for Dylan O’Brien? Yeah, the verdict’s still out on him.

It’s not that I see him as dull, either, it’s just that the material he’s given here either doesn’t give him enough room to stretch, or he himself doesn’t know how to take this character. He’s jacked and handsome, but when you get down to it, there’s still this kid-like vulnerability to him that doesn’t quite register and makes this character feel like Jr. Bourne.

But hey, as long as he doesn’t get injured again, at least he’s got the Maze Runner to fall back on, right?

They still make those, right? Somebody help me.

Consensus: Despite a very promising start, American Assassin soon turns into a full-blown action-thriller, that’s never as fun, or as smart as it clearly wanted to be.

5 / 10

Baby Looney Tunes are taking over the CIA! Help us, foreign nations!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Mother! (2017)

The older the house, the creepier the s**t in it is.

Grace (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stay-at-home wife who dreams of being a mother very, very soon. However, her poet husband, Eli (Javier Bardem), is a bit too distracted to really get up on that supposed promise. If anything, he’s too distracted to really focus on his young and beautiful wife, as he’s searching for inspiration for whatever work he can come up with next. He starts to find that when two strangers (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) show up and make the house their own. Of course, he has no problem with this, but Grace does and because she’s constantly dealing with some sort of mental-health issues, as well as the duties of keeping up this new house of hers, she can’t help but feel a little off about this all. Eventually, weirder and weirder stuff begins to happen, almost to the point of where Grace doesn’t know if she’s safe where she’s at any longer, or if it’s time to leave the house, her husband, and the life she was supposed to be living.

Put a shirt on, dammit! You’ve got company! I think….

Mother! is definitely not for everyone. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for me. It is, however, a Darren Aronofsky flick, which means that it’s going to be weird, creepy, out-of-this-world, ambitious, and oh yeah, ridiculously disturbing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from him now, nearly 20 years into his career, so why should we expect anything different? Can we really criticize a person’s work for being exactly on-par with everything they’ve been doing for the past two decades? Or do we have to hold them up to a certain candle where they have to sort of get with the times and make their rather hard-hitting style, well, work for others?

Say, like the norm?

Well, not really. And that’s why Mother! works; it seems like another case of Aronofsky sticking the middle-finger up to everyone who thought he sold-out with Noah, as well as one to those who think he’s almost too weird for his own good. This time around, Aronofsky’s taking what is supposed to be a relatively conventional story about a woman, probably, losing her mind, then turning it on its head, its side, and on its back, almost to the point of where we don’t really know if it can be turned anywhere else, anymore.

In other words, Aronofsky’s not playing around here and it’s an absolute delight to watch. Sure, it’s a slow-burn for quite some time, with all sorts of visual and literary metaphors to chew apart and piss us off, but it’s also a visceral ride through a possible hell. Aronofsky’s not afraid to go that extra mile into the dark and cruel abyss that some directors like to stray away from – he could care less and it’s hard not to be excited by this, but also put-off by just where this goes and where this ends up.

Cause in all honesty, I’m not even sure what the movie means.

Actually, scratch that. I sort of do and I sort of don’t. The movie’s final-act is so twisted, so disturbing, so messed-up, and so insane, that it’s hard to actually put into words. But just like the rest of the movie, it’s in-your-face and absolutely hard to look away from. This may put a lot of people off, as well as it should, but for someone like me, it was hard not to be mesmerized by what was going on, even if I couldn’t pick my finger on what exactly it was.

Long hair, clearly cares.

Meaning, yes, Mother! deserves and will probably benefit from multiple viewings. But that aside, it’s still a very creepy movie, with Aronofsky himself taking advantage of this tight and confined space, where it seems like there’s a nightmare every corner you turn, as well as his sounds. There’s a dark and brooding rhythm that’s constantly felt throughout, almost to the point where even the light-hearted and rather sweet moments, are still impossibly rough.

Once again, Aronofsky’s not afraid and it’s not hard to love that.

Also, Jennifer Lawrence puts in another great performance here, but also, her most demanding and grueling to-date. She’s never charming, or even lovely – she’s dark, twisted, and sad, seeming like she’s about to break-out into insane fits of anger and rage, at any minute. Aronofsky keeps the whole movie squarely on her, with her face covering up the screen for about nearly an hour of the run-time, making it hard not to sit there and dissect her every move. And she’s up to the task, too; she never lets us forget that there’s something simmering deep down inside of her, but also, because she’s Jennifer Lawrence, we sort of trust her, too.

Is that a smart move? Or a bad one? After all, this is an Aronofsky flick, we’re talking about and nothing’s to be trusted.

And man, more movies need that danger.

Consensus: Hard-to-watch, disturbing, and layered with a certain uneasiness that’s hard to shake-off, Mother! will not be for everybody, but those who appreciate it, will also be a witness to one of Aronofsky’s more demented creations.

8 / 10

“Everyone is waiting, Jennifer. Let’s have some fun.”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011)

War is bad. But rape is worse. Right, people? Come on!

Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist, are lovers who find themselves dancing and having a great time one night. Then, the Bosnian War breaks out and all of a sudden, there is literally death and destruction everywhere, forcing both of them to be on opposite sides of the battle. And as the conflict and violence engulfs the Balkan region, they find themselves actually coming closer and closer to one another, without either even knowing. And a few months later, while serving in the Bosnian Serb army, Danijel once again encounters Ajla when troops under his command take her from the apartment she shares with her sister. He takes her in under his own and, in a way, protects her. But at the same time, he’s also still taking advantage of her and her desperation to live and save the lives of those around her. What will keep these two together? Or better yet, what will separate them?

“Always stay warm.”

No matter what, you have to give Angelina Jolie some credit. She’s one of the biggest names in Hollywood and yet, for some reason, when she gets behind the camera, she doesn’t go the usual route you’d expect. Instead of taking safe, relatively light, star-studded pictures (like she could easily do), she takes these dark, disturbing, and rather queasy tales of violence and the ugly sides of humanity.

Have any of these movies really been good? Not quite, but hey, at least she’s got some spunk and in ways, that’s sort of all that matters, right? Kind of. But for her debut, you can’t help but notice that there’s a lot that needs to be worked on.

Anything that does need to be worked on, however, isn’t from behind the camera.

As usual, Jolie knows how to frame a shot and, of course, has an eye for detail. This may sound like obvious and faint praise, but it really isn’t; being able to ensure that your movie looks, sounds, and feels like it’s a top-notch production, is pretty hard. She allows for everything to come together, in front of the screen, that doesn’t make it seem like it’s coming from a newcomer, but from someone who has been watching, studying, and waiting, desperately. That passion, that inspiration, and yes, that drive, is worthy of being commended for.

But then you get to the script that she worked on and yeah, that’s where the problems really show. Because while this is no doubt an anti-war movie about the inhumane actions that took, and continue to, take place in the Bosnian War, it also, at least, attempts to be a love story about two people, torn apart by war and violence.

The perfect love. According to Angelina Jolie, that is.

But is it really?

See, what’s odd about this so-called “romance” that we spend all of five minutes seeing develop, before literal bombs explode and we’re all of a sudden, off to war, is that most of what we see developed between them, has mostly to do with rape and violence. There’s no love, no heart, no passion – just a lot of kicking, screaming, and well, I’ll say it again, raping. It’s actually really off-putting and while you could try to make the assumption that Jolie’s trying to make some sort of statement, all of that gets chucked out of the window when, after being forcibly held down and raped, Ajla begins to draw Danijel a loving little portrait of him, as he lays on the bed and looks on.

And this doesn’t happen once, but numerous times, almost to the point of self-parodying. And it’s weird, because Jolie doesn’t seem to ever realize that none of this works, or even registers as much as she may want it to. She thinks that there’s a sweet, almost universal point being made about how, no matter what sort of conflicts exist in this world, true love will overcome all.

Silly, right? Well, also, take into consideration that at least half of this movie is dedicated to watching people suffer, be suddenly killed, and better yet, thrown off ledges. It’s the kind of movie that’s dark and disturbing, and in that sense, Jolie nails just what she’s going for. However, when it comes to the “love” side of the story, just nope, it doesn’t register.

Better luck next time, right?

Consensus: Definitely a surprisingly admirable and noble effort on the part of Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey also doesn’t quite work as being both an anti-war and love story, making it seem like a hard swing and a miss.

4.5 / 10

“So in this next scene, I want you to kill people. But also be sympathetic and sweet. Cool? Thanks.”

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

12 and Holding (2005)

Small towns are way too weird.

Jacob and Rudy (Conor Donovan) are identical twins, in terms of the way they look and sound (sort of), but they are different in their own ways. Rudy is far more outgoing and considered “the golden child”, whereas Jacob, mostly due to a birthmark covering a large portion of his face, is forced to mostly stay indoors and keep to himself. However, they both get along well enough to where they spend as much time together and even build a tree-house, for them and all their friends to hang. But disaster strikes one night when, after messing with some bullies, the tree-house is lit on fire, with Rudy inside, trapping him and, as a result, killing him. Now, it’s up to Jacob to take most of the attention from his brother and he uses that attention to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, Leonard (Jesse Camacho), another friend, is overweight and trying to lose it all, while Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) tries to befriend an adult named Gus (Jeremy Renner), who is in town and doesn’t quite know what to make of this new friendship, as inappropriate as it may be.

Uh, like step away?

12 and Holding is another odd movie from the likes of writer/director Michael Cuesta and I mean that in the best way possible. Granted, compared to his debut, L.I.E., 12 and Holding doesn’t quite hit the same emotional notes, but it’s still interesting in that it focuses on a small, core group of people, gives them some development, a sense of conflict, and allows their stories to just be told to us. Sure, the stories don’t always work, but at least Cuesta’s trying something, right?

Well, yes. And no. Sort of.

See, one of the issues with 12 and Holding is that it tries a lot harder to be an outright comedy this go around, unlike L.I.E., that was far more serious and disturbing. There’s still that sense of dirt and grit here, but not nearly as in-your-face as it was with Cuesta’s debut; this time around, the disturbing-features are played up more for cringe-inducing and awkward laughs. Occasionally, Cuesta will hit a high spot for comedy, but often times, it can feel as if he’s maybe trying a tad too hard, as if the material itself wasn’t, on the surface, funny enough.

Which is odd to say, I know, considering that in the first 15 minutes, a kid literally gets burned-to-death, but still, you can tell Cuesta is going for the darker-laughs this time around and he doesn’t always hit his mark. He does develop these characters and give them enough to work with, however, he also can’t help but give us the occasional quirk, too. It would have helped if these quirks were, at some point, funny, but they aren’t and because of that, it can feel straining.

“So, how’s the food?”

That said, the drama still works and had the movie just been with that, then yeah, it probably would have been a slam-dunk.

If there’s one thing that Cuesta gets right, is the small-town, suburban malaise that, in a way, American Beauty dealt with. Sure, that movie did it a whole lot better and effortlessly, but 12 and Holding does something interesting in that it shows how grief messes with each and everyone of us, regardless of if we are willing to accept it or not. Cuesta shows that we all deal with it on our own terms and because of that, we act out in somewhat rather outlandish and insane ways; we can’t really diagnose it, or even excuse it, as it’s just in our human nature.

If anything, 12 and Holding is much more sad and depressing than anything, and had the movie focused on this much more, it would have been better. However, it didn’t and it dealt with comedy a tad too much. Still, the ensemble is pretty great with nearly all of the child and adult-performers putting in solid work. Perhaps the most shining star in the whole thing is Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee, the incredibly curious and sexually vivacious teen that makes a good half of this movie pretty uncomfortable. However, she’s so charming and lovely to watch, with Renner’s Gus helping out, too, that it makes these scenes go down a lot easier.

Not like L.I.E., of course, Nothing can quite be as disturbing and as off-putting as that.

Consensus: Uneven to a fault, 12 and Holding tries to be way too funny, when it probably didn’t need to, but still works as a small, sad and thought-provoking indie about small-towns and grief.

6 / 10

Gonna grow up to be some awfully weird adults. Just like the rest of us.

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films

L.I.E. (2001)

Get out of Long Island the first thing you do.

Still affected by the death of his mother, Howie (Paul Dano) has been having a bit of a rough go at life, for the time being. His dad (Bruce Altman) doesn’t seem to get him and is too busy spending time with his new girlfriend, who Howie obviously detests, and his best-friend Gary (Adam LeFevre), who he also has a love for, plans on moving out of their small suburban town in hopes of achieving his dreams of being rich and famous. Howie wants to profess his love for Gary, but he finds it easier to just go around causing all sorts of shenanigans with him, like for instance, robbing random people’s houses. One person that they rob is Big John (Brian Cox) an older, very charming man who has a certain affinity for young boys and immediately takes a liking to Howie. The later, all confused as to who to love or care for, immediately takes to Big John, too, and they both forge something of a friendship that gets dangerously close to being something much more. But will the two take the plunge, or learn to just respect one another?

Did Howie get his candy yet? You know, like he was promised?!?

A part of me feels like a great deal of the positive reception and, dare I say it, hype around L.I.E. has to solely due with the fact that it was touching on some really disturbing taboos that no one could get away with. Sure, the movie got slapped with an NC-17 rating nonetheless, but mostly that was due to the fact that it dealt with homosexuality, pedophilia, and sex in general, all featuring characters who seemed to be clearly underage. You could make the argument that the movie’s just another case of Larry Clarke’s Kids, but that would actually be an insult to L.I.E.

This movie’s much more thoughtful, whereas Clarke’s was just over-the-top and disturbing, for the sake of being so.

But still, L.I.E. isn’t quite nearly as good as it should be. One of the main aspects holding it back is that it’s the directorial debut from Michael Cuesta and in ways, you can tell. The movie’s dark, dirty, gritty, and grainy look, while giving it a realistic-look and feel, also feels amateurish, especially when the movie decides to stylize itself up a bit more with random, floating montages. You could say that it’s “pretentious”, but it isn’t entirely; a good deal of the movie is small, contained and actually, subtle, but there’s the other deal that also seems like a first-time director having a bit too much fun with a budget and a script in his hands.

That said, when the movie does settle down, L.I.E. works as a thoughtful and smart character-study of two troubled people coming together in a surprisingly believable way. It helps that we get to know each character very well before they meet one another, however, it also helps that Cuesta was able to get both Brian Cox and a very young Paul Dano in these lead roles, because they don’t just work well together, but they are actually the heart and soul of the whole picture.

Which is saying something, considering that the movie itself is pretty damn dark.

Don’t do it! Or do. It’s okay!

As Big John, Cox has the really troubling job of making a despicable and disgusting character seem somewhat sympathetic. And well, it works – not only do you come to care for this heinous wreck-of-a-man, but you also actually seem to get charmed by him. A part of the charm is his act and how he reels people in, and Cox gets by on this in spades, while all still seeming like one creepy individual. There’s more to this character that, in all honesty, deserved to be explored, but as far as portraits of actual monsters go, Cox’s Big John remains one of the more fully-realized and well-done.

Which is a shame because despite him trying very hard, Dano’s Howie doesn’t quite resonate as much. See, one aspect behind Howie’s character is that he’s a whole bunch of things that teenagers at that age are; confused, naive, angry, upset, and constantly fluctuating between emotions and how it is that they feel at any given moment. We get to see a lot about Howie and Dano makes it all work, but then, Cuesta comes around to making there more to Howie, like how he writes poetry, understands certain pop-culture references, and watches old movies, that don’t quite work. The movie wants to make Howie more than he actually is – which is just another upset teenager – and because of that, it takes away from what was already a smart and understandable character to begin with.

Oh well. Both Dano and Cuesta would continue to go on and do much better.

Same is obviously said for Cox.

Consensus: By touching on some disturbing themes in a very in-your-face way, L.I.E. can often times seem a little cloying, but still works because of the smart, understated and thoughtful performances from both Dano and, especially, Cox.

6.5 / 10

Love at first face-piercing.

Photos Courtesy of: Alter Ego Entertainment

Year of the Dog (2007)

Save the animals. Don’t save yourself.

Peggy (Molly Shannon) seems to have a pretty normal and relatively safe life going for her. She’s surrounded by friends and family, as well as her beloved beagle that she cares for each and every chance she gets. She’s not married and doesn’t have any kids of her own, so basically, it’s her one and only responsibility. But after the beagle dies, Peggy soon begins to look for all sorts of ways to fill the void in her life. This leads her to getting involved with people she doesn’t quite care for, watching over her friends’ kids, and also doing other monotonous tasks that only a person in the sort of funk she’s in, would ever be bothered with. But then, Peggy gets the grand idea: “Save” all of the dogs in the world. Meaning, it’s time that she doesn’t just adopt one dog, or hell, even two, but maybe like, I don’t know, 15 at a time. Why, though? Is it grief? Or is just because Peggy literally wants to save every dog in the world and believes that she can, slowly by surely, dog-by-dog?

That’s how it all starts: With just one dog.

One of the great things about Mike White and his writing is that no matter how zany, or silly, or downright wacky his characters and their stories can get, he always has a certain love and respect that never seems to go away. In the case of the Year of the Dog, with Peggy, we see a generally goofy, sad, lonely little woman who seems like she could easily just be the punchline to every joke. And, for awhile at least, that’s what she is; Year of the Dog is the kind of movie that likes to poke fun at its main protagonist, while also realizing that there are people out there in the real world just like her and rather than making fun, maybe we should just accept them.

While, of course, also making jokes at their expense.

But still, that’s why White’s writing is so good here – he knows how to develop this character in small, interesting and actual funny ways, without ever seeming like he’s trying too hard. The comedy can verge on being “cringe”, but in a way, White actually dials it back enough to where we get a sense for the languid pacing and it actually works. We begin to realize that the movie isn’t really as slow, as much as it’s just taking its time, allowing us to see certain aspects of Peggy’s life and those around her.

Hey, guys! Here’s Peter Sarsgaard playing a normal human being! Wow!

It also helps give us more time to pay close-attention to Molly Shannon’s great work as Peggy, once again showing us why she’s one of the more underrated SNL talents to ever come around. It’s odd because when she was on that show, Shannon was mostly known for being over-the-top and crazy, but in almost everything that she’s touched since, including this, the roles have mostly stayed down-played and silent. You can almost sense that she’s maybe trying to prove a point, but you can also tell that she’s just genuinely trying to give herself a challenge as an actress and show the whole world what she can do.

And as Peggy, she does a lot, without it ever seeming like it. It’s a very small, subtle performance, but there’s a lot to watch here, what with the character’s constant quirks and oddities, making her actually a very compelling presence on the screen. We don’t know what she’s going to do next, or to whom, and for that, she’s always watchable and constantly keeping this movie interesting, even when it seems like nothing is happening.

But that’s sort of the beauty about a Mike White film: Nothing seems as if it’s happening, but in a way, everything is.

Consensus: With a solid lead performance from Shannon, Year of the Dog gets by despite some odd quirks, but also remembers to keep its heart and humor.

7 / 10

I think everyone aspires to have this car, with all these same types of furry friends in it.

Photos Courtesy of: Plan B Entertainment

Kidnap (2017)

Kidnap (2017)

Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) is just another single mother doing whatever she can to get by. Her job as a waitress can be a little demanding, with her also battling over custody for her son with her ex-husband, and yeah, she tries. But to add another wrench in her life is the moment when her son is kidnapped by a bunch of random rednecks. Karla has no clue why they kidnapped her son, but you know what? She’s not going to hesitate for a single second to find them and get her son back. Which is something she does, although it becomes readily apparent that Karla’s going to have to do a lot of driving, yelling, running, maneuvering, thinking, and oh yeah, possibly even killing. See, Karla’s life just got a whole lot more complicated, but it’s her son and she’ll fight for him any day.

So happy….UNTIL!

Just like with the Call a few years ago, Halle Berry is once again stuck with a B-movie where all she has to do is show up and give it her all. Which is exactly what the Oscar-winner does; there are brief moments where she really has to let loose on her emotions and well, it actually kind of works. Granted, she’s practically crying and yelling throughout the whole movie, but no one does that quite as well as Berry does and she actually elevates the material, just by showing up and putting in solid work.

It makes me wonder why she’s doing stuff like this, when in reality, she’s still a tremendous actress and downright beautiful to-boot.

But once again, why is she here?

Always check your blind-spots.

And this isn’t to say that Kidnap‘s a terrible movie; it’s exactly what you would expect in a late-summer diversion. It’s fast, fun, and incredibly stupid. The fact that the plot-line never goes beyond “Halle Berry chases kidnappers” for the whole 86 minutes, should really show you what you’re getting yourself into. And it’s not necessarily a problem that the movie doesn’t try to over-complicate itself with things like plot and motivations, but a part of me feels like there truly was no script here and a lot of it was just left up to director Luis Prieto and Berry to make up as they went along.

If that’s true, what they do make up can be exciting, but most of the time, a little repetitive. For instance, a good portion of the first-half is this car-chase that goes on and on and on for what seems like hours. Which is fine, because it does keep the adrenaline going, but there’s not much else to it; we just hear Berry talking to herself and wondering what the next best move for her is. After awhile, it can get a bit old and feel like, once again, there’s not much of a script.

Just action, action, and oh yeah, a little more action.

Once again, though, it’s not as if this is always a problem with movies – simplicity is, in ways, sometimes a movie’s best friend. But here, with Kidnap, it feels lazy and as if there really wasn’t anything else actually going on beneath the surface to be found. It can be fun, but even at 86 minutes, it still feels like it was stretched a bit too thin, even by its own standards.

So yeah, Halle, please get back into the mode of making good movies again. Please. We need you and miss you.

Consensus: Even as a late-summer diversion, Kidnap is fine, but also feels like it’s not really going anywhere and solely depending on the still-great skills of Halle Berry.

5 / 10

Oh. Here we go with this for an hour.

Photos Courtesy of: Kenwood Theatre

The Unknown Girl (2017)

Not your problem, don’t solve it.

Jenny (Adele Haenel) is a young doctor who has a pretty bright career ahead of her and is using her knowledge to help out those looking up to her. But late one night, after a very long day of working with all sorts of people, she’s just so pooped and can’t be bothered with someone who rings her buzzer late after work hours. While she normally would have any other day, on this particular day, she doesn’t, and ultimately, it ends up biting her in the rump for the days to come. As it turns out, the person ringing the buzzer was a young African woman who was found dead not long after ringing away. How? Or why? Or better yet, who exactly was this woman? It constantly aches and chews away at Jenny and for the next few days, she spends, when she’s not looking over patients, finding out more about this woman and the life she led. Is it to make up for the guilt she feels? Or is it just because she herself needs a little bit of inspiration in her own stale-mate life?

“Cheers! Or at least try to! We’re in a Dardenne movie.”

It should be said that a Dardenne movie is a lot better than most of what is out there, regardless of how good the actual Dardenne movie is. And in the case of the Unknown Girl, this is especially true. It’s not that it’s neither bad, nor good – it’s just that it’s very mediocre and awfully generic, especially given the standards that the Dardenne’s have come to be known for in the past two decades they’ve been around.

And it’s odd, too, because the Unknown Girl has everything one could want from a Dardenne movie. It’s bleak, a little sad, super-serious, well-acted, and filmed in such a naturalistic, realistic way that it almost seems like a documentary than anything else. In that sense, it’s very French and wears a lot of the Dardenne’s movies on its sleeves, but for some reason, the story just isn’t here.

And that ultimately proves to be its main and only issue.

“Hello? Yeah, I’m pretty depressed.”

The fact that the story in and of itself is a Macguffin, sort of doesn’t matter; it’s fine that we sort of spend our time, waiting and watching as Jenny finds out more about this mysterious woman’s life. In a way, there’s plenty of secrets to be had and it makes you think of just where it’s going to go, especially since the Dardenne’s movies aren’t always the most predictable bunch.

But then, it gets going and it turns out, oh wait, there’s not much to it. We begin to find out more about the life this woman lived, why she was ringing the buzzer that night, the guilt, the sadness, and the tragedy of her life left behind, and that’s about it. We don’t really learn much about anyone in the meantime, nor does it ever feel like much of anything was accomplished – it’s just a story, being told in the most generic-way imaginable. Which isn’t to say that it makes the Unknown Girl a bad movie, but considering that we’re talking about the Dardenne’s here, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment. This is usually their bread and butter, and while there are bits and pieces and splashes of interesting ideas, they feel in-service of a story that’s not quite where it wants to go, or what it wants to do.

It just meanders long and long enough until we’re at the end and left wondering, “Well, that’s it? Really? Anything else?”

But nope. There isn’t. Oh well.

Consensus: Despite there being flashes of the usual solid work done by the Dardenne’s, the Unknown Girl still feels like a bit of a disappointment, with a slow-pace, generic story, and awfully simple outcome.

5 / 10

Great door-to-door service medical-care. Why don’t we have this in the States?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

It (2017)

Honestly, real-life creepy clowns are creepier.

Derry, Maine is just like any other small-town in America. Quiet, quaint, and yes, quite a lovely little place. But look a little bit deeper, and there’s some true darkness lying underneath. And said darkness begins to show up more and more when kids randomly start disappearing left and right, without any signs of how, why, and where they may even be. Some kids believe it’s just kids being kids and getting lost somewhere in the woods, but for a select-few of other kids, they think it’s the one, the only, the infamous, and the incredibly dangerous Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who lurks somewhere in the sewers, luring little children with his evil, magical powers. And the few kids who do see Pennywise, are quite screwed-up and don’t really know what to do with it, mostly because they’re too busy figuring out their own lives. For instance, there’s Bill, (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a stuttering problem; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby kid who’s also new to town; Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a gal who’s daddy may have a serious problem touching her; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who enjoys making fun of every situation; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s a germophobe, but maybe because his mom only tells him he is; Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who seems to be the only black kid in town and is constantly bullied for it; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), who’s Jewish faith continues to guide him in his life. Together, they’ll try to stop Pennywise, once and for all.

Nothing bad’s ever on a old-school Super 8 flick.

The reason why It works so well beyond many other Stephen King adaptations is because it hints at something truer, something meaner, and something darker than just what we see. See, in It, this new adaptation, while Pennywise is no doubt the true evil and scary-being here, it’s really other elements like rape, incest, murder, racism, and even time itself that seem to be the true evils. Like mostly all of King’s work, It shows us that the truest evils aren’t just ghouls an ghosts, but more or less, life and how it can be ruined by just some of the most dangerous and disturbing people imaginable.

But yeah, also killer clowns.

Still though, what works about It is that it’s not afraid to go the extra distance to get as dark and as disturbing as it wants. Director Andy Muschietti seems to know that the key-element to making material like this is not holding back and going as far as one can go with a hard-R rating. Meaning, we get a lot of blood, gore, cursing, nudity (sort of), and oh yeah, kids in peril. In fact, there’s so many moments of kids in peril here that it literally felt like another 80’s flick (and it probably wasn’t helping that one of the kids from Stranger Things is also here).

But it all actually works. As much as the movie wants to rely on the good old nostalgia of the small-towns from the 80’s, it also wants to terrify the hell out of us and with Pennywise, and with practically everything else Muschietti throws at us, it gets the job done. Granted, a lot of it can tend to be a bit over-bearing, obvious, and oh yeah, predictable, but for a horror flick that’s nearly two-hours-and-15-minutes and not feeling like a second of it, it’s nice to have around. It helps that the movie’s constantly tense and trying out new ways to creep us out, but yeah, the movie works where most horror movies nowadays don’t.

It gets the scares right, the characters right, and above all else, the villain right.

Sure he’s fine. Wherever he may be….

And as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård is pretty scary. While Tim Curry’s original portrayal will forever stand the test of time, his take was a bit different; whereas Curry’s was far more campy and over-the-top, for comedic-effect, Skarsgård’s is meant to be more dangerous and absolutely unimaginable. He’s not supposed to show up watering the plants, or cracking dumb puns, but instead, biting the arms off of five-year-old children (which is something he does in the first ten minutes). It’s a solid portrayal that, depending on where this franchise goes, will be interesting to see how it all changes.

Same goes for the rest of the cast who, for now, are all very good at what they do. Sure, no one really stands out from the rest of the crowd, considering that they’ve all got a great deal of development and personality to help them get by, but the fact that they all were discernible from one another and had something going on in their lives, worked and mattered. The movie actually goes out of its way to show us more to these kids than just a bunch of wise-cracks about mullets and Molly Ringwald – like you or I were at their age, they’re vulnerable, scared, and absolutely terrified. You could say of the creepy clown that seems to be following them everywhere they go, but also of growing up and whatever other depravities the future holds out for them.

And yeah, I look forward to seeing the next part of their lives’ journeys. Because, of course, there’s going to be more of this. Don’t be naive.

Just give in and float away.

Consensus: With the unrelenting willingness to go to deep, dark places that most horror movies are afraid to even step near, the latest re-imagining of It works because it doesn’t forget to remain faithful to the source material, but to also the smart, solid, and somewhat terrifying scares that are much needed.

8 / 10

If he’s got candy, I’m interested.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

Every kid needs a bike to get by in life.

Abandoned by his father and practically everyone else around him, young Cyril (Thomas Doret) begins to act out in anger, causing all sorts of havoc and constantly finding himself in trouble. In a way, it almost seems like it follows him everywhere he goes and it’s as if Cyril will never be able to escape the darkness that swallows up his whole life. However, there is one light to be found in Cyril’s relatively bad life: His caretaker Samantha (Cécile de France), who took the opportunity to watch over him on something of a whim and is finding a lot more than she can chew. But seeing as how Cyril’s got nowhere else to go, but an orphanage, or even worse, a juvenile delinquent center and becoming another little boy involved with the system, she decides to stick with it and realizes that it may be worth it. And after much time together, yeah, Cyril gets used to Samantha, her rules, and the way she lives her life, which is relatively peaceful and nice, by his standards. But as per usual, Cyril’s past always comes back to bite him in the rear-end when constant attempts to connect with his dad seem to turn sour and piss Cyril off even more.

Good luck watching over that kid.

The Kid with the Bike is one of the Dardenne’s more interesting flicks, because it not only seems to have something resembling an actual plot, but seems to be a lot sweeter and more optimistic than their other flicks. Sure, it’s about a young whippersnapper who causes all sorts of problems, gets into trouble, and doesn’t have the best life imaginable, but it also has some solid glimmers of hope, too. In fact, a good portion of the movie is dedicated to Cyril getting better at life, at family, at love, and at realizing that there’s more to everything than just sitting around all day and being mad at the world around him.

Sometimes, it’s best to just smile and be grateful, as easy as that may be to say.

And yes, as usual, the Dardenne’s keep up with their naturalistic approach, where it seems like the movie’s a documentary, and yes, it works. But what really keeps the Kid with the Bike compelling is Thomas Doret in the lead role of Cyril, who proves to be a smart kid, despite also being chock-full of angst. The Dardenne’s have a knack for casting talented young actors in their somewhat difficult roles, because half of what they’re doing is just showing, rather than just saying; you can say that’s all of acting, but when you’re a kid, and half of what you’re being told to do is simply just standing there and reacting, it’s a pretty hard feat to pull off. But Doret does just that, showing that there are true, honest, and relatively sad layers beneath Cyril’s sometimes infuriating actions.

Brat.

As is usually the case with Dardenne protagonists, Cyril doesn’t make the best decisions, but because he’s a kid and is so hot-headed, it sort of works and makes sense. And considering she could have easily turned into a silly, sappy type that these types of stories love to have, Cécile de France feels real and honest as Samantha, a gal who doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into, but knows the end results of what happens if she walks away, so she sticks it out, the best that she can. The two have a lovely little bit of chemistry, seeming as if they’re getting to know, as well as love one another, gradually over time, with the usual hurdles having to be climbed over.

But hey, that’s how family.

But the reason why the Kid with the Bike isn’t, in my book, considered one of the Dardenne’s best, even though it can come very, very close, is its cop-out of an ending.

And that’s all I’ll say about that. Just see it and you’ll know what I’m saying. Hopefully.

Consensus: Despite a folly ending, the Kid with the Bike is typical of the Dardenne’s, in that it’s sad, honest, heartfelt, and surprisingly warm, given the underlining of darkness always there to be found.

8 / 10

Well, maybe he’s got some charm.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

L’enfant (2005)

Some people just shouldn’t have children. Especially idiotic children.

After giving birth, teenage Sonia (Déborah François) returns home to find that her boyfriend, a petty criminal named Bruno (Jérémie Renier), has sublet their apartment. Sonia tracks Bruno down on the street, and after the couple spends the night together, they decide to start a new life with the baby and forget about any of their past trouble and woes. But the next morning, Bruno sells their child for cash, sending Sonia into an absolute state of shock and awe. How could he do this? Was it for love? Money? Or did he just not want to responsibility any longer of taking care of something that is, you know, his? Regardless, she decides that it’s best to press charges against him for taking what was rightfully hers. Bruno is shocked by her decision, too, so he vows to find the baby and bring it back to her, by any means necessary. And being that he’s already in the criminal-game, Bruno’s got some ideas and tricks up his sleeve.

“Looks like money to me.”

As usual with the writing/directing team of Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, L’enfant is no easy ride. In fact, it’s one of their more disturbing, hard-to-watch movies ever made as we literally never grow to like any of these characters. Sure, you could say that about the rest of their films, in which we never really judge the characters, as much as we just sit and watch them, but here, it feels like they’re so despicable, that spending any time with them whatsoever, let alone two hours, would just be way, way too much. Add-on the fact that the Dardenne’s love themselves some hand-held close-ups and yeah, you’ve got a pretty miserable experience.

And yes, that’s exactly the point.

See, L’enfant is a hard movie to watch because, like most of the Dardenne’s other movies, it asks us the simple question of whether or not we can accept these idiotic, downright juvenile human beings as just that, human beings? They’re stupid and they make absolutely dumb decisions, but does that make them any less human than you or I? The Dardenne’s have always examined this in their movies, but it feels more raw and relevant here because, at the center of it all, is something resembling a love story, that eventually, as expected, turns sour.

But then it becomes a sort of redemption-story of one Bruno, who goes from being the most unlikable, despicable human being on the face of the planet, to actually a pretty determined guy, when he wants to be. See though, that’s the thing about Bruno and the movie – we never fully see it all in just one light. Bruno can be seen as another dumb young adult who doesn’t really know what to do, unless he’s committing some act of vandalism or crime, but when faced with responsibility, can act his age and actually make something of his relatively pathetic life.

Seriously. Michael Bay, take notes.

And it deserves stating that Jérémie Renier, a Dardenne regular since he was literally 14, does one of his best jobs here. Of course, it helps that he’s got a lot to work with; Bruno grows throughout the whole course of the movie and we see different shades of him. We may not always like, or respect the shades, but they are still shades nonetheless, and Renier remains always compelling. We never know what his next action will be, or for what reasons, and because of that, he’s incredibly watchable and perfect for this kind of role, in this kind of movie.

The kind of raw, gritty, and in-your-face movie that needs raw, gritty, in-your-face performance to match it.

But honestly, it’s the Dardenne’s who deserve a lot of praise for, once again, proving that the best way to tell stories such as these, is to just sit back and let the acting/writing do the talking itself. Which is surprising because a solid portion of the movie is actually quite as thrilling; a car-chase that happens about halfway through and seems to go on forever, is way more exciting than most that I see in your typical, summer blockbuster fare. But it doesn’t always resort to action to really keep itself compelling – all it needs is a little emotion and heartbreak to drive everything along.

Sort of like life itself.

Consensus: As sad as it is, L’enfant is still another masterclass in raw, gritty naturalism that the Dardenne’s have practically perfected, with a great lead performance from Renier.

8.5 / 10

Thanks, Bruno. Always making the men look good in this kind of situation.

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Classics

Unlocked (2017)

Spies don’t even spies.

After failing to apprehend the terrorist behind a Paris attack that claimed dozens of lives, CIA agent Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is forced to spend the rest of her days in in London, living and working the boring task of being a caseworker. Out of the blue, though, her mentor (Michael Douglas) unexpectedly calls her back into action when the CIA discovers that another attack is imminent. And just like that, Alice is thrown back into the dangerous life of being a spy who has to get any sorts of information, by any means whatsoever. And that’s exactly what happens, although, it’s a lot more violent than she’d ever expected, especially when information she’s able to draw out of a suspect is compromised and she becomes a target of every government agency known to man. Now, it’s basically Alice back on the run, without any idea of where to go, or who to turn to, except to just use her smarts and ass-kicking abilities.

Who’s the more bad-ass one here?!?!

You wouldn’t know it, or hell, even think about it, but Michael Apted’s probably one of the best directors ever. Now granted, he hasn’t necessarily changed the way we watch film, or take it in, but what he has proven, is that no matter where he goes, what he takes on, or whatever the hell it is that he’s doing, he remains consistently good at it. Sure, you can say all that you want about some of his flicks, like the World is Not Enough, or even Nell, but the man has made some pretty great movies, over the past 40 years.

Which is why something as boring and silly as Unlocked feels like a bummer and an overall waste of everyone’s time and talent, his especially.

Which is odd, because spy-thrillers seem to be Apted’s niche; these dark, dirty and twisty tales of intrigue and violence seem to be up his alley, considering he knows how to keep the tension going, even when we’re not sure where the story’s are going. That’s what sort of happens to Unlocked at first, until it just loses all control and hope in ever making sense, or even being entertaining.

See, the best part of these so-called “spy-thrillers”, is that while they are twisty and turny, they still at least have some sense of understanding and cohesion. Meaning, there has to be a rhyme and a reason for someone to turn out to be, I don’t know, either a spy for another agency, or not actually dead all of this time – throwing those twists out in the air and out of your ass, doesn’t quite work. The best part of these thrillers is being able to follow along with everything, but also not knowing what to actually expect next, and yet, still have an idea of where it could go.

Make any sense?

Come on, Mike! Really?

Probably not, but hey, it’s whatever. Unlocked is the kind of thriller that doesn’t ever make sense of itself, its characters, where it wants to go, or hell, what it even wants to say. There’s a lot of twists and turns for sure, but none of them ever make any sense. And when it turns out that we get a twist, a character has to go on and on for a four-five stanzas about why they did what they did, why they were deceitful, and why it’s for the greater good. Which isn’t to say that we don’t see these twists coming from a mile away – one particular character’s evil motivations are noticeable from the very beginning – it’s just that they’re so stupid in the first place, that to have to explain them, more and more and why they should make sense, doesn’t work. It’s sort of like telling a joke – if you have to explain it, it didn’t work and therefore, isn’t funny, or effective.

That’s how it is with Unlocked‘s non-stop twists and turns: They don’t make sense and probably weren’t ever supposed to. Which is sometimes fine, but the movie’s not all that much fun in the first place, with Apted turning in a disappointingly workmen-like direction, where it seems like even he’s bored. Hell, the ensemble who, for some reason, is quite stacked, even feels like they’re giving it their all, but ultimately, fall prey to lame editing and an even lamer script.

Noomi Rapace, as usual, is a bad-ass and knows how to play it, but who her character is, or what her motivations are beyond “saving humanity”, is never quite clear; Michael Douglas shows up to sort of chew scenery; Toni Collette, sporting an Annie Lennox-do, is pretty bad-ass, but also randomly here; John Malkovich sort of chews scenery, too, although why he’s even here in the first place is a total question-mark (I’d ask the same thing about Douglas, although one close look will actually show he produced the damn thing); and believe it or not, the best of them all is Orlando Bloom who, sporting a ridiculous cockney-accent, a crap-ton of tats, and gelled-up hair, seems to be having the most fun, playing up a rare villainous role.

He may be in the wrong movie for this much fun, but hey, I want that movie instead!

Consensus: The cast does definitely try, but through it all, Unlocked is too boring and over-written to really work as a smart, fun, and exciting spy-thriller, despite what Apted’s previous credits may have you hoping and wishing for.

3.5 / 10

“Oy, mate. No mo’ pirate movies for may!”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz