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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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

Category Archives: 6-6.5/10

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

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Brad’s Status (2017)

Life sucks. Then you get old. Then die. Yep. That’s about it.

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) has a pretty nice life. A great wife (Jenna Fischer), who’s incredibly supportive of him, a cushy job, a quaint suburban house, a few friends, and a son, Troy (Austin Abrams), who’s something of a musical-prodigy and all ready to head off to college. But Brad still has an issue with his life and where he’s been heading in the past many years; for instance, his former-pals from college are all rich, successful, and living far more luxurious lifestyles than he is, which gets him thinking. Like a lot. And it sort of begins to ruin the trip that he has with his son, where they’re off visiting colleges like Harvard and Yale, all for the hopes that Troy will join the likes of the many greats who have come and gone there before him. Brad, on the other hand, can’t stop thinking about his life and what the hell he’s going to do next. Basically, he’s just going through a mid-life crisis – he just doesn’t really seem to know it yet.

See, Brad? Life’s not so bad! You’ve got Pam in your life!

Writer/director Mike White knows what he’s talking about here and because of that, Brad comes off a lot more sympathetic than he probably should have been. While no doubt everything that Brad is yelling, ranting, raving, complaining, and getting all upset about is nothing more than just white first-world problems, it still feels relevant and interesting. We may not agree with everything that he’s pissed-off about – not having enough money, wanting to see other people, wishing that he was working for a different place – but we can sort of see where he’s coming from and it helps make Brad more interesting and relatable, as opposed to just another rambling, bumbling, and angry white guy who truly has nothing to worry about.

Like at all.

And that’s why Brad’s Status both works and also doesn’t. It works because it features some smart and snappy writing about real life issues that everyone faces at least once or twice in their existences. But it’s also bad because that’s literally all Brad’s Status is about; just when we’re introduced to a new character, or possibly even, a new conflict, we know it’s only a matter of time until something irritates Brad and he has to let his mind loose. It’s a convention we see coming, again and again, and it makes Brad annoying, but the writing seem cheap and sitcom-y.

Uh oh. Time for an angry rant.

Which, coming from Mike White, is a bit of a disappointment. He ought to know better and not really fall back onto this sort of stuff that seems like a lame fall-back. And it isn’t like because Brad can sometimes be an asshole, means that he’s not watchable – some of the most compelling characters are the ones you love to hate – it’s just that he’s a bit of a bore. His issues are relevant and, at some point, understandable, but there comes a point when one has to shut up and move on, and Brad’s Status, much like Brad himself, doesn’t seem to.

The one real aspect keeping Brad’s Status moving is Ben Stiller who, once again, seems to really playing to his strengths, albeit, in a much more dramatic-manner.

But it’s a solid turn from Stiller who seems to get off on playing these overachieving, annoying perfectionists, but actually injects some real heart and humanity into him. We see a lot of that play out in the relationship he has with his son here, who is already an interesting character in the first place. Normally, with these kinds of movies where the dad’s a bit of a bummer, the kids generally seem to hate them and loathe their even existence, but Abrams’ Troy. In a way, Troy loves his dad more than even Brad knows or even notices, and it’s why Brad’s Status remains a much smarter movie than you’d expect – there’s an actual feeling of love and emotion somewhere to be found beneath all of the ranting.

Much like real life rants.

Consensus: With an exceptional lead performance from Stiller, Brad’s Status works as an interesting, if also troubling character-study of a relatable, but also annoying person that we may all grow to become one day.

6 / 10

“Dad? What are you hissing about?”

Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

Make Christmas Bad Again.

Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carol (Kathryn Hahn) are all moms who deserve a little bit of a break. But the holidays don’t necessarily mean that, so the next few days or so, they’re spending, slaving away, looking for presents, putting up decorations, and most importantly, making all sorts of food. It’s a pain, but it’s the kind of things that moms do to ensure that the holidays go by smoothly. However, if all that wasn’t enough, each mom her their own mother come around, to hopefully, make things better. This doesn’t happen, of course. Amy’s mother, Ruth (Christine Baranski), is a stickler and constantly nags at Amy for this Christmas not being as memorable as it should be, despite Amy’s desperate try for it to be as such; Kiki’s mother, Sandy (Cheryl Hines), loves her so much that she can’t seem to grasp any sense of a comfort-zone; and Carol’s, Isis (Susan Sarandon), when not gambling, drinking, smoking, and sexing her life away, is usually around to just ask for money, which Carol doesn’t want to do, ever, but always ends up doing anyway.

Open-containers in the mall? WHO CARES!

Yup. This holiday-season is going to be fun.

The original Bad Moms was a quite surprise. While it looked stupid, over-the-top, broad, and ridiculously white, it was also a pretty funny comedy that had a slight bit of something smart to say and, oh yeah, also paid tribute to moms everywhere. Although it was written and directed by two dudes, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, it felt like the kind of movie that was made for women, by women, and with smart, interesting women, even if that middle-portion wasn’t entirely true. It’s very rare that we actually get movies made exactly for women, let alone comedies, or better yet, let alone good movies in general, and it’s why Bad Moms, while not exactly perfect, got by on pure-charm.

And same goes for A Bad Moms Christmas, which is odd considering that it was made so quick, you’d automatically think of a botched rush-job, but it doesn’t come off that way. Instead, the familiarity with these characters, their lives, and their personalities, helps the story move by at a rapid-pace, without ever seeming to settle down. Jokes fly, with a good portion of them landing, and the others, not, but most of all, it’s all quick, funny, and pretty damn entertaining.

We’ve all been in this position.

Is it as surprising as the first? Not really.

In a way, you know what you’re going to get with A Bad Moms Christmas and because of that, everything works a lot better. We expect tons of raunch, non-stop montages of these moms doing bad-stuff, and eventually, lessons to be learned. It’s all conventional stuff, but with a R-rated raunchy-comedy that’s actually raunchy and funny enough to register as such, it’s all fine. Maybe it’s with the holidays coming up, I’m a lot more lenient to movies such as this, where the sap and endearing whiteness is able to seen from a mile away, but hey, so be it.

Or maybe, it’s just that this ensemble is so much fun to watch, it hardly even matters. As with the first movie, everybody here who shows up, gets an opportunity to be funny and at least bring something to the table, not seeming like window-dressing for an already polished movie. Of course, as we know from the first, Kunis, Bell, and especially, Hahn, are all funny and exciting to watch, but it’s the older moms like Baranski, Hines, and Sarandon who really excel. While they’re all playing their types, the types have some heart and humanity behind them that it doesn’t really matter; also, it’s nice that the movie gives each and everyone of them a chance to not only shine in their own scenes, but together, being one of the very few movies featuring three women, all over the age of 50, to just sit down, talk about their lives, and not once make a joke about Viagra.

Okay, they talk about sex, but who cares? They’re moms! They’re allowed to do whatever they want!

Consensus: As much as it’s like the first, for better and for worse, A Bad Moms Christmas brings back all of the fun, likable characters from the first, as well as the silly, over-the-top raunchy humor, too.

6.5 / 10

What Ms. Claus don’t know, won’t kill her.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

The Little Hours (2017)

Let loose of Christianity. And your pants.

It’s the Middle-Ages and, as expected, basically everything, everywhere, is run by religion. And in these times, nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple, albeit sex-free life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer, who Fernanda, being the paranoid that she is, constantly thinks of him as being as a Jew. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who’s harboring some dark and dirty secret of his own, brings on newly hired hand named Massetto (Dave Franco), a young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord (Nick Offerman), who caught him sleeping with his wife and is currently hunting him down. So, in order to stay safe and sound, and away from his lord, Massetto must stay deaf and dumb, and act as if he has no interest in any sort of proclivities. Even though, he, like everyone else at this convent, does and it eventually comes to front-fold when they all get a nice look at Massetto.

“ARE YOU JAMES?!?!?”

The Little Hours is basically a one-joke movie, in which it’s the Middle-Ages and everyone speaks in a modern-day tone and dialogue, filled with curses, witticisms, sayings, and a lot of dead-pan. And as is the case with most one-joke movies, they can tend to get a little old and repetitive; see, it’s not what the joke is about, as much as it’s what you’re able to do with it, how you’re able to spin it, and make telling it, still seem somewhat fun and fresh. It’s what the Little Hours is able to do for awhile, until it doesn’t.

But man, what a cast.

Seriously.

Writer/director Jeff Baena hasn’t been in the game for too long, but has already somehow been able to get a bunch of famous faces in his various movies, and the Little Hours is no exception. In fact, one of the main reasons why the movie works as well as it does, is because of how dedicated and willing this ensemble is to make this material work and funny. Everyone here is dead-pan and while there are some people that seem to be funnier than others, everyone is in on the joke and it works.

Just a man and his ass. Don’t ask questions.

No one person in particular is funnier than the other, but one who stands-out, in my eyes, is Dave Franco, especially since what a lot of he has to do is physical and simply using his body, rather than saying everything. Franco’s always been funny and a blast to watch on-screen, but here, we see his talent tested to where, instead of saying everything, he has to act it all out, through body-language. It’s a gimmick-role, sort of, but it’s one that’s impressive because Franco seems to excel at this kind of stuff, even when he isn’t talking.

And yeah, everybody else is pretty great, too, but does any of that need to be said?

What Baena does do well, except offer some funny bits and pieces of comedy, is that he does offer-up an interesting look at religion and sex, through the clearly comedic-eyes. Baena doesn’t seem to be making a comment on Christianity, as a whole, and it’s positive, as well as negative effects, on those who support and follow it, but he does seem to be showing that sometimes, age-old stipulations and rules, that take away certain freedoms, are wrong and should be broken. Sure, it’s told to us in such a silly and raunchy manner, but it’s effective and shows that Baena has more on his mind than just a bunch of funny people cursing, getting naked, and having sex.

Although, there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Consensus: Essentially a one-joke premise, the Little Hours grows to wear thin, but with a smart, funny cast who are all absolutely game, it gets on passable humor.

6 / 10

Let’s just pretend these three aren’t celebrities trying to be normal, everyday nuns.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Suburbicon (2017)

Racism and bigotry. Only in the late-50’s, right?

It’s the late-50’s and everybody in America seems to be happy. In this particular case, it’s Suburbicon, a small, yet quaint suburb where everyone is joyous, lovely, nice to one another, and oh yeah, very white. So much so that when a black family moves in, all hell breaks loose. But while this is all happening, there’s the Lodge family who, in their own ways, have another tragedy to deal with. Gardner (Matt Damon) has just lost his wife to a duo of robbers and now has to bounce back, as does his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who doesn’t quite know how evil and dastardly the world is just yet. However, he soon learns this fact of life when he finds out that not only is his father shacking up with his aunt (Julianne Moore), but that the two are planning on sending Nicky away to a boarding-school of sorts. But why? Nicky doesn’t quite know yet, until those robbers start coming around and expecting more money – something that Gardner doesn’t want to do, but at the same time, doesn’t have much of a choice.

“Clean this up, you animal!”

And oh yeah, there’s a lot of racism on the side, too.

Deep in the center of Suburbicon is a really tight, lean, mean and relatively fun darkly-comedic thriller that feels exactly like a rip-off of the Coen’s. Which is obviously purposeful because, for one, the Coen’s wrote this, but also feel as if they’re treading familiar waters, poking fun at suburbia, the hidden secrets we all tell ourselves, and just how one incident, can snowball into many, many more. It’s typical Coen’s and it works.

But then, there’s all of the racist-stuff to go along with it and yeah, that’s where Suburbicon falls apart. And it isn’t that what director/co-writer George Clooney brings to the table isn’t meaningful; this notion of the 50’s that we all have is sweet and dough-eyed, yet, it was also very troubling, especially in terms of social-issues. Is this an altogether crazy and shocking surprise to anyone that’s ever taken a history course, anywhere, at any time? Not really, and it’s why Suburbicon, while well-intentioned, drops the ball.

Also, Clooney probably isn’t the best director for this kind of tricky material, either.

After all, he’s not the kind of director who’s known for his subtlety, nor for his skill of blending together different genres, tones, and moods. Look at every movie he’s directed, save for Good Night and Good Luck., and you can tell that they’re taking on a lot and honestly, it’s too much for George to chew. He does an admirable, serviceable job on all of those other flicks, but he seems to always get stuck in a hole where he doesn’t know where to go with his movies, nor what he’s actually trying to get across. He’s just a messy director and while I want to give him credit for taking risks, he hardly ever sticks the landings.

And that’s the case with Suburbicon, although, because he’s working with a Coen brother’s script, he’s a lot better off. Whenever the movie isn’t focusing on the social-issues about race and religion, it’s actually kind of fun and a little twisted, but whenever it is, it’s ham-fisted, obvious, and not all that surprising. What’s weirder though, too, is that Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov seem to be going for some kind of satire that gets so over-blown, so crazy, and so insane, it doesn’t hold-up. It’s as if Clooney didn’t think he was getting his point across enough, so he had to literally bang us over the head with a hammer to make us woke.

Save us, Oscar. Please.

Nobody’s doubting that you’re woke, George. Just shut up about it already and make a good movie.

But at the end of it all, what saves Suburbicon, aside from the Coen’s side of the script, is the cast who all seem to be trying very hard to make this work. Matt Damon has a lot of heavy-lifting to do as Gardner Lodge, the dorky, seemingly square father of the family and has to show a darker, meaner side as the time goes on and it works. In a much tighter, much more focused movie, the performance would be better, but as it stands, it does what it needs to do and Damon’s good. Julianne Moore’s role is fine, too, although her character is a bit more silly and weird, which sort of fits, and sort of doesn’t. Either way, after this and Kingsman, it’s nice to see her playing around with some light and funny roles for a change.

But the real stand-out is probably Noah Jupe who, like with the rest of the cast, given a much more focused movie, could have really made miracles. Still, as the meek, mild and relatively sweet Nicky, who is starting to realize the whole world around him is crumbling, Jupe gets a lot of mileage out of simply standing in a scene and reminding us that he’s a kid, after all. There’s a certain sweetness to him that keeps some heart left in this movie, even when the rest of it seems to be getting wrapped in blood and guts. It’s a role that has me excited for what he next on his plate, so long as hoping it’s in a movie that gives him much more.

Oh, and Oscar Isaac is here for maybe two scenes and easily makes them the best.

Then again, when doesn’t he do that?

Consensus: Try as he might, George Clooney just doesn’t have the strongest chops to make Suburbicon, an already uneven and messy bit of satire, gel perfectly, but still gets by on some cheap thrills and a game cast.

6 / 10

“Honey, I won’t be home for supper tonight.”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Creep 2 (2017)

He’s a weirdo.

Sara (Desiree Akhavan) is a vlogger who’s desperate for any sort of fame or fortune. Hell, she’d do anything for more than nine viewers, which is all that it seems like her videos get. Then, she stumbles upon an odd Craigslist ad and all of a sudden, inspiration hits Sara. All she has to do is drive out to see this person, film them for a whole day, and get a grand total of $1,000, and be on her merry-way. Seems simple and cool enough, but once she shows up, Sara realizes that she’s got a little bit more to deal with. For one, the subject, Aaron (Mark Duplass), is a bit of a wack-job. Secondly, he says that he’s a serial-killer who, in all of his 40 years of living, has killed 39 people. So why is he asking for Sara to tape him and tell his whole life story? Sara doesn’t quite know or get it yet, but she’s fascinated, by both Aaron, as well as the story, so she sticks around, shoots, and waits to see what happens. It’s a decision she may soon regret, or love.

Who doesn’t love grainy home-videos?

The original Creep was nothing entirely special, but considering that it was a found-footage flick that didn’t feel like a retread of every other one that came before it, made it worth the watch. And yes, it was also funny, a little weird, tense, and scary, but most of all, it was a found-footage movie and with them, you can only do so much. Director/co-writer Patrick Brice and co-writer Mark Duplass tried their best to go truly above and beyond convention, but in reality, had to stick the landing in there somewhere.

It was a solid diversion, but a diversion nonetheless.

That said, I don’t know how many people were clamoring for another Creep and in the first five-minutes, it becomes abundantly clear why. Aaron shows up, like he did in the first one, terrorizes some dude, kills him, and cackles at the camera. And scene. It’s made for shock-value, but just feels grotesque and a little boring, as if the movie was trying to give us that uneasy feeling right off the bat. Instead, it just feels like a cheap attempt at shock-value and it comes off dumb and ill-conceived.

But thankfully, right after this cold open, Creep changes its tune and becomes, not just a lot smarter, but much more interesting than even the first one. Rather than sticking with this evil maniac Aaron, who spends mostly all of his time, finding people, stalking them, and killing them, we’re introduced to Sara, a character who we think is going to become easy prey to Aaron, like all of the others, but she’s different.

Uh oh. The journalist, is being journal’d.

Much, much different.

It’s hard to really say why, though. What I can say is that Desiree Akhavan is pretty great in this role of Sara because, even though she’s supposed to be our protagonist, we’re never too sure if we can trust her. We get the sense that she’s just playing along with Aaron to get good-footage, but we also get the sense that there’s something darker and more menacing about her that not only makes us want to see more of her interactions with Aaron, but also get an idea of her backstory. It’s a shame that ever since her directorial debut a few years back (Appropriate Behavior), we haven’t seen a lot of Akhavan, but here, she proves why she deserves to be around a whole lot more.

Same goes for Duplass who, once again, gets to have some fun in the role of Aaron. However, my biggest issue with the movie is him and it makes me wonder whether or not this sequel was as well thought-out as it could have been. We do get some more digging-in deep into Aaron’s psyche, as well as his upbringing, but whenever it seems like we’re getting somewhere smart and dramatic, the movie switches gears and decides that it’s time for silly genre-thrills. In the first movie, this worked because it was, well, a found-footage movie and not much else – in this one, it feels like a cheap back-out, as Brice and Duplass didn’t want to get as serious as they could have.

Which isn’t a problem. Especially in a horror flick.

Consensus: Creep 2 works on a much more interesting level than the first did, however, also suffers from some of the same old genre-thrills we’ve seen before, time and time again.

6.5 / 10

He’s still charming as hell, ladies.

Photos Courtesy of: The Orchard

Marjorie Prime (2017)

By now, this kind of stuff is a documentary.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an aging woman who has seen the last few years of his life slip by. Now, as she’s getting older, she’s also starting to forget things. In order to help her out a bit, her daughter (Geena Davis) and son-in-law (Tim Robbins) buy Marjorie a holographic projection known as a Prime, that looks, sounds, and is in the form of her late husband (Jon Hamm), when he was younger and they first met. At first, it’s just Marjorie speaking with it, getting to remember old times, and even reminding herself of who she once was. But because her daughter is still so angry at her for the years and years of animosity, she decides to use the Prime for herself. Then, time goes on and all of a sudden, Marjorie becomes a Prime for her daughter. And so on and so forth.

You get the picture.

“You remind me so much of this ad-executive I knew from the 60’s.”

Anyway, Marjorie Prime‘s a hard movie to really get into because it is so languid, slow, quiet, and even mysterious. It’s as if writer/director Michael Almereyda set out to make something so incredibly weird and brief, that you get the sense that he doesn’t want to tell you what he’s up to next, but you also don’t want to know, either. Just sitting around and waiting for whatever odd transgression he takes next is more than enough for the wait.

That said, Marjorie Prime still feels like a movie that’s much better in thought, than it is on-paper. For instance, the idea of robots walking and talking just like you or I, isn’t all that original in the world of sci-fi, or even in the real world in which we live in, and here it plays out in an interesting manner, until it seems to repeat itself and not really have anything interesting to say. Or, better yet, it does, it’s just that it’s the same point, over and over again, hitting us over the head and not allowing us to forget about it. Almost as if Almereyda didn’t trust his audience enough to really think things all through and get down to the actual meaning of everything.

And it’s not all that hard, either: Marjorie Prime is an honest movie about life, death, and how even though we accept death and the passage of time, we also try our best to find whatever substitute is out there. We do that to make ourselves feel better and we also do it to preserve the legacy of those lost. But we also do it to feel safe and act as if death isn’t just an illusion, but a crazy idea that will never become reality to us. The movie’s a lot darker and sadder than it lets on, which is why despite my general lack of actual enjoyment watching it, I can’t help but feel a great deal of respect for it actually going to some deep and disturbing places that I didn’t expect to come around.

“Stop being so funny.”

It’s also thanks to the pretty wonderful cast on-hand, too.

Lois Smith, for what seems like in forever, is finally given a role that allows her to be more than just the cooky granny, but someone who is more thoughtful and compelling to watch. It’s the kind of older-woman role they’d give to Jane Fonda, or Lily Tomlin, but Smith works perfectly in it because she’s sweet and endearing enough to make her sympathetic enough, but because she’s older and losing her memory, it’s hard to fully trust her. We don’t know if she was a great mom or not; we get the idea that she was a bit forgetful for reasons that become clear to us later, but mostly, we think that she did the best that she could. Like all moms, right?

Geena Davis is also pretty good as the spoiled daughter who, no matter how long life passes her by, can’t seem to get over the past she shares with her mom. It’s a surprisingly annoying and unlikable role from Davis, but she’s more than willing to give it her all. Same goes for Tim Robbins, who plays someone darker than you’d expect. And then, there’s Jon Hamm, who is so perfect as this Prime, you never quite know what he’s thinking at any moment. It’s probably nothing, really, but the idea that he could turn and go bad, is a scary thought and Hamm, in a very stern, serious role, makes you expect the unexpected, just about the whole time.

Consensus: As dark and as weird as it gets, Marjorie Prime is also an interesting, thoughtful, and well-acted meditation on the passage of time, life, death, and the blankets we cover ourselves with to block the inevitable.

6.5 / 10

If all robots look like Jon Hamm in the future, yup, all us human men are screwed.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Landline (2017)

Oh. The 90’s. When screening calls was a huge thing.

It’s the mid-90’s and the Jacobs family is going through a bit of a problem. The mother, Pat (Edie Falco), is having a rough go at work, but is also not really spending much time, paying attention to her husband, Alan (John Turturro). Speaking of which, he’s also a little bored with life and may be having something of an affair. Nothing’s confirmed yet, however, because his youngest daughter, Ali (Abby Quinn), only found out about after seeing a bunch of poems on his floppy-disk. Meanwhile, she’s also worried about what she’s going to do with her life and also with college. Then, there’s her sister, Dana (Jenny Slate), who is having issues with her fiancee (Jay Duplass), but mostly because she doesn’t know if she’s ready to settle down just yet. This leads her to having an affair with an ex (Finn Wittrock), who may or may not be her last chance at some form of freedom and/or happiness. Either way, this family’s going through a lot.

Same hair. Same blood. Same sisters. That’s how that works, right?

Obvious Child was the sweet, small, soulful, and somewhat beautiful little surprise of 2014. It was 82-minutes of pure heart, comedy, and truth that was rarely seen in movies that were either longer, with more stars, or had a bigger-budget. It ranked on my Top 10 that year, showed me that Jenny Slate was an amazing actress, and oh yeah, put writer/director Gillian Robespierre on my watch.

Then Landline happened.

Okay, actually, it’s not all that bad. In terms of sophomore slumps, it’s not that bad, because it shows us that Robespierre still has the knack for writing interesting characters and smart dialogue, but when it comes to the plotting and actual story itself, the movie just has way too much going on, for such a short time, and with no real cohesiveness. It’s as if Robespierre got something of a bigger-budget, had bigger stars, and more time to play around, so she did, but in this case, it actually went against her.

Lock the door!

And of course, it’s not right to compare this to Obvious Child, because they’re two different movies. But with Landline, you can tell that something’s a bit off this time around about Robespierre and what she’s doing. With the talented ensemble, she’s very lucky, as everyone here isn’t just great, but funny and brings a lot to the table. They all feel like a very lived-in family, who not only have gotten used to each other for so long that they don’t even care to put up resistance any longer, but that they also know each other so freakin’ well, it’s almost painful. That’s how real families are, regardless of how close-knit they are and it’s one of the aspects that Landline nails down well.

The only issue is that every so often, the movie will jump from one subplot, to another, and depending on how interesting one is, the movie works, or doesn’t. Landline suffers from a lot going on, with very little time, and not nearly as much concentration as they should have all deserved. You can tell that Robespierre is trying and relatively succeeding, but I don’t know, something’s just missing.

What it is, I may never know.

I’m not taking Robespierre off my watch, but I will hold her next film with at least a little bit of trepidation.

Consensus: Not nearly as focused as it should have been, Landline suffers from having too much going on, with very little time to actually wade through it all, but gets by on a solid cast that’s willing to make this material into something fun and enjoyable.

6 / 10

The guys in the family can’t do this kind of stuff.

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

The Mountain Between Us (2017)

At least they have a dog.

Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) and photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) are two people who desperately need to board their planes. He’s about to save somebody’s life in a very critical surgery, whereas she has a wedding to get to. However, their flight gets cancelled when, due to stormy weather, the skies just aren’t totally safe to go through. But Alex has a plan and that’s to board a charter plane, between her and Ben, and a pilot (Beau Bridges) that she entrusts to get them where they both need to get to, safely and without any issue of hitting the storm. However, halfway through the flight, the pilot suffers a stroke and they crash somewhere out in the middle of the wilderness, without any signs of life anywhere to be found. Both survive and although Alex has an injury, it’s nothing too serious that Ben can’t help out. Now, it’s just up to the two to survive and do what they can to make it through this awful predicament they are in, even if they aren’t wholly sure if they’ll ever get out of this alive, or even sane.

Is this considered the “meet-cute”?

The Mountain Between Us is the kind of melodramatic, sappy, and cheesy piece of fluff that Hollywood so rarely makes anymore, in that it’s actually not awful. Think a Nicholas Sparks movie, but instead of having subplots about cancer-striken parents or abusive husbands, you have two people who are, for the sake of the matter, just trying their best to survive. Oh, and a cute little dog, too.

Can’t go wrong with the dog.

Which is to say that the Mountain Between Us is just another case of big Hollywood having enough time and money on their hands to make something that’s corny and a little silly, but in a way, that’s fine. The movie isn’t trying to be high-art in the slightest, nor is it really trying to pass itself off as a Oscar-winner. It’s just a simple, sometimes stupid, but always enjoyable romance, laced with a little bit of survival. Coming from director Hany Abu-Assad, who has made two great flicks in Paradise Now and Omar, it can seem like a step-down, but considering how many prized foreign-film makers screw up their English-language, American debut, it’s a moderate side-step.

It’s not perfect, of course, but that hardly matters because when your movie is almost two hours of just Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on the screen, does anything else matter? You can say that this movie does try very hard to force all of the weight on the back of these two stars, their good-looks, and their inevitable chemistry, but what’s wrong with that? Stars like Winslet and Elba were made for movies like this, where plot and the script sort of come second to their good-looks and their great acting-ability, so that even if a film wasn’t to care all that much about other stuff, like plot, or making sense, it’s not a total crime.

Trust me, she’ll be in safe hands with a man like that. Rawr.

The fact is that they’re still here, doing their absolute best and in this case, that’s enough.

The rest of the movie is, as I’ve said, silly and if you think long and hard about this even in the slightest, yeah, it doesn’t hold-up. It’s the kind of movie that looks pretty because it was shot on-location, but once you actually get to thinking the geography of where these two are, how they have to survive, and where they have to go to stay alive, yeah, it doesn’t quite make sense. It’s as if the film-makers thought that the audience wouldn’t care too much because we’d all be too busy sinking into the beautiful eyes and faces of Elba and Winslet and didn’t care about too much else. Of course, they aren’t wrong about that, but maybe for some others out there, like me, a little bit more comprehension and plot can go a longer way.

But hey, it’s Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, looking hot, sexy, and beautiful, while falling in love and trying their best to survive in harsh winters.

Oh, and a little dog, too.

Consensus: Not to be confused for high-art, the Mountain Between Us mostly relies on the charms of Winslet and Elba to get by, even when its script is clearly lacking in certain aspects.

6 / 10

Come on, Kate! Don’t just hold onto the man! You don’t need him!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

Life sort of sucks.

Settling into his old age, Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is enjoying the riches and spoils of his life. He doesn’t necessarily have many problems in his life, other than the fact that he’s about to become a grandfather and still talks to his ex-wife (Harriet Walter). But now, Tony’s life just got a tad more complicated when a letter and a diary has been addressed to him, but why? Well, Tony doesn’t really know. However, what he does know is that the letter and diary is from the first love of his life, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), who taught him all that he needed to know at a very early age. And Tony, trying his best, wants to reconnect with her, but she’s just not having it. So now that Tony’s thinking about his early life, he’s reminded of college days, his romantic-life with Veronica, and other fellow people who aren’t in his life anymore, like a good buddy named Adrien (Joe Alwyn) and Veronica’s mother (Emily Mortimer), among many others who have come and gone throughout all of Tony’s sometimes sad, but sometimes happy, life.

Unfortunately, he won’t be the oldest possible-daddy in there.

The Sense of an Ending flirts with the idea of being a lot darker than it actually is. At its heart, it’s a story about death, depression, sadness, lost love, regret, and most of all, suicide. But at points, it still wants to be a rather silly, sometimes charming movie about this old grump of a man named Tony, who gets a flash from the past and is forced to remind himself just what he did. In a way, it’s a rather uneven movie that Ritesh Batra does the best that he can do with.

But it mostly just all comes back to the performances, all of which are great and make the movie better.

Most importantly, Jim Broadbent in the lead role as Tony Webster, an old codger who can sometimes be cranky and a bit annoyed, but mostly, just means well. Broadbent is always great in these kinds of roles, but he gets the chance her to show the darkness and sadness behind the grumpiness, but without ever shying away from going deeper. There’s a real pain in his eyes and it’s hard not to feel for this old man, even when it does seem like he is, above all else, just a grump.

Pictured: The weirdest ex’s ever.

Charlotte Rampling is also great as Veronica, his first love who, after all of these years, still seems to harbor some hurt feelings. There’s a real air of mystery behind her that constantly keeps her compelling, even when it seems like she’s just a writer’s convenience. Harriet Walter also has a nice supporting-role as Tony’s ex-wife who he still gets along with and constantly hangs around. The movie could have made this weirder than it actually was, but it still works because Broadbent and Walter work well together and feel like an aging couple, who are tired of fighting and just want to be civil and remain friends. There’s others who pop-up every so often here, but these are the three that mostly take up the movie and keep it moving, even when it seems to flash back and forth between the present and the past.

And while Batra is a good storyteller, at the end of it all, it’s not hard to imagine: “Well, what the hell was the point?”

Were we being told this story of this man’s coming-of-age to focus on the darker aspects of life, or how, one bad decision, can make permanent scars? Personally, I’m not sure. For me, I was happy to learn more about this man and the sometimes tragic life he had, but when all is said and done, that’s all it is: Memories from an old man. It’s like sitting down with one of your grandparents, finding out about where they come from and learning a little something, but still finding you moving on throughout your life, as if it didn’t really change anything at all.

That’s just me, though. Maybe I’m just an awful person.

Consensus: As dark as it gets, the Sense of an Ending never fully evens out to becoming a fully compelling drama, but mostly remains watchable because of the excellent performances given by everyone here.

6.5 / 10

Pictured: The other weirdest ex’s ever.

Photos Courtesy of: aceshowbiz

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

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

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

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

Dean (2017)

Go home. Then leave.

Dean (Demetri Martin) is an NY illustrator who needs a little bit of inspiration in his life. So what better way to find it then when your mom dies and your dad is basically depressed? Well, that’s what happens to Dean when, suddenly, his mom dies and he has to leave his sheltered, lovely little life in NY, and head back home to the sunny and hot L.A. While there, Dean reconnects with old friends and family; friends still seem like they’re not doing much with his life, whereas his family, like his father (Kevin Kline), seem stuck, too. And you know what? So is Dean! That’s why, when he meets the sexy and mysterious Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), he immediately hits it off with her and starts to see something of a future with her. Meanwhile, his dad is finding a possible soul-mate in his real-estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), who may also be the right recipe to help get him out of his funk. Are both going to get better and start to realize that there’s more to life than just sulking around and being freakin’ miserable all of the time?

Ugh. Quite whining!

Dean is a lot of different styles and trademarks that other writer/directors have pulled-off before and much better, too. It’s a little bit of Wes Anderson, a smidge of Woody Allen, and oh yeah, a whole lot of Zach Braff. It’s an odd concoction, which sort of works, but also seems like writer/director/star Demetri Martin liked what he saw a bit too much and just decided to pick and choose what he wanted to work with?

I don’t know. Actually, what I do know is that it sort of works, but also doesn’t feel all that terribly original. Sort of like Martin himself who, despite having such a cult-following for his alternative and whimsical brand of stand-up, just never quite connected with me. He felt too twee and a little too of-himself to quite work for me, but hey, that’s me and stuff like that doesn’t matter.

I just want to let the world know that I am not a Demetri Martin fan. Now that it’s out in the open, I hope that we can both move on and get along cordially.

But it’s odd because it seems like you really have to be an absolute adoring fan of Martin’s to really like Dean, or what he’s doing in it. He’s literally the star of this thing, through and through, playing a rather unlikable and whiny character that feels real and honest, but by the same token, can tend to get a bit annoying. While Dean himself may not be all that interesting, to me, seeing just where this character went along for his journey of self-discovery and the people he hung around, was more than enough to keep me interested. Martin is fine in the lead role, but once again, your tolerance of him may vary on how you feel exactly for this character.

“Ew! What a lame-o hipster!”

The real saving-grace of Dean is, thankfully, the supporting-cast who all seem like they did this sort of as a labor-of-love, what with all of the big, talented names attached. Gillian Jacobs, while her character seems absolutely like a type, gets by in showing a nice deal of chemistry with Martin; Rory Scovel plays Eric, Dean’s best buddy who is a bit weird, but also endearing enough to work; Kevin Kline is fine as Dean’s dad, but honestly, feels like he was thrown in there because he had some free-time and wanted to be a nice guy to Martin; and yeah, the same goes for Steenburgen.

In fact, the much better movie here in Dean, actually, isn’t about Dean at all.

It’s about his dad trying to get a firmer grasp on the rest of his life, move on, find love again, and figure out where to go from here. But the subplot’s never as fully developed as it ought to be; we go through very long stretches of the movie without even a glimpse of what Kline’s character is up to, but instead, are stuck watching Martin’s Dean. It’s a shame, too, because Steenburgen and Kline do seem to have genuine chemistry here and their scenes together, while definitely minor and rushed, do have a bit of sweetness attached to them that the rest of the movie, honestly, is missing.

But still, it all depends on how you feel for Demetri Martin.

Consensus: As far as indies go, Dean‘s pretty conventional and safe, but the ensemble is fine enough to help you pass the time along and enjoy what’s in front of you.

6 / 10

Go away, Demetri. Let Kevvy-poo take over.

Photos Courtesy of: CBS Films

Megan Leavey (2017)

Never step between a woman and her dog. Dawg.

Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) was like a lot of us when we get to a certain point in each of our lives – we’re bored, uninterested in a lot of stuff, and just not really sure of what we want to do, or where we want to go. That’s when she decides to join the military and finds out that it’s a lot harder than she expected. But eventually, she finds her path and it isn’t before long before she’s a young Marine corporal and finding interest in the oddest aspect of the army: The K-9 unit. See, after she gets in trouble for committing a lewd act on the base, Leavey is assigned to have to clean up in the K-9 unit, where she forges a bond with Rex, a particularly aggressive dog that, over much time, she begins to train into becoming a top-level bomb-sniffing dog. And together, the two entrust in one another to complete all sorts of missions on the battlefield, looking for bombs and ensuring that no one gets killed. However, when out on the field of battle, all lives are in jeopardy.

“The other Mara girl, reporting for duty, sir!”

Megan Leavey is, literally, a story about a girl and her dog. Sounds cheesy, melodramatic, sappy, and pretty damn awful, but surprisingly, it isn’t. Sure, it’s melancholy and a little corny, to be fair, but it’s also so simple, so straight-forward, and actually, so sweet, it’s hard to dismiss it for being what it is and not making any excuses for itself. It almost makes you wish more movies were just like it, but not really, because then that would just be boring.

In fact, having one Megan Leavey a year, is fine with me.

Well, scratch that: Actually, it would be nice to have more stories of tough, strong-willed and talented women, directed by and written by, women, all the time, throughout the year. We got that before with Wonder Woman and well, it’s nice to get it again with Megan Leavey, because when you get down to it, it is just that – a movie about a strong-willed, smart and talented woman who saved lives and is a better human being for it. She also acquired quite the bond with a lovable dog, which also helps put it into focus, but it’s so nice to get a story like this, without any sort of preaching whatsoever, that it makes you actually wish there were more of them around.

Sure, writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s direction isn’t all that stylish and can, at times, certainly seem like something made-for-TV, but she doesn’t get in the way of the material, or the true-story this movie’s all about, so it actually works. We get to know Megan Leavey, why she matters, and why exactly we’re getting a near two-hour movie about her trying her best to connect with a bomb-sniffing dog in the military; there’s plenty of jokes that could be made at this movie’s expense, but the fact that it’s all true, actually helps. In fact, it would have probably just seemed like an indirect remake of that same movie from a years ago, Max, but thankfully, this story’s true and that one isn’t.

They must be getting her mixed-up with Rooney, the troublemaker.

Maybe. I still have yet to see it and don’t quite plan on it.

Cause after all, Megan Leavey is fine enough for me. It’s a movie about a girl bonding with a dog and it’s a little goofy, but it works the way it is. And it definitely helps to have Kate Mara in the lead-role, because anytime it seems like this material could get maudlin or cheesy, guess what? Mara’s there to save the day and bring some legitimacy with the role. Her Megan Leavey is a very smart and intelligent woman, but also not a perfect one; she makes mistakes and she says the wrong things when she shouldn’t, but you know what, that helps make her more human. The role’s also the more impressive once you take into consideration that a good portion of her roles are just her acting across from a dog, which can’t always be an easy-feat.

Then again, those who act in the Planet of the Apes movies are acting across from Andy Serkis in a tennis-ball-laden-onezie, so yeah, maybe it’s not all that hard.

Consensus: Ridiculously straightforward, Megan Leavey works better as a smart and relatively compelling true tale of a woman, her dog, and the lives that they saved.

6.5 / 10

Who’s cooler?

Photos Courtesy of: Bleecker Street Media

Berlin Syndrome (2017)

Yeah, don’t go to Germany. For many reasons.

Clare (Teresa Palmer) is just a young photographer who travels out to Germany to see what she can shoot. She obviously gets wrapped-up in the night life, as well as the fellow young and happenin’ artists just like her, including schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt). The two hit it off and of course, they spend the night together, making all sorts of sex. But then, the next day comes around and Clare realizes that Andi doesn’t want her to go. Like, anywhere. And now, for no reason, Clare is held prisoner in a large apartment-complex, that has been seemingly abandoned and without a single sight of another human found anywhere in the nearest vicinity. Is she ever going to be able to get out alive? Better yet, what is she going to have to do to get out?

Never too late to turn around.

As usual with kidnapping thrillers, the Berlin Syndrome is a depressing movie. But there’s something interesting about its depression that makes it worth watching, even in its saddest and perhaps most deepest moments of despair. Most of that comes through the way the movie is filmed to almost make it seem like a dream – the ugliest, scariest, and most disturbing of dreams – but also, because of Teresa Palmer in the lead role who, after quite some time, hasn’t been this good in a while.

Like, a real long while.

And yes, I blame Hollywood.

See, the thing about Palmer is that, despite her being awfully good-looking, she’s also a compelling presence on the screen; she’s a strong, tough, and very smart woman who seems like she knows what she’s doing, in just about every movie. Of course, every movie that she shows up in, whether small or big, never seems to really take this into consideration and instead, she’s stuck with the conventional role of being the hot-chick and love-interest of whatever male protagonist she’s opposite of. It’s a shame to see her get this role, time and time again, but once again, it seems like that’s the way Hollywood operates: Take the smartest, brightest and most beautiful talent there is, and watch them as they make their way through awful roles.

True love. I think. Or he does.

That said, Palmer is quite great here because as Clare, every step of the way, we’re with her. We feel her pain, her agony, her anguish, her insanity, and oh yeah, her perseverance in, hopefully, one day getting out in the big, bright world. Sure, she does a lot of yelling and hollering, but really, it’s all in the look of her eyes and the way she carries herself from scene-to-scene that makes her so compelling to watch, even when it seems like her character, nor this plot, are ever going to get anywhere.

She’s the absolute reason why the Berlin Syndrome works as well as it does, because without her, it would be nothing more than just another creepy, off-putting kidnapping thriller.

Which, of course, it is. But it isn’t an awfully surprising one, really. There’s some suspense and intensity to be had throughout the proceedings, but once you get past the lead characters, there’s not much to really grasp at. The villain of the film, while getting the chance to shed some humanity in between all of the raping and other disturbing acts of depravity, doesn’t have much more to him than, well, daddy issues. Or mommy issues, I think. Either way, the dude’s got issues and while it’s admirable that the movie attempts to have us see him more than just a cold-hearted asshole, he still is, no doubt, a cold-hearted asshole. Why we get so much of his backstory and so very little of Clare’s, is a bit odd.

But hey, at least Palmer gets the chance to shine. That’s all that matters, in the end.

Consensus: As is the case with kidnapping thrillers, the Berlin Syndrome follows a conventional formula, but does benefit from giving Teresa Palmer a solid role to work with and make worth watching.

6 / 10

The things we do to get out of deadly kidnapping situations. Something we can all relate to, right?

Photos Courtesy of: Vertical Entertainment

Dark Night (2017)

Movies: The ultimate escape from violence.

It’s America and a few individuals are, well, living life. Some are happy, some aren’t, but there’s no denying that they’re all human beings just trying to get by in the world. And of course, all of these human beings lives come together in one fateful night where they decide that it’s time to go and check out the latest superhero flick, but while they’re doing this, they’re also in for an awful surprise. A very, very awful surprise.

It’s very hard to really get down to what Dark Night is about because, after all, it’s based on the Aurora Shootings from 2012. The title’s a dead giveaway of course, but also, the movie, right from the get-go, lets us know that this is going to be a dark, disturbing and rather unexpected tale into a few humans lives who we already know the end for; in a way, it’s even more depressing to watch, because no matter how happy these few lives may be, we all know the painful, tragic ends of them.

Okay, kid. You’re crazy. We get it. Now, shut up!

Does that make the movie better? Not really and it’s sort of an issue that Dark Night runs into throughout its very short and thin hour-and-a-half run-time.

It does deserve to be said that writer/director Tim Sutton has a clear idea for what he wants to do here and because of that, his vision is compelling, if a bit meandering. Rather than displaying a full-set of conventional story-lines, the movie sort of jumps around from story-to-story, at its own pace, by its rules, and without any real rhyme, or reason. And hell, half of the time, the movie isn’t even focusing in on the separate storylines, as much as it’s just focusing in on a single-shot of some inanimate object.

These are all made to have us thinking, like, for instance, what does it all mean? What is Sutton trying to tell us? That all our lives, while precious and full of its own little moments, both good and bad, is ultimately destined for disaster? Probably not, but it definitely feels like that, making the movie feeling, once again, depressing. And that’s sort of the point, too; that each and everyone of these people who were shot and killed in the theater that fateful night, were literally just looking to escape from their real lives and to be transported into a fake, magical and fun one, for two-hours, is even more upsetting.

Yeah. Not suspicious at all.

After all, it’s what the movies were made for. Take that away from us, what good are they?

But still, Sutton’s film is much more of a tone-poem than anything else and it sort of works; it moves and meanders as much as it want and because of that, it can be interesting to see exactly where it goes. But there’s also that feeling that perhaps, just even maybe, Sutton isn’t really doing justice to the real-life victims or the tragedy that inspired it. By just jumping in on these few stories to see what’s up and continuing to move on, makes it not just feel like a missed-opportunity to have us understand more, but to also really dig in deep into some of these character’s lives. While they are no doubt fictional, they are still characters nonetheless and because of that, we’re meant to sit there, watch them, and study them, for all that they are.

Sutton doesn’t really do that and it feels odd. Of course, he is playing by his own rules, so the better for him, but for us, those watching, it can be a bit frustrating. Just when you think Sutton’s going to go somewhere the least bit mildly thrilling, he jumps away and focuses his attention on somewhere, or someone else. It should also be noted that the so-called “killer” in this movie is the one who seems to get the most focus, as we casually see him lose his s**t practically everywhere he goes and seem on the edge of breaking down. Of course, we know the end, but did we need to see the whole build-up to this monster? Sure, it’s disturbing, but what does it really tell us?

Nut-jobs exist?

No s**t.

Consensus: Perhaps not the most conventional of movie-going experiences, Dark Night still aims at portraying the tragedy of the real-life events that inspired it and are somewhat successful.

6 / 10

How we all prepare for another one of Nolan’s masterpieces.

Photos Courtesy of: Aurora Sentinel, IndieWire

Chuck (2017)

Rocky who? Oh yeah, that guy.

Chuck Wepner (Liev Schrieber), for quite some time, had the life that any person would have wanted to live. He was an accomplished boxer, kicked a lot of people’s assess, had a wonderful wife (Elizabeth Moss), good kids, loyal friends and family, respect, a cool nickname (“the Bayonne Bleeder”), and oh yeah, went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. In fact, he was so well-known that, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone actually used his life and career as the inspiration for Rocky – a fact that, for a very long time, Chuck would continue to let everyone know about, regardless of if they asked or not. But after awhile, Chuck began to get too big of britches and, to go along with his insane drug-habit, he couldn’t stop screwing around with all the wrong people, other women included. Eventually, he loses his job, his wife, his legacy, and oh yeah, his family. So where does he go from there?

No really, where does he go from there?

Uh oh. Chucky go some ‘asplainin’ to do!

See, Chuck was advertised heavily as “the story of the guy who inspired the story of Rocky“, as if any of that really matters. It’s like when John Carter came out and the advertisements were all saying, “the story that inspired Star Wars and Avatar“, once again, as if any of that matters. Because even though the story may have inspired another one, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the adaptation of said story, isn’t conventional, or formulaic.

After all, we didn’t get Chuck before Rocky. The other way around, in fact. So because of that, Chuck comes off a bit like a run-of-the-mill, stationary biopic that hits all of the same beats and rhythymns that Rocky hit, but also feels a little overdone. Because instead of feeling like a movie, of its time, like Rocky did, Chuck goes the extra mile to put us in the place of the 70’s, where coke was everywhere, disco was constantly playing, and people dressed-up so super fly.

Does it kind of work?

Yeah.

It’s hard to have an issue with a movie that makes the energy and glitz of the 70’s so fun and infectious; if anything, it’s nice that they were able to get it all down so perfectly, without feeling like they were trying way too hard to recreate a period of time that they obviously didn’t have the budget for. Director Philippe Falardeau, while no doubt a very serious French director, also seems to be enjoying himself here, not allowing for the material to get too dark or serious, but just to the point where it matters. But for the most part, he’s having a good time and relishing in the period-setting and the details that all went along with it.

Does that help take away from the fact that Chuck is a little conventional and, well, as a result, slight? Not really. But it makes what could have been a very boring movie, turn out a lot more fun and entertaining. It’s still a formulaic boxing movie, about an underdog who had his shot at the big time, accomplished it, and then lost it all due to awful life decisions, but it’s an entertaining one, at that. So yeah, it helps.

All about the hair.

And yeah, it also helps that the ensemble is quite good here and clearly able to keep up with the times.

Liev Schreiber is perfect casting as Wepner, because he not just looks the role, but feels it. There’s something lovable about him, but also makes you realize that he’s a bit of flawed asshole who you can’t always trust, especially not with your wallet or wife, but can always still love, when the end of the day comes around. And that’s what matters for a story like this, about a guy like this, who definitely didn’t make perfect decisions, but was a good time to be around. He had his moment in the spotlight, made it last, and did what he could to keep the party going? Granted, he forgot about his wife, kids, bank-account, and plenty other responsibilities, but hey, who am I to judge?

Either way, Schreiber’s great in the role that he was, essentially, born to play. Everyone else is good from Elizabeth Moss as his annoyed, but strong wife, to Jim Gaffigan in a pretty silly role. But everyone’s good here; even the bit role with Naomi Watts, while feeling a little self-serving, still works because, believe it or not, her and Schreiber do have good chemistry.

See, not every couple has to have their own Gigli.

Maybe that’s why they’re broken-up now. Ugh. True love doesn’t last, people. So love the one you’re with and try to make it last.

That’s the moral of Chuck, right?

Consensus: Formulaic and run-of-the-mill, Chuck is a boxing-drama that doesn’t really break any new ground, but is fun, light, and well-acted enough to get by the conventions that usually keep movies down like this.

6.5 / 10

“Guys. Who’s Sly?”

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films