Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: 6-6.5/10

Lights Out (2016)

Always keep those phones charged, kiddies.

When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) was a kid, she battled through all sorts of demons, in-personal and personal. Whenever the lights out went out at her place, scary things began to happen, which made her question life and her own existence as a whole. Now that she’s older and out of the house for good, she feels as if she finally has left all that behind. Her mother (Maria Bello) is still a little cooky and definitely doesn’t have a firm grip on reality, but her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who she looks over, does and that’s all that matters to her. However, the strange entity that once threatened Rebecca is back and more dangerous than ever, but now instead of just going after Rebecca and her mom, it wants to take Martin, which means that the family is going to have to pull out all of the stops to get rid of it, once and for all.

At just a little over 80 minutes, Lights Out doesn’t get too bogged down in all the sorts of stuff that most horror movies of its nature tend to get a little too carried away with. For one, it’s not too concerned with its genealogy, or better yet, explaining all the sorts of stuff that happen – it trusts its audience to have a good idea that spooky stuff happens when the lights go off right from the get-go and that’s about it. The fact that the movie doesn’t try to make the force, or what have you, that’s terrorizing these people, into some sort of ancient folklore only known or talked about from crazy, old people living out somewhere in the middle of the mountains, also makes it even more refreshing, while also reminding us that this, first and foremost, a horror movie.

Oh, T. It'll be okay.

Oh, T. It’ll be okay.

And a pretty scary one, at that.

Director David Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer seem to come together perfectly on one aspect of Lights Out, and that’s how to handle the scares. Sure, the idea is a gimmicky one for sure, but it’s also one that’s handled incredibly well; we get a good sense of what the force does, how it does what it does, and how it could possibly be stopped, with still some questions unanswered when all is said and done. The movie doesn’t concern itself with the questions, the answers, or the reasons, but mostly just pays close attention to creeping people out with smart, random, but always effective scares.

In fact, the movie works best perhaps when it’s just playing around with its certain rules and conventions, being stuck in its own little creepy world and not caring about much else. Sure, it’s good to have a story, characters, development, and heart added to the proceedings as well, but sometimes, when all you want to do is relish in your own scariness, then nothing’s wrong with that. Both Sandberg and Heisserer know exactly what they’re making, don’t try for anything more, and because of that, end up pulling off a solid little bit of horror.

Of course, the movie does have characters and plot, which also keeps it away from being truly, if above all, great.

Yeah, turn around, bro. Think that's a pretty easy decision to make.

Yeah, turn around, bro. Think that’s a pretty easy decision to make.

But here’s the thing: The movie is so short and quick with itself, that all of the qualms about the acting, or the plot, or even the characters, may seem rather silly. The movie doesn’t take up a whole lot of time on them, but instead, building up the scares and scenarios. It’s admirable and smart, but the fact remains that these aspects of the movie are troubling and can sort of make the other 40 minutes of this flick seem rather, I don’t know, lame.

Teresa Palmer is always great to watch, but even here, she seems like she’s not just forcing her American-accent, but some of her goofy-lines as well. Same goes for Maria Bello who, unfortunately, is stuck with the crazy, sometimes not-all-that-there mother role that likes to yammer on about things that may or may not be real, while also having nervous breakdowns left and right. It’s a rather obvious role and though Bello tries with it, there’s no getting past the fact that, yeah, it’s kind of weak. Still, like I said, the movie gets by solely on the fact that it’s short and sweet, so when you take all of these problems into consideration, it hardly matters much.

They’re not around, but guess what is?

The spooky stuff!

Consensus: While not perfect, Lights Out still gets by on the sole fact that its short, sweet, and pretty scary when it wants to be, making it the rare franchise-starter that’s actually interesting.

6.5 / 10

CSI?

CSI?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

When you’re Howard Hughes and pissing in Mason jars, you can do whatever you want.

It’s 1958, and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist beauty queen from Virginia arrives in Hollywood, her eyes chock full of hopes, dreams and wonders of possibly taking over the movie world. She gets picked-up at the airport by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who will soon be her permanent driver and aspires to achieve the same sort of fame and fortune that Marla does, however, it’s a tad bit different. Together though, the two form a connection and affection for the man who is employing them both: Billionaire, womanizer, and famed aviator, Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty). They’ve both heard all of the crazy stories and don’t quite know what to believe about Hughes, but what they do know is that he’s a very hard man to see, track down, or better yet, even have something resembling of a conversation with. He’s so mysterious, that it’s almost like he doesn’t exist. However, the two eventually do cross paths with Hughes in some very odd, strange ways that change both of their lives forever and may also crush whatever it was that they expected from Hollywood in the first place.

After what’s been nearly two decades, it’s nice to have Warren Beatty back in our lives and on our screens, regardless of how short-lived it may be. As an actor, Beatty has always been a master at playing any sort of role, whether dark and dramatic, or light and fun, bringing the best to whatever flick he’s in. As a director, he’s far better. Ambitious, smart and always equipped with something to say, Beatty doesn’t just take on directorial projects for the hell of it – he needs to have a reason to tell a story and a certain passion within it.

He loves his hats.

He loves his hats.

Which is why for all its faults, flaws and obvious issues, Rules Don’t Apply, despite the awful title, still deserves a watch.

It’s unfortunate though, that Rules Don’t Apply has been in the works for so long, because it clearly shows; with nearly four editors on-tap here, there’s obvious moments where it seems like the movie was cut, pasted and messed around with way too much. Certain scenes play too long, too short, or sometimes, literally make absolute no sense. Does this have more to do with the directing/crafting of the movie itself, or more to do with how the movie was edited and perhaps made to reach some sort of arbitrary standard for the studios involved? Whatever the answer may be, it doesn’t matter; the fact remains that Rules Don’t Apply is still a pretty messy, uneven piece that has the look and feel of a movie that’s been tampered with one too many times.

Still, however, it’s a movie that deserves a watch, mostly because there are certain aspects and elements to it that are interesting and do work. Beatty seems to craft two different stories simultaneously; there’s the love blossoming between Marla and Frank, and there’s the crazy and wild persona of Howard Hughes that sometimes finds its way of getting between that. Aside from the other, they work and are incredibly compelling, but together, they don’t quite hit the same notes. Most of this has to do with it being very clear from the get-go that Beatty is more invested in Hughes himself and less of how Marla and Frank come together – their romance, while cute and sweet at times, also feels like a macguffin just to give us a sneak-peek into the secret and weird life of Hughes.

In a way, Beatty wants to explore the sheer hypocrisy and sadness that lies within such a system and place like Hollywood, where it seems like a lot of promises are made, a lot of money is thrown around, and a lot of people talk, but nothing actually happens or get done. It’s not necessarily original, but it is interesting to watch, mostly because we see it all play out through the dough-eyed eyes of Frank and mostly, Marla. But in another way, Beatty also wants to show us that someone as crazy, as insane and as certifiably nuts as Howard Hughes, did exist, have power, have control, had a whole lot of money, and mostly, got by in life based on the pure fact that he was labeled a “mysterious genius”. Rules Don’t Apply constantly seems to be battling with itself over what to say, but mostly, just ends up presenting two different sides to a coin that we’re not really sure about, which leaves it feeling slightly unfinished.

Still, it’s hard not to watch.

Don't be too happy, kiddies. Howie's always watching.

Don’t be too happy, kiddies. Howie’s always watching.

Beatty, the actor, seems to be having the time of his life as Hughes, lighting up the screen with his casual weirdness that we’ve never quite seen from him before. At nearly 80 years of age, it’s interesting to see Beatty try something new on for size and work with this odd, idiosyncratic person and give us a compelling performance; we feel as if we’re supposed to trust him because of how he speaks, but we also know that he’s insane and because of this, is unpredictable. Beatty plays at this idea very well and has us constantly wondering just where he’s going to go next with this performance and how it’s going to factor into the movie as a whole.

It also helps that Beatty doesn’t allow for his performance to get in the way of Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich, who are both pretty amazing here. Though Ehrenreich seems to be on the rise what with the Han Solo movie coming up, it’s really Collins who surprised me the most, giving us a character who is so bright, so bubbly, so charming and so lovely, that it’s hard to imagine watching her dreams shatter before her very own eyes. If anything, a movie about her life and brief touch with stardom would have been its own move, but of course, Beatty himself does have different intentions and can’t seem to help himself, leaving Collins’ performance, while very good, seeming like a missed opportunity.

Then again, there’s a whole slew of others that seem to literally show up, do their thing and then leave, all with the drop of a hat. Certain players like Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick and Taissa Farmiga get a few scenes to help develop their characters a bit, but others like Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Schneider, Haley Bennett, and trust me, more, all have nothing to do. It’s as if they could have only shown up to film for a day and we’re allowed to have that scene put in. If that was the case, it’s impressive that Beatty was able to get such a wildly eclectic group of people to come out and work, but also a tad annoying cause all it does is add to an already rather stuffed flick.

Something Hughes himself probably wouldn’t have had a problem with.

Consensus: With so much going on, Rules Don’t Apply can’t help but seem uneven, but does benefit from a few good performances, as well as a welcome return from Beattty himself.

6.5 / 10

Behind every crazy man, is one who is trying so hard to translate everything that's being said.

Behind every crazy man, is one who is trying so hard to translate everything that’s being said.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, News Report Center

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Destiny’s Child was a thing?

After serving in the Bravo Squad out there in Iraq, nineteen-year-old private Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) returns home for what is, presumably, a victory tour. A video of him on the battlefield and aiding a fellow soldier (Vin Diesel) went viral and has now made him the poster boy for the war effort and because of that, the media wants to get every ounce of him that they can handle. And you know what? The Army isn’t so against whoring him, or his fellow soldiers, out for the greater good of society and have it appear that the actual war effort everyone speaks so highly of is actually, well, worth it after all. Even though Billy still keeps on getting flashbacks and headaches from his tour in Iraq, the Army still needs him, as well as the rest of the Bravo Squad to get on the field at halftime during the Thanksgiving football game and wave to the crowd. Meanwhile, Billy himself is literally about to break open, thinking about what he’s going to do next with his life, and whether or not he wants to stay put at home, with his dedicated and loyal sister (Kristen Stewart), or go back to the war and continue doing what he did before.

Quite hogging up Beyonce's spotlight, Billy!

Quite hogging up Beyonce’s spotlight, Billy!

Ang Lee is probably one of the best directors we have working today. He’s constantly challenging himself to take on different stories, as well as to work with new technology and advance the way we, the audience, watch his movies. He’s bounced from genre-to-genre so often that it’s no surprise some of his movies don’t quite work, but no matter what, they’re always interesting to watch, just because it’s Ang Lee and the guy can’t help but try his hardest with whatever he’s working with.

And then there’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Although a lot of people have been going on and on about the 120 fps frame-rate and 3D. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see the movie in that way, but what I can assure you is that I saw the movie as clear as humanly imaginable. Is it a gimmick? Possibly. But is it neat to watch? Yes, but it also doesn’t really add much to the movie, either. What it does add is a certain level of authenticity and have us see every crease, every pimple, every shave-mark in these characters’ faces. Why? In all honesty, not really sure. Ang Lee seems to have used it to challenge himself, once again, but sadly, it doesn’t add-up to much.

It just makes a dull movie, really pretty to look at and that’s about it.

And with Billy Lynn, Lee seems to be doing a whole lot, with very little. On one aspect, he’s playing around with comedy, drama, satire and thriller elements all in one movie, while also doing his best to make sense of the constantly changing-in-time narrative. What could have been a very simple and easy-to-track movie about a bunch of soldiers returning home after a hellish tour in Iraq, soon turns into a very complicated, unnecessary overstuffed movie about said soldiers, but also about politicians, football, the American Dream, PTSD, money, sex, family, and most importantly, violence.

In fact, if there is one aspect of the story that Lee seems to get right, it’s the actual violence itself. While we don’t get a whole lot of scenes of Billy on the battlefield and in Iraq, the very few times that we do, they’re are startling, intense, and most of all, disturbing. One sequence in particular starts off violent in a chaotic sense, then turns into a smaller, much more contained bit of violence that, surprisingly, is a lot scarier to watch than all of the other shooting and explosions. But of course, that’s literally one piece of this very large pie and when you put it all back together, they don’t quite fit together.

Who hasn't thought of Vin Diesel as their daddy?

Who hasn’t thought of Vin Diesel as their daddy?

One piece is a satire on how common, everyday citizens use the war and the soldiers themselves as propaganda to help continue and make sense of the war effort; another piece is how the soldiers themselves are so screwed-up that they don’t really know that they need the help to survive in everyday, normal life; there’s another piece about settling back into normal, everyday life, which is a lot harder for a person who has actually gone to a place where they were told to kill the enemy, by any means necessary; and then, there’s another piece about actually relating to others about the experience in the war and realizing that it was an absolutely terrible time in your life.

As you can tell, yeah, there’s a lot going on here.

Tack on the fact that the movie has a lot of characters here, all saying and doing something, but not really serving a purpose. Lee’s got a lot on his plate and because of that, a lot of stuff misses, and barely any of it hits; the constant jokes about Hollywood trying to make a movie about these guys’ real-life experience is an old joke that gets constantly played over, again and again. And with Lee, you get the sense that he truly does have something interesting to say here, but what is that? War is hell, but also so is back at-home? Or, is he trying to say that no one really understands the war until they’ve actually gone out on the battlefield and killed someone?

Once again, not really sure sure. What I do know is that Lee, as usual, keeps the material as entertaining and interesting as he possibly can, but after awhile, the story just doesn’t connect. We’ve seen far too many of these anti-war flicks by now, that without a very effective stance, none of it really matters. Shaping Billy Lynn’s actual PTSD during a Destiny’s Child halftime is one of the more impressive moments of the film, let alone, Ang Lee’s career, but it comes literally in the middle of a movie that needed far more energy and excitement to really keep itself compelling.

If there’s anything to take away from Billy Lynn, however, it’s that Lee knows how to assemble a pretty crazy and eclectic cast, all of whom do fine, but like I said, aren’t working with the best of material.

Kristen Stewart is good as the kind-hearted and supportive sister-figure who, honestly, isn’t the film as much as she should be; Chris Tucker tries to have some fun as the Hollywood agent, but doesn’t really have anything actually funny to do; Garrett Hedlund plays the leader of the Bravo and seems like he had more fun in Pan; Vin Diesel is an odd fit as Billy’s Lieutenant, who may or may not be a father-figure; Steve Martin shows up randomly as Norm Ogelsby, a very rich Texan who owns the professional football team and does what he can with an in-and-out Southern accent; and newcomer Joe Alywn does a very good job as our title character, showing a great deal of heart, warmth and insecurity as a young kid, unfortunately, forced to grow up, real quick.

Consensus: With so much going on, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk feels like a jumble that Ang Lee, try as he might, has a bit of a hard time navigating through and making sense of, even if certain aspects of the whole do deliver.

6 / 10

It's okay, kid. We'll take care of ya.

It’s okay, kid. We’ll take care of ya.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Creative Planet Network

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

It’s like Tinder, or Grindr, but for ugly-looking creatures.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York by boat, carrying a suitcase with him. Why? What’s in the suitcase? And why does the year have to be, specifically enough, 1926? Well, it turns out that he has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. He’s arrived in New York just for a brief stopover that, he assumes, would go down without a hitch. However, his suitcase randomly opens up and a mysterious, platypus-looking creature named Jacob runs out of it, leaving Newt to have to search the city, far and wide, for this creature and get him back in safely his suitcase, so that he can continue on with his adventure. However, his stay in New York becomes far more difficult once he meets a factory worker aspiring to be a baker (Dan Fogler), and an odd woman named Tina (Katherine Waterston), who also turns out to be a member of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Meanwhile, a deadly, terrifying force is taking over the area, destroying all sorts of buildings and killing people. No one knows where it’s coming from, or from whom, but Newt has an idea and will stop at nothing to make sure that no more people are hurt.

"Come with me, Newt! We've got to show that hack David Blaine what real magic's all about!"

“Come with me, Newt! We’ve got to show that hack David Blaine what real magic’s all about!”

Coming from a person who, as much as I hate to say it, doesn’t quite love the Harry Potter franchise, it’s surprising how much Fantastic Beasts can be at times. Director David Yates who directed the last four Potter movies, shows up here and brings the same kind of fun, lively and exciting bit of whimsy that he brought to those movies, but while the installments he worked with were far more darker and scarier, this time around, he gets to play everything down a bit.

I would mention the same way he did with the Legend of Tarzan earlier this year, but I think we all know that’s not true.

Anyway, the best part about Fantastic Beasts is that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, or get too bogged down in the actual plot itself; due to this being an actual franchise-in-the-making, it would have been very easy for the movie to just set up a whole bunch of stuff and just sort of leave it all up in the air, knowing that we’ll still come back anyway. Instead, the movie’s more concerned with giving us the chance to know these characters, this setting and just what this wonderful, slightly more grown-up world of fantasy and wizardry has to offer. There’s a whole heck of a lot more scarier beasts this time around, period-details about the good old days of the roarin’ 20’s that only older people would really appreciate, let alone, get, and even the humor itself, while obviously silly at times, also feels like it’s aiming for a smarter, more adult crowd than the Potter movies.

Bad buzz-cuts automatically mean "villain".

Bad buzz-cuts automatically mean “villain”.

Not to say that there’s anything wrong with those movies or the people who like them, it’s just that, for awhile at least, they were movies specifically created for kids. Times have changed and for Yates, it seems like he understands that the better aspects of Fantastic Beasts are actually getting us involved with this world and all of the colorful, surprisingly wacky characters and creatures that inhabit it. While characters like Newt and Queenie are meant to seem off-kilter, even the human characters, like Tina, or Jacob Kowalski, still seem placed into this bright, shiny and sometimes weird world where magic does exist and for the most part, takes priority over all else. It reminds me of what the early Potter movies set out to be, all before they got obsessed with their own sense of sadness, dread and darkness.

That said, Fantastic Beasts still runs into its problems.

For one, it’s story doesn’t quite work. While in the first half or so, Yates doesn’t get too bogged down by what’s going on, who’s to blame for it all, and how it all can be stopped (magic, right?), eventually, he changes his tune and in the second-to-last-half, decides that maybe it’s time to actually give us a full-blown story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, nor really matter. The best times of Fantastic Beasts are whenever we’re sitting there, watching as these characters run all throughout NYC, chasing creatures, tripping over themselves, and hitting constant obstacles, as if they were outtakes from the Looney Tunes, but whenever we focus in on the actual so-called “villains” of the tale, it never quite registers.

Most of that has to do with the story itself being so incredibly dark and disturbing, making Fantastic Beasts feel a tad bit off. Without saying too much, the subplot involving the so-called “baddies”, ends up coming down to child abuse and depression, which, in a movie where the first hour is dedicated to a bunch of characters chasing around what is, essentially, a platypus who can stick all sorts of items inside of him (please, don’t ask), is odd. It also doesn’t help that incredibly talented actors like Colin Farrel, Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton, are all left to work with some lame material that seems like it wants to be more sinister than it actually is. Even though the evil creature actually turns out to be quite scary and loud, there’s almost no rhyme or reason behind it all; we get the sense that maybe this character’s strict religious beliefs have something to do with it, but maybe not. Either way, it doesn’t quite work and only gets in the way of making Fantastic Beasts as bright and as shiny of a spectacle as it so clearly wants to be.

Consensus: Even with an overly complicated plot that seems to promise darker times to come in future installments, Fantastic Beasts can still be a very fun, charming and lovely little spin-off the obviously more famous Potter franchise.

6.5 / 10

You're Newt, Eddie! You're not Stephen Hawking anymore! So stop with that quivering lip!

You’re Newt, Eddie! Not Stephen Hawking! So stop with that quivering lip!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, The Movie My Life

Basic Instinct (1992)

Eyes advert, fellas!

Homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is known for always solving his cases to the best of his ability and because of that, he not only has a good career, but a good life in general. However, it all changes one day when he begins to investigate the mysterious of a rock star and links up with the sexy, vivacious, and possibly dangerous Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Believe it or not, she’s actually a crime novelist who loves to write about all sorts of deadly, violent crimes, or better yet, like the ones that continue to pop-up around the same time the death of this rock star occurs. For Nick, however, he believes that no matter how beautiful Catherine is, he won’t let her get in the way of his investigation. But that becomes a whole lot harder when Catherine starts alluding to Nick’s lover (Jeanne Triplehorn) as having more of a criminal background than she may have let on, making Nick think long and hard about whether this case is worth it, or if he just wants to retire from the force now and possibly settle down.

Love at first fight. And other stuff.

Love at first fight. And other stuff.

Oh, and Sharon Stone flashes a bunch of dudes.

There’s certain moments in film history that will forever remain infamous and the aforementioned Sharon Stone scene is one of them. Does it matter that the rest of the movie is neither as shocking, crazy, unpredictable, or infamous as that one scene in particular? Not really, but it doesn’t keep Basic Instinct, a rather mediocre, if at times bland erotic-thriller, to continue to pop-up in discussions about sex, movies, the MPAA, and mainstream, big-budget movies as a whole.

Because, like I said, Basic Instinct is a fine movie – director Paul Verhoeven doesn’t have it in him to make a boring movie, by any stretch of the imagination – but it also seems like the kind of movie that wants so hard to be cool, sexy, seductive, and rad, that it also forgets about what makes most movies like that in the first place: Some semblance of entertainment. Verhoeven loves his movies to be trashy, dirty and sweaty, which is what we get a whole lot with Basic Instinct, but that doesn’t make it nearly as fun, or as exciting as it sounds; in a way, it can actually be kind of boring. In a way, it’s clear that Verhoeven wants to make a sort of homage to the film noir’s of the 1950’s or so, but obviously, with a far more modern-update.

If that was his intention, then yeah, he got it down well; he captures the look, the feel, and most of all, the performances, except with a whole lot more boobs, butt, blood, and ice-picks. But style-points in a movie like this can only go so far – after awhile, there needs to be a story, emotion, and most of all, action. And I don’t mean “action” in the literal sense, as much as I mean in the proverbial sense – people just standing around, staring into space and thinking long and hard about what they want to do next, unfortunately, just doesn’t cut it.

You can look, but you can't touch, boys.

You can look, but you can’t touch, boys.

A lot of that happens in Basic Instinct, too.

A part of me thinks it’s just Verhoeven’s obvious European influences coming out, but a part of me also thinks that it’s just him slowly realizing that there’s not much more to the movie than a bunch of hot, steamy sex. And like I said, the hot, steamy sex is done well, it’s just that everything else surrounding isn’t and more or less, feels as if it’s all just filler so that Verhoeven himself can get another sex scene going. It’s understandable why the movie was so shocking back in 1992, but nowadays, sex in movies is overplayed, no matter how explicit and it made me wish that a good chunk of this flick was actually dedicated to an actual, compelling plot, and less to how Sharon Stone’s boobs or butt looked while mounting Michael Douglas.

Then again, the two do mount each other nicely and it’s one of the stronger aspects of the movie. That Nick has a bit of a dark side to him and is drawn to Catherine’s even darker, possibly more sadistic ways, makes the movie all the more enjoyable to watch; we know that he’s going to eventually crack under the pressure and make sweet, sexy love to her like the Dickens, but when, where, how, and at what cost, makes it all the more intriguing to sit through. Together, the two are quite good; they play-off of one another well, with Stone’s over-the-top playfulness, going hand-in-hand with Douglas’ over-the-top seriousness. In a smaller movie, with less of media-attention and a different director, the two probably would have made a very interesting drama, where instead of focusing on how many times they bang, it’s more about how many times they actually do love one another, but of course, that’s all a fantasy.

Of course, what we have is a movie that allows them to put in some good work, even if the work itself isn’t all that there. Verhoeven does eventually have some fun in the final-act, once people start getting killed-off left and right, but by then, it’s a little too late. The movie’s a little over two hours, but honestly, feels a whole lot longer than that, and because of such, it’s a bit of an uneasy watch. Just when you think and expect for the movie to fully pick up the slack and get going somewhere, Verhoeven decides to slow things down and focus in on these characters and whatever garbage lines they have to deliver. Sometimes, that’s fun, as long as it stays trashy and fun.

But being just trashy and leaving it at that, I’m sorry, is not fun.

Consensus: Well-acted and directed with plenty of style, Basic Instinct also proves that all of the sex, violence and nudity in the world, can’t make-up for a weak story and script.

6 / 10

Yeah, it's that scene.

Yeah, it’s that scene.

Photos Courtesy of: The Iron Cupcake, Indiewire

Boiler Room (2000)

Sometimes, Charlie Sheen’s swagger is just needed.

Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), is university drop-out who doesn’t have much going for his life. However, determined to prove his worth to a demanding father (Ron Rifkin), he decides to take a job at a small brokerage firm and, through his time there, begins to become something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for lack of a better term.

Writer/director Ben Younger literally wears his Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street influences on his sleeve, that the man doesn’t even try to hide it. In fact, a few times, the man actually shows clips of the movie, in Boiler Room, where the characters here are seen actually saying the same lines of those movies. In a way, you want to call him a “rip-off artist”, but at the same time, you don’t want to, because he’s not hiding it; he’s letting us know, right off-the-bat, that these characters, as well as himself probably, look up to these movies, these characters, and these ideas of capitalism, that they don’t care if they look like copy-cats.

"Wait, what?"

“Wait, what?”

They’re making money, baby and that’s all that matters!

Regardless, Younger as a director and writer, is a pretty solid one. There’s a certain energy to the movie that’s hard not to get wrapped-up in, because as our characters are making more and more money, the more the movie picks up its pace. In a way, it’s the junior-version of Wall Street, but it works so well because Younger is constantly reminding us that none of those influences matter; sure, they’ve helped him to where he’s at with this movie, but hey, so what? Just party, bro.

But honestly, where Younger really starts to fail is in the actual story department itself.

Younger seems as if he knows a thing or two about keeping up the brisk pace and how to have fun with these sometimes detestable characters, but when it comes to actually slowing things down, focusing on these characters, their lives and their motivations, he loses a bit of his step. For example, try the terribly-forced “romance” between Ribisi and Nia Long, who don’t seem to have any chemistry at all, any reason to be together, or anything really holding them together once things go South for both of them. It annoys me that films like these feel the need to add in a romantic subplot, just to appeal to women and hoping that they don’t get alienated from this movie but the bad news is that they already will. No girl will be attracted to a movie about a bunch of young, hot, cool, hip, and rich dudes in suits that make millions and millions of dollars, so it’s hard to imagine ladies wanting to come out and see something in the first place, because oh my gosh, Giovanni Ribisi and Nia Long make-out!

And then, the story begins to get a tad bit more predictable as it rolls on along. Boiler Room is obviously a rags-to-riches story, or so to speak, and because of that, it follows a very plain and conventional plot-line. Ribisi’s character starts at job, starts getting really rich, starts getting cocky, and eventually, one bad thing happens after another, until he’s broke, near-dead and without a pot to piss in. It’s all very formulaic and try as he might, Younger can’t help but get caught up in doing the same stuff we’ve seen done before, many, many times.

"Yeah, I'm done with action flicks. Maybe."

“Yeah, I’m done with action flicks. Maybe.”

Despite this, the cast is quite good and help keep the ship afloat.

In a rare lead role, Giovanni Ribisi kicks some fine stick-selling ass as Seth Davis. Ribisi gets a bad-rap sometimes for taking roles to the next level of over-the-top and making them terribly campy to the point of where it’s cringe-inducing, but some will be surprised that this kid can hit it out of the park when it comes to being subdued and very charming. You like Seth Davis right when you see him and even though his character motivations may get mixed around in a bender a bit too much, you still like both him and Ribisi. Wish that this movie made Ribisi the top mainstream act that everybody thought he was going to be, but I don’t think it bothers him if he’s second-in-command.

Everybody else is fine as hell, too. Vin Diesel is a scene-stealer as Chris Varick, the guy who teaches Seth the ways of the stock broker, and it’s a great dramatic role for Diesel that shows the guy has a terrible amount of charm and humor in him, that makes all of his characters work. The guy may be stuck doing Fast and Furious for the rest of his life, but at least we know that we can depend on him to pull out something like this or Find Me Guilty to remind us of why the guy has such a presence about him in the first place.

Nicky Katt plays the “stereotypical dickhead role” as the one guy who doesn’t really like where Seth is going in his success and it’s an obvious character, but a fine performance from a guy that I see in everything and still haven’t been able to match the name with the face. Let’s also not forget the fine, little cameo from Ben Affleck that practically seems like a total rip-off of Alec Baldwin’s cameo from Glengarry Glen Ross, but still works here because it seems like Affleck is having a total ball here and that’s always a joy. There’s a bunch of others in the cast like Scott Caan, Tom Everett Scott and Jamie Kennedy, all playing the young hotshots within the firm and are all perfectly cast.

Consensus: Boiler Room is, initially, a fun, exciting and thrilling ride, but soon turns preachy and predictable, which makes it feel a little uneven.

6 / 10

"Stop. Over. Acting!"

“Stop. Over. Acting!”

Photos Courtesy of: Derek Winnert

The Handmaiden (2016)

It takes three to tango.

In Japan-occupied Korea, a Korean con man named Count Kujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) wants desperately to become rich and not have to worry about a single thing in his life. So, the only way to do that is when the heart of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese woman who is about to come into a great deal of money with her father’s inheritance. However, in order to do so, Kujiwara’s going to need to come up with a smart, despicable plan – what he ends up concocting is recruiting an orphaned pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to become her handmaiden, watch and listen to her every move, and inform Kujiawara on everything that happens, so that when he does come around to win Lady Hideko’s heart, he’ll have no issues. And while Sook-he is more than up to this opportunity/challenge, somehow, her and Lady Hideko get very, very close to one another; so much so that it may possibly ruin Kujiawara’s plans for fame and fortune, while also ruining the gals’ lives.

"Read me more."

“Read me more.”

In the past few years, I’ve become more and more acquainted with Park Chan-wook and his flicks. After seeing Stoker, I realized that possibly there was more to him than just what people were telling me, not to mention that there was a lot of praise going his way. And sure, it’s understandable that not all foreign film-makers strike gold with their English-language, stateside debut, but maybe, perhaps, there was something I was missing out on?

And yes, after awhile, I realized that I was. Oldboy is still a near-perfect classic on rewatch; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance may be slow and deliberate, but man, it’s a visual masterpiece; Lady Vengeance feels like a rehash, but has some inspiration; and Thirst, while long, still is definitely the best vampire movie to be made in the past decade or so. Of course, there’s a few that I’ve missed, but to be honest, those are the main flicks to watch if you want to know all about Chan-wook and realize that he is one of the more original voices in film today.

And that’s why the Handmaiden, for quite some time, feels like he’s back to his roots.

For one, it’s a sexy and seductive story – you can say “erotic thriller”, but that just brings back bad memories of the early-90’s and Sharon Stone flashing Newman, too much – and it hardly ever lets up on the steaminess. Chan-wook plays around with sex and gender roles, but there’s a passion to it all that doesn’t make it seem overdone; he’s not just showing these characters nude, having sex with one another, and doing all sorts of other dirty things for giggles and laughs, but more or less, to tell the story and show just how vulnerable these characters can be. It helps create some real, hard and honest tension, without resorting to the obvious avenues of twists, turns, or violence, that so often, his movies can tend to dive towards.

Sorry, bro. Clearly not interested.

Sorry, bro. Clearly not interested.

That’s why the performances from everyone involved are so good – they all feel like real human beings, not just caricatures that Chan-wook can toy around with, even if he does have some joy in doing so. Ha Jung-woo is downright despicable at first as Kujiwara, but after a short while, shows more heart and compassion that’s surprising, but also, quite believable; Kim Min-hee, regardless of her beauty, is able to convey countless emotions with just a look in her eye; Kim Tae-ri, with her young girl innocence, works well in a movie that never talks down to her, but shows her in an as many lights as possible; and though he comes in a bit late, Cho Jin-woong is quite evil as Lady Hideko’s creepy, perverted Uncle who doesn’t have many morals, but he’s hard not to be compelled by.

That said, what happens to the Handmaiden in the final act or so started to take me away from it.

For instance, it’s a near two-and-a-half-hour movie that, at first, doesn’t feel like it. Chan-wook is a master at pacing, knowing what’s important and what isn’t, but also knowing how to keep us glued in with certain mysteries that don’t make perfect sense right away, but with time, eventually do as they develop. However, the issue he runs into here is that he seems to pad it on just a tad much; at times, it can feel like he’s making stuff up as he goes along, which can sometimes work if you’re just constantly moving and the pace is nice, but then, it begins to slow down.

What was once a really exciting, quick, fast and electrifying tale of sex, deception and corruption, all of a sudden, turns into a slow, brooding tale of people having sex and getting spanked. I don’t know why, but for some reason, it just didn’t work for me; it seemed as if Chan-wook himself changed everything up to challenge himself more and while it’s definitely commendable, it still doesn’t quite work. Sure, his movie still looks great and the performances, if anything, get more and more emotional as they toll on, but the movie just doesn’t assist them with much of a compelling story, especially when it seems to just be weaving in and out with twists, turns and unpredictable, seemingly random plot-points.

Not what the first-half had in mind.

Consensus: Despite great performances and a very promising first-half, the Handmaiden unfortunately falls apart in the final act, with one too many plot twists and turns to make sense of.

6.5 / 10

Never mind. It takes five to tango. So count me in.

Never mind. It takes five to tango. So count me in.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Silly cowboys and dames.

A mysterious drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog journey toward Mexico through the barren desert of the Old West. For some reason, Paul has seen a lot in his life and just wants to get away from the rest of civilization, so that he doesn’t have to deal with anymore darkness. In a way to make something of a shortcut in their trip, Paul and his dog take a stroll through a little town called Denton, or, as some people like to call, “a valley of violence”. While the town, at one time or another, was a happening hotbed for all sorts of folks, it is now run by a bunch of criminals and dimwits who like to shoot guns and cause violence because, well, why not? One such rebel is Gilly (James Ransone), the trouble-making son of the town’s difficult marshal (John Travolta), who decides to challenge Paul to a battle. He gets his wish and Paul knocks his rear-end on the ground. Gilly doesn’t take kindly to this, so he decides to get back at Paul in one of the worst ways imaginable, forcing Paul to have to react in violently indescribable ways.

It’s nice to see a writer/director like Ti West try something new and branch out a bit. While in the early stages of his career, he was seen as an exciting, new voice in horror who was ready to breathe some life into a dying genre, he has now decided that perhaps making a Western is the way to go for his talents. Why is that? Well, no one really knows, except for probably West himself (hey, it’s all in the name), which is fine, because as long as he continues to make exciting and fun movies like In a Valley of Violence, he can do whatever he wants.

Nobody gets between a man and his dog.

Nobody gets between a man and his dog.

So long as it’s good.

And that’s In a Valley of Violence is: Good. It’s not miraculous, it’s not a game-changer and it sure as hell isn’t perfect – but considering West’s age and experience, it’s a surprise to get something as audacious and well put-together as this. Rather than making a smart-lipped, quick and fast-paced Western, a la Django Unchained, West prefers to go back to the golden old days, where Westerns took time with their stories, allowing for them to play-out in a much more slower, more melodic way.

It works, but at the same time, it sort of doesn’t. It works in that it helps us see the movie in small, little details that make it more than just another shoot-em-up, slam-bang action-thriller without any reason for doing what it does. At the same time, however, the small details don’t really add up to much; it’s still a pretty conventional Western that may want to be something more than what it presents itself to be on the surface, but look closer and well, there’s not much there.

Which isn’t to say that every Western has to break new ground and state something about the human condition, like Unforgiven or Open Range, but it does have to do a little something more than just shoot and kill, if what it really wants to do is focus on the characters. And because a lot of the characters are pulpy, over-the-top cartoon-figures at times, it can’t help but feel like West, despite obvious good intentions, may get a little too wrapped-up in the weirder aspects of his story. While it’s nice and all fine to make jokes at the expense of your characters and at Westerns in general, after awhile, if they get in the way of the story itself, it can get annoying.

Listen to daddy, kid. He knows a thing or two about being a cool-as-hell gunslinger.

Listen to daddy, kid. He knows a thing or two about being a cool-as-hell gunslinger.

Thankfully, West kicks everything into high-gear by the final-act, realizing what he was originally setting out to make and giving us a fun, exciting and very violent Western.

And it’s also great to see him work with such a talented and likable cast, even if some of them are playing despicable people. As our main protagonist, Ethan Hawke does a good enough job being mysterious and cool enough, even if his recent turn in the Magnificent Seven can’t help but overshadow this a bit. Then, as the fast-talking and quick-witted sisters, Karen Gillan and Taissa Farmiga are both fun, showing that their tongues are firmly in their cheeks. And also, John Travolta gives one of his best performances in quite some time as the politely tense sheriff who may have a moral code, but also doesn’t mind blowing people up every once and awhile. It’s a shame we don’t see more of Travolta challenging himself as an actor, because he actually is a very good one when he wants to be, but here, it’s great to see him have some fun.

But really, the stand-out is James Ransone playing, once again, a cowardly, almost sheepish villain who wants to be considered rough, tough and evil, but in reality, is just a softy with daddy issues. Ransone is great at playing these kinds of characters (season 2 of the Wire) that you love to hate, but hate to love. Here, as Gilly, he gets to over-act a whole lot, but still keep himself grounded in some level where he seems like a real person, but never a real threat. It works in the movie’s favor, as well as in Ransone’s, considering that he’s always the butt-end of whatever joke that may come his way.

Consensus: Even if it is a little too slow and could have definitely been tighter, In a Valley of Violence still offers up an impressive change-of-pace for young and improving talent Ti West. Lets hope it continues on.

6.5 / 10

World's cutest movie dog? Close.

World’s cutest movie dog? Close.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Inferno (2016)

Dante had a point.

Famous symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has had to deal with a lot in his life. But now, his greatest and perhaps most challenging journey awaits him when he has to follow a trail of clues that are loosely tied to Dante, the great medieval poet. When Langdon wakes up in an Italian hospital with amnesia and has no clue of where he’s been in the past few days, or how he got to where he’s currently at, he decides to trust in and team up with Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a doctor he hopes will help him recover his memories. Together, they race all across Europe to stop a billionaire madman (Ben Foster)’s prophecy from coming true: Unleashing a virus that could wipe out half of the world’s population. But the further and further Langdon gets on this adventure of sorts, the more he’s able to piece together bits and pieces of his memory and begins to realize what’s really going on and how he can possibly save the world, once and for all.

"Look deeper!"

“Look deeper!”

To be honest, the Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, despite looking great and dealing with some interesting ideas and issues about religion, faith, history, and art, don’t really do much. They’re incredibly mediocre flicks that get by on the fact that they’ve got Tom Hanks in the leading-role and are adaptations of famous Dan Brown novels. That’s basically it. The Da Vinci Code is just barely fine, whereas Angels & Demons is a tad bit better, if only because it’s so crazy and doesn’t try to take itself too seriously, but still doesn’t quite light the world on fire. And now, we have Inferno, the third installment in the Dan Brown film franchise that may, or may not, be done after this, and a part of me honestly doesn’t hope so.

For one reason and one reason only and that’s because Inferno, for all of its goofiness and sheer stupidity, is actually quite fun.

See, what this film has, that the other two have clearly been missing out on is this great idea of fun and excitement over this ludicrous material. It’s absolutely insane to believe that a historian could literally travel all around the world, piecing together artifacts and pieces of art, to help him stop a crime that’s about to wipe-out half of the world’s population. The first two movies dealt with the same exact thing, however, they’re so self-serious and melodramatic, that they almost feel like parodies written by talented guys who were just bored. This time, with Inferno, it seems like everyone involved is ready to have a good time and take everything that they have to work with and just not even try to make sense of it.

For that reason alone, it’s already a better movie than the other two; it doesn’t get too tied-up in the intricacies and twists of the plot, as much as it just tries and takes us to the next location, as smoothly and as quickly as humanly possible. Personally, that’s perfectly fine – the clues and hidden messages don’t always have to make sense, as long as they somehow move the plot along and aren’t harped on incessantly. The first two movies would find a clue, or hidden-message and try their absolute hardest to make perfect sense of them and give us a reason for why they matter – here, it doesn’t matter.

History happened, things happen here, get over it.

To me, that’s the real fun of Inferno. Ron Howard has always crafted these movies to look great, but has never done much else with them beyond that. Even he, too, feels as if he was just going through the motions, waiting to collect that hefty paycheck and be on with his day. However, he seems more interested and engaged with everything here, allowing for the energy to stay almost all throughout and barely let-up, even in the scenes where it’s just two or three people talking. Does he try to make perfect sense of the material and show us why it matters to everyday society? Not really, nor does he have to.

Nothing like evil Omar Sy.

Nothing like evil Omar Sy.

And same goes for the cast. Tom Hanks is, for lack of a better term, a movie star and is perfectly fine as Robert Langdon; he’s always seemed like he’s slumming in this role and not really giving a crap, which is still the same here, but it’s fine because it’s Tom freakin’ Hanks. Felicity Jones plays the usual smart gal that Langdon teams with and thankfully, has a little more to her than just pretty looks and having an impressive vocabulary. Even random bit roles from Omar Sy, Sidse Babbett Knudsen, and a really fun Irrfan Khan are effective, in that they are small players, in a very big story and help bring some life and energy to the proceedings.

The only real issue to be had with the cast was Ben Foster as billionaire Bertrand Zobrist, who also has a solution to wipe out half of the world’s population. While the idea of this may seem ludicrous and exceptionally evil, the character does bring up a few interesting points that warrant, honestly, a better movie. Why shouldn’t our world be scared with overpopulation? We’ve already taken out four or five species in our existence, so why shouldn’t we worry about what, or better yet, who’s next on the chopping block? The character doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, but the few times he does, it’s actually compelling and made me want to listen more and more.

Unfortunately, the character is stuck in a very silly movie that doesn’t care about thought, rhyme, or reason.

Which, like I said, is perfectly fine. I’ll take that over boring any day.

Consensus: Is it stupid? Indeed. But is it also fun? Yes, indeed. Inferno may not win intellectuals looking for a far more enlightening experience over, but it does help the franchise out in being more energetic and lively than its first two, quite frankly, boring installments.

6 / 10

"Quick to the Leaning Tower of Pizza! Or something!"

“Quick to the Leaning Tower of Pizza! Or something!”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Aceshowbiz

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Once he was out, they pulled him back in. “They”, meaning international-audiences.

Investigator Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is known for being a bit of a wild card who has always played by his own rules, but always made sure that whatever needed to get done, got done. Now, after promising himself that he’d step away from the crime game for good, somehow, he gets pulled back into it all after the arrest of Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), an Army major accused of treason. The reason why Reacher cares about Turner’s case in the first place, is because he created some sort of a friendship with her over the past year or so, and felt like she was his next best chance at love, or something resembling it. So, he decides that it’s up to him, to prove that she’s guilty once and for all, but in order to do that, he’s going to have step on a lot of toes, kick a lot of assess, break a lot of bones, and most importantly, run into powerful baddies. It’s a job that Reacher is more than capable of handling, however, the idea is brought up that he may have a daughter out there in the world and, well, it makes Reacher think a lot longer and harder about his life.

Uh oh. Those cops are about to get a serious wake-up call. No literally.

Uh oh. Those cops are about to get a serious wake-up call. No literally.

Though it definitely has its haters, the first Jack Reacher did a lot for me. It was entertaining, quick, and wholly reminiscent of the old-school action-thrillers of the 70’s, that were less about the pizzazz and special-effects, and more about telling a good story and trying to figure out how action comes out of said story. It wasn’t necessarily a huge hit for Cruise stateside, but for some reason, international-audiences still loved it and the movie made a crap-ton of money.

So yeah, obviously, a sequel is to follow and that’s where we are here, with Never Go Back – a dull, unoriginal title that doesn’t do much except to tell you that it’s not the first movie, without having to put something as typical as the number “2”.

Anyway, all of that is besides the point and away from the fact that there probably didn’t need to be a sequel made in the first place, but it’s here and you know what? It’s not so bad. As far as directors of action go, Christopher McQuarrie is better than Edward Zwick, but the later does an okay job here of maintaining himself, even what with everything going on. While it’s hard to say if Never Go Back follows the same formula of most sequels – in that everything that worked in the first movie, is overdone to the extreme – it is quite easy to see that it’s definitely a much more messier movie, perhaps taking on a whole lot more than it feasibly could have.

For one, the mystery case at the center is fine, if only because it’s clear and conventional to a fault – person is wrongly accused, Reacher sets out to right the wrongs, bad stuff happen, bad people show up, etc. That’s all fine, but it’s when the movie tries to toss down a heartfelt testament to Reacher and his possible daughter that the movie really stumbles and doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself. The conversations are incredibly awkward and actress who plays the daughter, Danika Yarosh, is, unfortunately, not given the best material to work with. She’s trying to be that typical, smart-ass teen who always think she knows what’s best for her life, even when she clearly doesn’t, but it’s just a tired role that, quite frankly, grinds the movie to a halt, when it should be constantly moving and not stopping for a single thing.

Yeah, he doesn't like being followed.

Yeah, he doesn’t like being followed.

But thankfully, Never Go Back does feature some good action and of course, the always dependable Tom Cruise doing what he does best, but doesn’t too often actually do in movies: Play someone who isn’t begging for us to love and adore him.

Lately, we’ve seen Cruise change-up his career of sorts, in that, sure, he’s still doing action movies and whatnot, but he’s also playing characters in them that are still human beings, and fully-formed characters in and of themselves. They aren’t perfect, they aren’t always the nicest people, and yeah, they don’t always make the best decisions, but Cruise is such a movie star that he always makes these characters work and his second-outing as Reacher, still works. There’s a lot more to him this time than just kicking ass, taking names, and saying a witty thing here and there, which helps with Reacher himself, because it actually gives Cruise himself more of an opportunity to, well, act.

It also helps that he’s got Colbie Smulders to work off of who, as usual, is quite fun to watch. She’s smart, sassy and more than capable of keeping it with the best of them. It’s a known thing that Cruise doesn’t often have good chemistry with his female leads, but here, he and Smulders work well together, giving you the idea that their characters, in different circumstances, truly could make something resembling a relationship work. But then again, there’s just too much ass-kicking and crime-solving needed to be done, so yeah, they’ll have to wait on that.

Or, at least until the next movie comes out.

Consensus: Even if it doesn’t reach the same heights as the energetic and classic-styled original flick, Never Go Back is still a fine offering of action, twists, and nice acting from Cruise and Smulders.

6 / 10

Honeymoon spot?

Honeymoon spot?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Certain Women (2016)

Lady problems.

Three strong-willed women (Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams) strive to forge their own paths amidst the wide-open plains of the American Northwest. In one story, a lawyer (Laura Dern) finds herself dealing with office sexism, while also trying to ensure that a client of hers (Jared Harris), doesn’t get the bum-end of a deal from the trucking-company he used to be apart of. In another, a mother (Michelle Williams) wants to have her dream house so that she, her husband (James LeGros) and her daughter (Sarah Rodier) can live together in perfect peace and harmony, however, actually finding that house puts her at-odds with said husband and daughter. And lastly, there’s a young law student (Kristen Stewart) who is forced to teach a class out somewhere so far from where she lives, that she eventually forms something of a friendship with a lonely ranch-hand (Lily Gladstone), who may think that they are something more than what they appear to be.

Staring.

Staring.

In the past few years, writer/director Kelly Reichardt truly has grown into the kind of writer and director of indies that most indie film-makers want to be, yet, strive very far away from. She’s the kind of talent who seems to get better with each and everyone of her movies, doesn’t seem to tell the same story twice, get bigger and bigger stars into her movies, and most of all, keep her indie-cred safe and sound. It’s something that she’s been keeping up with for quite some time and it’s why she’s one of the more interesting voices in the film world today, not just indies in particular.

And that’s why a part of me is so disappointed with Certain Women.

See, when you have a movie that is, essentially, a few short, separate segments, rolled up into one movie, it’s hard to make sure that each one stays as compelling as the one to come before it. Reichardt has a knack for telling smart stories about small-town, rural people and expressing their emotions through long, drown-out pauses and moments of silence; the fact that hardly any of her movies have a “score”, just goes to show you just how much she depends on the real, ordinary life to be compelling enough. And with Certain Women, she gets a chance to tell not one, not two, but three stories about normal, everyday gals, living their lives and trying to get by in the world, even if, you know, they’re not all that interesting in the first place.

And that’s all it comes down to.

Reichardt does try to make these stories interesting, but they don’t fully come together, or move in a manner that really keeps it worth watching. We get the sense that Reichardt is never judging her characters for their ways, their morals, or their decisions, which is admirable, but sometimes, it feels like she’s not even around to do much of anything. It’s good to have a director that just lets her cast and crew do what they want, with very little direction, but there were a good couple of occasions here where I didn’t know what was going on, where everything was going to go next, and better yet, why any of it matters. To just chalk it all up to being normal, everyday people’s lives, is the reason to care, doesn’t cut it, unfortunately – sometimes, you need a compelling narrative to keep things, at the very least watchable.

More staring.

More staring.

It’s a shame, too, because the cast does certainly try and, for the most part, come-off strong. Laura Dern’s performance as a lawyer is strong; Jared Harris is a little too silly to work in such a movie as understated and serious as this; James LeGros, as usual, is perfectly fine; Michelle Williams doesn’t really have anything to do; Kristen Stewart is quite great in her role as a frustrated and confused lawyer, offering up a snapshot into the life of someone who’s young, ambitious and professional, yet, still doesn’t have a clue of what she’s going to do with the rest of her years; and Lily Gladstone, without hardly uttering more than five minutes of dialogue, is still pretty great, giving us a look into someone’s repressed existence, even if there is a part of me that wonders if it’s a good performance because she wasn’t suited with much dialogue in the first place, or if she’s actually a good actress who can make this all work.

Either way, the cast does try and it shows that they just don’t have enough material to work with.

And sure, you could make the argument that I’m just being harsh on a movie that “doesn’t really have a plot”, and sure, I guess you’re right, but it’s much more than that. The movie has three plots, none of which are ever that compelling to sit by; Reichardt always seems like she’s ready for something to happen, but for some reason, it never comes around. She’s honestly a great film maker and I can’t wait to see what she’s got cooking up next, but unfortunately, the bag just wasn’t there this time.

Consensus: Even with a good cast, Certain Women can’t help but feel like an uninteresting, slow and aimless exercise from the usually dependable Kelly Reichardt.

6 / 10

And yup, still staring.

And yup, still staring.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Mascots (2016)

mascotsposterThose annoying guys in suits and costumes? Yeah, still annoying out of them.

Every year, mascots from all around the world come together to battle out all of their showmanship skills in the one and only World Mascot Association championship’s Gold Fluffy Awards. And this year, the competition is quite fierce, with a couple who can’t seem to be on the same page (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), a pro who may have this be her last year (Parker Posey), and plenty of others. Of course though, the competition is really about the judges and who determines who the real winners, and losers are. And with the likes of A.J. Blumquist (Ed Begley Jr.) and the famous Gabby Monkhouse (Jane Lynch), it’s hard not to trust the professionalism.

While Family Tree hit HBO a few years ago, in a way, it’s been a decade sine Christopher Guest has made an actual movie. And if you really want to get as descriptive as can be, it’s been even longer since he last made a movie using his usual mockumentary-style, as For Your Consideration strayed away from the form, to mediocre results. But now, have no fear, as Guest is back with his usual brand of humor and cast of characters and, well, the results are still mostly the same.

I imagine a lot of mascots are hitting the ER.

I imagine a lot of mascots are hitting the ER.

Which is to say that Mascots is, yes, funny, but that’s about it. And come to think of it, shouldn’t it have been so much more?

With Guest, it’s hard not to compare something like Mascots to all of his other pieces like, A Mighty Wind and especially Best in Show. For instance, they’re movies about a group of people, coming together for one single event, and while in the former, they may not be competing, they’re still finding some ways to create some sort of actual tension with one another. And that’s why Mascots, seems to not just roll with the same formula and conventions of those similar movie’s plots, but doesn’t seem to do much with them, either; in a way, Guest is actually recycling material.

Take, oddly for instance, the inclusion of Corky St. Clair, one of Guest’s best characters from Waiting for Guffman. It’s weird to see Corky pop-up here, because even though I loved him in that movie, here, he seems completely random and out-of-place – even Guest himself seems weird uncomfortable bringing the character back with a terrible “boner” joke that goes and ends nowhere. But Corky himself also brings up the fact that Mascots, while bright, shiny and funny in spots, never quite hits the mark as much as it would like to.

Sure, some of that comes down to the improv, but a good portion of that also comes down to the fact that the material just isn’t all that funny. Everyone here is clearly giving it their all and showing why they deserve to be able to pal-around in a Christopher Guest movie, but with the exception of all the regulars who are used to Guest’s style, no one really works wonders. Zach Woods and Sarah Baker never quite fit well and just seem like lame replacements for the incredibly-missed Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, while Susan Yeagley fares a whole lot better as a character who, believe it or not, has a little bit more heart to her than you’d expect.

Not quite a stinker, but close enough.

Not quite a stinker, but close enough.

But if anyone’s really the star of the show here, it’s the mascots themselves.

This isn’t a surprise because Guest always loves the little worlds that he portrays for film, but here, he really puts us into it and makes us see these professionals work their magic and, needless to say, it’s quite entertaining. The movie does actually take time out of itself to show us just what sort of talents these mascots are and what sort of shows they have prepared to put on and they’re just about as fun as the last. It’s nice to see this in a movie, because while Guest does a lot of poking fun, he also shows that they’re quite talented individuals who know how to make people laugh and enjoy themselves for however short of time they’re around for.

Now, if only the rest of the movie felt like that.

Consensus: Though the cast is dependable, Mascots never quite gets going and isn’t nearly as funny as it should be, despite some good moments spread throughout.

6 / 10

Judges never get old. Or lovable.

Judges never get old. Or lovable.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Collider, Consequence of Sound

Denial (2016)

Like, did Hitler even exist?

University professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) teaches a class on the Holocaust, its deniers and how history tries to put it away from our memories, yet, it will never, ever go away. She’s also written a book which includes World War II historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), a very loud and well-known Holocaust denier who doesn’t care about what people think about him, or his beliefs, they are his beliefs and well, he’s going to let everyone know about them. So that’s why when he does realize that Lipstadt has wrote about him in her book, Irving decides to take her to court and battle for the case of his slandered name, as well as the truth for what really happened in Nazi Germany. While Lipstadt wants to make Irving out to be a total and complete moron, her legal team, most importantly, her lawyer, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), opts for a smarter, more balanced approach that may not make everyone happy, but will also ensure that he and his team wins, even when it seems like Irving may, somehow, get out on top and keep his name.

Somebody help that man.

Somebody help that man.

Denial deals with a very interesting and complex story that, for obvious reasons, can still remain relevant today. These aspects of racism, political blindness and most importantly, yes, denial to the harsher realities of the world we live in, still very much exist to this day and it’s a shock that it’s taken so long for this true case to get the big-screen treatment.

However, it’s also a shock that the movie just doesn’t know what to do with itself.

A good part of the problem with Denial comes from the fact that it has this compelling story, with these interesting characters to work with, and instead, focuses itself on possibly the most annoying, probably least interesting character of the bunch. With Deborah Lipstadt, there’s no denying that this is her story to tell and one, without her, we wouldn’t have, but once the actual court-proceedings get going, there’s not much to Lipstadt; due to the case being argued by her legal-team, we never hear much from her, except for whenever the camera pans to her reaction to show us what she’s thinking. And of course, we hear a lot of her yelling at and hammering on to her legal-team who are, for the most part, doing this case for free, about how they’re not working this case the right way that would get her to win and also keep its sympathy with those affected most by the Holocaust.

I’m not saying that Lipstadt should have been a supporting character here and almost never heard from – she most certainly deserves to have a lead role in what is, essentially, her story – but the movie doesn’t know when the right times to use her are, and aren’t. Having her always yell at her legal-team for something she knows nothing about, after maybe the fourth or fifth time, gets old and makes her seem like an actually awful person, all beliefs aside. And also, as much as Weisz may be trying here, her American-accent just never works; she lives in L.A. apparently, but is also from New York, which isn’t known until the very, very end.

And even the movie itself shoots itself in the foot for not really knowing what to make of the Holocaust, or get across about it. Sure, it wouldn’t necessarily be ground-breaking news that the Holocaust was a terrible moment in our planet’s history, but to just say it was bad, not focus on that reality, and then, all of a sudden, when the final-reel comes up, make the story about how terrible it was, just seems odd. It’s almost as if Denial didn’t want to focus on the Holocaust too much and take away from its courtroom scenes and whatnot, but also still wanted to remind us that the Holocaust was bad news.

90's, or 70's look? Never quite sure.

90’s, or 70’s look? Never quite sure.

If you’re as confused as me, it’s okay.

If there are times where Denial really clicks, it’s in the courtroom and whenever it’s focusing on Timothy Spall’s angry, irate and most definitely crazy David Irving. As much as the movie wants to hold its arm up against Irving and show him the error of his ways, there’s no denying the fact that he’s actually the most interesting character of the bunch; how one man could shut himself off so much to reality and battle those who actually do believe in it, is so odd and ridiculous, that it makes you wonder just what is going on inside that man’s head. A better movie probably would have focused on him, and not necessarily made him sympathetic, but just showed us what went on in this guy’s head, whenever he wasn’t howling and screaming about how the Holocaust never actually happened.

But of course, we have Denial – the movie where Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson are both great, sparring-off against one another, yet, the movie also wants to have its other way, too. It never quite works as a Holocaust-reminder and because of this, it never quite fully works as a courtroom drama, either. It’s mostly, above all else, mildly interesting drama that’s probably best to just read about, even if there isn’t anything like hearing a very skinny Timothy Spall go on about the Nazis.

Now, where’s that movie.

Consensus: Despite a few good performances, mostly from Spall and Wilkinson, Denial never maintains a clear focus and, unfortunately, doesn’t allow for Weisz to do much with her one-note role.

6 / 10

Uh oh. Look out, Holocaust deniers!

Uh oh. Look out, Holocaust deniers!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Thinking Cinema, NY Books

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Sometimes, you just got to make public transportation a little fun.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) takes the train to New York City each and every day and has a lot of time on her hands to do, well, lots of stuff. For one, she likes to drink. She also likes to think about stuff and, on occasion, make-up things in her head. But one thing she loves to do is watch a couple, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), from her train seat window every morning, from the window of her train. However, her life is thrown for a wild loop when, all of a sudden, Megan is with some other man (Edgar Ramirez) and not her husband. And then, it gets even crazier when Rachel finds out that Megan’s missing and Rachel herself could be the prime suspect. But why? Well, because Rachel’s ex-husband (Justin Theroux) and this new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) live literally right around the corner, Rachel, in drunken, jealous stupors, will find herself around the neighborhood, acting out in certain ways that most adults like her shouldn’t be doing. Now though, with the investigation against her, Rachel has to think long and hard about what she remembers and what she made-up in her mind, while also figuring out the truth of Megan’s whereabouts.

Who's baby is that?!? Mystery!

Who’s baby is that?!? Mystery!

The Girl on the Train is trying so hard to be Gone Girl that it’s actually kind of sad. Here’s a movie that, despite so much plot, could have honestly been an enjoyably wacky, over-the-top romp, just like Gone Girl. Instead, it’s rather drab, dark, serious and not nearly as crazy as it should be.

Which is also to say that Tate Taylor is no David Fincher. Believe it or not.

But honestly, the problem with the Girl on the Train is that, aside from it so desperately wanting to like that Fincher classic, it also doesn’t really know what to do with itself for a solid majority of its running-time. For the first hour or so, we’re watching our main protagonist, Rachel, live a pretty miserable and depressing existence – one that’s full of alcohol, wild dreams, and unrequited love. In a way, it’s actually very serious and heartbreaking, but aside from maybe one scene of an actual, full-out breakdown, the movie never gets as deep as it should about her mental and psychological issues and where it all came from. Rather, the movie uses her anguish and pain as a plot-device, to give us more and more characters, more conflicts, and most importantly, more and more unnecessary twists and turns that, after about fourth or fifth one in a minute, gets a tad annoying.

And really, all of the problems with copycatting Gone Girl would have been fine, had Girl on the Train tried to at least bring some real, honest characters to the forefront; most of them are just created for the sole sake of being a plot-device, or a twist that can eventually kill them off, or show that they’re not exactly as who they should be. Although, as is the case with Edgar Ramirez’s psychiatrist character, some characters hardly serve any purpose whatsoever – they’re just hot, sexy and attractive window-dressing to a movie that’s as mean-looking as you can get.

No. Not a leftover scene from the Leftovers. Although, I honestly wished it was.

No. Not a leftover scene from the Leftovers. Although, I honestly wished it was.

Ramirez isn’t the only one who, unfortunately, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. The whole ensemble, as talented as they all are, are saddled with material that doesn’t allow for them to really reach deep, or far dramatic heights – instead, they just have to settle and live with the results. As said about Rachel before, she’s a deeper character than the movie gives her credit for, even if Emily Blunt tries all that she can to not only make her look ugly and disgusting (as much as Emily Blunt can look “ugly” and “disgusting”), but really, the character feels like a missed-opportunity. Same goes for Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett’s characters who, despite getting some semblance of personality and emotion, are also meant to be plot-points.

The boys don’t fare any better, either.

Justin Theroux does what he can as the ex-husband, while Luke Evans does his best hard-Brooklyn accent, despite being a character that lives in the New York suburbs. Only the wonderful Allison Janney really gets a chance to shine with this material and it’s not only a testament to her true talent as an actress, but also a nice bit of excitement in the first hour or so. Because honestly, for the first hour, the movie can be quite a bore – laboring on certain parts of the plot that don’t matter, never picking up the pace, and giving us a mystery we already know the solution to.

That said, it does pick itself up after the hour-mark and thankfully, it’s where the Girl on the Train becomes, surprisingly enough, “fun”. Granted, it’s still not nearly as fun to watch as Gone Girl and it sure as hell doesn’t improve on its issues with its character, but it eventually starts to realize that there can be some wild times had with these weird characters, the sexy tone and feel that Taylor sometimes gives off, and most importantly, the fact that we’re here to watch a bunch of hot, sexy and attractive people bone and deceive one another. Sometimes, that’s all you need with a movie and here, with the Girl on the Train, while it takes forever to get to that part, I’m glad it eventually did.

Because if it didn’t, honestly, it would have been a waste of everyone’s time. Most importantly, my own.

Consensus: Despite trying desperately hard to capture the same excitement and craziness as Gone Girl, the Girl on the Train never quite gets moving, despite a good cast and a promising premise, chock full of twists, turns, mysteries, and surprises that are, honestly, a little too obvious to be shocked by.

6 / 10

You see a lot from public transportation. Maybe not someone's home life, but hey, dare to dream, eh?

You see a lot from public transportation. Maybe not someone’s home life, but hey, dare to dream, eh?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Shallows (2016)

Just stay on land!

Still reeling from the loss of her mother, medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) decides to leave her relatively comfortable life and travel out to a secluded beach for some downtime. The beach she’s going to is so so unknown and mysterious, that it doesn’t even have a name, nor do the locals feel like giving away its location. Which means that Nancy’s going to have to deal with swimming and surfing alone, even if she herself doesn’t mind it. After all, there’s a few people at the beach that she talks to and gets acquainted with, but mostly, it’s just Nancy, her board, the water, and well, a little friend who may not have a name, but is definitely a shark. While she doesn’t spot him at first, the shark attacks Nancy, leaving her stranded and nearly 200 yards away from any sort of shelter to be found. So, using her own common-sense and smarts, Nancy’s going to have to rely on fate and luck to get her out of this predicament, all while ensuring that she stays alive and doesn’t become the shark’s dinner in the meantime.

Oh, and there’s an awesome bird to accompany Nancy the whole time. Honestly, if it’s not up for Best Supporting Actor by the end of the year, I’m going to be quite upset. CGI, or no CGI – it doesn’t matter.

Wow! What a buoy!

Wow! What a buoy!

The bird steals the show. Plain and simple.

Anyway, yeah. The Shallows is the kind of movie that you expect to be pretty bad, just judging by its premise and its talent on-board. While Blake Lively’s film out-put has been okay and director Jaume Collet-Serra is occasionally hit-or-miss, I guess the idea of sitting around and watching a half-naked Blake Lively lay around on a rock and try to not get eaten by a shark doesn’t seem all that appealing. Sure, Lively’s got a nice body to look at and a premise like that, when done right, can actually work wonders, but for some reason, the Shallows just seemed another lame summer blockbuster that didn’t have much to work with in the first place.

But somehow, it works out so well.

If anything Collet-Serra does all that he can to make this premise work, as limited as he may be. While there’s only so much one can do with a protagonist when they’re literally stranded on a rock for a near hour-and-a-half, Collet-Serra finds some interesting ways and avenues to go down, in order to make it compelling to watch, as well as fun. The movie’s focus itself hardly strays away from Nancy on the rock, when Nancy is in fact, on the rock, and it’s an effective device to use, because it makes us feel closer to her, as if we too, are stranded, without a paddle, and inches away from being shark bait.

shallows2

Close call, Blake! Don’t worry. Some guy will save you. They always do.

And sure, the Shallows does get away with some silly things that most other movies in its nature wouldn’t be able to get away with, but that’s because Collet-Serra doesn’t focus on the dumb things of the story. The fact that Nancy does say a lot to her, or in this case, the wonderfully awesome bird, can get a tad annoying, as well as can some of the random conveniences that pop-up to make her stay on the rock much longer. There’s small bits and pieces of this movie that doesn’t necessarily work, but because Collet-Serra is actually able to make this very simple, very easy-to-understand premise, actually something enjoyable, it’s hard to really narrow-in on them and get mad.

After all, it’s a shark movie that’s not lame.

It also deserves to be noted that Blake Lively, in a role where she is, essentially, talking to and interacting with a bunch of CGI, special-effects, and green-screen, does a solid enough job that it makes you forget about some of these things while watching. This is actually a very hard role for most actors to pull-off, where they have to remain interesting, while literally having nothing to say, but Lively’s good at it; we believe her as this smart gal that’s resourceful and what the next best step to take is, which makes this situation all the more drastic and dangerous as it piles on and on. Sure, it helps that Lively herself isn’t all that bad of a gal to look at, but that stuff doesn’t matter because she gives a good performance in a movie that, possibly, may not have needed one to really work wonders, but hey, works fine with one, so why not?

Consensus: Simple to a fault, the Shallows is a low-key horror-thriller that works on building up suspension, to where it’s actually fun to get involved in the sometimes scary situation.

6.5 / 10

Move over a little bit, Blake. You're getting in the way of the bird.

Move over a little bit, Blake. You’re getting in the way of the bird.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Kingdom (2007)

Let’s just stay home and let people settle themselves out, okay?

Charged with the most important assignment of his career, federal agent Ron Fleury (Jamie Foxx) has one week to assemble a team, infiltrate and destroy a terrorist cell based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s not what he had in mind when he decided to join back up with the force, but it’s the task that was handed down to him, so he wrangles up Special Agent Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), a forensic examiner, FBI analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), an intelligence analyst, and Special Agent Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), who all have their own set of skills that will help allow for this mission to go down a lot smoother. And if that wasn’t enough, well, then the four also have the company and good graces of Colonel Faris al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), the commander of the Saudi State Police Force, a man who is providing security for them. However, what seems like good intentions at first, all start to go away once the agents realize that they aren’t allowed to do their jobs and complete their mission because of some strange rules that the Saudi government is passing down to them. Will they obey them? Or, like most Americans, will they just do whatever they want?

Jamie's packin'.

Jamie’s packin’.

The Kingdom shows Peter Berg more of where he’s at now in his career. He tackles these real life moments in our nation’s history and does all that he can with them, never really making a point about what it is that he’s depicting, just more of showing the world a little story that we may, or may not, already have known about. Although Berg starts the movie off by showing the relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis, post-WWI, Berg still settles himself down, opting for a more traditional approach to a story that, quite frankly, could have not only just used more eyes and ears, but more voices.

In a way, it seems like the Kingdom is the perfect movie for Berg to get on his soap-box and speak out against the U.S.’s insistence of a relationship with the Saudis, but he still seems torn; at one point, he’s all about making a point, but then, at other points, he just wants to see stuff blow-up and people get shot dead in the streets. Somehow, somewhere, it doesn’t all come together perfectly and it seems like a case of Berg himself getting lost in translation and not knowing where to speak out, and where to let the violence start happening.

The action’s good though, so that’s got to account for something, right?

And yeah, it definitely does. There’s no denying that Berg knows how to craft a tense and effective action-sequence, but there’s maybe only or two throughout the whole film, which means that a large portion of the flick is dedicated to watching a bunch of characters talk to one another about stuff we may not have a clue about, or better yet, not even care for. The Kingdom may not try to settle all of the issues between the Saudis and the U.S., but what it does set out to do, is tell us a story about something that happened in the real world and why it deserves to be told.

So is Chris.

So is Chris.

Why, for some reason, that emotional impact isn’t felt while watching the movie is, for lack of a better term, weird. Berg knows how to craft action-sequences and in the many scenes where there are people talking, there’s still some underlining sense of dread and tension, but it never quite materializes into being anything all that exciting. Berg is, simply put, telling this story and leaving it at that.

In a way, that’s perfectly fine.

But in another way, it’s not. It lets the very talented cast and crew down, as well as the people it’s supposed to be depicting. Of course, the events and situations are all loosely based on other events that occurred in Saudi Arabia and had to do with American forces intervening, but the idea of patriotism and paying a tribute to these men and women who serve our country, only to make other countries nearly as good and safe as ours, still feels relevant. Berg wants to celebrate these people and there’s no problem with that – except for when he doesn’t quite give them all that much of a spectacular movie that really gets us, the movie-going audience, going.

Consensus: Despite a few solid pieces of action and timely themes, the Kingdom doesn’t know how to package them all up in a neat, somewhat cohesive manner that’s both effective, or interesting, making it feel like a missed-opportunity to really speak out against issues that deserve to be spoken out against.

6 / 10

And you know what? Even Jen is.

And you know what? Even Jen is.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Queen of Katwe (2016)

Personally, I believe that Chutes & Ladders is the key to world hunger. But that’s just me.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl living in Uganda, which is, essentially, a slum. She and her family constantly struggle to keep a roof over their head, food on their plates, and try to stay on the straight and narrow path so that they don’t have to stoop themselves down to getting money in dirty, sometimes disturbing ways. But for Phiona in particular, her one dream of making it out of the slums, and into a house, with windows, trees, a swing, and most importantly, a front-door, is by becoming one of the greatest chess players in the world. Through the constant tutelage of her teacher Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), she hones her craft and eventually, gets in tournaments. While she wins mostly all of them, the biggest issue for Phiona, according to her mother (Lupita Nyong’o), is that she sees this world outside of Uganda and can’t help but be dissatisfied and somewhat depressed by her poverty. Phiona has to turn all of that sadness, into energy so that she can make all of her wildest dreams come true and make Uganda a very hopeful and happy place, even if it’s only by the game of chess.

"Mother. checkers is for losers. Chess is where the money's at."

“Mother, checkers is for losers. Chess is where the money’s at.”

For some odd reason, despite chess not necessarily being classified as “a sport”, ESPN is here to help produce Queen of Katwe, which automatically will make you think, “cliché”. And if you did think that, you wouldn’t be far off. Queen of Katwe is the rags-to-riches, predictable story that we so often see with sports-related flicks, except that this time, the story is placed in Uganda and features a young, Ugandan girl, doing whatever it is that she can to make out of poverty and into something resembling “financially stable”.

Does it sound familiar? Definitely.

But does it still kind of work? Well, yeah. Surprisingly, it does.

Director Mira Nair has hit a bit of a slump as of late, but seems to get back on the right track with Queen of Katwe, giving us a story that’s as simple as they come, yet, still has a pleasant enough feel to it that makes you feel like it doesn’t matter how many obvious beats the story hits – as long as they’re hitting them in a right way, what’s the problem? Nair sets us in this place, at this time, shows us how awful this girl’s surroundings are, and then shows the happiness, joy and hope that the game of chess brings to her, automatically making us feel the same thing. We know where this story’s going to go once she begins to pick up some awesome skills at chess, but Nair keeps the story, at the very least, tender, that there’s at least some interest into how it’s all going to turn out.

It also helps that Nair doesn’t settle for making this about how terrible-off and poor people in Uganda are, even though, she definitely could have. A far more challenging and adult movie about Uganda would have gone to great lengths to discuss its class-issues, battle with poverty, and most of all, divide between religions (although, if you want that story, just check out God Loves Uganda), but Queen of Katwe is not that kind of movie. After all, it’s a Disney flick, so how on Earth would that be able to fly pass edits and cuts?

Regardless, Nair keeps her focus solely on the story, touches on those issues ever so slightly, and keeps everything moving, even when it seems to be slowing itself up.

So interesting.

So interesting.

Which is to say that Queen of Katwe isn’t perfect; Nair loses a bit of steam about half-way through when we’re supposed to be interested by Phiona’s brief battle with depression, when it all feels a little random and out of left-field. The movie tries to make it an important anecdote that’s meant to drive Phiona even more to achieving her dream of becoming a great chess player, but all it really does is offer David Oyelowo another opportunity to give a great, rousing speech of making one’s self better and overcoming all sorts of odds. Once again, sounds conventional, and it is, but it still works, even if getting those speeches is ham-handed.

That said, the cast are really the ones who keep Queen of Katwe, in some of its far more patchier moments, compelling. Oyelowo is a perfect fit as this minister/coach who cares so much about having these kids achieve their dreams, that he’s willing to risk his own career and marriage over it; Nyong’o’s mother character may seem like another typical, old-timey lady who doesn’t care about her kids hopes and dreams and just wants them to clean their rooms and realize the world is a terrible, unforgiving place, but eventually, she turns around and proves to have the most heart out of all the characters; and newcomer Madina Nalwanga is quite good as Phiona. While she may not always hit the right notes and definitely show that she’s an amateur, there’s still a feeling that Phiona, despite winning all of these games of chess, is still a kid, who just wants to run around and play in the dirt with her friends and family.

Really though, Queen of Katwe works so well with these actors because the people are real. At the end of the flick, we get to learn a little bit about these real people’s lives and actually see them, side-by-side with their acting counterparts. The movie never rips at your tear-ducts, but this moment got me and made me feel like I just saw a true story, with heart, emotion and a great amount of sweetness, play out all in front of my eyes.

And that’s truly something nice.

Consensus: While still conventional and predictable to a fault, Queen of Katwe mostly benefits from a solid cast and heartfelt direction from Mira Nair who has to jump between Disney and ESPN on quite a number of occasions, yet, seems to please both parties, as well as the audience.

6.5 / 10

"Check. Mate. Now leave my sight."

“Check. Mate. Now leave my sight.”

Photos Courtesy of: Citizen Charlie

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

Some men just want to kill all the baddies for reasons unknown.

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham), after a few years or so, feels as if he had put his murderous past behind him where he can now sit back, relax, enjoy the beach, drink a cold one, and live the life he wants to live. And he sort of gets that with Gina (Jessica Alba), a local woman who is currently having issues with her husband – issues that a man like Arthur Bishop is more than capable of taking care of. However, his whole life changes when Gina is kidnapped by a former foe of Bishop’s (Sam Hazeldine). The only way to save Gina, unfortunately, is for Bishop himself to complete a few odd jobs that include taking out some of the most notorious, most rich and most powerful arms-dealers. Why? Well, Bishop begins to put the pieces together while he’s doing these missions and decides that it’s going to be time for him to take more than just a few people out if he wants to get what he wants and also ensure that Gina’s lovely life is saved.

Sun's out, guns out.

Sun’s out, guns out.

The first Mechanic movie was a fine piece of Statham-action – in fact, it was probably better than a lot of them. What worked was that it had some nice action, a breezy pace, and also not to mention, the wonderful, if always underrated Ben Foster to bring some pathos and magic to the otherwise heavy and action-packed setting. That said, it was also a movie that wasn’t nearly as successful as his others and, not to mention, also seemed like it was more or less going to be forgotten in about five years, let alone, five months.

But for some reason, here we are – over five years later and guess what? We have a sequel to Mechanic?

And you know what? I’m glad. Mechanic: Resurrection is a surprisingly fun movie that feels like it could have easily been some straight-to-DVD trash that nobody bothers to pick up, but instead, only scoff at on their way to the register, and it still sort of it is – but hey, it’s fun trash. It’s the kind of trash that makes me happy that someone like Jason Statham exists and his movies can get so ridiculous, so insane and so over-the-top, that honestly, sky’s the limit on what can and what will happen.

And with Mechanic: Resurrection, it’s great to see Statham do what he does best, because the movie itself is still fun. The missions that Bishop gets sent on, while a bit predictable at first, begin to take on new lives once we realize that they literally place in Bishop in these new, somewhat interesting worlds that could possibly be his own damn movie. The whole Malaysian prison set-piece an inspired one and honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing its own movie made about, just like the pool-sequence, as well as whatever the hell Tommy Lee Jones’ character is.

"Hold on tight, baby. It's going to be a bumpy life from here on out."

“Hold on tight, baby. It’s going to be a bumpy life from here on out.”

Speaking of Jones, believe it or not, he’s actually more inspired here, than I’ve seen him in quite some time.

It’s weird, too, because the character that he’s playing – a rich and powerful arms-dealer, who has a whole bunch of piercings and a spiked-cut to boot – doesn’t seem totally up his alley. But surprisingly, Jones is having fun here and more than willing to enjoy the undeniably dirty and gritty proceedings than ever before. Why he’s in this is totally beyond me, but hey, I’ll take a fun and excited Tommy Lee Jones, over a bored and growling one.

And the rest of the small, but fine cast is good, too. Michelle Yeoh doesn’t have a whole lot to do, for some reason, even though she’s in an action movie for gosh sakes; Jessica Alba is hot and fiery, despite her not having much of a chemistry with Statham; and Statham himself, once again, is perfect for this kind of role. Sure, he’s stoic and quiet, but he’s also charming whenever the script calls on for him to be and it’s a lot of fun to watch, especially when the movie seems to be enjoying his presence. More movies need to take advantage of the fact that, well, Statham is a funny guy and can charm the pants off of a donkey, so why not let him do all of that charming-stuff, aside from the ass-kicking and shooting?

But like I said about Resurrection – it’s not a perfect movie.

It’s silly, it’s idiotic, it looks cheap, and honestly, sometimes feel like a plot that’s making itself up as it goes along, but for some reason, I enjoyed that all. Director Dennis Gansel doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for us to stop, wait and think, but instead, he just constantly throws every bit of action that he can find at us and it works. The movie’s a whole more fun for it and in a way, kind of smart, too.

Okay, maybe not, but still, it at least tries.

Consensus: As far as stupid and silly action-sequels go, Mechanic: Resurrection is a good one that features plenty of cool and exciting action, as well as a supporting cast that’s better than we normally get.

6.5 / 10

"Yeah, honey? Keep the turkey running, I'm going to be a little late for suppa."

“Yeah, honey? Keep the turkey running, I’m going to be a little late for suppa.”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, Indiewire, Jason Statham Source

Alexander (2004)

Some people let fame and fortune go to their heads. Others, just want to party and have a lot of sex.

Ever since he was a little boy, Alexander (Colin Farrell) was always a person destined for great and wonderful things like becoming the greatest empire in the world, at a staggeringly young age of 32. Of course, however, his path to greatness was a rough and troubling one, mired by all sorts of controversy and adversity that seemed to take him down a peg, even when it seemed like he was ready to take down everyone who stood in his way. There’s his mother (Angelina Jolie) and his father (Val Kilmer)’s legacy and how all of their accomplishments have overshadowed his impact; there’s his sexuality and how some people don’t ever know what it is that he likes to have sex with; and then, there’s also that need and utter desire he has that makes him want to kill nations and nations of people because they don’t praise him as the lord he so desperately wants to be praised as. Of course, all of this would be prove to be his ultimate demise.

"I know you love the blonde hair. All the girls do."

“I know you love the blonde hair. All the girls do.”

Alexander is not nearly as awful as people make it out to be. It’s probably Oliver Stone’s worst movie, but in that, therein lies an interesting movie that has a lot of good ingredients, a few rotten ones, and ultimately, doesn’t fully come together as perfectly as his other movies have. But does that make it absolutely, positively awful?

Not really.

And it’s because of Stone, that a movie like Alexander – one that would have been so slow and boring – actually comes off far more compelling than one would expect. Just as he’s shown before, Stone seems a whole lot interested in just what makes a legend like Alexander tick and become the man that he wants to eventually become; sure, the narrative of him from childhood, to his adult-years, don’t always mesh well and would have probably worked out better had they been shown in a more conventional format, but still, there is something of interest to this person here. Stone doesn’t always know what he wants to say about Alexander, or better yet, what point he’s trying to get across by telling his story in the first place, but there is something here, as small and as slight as it may be, that’s definitely worth watching and thinking about.

It’s just that it’s still hard to figure out just what that may be. Stone seems interested in judging this person solely on the fact that he condoned a whole lot of violence, yet, at the same time, didn’t know why or for what reasons, expect that it was all he was taught when he was just a little tike. But then, Stone also seems interested in how his sexual preferences may have also done a little something to make him seem like a weakling that couldn’t be trusted in the long-run. And then, of course, there’s also the fact that Stone seems interested in wondering just what it is about a person like Alexander that makes him feel like a God that can do no wrong, never die and still keep the love, respect and adoration of all those around him.

There’s a lot to think about and work with, but unfortunately, yes, the movie is also quite messy and doesn’t always make the best sense of what it’s trying to do or say.

And yeah, that’s a huge problem for Alexander, considering that it clocks in at nearly three hours, showing us that, once again, Stone is the King of excess, especially when it seems like there’s no real reason for the actual excessiveness in the first place. And hell, if there is a reason, it’s because Stone himself knows that he doesn’t quite know what he’s getting across with the material, so rather than trying his hardest to make a small, concise movie, he overloads it all, adding more bits and pieces of style that come and go as they please. It’s what we’ve come to know and, unfortunately, expect with Stone, even if it does sometimes feel like he’s got something of interest to work with here.

Their family is better than yours.

Their family is better than yours.

He just doesn’t know what it is, sadly.

But that’s why he’s got such a good cast to work with and, in ways, pick up the pieces whenever the narrative seems to flowing from one place to another. Colin Farrell is fine and hunky as Alexander, even if the character himself is written in so many different ways, that he almost feels like an entirely different person altogether, at random parts of the movie. Farrell gets past most of it, but he also feels like he’s struggling to make sense of just what Stone is aiming for here. As his parents, Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie are terrific, vamping and hamming it up, showing us that Alexander definitely had two role models in his life, for better and for worse, and they made him who he is today, and honestly, the movie would have been a whole lot better just about them and their little dynamic.

Because once Kilmer and Jolie are thrown in the background, others like Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and the one and only, Anthony Hopkins show up and quite frank;y, the material just isn’t there for them. They all feel like added-on characters who show up because Stone wanted to work with them and, honestly, needed an excuse. Dawson’s got the most to do out of all these actors, but even she feels short-shifted, only made to give sad looks and take her clothes off. I’m not complaining, but trust me, there’s a whole lot that she can do.

In fact, so can everyone else here. Including Stone himself.

Consensus: Not quite the travesty as some have made it out to be, Alexander suffers from being messy and never always making the best sense of itself, yet, gets by on a few good performances and moments from the near three-hour run-time.

6 / 10

"Join me in this fight now and afterwards, we'll all get mangled!"

“Join me in this fight now and afterwards, we’ll all get mangled!”

Photos Courtesy of: The Ace Black Blog, Metro, Cine Cola

Nixon (1995)

nixonposterHe was a crook, but then again, aren’t we all?

U.S. President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) definitely had all sorts of controversies in his life and career. And those constants issues with the general public and those around him actually lead-out into the rest of his life, even going so far as to drive him a little nutty. But no matter what, his wife, Pat (Joan Allen), whenever he needed some love and comfort the most, even if he wasn’t quite so sure that he could always trust her. Of course though, despite some of Nixon’s best moments as President, his career and legacy would, ultimately, be destroyed because of the infamous incident that everyone, for future generations, will come to know as “the Watergate Scandal”.

So basically, yeah, Nixon is Oliver Stone’s attempt at trying to make some sort of biopic on the life, times and ultimate career of Richard Nixon. And honestly, it makes sense – if there is any director out there who could understand the mind and brain-space of someone who has been hated and despised over the years, it’s definitely Stone. But don’t be fooled by the term “biopic”, as Nixon is anything but conventional, even if that term is exactly what it promises to be.

"Hey, Anthony? Yeah, tone it down just a bit."

“Hey, Anthony? Yeah, tone it down just a bit.”

And that is, honestly, it’s biggest problem.

Stone has a lot to work with here and even at a staggering three-hours, it feels like we got more than enough. For what it’s worth, Stone doesn’t back down from showing us the image of Nixon, both professional and personal, that we’ve all come to know and expect by now. He has to make a lot of dirty, incredibly questionable choices and decisions on behalf of the entire country and because of that, he starts to get a little crazy and act out in ways people don’t expect him to. Stone doesn’t seem to be fully judging him for who he is, or better yet, what he represents, and that’s what works best in the movie’s favor; it’s setting out to tell us a little more about the one President that most of the country has learned to grow and dislike more with each and every passing year, and not shy away from some of the more grittier, meaner aspects of his life.

And because Nixon doesn’t back away from the not-so pretty things about Nixon’s life, it also can sort of seem like it has nothing to really say about its central-figure. Even though Stone tries his absolute hardest to fool us into thinking that this isn’t another one of those typical biopics we tend to get around Oscar-season, what with the quick-editing, non-chronological format, etc., it’s still not hard to look at this as, yet again, another biopic of someone that we think we know, but don’t know every little detail about, to the day that he took his first breath, to his last one. But the movie also begs the question: Do we really need all of this? Is there a point to this never ending focus on this one man in particular?

Well, the answer is yes and that’s because Anthony Hopkins is the one playing the lead role.

"Okay, maybe I'm a little bit of a crook. Just a little bit, though."

“Okay, maybe I’m a little bit of a crook. Just a little bit, though.”

Which is, yes, definitely fine, because no surprise here, but Hopkins does a terrific job as Tricky Dick. Of course, Hopkins himself has a lot to do and work with, playing up the usual mannerisms of Nixon, without seeming like a cartoon and still sinking into the role, despite not looking a single thing like him, but still, there’s something missing here. It’s a performance that does a lot of shaking, yelling, standing, and heavy-lifting, but it’s also one that seems to just be about the actual actor, and not about the actual character/person being portrayed or brought to us. Watching Hopkins do what he does best is a treat, but still, when he’s clearly not working with solid material that gives him more than just another chance to chew the fat, it’s a bit of a slog to watch. It’s almost as if we walked into an empty-theater, just to watch Hopkins himself rehearse and go over his lines, but rather than letting us go out the doors and into the real world, the doors are locked and we’re somehow trapped, forced to watch and be inspired by the thespian that is Anthony Hopkins.

Sure, that may not sound as bad to some, but watching it all play out in Nixon can get to a bit tiring.

Especially when the movie is, like I said before, is a little over three hours long. And while it’s not the Hopkins show the whole way through, what with the likes of Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Paul Sorvino, James Woods, and Ed Harris all showing up and doing their things, it still feels very much like a vanity-project that was created solely for Hopkins and no one else. Stone may have had something interesting to say about Nixon’s actions, his public-appeal and how he’s become a “crook”, but it gets lost in between every scene that features Hopkins screaming and hooting at the top of his lungs. Sure, that’s enjoyable to a whole bunch of people, but when there’s no real rhyme or reason for all of the hooting, hollering and screaming at the top of the lungs, then it just gets tedious.

Which is something that I’d never thought I’d have to say about a Hopkins performance.

Consensus: Despite a warts-and-all depiction of Nixon’s story, Nixon still feels very much like a movie created solely so that Anthony Hopkins could work shop the whole entire three hours and make himself happy.

6.5 / 10

See? He's a happy Dick!

See? He’s a happy Dick!

Photos Courtesy of: Cydney Cornell, The Ace Black Blog