Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: 6-6.5/10

Born to be Blue (2016)

Let’s get lost on all sorts of drugs and fun.

Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke), at an early stage in his life at least, truly was someone to love and behold. His records were selling like crazy, people wanted to meet him, be him, women loved him, and yes, he was even getting film-roles. But that all seemed to change one day when, all of a sudden, he gets his ass beaten within an inch of his life, taking out his teeth and vowing to never let him play again. Why did this happen? Well, let’s just say that Chet always had problems with drugs and money, and those that beat him up, had a good reason for it. But still, Chet is trying to make something out of this misfortune, whether it’s still continuing to record and play, or start a family with actress girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). No matter what though, no matter how hard he tries, or where he goes, Chet’s demons always follow him and it’s one of the main reasons why he’s stayed so far away from the mainstream.

Rather than being your ordinary, conventional biopic of a music-legend, Born to be Blue changes things up slightly. What writer/director Robert Budreau does here with the Chet Baker story is that he takes a part of the man’s life and films it for all of the world to see. By doing this, Budreau allows for us to see all that we need to see, or what we need to know about Baker, by highlighting this time in his life where he seemingly had it all, and then lost it all, in a matter of seconds.

Recording studios? What are they?!?

Recording studios? What are they?!?

Does it really change the format a whole lot? Not really, but it’s a nice little change-of-pace for a genre that can get so old and tiring when it isn’t paying attention.

That said, Born to be Blue does a nice job at giving us the small details about Baker, his life, his personality, and his issues, that make us feel like we are actually getting to know him underneath all of the sweet-ass playing-skills. So often do biopics of these nature forget that one of the main reasons why people care so much to see these flicks in the first place, isn’t just to see an actor fake-playing an instrument or whatever, but actually getting a chance to see the heart and soul of said person. Here, Chet Baker is shown, warts and all, no apologies whatsoever, but that’s fine.

In a way, it makes the movie better, if a tad gloomy. Just when we think that life is going to turn out perfectly fine for Chet at this time in his life, little do we know that, right around the bend, is something tragic, sad, or depressing that’s going to turn him back to his old, evil ways. It’s quite upsetting really, because we get to see Baker as a sympathetic person all throughout, so that when he does turn that corner and begin to not just hurt himself, but those around him that love and support every little thing that he does, it hits even harder.

It’s meant to, because the rest of Born to be Blue depends on Ethan Hawke’s performance as Baker and well, as you could have guessed it, he’s pretty great in the role. As usual for Hawke, he gets a chance to play it small, quiet and subtle as Baker, never fully lashing out into hysterics to show his pain, but still getting plenty of other chances to do so. We understand and we hear just how talented and great Baker is, but the tortured soul that lies somewhere in between it all, is seen through Hawke’s wonderful performance, showing more sides and dimensions to a person that deserves plenty of them.

Match made in jazz hell.

Match made in jazz hell.

Then again, it’s not entirely his movie, which is what makes Born to be Blue something special.

As Jane, a failing actress looking for that last glimmer of hope and fame, Carmen Ejogo is perfect, because she brings a lot of pleasantness and sweetness to a movie that sometimes forgets all about that. Her character is so interesting in her own right that she could have probably gotten her own movie, but as is, she serves as a solid counterpart to Baker’s sometimes outlandish ways, while giving us someone who loves and understands him exactly for who, or better yet, what he is. It helps that they have great chemistry, too, but really, it’s Ejogo who steals the movie from Hawke and everyone else.

Which is to say that the movie is good, if not great. The performances definitely help it, but it’s also quite limited in its scope and its affect, mostly because it still sets out to tell Baker’s story. While it’s effective at doing that, the emotional-connection that’s supposed to be felt, never quite comes through. Some of this could be chalked up to the fact that the movie is quite stand-offish when it comes to portraying Baker’s day-to-day interactions with the people around him, but it also comes down to the fact that maybe he was just such a mystery, in the way he acted and sounded, that it’s hard to make a movie that really gets to the meat of the matter.

We see him so sad and depressed, but why exactly? We hear some hints at his childhood, but really, they all come and go, while we just sit and watch as Hawke comes close to tears in every scene. Maybe there’s more to Baker than we’ll just ever know. For all we got now is the sweet and soulful music that he allowed for our ears to be treated to.

But was it enough? Unfortunately, we may never know or find out.

Consensus: Sad, but incredibly well-acted, Born to be Blue still suffers from being a biopic, but also has a keener-eye towards the heart that makes it seem slightly different and fresh.

6.5 / 10

Smile, Chet. It's okay.

Smile, Chet. It’s okay.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Joshy (2016)

When depressed, hang with the bros.

Josh (Thomas Middleditch) and his fiancee (Alison Brie) were all set and ready to get married. However, she decided to take her life, leaving her family, friends, and most importantly, Josh, heartbroken. Why did she do it? Well, no one really knows why, however, Josh’s friends intend on cheering him up the way that they feel is necessary for someone dealing with a tragedy of this kind. That’s why, nearly four months later, the bros all come up to the house somewhere in the mountains, dedicated to them all partying it up and living life, as if it was Josh’s bachelor party, which was what it was supposed to be in the first place. But the guys don’t get bogged down by the sad details and decide that it’s time to get all of the beer, drugs, guns and women that they can find to get Josh’s mind off of everything. But it’s not just Josh who has some problems to wade through, as most of the guys seem to be going through their own issues on this one weekend, figuring out where to go next with their lives and how, just how the hell on Earth, are they going to grow-up and be responsible adults.

Cheer up, Joshy. They don't call you that name all of the time, right?

Cheer up, Joshy. They don’t call you that name all of the time, right? Cause if they did, that actually would kind of suck.

The mumblecore movement may not be quite as vibrant as it once was back in the beginning of the decade, however, it’s still alive and well, bringing in more and more outsiders to the indie-world, showing off their talent for improv and on-the-fly film making that can, often times, create things of beauty. Drinking Buddies seems like the highlight of the mumblecore flicks, in terms of its scope, who it involved, and what it actually did, but there’s been a few every now and then, offering up lovely bits of insightful entertainment.

And now, with his second-feature, Jeff Baena seems as if he’s ready to throw himself into the mumblecore world and doing a pretty good job at it, too.

Of course, what makes a mumblecore movie as good as it may set out to be, is that it needs a reason, or better yet, a purpose to exist. Most of the time, these movies can sometimes seem like low-budget versions of Adam Sandler flicks where, just like him, they use the excuse of a movie being made to get away with having a bunch of their friends around, do and say silly things. While this may work for most film makers because it doesn’t ask for all that much dedication and money, the problems that it can sometimes bring up is the fact that the story itself isn’t always the snappiest and, if anything, made-up as the film-making runs on by.

Here though, Baena does something smart in that he allows for the actual tragedy of Josh’s ex-fiancee to really carry the movie along, feeling less of like an excuse, and more of something resembling a reason. Of course, the darker aspects of the story come out in full-form by the end, and doesn’t quite connect, but at least it’s a movie that’s trying to be something more than the typical “cool, funny, and talented people hang out for a weekend”. While those movies can tend to be quite fun and exciting, they can also become a tad mundane, when you don’t have much of a narrative-drive moving it along.

In Joshy, aside from the tragic suicide early on, the real plot is figuring out these characters, their lives, their problems, and just how they’re going to get out of them. It’s almost too simple, but it kind of works, because Baena has been able to assess a great group of actors to make the material work, even when it seems like they’re just going with the flow. Nick Kroll, Thomas Middleditch, Alex Ross Perry, Brett Gelman, and Adam Pally play the core group here and they’ve all got their own problems to work through, some clearly more important than others, but all at least registering on some level.

Longed-hair Adam Pally? I don't know!

Longed-hair Adam Pally? I don’t know!

Of course, this doesn’t always allow for the characters to come off as likable, either, which is probably fine, in Joshy’s case.

Baena doesn’t allow for his movie to be too pleased or happy with itself; eventually, the characters do have to learn a thing or two about the lives that they live and why it’s not always best to act 13, when you’re 35, or at the very least, nearing it. Joe Swanberg himself shows up and brings these characters down to real life and it’s a honest, relatively tense scene, which is what Joshy seemed to be missing the most of. With the exception a confrontation by the end, Joshy doesn’t really have any confrontation or tension in the air, which I felt was necessary for a movie like this to really work, where jerks are hanging around each other too much, getting on each other’s nerves constantly.

Of course, Baena may not have cared much for this, but while watching Joshy, it’s hard not to imagine what could happen, had the movie tried a tad bit harder. It’s nice to get all your talented and lovely friends all together, in one room, let them do their things, and start shooting, but after awhile, it can start to feel like just a bunch of fun-sequences, and that’s about it. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how charming the cast is – sometimes, more story is better.

Consensus: With a likable and talented cast, Joshy‘s improvised, low-budget feel works, but also doesn’t allow for there to be much of a story, either.

6.5 / 10

I'll jump in. No skivvies is fine with me.

I’ll jump in. No skivvies is fine with me.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Bollywood Reads

Anthropoid (2016)

It’s hard to be so secretive when it seems like every Nazi screams at the top of their lungs.

In December 1941, two agents from the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) are parachuted into their occupied homeland. Together, the two are sent on a mission to take out Reinhard Heydrich, otherwise known as “the Butcher of Prague”. While it’s no easy, or better yet, simple mission, the two men are smart and determined enough to where they feel as if they will be able to complete this mission, and maybe even live to tell the story afterwards. But regardless of all that, they’re more worried about being able to get start the mission in the first place and reach their target, which will be a lot harder than expected, what with growing suspicions of spies in Czechoslovakia and certain Nazi soldiers wandering around, looking for any bit of controversy that they can shoot citizens dead for.

Yeah, not very good at hiding bro.

Yeah, not very good at hiding bro.

Every year, there’s always a few movies featuring/covering the same material that seem to have the misfortune of being made and coming out roughly around the same time. This year, it turns out that there’s not one, but two flicks made about Operation Anthropoid; obviously, there’s this one and the other, the star-studded HHhH, is set out to come out later this year. Whether or not which movie is the better of the two, isn’t known yet, but having seen Anthropoid, it’s safe to say that possibly, just possibly, that other flick may have the edge.

Of course, I could be mistaken, but either way, Anthropoid, the movie, as it is, is fine, but also leaves plenty of room for improvement.

What’s interesting about the way in which director/producer/co-writer Sean Ellis frames this whole story, is how he does it all in three parts, when you don’t necessarily expect that. You expect there to be a lot of planning of the mission, the execution of the mission, and eventually, the fallout of the mission, which is what Ellis shows here, but he doesn’t necessarily focus on the details you expect. There’s not all that much attention paid to the planning and the maneuvering of the mission, and in place of all that, there’s more scenes dedicated to the real men involved with this mission and developing them.

Which honestly, is perfectly fine, however, in order for a movie to work with this way, there needs to be interesting characters worth watching and caring about. Unfortunately for Anthropoid, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš just aren’t made all that compelling here; they’re shown as the good guys in this story, who will do whatever it takes to complete their mission, but that’s really all there is. There’s an attempt to flesh both of them out by giving them romantic love-interests of sorts, to flirt and chat with, but it never quite works – it already feels like filler and just makes the lead-up to the actual mission itself all the more bothersome.

And this isn’t anything against anyone in the cast in particular, nor is it especially against Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan. The two, as well as everyone else here, are perfectly fine; Murphy has those steely-blue eyes that would make a grown man cry, and Dornan, while still working in that pretty-boy look and feel, seems more genuine this time around than I’ve seen him anything else so far. But like I said, the two try hard to make these characters more than conventional heroes and unfortunately, that’s how they come off as at the end, with some shading here and there.

Uh oh. Mr. Grey is not too happy about the first movie's reviews.

Yeah, I don’t know if Anastasia quite had this in mind when she said “spicing things up a bit.”

Then again, the bright side of Anthropoid is that once the mission goes down, the movie gets significantly better.

All of a sudden, there’s a certain push, pull and feel in the air that wasn’t around for the first half-hour or so – it appears like Ellis himself knew that in order for this movie to really get kicking, giving us the actual mission is the best way to do so. It works, too, as the rest of the movie continues to build on and amp-up the tension as it goes along, even if you already know how the story ends and what happens to everyone involved.

Which does beg the question of whether or not this movie, or the other, really needed to be made? If people already know the story and you don’t really do much to put a spin on it, its effect, or its relevance to the audience, then what’s the point? It seems like Ellis, with Anthropoid, seems to be honoring these fallen men who gave their lives to taking down a ruthless and evil force, which is fine, but they don’t really get much time, or attention – or, at least not as much as the action-sequences do.

And honestly, the action worked. However, Ellis never seems like he has anything of actual interest to say, or bring up, when portraying the events that happened. They can be horrifying and downright suspenseful to watch, but shouldn’t they be something more? Or should they just be as they are? I don’t know. Maybe the other flick will have something to say.

Or then again, maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.

Consensus: Anthropoid wants to be a passionate and heartfelt tribute to those fallen, but in reality, settles for being a slam-bang, suspenseful and exciting action-thriller. A good one, but still, an action-thriller nonetheless.

6.5 / 10

"First, this dude, next, Hitler! After that, the world!"

“First, this dude, next, Hitler! After that, the world!”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, Teaser-Trailer.com

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Yup. Still can’t get that song out of my head.

Despite being told that he would not live past 15 years of age due to a heart condition, Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) set out to leave his mark on show business, vowing to be a legend by 25. That is exactly what he did, and this is his story.

Is Bobby Darin a legend? Better yet, does there deserve to be a two-hour biopic made about him? To answer both questions, probably not. But that still doesn’t stop celebrities like Kevin Spacey from making movies about him, even if, at the end of the day, people will wonder, “why?”And yes, as is the case with most passion projects, Beyond the Sea feels like the kind of movie that probably didn’t need to made, but because it’s done by smart, dependable people, it’s not so bad.

I hope he sings that song about the sea!

I hope he sings that song about the sea!

Just a tad unnecessary, is all.

As writer/director/producer/star, Spacey has a lot to do and it’s surprising just how much effort he put into the way this thing moves. In a way, he wants to make a musical out of this flick, what with a bunch of wacky, wild, and fun dance-numbers taking place seemingly out of nowhere, but he also wants to make a warts-and-all biopic about this troubled celebrity’s life. Is it uneven? Yes. Is it messy? You betcha. But is it boring? Nope. Not really.

And honestly, that’s good enough for me, especially considering that mostly all musical biopics can be downright dull, regardless of whether or not you know the subject the movie is made about. But even so, there’s some glaring issues with the film, that seem to come directly from Spacey himself, in that he doesn’t always nail down the right tone. One of the best examples is a fight that Darin and his wife have, which plays out like a scene in a dark comedy, but ends up being very serious and mean with both of them ending up in tears. It’s a funny scene, that goes to being very strange and shows you that Spacey may have not had the right touch for certain scenes. Even when all of the dark drama does eventually come into the story, it somewhat bogs everything down and doesn’t even really seem interesting.

But if there’s the biggest issue with Spacey’s direction, it’s that, when all is said and done, we never really find out much about Darin himself. Sure, we know the guy has a heart problem, yes, we know the guy wants to be bigger than Sinatra, but what else is there? Occasionally, they’ll bring up the whole fact that he was apparently arrogant in real-life, but that rarely ever comes up or even shows. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any flaws of his pointed out throughout this film once. This isn’t me assuming that Darin was the devil in real life, but he sure as hell wasn’t no latter-day saint, either. Maybe because this was Spacey’s own way of paying tribute to a singer/songwriter he immortalized as a kid, but if you’re going to do a biopic, you might as well do it the right way and allow us to see the full picture.

I agree. What about John?

I agree. What about John?

After all, the more shades you show of a character, the more the audience is able to care for them when they, as Darin does, die.

As for Darin, he was only 37 when he died, so some people may be a bit thrown-off when they see Spacey, who was 44-years old at the time, playing a guy in his teens with tons and tons of prosthetic make-up. It’s goofy and sometimes distracting, but you know what? Spacey is somehow able to make it work by being as charismatic as he can be. Spacey has quite the knack for these darker roles where you just don’t like him, but at the same time, love that aspect about him. Here, you get to actually see him lighten-up some and let loose with a real life figure that seemed to go throughout life in such a frantic movement, that it’s hard not to enjoy and watch. Many will also be impressed that all of the songs are sung by Spacey himself, and the guy shows that he has the chops to not only direct, write, and star in his own movie, but the guy can freakin’ belt it out like no other as well.

Spacey’s got it all going for himself and watching him is worth the watch alone.

And yeah, others like Bob Hoskins, John Goodman, Sandra Dee, and Kate Bosworth all show up and give a little, but really, it’s Spacey’s show through and through. They know that, he knows that, everyone knows that. It’s a shame that it wasn’t more of Darin’s show, but honestly, did we need anything more than what we got? Or, can we assume that his life was the same as any other celebrity’s?

Who knows? Maybe there’s another Bobby Darin biopic out there looming on the horizon.

Consensus: Spacey does what he can to tool around the biopic narrative, allowing for Beyond the Sea to be a bit more interesting than the usual fare, but also seems to short Bobby Darin himself in not getting deep down to the root of who the person actually was.

6 / 10

Oh, that young whippersnapper. And Kevin Spacey.

Oh, that young whippersnapper. And Kevin Spacey.

Photos Courtesy of: Roger Ebert.com, IMDB, Movie-Roulette

Zero Days (2016)

Stay off the internet. Read a book and shut up.

The internet has been a huge source of controversy for as long as it’s been around. Some have used it for the greater good of society, whereas others, have definitely not. That said one of the biggest and greatest discussions came around the time of the malware worm known as “Stuxnet” was famously used against Iranian centrifuges. Though many have claimed that it may have originated as a joint effort between America and Israel, some are still not sure as neither America, nor have Israel came right out and admitted it. Even worse, however, is the fact that those who are able to speak about it, choose not to. Why? Is it because they know of a top-secret, confidential mission that’s to never be spoken about to the mainstream media? Or, is it because they have no actual information on what actually happened? Either way, documentarian Alex Gibney is going to get down to the bottom of it all and also figure out just why the internet is such a terribly harmful and dangerous device that any government can use, against whoever they want.

Trustworthy.

Trustworthy.

A part of me feels like Zero Days is a bit too early in its release. There’s no doubt that the subject of cyber-hacking, the internet, technology, computers, and the government’s use of all them, deserves to be spoken about and highlighted, in a documentary from Alex Gibney nonetheless, but still, is it too early already?

Either way, Gibney still talks about it and has made a movie about it, so why not just enjoy it for what it is, right?

Well, perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word to say when describing the feeling while watching Zero Days, but still, it’s hard not to get swept-up in an Alex Gibney movie. The way he is able to go from one piece of information, to another, without ever making it seem like he’s missing out, is outstanding – you almost get the idea that he’s reading Wikipedia while he speaks and tells everything to us, but it doesn’t matter. He reads Wikipedia well and honestly, he gets the right people to speak about such a topic, that when all is said and done, we feel like we got to know a thing or two about government-agencies, as opposed to feeling more in the dark than before.

And this is important, too, what with Zero Days being a movie about how government-agencies, like the FBI, don’t ever want to talk about Stuxnet. Seriously. Not even in the slightest bit. It’s a running-joke throughout the flick; it’s almost as if you were asking these subjects about how they got their jobs in the first place. They don’t want to speak about it, nor are they even able to – a perfect “no comment” will suffice.

That said, Gibney gets down deeper than just Stuxnet.

Through his own, journalistic ways, Gibney shows that Stuxnet, whether or not committed by America and Islam in the first place, is a brutal sign of things to come; from now on, government-agencies will now be able and actually want to attack other countries, through the internet, based solely on the fact that they can. Gibney definitely doesn’t doubt that America and Islam had some dirty-dealings in the whole issue, but he also doesn’t doubt that it opens up dirty, vile and dangerous cans of worms that may prove to be more harmful, than actually beneficial, in the long-run.

Kind of trustworthy.

Kind of trustworthy.

Then again, a lot of what Zero Days does right, it also falls back on some of its issues. For one, Gibney doesn’t ever try to spell everything out for the whole audience, sitting back, and who are probably watching in their Laz-E Boys. Sure, one could say that this is “fine” and proves just exactly who Gibney’s demographic is, but it also goes to show that maybe, just maybe, some of this is capable of going over people’s heads.

A perfect example of this is the confidential FBI-informant who pops up every now and then, to tell us all what she was told, what she saw, and what she believes in. Right from the start, this narrative-device is fishy and skeptical, but Gibney continues to hammer on and on about it. While it does answer some questions, it’s poorly-delivered in such a way that, honestly, an open-text displaying everything that this person said, would have been better. It would have looked less amateurish and probably not have been so distracting to watch.

But still, Gibney knows how to discuss a controversial issue.

That’s why a good portion of Zero Days is smart, informative and, at times, eye-opening. It asks the rough and tough questions, without delivering so many answers. But for some reason, that’s fine – the world in which we live in now, almost feels like it’s ripe and ready to ask more questions, as well as answer them, about cyberspace. Perhaps this documentary could have waited longer, but hey, the fact that it’s out and raising awareness, is fine enough.

Consensus: Though it could have waited longer, Zero Days offers up an interesting and detailed look at the world of cyberspace, while also showing that the issue may be more troubling than we all expect it to be.

6.5 / 10

Uh, still not sure.

Uh, still not sure.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Nerve (2016)

Truth, or Dare, or Die?!?!

Set in the world we currently live in, a social-media platform exists and is quite popular in which players can choose between two options: Either be a “watcher”, or a “player”. If you choose the former, you get to sign into your account, pay a small fee, and watch as people do all sorts of crazy and death-defying stunts and dares. However, choose the later, and you’ll be given all sorts of cash from users, daring you to do one thing, after another. There’s more rules to the game itself, how it’s played, and why outside interference (i.e. the cops), is extremely frowned upon, but all that needs to be known is that it’s a sick and twisted game, that finds high school senior, Venus (Emma Roberts), not sure if she wants to go as far as the users want her to. Eventually, the night takes her to meet another user (Dave Franco), who can’t help but love the money thrown his way, even if the dares themselves start getting more and more dangerous. Which is what happens, especially when it turns out that they’re both the most-watched and popular users in Nerve, making them not only richer, but even bigger targets.

"Hey, girl. Wanna ride?"

“Hey, girl. Wanna ride?”

Nerve is a neat idea that, for awhile at least, is as fun as it promises. The dares themselves continue to get more and more wild, there’s a certain air of tension no matter what, and yes, the fact that it’s meant to take place on this one single night in a colorfully-lit NYC, makes it all the more fun to watch. The world in which Nerve takes place in, isn’t all that far-fetched, what with Pokemon Go taking over the whole world, and yes, even the dares themselves still seem somewhat in the realm of possibility.

So why is that the movie falls apart by the end?

Well, the fact remains that sometimes, just having a good idea, isn’t enough to sustain a whole movie. Because when you take into consideration that movie’s themselves need to have a story, with characters, archs, some twists, some turns, and most of all, a satisfying, if also, believable ending, then you’ve got yourself what some people consider “a movie”. Nerve is “a movie”, obviously, and while it definitely has a good portion of what I just listed, eventually, it starts to show cracks within itself.

For one, it tries to be about something that doesn’t quite work. It wants to have discussions about social media, privacy, and the government, but doesn’t really connect with either message/viewpoint; if anything, Jason Bourne was more effective discussing and allowing for the same ideas to find its way into the plot. It’s not that what they’re saying is dated or wrong, it’s just that they come into a movie that feels more like giving us high-flying and crazy stunts, rather than actually sitting down, looking up to the sky, and ponder what it all means.

Which, isn’t all that surprising, when you realize that the same directors behind Catfish, henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, are helming this feature and are showing why they don’t trust the internet. That movie, honestly, came at a time where there was a lot meant to be said for Facebook and Twitter and all sorts of other social-media, but here, they don’t seem to be able to connect their themes to the plot. What they do know how to do is keep the excitement going, whenever they rely on the actual dares themselves.

But like I said before, everything else just doesn’t quite work.

Listening to whatever the cool kids listen to nowadays.

Listening to whatever the cool kids listen to nowadays. Or whatever the cool kids in the early-90’s listen to back then, because that’s what’s “in” now, right?

Well, with the exception of the acting, that is. While it may be a tad difficult to believe Dave Franco and Emma Roberts as high school-aged kids, together, their chemistry works like gangbusters. Roberts works well as this very repressed teenager who clearly seems like she has a lot of personality-issues to work through, whereas Franco’s character is hard to pin-down. We know that he’s supposed to be the love-interest here, and therefore, we’re supposed to like him, but there’s something a little troubling about him and his character that, quite frankly, makes their night more interesting.

There’s others on the side of whatever Franco and Roberts are doing together, like Emily Meade stealing the show, Juliette Lewis having the duty to play dim-witted mommy, and Machine Gun Kelly being less annoying than he is on Roadies, but honestly, characters don’t really matter in a thing like this. What Nerve proves is that sometimes, all you need is an interesting idea to roll and have fun with. Then again, it’s also the same kind of movie that proves that maybe, just maybe, more thought has to go into all of the other pieces of the puzzle, so that audiences don’t lose interest in something that had already been grabbing their attention in the first place. And this matters, too, because when you have big theater chains trying to incorporate cell-phone usage into the movies, well, then you know you’ve really got to work extra hard to keep those teenie-boppers off of their damn phones.

Then again, you could just play this PSA before every movie and it’ll probably do the trick.

Or, maybe not.

Just turn your cellphones off in the theater, people!

Consensus: Interesting and compelling for a good portion, Nerve is surprisingly entertaining, but then it all starts to fall apart by the time the implausible and silly final-act comes around to spoil all of the fun being had in the first place.

6 / 10

Oh man. What a shame it would be to have to walk around, half-naked, with the bodies of Dave Franco and Emma Roberts. Jeez. Could. Not. Imagine.

Oh, man. What a shame it would be to have to walk around New York City, half-naked, having the bodies of Dave Franco and Emma Roberts. Jeez. Could. Not. Imagine.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, Indiewire

Equals (2016)

So much feels.

In a futuristic dystopian/utopian society, all sickness and diseases (including cancer) have been eradicated. At the same time, however, so has human emotions, where everyone acts, sounds and interacts with one another just about the same. Because of that, nobody really knows one another and whenever they do start to feel anything resembling “emotions”, they’re made to get it fixed and forgotten about. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) is a member of this society who is now a victim of “feeling” something for a co-worker/confidante of his, Nia (Kristen Stewart). Silas doesn’t know how to channel these feelings without getting in any sort of trouble, which leads him to talk about it with fellow people who are going through the same issues as him. But little does Silas know, is that Nia is going through the same thing that he’s going through and it’s only a matter of time until the souls collide and they make something of their shared-feelings for one another. Although, when you’re stuck in a society that doesn’t take too kindly to people who think, feel, or love for themselves, it’s kind of hard to express one’s love in absolute fullness.

Who's she looking for?

Who’s she looking for?

While watching Equals, I couldn’t stop but think that it was a better adaptation of the Giver, than the actual adaptation of the Giver actually was. Of course, yes, I know that the two stories are different, but there’s a lot that they have in-common; the dystopian, futuristic society, the forbidden romance, the rules and regulations to keep people from acting out in a certain way that most humans should, a depressed tone, and yes, a powerful government that seems to strike fear in all of its citizens who dare not get out of line. One is clearly more adult than the other, but still, watching Equals, there was that constant feeling I had that I needed to either re-read the Giver, or watch the movie again, and see if my mind can be swayed.

Then again, I probably won’t do that.

All in all, Equals is fine enough because it presents us with a society that, yes, may not be all that believable, or make even much sense in the long-run, but is still compelling because of what it offers us to think about. For instance, how come in this society, one where all disease has been eradicated, is everyone made to be walking, talking robots, who don’t feel anything? Why are some of them committing suicide? Better yet, why are some of them cool with others committing suicide? How does anyone get pregnant in this society if no one is really supposed to feel anything, especially not love?

None of these questions are ever answered and I guess that’s why it’s easy to get a little frustrated, but for director Drake Doremus, what this society offers is just another chance to give us a forbidden romance that’s easy to feel something for, even if they exist in a world that doesn’t want, or accept them. In fact, Doremus’ past two flicks, Like Crazy and In Secret, have both been about Doremus’ obsession with forbidden love, or in ways, lust; while he doesn’t necessarily care about giving any sort of conclusion on these ideas of these stories, he also doesn’t stray away from portraying them in some of the drabbest ways imaginable.

But honestly, that’s why a part of Doremus works for me.

He takes his material as serious as can be, without hardly an ounce of humor to be found, but it surprisingly works in the long-run. In Equals, you get this claustrophobic feeling where, no matter how hard you try, your love will never be allowed and will always be frowned upon. Or, well, maybe. Honestly, it’s hard for me to fully make up my mind about what Doremus is trying to say here, but because his camera/attention never strays away from this one single idea of unwanted and secret love, it’s hard to turn away from.

Then again, there is the first half-hour or so that does a lot of world-setting, and yeah, it’s a bit of a bore. Mostly, this has to do with the fact that we never quite understand just how we got here and how things work out in this society. Also, there’s something mysterious about the jobs that these two characters have and while Doremus gives us some hints about what it is that they’re doing, it never really gets the full attention it should have probably gotten. Sure, call me nit-picky, call me what you will, but certain things like this bother me.

Who's he looking for?

Who’s he looking for?

Give me a futuristic society and don’t try to explain all that much about it to me?

Well, uh, no thanks.

Regardless, what works best about Equals is that its central love, between Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, surprisingly works. Because the two characters are so repressed, the brief moments of actual personality that the two share one another, make a huge impression on the rest of the movie and their relationship as a whole. Hoult’s Silas may seem like a bore, but there’s a little something more to him, just as there is to Stewart’s Nia. Together, the two have something sweet and heartfelt, even if the world they’re trapped in, doesn’t really accept them together. It’s your traditional love story, but a little sadder.

And really blue, too. Literally.

Consensus: A bit dark and repressed, Equals may test some viewer’s patience, but also works because of the attention paid to its central romance.

6.5 / 10

Oh, never mind. Good for those kids.

Oh, never mind. Good for those kids.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)

Yeah, I’m totally telling my high-school classmates I know Brad Pitt.

Romy and Michele (Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) are two 28-year-old women who have been best-friends for life and have always been there for the other no matter what the situation called for. However, their ten year high-school reunion is coming up and they both come to the realization that they haven’t done crap with their lives other sit around, piss, moan, and talk about random stuff. In order to have people think differently of the wastes of life they’ve become, they decide to make lies about themselves and what they’ve been up to in the past years since high-school. Basically, it comes down to them being co-inventors of the “Post-it Note”, among many other glamorous lies.

What’s genius about Romy and Michele is that, sure, yeah, it doesn’t set-out to light the movie world on fire, however, it comes away more meaningful than most movies with that certain level of importance attached to itself from the very beginning. What it does is, essentially, show how these two have essentially done nothing new or cool with their lives since high school ended, but also doesn’t show that as such a terrible thing. They’ve always stayed themselves, have never really hid away from what they thought was cool, and actually have sweet souls, even if they do seem like the types of chicks who’d be out first in the spelling bee. And it’s not like I, or the movie is ragging on them either – they are pretty much those types of Valley Girls that talk, sound, and dress like they’re hot stuff, yet, have no clue what the result of two plus two is – however, the movie never judges them for this.

Those girls sure can dance!

Those girls sure can dance! They probably don’t know calculus, but hey, who cares?

If anything, the movie itself is almost too “nostalgic” to really frown on these two, nor should it have to.

Because honestly, Romy and Michele really do deserve their own movie, whether we know it right away or not. They may be dumb, but they have good hearts and are there for each other and whenever they aren’t thinking of what cool things they could do or say next to impress the hell out of the popular ones from school, they are just talking to each other and being the best friends that they can honestly be. If that doesn’t warm your heart a tad bit, I don’t know what will. It looks at high school as a joke and isn’t very serious when it comes to its depiction of what high school is and used to be, and shows that, honestly, that crap doesn’t matter; who you surround yourself around and care for is all that you need in life.

It’s all incredibly corny, but you know what? It works. If not for the script, but for the amazing chemistry between Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. You get a sense that these two have been side-by-side for as long as they can remember and you also get the sense that they understand each other, in more ways then one. Though the movie has them doing a whole bunch of embarrassingly silly stuff, the movie also doesn’t forget that they’re also very happy to be with one another, even if they still don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

But what really makes these characters work is that they aren’t necessarily the same person, in and out, and both Kudrow and Sorvino show that off perfectly.

Oh, you 80's-looking-but-stuck-in-the-90's-gals.

Oh, you 80’s-looking-but-stuck-in-the-90’s-gals.

Kudrow is always hilarious in anything she does and even though I am always impressed with what she can do when it comes to showing her more dramatic side, her comedic side never seems to falter and it’s always a blast to watch. She has a lot of choice lines that make this movie any funnier than it has any right to be, but if you get to thinking about it, she’s just another-rendition of Phoebe, with a smaller-brain. That’s not even that much of a complaint either, because that character still works, no matter what!

Then, there’s Sorvino who really knew and understand just what it took to make someone as beautiful as her, look and sound so incredibly idiotic, yet, pull it off so wonderfully, that it was actually genuine. She’s more of the stand-out here because she really sets herself apart from the rest of the crowd for being so damn beautiful, but is also able to make us believe that a lot of people would just push her to the side for being a bit of a weirdo, as well as a bit of a dummy. Like Michele, she’s a not terrible person for being dumb and thinking she’s all that, and if anything, it makes us like her a little more.

Others like Alan Cumming and Janeane Garofalo, show up and do what they can, but really, it’s all Sorvino and Kudrow from the very beginning, to the end. In fact, the movie is so reliant that, after awhile, it can tend to be a bit obvious. No problem with playing to your strengths, but honestly, there was probably more within this movie that could have worked, had there been more polishing and focus. However, it doesn’t really matter, because the movie’s entertaining, funny and yeah, that’s all you need.

So I’ll shut up now.

Consensus: Thanks to a heartfelt, endearing and funny chemistry between Kudrow and Sorvino, Romy and Michele is a lot better than it has any right to be, showing that high school, ten years down the line or whenever, doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re happy and love the people you’re with.

6.5 / 10 

So, uh, sequel anyone?

So, uh, sequel anyone?

Photos Courtesy of: Cineplex, IFC, AV Club

Café Society (2016)

Hollywood was so much better when people drank all the time.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Jew living in New York during the 30’s. He’s not very inspired with his life there and even if he can join his brother (Corey Stoll)’s line of business, he opts not to, in hopes that he’ll make it big in Hollywood once he gets there and hooks up with rich and successful uncle Phill (Steve Carell). While it takes awhile for Bobby and Phill to eventually meet, when the two do get together, Bobby gets a chance to meet the nice, lovey and sweet Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) – a gal Bobby becomes smitten with right away. After all, she’s the opposite of everything Hollywood stands for – she’s pure, original and not at all expecting to be rich, famous, or on the silver-screen. The two end-up hitting it off, even if Vonnie has a boyfriend already, which makes Bobby try even harder for her heart. Little does Bobby know, however, that Vonnie isn’t just going out with anyone in particular – she’s going out with someone very near and dear to Bobby. Someone that will change Bobby’s life and aspirations altogether.

Blake knows beauty.

Blake knows beauty.

Another year and guess what? Another mediocre Woody Allen movie. That seems to be the general theme with Woody’s past few movies over the last couple of years; while none of them have ever been “awful”, the haven’t been as nearly “outstanding” as we’re sometimes used to expecting from Woody. Gone are the days of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and her Sisters – now, we have to get used to more Woody Allen movies like Café Society.

Which, in all honesty, isn’t such a terrible thing, because the movie is actually quite nice.

This isn’t to say that it’s “great” by any means, but what Café Society does, and does well, mind you, is give us that sense of old-Hollywood nostalgia that, yes, can be a tad bit corny, but also feels genuine and allows you to feel closer to these characters and these settings. Of course, old-timey Hollywood is no new territory for Woody to explore, but he gets a lot of mileage of this time and place, showing us how most of the people back in the day who came to Hollywood, all expected to fame and fortune right off the bat – like the sort of place where dreams are made of.

And yes, I know that Woody has already covered this sort of ground in his movies before, but it still sort of works. There’s a certain balance that he’s able to find between “nostalgia” and “corniness” that’s surprising; we’d all assume for Woody to lose his touch and just start making more and more annoying mistakes, but nope, he surprisingly knows what can work for the audience, and how much mileage you can get out of a conventional story, so long as you inject with some humor, heart and most of all, interesting characters.

Though Café Society may not have the most illusive and spell-binding characters to date, what helps most of them is that the actors in the roles are good enough that they make them more compelling than they actually have any right to be.

Case in point: Jesse Eisenberg. As a Woody Allen surrogate this time around, Eisenberg gets a few things right – he knows how to be neurotic without over-doing it, and he knows how to deliver a lot of Woody’s tongue-twisters that aren’t at all genuine, but are still sometimes entertaining to hear. But then, halfway around the midpoint, Eisenberg’s character and performance changes, to where he’s more grown-up, angrier and, well, more adult. It’s a hard transition to pull off in a Woody Allen movie, but Eisenberg does well with it, as he shows that he’s able to get as much out of this thinly-written character as he can.

That comb-over, though.

That comb-over, though.

Kristen Stewart’s pretty good, too, as Vonnie; for the third time, her and Eisenberg are together on-screen and they make it work. There’s a genuine chemistry between the two and you can tell that they help the other when push comes to shove. Though Bruce Willis was initially cast in the role, Steve Carell works just fine as Phill, a mean, sometimes conniving Hollywood agent. Sometimes, he can occasionally sound a little too modern, given the time and place of the story, but because Carell’s comedic-timing is impeccable, it still works.

And the rest of the cast is quite solid, too. That’s something that Woody has never lost his knack for, thankfully. However, if there is an issue with Café Society is that, yes, it does unfortuntaely feel like a whole bunch of previous ideas and themes that Woody has worked with in the past, cobbled-up together to make something that’s a lot like his other films and is sort of made-up as it goes along. In a way, you almost get the sense that Woody had some sort of idea to start with, got enough money and star-power to film it all, and just filled in the blanks once the last-act came around.

There’s no problem with that, but sometimes, a story needs to be mapped-out a whole lot better and not just feel like another wasteful opportunity for someone to make a movie for no reason.

Consensus: Light, funny, well-acted, and surprisingly heartfelt, Café Society hits a sweeter spot in the Woody Allen catalog that may not light the world on fire, but still works and shows that he’s got the goods.

6.5 / 10

Jesse and K-Stew should just get married already! They're damn-near inseparable!

Jesse and K-Stew should just get married already! They’re damn-near inseparable!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Ghostbusters (2016)

Chill out, geeks. It’s all good.

Paranormal researcher Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) have had a pretty rough relationship in the past few or so years. While Yates has been about tinkering around and playing with her toys, and finding out more about the paranormal in a slightly more silly way, Erin has been approaching the subject in a far more serious, relatively esteemed way. She’s trying to make tenure at the college she’s been teaching at, but she can’t seem to take herself away from that past-self of hers that loved spooky ghosts and communicating with whatever ghost-like things were out there. Now, the two are back together and figuring things out when strange apparitions appear in Manhattan. Along with them to find out more about these ghostly creatures, is engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a slightly odd gal who loves the hell out of her cool gadgets and toys, and Patty Tolan, a lifelong New Yorker who knows the city inside and out. Armed with proton packs and plenty of inspiration, the four women prepare for an epic battle as more than 1,000 mischievous ghouls descend on Times Square, as they not only hope to save the world, but also still seem legit in the long-run.

Go-go gadgets!

Go-go gadgets! Oh, wrong reboot/rehash/remake!

Okay, everyone. It’s time to shut it. Yes, the new Ghostbusters movie is totally forgetting that the first one ever existed; yes the new Ghostbusters features women in those iconic roles everyone remembers from the original; and yes, it’s actually an okay movie. A lot of people couldn’t handle the fact that their beloved childhood treasure was going to be changed for the sake of putting a new spin on an old story, and well, of course, more money. It’s not wrong to think that, and after all of the terrible trailers, it’s fine to get a little worried, but have no fear, as the new Ghostbusters is the kind of movie you’d expect from director Paul Feig.

Except, well, not as good.

That isn’t to say that the new Ghostbusters is a fine and fun movie; there’s plenty to like about it, without ever thinking too hard about anything really. The comedy works when it’s just a bunch of these characters goofing around and ad-libbing whatever Feig doesn’t feel like trying to write to paper; the call-backs, of which there are a whole bunch, are fine and do have that perfect balance between sentimentality and nostalgia that’s not always seen in reboots/rehashes/remakes of this kind; and yes, the performers are quite good.

However, while watching the new Ghostbusters, I couldn’t help but feel like this was a pretty big step back for Feig and co. Ever since Bridesmaids, he’s been building himself as one of the few incredibly reliable directors in comedy who, yes, definitely knows what’s funny and what isn’t, but also seems to be growing. Spy may forever be his giant leap from just being, yet again, another “comedy director”, to someone with hopes and ambitions to be something bigger; while it was essentially “a comedy”, it also had a lot of fun, twisty and exciting action to go along with it, all of which Feig seemed to film perfectly.

Here, with the new Ghostbusters, Feig seems as if he wants to bring all of that fun and excitement he had with that project, over to here, but there’s almost too much for him to do and work around, that makes it all seem like a bit much. The callbacks and popping-up of old characters can tend to be a bit draining (especially when a few of them aren’t even funny); the exposition and plot begin to take over to where it takes away from any actual fun that could still be found in this plot nowadays; and yes, it’s PG-13.

Sure, it may not seem like much, but it totally is.

After all, Feig is perhaps best when he allows for his characters and his cast to just run wild with material, whether scripted or not, and just see where everything falls. Of course, he has to keep the improvisation limited to a few scenes and he also has to remember that there’s a plot that needs to be pushed, die-hard fans who need to be serviced, and a rather more family-friendly crowd to have in-mind, especially when picking and choosing what comedy bits to use.

Lesbian, or nah?

She may be a lesbian, but please, let’s not add anymore fuel to the fire.

For Feig here, it seems as if he’s not as loose and wild as he once was – now, he’s got people really looking at him, making sure he doesn’t miss a beat or screw something up. I’m pretty sure that’s how it was on his past few films, but here, it appears like it got to him a bit, where some of the interest from his other movies seem to be lost. He’s not “selling out”, obviously, but he’s also not gaining anymore cred, either.

Either way, it’s an okay job on his part, as he gets everything right, but at the same time, it also feels like he wasn’t allowed to be his full-fledged self here.

That said, his cast is talented and they more than help him out. McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, Strong, and yes, even Chris Hemsworth, are all funny, even if their characters feel a tad bit thin. McCarthy, Wiig and Strong seem to get the most development, but unfortunately, McKinnon doesn’t. Her character, if anything, is just there to do and say, weird and crazy things for no other reason, except to be weird and crazy. The movie never makes an attempt to really go any further into her background and while it’s a shame we don’t get it here, I do have the feeling we’ll get it some time soon, in the sequels, if there are any.

And yeah, Hemsworth is perfect here. He’s funny, stupid, chiseled and as masculine as you can get without dying of devouring five T-bones in one sitting.

Basically, he’s perfect. More of him, please kind sir.

Consensus: Better than everyone expected, Ghostbusters is funny and charming, but also feels like Feig and his crew are being held back a little by the well-known franchise, and all of the extra baggage that comes along with it.

6 / 10

They're here. They're gals. And guess what, they're going to stay. Deal with it, nerdos.

They’re here. They’re gals. And guess what? They’re going to stay. Deal with it, dorks.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Whatever Works (2009)

Living with Larry David can’t be all that bad.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is pretty tired with the world around him. When he’s not picking a fight with the kids he teaches chess to, he’s crying on and on about everything he can find himself to complain about like politics, sex, books, entertainment, and yes, women. He even goes so far as to talk to “them” – mysterious people out there in the world that he thinks are always watching him, no matter what he does or says. That’s why, one night, he decides to end it all and throw himself out of a window. Problem is, he doesn’t succeed and is forced to live with his sad and miserable life. It all changes one day though, when a random drifter named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), comes to his door-step all of the way from the Deep South. While Boris is initially against Melody, the two end up hanging together, more and more, teaching each other things about life that neither originally knew about. Which is fine and all, until they start to fall for one another – something that everyone around them seem to have problems with.

Even Ed is begging for that next season of Curb.

Even Ed is begging for that next season of Curb.

Why haven’t Larry David and Woody Allen worked together before? Honestly? I mean, with the exception of his small bit in Allen’s segment in New York Stories, it’s crazy to think that two people on this Earth as similar as David And Allen haven’t gotten together to cook-up something lovely and magical before. Sure, you could blame that on the fact that David liked to stay behind-the-scenes for a large portion of his career, but either way, it’s worth bringing up because, even though Whatever Works isn’t Woody’s worst, it also isn’t his best, either.

Which is a shame because, once again, David and Allen could make magic happen.

However, time has passed and over the years, Woody Allen has definitely lost his touch. That’s why another story featuring a much-older man and much-younger woman falling for one another, for no reason because they stand one another and talk about the more infuriating things in life, already sounds boring. After all, it’s the story that Allen’s been working with since the beginning of his career and honestly, just taking him out and putting David in can only help matters so much.

And yes, David is playing himself, but he’s also the stand-in for Allen himself, which is a tad bit confusing, because the two aren’t all that different. In fact, it’s honestly a wonder to me how much of this was scripted, or how much of it was David deciding to take an eraser to some stuff he didn’t like and just roll with what he had? I really don’t know, but regardless, David is fine in this role; he can sometimes lash out and say the same things, over and over again, but that’s sort of the point of this character. He’s supposed to be a grump and always have an issue with the world around him.

In other words, he’s Larry David. Signed. Sealed. And delivered.

Others around David are quite fine, too. Evan Rachel Wood’s character may start out as a caricature, but eventually starts to show more shadings that make her likable; Patricia Clarkson shows up about halfway through and makes the movie a whole lot better; Henry Cavill in a young role of his, is as charming as they come and as you’d expect for Superman to be; and Ed Begley, Jr. showing up for not too long, is actually the funniest of the whole cast.

Where's his glasses?

Where’s his glasses?

But still, a fine cast doesn’t always make a great movie, and that’s where Whatever Works sometimes falls. It isn’t that the movie itself is bad – Allen’s annoying writing is toned-down enough to where it doesn’t get in the way of the story, or the characters – but it also doesn’t change much up about what we’ve seen from Allen in the past. His characters talk about existentialism, they fight, they screw, they drink, they host dinner parties, they listen to jazz, they go on walks to the park, and yeah, that’s pretty much it. Occasionally, Allen himself will throw a small twist in there for good measure to make us think that he realizes a lot of his movies are the same, but really, does any of it matter?

Woody is getting up there in age and a lot of his movies are starting to seem a little like the same thing, over and over again? Does that make them “bad”? Not necessarily; they’re enjoyable and pleasant because he has a knack for catching the right tone with his movies and always getting the best and brightest talents for his flicks, but that doesn’t always make a “great” movie.

Even if your movie does have Larry David complaining to the camera.

Now, how could that be “bad”?

Consensus: While not his worst, nor his best, Whatever Works gets by because of its charming cast, but really, is a solid example of Woody possibly running out of ideas.

6 / 10

She's going to learn to hate life and everyone in it after that conversation.

She’s going to learn to hate life and everyone in it after that conversation.

Photos Courtesy of: A Woody a Week

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

As long as they aren’t watching my Netflix, they can do whatever they want.

Max (Louis C.K.) has been as spoiled of a terrier as he can remember, living and enjoying his comfortable life in a New York building with his female owner. However, all of the coziness goes away once Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant and unruly canine, is adopted and made out to be the new hound of the pack. Max and Duke obviously don’t get along right away, mostly due to the fact that Max’s daily routine and general life is being disrupted and all of the singular love he had come to expect from his owner, may now be pushed onto this threatening Duke. But one fateful day, when they’re on their walk, they accidentally run down to where the alley-cats are at and, all of a sudden, they’re stuck in the sewers with a rebellious rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) who believes that are all humans are bad and that no animal should be held into captivity. Meanwhile, the rest of Max’s pet pals are out there searching far and wide for Max and Duke, believing that they are in harm’s way and need to be desperately back in their households before their owner comes back and worries that something is up.

Always watch those cats around grub. Or small children.

Always watch those cats around grub. Or small children.

The Secret Life of Pets is the kind of so-so animation we can come to expect when Pixar is back on their game and kicking all sorts of booty in the animation world. It doesn’t necessarily break the mold, nor does it nearly bring us all to as many tears as the Pixar flicks do – they’re appealing enough to the whole family that they’re serviceable enough. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.

And this isn’t to say that the movie is “bad” per se, it just feels like a movie that has a smart idea on its mind, and doesn’t really run to the hills with it. Instead, it sits back, goes for the easy way out and doesn’t even try to challenge the norm. Some people may be perfectly fine with this and there’s nothing wrong with that, however, when you have Pixar taking some of the same brilliant plots, going as far as they can with them, and hitting homers out of the park, left and right, then it’s kind of hard not to compare and contrast the two.

In fact, it’s downright impossible.

That’s why, for what it’s worth, the Secret Life of Pets is just another rehash of Toy Story – however, in this case, you take out the toys and replace them with pets. It’s not the most original idea out there in the world, but hey, it works because who doesn’t love pets talking, moving around, and generally being smart, eh? That’s why it’s a passable movie that doesn’t get a whole lot of mileage out of its premise, but is it bad? No, not really. However, it can feel like a wasted opportunity, especially when you take into consideration today’s generation and how in-love each and every person seems to be with their pets and all of the goofy things that they do.

Don’t believe me? Check the internet and type in “funny dog video”, or even more so, “funny cat video. The results will astound. And honestly, that’s why I believe a good portion of the Secret Life of Pets is made for; it’s not necessarily because anyone had the brightest idea in their head and just needed to get it out there, on film, for the rest of the world to see, it’s more that powers that be saw a popular trend and decided to capitalize on it. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a popular trend of people loving their pets before, but now, it seems what with the internet and video-sharing being what it is today, that it would only make sense for people to be interested in a movie about what pets do when they aren’t home to take care of them and watch over every little thing that they do.

And yeah, for awhile, that joke does well.

The Secret Life of Pets isn’t the kind of movie that aims for the fences with its jokes, or gags; a few set-pieces are actually smart and well put-together, but the payoff is less than lovely. In a way, it almost feels like the movie was set-up in a way that it could get to these certain colorful and lively places, but never really detailing them with good humor. It just all feels like some people were more inspired than others, and unfortunately, those who were more inspired, were working on the animation.

Thanks to Todd Solondz, wiener-dogs will never look the same again.

Thanks to Todd Solondz, wiener-dogs will never look the same again.

And as it is, it looks great and yes, sounds even better, too. Louis C.K. may definitely be an odd choice for a kids movie, but he fits quite well as the lively and spirited dog Max. While it’s easy to picture Louis sitting behind a mic and saying all of his lines, while simultaneously rolling his eyes at the same time, it’s also not hard to picture him enjoying the fact that people want him for these movies, even if he is kind of a racy comedian and all. Then again, so is Kevin Hart and he’s here, being funny and wild as the evil bunny. Others show up and give their voices, too, but no one is really the shining spot; the voices are recognizable, but really, they could have been filled by anyone.

So why don’t we go to those golden days of animation, huh? After all, people like Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Jenny Slate, among others, are going to do just fine without voice-over roles – what about Billy West? Or better yet, anyone who ever voiced a character from the old days of Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon?

Pretty sure that they’re all in need of some love and admiration that comes in the form of cold hard cash.

Consensus: The Secret Life of Pets has a nifty idea, yet, doesn’t go anywhere exciting with it, but is entertaining enough to work as a passable, if altogether, forgettable piece of animation that, unfortunately, pales in comparison to everything and anything that Pixar is doing.

6 / 10

This is where jealousy and resentment in the household begins.

This is where jealousy and resentment in the household begins.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

The BFG (2016)

Yeah, a pretty big f****n’ guy!

Ten-year-old Sophie (Sophie Barnhill) is an orphan, pretty lonely, bored and not quite happy with her life. So, it’s obvious that she’s definitely ripe and ready for any adventure that she can find, even if it just so happens to be by the side of the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). While she’s initially scared of the Giant, she soon starts to realize that there’s something more to him than just being monstrous and talking funny; he’s actually quite sweet and actually wants her to feel comfortable and happy being around him. After all, the Big Friendly Giant feels as if he can’t let her go back to the real world, where she’ll most definitely be going on and on about the Giant, making everyone suspicious and worried about its actual whereabouts. And while, for a short time, Sophie and the BFG are getting along just fine, fellow, meaner giants like Bloodbottler, Fleshlumpeater and others, start sniffing around, looking for something to eat, giving both Sophie and the BFG the idea of how to stop these big, bad and evil giants once and for all.

No one to find you under the covers, little girl. Have no fear. No one has ever gotten caught under the covers.

No one to find you under the covers, little girl. Have no fear. No one has ever gotten caught under the covers.

Steven Spielberg is at that stage in his career now where he doesn’t need to appease anything, or anyone. He doesn’t need to prove anything to himself, or to anybody else, as he’s basically done all that a director and storyteller can do. He’s basically done it all and now, for the time being, it seems like Spielberg is just going to do what he wants, when he wants, and however he wants it. After all, with all the great movies that he’s done, why shouldn’t that be the case?

And heck, when Disney’s footing the bill, the time for play gets even more fun and grand, right?

Well, yes, it actually does. That’s why a movie like the BFG is, oddly enough, a neat little experiment of his; while he’s made family-friendly movies in the past, by far, none of them have ever equaled the silly, childish play of the BFG, not to mention that it’s source material, from Roald Dahl, is also a bit odd for Spielberg’s tastes. He’s been weird before, but Spielberg has never gone to the full limits of weird and fantastical that he has to with the BFG and that’s one of the main reasons why it can be such a joy to watch. You almost get the feeling that Spielberg himself is having a blast trying on some new skin for once, not having to answer anybody, or prove that he’s still got the talent that he was praised so heavily for back earlier in his career.

Now, with something like the BFG, he’s going to try some new things out and, in the process, enjoy himself while he’s at it. He’s like the old man who, once he gets the chance to finally retire, soaks it all in by changing his schedule around a whole bunch, while also still maintaining the usual, like breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snack, and bedtime. Except that in this case, Spielberg isn’t retired, nor showing any signs of such, and he doesn’t need to change his whole schedule around.

Cause honestly, after watching the BFG, it reminds me a lot of what Spielberg is capable of doing: Making any story, no matter how weird or realistic, compelling to watch.

The first act of the BFG is quite great because it’s actually somewhat different from what we’re used to expecting with Disney-approved kids movies of this nature. Rather than being all about the visual splendor and grandeur, Spielberg allows for his film to take a slower-approach to the relationship between the BFG and Sophie. A movie of this nature, with a much-less inspired director, would have shoved all of the talking and character development to the side for more special-effects and wacky, wild action, but Spielberg is not that director. He knows that in order for us to actually end up giving a hoot about this tale at all, we have to spend some time with these characters, get to know them a bit, and also realize just what the heck is at stake here.

This is the dude who beat out Sly for that Oscar?

This is the dude who beat out Sly for that Oscar?

And it all works out, too, because Mark Rylance and Sophie Barnhill are both pitch perfect for their own respective roles. Rylance gets a lot to do with the BFG, because it’s a performance that’s solely reliant on his facial-expressions – all of which come out beautifully in the special-effects and makes us feel like we truly are watching a giant (not that I’ve ever seen one). While it would have been easy for Barnhill to get mixed-up in having to basically act towards a tennis ball the whole time, she actually works pretty well with it; we never get the sense that she’s talking to the mid-air, nor that she’s outmatched by Rylance’s spark and wit. Together, they have a nice chemistry that transcends being what we normally expect from one like this, and it’s mostly due to the fact that Barnhill and Rylance seem to be enjoying themselves just as much as Spielberg is, but with the add-on of more conviction.

Always need more conviction.

Of course, the BFG isn’t a perfect movie, as we can come to expect with this latter-career Spielberg. The movie clearly has three parts to it; the first being good, the last being fine, and the middle one being pretty terrible. Getting to know these characters means slowing things down, sure, but the movie also decides that there doesn’t need to be an actual, driving-plot to really keep things interesting. It’s almost as if Spielberg decided to himself, at that point in time, that everyone would be so enamored with the BFG, that any sort of compelling story didn’t need to be explained or, better yet, even hinted at. Problem is, the movie never seems to get going with its plot until, well, it’s way too late. And it’s barely under two hours, making a rather long kids movie, but an even longer movie once the middle-act comes around.

But then Spielberg gets his act together, brings us to London in a last-minute twist that’s funny, sweet, and oddly enough, kind of interesting. Spielberg knows how to comedy in general, but never has really displayed it so much for kids, as often as he does in the BFG and if anything, the last-act is a perfect showing of that.

Now, if only we get more fun from Spielberg.

Consensus: While a bit choppy in the story-department, the BFG finds Spielberg in a relaxed, but enthusiastic mood, trying new and fun things out, seeing how well they all work out, and allowing us to watch it all play out.

6.5 / 10

Don't do it, girl. Fun and adventure will await you, but uh, okay never mind. Do it.

Don’t do it, girl. Fun and adventure will await you, but uh, okay never mind. Do it.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

But wait? He doesn’t fall down, or break his crown? Then, what’s the point of the song!

It’s been nearly a decade since Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), or, as he likes to now be known as, John Clayton III, left Africa to live in Victorian England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). He grew up there when his parents were killed and was taken in by the animals living in the jungle, where he learned the values and ways of survival. Now, as an ordinary Englishman, with something of a heroic history, he tries to live a normal life and start a family, even if he and Jane seem to be having issues getting that done. Now, both Jane and Tarzan return to Africa to save their land from the evil and treacherous Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), an envoy to King Leopold who is using the Congo for his own self-gain. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Rom plans to capture Tarzan and deliver him to an old enemy in exchange for diamonds. Neither Jane nor Tarzan know this, which is why, with the help of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), and their old friends and allies of the jungle, they both plan on saving the Congo, taking down Rom, and most importantly, saving the precious land for all that it is.

Eat your hearts out, men.

Eat your hearts out, men.

In all honesty, I’d feel like the Legend of Tarzan would be a much better movie, had the Jungle Book not already came out this year. Sure, while you could make the argument that they are totally two different movies, they still have plenty of features tied into one another; they’re both live-action reboots of the story, both stories have to deal with man-in-the-jungle, and they also both seem to feature a crap-ton of CGI to make up for the fact that they weren’t able to film actual lions, tigers, and elephants (mostly due to the fact that humans are terrible and continue to kill each and every one of them). That said, one is way less serious and dramatic than the other, and it also happens to be way better for that same exact reason, too.

Now, which movie do you think I’m speaking of?

And it’s not like there’s a problem with the Legend of Tarzan being a drop-dead serious, almost gritty reboot of a story that is, yes, serious and gritty, but there’s also something to be said for when your self-seriousness kills any fun or momentum you may have, while also not gelling fully well with the rest of the flick and what’s it trying to do. After all, the Legend of Tarzan is being heavily advertised as a fun, wild, and chaotic summer blockbuster; while it’s definitely a summer blockbuster, the other words like “fun”, “wild”, or better yet, “chaotic”, don’t really fit. Some bits and pieces of it can be considered “fun”, but they’re also too light and on-the-nose to really work with the rest of the film that’s more concerned with really putting us down in the dumps.

Director David Yates wants to approach this material in the same, epic-like way he did with the Harry Potter franchise, but the transition doesn’t work well; instead of being all wrapped-up in the dark and sometimes disturbing violence, you may actually get turned-off from it all, especially after the first five minutes and we’re already treated to a bunch of bloodless, PG-13 violence in which a bunch of people shot, stabbed and killed (one of which being, oddly enough, Ben Chaplin), for no apparent reason. When the action comes around, Yates does well – there’s one action-sequence in particular that happens on a train that reminded me a whole heck a lot of Snowpiercer – because he knows how to build it all up and focus on the stuff that works in the action-sequences. But everything that just so happens to take place in between, doesn’t always work because a lot of the script is weak and underwritten.

It's set in Africa, so obviously Djiumon has to be in it, right?

It’s set in Africa, so obviously Djimon has to be in it, right?

Take, for instance, the characters themselves.

Or, better yet, most importantly, Tarzan himself. As our half-naked hero of the hour-and-a-half, Alexander Skarsgård looks the part, what with his chiseled-abs and perfectly long, blonde locks, but I feel as if he’s not the right choice to play a character who is so clean-cut and good, that you could almost baptize him by the end. Skarsgård has that anti-hero look, where you know he can’t be trusted, but because he’s so good-looking, you get entranced by his aura and you fall for his evil games, again and again. Perhaps I’m the only one who feels this way, but so be it. Either way, Skarsgård tries, but ultimately, he didn’t quite work for me.

Margot Robbie also doesn’t get much to do as Jane, although she does get to have more fun than Mr. Serious Tarzan does. Robbie gets a chance to show Jane a fiery, brass and smart gal who, yes, may need to be saved from her man, but also isn’t afraid to say a nasty thing or two to the baddies. And as the baddie, Christoph Waltz is basically doing what he always does, except this time, his character is a whole lot more evil and distasteful than ever before. However, because he’s so mean, despicable and downright cruel, the rest of the movie kind of falters; it wants to reach the pitch black depths of hell, but at the same time, also realizes that it has to appeal to family-audiences out there and whatnot. So, rather than getting a story that really does explore these important themes about colonialism, extinction, and black market trading, the Legend of Tarzan will get scared, back up five steps, and just decide to show Tarzan swinging around in his loin-clothe, grabbing random tree-branches and getting his ass kicked by gorillas, without ever sustaining any serious injuries of any sort.

Then again, in a movie like this, certain stuff like that almost doesn’t matter.

Until it does and it’s totally Yates’ fault for that. Rather than allowing for the Legend of Tarzan to be a silly, rumpus good time where Tarzan flies around in the jungle and Samuel L. Jackson steals every scene he’s in, sounding and acting like he’s in the year 2016 (which is basically what happens), Yates decides that the story needs to unforgivably stark and serious. There’s no problem with that, but you have to do it right to the point of where it feels earned. The Jungle Book did that, with the added-on bonus of song-and-dance numbers and guess what?

Yep, it still worked.

Take notes, Yates (I’ve always wanted to say that).

Consensus: Though it gets the action right, the Legend of Tarzan‘s tone is wildly off, trying to appeal to everyone and yet, not totally working as well as other jungle-themed reboots have done this year.

6 / 10

"Tarzan want to bone Jane."

“Tarzan want to bone Jane.”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016)

Wow. Vampires may be cool again.

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

"Not enough blood do you think?"

“Not enough blood do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 / 10

Same-sex vampires? Not on our televisions!

Same-sex vampires? Not on our televisions!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Free States of Jones (2016)

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

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

Always follow Matthew McConaughey, kid. Always.

Always follow Matthew McConaughey, kid. Always.

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe in another flick, perhaps?

Or then again, maybe not.

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

6 / 10

"To freedom! I think!"

“To freedom! I think!”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Storytelling (2001)

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

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

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

That blonde hair will drive any man wild

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, the stories do sort of work.

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, even Happiness‘ ending loses to this one.

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

6 / 10

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

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

Photos Courtesy of: Thecia.Com.Au

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

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

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

Weird kids never get the window seat!

Weird kids never get the window seat!

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

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

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

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

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

Typical family din-dins.

Typical family din-dins.

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

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

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

Obviously, minus all of the usual despicable Solondz trademarks.

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

6 / 10

Love at first hate.

Love at first wet willy. 

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

Central Intelligence (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone’s better off because of it.

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

Get it? He’s goofier than him! A ha!

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

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

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

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

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

6 / 10

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

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

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Brothers Grimsby (2016)

“MI6” usually is the reason for most family-members gone missing.

Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a typical Englishman living in the lower-class and just getting by. His girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) is always down to screw him whenever he wants, his kids are always willing and able to listen to what he has to say, and heck, even his grand-kids are happy to have him around. So yeah, while things may be all fine and dandy for Nobby, the fact remains that he’s still a little sad because he hasn’t seen his brother for nearly 30 years. Why is that? Well, nobody really knows because, quite frankly, nobody really knows who Nobby’s brother is. However, that’s on purpose because, as it turns out, Nobby’s brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), is a top MI6 agent in the middle of a very important mission. While Nobby wants to get back in good graces with his bro and figure out just what the heck happened, the mission eventually finds its way in between Nobby and Sebastian, making it so that Nobby now has to get involved with the mission. Considering that he’s such a dimwit, this is bad news for everyone involved – most importantly, MI6.

Watch the throne.

Watch the throne.

You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when you pay to see a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. While he may not be doing the avant-garde, mockumentary flicks anymore, he’s still doing R-rated raunch-fests every now and then, showing the world just how far and willing he is able to go with the vile, disgusting and downright appalling scatological humor, all without making a single excuse or apology for it. In today’s day and age where it seems like saying anything remotely controversial will have you thrown down a dungeon with the key locked away, it’s refreshing to see someone as well-known and famous as Baron Cohen continue to make the kinds of mean and nasty flicks that he does, while also not seem to care who it offends, or what people have to say about it.

After all, the guy can continue to do these movies for the rest of his life and there’d be nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, yes, as well as no. For one, the Brothers Grimsby isn’t a very long movie and it’s definitely better because of that. At nearly 83 minutes, the movie doesn’t try to pack a whole lot in, except for a spy story, a few comedic bits, character-development, and an action set-piece or two to keep most people over. Director Louis Leterrier is a confident enough director in that he knows something like this doesn’t need to have too much of anything; sure, there’s much more comedy than anything else, but Leterrier takes a whole lot on his plate and seems smart enough to know exactly where and when to put each piece.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that each of the respective pieces make up a great whole, but they still don’t get in the way of the best parts. Which is to say that, yes, the Brothers Grimsby is in fact a funny movie. While not every joke, or gag it makes is hilarious, or at the very least, chuckle-worthy, they still all highlight Cohen’s brand of over-the-top, ugly humor that misses quite often, but when it hits, is as funny as you can get. There’s a bit concerning elephants that gets even crazier and crazier as it goes along and it’s an absolute blast to watch, just as is a misunderstanding about a “seduction”. Both scenes can definitely be removed from the movie and there would be no cause or effect on the final product, but still, they work and are funny enough that it doesn’t matter.

And really, that’s all you can want with the Brothers Grimsby – a funny movie.

It doesn’t set out to light the world on fire, nor does it seem to try and change the landscape of the comedy world. It’s a shame that it didn’t do too well at the box-office, because it only shows that some people still may not be able to accept the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen can still make movies, he just won’t be able to do them to unknowing victims. While that’s definitely a shame, it’s also the reality of the matter; you can only strike gold so many times until, eventually, people start to catch on and the well starts running dry.

Little bro's are always nosin' around.

Little bro’s are always nosin’ around.

As Nobby, Cohen gets another opportunity to be as crass and as vile as he can be, however, the character is actually well-liked here enough that we feel as if we’re rooting for him, as opposed to rooting against him because he’s such a blockhead. Of course, Cohen is really just using Nobby as an outlet to act all crazy to those around him, but hey, it’s entertaining to watch and made slightly better by the fact that he isn’t the butt of the joke.

If anyone is, it’s Mark Strong’s Sebastian, who is basically the straight-man of the whole flick and with good reason – he’s so good at it. Strong doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for actually being charming, when he isn’t scaring the pants off of every protagonist in every movie he’s ever shown up in, but here, working alongside Cohen, he gets the chance to show-off in many ways. There’s a lot of ridiculous and unbelievable actions that his character does throughout the whole movie and yes, Strong is absolutely game for each and every one.

And everyone else in the cast is able to, too, however, most of them are kind of wasted. There’s the likes of Isla Fisher, Penelope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebel Wilson, and Ian McShane, among others, who all show up and do their things, and all are fine. But at the end of the day, really, the movie is meant to be a showcase for Cohen and all of his dirty and disgusting ways of getting us to laugh at some of the most wrong, most inappropriate things ever put to screen.

But hey, it works.

Consensus: The Brothers Grimsby is exactly what you could expect from Cohen’s brand of humor, even if there’s a little more that takes away from the sometimes hilarious, but always raunchy jokes and gags.

6.5 / 10

Cool guys don't look at explosions and they also jump away from them, too.

Cool guys don’t look at explosions and they also jump away from them, too.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

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