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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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

Basquiat (1996)

Just cause you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s not “hip”.

Despite living a life of extreme poverty in Brooklyn, graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) ended up becoming one of the biggest and brightest names in art, during the 70’s and 80’s. He became the poster-boy for what would essentially be known as “neo-Expressionism” earning all types of praise, as well as money from those who wanted a little piece of his pie. It also helped him gain something of a wonderful and lovely friendship between him and Andy Warhol (David Bowie), who, at the end of his life, was looking to hang out with the hot young thing in the art world. However, Basquiat’s personal demons continued to haunt him throughout his whole life, whether it was his battle with racism, drug addiction, or staying loyal to his girlfriend (Claire Forlani), the art was always there to aid him. But was it ever enough? Judging by how his story ends, probably not.

There’s Courtney Love ruining another artist’s life.

Basquiat is a an interesting biopic because it isn’t what you’d expect a movie about an artist, directed by an artist, actually be like. Writer/director Julian Schnabel could have easily decked-out every inch of Basquiat with all sorts of watch-me, pretentious style-points and he probably would have been able to get away with it, too; artist biopics are probably the easiest where a director’s own creativity has no limits and allow for them to go as overboard as they want. Of course, there are the exceptions to the rule like Pollock and Basquiat, which makes them both very compelling to watch, if only because neither one loses sight of what the real story is about and, yes, that’s the artist themselves.

And in this case, Basquiat deals with a very sad and interesting figure that, for a solid portion of the movie, hardly does, or says anything – for a good portion of the running-time, Basquiat is seen being told what to do and going from one character to the next, occasionally having conversation, although mostly, just standing around and mumbling to himself. Sounds boring and like a true waste of having someone like Basquiat at your disposal, but it actually works in the movie’s favor – it gives us a better idea for who this person was, why his art mattered so much, and why the art-world, at the time and in the present day, isn’t all the love and hype it’s made out to be. It’s a pretty soulless and annoying world, where people constantly try to piggy-back off of the latest and greatest thing, even if they don’t really know what it all means.

So long as they have enough money to buy it, then who cares, right?

Clearly thinking about his future character-roles.

Although, that’s where Basquiat, the movie, does fumble a tad bit. It doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a small, understated character-study, a satire on the art-world, or this ensemble piece about said art-world, with all sorts of colorful and wild characters popping in and out. In a way, I sort of like all three of those movies, but together, they don’t always gel; the movie will actually forget about Basquiat at certain times, making it hard to wonder just who’s story this actually is.

It’s nice though to get the ensemble piece, because it allows for us to get a treat of the lovely and awesome ensemble here, what with some of the finest character actors of the day having an absolute ball. The likes of Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, Courtney Love, and a stand-out Michael Wincott all get plenty of ample opportunities to bring something to the story and Basquiat’s life, but it’s really David Bowie who steals the whole show as an aging, late-in-life Andy Warhol. What’s interesting about this portrayal is that Bowie never overdoes the mannerisms that we all knew Warhol for; he’s soft-spoken and whiny, but never feels like he’s acting. In other words, Bowie inhabits every bit of Warhol and allows for us to see not just someone who’s still very funny, but also a little bit sad, trying to grab onto any sign of fame and fortune that he has left.

Once again, it just proves the kind of talent Bowie was.

And this isn’t to take anything away from Jeffrey Wright, either, as he does a fine job in the lead role. But like I said before, the movie does often get distracted by all of these colorfully wild and entertaining bit-players, most of whom steal the spotlight from Wright in the first place. There’s still a sweet, soft and hurt soul within Wright’s performance that makes it compelling, but you’d think that in a much more focused movie, he would have been able to do so much more. Still though, it did put Wright on the map and man, oh man, the guy has gone on to do some great stuff, so hey, can’t be all that upset about it.

Consensus: Well-acted and intimate, Basquiat is an interesting, heartfelt look at the life of the infamous artist, but also loses focus every so often, and makes us wonder what could have happened with a smaller cast.

7 / 10

I’d pay to watch a conversation between these two.

Photos Courtesy of: Alt Screen

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The Messenger (2009)

Possibly the only instance in which Jehovah’s Witnesses would actually be a welcome presence.

Partnered with fellow officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to bear the bad news to the loved ones of fallen soldiers, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) faces the challenge of completing his mission while seeking to find comfort and healing back on the home front. Meanwhile though, he strikes up something of a relationship with a widow of a fallen soldier (Samantha Morton), who shows him that there’s truly something to live and be happy about with life.

Co-writer/director Oren Moverman uses the Messenger to get across two points: The pain and grief one feels after the death of a loved-one is greater than any hurt ever felt, and also, that life after the war is incredibly difficult. Are either points being made anything new, or necessarily fresh? Not really, but somehow the Messenger feels like a real, hard, honest, and raw indie that doesn’t back away from getting down to the hard truths of the hard psyche, as well as still attempting to build character along the way. In other words, it’s a movie right up my alley and it’s a perfect example of what can happen to your movie when you don’t have a very high, mighty and flashy script, but plenty of heart and emotion to make up for all of the style and the bang.

When you’re doing the job they do, fishing sounds perfect.

And because people still can’t seem to get enough of watching veterans cope with everyday society.

But is the Messenger an anti-war film? In a way, it is, but in other ways, it isn’t; the movie is never necessarily arguing about the war, why it happened, and what it’s true intentions were, as much as it’s just highlighting the fact that there were many souls lost during it, both home and on the field. Like the Hurt Locker, the Messenger essentially says that come back from the war, can’t escape it, go crazy, and end up losing their minds, only wanting to go back for me. It’s the same old song and dance every single time but this time, somehow, it feels different as Moverman takes a look inside the mindsets of all of these characters and we see sad people that seem to not be able to move on in life, all because they were sincerely crushed by the war. You feel for them, you understand them, and when it’s all said and done, you sort of end up hating the war because of what it’s done to these characters. Moverman never once gets preachy and instead, just lets us look at the view of the war from these character’s sides and make up our own decisions on our own. It’s a smart move on Moverman’s side and it’s great to see an anti-war film, that doesn’t try to spell it’s message out for you on-screen in every single shot, even though, yeah, we know what it’s trying to get across.

And playing these characters are some of the best talents working today. Ben Foster’s pretty solid in his lead role as Will Montgomery, someone who, obviously from the start, has issues. However, the movie, nor Foster ever ask for our sympathies, or our love. We feel for him enough as is and can feel his pain from a mile away – it makes the performance all the more gritty, as well as his character all the more believable.

All a vet needs is some pizza.

And if Foster being a good actor in the first place wasn’t enough, then he’s given two possible love-interests here, both are pretty amazing in their own rights. Samantha Morton is always tremendous and here, she’s even better, playing the widow who may or may not just be lonely and need some human connection, or generally actually like Will. The two have a nice bit of chemistry that does grow gradually over time, without ever making it seem all too clear just where it’s headed. Playing Will’s “other gal” is Jena Malone and while she doesn’t have a whole lot of time here, her presence is felt, just by the very few scenes she and Foster share, bringing more insight into who this guy really is.

But the real stand-out of this whole film and this whole cast, is in fact Woody Harrelson as Tony Stone.

Woody is, no matter what, always great to watch. He can be light and charming one second, but then, out of nowhere, scary and disturbing the next second. Here, he plays a little bit of both, with the later portions shining the most; he plays Tony as a stern, serious and by-the-book guy who seems like he’s never smiled in his life, but can also be quite the charming fella, too. Harrelson’s performance can get so intense sometimes, you never know when the acting begins or ends with him, making each and every one of the scenes he has with Foster, all the more suspenseful and compelling. They’ve worked together since this, so obviously there was no love lost, but come on, you can’t tell me they didn’t give each other a nudge every now and then, eh?

Who knows? We may never find out.

Consensus: Heartfelt and humane, while also never trying too hard to get its anti-war message across, the Messenger is a smart, well-acted, and emotional look at grief, loss, sadness, and of course, PTSD, yet, handled oh so perfectly well.

9 / 10

See? Like they definitely beat the snot out of one another during breaks.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

A United Kingdom (2017)

The world hasn’t changed all that much, unfortunately.

In 1947, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the King of Botswana, met Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a London office worker, and for the most part, it was a match made in heaven. They instantly fell in love, they danced, they sang, they drank, and oh yeah, they planned on getting married. However, that proved to be the biggest hurdle for them to overcome when both the British and South African governments got involved, for various reasons. The latter had recently introduced the policy of apartheid and found the notion of a biracial couple ruling a neighboring country intolerable, whereas South Africa threatened the British to either break-up the couple or be denied access to South African uranium, which at the time, was vital for the government, and gold and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana. Through it all though, the two would remain a loving couple that, at times, didn’t really know if all of this anguish, pain and separation was really all that worth it.

True love.

At the center of A United Kingdom, we have a really interesting tale that’s a lot bigger and much more ambitious than another similar racially-mixed couple movie, Loving. Writer/director Amma Assante is an interesting director, in that she takes this notion of racism and rather than just seeing it applied to the States, shows that it was the same problem in Britain, but this time, with much more to do with the government and appearances and all of that stuff. It’s a real story that, surprisingly, hasn’t gotten the big-screen treatment to now and you’d think with such rich source material, that yeah, it would be quite the stirring experience.

But sadly, that doesn’t happen.

What’s most odd about A United Kingdom is how safe and easy it plays itself. It never quite seems like the emotional thrill-ride it must have been for those actually involved with this real life part of history, nor does it ever translate to being a rich and passionate story about a couple overcoming prejudice and adversity from all sides, to stay by each other’s side, through the thick and thin. Sure, there’s interesting points to be made about politics and how all governments want to insure that they have the best PR program imaginable, to any and all lengths, but it mostly all gets lost in a near two-hour movie that, for quite some time, is just boring.

Which yes, I know may sound like a silly criticism, but honestly, it’s one I can’t seem to stop myself from saying. It’s the kind of movie where it’s so safe, so conventional, and so easy-going, surprisingly, that it’s hard to really get past it all. In a way, it almost feels like a made-for-TV production that would be perfect for the BBC, but instead, gets the big-screen treatment and because of that, actually suffers – there’s so much story, so many random twists and turns, that after awhile, you just sort of have to give up.

Mad Max?

Because through it all, there is a loving couple that we’re supposed to love, adore and get behind, and yeah, it doesn’t quite happen. Then again, it’s not entirely Oyelowo or Pike’s fault; together, the two have a nice bit of chemistry that’s sweet and believable, but the movie doesn’t focus on them enough. In real life, the two figures were spread across from one another for so long, that the movie does follow suit and with that, we never quite feel their love for one another. One too many conversations over the phone, all by themselves, and never really all that pain-staking.

Then again, it’s probably what happened in real life, to the two actual people.

But is A United Kingdom a bad movie? Not really. It’s well-made, in that it looks nice, professional, and feels like it was given a sizable budget, but still, there’s just not that many feelings to be had. These issues of racism and hatred, for no real reason, are still relevant to today and because of that, are still powerful, but for a movie to try and really get in on that, and fail, almost feels like an missed-opportunity. Because there is a hard, honest, and emotional story to be told, but it’s just not told here.

Oh well. Maybe next time.

Consensus: Well-acted and filmed, A United Kingdom is also, unfortunately, too safe and easy to really do justice for its subject matter, or its real life counterparts, despite all the promise to be had.

5.5 / 10

Spoiler alert: A child does come into play.

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

Personal Shopper (2017)

Who ya gonna call? K-Stew? Really?

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a young twenty-something who’s still trying to find her place in the world, as well as stay healthy and above all else, wealthy. In Paris, she works as a personal shopper for a big-time celebrity, where she goes out and buys extravagant clothes, and often times, even getting the chance to try them on. Maureen loves it as it gives her a reason to escape from her real life, where she’s not only bored and a little frustrated, but still grieving. After all, her twin brother just recently died from the same genetic heart condition that she has, meaning that she may be joining him at any time, any place, for whatever reason. It’s definitely not the best thought to have in the back of her head while trying to navigate throughout the world, but it gets even worse when she starts to think that she’s seeing, hearing, and communicating with her dead brother. After all, she’s a medium and can apparently communicate with those in the afterlife, making her a reliable source, even if, at times, she herself doesn’t even know what’s real, what’s in her head, and what’s just a ghost playing tricks on her.

Aside from just shopping, K-Stew’s stylin’…..

Writer/director Olivier Assayas pulls off something very tricky here in that he gives us a genuinely scary and rather tense ghost story, that also doubles as a smart, sometimes meaningful look at the afterlife and life as a whole. Do the two combined gel perfectly? Not really, but it’s very interesting to watch because we know that he’s trying something neat here and is going to work with it for as long as he humanly can, until he just about gives up and has to call it a day, much like all of us.

Also, it’s way better than Clouds of Sils Maria a movie that, to this day, I’ll still never fully get and/or understand all of the praise for.

But what’s odd about that movie and Personal Shopper is that, along with Kristen Stewart, they both feature the same look, feel and style; it’s a very hushed movie that sort of moves to the beat of its drum, which means that it’s not following conventional, or formula, nor is it really setting out to tell its story in the most original manner, either. You almost get the sense that Assayas, while not making it up as he rolls along, is still thinking of certain plot-points that could work, and possibly couldn’t. It’s why certain subplots involving a possible murder and a creepy suspect, sort of, in a way, fall flat – there’s a bit too much going on, without all that much rhyme or reason behind it all.

That said, the strength of Personal Shopper is that it allows us, the audience, to think way beyond what is your typical ghost story in which a soul caught in the afterlife, screws around with the only loved one alive who still remembers and loves them. Early on, it appears that the bulk of Personal Shopper is going to be all about said ghost – what with an absolutely cheesy and awful-looking CGI ghost running around the screen – but after awhile, Assayas seems to only hint at it later on. The only real jumps, thrills, and chills, seem to come from us not knowing what’s really going on, or leaving certain stuff to our imagination.

Ridin’……

Take, for instance, a whole intense sequence involving, get this, texting.

And that’s it. For about ten minutes straight, it’s just Kristen Stewart having a conversation through text, with someone she doesn’t know, have an idea about, yet, can’t seem to stop talking to. It’s a pretty exciting sequence that’s shot, paced, and edited in such a way that it makes you feel like it’s going on forever, when in reality, it’s not anywhere near to taking up the balk of the movie. It’s a true sign that Assayas, even when he seems to be losing some sense of control, still knows ways to hone it all back in.

And also, the sequence itself, as well as the rest of the film, is much better off with the presence of Kristen Stewart who, with each and every role, seems to be getting better and better. Granted, she’s always been a solid actress, but I guess it takes Stewart to take small roles in indies like this, to not just remind people she can work well when the material’s there, but also make it seem like she’s not acting, either. Maureen, her character, is a very complex one that gets by on a lot without saying too much, which is why a good portion of her scenes, where she’s literally not talking, but instead, reacting, make it very compelling to watch.

Kristen Stewart, people. She’s the real deal. Even in movies that aren’t, but hey, still come sort of close.

Consensus: While not an altogether successful meld of horror and drama, Personal Shopper is still interesting and well-acted enough to get by on its slight originality.

7 / 10

And okay, yeah, still shoppin’.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Married to the Mob (1988)

Sometimes, the ladies have to do the wackin’.

Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is fed up with her gangster husband’s (Alec Baldwin) line of work and wants no part of the crime world. Which is why when said husband is killed for having an affair with the mistress of mob boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell), she and her son head out for New York City where they will hopefully not just get away from the life they once knew, but start a new one, far, far away from the blood and violence of the mob. Unfortunately, Tony can’t allow for Angela to get out of his sights and makes it his mission to track her down and get rid of her, in hopes that she doesn’t go off squealing to the feds. Sure, Angela would never do it, because she is done with that part of her life, but she ends up meeting a young handsome fella named Mike (Matthew Modine), who, unfortunately, for her, also happens to be an FBI agent. And it’s Mike’s job to make sure that no harm happens to Angela, but at the same time, he can’t help but fall for her, wondering what could happen if he didn’t have the job title and the badge and could, you know, be a normal, everyday person.

Is Alec Baldwin 30 here, or 16? Can’t quite figure it out.

Was Married to the Mob the first, or better yet, the last stab Hollywood took at tackling the mobster-comedy? Not at all, but it’s definitely been a genre long dead by now, only because there seems to be so much you can do with it. The jokes have been made, the wise guys have been made into caricatures, and yeah, every convention has been spoofed. It’s hard to imagine a world where one of these was coming out a year, let alone, in the golden days of film, almost every week, and it’s also hard to imagine one actually nailing its mark in the days of 1988.

But that’s why Married to the Mob is such a lovely movie, all of these many years later.

For one, it’s the true sign of director Jonathan Demme knowing what to do with silly material and not forgetting to lose his sight of what matters, what works, and what doesn’t. Much like in the same vein of Something Wild, Demme takes a pretty conventional story, and somehow, turns it completely on its ear, with a crazy-mad bit of energy that hardly ever seems to let up, with jokes, puns, and wit to be found, without ever getting past the fact that there’s a story at the center. And like that movie, Married to the Mob does eventually get darker and far more serious, but still, somehow retains its screwball roots – it’s the kind of movie a lot of parody directors try to make work, but just never hit the mark with. Demme did that so often, that you almost hardly noticed and it’s why Married to the Mob, while maybe not his best film, at least shows what sort of magic the guy could bring to silly material such as this, without ever seeming like he was trying too hard.

So serious. Yet, so retro. So it’s cool, right?

And of course, yes, there’s also a lot of praise to the ensemble, too, all of whom, make the best of this fun, light material that makes everyone seem like they’re having the times of their lives. It’s hard to imagine a world where Michelle Pfeiffer wasn’t a bonafide star, but back in ’88, right before Married to the Mob came out, she was struggling to make her name known for the whole world to take notice to. And that’s why it’s no surprise that her lead role as Angela de Marco made her into that star that we all know and love so much now. It’s the perfect role for Pfeiffer, in that she gets to be sweet, a little ditsy, but also absolutely charming and fun to watch, maintaining a crazy great deal of sexuality, as well as vulnerable. In a way, she’s a bit better than the fluffy material, but still, she makes it work by seeming like she’s in on the joke, while also not forgetting that there’s strides to be made with a character such as this.

Same goes for Dean Stockwell, having a great time as Tony “the Tiger” Russo. Is this a caricature? Most definitely, but Stockwell hams up every aspect of this character that it’s a joy to watch, because you never know when he’s going to snap and lose his cool, calm, and collected demeanor. Mercedes Ruehl plays his wife who is a lot more unhinged and crazy, but also gets some of the biggest and best laughs. Meanwhile, Matthew Modine is good as a romantic-lead who has a nice bit of chemistry with Pfeiffer, and Oliver Platt, in one of his first big roles, plays his partner, nailing that comedic-timing we all know and adore.

Basically, everyone is doing a great job here, having some fun, and yeah, also realizing that what they’re playing with may be a little bit more serious. But Demme doesn’t push it too much, so, neither do they.

Man. What a director.

Consensus: Light and a little fluffy, Married to the Mob isn’t exactly as serious as it may end up getting towards the end, but through it all, remains funny, charming, and surprisingly smart for a typical screwball mobster comedy.

8 / 10

Can’t blame ya, Dean. It’s Michelle.

Photos Courtesy of: IMDBRoger EbertRoweReviews

The House of Mirth (2000)

The grubbiest paws aren’t always the easiest to bother.

Lily (Gillian Anderson) is a ravishing socialite who takes her charm and beauty for granted. For one, she thinks she’s way better than a lot of those around her and while she’s not necessarily wrong, said beauty and charm does start to bring all sorts of interest her way in the form of men, but it also brings upon jealousy in the form of the fellow women who surround her and can’t stand the fact that she gets so many eyes towards her ways. And just like a lady did back in the day, she seeks a wealthy husband and, in trying to conform to social expectations, she misses her chance for real love with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a man she think she’s better than, even though he thinks that they would be perfect, no matter what. Eventually, her search for a husband takes her to many different men and prospects, none of whom quite work out once Lily is accused of having an affair with a married-man, not just making her bad news, but also an outcast from the rest of the socialites who she used to wine and dine with so often.

See? There’s those long walks.

The best period-pieces are the ones that, no matter how old the tales in them are, or are taking place, still hold some relevancy in today’s day and age and can be looked at through the modern-eye. The House of Mirth is such a period-piece, in which we get a classic tale of a woman trying to find love, be rich, and relaxed for the rest of her life, which isn’t all that relevant nowadays, but sooner or later, eventually does. To say that the House of Mirth takes a turn for pure darkness about halfway through wouldn’t be necessarily such a spoiler, because it’s a story that’s been around for many years and it’s also quite obvious by a certain point just where the story itself is actually headed.

But there’s still something about its deep dive into sadness and darkness that still sticks with me.

And honestly, it’s a true testament to writer/director Terence Davies, who not only has a knack for nailing the period-details to this story down perfectly, but also knows how to make each and every one of these characters, inherently interesting just in the way that they are. Sure, watching a movie where a bunch of rich people bicker, eat, drink, dance, take long walks, and gossip, may not seem like the most entertaining two hours ever put to screen, but somehow, Davies makes it all click and pop off of the screen. He doesn’t take these characters, or this story, as a product of its time, but instead, a product of any time, where rich people sneer at those who they feel are lesser than them, for sometimes awfully silly and ridiculous reasons.

Which is why the House of the Mirth, both the source-material, as well as the movie, still work, way beyond most other period-pieces do. It’s a tale of love, sure, but it’s also a rather chilling, disturbing tale of one person’s descent into sheer madness and depression, and just how that can all happen, solely through people’s words and actions. It follows a very clear path early on and never really strays away from it, but the path is compelling to watch; we know where the story is headed, but to watch it all play out, as sad as it can sometimes get, honestly, is hard to turn away from. It’s like a train-crash you see from a mile away, can’t do anything about, and for some reason, you don’t want to miss the end-result of.

Just take him, Lily! Don’t be silly!

Okay, so that maybe that’s a bit harsh, but you get my point.

And of course, the movie works as well as it does because Davies has assembled a pretty solid ensemble here, what with Gillian Anderson leading the charge as the complex and heartbreaking Lily Bart, a character we get to know, love, and feel so much sympathy for over the two hours. Anderson has always been a very strong actress and it’s interesting to see her here, because she has to show so much emotion, by barely showing much at all; it’s the kind of stuffy, yet, subtle performance so many actresses try to work with and nail, that Anderson does so flawlessly here. Watching her try to navigate through life, as well as all of these various people around her, can truly be hard-to-watch, but she always stays rich, true and honest, and it’s why her character works as well as it does, all issues aside.

Eric Stoltz also has a nice role as the love of Lily’s life who, for some reason, she doesn’t ever come around to loving because she think she’s better than him; Anthony LaPaglia plays another possible suitor for Lily who, may or may not, have the best intentions in mind; Dan Aykroyd gives a truly surprising and shocking performance as a married-man who instantly takes a liking to Lily and wants to help her out in any way that he can, with obvious strings attached; Terry Kinney plays a very similar character; Laura Linney plays a married-woman who doesn’t take so much of a liking to Lily’s naughty ways; and the same goes for Elizabeth McGovern.

Basically, everyone here is evil, sick, or twisted. But hey, they’re rich, so they’re able to get away with.

Consensus: As stuffy and blase as it may start, the House of Mirth soon turns into a sad, shocking and rather upsetting tale of class and gender roles that still feels relevant.

8 / 10

Then again, can you blame all men for practically drooling over this woman?

Photos Courtesy of: All About Gillian

Off the Black (2006)

The dude’s who always get the wrong calls, guess what? Get it wrong in life, too.

After his baseball team loses a game due to a call by umpire Ray Cook (Nick Nolte), Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan) and some friends decide to vandalize Ray’s house. Unfortunately for Dave, he is caught and starts paying off his debt by cleaning up the mess. But something odd begins to happen to Dave once he cleans this guys house up – he actually starts to like this old Ray fella, who seems like he also likes Dave, too. So, rather than just continuing to mess with the guy, he hangs out with him, more and more, getting to know who he is, where he comes from, and just what his whole life has been like. For Dave, it’s a way of coping with his mother’s absence, as well as the fact that his dad (Timothy Hutton), isn’t quite all that there for him, but for Ray, it’s all about getting to remember what it was like to be a kid, and have a family. It’s something that he hasn’t felt in forever and it’s something that Dave feels happy to give him, until it gets all too sad for either to actually be able to handle once the real truths come out.

He still somehow gets the ladies.

Off the Black is probably the most perfect movie to make your small-budget, really low-key, very indie debut with. Not in that it’s a perfect movie and is absolutely the one to show everyone else in the world the true talents you possess, but because it’s so simple, so easygoing, and so non-challenging, that it feels like you’re watching someone get their act together, yet, at the same time, not want to go too far so that they lose themselves. It’s almost as if Off the Black was made with the intention that writer/director James Ponsoldt would follow all sorts of rules and guidelines and only after the movie was finished, edited, and released, then he would get to have some fun with movies for a change.

And judging by what he’s put out since, it’s not hard to imagine this.

See, Off the Black is a perfectly fine little indie that doesn’t set out to offend, change the world, or even shake up the world a little bit. It tells this small, humane tale about two people connecting, getting to know one another, and yeah, eventually bonding over stuff. It’s so safe and comfortable that it’s probably the most perfect movie you could take an aunt, uncle, grand-parent out to see and leave it knowing that you did a great service, because they’ll be pleased with what they saw. Sure, the cursing, drinking, and occasional bit of smoking may get in the way, but overall, it’s a movie that doesn’t go out of its way too much to really stir up any person’s raw feelings and/or emotions.

Which is also probably why, for a good portion at least, it’s so boring. It’s hard to really pin-point what it was about Off the Black that felt like it was just taking way too much of its time and meandered, even with the 90-minute run-time, but it just happened. There was this constant feeling I had while watching the movie knowing that I typically love certain tales of everyday, normal people like this, but for some reason, this one just didn’t grab me. Ponsoldt’s latest films have all done that, and then some, which is probably Off the Black has gone mostly unremembered, even after all of his success as of late.

Grow up, kid. Start hanging with old drunks.

That said, it isn’t a totally terrible movie. Just a monotonous and rather boring one, to say the least.

It helps that, as usual, Nick Nolte is pretty terrific in the lead role playing, guess this, a drunk who has a rough past and even rougher relationships with those from that past. It’s the kind of dirty, beaten-up role Nolte has downright perfected by now, which is why it’s no surprise he handles it oh so well here, bringing out some true heart and emotion in scenes with Trevor Morgan that, honestly, never feel believable. It isn’t that Nolte doesn’t try, it’s that Morgan’s character is so dull and plainly-written that it’s never all that understandable why he wants to be best pals with this old drunk dude in the first place.

The movie does try to make it appear that Morgan’s character’s mommy issues have to do with it, but even still, it doesn’t quite make sense. Timothy Hutton’s dad character brings out the most emotion in his four or five scenes, showing us a truly sad person who, honestly, could have been better friends with Nolte’s. It feels odd, never quite works, and yeah, it doesn’t help that Morgan’s probably not the best actor, either.

That said, Nolte saves the day. What else is new?

Consensus: As conventional as indie-dramas get, Off the Black never gets as dramatic as it wants to be, which keeps itself away from being all that emotional.

5 / 10

Yeah, not buying it. Sorry, fellas.

Photos Courtesy of: Rotten Tomatoes

Cheap Thrills (2013)

Why can’t truth or dare with my buddies ever be this fun?

Craig (Pat Healy) has just become a new father, which means that there’s a lot more responsibilities on his plate, and in fact, they’re probably more than he can handle. He doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills, for his kid, the gas for his car, and he doesn’t even have a job anymore. Basically, his life blows, but when he meets back up with old pal Vince (Ethan Embry), all of a sudden, his problems seem to go away. Sure, he’s still kind of a loser with no job or money to show for anything, but he’s hanging with a buddy who’s life is almost worse, so yeah, it makes him feel a little bit better. Then, the two meet-up with Colin (David Koechner), a very rich random dude who, along with his wife (Sarah Paxton) are celebrating their anniversary with a night on the town. They invite both Craig and Vince out to join them, to go to various places and eventually, back to the mansion, where they’ll spend the rest of the evening playing a downright brutal and sometimes vicious game of truth or dare. Except, in this case, the reward is much greater, as well as the risk.

What happens when teen-idols start doing way too many drugs.

You’d think that with a title like Cheap Thrills, a small budget, a first-name director, a group of core characters rounded-out by character actors, and of course, a premise like that, that this would be nothing more than just a straight-to-VOD crap-fest, where the only ones who bother to check it out, are the people who didn’t have anything better to do with their time, nor actually know what good movies are. But for some reason, Cheap Thrills is surprisingly much more than that; yeah, it’s scummy, dirty, disgusting, and raw, but it’s also got a little more on its plate than being just one gross-out-gag-after-another. It’s got something to possibly say about classicism and the way our economy has made normal, everyday citizens out to do the worst possible things imaginable, just so that they can stay alive and well in a world that’s constantly changing and making it harder for a normal person to just survive.

You know, in between all of the feces, hacked-off limbs, blood, gore and nudity, but still, at least there’s something there.

Director E.L. Katz and writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirill know that they’re working with some slimy material, and because of that, they don’t try to hide it. Sure, the themes about the modern-day society are there, but only if you decide to really look deep into it all; mostly, Cheap Thrills just wants to be a down-and-out, dirty and rather shocking movie that takes a fairly simple, and almost silly premise, and go into uncharted territory with it. Think watching a bunch of grown-ass adults actually playing a game of truth or dare would be stupid and a waste of time? Think again.

Cheap Thrills is the kind of movie that probably won’t work for a lot of people, but Katz, Haaga, and Chirchirill take this material into some crazy, unpredictable areas that are hard to see coming, only because we’re so used to movies having risks and limits, all to make sure that they’re sticking by a certain set of rules and standards that are made so that movies can appeal to anyone out there. Cheap Thrills isn’t that movie and is much better off for it, as it doesn’t try to be nice, or sweet, or appeal to anyone out there – it’s its own damn beast and while I wouldn’t normally applaud that pretentious bravery, it works here, so it’s okay. The fact that Cheap Thrills doesn’t want to be the perfect portrait of what people expect to get with a movie, makes it all the more likable and, dare I say it, charming.

“Whammy!”

Of course, it is low-budget and does look like it was made on the cheap, but sometimes, that’s actually fine.

Cheap Thrills doesn’t need to be a movie that big-budgets, or studios need to get their hands on; it’s the kind of movie that’s made by people who have a sort of love and passion for these sick, twisted and almost sadistic stories. It helps, too, that those acting in it, aren’t really big names and, at the very least, seem like real people. Sure, you’ve seen Pat Healy, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, and Ethan Embry in many places before, but here, they feel like raw, real people that just so happen to be in a very crazy movie; Embry is especially realistic playing a total loser who, over the course of the movie, you just want to give a hug, even when he does and acts in despicable ways. Still, you’ve got to give credit to Katz for casting these folks, all of whom show that they may be better than the material they’re playing with, but at the same time, aren’t sneering their noses at it – they’re enjoying their time slumming and getting all down and dirty. There’s something appealing in that, and it’s why Cheap Thrills doesn’t just work for them, but for those who actually take the time to see it.

Then again, depends on what you want.

Consensus: Rough, raw, and gritty, but also surprisingly fun, unpredictable, and smarter than you’d expect, Cheap Thrills benefits from its small, but welcome surprises, as well as giving us something more to look for beyond the B-movie thrills and premise.

7.5 / 10

True pals.

Photos Courtesy of: And So it Begins Films

The Lost City of Z (2017)

Just stay home. Much safer.

At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is an extremely talented and well-known soldier who, by the word of some fellow Britishmen, state that he was “unfortunate in the choice of ancestors”. Whatever that means, doesn’t spell out anything good for Percy who, for some reason, always feels like his life is leading towards something wonderful, but what that is, he hasn’t quite faced or figured out yet. So, when the opportunity to journey into the Amazon, where he is assigned to figure out the border between Brazil and Bolivia. It’s not something he planned on wanting to do, but he takes the opportunity and realizes that there’s truly something more to this land than he anticipated. On his journey back home, he lets everyone know about the evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region. However, all those around him shrug him off as a loon and now Percy, along with his wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland), and fellow journeyman (Robert Pattinson), set out to prove them, as well as the entire world, wrong. It’s the decision that would change his life for good.

All that dirt, yet, still so handsome?

The Lost City of Z is a hard movie to really talk about because my feelings are still kind of mixed. For one, it’s a very well put-together movie; big, bold, beautiful, and sometimes enchanting, it has the look and feel of one of those action and adventure flicks from the 60’s-to-70’s, where the jungle had all sorts of dangerous mysteries for man to discover, and even more possibilities for the men to discover about themselves, too. It’s the kind of movie you sort of just sit back, watch and admire, because there’s so much art and craft put into the way the thing looks, sounds, hell, even the way it’s paced.

And of course, all of the praise deserves to go to James Gray who, after making so many small indie flicks, now seems to be making a giant leap towards bigger-budget fare, although, while still containing the kind of artistry we expect from him. We can tell why he took on this infamous story and better yet, you can tell he really cares; it’s not as if it was some hack studio job he did solely for the sake of money. There’s some real feeling and heart to his storytelling, that feels genuine.

That’s why it’s still hard for me to have problems with this movie, even though I definitely do.

See, it seems the biggest issue with the Lost City of Z is that, even despite it being nearly 140 minutes, it still feels underdeveloped and under-cooked. It’s almost as if it could have been a TV pilot about halfway through, where we get an understanding for the characters, the relationships, and the central conflict, and the rest of the movie could have been further explained and given more time to develop over the next 12 or so episodes. However, there’s just so much going on here, with so little explanation, or time taken to put on it, it honestly feels like a rushed job, as if Gray himself felt like he had to hit all the points to make sure he got what he wanted and didn’t leave anything out.

No problem with that if you’re adapting a non-fiction book, but it’s a problem when it doesn’t feel like all we are watching, are events and simply just that. 12 Years a Slave did the same thing where it felt like one thing happening, after another, but that was more meaningful and understood, as that’s probably how it would have been for a slave; a tale as tall and as wide as the Lost City of Z, deserves more momentum building within itself and it just never gets that. Gray tries and tries again, but honestly, there’s just so much on his plate here from Fawcett’s first trip, to his second, to WWI, to his kids being born, to his discovery of the possible “savages” and realizing that they aren’t “savages”, and etc., that it’s just so much, with so little background.

Watch out, Twi-hards.

It’s a PowerPoint presentation, but without any facts or other bullet-points, it’s just the titles and that’s about it.

Then again, it’s still a hard movie to take your eyes off of, no matter how slow or meandering it can get. It also helps that the cast is pretty solid, too, albeit, save for Charlie Hunnam, which I find myself having a hard time to type, because I do truly feel like he’s a good actor. However, with Sons of Anarchy and a few of his latest film-roles since he started work on that show, I’m not quite sure what it is about him that’s not quite connecting with me. He was great when he was younger, in much more comedy-based stuff like Queer as Folk, Undeclared, and even Nicholas Nickleby, but I don’t know, for some reason, there’s just no real conviction to him here, as there may have been in the old days. He tries, but yeah, it just didn’t connect.

Thankfully, it left room for others to work well, like especially, Sienna Miller in one of her best roles yet, as Percy’s wife, Nina, who is so much more than just a stay-at-home, put-upon wife. She’s smart, brave and actually wanting to travel and discover this world with Percy, and the scenes she has with him, honestly, feel as real and as raw as anything else. Robert Pattinson is also quite good because he basically downplays his role and does the best Keith Richards impression ever, whereas Tom Holland is good as the son who rightfully despises his father for leaving him and his family for all those years, away in the sunny-side of England, but for some reason, instantly forgives him and is on the next trip with him.

Yeah, needed more clarification. Or better yet, a longer running-time altogether.

Consensus: Even with the pure ambition put on by James Gray, the Lost City of Z still feels like an under-cooked tale that has so much going on, but without much behind all of the big events.

6 / 10

Dirty, but once again, still so handsome. How do they do it?!?!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Free Fire (2017)

Did someone say “bang bang”?

Two different groups of thugs get together to finish up the deal on a bunch of guns. Seem simple enough, eh? Well, unfortunately, that doesn’t quite go as planned when the groups begin to feud for some odd reasons and then, eventually, and seemingly out of nowhere, begin shooting at one another. But why? And better yet, who is to be blamed for all of this craziness and havoc?

Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley thinks he’s definitely a lot smarter and humoruous than he actually is, which is why his movies, for the most part, have left me feeling a tad bit dry. Sure, they’ve got inspiration and definitely some creativity, but they mostly feel like mixed-bags where Wheatley tries a lot of different things at once and doesn’t quite come out on top, looking as clean and as smart as he thinks.

Still so cool.

It’s nothing against him, as a person, because I’m sure he’s a cheeky and lovely fella to be around, but it also seems like he’s a lot wittier than he may be. Does he take extra steps to put himself into a corner with the kinds of movies he takes on? Oh yes. Does he at least show a surprising amount of ambition? Definitely. Does he always seem to know what he’s doing? Not quite, and that’s why Free Fire, while still something of a slightly mixed-bag, also works a lot better than his other flicks because, well, it is actually as witty and humorous as it think it is.

Which is definitely saying something.

Cause honestly, the premise is basically one overlong gun-battle and while it can get to be a little tiring after hearing gun-shot-after-gun-shot, it also sinks so much into your brain that it works. Eventually, the sound just becomes background noise to these characters constantly plotting, yelling, and figuring out ways how to get out of this situation alive, get off with all the guns, and also, get rid of the ones shooting at them. Sure, is it maybe too simple for its own good? Most definitely, but it still works because Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump seem to know what it is that they’re dealing with here and it works.

In other words, it’s a fun movie. It’s actually kind of funny, but also pretty barbaric and disturbing when it needs to be, and it draws us even closer into the twisted, sick and warped mind of Wheatley. Could he have possibly have toned-down all of the constant shooting and instead, I don’t know, given us something along the lines of a one-on-one battle? Probably, but still, it’s hard to complain about a movie that doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot, yet, still entertaining. It so rarely happens to me with a movie, so it’s great when it does.

Somehow, they have time for laughs?

And yes, the awesome ensemble is to be thanked for that, too.

Because everyone’s got their own one little trait, it works in the long-run. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley are the bad-ass Irishmen; Brie Larson is the woman who constantly keeps on getting underestimated, but always proving herself; Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor are scummy dudes; Sharlto Copley, in one of his best performances to-date, is the stylish, yet annoying South African who takes things too seriously; Babou Ceesay is his very hard-to-understand partner; Jack Reynor is pugnacious and always looking for a brawl; and in probably the best performance, Armie Hammer stays cool and stylish, even with all of the killing and violence surrounding him.

With a great cast such as this, would you expect a bit more than just quips and shots fired? Probably, but once again, it still kind of works. Wheatley knows how to shoot this action to where we can tell what’s happening, even when it’s sometimes not all that clear, but he also knows how to draw us in on the tension, by upping the stakes and keeping surprises up his sleeve. It can be viewed as pretentious, but compared to his other movies, it’s probably the least stylish and obvious he’s ever been, which means yes, it’s good.

Pretty damn good, to be honest.

Consensus: As simple as it may be, Free Fire still gets by on its fun, humor, and perfectly put together cast who work well in this crazy atmosphere.

7.5 / 10

Don’t take her Oscar away just yet.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Marley (2012)

No way in hell this dude smoked pot.

Most of you out there may know him as Bob Marley, but you don’t know half the story of the man who’s real name was Nesta Robert Marley, and was also of mixed-races. That’s right, his father was white, and rarely ever saw him which lead to Bob finding one escape from this harsh-reality that he could: music. Oh, and weed too, but being from Jamaica, that pretty goes without saying. Anyway, this movie traces Marley’s existence from his birth in 1945, to his sudden death of cancer at the age of 36. It was a short life, but what a life it truly was.

 

Thus, the beginning of the weed-smoking days.

Thus, the beginning of the weed-smoking days.

So often now, whenever we see a story about an inspirational musician, we get their backstory about how their lives growing-up blew, their mommies and daddies were killed, they had no real family, they were orphans, they were sad, they had drug problems, etc., but rarely do we ever get to see the story of the person who grew up reasonably well, was happy with his family for the most part, and surprisingly, didn’t have many problems with his self-image. Sure, the man was sometimes made a fool because his parents were of different races, but the way the movie approaches this very real fact, it’s almost like an afterthought.

Until, we see just how his life would be sculpted out of this one aspect of his life.

But still, for the most part, life for Bob Marley was a relatively pleasant one that was filled with joy, happiness, thoughts, and plenty of weed. However, things weren’t always so bright and shiny for the world around him, which is why Bob decided to take that sweet, everlasting voice of his, get a guitar, find a microphone, and express what he felt and saw from day-to-day, all through the power of music. Music is one of the best ways you can learn anything about anyone, and with Bob Marley, there was no exception because the man was never afraid to let you know what he felt in a song, how he felt it, and what the ultimate conclusion to his thoughts were supposed to be.

See what I mean?

Many people heard these thoughts and conclusions and, believe it or not, were changed, right then and there. Bob Marley not only influenced people within the reggae/ska genre, but even went so far as to influence countries in a way that was never, ever seen before, not even by musicians. The man knew this too, and never, not for a second, used it to harm’s will. He was always there for the people who loved him the most, the country that supported his ass throughout all of the growth-years, and most surprisingly of all, gave free concerts to regions that were filled with so many poor people, that even asking a dollar for a ticket would have been too pricey (in today’s day and age, a free concert is a sign of a saint).

But the question begs: Why did this man do all of this? Well, it was all because he had a voice, he had dreams, he had hopes, and he had a voice, and everybody wanted to hear it. And hell, he was not afraid to share it with anybody either.

However, Marley doesn’t set out to totally lionize the subject, either. Issues about his own family, feelings, political stances, all that, are touched on here. No stone is left unturned and it’s why, at nearly three hours, the movie can feel a bit excessive, but by the same token, it’s also giving us the full picture of this man we all think we know, yet, don’t actually know nearly as much as we think we do. That’s how the best documentaries work and it’s why Marley works best.

It gives us all that we need to, should, and better know, whether we knew we wanted it or not.

But nonetheless, director Kevin Macdonald still gives us the look at Marley, his life, and everything that he did with it, in a way that not only shines respect for the iconic-artist, but shows how his voice still holds up today, and is a true testament to just how far and wide one is able to go with their documentary’s subject, no matter how iconic or famous they may already be.

 

Consensus: Marley is longer than most documentaries that have to deal with musicians, but when your subject is Bob Marley, and you speak with everybody that knew him the closest, you have plenty of time, plenty of rhymes, and plenty of…well..material to work with. Sorry, couldn’t keep it going all the way.

8.5 / 10

"This next track is for all of the white kids that can't handle chores and being it at 11. Mon."

“This next track is for all of the white kids that can’t handle chores and being in at 11. ‘Mon.”

Photos Courtesy of: Magnolia Pictures

Down Terrace (2009)

Keep it all in the family. No literally, everything.

Bill (Robert Hill) and his son, Karl (Robin Hill), have been working together for so long and even though it just so happens to be organized crime, they’ve gotten by for the longest time in it, so they don’t get caught up in all the details. But that all begins to change when, after spending a few days in jail, they return home and realize they may have a rat in their midst. This is clearly not something they want to put up with, which is why they try to get down to the nitty gritty of it all and figure out just who the rat in the whole gang may be, or if there isn’t one, who’s the first who could rat on them in the first place. As they try to pick out the informant from a group that includes a corrupt politician (Mark Kempner), an unpredictable hit man (Michael Smiley), and yes, even the annoyed and pissed-off matriarch, Maggie (Julia Deakin), Karl learns his girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) is pregnant and doesn’t quite know what to do with that, or how the hell his family is even going to react. Needless to say, it’s not pretty.

Oops. Out come the guns.

Down Terrace has essentially one-joke going for itself throughout the whole hour-and-a-half, but it’s such a good joke that co-writer/director Ben Wheatley finds himself constantly playing around and toying with the whole time: It’s that everyone is suspected of being a rat and because of that, they’ve got to meet their maker. Of course, the movie may play-off like a very serious and tense episode of the Sopranos, but what’s interesting about Down Terrace is that, besides it being incredibly dark and morbid at times, it’s also quite funny.

Cause of course, British gangsters can’t be too serious the whole time, right?

And that’s why Down Terrace, while not an altogether perfectly put together movie, is still entertaining and interesting enough to watch, because it’s trying something new and bold. Inside of it, is a combination of the kitchen-sink drama, the suburban crime flick, and of course, the black-as-hell comedy, and while it’s definitely obvious when the movie changes into one mood, it still kind of works. Wheatley knows how to film each and every aspect of this story into a manner where we don’t know what to expect, or know exactly where it’s going to lead into, and just watching him give it a try is where most of the fun is to be had.

This is the part of the movie where the subtitles definitely need to be put on.

He and fellow writer Robin Hill don’t forget to give audiences a little bit of everything, but they truly know how to make their comedy crack and their violence, well, disturb. In fact, it’s maybe a bit too disturbing at times; characters that we come to know, love, and grow very intimate with over a very short amount of time, are all of a sudden killed-off in very heinous, in-your-face ways the next second. It’s as if no one’s safe and those that definitely aren’t, are going to meet a very gruesome end. Which once again, is pretty brave, despite it not always working.

But hey, in the film-world, bravery has to count for something.

And that’s basically where Down Terrace works in the end; it’s probably Wheatley’s most cohesive and simple-to-read picture, but in that, also isn’t his dullest, either. You can tell that he’s working out some of the kinks into how to make this kind of material to work, but when you have a first-timer making so much noise, by combining all of these different subgenres, and making something still work, then yeah, it’s definitely worth the watch. If only to see just where Wheatley himself has come, gone, and where he’s going to be heading-off towards in the very near-future.

Let’s just hope he sticks with more movies such as this, and more away from High-Rise. Sheesh.

Consensus: With a crazy combination of different tones and styles, Ben Wheatley definitely takes a lot on his plate, but handles it well with a very funny, surprising, and altogether interesting hybrid with Down Terrace.

7.5 / 10

Cheers, mates. Get ready to die.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Stand By for Mind Control, New York Times

Two Lovers (2008)

It all comes down to choices. Really, really hot choices.

After his broken engagement left him cold, crazy, and very disoriented, photographer Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) moves in with his parents in Brighton Beach, where he spends most of his days working for his parent’s dry-cleaning service and trying to drown himself in lakes. Both of his parents know that he’s still going through a rough time, so they don’t want to push him too hard, but they also want him to be happy and feel loved, which is why they set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a sweet Jewish girl who also happens to Leonard’s father’s co-worker. They appear to be a fine match, even if Leonard himself is so closed-off, but then he meets his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who absolutely takes his world by storm. But by becoming involved with her, Leonard also realizes that she’s got a lot of baggage to her, too, and Leonard’s not sure whether he wants to stick with that and risk all of the luxury in the world, or play it safe and appease his parents with Sandra.

Baby Goop?

Choosing between Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, man, what a terrible predicament, right?

Obviously, I kid, but seriously, just looking at this plot from afar, it’s hard to care at all; the three involved in this love-triangle of sorts are all hot, attractive people, who don’t know who they want to marry and spend the rest of their lives with. It sounds so terribly boring and nauseating, but writer/director James Gray knows how to frame this story in a way to where it’s not only interesting to watch play-out, but after awhile, we start to feel the same sort of love-torn and sad emotions that everyone else here practically feels. It’s no surprise, either, because mostly all of Gray’s movies work well as mood-pieces, but Two Lovers may be his most impressive, where he takes a relatively simple tale of two possible love-stories and finds a way to make them both sweet, heartfelt, and awfully depressing.

But still, somehow, Gray finds a way to make it all work. All the movies leading up to Two Lovers, for Gray, happened to be packed with action, violence, incest, and Shakespearean-twists out the wazoo, which is probably why something like this was such a breath of fresh air, as stern and as serious as it may be. Still, it’s interesting to see a lot of what Gray does well in all of his other movies, still works well in Two Lovers – it’s just that everything and everyone is so muted, you hardly even notice anything’s actually happening.

And yeah, it’s kind of beautiful.

Or, Vinnie Shaw? (I don’t think she has a sort of nickname so let’s just roll with that, shall we?)

In a way, Two Lovers is a lot like watching real-life happen before our very own eyes, where we see two love stories unfold, as well as the people themselves. Gray never gets in the way of the material and always allows for the actors to speak for themselves and help develop the characters over time, which is why a good portion of the movie feels like a really small, intimate and cuddly stage-play, where people are going to express their feelings for the whole world to see. But it’s not nearly as melodramatic as that, which helps the movie in the long-run; it always feels honest, raw, gritty, and believable, no matter where the story sometimes leads.

And of course, the performances are pretty great, too. It’s wonderful to see Joaquin Phoenix in such a solid role, where he not only gets to play someone resembling a normal dude – with obvious weird quirks here and there – but also a charming dude all the same, too. So often when we see Phoenix now, we know, love and expect him as the wild and insane guy who will literally go anywhere and do anything for a role, but believe it or not, when he wants to be, he can be quite a likable presence on the screen and have us feel some sort of love for him, too. It helps that this Leonard fella is already a strong character to begin with, but Phoenix finds smart, surprising ways to flesh him out to where he’s more than just a confused sad-sack, but a confused thirty-something trying to get on with his life, but just doesn’t know how.

Meaning, he’s like you or I, so it’s way more interesting.

The two ladies that Phoenix has to choose between, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, are both pretty good, too, giving us reasons why he should choose one over the other. But honestly, the movie isn’t really about “will he, won’t he” – it’s more about him finding a way to make himself happy and get past this deep bit of sadness in his life. The movie never tries to make one lady seem better than the other, nor does it have to; Paltrow is lovely to watch, as well as is Shaw, and both have great chemistry with Phoenix that I could have watched for days-on-end. But the movie isn’t all about who he goes home with at the end of the day and even when we do get to that point, it’s surprising and a little sad, but totally and rightfully earned.

Man. Why can’t more romance-flicks be like this?

Consensus: With three stellar performances and an interesting eye to romance, Two Lovers is more than just a conventional tale of two girls battling for the love of one man, and more about a man trying to figure himself out, and the ladies who just so happen to be near-by when it’s all happening.

8.5 / 10

Cheers to the winner!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Reservation Road (2007)

Still though, those little bastards gotta hurry their asses up off those buses!

Ethan and Grace Lerner (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) are more than happy with the way things have been going for their lives, but all of that happiness ends when their son gets killed in a hit-and-run accident. Even worse, the person in the car (Mark Ruffalo) who caused it, knows who they are, is still stuck with the guilt, and has yet to fess-up to what he’s done. That’s when Ethan decides to take matters into his own hands and figure out just who the hell is responsible for all of this pain and misery that has been inflicted on him and his family.

Even though the idea of watching a bunch of people go through grief and suffer through pain and agony doesn’t sound like the most exciting bit of an-hour-and-a-half I’d like to spend, you can never, ever go wrong with a cast like this. People know Phoenix to be the type of guy who takes rich and hearty-material that challenges himself, Ruffalo is always a guy that’s capable of taking anything the world throws at him and make it totally and completely work in his favor, and having Sorvino and Connelly round things out ain’t so shabby, either. So, the big question on your mind may be, “How the hell did all of this go wrong?”

My answer? “Script, man. Script.”

The main problem with this script is that even though it does pay attention to the problems its characters face on a day-to-day basis when it comes to dealing with their own levels of grief, the movie still feels the need to rush things up and make this almost like a type of thriller. That sounds all fine and dandy for people who want more than just a character-based story and want some action and excitement to go along with their tears and heavy-grieving, but for a movie like this where we essentially know what happened, who did what, and what the only way to end this could be, it’s a little silly and not all that thrilling. We know who killed the kid, who’s responsible, where this could go, and that this can only end in two ways, either death or imprisonment  so what the hell is all of the tension supposed to be there for?

Pictured: A guy who just got done thinking.

“Damn. Paparazzi.”

And it’s odd, because the tension in this movie is supposed to lie in the fact that everything this driver goes through in life, always has him ending up in one way or another, connecting with the kid’s family. For example, his ex-wife just so happens to be the kid’s sister’s music teacher that is totally superfluous to the plot, except to only include the always wonderful Mira Sorvino (more on her in a bit). Then, it gets even worse when Ethan decides to take the investigation into his own hands and get lawyers involved and in case you couldn’t tell where this is going, get ready, because guess what? The man who killed Ethan’s son, just so happens to be that lawyer he asks for help.

Shocked yet?

Anyway yeah, this movie is just chock full of coincidence-after-coincidence and they don’t seem to serve any other purpose to this story, other than to keep the audiences minds awake for when the flick decides to actually focus in on its characters. You could also argue that the flick only added in those thriller-elements to appeal to a larger-audience that wouldn’t really feel the need to venture out to some movie about a bunch of people crying and being sad all of the time, and if that is the case, well then that’s a damn shame because there is a lot of promise for this type of material to work, regardless of if it’s a mainstream, or indie production.

But regardless, it almost shouldn’t matter when you have a cast like this, because they’re supposed to be able to do no wrong. And that sort of happens, but not really. Joaquin Phoenix may seem a tad miscast at first as the grieving simpleton father of a suburban-family, but shows us differently when he unleashes those raw and honest emotions we always see in each and every one of his performances. You feel bad for the guy and you just want to give him a hug and tap on the back, whispering into his ear that “everything’s going to be alright.” It’s not Phoenix’s most daring role, but it was a true sign that he could play a normal, everyday dude.

Pictured: Sad actors

Pictured: Sad Actors

The same can definitely be said for Mark Ruffalo who never seems to phone-in a performance, no matter how crappy the movie may be, which is what happens here. Ruffalo is great as the driver that kills this boy and runs away without getting caught, because he makes you feel something for the guy, even though he is totally in the wrong, through-and-through. You can sort of see why a guy like him would run away from the punishment of being arrested, but after awhile, it does start to get a bit ridiculous that it hides this all for so long, and for all of the reasons that he apparently has to himself, as well. Still, Ruffalo prevails and shows why you can give him anything, and he can make it work.

Jennifer Connelly is simply used here to be another grieving character of the whole movie and does that very well. Connelly is always good in what she does and that’s why it’s so weird to barely see her around anymore, but it should always be noted that she’s a good actress, when the material is there. It’s sort of here for her, and sort of not, so it’s hard to fully judge her.

Oh and yeah, I previously mentioned Mira Sorvino and it isn’t because she does anything simply out-of-this-world with this movie (mainly because she isn’t given much to work with in the first place), but, without any type of spoilers or giving-away major plot-points (like it really matters), there’s this one scene with her and Ruffalo that is probably the most endearing and emotionally-truthful out of the whole movie, and it really took me by surprise. Rarely does this movie ever talk about how Sorvino’s and Ruffalo’s character used to be married and a loving-couple with one another, other than when they yell, fight, and argue with one other, but that one scene, that one moment between these two, not only made this movie just a tad better, but made me feel like there could have been so much more had they just dropped the whole death-of-the-kid angle and even went so far as to focus on Ruffalo’s character trying to actually get through the divorce and make ends meet. Sure, it’s not the movie we got, but man, I imagine wonders could have been made going down this road, especially with the always dependable Sorvino who, like Connelly, needs to be in more.

Much, much more. Come on, Hollywood!

Consensus: Even with a solid cast on-deck, Reservation Road can’t get its head together quick enough to where it fully works as a small drama about sadness and grief, or as a nail-biting thriller.

5 / 10

I guess he's going to start taking after his kid. Hayyoh! Okay, I'm done.

I guess he’s going to start taking after his kid now. Hayyoh! Okay, I’m done.

Photos Courtesy of: Focus Features

Trespass Against Us (2017)

So many daddy issues. Just hug it out. Or, have a beer.

Chad Cutler (Michael Fassbender) lives with his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and kids in a trailer somewhere on a Gypsy-mountain along with fellow family-members and friends. Needless to say, the rest of society down below the hill they all live on, don’t quite like or care for them, so Chad, his wife, his kids and his father Colby (Brendan Gleeson), have all had to make ends meet for themselves and survive the only way they know how. This usually leads to a lot of crime and robbery, most of which Chad handles on his own, so that he can continue to provide for he and his family. But all of the crime, the arrests, and constant trouble from the law eventually not just take a toll on Chad, his father, and his wife, but his kids, and it’s up to Chad to figure out when enough is enough and prove to be something of an admirable father-figure for his kids. But at the same time, giving up the life of crime is a lot harder, especially when you have all sorts of responsibilities to fulfill, and a father who doesn’t approve of his one son trying to get on the straight and narrow.

Bad dad.

Trespass Against Us is an odd movie, in that it tries to jumble around a lot of ideas, tones, and plot-threads, but for some reason, never draws any of them out enough to where they’re actually interesting enough to survive on their own. Director Adam Smith seems like he’s dealing with a lot of issues about family, love, devotion, and faith, but at the end of the day, mostly just finds himself portraying a movie about dirty, smelly people, trying to remain dirty and smelly, but also be a little bit nicer. In that sense, it doesn’t quite work, because there’s just so much else going on and coming at us, that after awhile, it’s hard to really figure out just what the hell the movie is about.

If anything, it’s about how good of an actor Michael Fassbender can be, even when working with junk-material.

And unfortunately, that is the case with his role here as Chad, a put-upon father who doesn’t quite know what to do, or where to go with his life, nor how to actually grow up and start providing the smart, responsible way. But the problem with this character is that there’s so much surrounding him that doesn’t make sense – for instance, he’s old enough to break away from his controlling father, so why doesn’t he? Why is he stuck staying by him, committing crimes, and constantly hurting his family? It doesn’t make much sense and although Fassbender tries, the character just isn’t totally there for us to ever fully sympathize with him, or better yet, even care.

Still bad.

Same goes for Gleeson’s character who seems like a Jerry Jones-type, with a very thick Irish accent who, in all honesty, you can’t understand half of the time. In fact, that goes for a lot of the other characters surrounding Chad; they’re all supposed to be these dirty, scummy and idiot-like people who don’t know how to speak, or control themselves like normal, everyday citizens,. I didn’t have a problem with this aspect of them, I just had an issue that the movie didn’t do much to further develop them, or explore why they are the way they are. Often times, we’ll focus on this for about a minute or two, and then drop into another character, or another plot, and try to explore that.

After awhile, it just becomes an annoyance.

And that’s a shame, too, because Trespass Against Us had promise within its many plots, but it just never comes together in a smart way. It all feels like the movie wants to focus on the difference these Irish Gypsies face with the rest of society around them (which is probably the most interesting thread of story that the movie has to offer), but doesn’t; instead, it just discusses Chad, his family, and how he’s trying to grow up. But once again, it’s still just not developed.

Ugh.

Consensus: Despite good performances, Trespass Against Us is many different things all at once, yet, for some reason, it just never comes together in an interesting, compelling way.

4 / 10

Gee. Where have I seen this pic before?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Keeping it Real

Their Finest (2017)

Now I definitely don’t need to see Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

It’s Britain, 1940, and needless to say, the war is hitting them pretty hard. Men are being shipped-out randomly, bombs are dropping everywhere, resources are drying up, families are being torn apart, and it just doesn’t seem like the good old days any longer. It seems like everyone is sad, depressed and absolutely unsure of what to do with their lives, which is why the British Ministry of Information decides to step on in and change all that up the only reliable way they know how: Making movies. And one such movie they commission is a supposed true story of heroism and bravery that occurred in Dunkirk, France. Of course, the movie-version of these said events get all wrapped-up and twisted around, to the point of where the original story isn’t even found anywhere, but the message of the tale is simple: Greater and better times are ahead and can still be found now. And crafting that film is writer Catrin (Gemma Arterton) who finds herself constantly battling it out with fellow writers, like Tom (Sam Claflin), actors, like Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), and fellow women in the office, like Phyl (Rachael Stirling) who give her crap for her gender and how she handles herself. But all she’s trying to do is make the best, most inspirational movie she can make, no matter what.

How could you not fall for the chum?

Their Finest is one of the most charming movies I have seen in quite some time and it doesn’t even seem like it’s trying. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie; it’s so smug, likable and sweet, that it’s almost begging for our adoration before the opening-credits roll onto the screen. But for the most part, it’s the time, the place, and the nostalgic message that makes it feel like Their Finest doesn’t have to even try – it’s homework of charming and pleasing the pants off of the audience is already done for itself.

That said, it’s still a wildly lovely movie that even without the time, the place, the nostalgic message, it would still work. Sure, those things certainly help, but mostly, Their Finest works because it’s a movie that has a heart as big the bombs that are constantly being dropped out throughout. Director Lone Scherfig and writer Gaby Chiappe come together in an interesting way that doesn’t shy away from the dark, brutal, and grueling reality that the war presented for everyone involved, but it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that there was some happiness and light to be found through it all.

It’s like an overlong episode of Boardwalk Empire, except the polar opposite – everyone around the main characters are sad, but the main characters themselves, somehow, through some way, are happy.

It all works, though, and never appears too cloying, or overly cutesy; it all feels earned and just earnest enough that it knows it’s harsh reality, without ever trying too revel in it, either. The movie is, plain and simple, just sweet and lovely – like a Pastri that you know you shouldn’t have, but also can’t keep yourself away from, either. That may not be the best way to describe Their Finest, but trust me, just know this: It’ll be hard not to smile the whole way through. Even when the movie’s sad (which it can be on countless occasions), it’s still kind of cheerful.

And it mostly all comes down to the characters and what they represent. In what has to be her best role to-date, Gemma Arterton finally gets a chance to prove that she can be awfully sweet and charming, when given the right material to work with. As Catrin Cole, we see a character that’s still figuring herself out, trying to make some sort of a mark in the world and above all else, trying to remain happy, hopeful and optimistic towards a brighter, better future. It’s a role that could have been easily grating and annoying in anyone’s hands, but it’s one that Arterton works so well with, that you immediately fall in love with her and her infectious spirit.

Gemma, have you ever seen Atonement? Get out of the subway!

And it’s also easy to see why everyone in the film does, too.

Sam Claflin, once again, proves that he’s quite possibly the most charming and handsome British guy working today, aside from Henry Cavill, as Tom, and shows quite a nice little chemistry between he and Arterton. The relationship may go into obvious places, but because they’re so good and cute together, it doesn’t matter – we want them together, no matter what. Bill Nighy is also the stand-out as the one actor in this whole production who can’t seem to know or realize that he’s a little too old to be quite the superstar he once was. The character could have easily been a cartoonish buffoon, but there’s a lot of heart and warmth in Nighy’s portrayal, that it works. Same goes for everyone else who shows up here, adding a little bit more personality and light to the whole proceedings.

But if anything about Their Finest really works for me, it’s the message that, no matter what happens to you, the outside world around you, or anybody, anywhere else in the world, the movies will always be there for you. Sure, it’s a sentiment that’s not as relevant as it may have been in the early-1940’s, when practically everyone and their grandmother needed a little cheering up, but it’s still the same kind of sentiment that resonates for any film-lover. Movies have always been made, and will always continue to be made, to take people away from their real lives, and place them somewhere lovely and magical, and provide the perfect distraction. Sure, there are movies that are made not to do such a thing (aka, documentaries), but the ones that really take you out of the real world and give you hope and ambition, well, then those are the ones that deserve to be seen, no matter what’s going on around you.

It’s what movies were put on this Earth to do in the first place and it’s why they will always hold a special place in each and every living person’s life.

Consensus: Sweet, endearing and ridiculously nostalgic, Their Finest wears its heart and humor on its sleeve, with even better performances to show for it.

8.5 / 10

Making movies have never been so, ehrm, British.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Can automobiles be family?

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has been living the good life since the events of the last film. He’s practically on vacation and thinking about starting up a family with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). But somehow, he turns to the dark side after an evil, somewhat vicious criminal mastermind named Cipher (Charlize Theron) shows up and demands him to do all sorts of crimes for him. Obviously, it isn’t just Letty who feels betrayed, but also Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Ludacris), and the rest of the gang. So, in order to stop Dominic from going any further into the dark, seedy world of crime and murder, they team back up with the government and try to stop him all at once. But this time, they’re going to get a little assistance from someone they haven’t been too fond of in the past: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the man who hasn’t yet forgiven the family for what they had done to his own brother, but is willing to let bygones be bygones for the time being, just so that he can take down Cipher.

Uh oh. There must be a jabroni somewhere close by.

The last three Fast and Furious movies have been some of the best action movies in the past decade or so. They’ve upped the ante by becoming more and more ridiculous by the installment, while also never forgetting that what makes them so much in the first place is that they don’t ever try too hard to take themselves too seriously – the last movie definitely verged on getting way too dramatic for its own sake, but that was only because it was put in an awkward position of having to pay tribute to its star, Paul Walker. And from what it seems, the franchise will only continue to get more and more successful, the more and more insane it pushes itself to be.

Which is why the latest, Fate of the Furious, is a bit of a mixed-bag.

Don’t get me wrong, the action, the ridiculousness, and the sheer stupidity of it all is still here and in full-form, but at the same time, there’s something else keeping it away from being quite on-par with the past three installments and that all comes down to story. For one, no one goes to these movies for their well thought-out, interesting, and complex plots – they come for the action, the silliness, and most of all, the cars. People don’t care about who’s betraying who, for what reasons, and what sort of lessons can be learned from it all.

Of course, this being a Fast and Furious, it makes sense that we get a lot of lectures and discussions about family and what it means to stand by one another, but that’s to be expected and that’s not he problem. The real problem is that the movie takes way too long to get going, and when it does, it constantly starts and stops without ever knowing why. At nearly two-hours-and-16-minutes, Fate may be the longest installment so far (although, it could have been over two-and-a-half-hours, as previously reported), and at times, it feels like that; there’s so much downtime spent on plot and poorly-written sketches of characters, that it’s almost unnecessary. Having something resembling a plot is fine, because it’s what the past three have done, but Fate takes it up a notch in that it tries hard to give us a plot that’s harder to pin-down and far more detailed.

What a power-couple. Make it happen, real life.

But it didn’t have to be. We know it’s stupid and all filler, and so do they. So why are we getting all of this?

A good portion of that probably has to due to the fact that in lead-villain role, Charlize Theron gets to have a little bit of fun as Cipher, even if her character is so odd and random at times, it almost feels like anyone could have taken on the role. She’s your stereotypical villain in that she does bad stuff, for no exact reason, other than she’s a bad lady and can’t messed with. Once again, I’m not expecting anything more in a Fast and Furious movie, but the movie spends so much time on her, as she plays these silly mind games with Dominic and the gang, that it’s almost like director F. Gary Gray and writer Chris Morgan themselves don’t even know the material they’re playing with.

Same goes for the rest of the ensemble who are, as expected, just a bunch of punchlines and a few paragraphs of things resembling characters. But hey, it’s fine, because they all work well with the goofy material and make us realize that it doesn’t matter. Is it odd watching without Paul Walker? Most definitely, but the gang more than makes up for the absence, by doubling down on the charm and excitement, with even Statham himself proving to be having the biggest ball of everyone.

Oh and yeah, the action’s still pretty great, when it happens.

Everything before and in between, honestly, is a bit boring, because it’s all a build-up, but when it does actually get there, it’s still wild, insane, and highly unrealistic, but who cares? Almost all action movies, in some way, shape, or form, take place in some fake, mythological world where real-life issues and consequences don’t matter, and nor should they. These are the Fast and Furious movies, not Shakespeare.

I just wish somebody told everyone else that.

Consensus: A little long and slow, Fate of the Furious still gets by on its crazy, hectic action, as well as its talented ensemble who prove to be perfectly equipped with this goofy material, no matter how far-fetched it all gets.

6.5 / 10

News team, assemble!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Going in Style (2017)

Get some life into ya.

Lifelong buddies Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) all decide that it’s finally time to take some time back and retire, once and for all. However, once they do that, they don’t know what sorts of annoyances await them. For one, the factory that they slaved away for all of those years, aren’t going to be giving them pensions. And if that wasn’t so bad, they’re so broke that they may not be able to keep their own roofs over their heads. It’s so bad that even a piece of pie at a diner is a constant cause for argument. But then, Joe gets the idea: Why not rob a bank? Better yet, why not rob the bank that is, get this, robbing him blind in the first place? It’s a crazy idea and one met with disdain from the two other guys, but as time goes on, they start to come around to the idea. Eventually, the three hatch out a plan for what to do, but considering that they’re three old dudes, it may be a lot harder than it seems.

Do they qualify for the license to carry? Let alone, see?

Going in Style is probably an unnecessary remake, but it’s also different from the 1979 version. While that movie was a mostly dramatic, melancholy look at aging, life, and death, with some comedy splashed in there for good measure, the remake is a lot more fun, humorous, and less about being too dramatic. In a way, it’s as director Zach Braff and the studios thought that having a movie in which a bunch of old dudes try to re-ignite sparks in their lives, only to realize that they haven’t got much time left on Earth, was all too serious and real, so therefore, they added a bunch of jokes about prostates, pie, Alzheimer’s, and oh yes, the Bachelor.

Did I mention that this is Zach Braff we’re talking about here? Sure, I Wish I Was Here was a problem, but surely the same guy who made the near-classic over a decade ago (in Garden State), doesn’t feel the need for these sorts of paycheck gigs, does he? Well, in a way, it sort of seems like it, but it’s not like the movie’s the most manipulative piece of money-making machine ever made.

If anything, it’s just enjoyable and pleasing enough to literally not offend a single person.

Is that we should expect from these actors, as well as Braff? Hopefully not.

But for now, it’s fine, because Going in Style proves that the age old formula of “old dudes getting to have some fun one more time”, still kind of works. The only difference here is that the tone is a lot lighter and playful than you’d expect, which makes all of the crazy plot contrivances, twists, and turns, seem fine. Are they unbelievable and absolutely ridiculous? Absolutely, but for the longest time, the movie doesn’t do much but go about its day, with a smile on its face, and a pleasant mood on its mind.

Ride or die, boys.

And for that, it’s fine. It doesn’t ask for the heavy questions, with the heavier answers, about life, death, love, or immortality, or any of that fun stuff, nor does it really ask you to fully get too invested in its heist at the center of the film; it’s all being used to just get by and allow us to have some fun with these characters, in this place in time.

And once again, that’s fine.

It helps that Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, no matter how old they get, still seem like total pros and can do practically no wrong. Sure, a lot of the stuff that they’re saying and yammering on about isn’t all that funny, but the three are so charming and lovely, does it really matter? Yes, it sort of does, but in this case, not really; it’s annoying to constantly see older actors get the short-shift in which they have to play these old dudes and that’s about it, but if that’s the way the world works, then so be it. It seems like Caine, Freeman, and Arkin themselves are so fine with it that it doesn’t really matter.

So long as they keep on doing what they’re doing, until the expected end of their careers, well then, no argument from me.

Keep doing what you’re doing, fellas.

Consensus: Pleasing and enjoyable enough, mostly by the talented trio of leads, Going in Style doesn’t set out to offend anyone, or change anyone’s life, and in this case, that’s all that is needed.

6 / 10

[Insert boner joke here]

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

High school sucks so much that, honestly, sometimes you just have to make your own excitement.

Accomplished high school student Ben (Parry Shen) seems to excel at almost everything and it’s absolutely boring him to death. When your Asian, living in the suburbs of California, and doing so well in school, honestly, nothing else really excites you anymore. But you know what does? Not being able to actually win something over, or, in Ben’s case, not being able to win over his dream girl, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). It’s all Ben can ever think about, so eventually, he decides to strike up an unlikely friendship with trouble-seeking tough guy Daric (Roger Fan), where he starts doing all sorts of bad and illegal stuff, along with various other members of the so-called “gang”. Eventually, these illegal ventures start setting their sights toward Stephanie, and her rich boyfriend Steve (John Cho), who has a proposition for these guys that, if they’re able to succeed with the plan, may make them all rich. But for some reason, it may not go as planned, being that Steve and Ben don’t necessarily get along in the first place.

Yeah, fairs can kind of suck.

Better Luck Tomorrow is a surprising film for many reasons. One, first and foremost, because it presents a different, intelligent view of Asian Americans that we don’t ever actually get to see in American movies, or better yet, in American high school movies. See, a lot of the times, the constant cliche with Asians in films such as these is that they’re so book-smart, can’t speak a lick of English, and are mostly used as funny, side-characters to help guide us through this adventure of watching a white protagonist, struggle and get through high school. Of course, this is just a rough generalization of what we’re used to seeing, but if any John Hughes movie is proof, then yeah, Asians have it bad when it comes to high school movies.

And that’s why Better Luck Tomorrow is so interesting, because it turns that whole viewpoint on the side and for once, shows us Asian Americans who are just like the white protagonists in all of those other movies, except in this case, they’re far more real and raw. These kids here don’t just curse, but they drink, they smoke, they have sex, they get naked, they commit crimes, and hell, they could even care less about their grades. Co-writer/director Justin Lin has made quite the career for himself taking on the Fast and Furious franchise, but if anything, he shows us that he has a unique and smart voice that isn’t just something we’ve seen, or heard before.

Or even if we have, it’s way different than ever before.

Choose Harold. Especially if he has a sick-ass moped. 

And in that sense, yes, Better Luck Tomorrow is a smart film that, honestly, doesn’t get made as much as it should. But then, there’s this other side of the movie that’s actually more about the tone, the feel and the actual plot itself which, believe it or not, still works. Better Luck Tomorrow starts out as your typical coming-of-ager where the guy dreams of getting the girl, but slowly and surely, starts to show its true colors; things get dark, real quick, but you actually believe them. The movie could have easily fallen apart trying to take itself more seriously, but Lin keeps it altogether, showing us that sometimes, when you’re young and feel as if you have nothing left to lose, chances are, you’re going to make some pretty awful, life-altering decisions.

The movie isn’t as hokey as I make it sound, though. Lin knows better then to dive into sentimentality, or to get all caught up in the usual cheesiness that comes with coming-of-age high school tales. There’s a certain feel and look for realism that not only makes the movie oddly relatable, but in a way, rather sweet. We get to see and understand these characters for all that they are, not just who, or what they represent, and it makes us easier to identify with them as troubled, confused and bored kids, as opposed to a bunch of types.

Still, the moral of the story? Well, I’m not so sure and that’s probably the movie’s biggest issue.

It’s hard to figure out just why the ending left a sick taste in my mouth, but it probably has to do with the fact that it just sort of ends, and that’s it. Yes, it’s neat that no real lessons are learned, or even, thankfully, taught to us, but there’s still an odd feeling of something missing. It’s as if the story itself wasn’t over, but just that Lin either ran out of money, or lost some footage, somewhere out there in the world. Either way, it makes Better Luck Tomorrow, what is otherwise a very fun, insightful and rather interesting coming-of-ager, feel weird – as if there was more to be had, but we just didn’t get it.

Consensus: By putting its focus on characters we don’t get to see in the spotlight so much, Better Luck Tomorrow opens itself up to a whole new, interesting world and promises of ideas, but also shows us that oddly fun and compelling tales like these are universal, regardless of race.

8 / 10

Guess what? These kids could probably kick your ass. You just didn’t know it.

Photos Courtesy of: Entertainment Weekly, Decider, Tropics of Meta

The Italian Job (2003)

If you’re going to pull-off a cool heist, your whole gang’s gotta be cool, too. It’s a known fact.

After a super, duper tricky heist in Venice, Steve (Edward Norton) turns on his partners in crime, and ends up killing skilled and legendary safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland). Why? Well, Steve got greed and just wanted to keep all the gold for himself, and not try to cut in anyone else. The rest of the team that Steve ripped-off included leader Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), driver Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), explosives man Left Ear (Mos Def), and tech geek Lyle (Seth Green), or, as he likes to be called “Napster”, now all vow revenge. But in order to totally get back at Steve and ensure that their heist goes down without a hitch, they enlist the help of Bridger’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), so that they can get an inside-view into Steve, his life, and just where exactly he’s hiding all of that damn gold. But it’s known that Steve’s a tricky dude to mess with, and it’s why the gang’s really going to have to get their act together, in order for them to not just pull this all off and get the gold, but ensure that everyone’s alive by the end of it.

“Ayo Marky Mark, check this out. I’ll say hello to my motha for me, too.”

The Italian Job is a typical remake that’s modern, which means that it’s “hip”, “cool”, and totally unnecessary. But still, it’s also a bit of fun and when it comes to remakes of old-school classics, having a bit of fun means a lot, because most of the time, they’re just soulless, annoying and nauseating cash-ins. The Italian Job is different in that it doesn’t seem a whole lot of it was made solely for the money, but that it’s still got the same kind of look, tone and feel of all the other “gang-heists” movies.

Basically, think of it a more adult, somewhat smarter version of the Fast and Furious movies.

Which isn’t to say that the Italian Job is all that dumb of a movie, it’s just silly. But in that silliness, there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had, mostly because F. Gary Gray knows that the best way to keep this material interesting, even when it’s silly, is to always be moving, never stopping and never focusing too hard on one aspect of element too much. We have a heist, we have a cast of characters, we have a baddie, we have a conflict, we have a plan, and that’s really all we need; Gray doesn’t get too bogged down in too many senseless subplots to where it feels like extra padding for a movie that does come a tad close to two hours.

But it’s a solid two hours that keeps up its energy throughout, so much so that you also realize that some of the key issues with the movie, like character-development, are left by the waist-side. Now, there’s a part of me that’s fine with the fact that each character sort of has their one characteristic/personality-trait and there’s not much else to them, but for some reason, it’s hard not to expect something a little more, especially from this well put-together cast. For instance, Statham’s Handsome Rob is pure Statham – silent, but scary, and that’s about all there is to him. Same goes for Seth Green’s “Napster”, who is just the goofy tech-y and yep, that’s it. Mos Def is also sort of like the comedic-support with Left Ear, but he’s got such stiff-competition from Green in that department, that often times, it feels like a lot of his stuff was cut.

And then, there’s the core trio of Wahlberg, Theron, and Norton who all, in any other movie, probably would have put on acting-class beyond our beliefs. But sadly, they’re stuck in a silly actioner that doesn’t quite care about how good of actors they are. As long as they are hot enough and can read lines, than it’s all that matters, right?

Honestly, public-transportation has been worse.

Well, yeah, I guess.

In 2003, it’s hard to believe that Wahlberg was still finding his inner-leading man, which is why his performance as Charlie Croker, while not bad, isn’t necessarily the strongest, either. Same goes for Theron’s Stella, who is basically there to be the hot romantic love-interest for Charlie to eventually learn feelings from. Theron was also in a weird spot in Hollywood where they knew she could act, but she was too busy getting these roles where she was just window-dressing because of her absolutely gorgeous-looks. Not that I’m complaining, but it’s obvious she was made for much, much more.

And of course, the same is clearly said for Norton who, even as the villain here, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Still, Norton tries in what is, essentially, a paycheck gig that allow for him to take more risks with the smaller indie-flicks that he had always became so known and adored for. Even in the moments where we’re supposed to feel like this guy is a total and complete asshole, Norton’s not fully there and it’s weird, because it’s like we almost don’t care and just remember how effective he was in another good heist film, the Score.

But still, all of this talk about performances and characters, guess what? It doesn’t matter. The Italian Job gets the job done it set out to do, right. It doesn’t slow itself down and it sure as hell doesn’t try to appear as anything more than it already is – it’s just a fun, sometimes way too silly flick, with hot, talented people, being hot and cool.

And in that sense, yeah, it’s fine.

I just like to complain.

Consensus: Though it’s disappointing to see such a waste of a good ensemble, the Italian Job still delivers the right amount of fun, thrills and humor to have anyone happy.

7 / 10

As usual, the bro’s don’t know what to do when a tall, beautiful and smart woman comes around. Except Marky. He knows everything.

Photos Courtesy of: Cineplex.com