Kidnap

Halle Berry races against the clock and the road with anything in her way, as the victim of a “Kidnap”. A single mother named Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) lives a perfect life with her young son Frankie (Sage Correa). One day, upon entering a local park, Karla sees her son suddenly being abducted out of the blue by a savage kidnapper. To save Frankie from abduction, Karla goes out on an unending and thrilling car chase behind Frankie’s abductors. Her steely resolve and determination to save her son at any cost takes her on a dangerous mission, endangering herself, as well as her son who is held captive in the antagonist’s car. With little help from the local law enforcement, Karla realizes that if she wants something done right, she’s going to have to put the pedal to the medal and do it herself. “Kidnap” is directed by Luis Prieto, and is rated R for some adult language, scenes of peril, and automobile devastation.

Prieto’s second directing effort has had a bit of problems en-route to making it to the silver screen. After the closing of Relativity Media, “Kidnap” was one of a few films that sat on the shelf well past its designated release date. Set for debut in December 2016, Prieto’s movie never reached the light of day for whatever reason, being pushed to the end of 2017 for its new possibility. After finally getting my hands on a copy of it, I can once again understand why such decisions get made by big budget studios. “Kidnap” is very much as conventional and underwhelming as it gets with the chase subgenre, mainly because there’s nothing extraordinary or memorable about the 90 minutes that you sit through to reach the predictable ending. If you’re fortunate enough to sit through the trailer, you will already have an idea in your head about the meandering direction and risk-less sequences that play out before our very eyes. Its biggest sin is that it isn’t terrible enough to be laughable, it’s forgettable enough to be wasteful, an idea that too many of these B-90’s films are settling for twenty years after their expiration dates.

Right off of the bat, we are treated to everything that we will come to understand with what follows in this careless picture. A slideshow of Frankie growing up and being narrated by Berry opens the film, but her vocals are clearly inserted in post production. How do I know this? Because her voice never sounds any different in tone from scene-to-scene, nor blurred any in volume when a video takes place outside or around loud circumstances. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much because this is among the only narration that we received for the entirety of the movie. The biggest problem with having a film take place entirely on the road is that there’s very little time to soak things in and allow the audience to follow along with our protagonist. Because of this, Berry is relegated to coming off as a psychopath by continuing to talk to herself and explain her plans in great detail. It’s evident that this is for the audience and not so much for her worry towards the ensuing developments, but because this movie has virtually no evolving plot aside from what you read above, we have to be satisfied with the crash-and-stash mentality that Prieto conjures up.

The story stays faithfully grounded, limiting what happens off of the road with character exposition or plot advancement. If there is one positive, I can safely say that “Kidnap” is everything that it advertises. There’s no manipulation when the movie phones in the emphasis on urgency that films like these need to steal your emotional investment. Despite this, the film’s pacing rarely ever lags or drags due to boredom, but the overly-anxious push to a speedy conclusion throttles to a dead end road full of neatly tucked away conclusions. Believe me when I say that there is nothing remotely fascinating about the ending of this movie, even skimping on the setup for a possible fight scene that could’ve showed the true rage of a Mother protecting her cub. The film’s final fifteen minutes just kind of come and go with very little adversity, and it proved to be the final stamp on a movie that didn’t care enough to offer a satisfying enough poetic justice for those who commit the most unlawful of crimes.

As far as the actual action goes, the stuff on the road is satisfying enough, very rarely slowing down to give us the chance to breathe. The problem comes in the logic of the circumstances that our hero, as well as our villain makes along the way. If one thing was clear to me early on, it was that this film certainly isn’t raising any geniuses, and while there is something to be said about thinking under the pressure of the moment, there’s a louder voice speaking to the depths of just how easy it would be for Karla to defeat her faceless nemesis in minutes, or how said nemesis keeps managing to run into her despite getting several head-starts and immense advantages. Because this isn’t a cerebral chase film on the heels of 90’s thrillers like “Breakdown” or “Highwaymen”, it immediately takes away from how cunning that the mental chess game between these characters could’ve been.

Some more of the technical achievements that I pulled from the movie only added further to the already lackluster approach that handicaps Prieto’s abilities. Each chase sequence is shot in the same formulaic tone that it rarely offers it from different levels of perspective to appreciate what a crew can do with a camera. There were several scenes that embraced the style of shooting Berry’s ridiculously cheesy facial expressions, then cut to the front of the car, then zoom out. Rinse, wash, repeat. It’s only impressive by its generic nature. In addition to this, there was a scene early on when the chase starts that is so ugly in depiction that I find it hard to believe that Ray Charles couldn’t have shot it better. It reminded me eerily of how you will watch a trailer and watch the cliche of everything fading to black scene after scene. That’s fine for a trailer, but when that happens in the movie that you pay hard earned money for, you’ve got a real problem. Thankfully, they only do this the once, but its soul appearance gives off the impression of a different editor who left the job early on.

Thankfully, Halle is a competent actress when it comes to giving it her all, as her performance was one of very few notable positives that I pulled from the movie. Aside from the goofy facials that I expressed about earlier, Berry commands Karla as a mentally unfurling force of one who refuses to ever give up when it comes to the thing she loves most in this world. On that sense, Karla feels like a character that many women will easily get behind, and Berry’s conscious effort behind it seals the deal for a protagonist who grows in doubles by the end of the film. I’ve always thought she was a solid actress, just accepts the leads in movie scripts that are well below her potential in terms of material. Don’t believe me? See “Gothika”, “Catwoman”, and “The Call”, the latter of which is essentially the same movie as “Kidnap”. Berry definitely deserved better antagonists for the film, because if the movie doesn’t even find them interesting enough to focus on until the final act, why should we as an audience?

THE VERDICT – “Kidnap” catches a flat tire of modest ambition early on, and then spins out of control by the end of the film, with stretched logic and lackluster consequence. Berry’s performance proves that she can still bring a tasty center to a meaty delivery, but unfortunately the miniscule scale here is what kept her abilities and the film alike, on the shelf for the past five months. This one steals our childlike dreams of ambition for hopes of an enjoyable hour-and-a-half, and never gives them back. Unlike Berry in the movie, I’m still in search of my time back.

4/10

The Case For Christ

The struggle for the true legitimacy of Christ becomes the constant battle for a tabloid reporter, in The Case For Christ. Based on the true story of an award-winning investigative journalist Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel) , an avowed atheist who applies his well-honed journalistic and legal skills to disprove the newfound Christian faith of his wife… with unexpected, life-altering results. What started as the easiest project that he claims to have ever taken, Lee soon finds himself coming to terms with the fact that everything that he has come to know might have been false, signaling a change in his life that has him living with his eyes wide open for the first time in his life. The Case For Christ is directed by Jon Gunn, and is rated PG for thematic elements including medical descriptions of crucifixion, and incidental smoking.

For a movie whose plot hinges on the importance of facts and disproving what simply isn’t proven, The Case For Christ has so very little actual facts to hang its sermon on. Make no mistakes about it, I don’t fault believers or atheists for their stances on the issue. Believe what you believe, and leave everybody else alone. My job as a critic is to grade the film for what it brings to the table for the argument. Unfortunately, this is another case of a religious movie taking its nearly two hour time table to narrate these long-winded diatribes about religion and how wrong atheists are, instead of crafting an entertaining movie that all can enjoy. I’m not foolish enough for one second to think that Christians and Catholics won’t enjoy this movie. If God is in the plot, it’s a pretty sure thing. The problem though, is that these films rarely open their arms to the uncertain members of the audience who live in the middle, often issuing a challenge in so many words of you’re either with us or you’re against us. That is my biggest problem with a majority of these movies; their alienating stance is near predictable from the get-go, and often leads you down a checklist of religious movie cliches that you can see coming from a mile away.

On the subject of some of those cliches, there are many here that kept popping up that kept me giggling like a schoolgirl. Of course there’s the obvious symbolic references; sunlight shining through the windows, illustrating a presence of God always watching his followers, crosses in the distance overlooking the disbelievers for the inevitability of their embrace of the almighty, and of course my favorite one of all; the atheist who is the biggest pig in the movie. Atheists in these movies are often given the cold shoulder long before they actually do something terrible. In God’s Not Dead, an atheist teacher gets into a car wreck and dies because he refuses to see the light. In Do You Believe? it was a divorce between a doctor and his wife because he didn’t believe. In The Case For Christ, we get an alcoholic reporter who refers to religion as “God Nonsense”. Because the answer can never be in the middle, we are often subjected to the worst in a Disney cartoon villain who can’t be a good person without the presence of religion in his life. If you can’t see the propaganda or ridiculousness behind this concept, then you won’t find anything faulty with the logic in this kind of film.

Maybe it’s story that you seek. In that case, The Case For Christ has so little of it, instead opting for a dual narrative that needs as much help to fill in the periods of downtime along the way. In addition to the God article, there’s a subplot that involves a police officer being shot by a black man, in which Lee does as much to convict the shooter as possible. As the film goes on, he finds out more-and-more that it was the cop who is hiding key details about that event, and the supposed shooter might be innocent. How this ties together is because Lee was living with his eyes closed, and that is the biggest push to Lee understanding the belief of God. This flimsy detail simply doesn’t belong in this story, and it’s only there to push the presence of an actual movie run time that would otherwise barely qualify as an after school special. The way that they tie it together in the final fifteen minutes is every bit as hokey as it is desperate, and the two plots often contrive one another, instead of building to a sum of greater parts. Because we all know where the finale is heading, there’s no point in hiding it; Lee does in fact become a believer. The problem is that this stance doesn’t feel like a steady transformation, but more of a beating down into submission so he and his family can return to being whole. There’s never that moment that should trigger his immense feeling of doubt, and without it this debate often feels like a draw, instead of a captivating verdict that can solidify the film’s existence.

I mentioned earlier that facts don’t play to many arguments in this movie, and that is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of The Case For Christ, not only in title but also in debate. Some of the tiers to the argument for are that over 500 witnesses saw Christ when he was resurrected. The movie conveniently ignores the fact that most of these witnesses were believers to begin with, and the lack of integrity within their own moral fiber rarely comes into question. There are also pieces of original bible pages and cloth from Christ that are shown, never once questioning the authenticity of their presence. I found out when I was 10 years old that my Dad was able to get Charles Barkley to autograph my birthday card, only later finding out that he was a master in forging signatures. My point is that without digging deeper this only solidifies how terrible of a reporter Lee is, and can easily be persuaded. In fact, it’s probably an appropriate measure that this movie does take place during the 70’s because a lot of what the movie calls facts have since been disproved by modern science with literally thousands of articles on the origin of this central figure. Interesting how that doesn’t come into play during this movie.

What does hold the movie up is a production quality that surprisingly accurately articulates the cultures and landscapes of the disco generation. Major props goes to the set designers who cast many colorful tributes to the days of hairspray oversaturation, as well as muscle cars and bell-bottom jeans that were all the craze. The movie does a solid job of capturing the essence of its respective decade, some imagery of Tootsie Blow Pop commercials, as well as a collection of 70’s rock ballads like ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ to compliment the montage scenes that orchestrate well to Lee’s quest. Speaking of musical accompanyment, the movie also has some scintilating tones composed by that of religious film composer mainstay Will Musser. Usually his scores are a bit meandering, but here he tunes at the essence of tabloid drama films like Spotlight and The Paper to command a piano driven synth that plays to that big budget presentation.

The Case For Christ doesn’t quite present the best case for religious supporters seeking a movie worthy of their faith. It’s a logic-lacking, jumpy narrative that often grasps at paper thin straws of circumstance to debate the doubters who have since debunked their theories and holes. Thankfully, there are some excelling aspects to the production qualities of the movie that reaches a little deeper into the Pureflix wallet than other films before it. Strobel would be better debating the hypocrisy of different films uttering the same stances. At least then we might get somewhere with giving these movies a fresh direction.

4/10

Smurfs: The Lost Village

The blue forrest dwellers are back, this time in search of a mystic village that beholds an ancient secret. Smurfs: The Lost Village revolves around a mysterious map that sets Smurfette (Demi Lovato) and her best friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Mangianello) on an exciting and thrilling race through the Forbidden Forest filled with magical creatures to find a mysterious lost village inhabited by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson). Embarking on a rollercoaster journey full of action and danger, the Smurfs are on a course that leads to the discovery of the biggest secret in Smurf history. Smurfs: The Lost Village is directed by Kelly Asbury, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The Lost Village feels like a re-introduction of sorts to the blue elf-like creatures that embraced the imagination in all of our childhoods. It’s not a remake, nor a sequel to the two live action children’s movies that came before it, but it treats the audience with some intelligence considering this is anything but an origin story. On the subject of those two films that came before it, The Lost Village is a MUCH better improvement, shuffling out the cringe-worthy of live action celebrities doing career-ending things, for the colorful animation of this eye-popping world. There are definitely problems not only to the canvas, but to that of the screenplay itself, which leaves as little as a lasting impact that can be imagined, but at 85 minutes, it’s harmless enough to leave you without many lasting memories of that one time you had to see a third Smurfs movie that left you cursing when coming out of the theater. This is a kids movie first, and Asbury knows such, immersing the youthful audience to wacky noises and visuals sight gags that will treat them to a good time even when Mom and Dad are checking their smartphones to reply to their latest text message.

What is refreshing about this story is that it takes a modern approach of sorts in slapping Smurfette with the honors of being the central protagonist, a concept that up until now felt like a distant fantasy to anybody who knows of the male dominated backdrop that makes up these tales. There’s something commanding about this feminist approach in depiction that speaks volumes to the revolution happening within our own world. Unfortunately, the women in the audience deserved a more eventful, albeit unpredictable concept deep within this picture. When children’s movies these days are catering to a more extensive audience, The Lost Village stays juvenile with desperate physical humor, as well as tired puns that constantly keep missing their mark with each passing second. This is a Smurfs movie, so nobody is expecting shakespeare in terms of dialogue, but some of the exchanges in this film felt very distracting to the event-by-event narration that was happening before our very eyes. These are conversations that can easily be edited or trimmed with a screenwriter who believes less is more, and there were so many of these long-winded scenarios that took me out on more than one occasion. Beyond this, everything is predictable. There wasn’t one remote shock or awe within the film that ever kept me remotely guessing. The secret within this lost village is one that kind of goes without saying, and its setup feels on more than one occasion like a cheap porno setting that at least brought a giggle or two out of me. Early on, you realize that this is the kind of movie where you can take a quick 30 minute power nap, wake up, and realize you could still follow along with precision at how very little impact or weightless gravity that this film really has. Predictability makes the most difficult straw in attention-grabbing, and on that scale The Lost Village more so than not lives up to its clever title.

The material in comedy did get me a couple of times early on in the opening act, but soon feels contempt to phone it in with more of the same along the journey. Smurf puns are the most God-awful thing to this critic, and this film certainly has no shortage of them, spouting off line-after-line of filling in the blank with the word ‘Smurf’. Because this is a kids movie first and foremost, the funny bone of this movie relies heavily on what you see and less on what you hear, signaling how little emphasis rests with clever dialogue they really have. The off-beat personalities within the group are enjoyable even if their actual character is repeatedly one-dimensional. I did enjoy Gargamel’s constant ribbing with his cat that showcased the sidekick clearly being smarter than the leader. It seems like this is the aspect of the movie that is one step smarter than the rest of the movie, poking fun at the age old cartoon that had more than one ridiculous aspect to this tier.

The animation was a little off-beat, despite some colorful palate choices that frequently stand out. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of beauty in this Smurf village, which is depicted in high definition animation for the first time in the 21st century. The vibrant tapestry sets a bar of rainbow-like imagination that has only recently been touched by last year’s Trolls. My problem is more in the definition of the animated renderings. To me, it feels like the production team sacrificed fluid movements and layering for blotches of paint that do their best but don’t fully succeed at hiding the problems that I mentioned. The scenes in the laboratory of Gargamel scream of a Dexter’s Laboratory meets Johnny Bravo style of animation from the late 20th century that we are simply too advanced for at this stage. There’s so much about the textures that scream of a Saturday morning cartoon, and this left me scrambling for big-screen definition in an otherwise small game that plagued the visual specter of the movie.

The celebrity cast do a fine job of radiating these personalities to life with some voice acting that triumphs in a who’s who of audible syncing. But the real amazement will come when you see this complete list of heralded actors and actresses who voiced the supporting cast. I will not spoil it. You will have to check it out for yourself. Lovato clearly has the biggest ambition with her character, and the soundtrack of a couple of her songs are more than enough to communicate that this is first and foremost her yard. Demi’s sweet soprano-esque levels brought Smurfette to a place of emotional clarity that we have rarely seen from her character. Jack McBrayer is possibly my favorite of the movie as Clumsy however, despite the stealing of two scenes by director himself Kelly Asbury as Nosey that constantly brought smiles to my face in brief delivery. McBrayer though, is most known for his flamboyant vocal tones that really emote that of a cartoon character. Look no further because he is a delightful injection of off-the-wall humor, as well as spunk in personality that cements him among the all-time greats of actors who have lent their voices to these infamous blue rascals.

Smurfs: The Lost Village isn’t quite to the level of animated films that adults and their children can embrace alike, nor is it consistently entertaining to the value of constant re-watches. But Asbury delivers at illustrating a world of wonderment, as well as a brief, predictable story that should keep the attention of kids for an hour-and-a-half while Mommy and Daddy get some housework done. This franchise still has a long way to go to reach the levels that it deserves, but it left me feeling slightly better than the two live action disasters before it that (Like the characters) left me blue.

4/10

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine gets ‘The Last Word’ in Mark Pellington’s newest dramedy, also starring Amanda Seyfried and Anne Heche. MacLaine is Harriet Lauler, a once successful businesswoman in tight control of every aspect of her life. As she reflects upon her accomplishments, she’s suddenly inspired to engage a young local writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her life’s story. When the initial result doesn’t meet Harriet’s high expectations, Anne sets out to reshape the way she is remembered, with Anne dragged along as an unwilling and unflattering accomplice. As the journey unfolds, the two women develop a unique bond which alters not only Harriet’s legacy, but also Anne’s future. ‘The Last Word’ is rated R for adult language.

‘The Last Word’ is a decent enough plot to entice its audience into checking it out. There has always been a certain curiosity to the kind of legacies that we as humans with our time on this world will leave behind, and what kind of words and sentences will be used to trigger our memories. This, in addition to the film’s hearty message of living for today and not being afraid to fail, is one that I take with great meaning and intention. Unfortunately, it had to come at the hands of a movie that is the exact counter opposite of such a quota. Saying that this is one of the most artificially emotional films that comes to mind simply doesn’t do enough. This is one that should be avoided at all costs because it doesn’t take the time or the transformation in its central character to merit the kind of somber finale that this film intended. On top of that, it’s trying to channel one too many emotional responses. It wants to be awkwardly funny with characters you despise, yet it also wants you to take pity upon said character when the inevitable rears its ugly head. One of these directions is fine, but to take both contradicts the other and leads us down a path of dishonorable proportions.

The story of this narrative revolves around Harriet’s redemption, especially when she finds out that many people were either afraid or terribly disgusted with a lot of her actions in her early life. These people range from her co-workers at a prestigious law firm, to her daughter who has wanted nothing to do with her for the better part of her existence. Over the course of the next 103 minutes, the story of Harriet trying to right her wrongs is interrupted and cast aside for Anne’s disappointing life. Contrived when it is trying to attain profound, and it never materializes to anything for the character it should be. Because this movie takes so much time in establishing and solving Anne’s own personal flaws, there’s very little time left for Harriet to become this person that makes us bask in her triumph by the end of the film. Sure, Harriet is helping Anne along the way to achieving the kind of dreams that she wants as a writer, but she does it at such a disrespectful cost along the way, often pausing the progress to critique or humiliate her in front of total strangers. There is simply no transformation to Harriet by film’s end, so we are kind of left with the same shadow of a human being living up to every nasty and honest thing being spread about her. A winding journey that essentially has no conclusion, but here’s the movie that tells us how important she was in the eyes of someone who knew her for two weeks. Bravo.

The performances aren’t half bad, even if their intended directions tiptoe the grounds of conventional storytelling. Shirley Maclaine still has the firepower of a scene-stealer, and commands that presence through many hearty laughs throughout the movie. Even if her character is moral garbage, Harriet is definitely someone who doesn’t balk at having a good time, and a lot of that resonates because of Maclaine’s own timely humor that rarely ever misses its mark. Amanda Seyfried is decent, even if she is playing her usual stick here. Surprisingly, the two actresses from respectably vast age groups share the kind of depth in chemistry that would normally take a couple of films to channel. There are very few scenes when their characters aren’t together, and those make for the roughest in terms of transitional arcs from one subplot to the next. I also greatly enjoyed the work of AnnJewel Lee Dixon as the troubled youth that Harriet and Anne take in to better the former’s caring stature. Even if this insensitive subplot is honorable, Dixon is a delight to watch as a child with a few choice words to describe the awkwardness of those around her. I’m a sucker for kids cursing aloud, so AnnJewel won my heart and stole many of scenes even when her character felt flimsy to the importance of the movie.

The only other thing of notoriety was that of the pacing, which feels smooth in transition during the opening half hour or so, but then insufferably slow during the last act of the movie that tacks on far too much. It’s odd that the film can feel two different kinds of sequence storytelling speeds, but ‘The Last Words’ accomplishes this rare feat by elevating its story as it goes to contrived levels. I would’ve preferred that the film stick with that first act more, as much of its script focused more on the issue at hand of the people that Harriet has wronged over her life. Anne’s story is OK, but it isn’t one that feels necessarily important to the urgency of Harriet’s disposition, and so much of this tier of the story should’ve been left on the cutting room floor in favor for Harriet receiving tough love in consequences for the things that she has done. A direction that goes virtually unexplored and feels miles away the deeper that we immerse ourselves in this emotionally unstable script.

The Last Words of this particular film don’t generate the kind of somber or important message that the film had intended. Maclaine still slices with sharp precision in three-dimensional characteristics, but unfortunately for her the movie that accompanies is an uneven emotional mess that never hinders its potential behind a road of clarity for its morally blind protagonist. Even more so, there’s nothing of memorable merit to the bland dealings of this script, leaving Pellington’s latest dead on arrival before it finds the proper footing in collective tone. The lack of credibility in emotional truth undermines its own success.

4/10

Table 19

A table of rejects revolt against the weddings that keep them distant at Table 19. Ex-maid of honor Eloise (Anna Kendrick) – having been relieved of her duties after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man via text, decides to hold her head up high and attend her oldest friend’s wedding anyway. She finds herself seated at the ‘random’ table in the back of the ballroom with a disparate group of strangers, most of whom should have known to just send regrets (but not before sending something nice off the registry). As everyone’s secrets are revealed, Eloise learns a thing or two from the denizens of Table 19. Friendships – and even a little romance, can happen under the most unlikely circumstances. Table 19 is written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity.

‘Table 19’ concerns itself with trying to be too many kinds of genres at once during a brief 82 minute offering that cuts itself short at nearly every subplot that the script tries to present itself. Upon seeing trailers of this picture, people will think that they are engaging themselves into a quirky wedding comedy, full of hijinks and awkward humor, and for the first half hour of this movie, we are presented that delicious dish of as promised. In general, this feels like an idea for an episode of an NBC sitcom that was scrapped for being deemed too flimsy of an idea. Then, when the studio tries to sell this as a motion picture, there comes a great responsibility to fill the other fifty minutes with a satisfying enough ending that sends audiences home happy. Look, I’m not trying to point the accusing finger here, but the screenwriter clearly either watched or has a fascination with ‘The Breakfast Club’ while writing this script, and it reflects during a second half of a movie that has one too many coincidences to pay homage to. With each diminishing breath we are pushed further and further away from the concepts and quirks that audiences fell in love with for a two minute trailer, instead of an 82 minute film with only thirty minutes of credible ideas.

As I mentioned before, the first act is delightful, mixing in a satisfying blend of awkward wedding commentary with an 80’s backdrop in soundtrack that is every bit as nostalgic as it is torturous on the ears. The idea of this terrible wedding band performing these songs are justified and appropriate if anyone has ever had to endure a group like them for multiple hours a sitting. There’s also an admirably sweet romantic subplot being setup between Anna Kendrick’s character and a stranger who she meets that very day. It is remotely predictable, but sometimes safe is the best way to play these kind of subplots to send the audience home with a satisfying taste in their mouths. I became slightly concerned however, as much of what I saw in the trailer happened during these initial thirty minutes, leaving me wondering what was to be setup and explored for the remainder of this movie that I was slowly falling in love with. There in lies the real truth with ‘Table 19’; it’s a soiled drama that tries to pass itself off for cutesy, harmless fun. A manipulation that I was struck with brutally during the second act that switches up everything that you’ve come to learn by this point.

For ‘The Breakfast Club’ dramatic portion of this script, we are treated to these six strangers coming together and growing as a group of outcasts who everyone pre-determined as losers. They decide to leave the wedding together to do drugs, dissect how imperfect each of their lives are, and are faced with the inevitability of a day in which time will eventually run out on their union. Sound familiar? If this wasn’t enough, there is even a dance scene near the end of the movie that seems to stop time and space for them to lash back at the snobs who rejected them. I wouldn’t have a problem with any of this change of direction if it were properly built and given enough time to mature from the immaturity that we delightfully endured during the first act. At 82 minutes, there’s so little that you can do with a multitude of characters and situations, and so much of that is glossed over without ever going back to again, leaving sloppy situational drama that feels so out of place when combined with a setup that was anything but.

The finale continues this the bi-polar trend by treating us to a 90’s romantic comedy between two people who couldn’t be worse off for each other. I mentioned earlier about Kendrick being setup with this mysterious stranger. Well, you can forget about that because the film steps on what would’ve been the better direction for her character, in favor of an option that has been proven disastrous on more than one occasion. This is a major betrayal on her character because Kendrick works best during the first act when she is rebelling against a group of family and friends who feel like they are moving on without her. Beyond this, the final twenty minutes of the film go back-and-forth rushing so much character exposition into the final frames that it often feels like an hour has been squeezed in to accommodate the overabundance of subplots that the film introduced for itself. Most of the closing scenes do very little to make me think that these characters have grown, nor will their outcast tag be removed by the society that dubbed them one. It is seriously the most insulting of wrap-ups that treat the serious problems plaguing their respective situations like they are a cake walk, when the second act wanted us to understand them as happiness-threatening. That lack of directional decision making is what charred this invitation on more than one chance, refusing to ever settle for just another cute an quirky indie comedy.

If this wasn’t enough, the very setup is flawed with this being the table that nobody wants to show up. Midway through the movie, we are told that the Mother of the bride was hoping that nobody at table 19 would RSVP, therefore preventing her from spending $200 more per seat. How about you just don’t invite them in the first place? If you sent them an invitation, you can’t be mad at their acceptance. That’s just an inane idea that makes very little sense on the ideas of saving. But the plot needs them to be there, so we are supposed to forget this line in the screenplay that did more damage than good at setting the stage for this group to come together and enjoy one another’s company.

Besides Kendrick, there were really only two characters who I reasoned with and enjoyed for this movie. Nobody is terribly miscast, but characters like Craig Robertson, Lisa Kudrow, and Tony Revolori are given very little logic or reasoning for their appearance frame-to-frame. June Squibb continues to be a national treasure, taking the reigns as the new senior citizen known for her unabashed observations in a sometimes dumbed-down society. June feels like a Eugene Levy kind of character, where she feels wiser than the youthful faces that surround her table, and I couldn’t use enough of her startling dry releases. Stephen Merchant though, is leaps and bounds the single best aspect of this movie. Merchant doesn’t have a ton of screen time or dialogue, but where he excels is those quick cut edits where we soak in character reactions to something silly that just happened. Stephen is a master at this concept, and does it so well that you often forget that he is even there, sneaking his way into every scene-stealing moment that the script allows him. If nothing else, ‘Table 19’ provides us with a supporting cast that entices us to look past Kendrick’s short comings as truly one of the most misleading lead characters of an early 2017.

‘Table 19’ is one reservation that would be better suited to send an eraser as a newlywed gift, for its inability to choose a faithful direction to steer it clear of the many misfires that the movie takes us though. To watch this is to endure thirty minutes of awkward humor, thirty minutes of misplaced drama, and twenty minutes of romantic resurgence. Totaling 80 minutes that would be better suited at the open bar, instead of this inconsistent table that collapses under the power of one leg to stand on.

4/10

Rock Dog

One musically infused canine uses his love of music to save the day, in Summit Premiere’s Rock Dog. For the Tibetan Mastiffs living on Snow Mountain, a dog’s life has a simple riff: Guard a peaceful village of wool-making sheep from the thuggish wolf Linnux (Lewis Black) and his rabid pack. To avoid distractions, Mastiff leader Khampa (J.K. Simmons) forbids all music from the mountain. But when Khampa’s son Bodi (Luke Wilson) discovers a radio dropped by a passing airplane, it takes just a few guitar licks for his fate to be sealed: Bodi wants to be a rock-n-roll star. Yet that means defying his father’s wishes, heading to the city, and locating the legendary and reclusive – musician Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard), who needs to write a new song and fast. If Bodi can put a band together, help Angus with his song, and defeat the wolves’ plot to take Snow Mountain, his life will be in tune. Bodi will become what he’s always dreamed of being: A Rock Dog. The movie is written and directed by Ash Brannon, and is rated PG for action and some adult language.

Blending the different worlds of Asian and American animation companies seemed like a great idea. Rock Dog is sadly another failed attempt by amateur animation studios to cash in on a children’s movie without a lot of energy or patience to go into the project. There are some positives that keep it from being an early favorite on 2017’s worst films of the year list, but a majority of its lackluster presentation feels like a passable thirty minute movie that falls short of producing fifty more valuable minutes to push it even futher. This is a movie and character that simply never find the appropriate footing in terms of entertainment value or synthetic pacing to grab and hook children to its original take on music and canine characters alike. It’s too bland to be effective, and too void of anything fresh or compelling to offer any positives with word of mouth from anybody desperate enough to see this Frankenstein mess of careless offerings. There’s nothing terribly offensive about Rock Dog, it’s just a movie that is easily forgettable twenty minutes after you leave the theater, and I’ve nailed down a few reasons for that.

First of all, there’s the animation and art direction for the movie that strums to some gorgeous backdrop detail before snapping a creative chord on character motion detection. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that it was the backgrounds that weren’t in-sync with the movements of the characters, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gorgeous landscapes and effective shading palates to go for the changing locations throughout the movie, shine the brightest in a list of positives that are very moot. You’ll never get the kind of detail like a Pixar or Dreamworks film, but my hats off to Summit Premiere for some noteworthy eye-catching enhancements to make this foreign setting pop, giving children an first-class presentation on European cultures. With the character designs, they felt jarringly rendered to needing another two or three months of edits for finishing. The mouth movements line up accordingly to the vocal work of our A-list cast, but it’s in the lack of fluidity on their body motions that leave a little more to be desired. For the entirety of this movie, it’s obvious that Summit is trying to make the movements in scenes as minimal as necessary, mainly because it constantly feels like our characters are moving in slow motion. I compare it to that of a Playstation 1 Crash Bandicoot video game, in which you can nearly see the lines in design for what minimal effort went into their color schemes and movements. It’s a tough sell immediately when even the animation doesn’t live up to the rich textures that kids are used to seeing from much better movies in 2017.

The script is also full of problems that hinder it from moving forward at nearly every possibility. Considering this film revolves around this dog trying to succeed as a musician, it’s easy to see that the two other subplots that the film entails were kind of left out in the cold in terms of the attention that they received. One such subplot involving a shoe-horned Wolf villain (Voiced by Lewis Black), not only feels unnecessary to the film, but also one that slows down each and every time that we get a little closer to understanding what music means to our central protagonist. This subplot was forgotten about during the second act, and brought back for the third. The final subplot involving Bodi’s father (Voiced by J.K Simmons), shows him holding down the fort against the wolves. This subplot is forgotten about completely during the third act, and brought back for the closing minutes. You start to understand how little any of this matters when Bodi is faced with conflict on three separate occasions in the movie, only to defeat and conquer it in a matter of seconds. If an 80 minute run time didn’t feel rushed, a quick slice of unimpressive conflict should settle the debate. Another concerning aspect is the lack of comedy that the script possesses. It’s one thing to fail miserably at your comedic stick, but it’s completely a new low when that movie doesn’t even try. I didn’t laugh one time at Rock Dog, and that’s certainly not for lack of listening. The writers to this movie left out that ability to laugh, leaving it almost a certainty that kids will suffer great attention defecit in a movie that fails to keep them properly entertained.

The voice performances are decent, mostly because the work of Black and Izzard offer complimentary personalities to the silly character designs visually that they are given. Black was made for voice work. His angry delivery is simply too delightful to not take advantage of in an antagonist offering, and even though I felt his character was pointless, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when he occasionally popped back up. Izzard gives his best Russell Brand impression, as an Aldous Snow of sorts as Angus. Eddie’s delivery feels like the only true rock stereotype in a movie named after it, and the mumblings of a musician searching for the next hit to keep him on top will remind you of icons like Ozzy Osbourne, even so much as having a robot servant named Ozzy. The only real disappointment that I had was that of Wilson vocalizing the title character. It’s not that Wilson underplays it, it’s that he underwhelms it with his vocal range. Luke is someone who would be better fitted as a supporting character rather than the central figure whose soul mission is to entertain. He simply does not, and Rock Dog falls behind as a supporting character of sorts in his own movie.

One thing that did surprise me was the tremendous soundtrack that this movie shelled out the bucks for. Is overspending on Top 40 hits perhaps the reason why everything else feels at half effort? You be the judge. Radiohead and Foo Fighters are among the bands musically narrating their way through Bodi’s journey to dreams, and their inclusion feels awkwardly satisfying for a kids movie that would usually produce some watered down B-side artists to conjure up an original lackluster song. The original soundtrack itself was also very pleasing, as Bodi’s two songs in the movie stayed in my head long after I left the theater. After having Illumination’s Sing last year, Rock Dog feels more my tempo with actual rock hits that always reach their targeted emotion during their appropriate dropping. This might be the only time I compliment Rock Dog over Sing, and that’s thankfully because the production of the movie didn’t skimp with artists who aren’t always the first call on an animation soundtrack.

Rock Dog strums along to its own original beat free of big name studios, but strikes a dull chord too many with generic animation and a flawed script that doesn’t scratch the surface of edgy or compelling entertainment. Perhaps the biggest flaw of this canine chord-striker are the risks that his story simply doesn’t take, leaving a dry offering that will have audiences of all ages battling narcolepsy.

4/10

Fifty Shades Darker

Get ready to settle into something a little more comfortable, in the anticipated sequel Fifty Shades Darker. Following the events of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) tries to move on from her relationship with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She begins a new job as personal assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), a powerful executive with a less-than flattering appeal to Ana himself. After some passed time, A wounded Christian meets Ana for dinner and convinces her to resume their romance under Ana’s conditions, free from any secrets, contracts or lies. As the couple begins their normal relationship, Christian’s past, as well as the new characters coming into frame in their new union, threaten to tear apart all that our two protagonists have built for each other. Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley, and is rated R for for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and adult language.

Fifty Shades Darker attempts once again to bottle the questionable chemistry of two leads whose moral accountability comes into question on more than one occasion. To know this film is terribly underwritten in terms of story depth and character exposition is a given, but to acknowledge all of that and know you had fun with it, is an even greater feat to admit. That’s the situation that I find myself with because there’s something about these films that are so empty and hollow in material offerings, yet you can’t help but remove your hands from your eyes every time you hear an awkward exchange or notice an unsexy form of intimacy between our characters. It is very much the fast food of the softcore porn industry; terribly bad for you, but tastes nourishing going down. This doesn’t mean that Fifty Shades Darker is off the hook completely for its underwhelming presentation, it just means that a competent director like James Foley knows where to carefully place the pieces to at least divert the attention of moviegoers like myself who are always seeking more from their movies.

The script feels very much like a barrage of one-off liner notes fused together to make a finished product that feels jarringly unfitting in terms of the rest of the events around it. E.L James seems to have a grave incompetence when it comes to long-term storytelling, the bulk of which feels evident here through the many story arks that are thrown at the creative wall, seeking some form of fusion to build the entertainment that is constantly evaporating with the chemistry in the room. More on that later. But some of the examples within this chapter of the Christian Grey narrative deal with a stalking ex-girlfriend, a harassing boss of Anastasia’s who gets a tad bit too close, and a late third act accident that places the life of one character in grave danger. Normally, events like these would be presented vital time in development to accurately depict the true severity of their situations. Not in this world however, as each event in this relationship is glossed over like a gnat on the skin of a lion, brushed off quickly like the unimportant speck that it is. When you consider how much really happened over the two hours of this film, very little of it feels memorable or even slightly hindering on the relationship of these two horrible characters who re-define what we view as people.

We have now spent four total hours with the characters of Steele and Grey, and with the exception of some flacid abuse backstory at the hands of the latter, I feel like I know very little about either one of them. What I do know is that Steele is arguably the worst female protagonist that any of these Y.A novels have conjured up. Whether you agree with my stance or not, you have to admit that certain unlikeable aspects about her character really make you question where our authors are heading with female protagonists in the 21st century. During a time when a women’s revolution is taking place in our own world, we have a woman in Steele who doesn’t fight for the things that she wants, is easily a pushover when it comes to her dominant male opposite, and seems to be able to swallow anything as long as her love interest is handsome and rich. This would all be enough to label her as the worst character that I have dealt with over the last two years, but she is given the silver when it comes to the Grey in this charisma-less world. Christian is the epitome of what should be an antagonist. He’s rich, so he feels like he can buy anything and anyone, he has no connection to the heart of his love interest beyond sexual relations, and feels very immature at family gatherings for someone pushing 27 years of age. The only reason why these two work well together is because both of them are so traumatically rotten on the inside that they couldn’t successfully be with anyone else. The chemistry between Johnson and Dornan has at least slightly improved in this film, but the lack of anything meaningful given the rightful amount of screen time, renders their stigmas frighteningly hollow. This much is evident by again an overabundance of sexual material to make up for ill-timed chemistry that constantly misses its mark.

On the subject of sexual material, the film gives us six different sex scenes over a 113 minute picture. Sex is an important aspect to a story and series of this nature, so how does it stack up with garnishing its signature crop? With the exception of the final sex scene, most of the exchanges feel awkward and unbelievable when it comes to the fluidity of the motions or placement of the bodies. Some of the awkwardness could be blamed on a terrible soundtrack that sadly overrode a Danny Elfman composed score that wasn’t half bad when you got to hear it. There’s no passion to these embraces, and a lot of that can be blamed on the fact that these two characters re-unite only fifteen minutes into the movie. That lack of time hinders any kind of release for the audience that had to go a long time for the reunion, and even more so when you consider that they have only been broken up for a week. The pacing of these sex scenes could’ve used more spreading out, as there are four in the first forty minutes of the movie, then not another one for nearly an hour. As I mentioned, I did commend them for the final sex scene because it does get interesting with the bondage aspect re-introduced, as well as it feeling like a celebration of sorts to the great news that is revealed for both characters in the closing minutes of the film.

The film also succeeds at luring in its audience once again to exceptional set designs and quality cinematography that at least accurately depicts the lavish lifestyles of a man with money to spend. The greyish tint (No pun intended) does wonders in representing the gloomy side of a Seattle landscape fruitfully, and the film’s polished look of sorts offers a clean backdrop to the very dirty ordeals that our characters are going through. I really dug the combination of establishing shots whether on land or sea, as well as the occasional personal shot that showcased a character looking and talking into the camera, offering the audience a momentary glance into the lives of Grey and Steele. The design in concepts feels like the one noteworthy praise that constantly carries the slack for a lackluster script that constantly remains in chains.

When you consider the word ‘darker’ in the title context, you think of a film that is twice as daring or prestigious in its finished product. Fifty Shades Darker once again underwhelms with cold embraces and hollow faces, and it does very little to change the minds of either side of audience whose first film experience was the final verdict in expectations for this series. It is smut, but it’s far from the worst sit that I have had in an early 2017 that has already given me six films worse. Overall, the only punishment dulled out in this film comes at the hands of the audience who have to sit through two hours of notable events that have no synthetic connection in one total sum. It’s a movie that takes itself too seriously, but you can’t help but laugh at. With one shade left, the Grey franchise has already fallen limp on two separate occasions.

4/10

Collide

A youthful couple ‘Collide’ with a group of dangerous drug dealers that has them on a high-speed chase for survival. After a heist goes terribly wrong, Casey Stein (Nicholas Hoult) finds himself on the run from a ruthless gang headed by mob boss Hagen (Anthony Hopkins). Now Casey has precious cargo that belongs to Hagen, who will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Left with no choice, Casey calls his former employer and drug smuggler Geran (Ben Kingsley) to protect his long-time girlfriend Juliette (Felicity Jones) before Hagen gets his hands on her. Casey sets out on an adrenaline-fueled car chase on the German highways to save the love of his life before it’s too late for the both of them. Collide is directed by Eren Creevy, and is rated PG-13 for violence, frenetic action, some sexuality, adult language, and drug material.

There’s plenty that can be said about a movie that has been on the shelf since fall of 2015. Relativity Studios crash of that year left plenty of movies on hold until a studio could come along and finance the release of the finished product. In this case, Automatik Entertainment has come to the rescue, and there’s so many methods of thanks that I have to give to them for giving the audience this kind of offering. To be surprised by a movie this bad by February, isn’t a surprise at all, but rather solidification to the kind of lack of inhibitions that this month is famous for releasing. Collide is a mess of a picture that at times feels unfinished, and in general feels quite contradictory between two varying styles of attitude that feel so jarringly opposite that it often feels like two different movies that were merged together as a Frankenstein experiment. It’s the latest in the feel of post-2000 fast-paced action flicks that are churned out at a dime a dozen, and in general offers nothing fresh or memorable to cast it as anything different from the movies it spoofs that do it a hundred times better.

To grasp the extent of damage from this film, you must first understand that 2015 was a much different year than the 2017 that we now find ourselves in. The four person leading cast of this movie now feel FAR too good for a movie of this stature, mostly in that of Jones and Hoult, who have had a successful past two years with Oscar nominated films that have made stars out of both of them. As for Hopkins and Kingsley, this is nothing more than a paycheck film for two class actors who have each dived in Oscar enchanted waters. Kingsley offers another film-crushing role similar to that of his role as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. This time, he’s a Russian pimp gangster who has one of the worst accents that I have ever heard. At the very least, he’s having fun. Hopkins feels like he’s sleeping through the motions of a Bond villain, complete with hokey one-liners and cartoonish evil running through his veins. Jones feels virtually non-existent as the eye candy of the movie, who we are only reminded of during the rare occasion when the plot needs her. To view the poster, you would think that she is equally as important to this chase as Hoult’s character is, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nicholas is decent at carrying the load, but his character is so uninteresting and void of development that it’s hard to ever get fully invested in his Casey. Hoult and Jones never develop into a believable duo, and that’s because of a lack of chemistry from a script that keeps them apart for virtually the entire film. Collide does command a strong A-list cast, but none can break free from the shackles of a flawed script that cuts them short at every corner.

It’s evident early on that this film is going for a modern approach of a Romeo and Juliet story, even going as far as naming one of their characters after such. But this is clearly a script that doesn’t develop the relationship of Hoult and Jones, instead opting for sharp-cutting chase sequences that make up more than 80% of the 94 minute run time. Because of this, anything else that has to do with exposition or dialogue is sacrificed in an overabundance of misdirection. The latter of which was responsible a few times for cringe-worthy delivery that consistently kept me from taking the movie as seriously as the first act treats it. Such an example of this comes halfway through the movie at a gas station scene, when an attendant tells our antagonists “My name is Suri, and you better back down before you get blown away”. The antagonist responds “Apologies Suri. Do you speak English?”. This is only one of the many problems that would’ve been better left on the editing room floor. But the visual deserves its claim to fame as well, and there’s plenty to balance that of the dialogue that drops the ball repeatedly. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie that is a flashback scene of an event we missed. The problem comes in discovering that this is a false story that is nothing more than a joke between two characters. What a complete waste of time for something that could be used equally as effective as a one-line throwaway.

One thing that can be dissected fruitfully for the movie is some solid action sequences that competently shoot with precision sound mixing throttling the set pieces around them. There is that usual quick-cutting in editing, but the good news is that it’s never terrible enough to lack definition in the fast-paced situations that are constantly changing with one push of the pedal. This is a film that got my pulse running with some impactful carnage and high-speed octane exhaust that consistently went above the bar in the more than four sequences that adorn the picture. What the film benefits from is a distinct music video style of cinematography that feels like a tribute to early 21st century action flicks like The Transporter or Death Race. The techno music feels appropriate with the Eastern European landscapes that beautifully decorate our backdrops. What Creevy lacks in conventional storytelling, he more than makes up for in bone-crunching projection, and it’s clear that he has the capability to be an action presence for years to come.

The ending convolutes itself to stuffy levels because of the many twists that it tries to pack into a logically-challenged explanatory scene that totally feels every bit as unnecessary as it does tasteless to the closing memories that we have for this effort. Because this movie is predictable at nearly every turn, there is a desire to wrap this story and its conflict up as soon as possible, but this is one collision that would instead rather take the long road in third act structures to get there.

The collision in this film deals with lack of consequential story and hollow characters that always feel like an outline instead of actual people, and because of that, Collide speeds too fast on the highway to mediocrity. Some films are better left in the dust of obscurity, and Creevy’s music video spin on 2000’s action cinema slams on the brakes quite often of an otherwise tightly-paced offering.

4/10

The Comedian

The last of a dying breed of classic comedians struggles with life decisions as the world changes around him, in The Comedian. An aging comic icon, Jackie (Robert De Niro) has seen better days in his once prosperous career. Despite his efforts to reinvent himself and his comic genius, the audience only wants to know him as the former television character he once played.? Already a strain on his younger brother (Danny DeVito) and his wife (Patti LuPone), Jackie is forced to serve out a sentence doing community service for accosting an audience member. While there, he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), the daughter of a sleazy Florida real estate mogul (Harvey Keitel), and the two find inspiration in one another resulting in surprising consequences. The Comedian is directed by Taylor Hackford, and is rated R for crude sexual references and adult language throughout.

For about the first half hour of The Comedian, my expectations were growing pretty high for this to be The Wrestler for the stand up comedian community. A story that not only pulls the curtain back on a cryptic industry, but also to depict the haunting decay of funny people once the money and fame go away. The first act of this film was a glimpse into everything that this film should’ve done, but sadly fell apart over the course of two hours that (like most comic public figures) overstays its welcome, losing its charm and appeal along the way. After seeing the trailer above, you might garner that this looks like a Woody Allen independent comedy, with some long transitional shots of the New York skyline, as well as a top notch cast that feel slightly out of place for this particular mood in story. As the movie carried on however, I felt a great sense of betrayal, as this is very much a raunchy R-rated comedy with an indie vibe in cinematography that equally off-sets the other. A throwaway dramedy that is anything but self-aware, and one that still makes me question the thinking process from its star who dubbed this as a “Passion project”.

For the overall comedy, I did find myself laughing a few times, mostly more at the real life drama that was unfolding at a snail’s pace with the backstory of Jackie and the reputations that he has built with friends, family, and work colleagues alike. Cycling through classy helpings like gay jokes and race jokes, the humor feels like it hasn’t aged with maturity with the audience at home watching it. The material feels very much like an HBO comedy sitcom, just seconds away from omitting a laugh-track after every delivery. The negative of this is in fact De’Niro who doesn’t feel believable in this role, even if his performance dictates that he has watched one too many classic comedians. The On-stage material rarely tells a story that most comedians shine at, and nothing ever feels timed out or choreographed long-term setups to ever elicit that this was at one time the most popular man at his craft. What’s even worse is that the stand-up routines never feel edited to keep the momentum factor up, giving off a Director’s Cut kind of feel to the convoluted script that soils what few opportunities that the film does maintain at shining for itself. To anyone who loved De’Niro’s jarringly off-setting performance in 2016’s Dirty Grandpa, enjoy two more hours of such a character with twice the desperation.

The story in script itself is quite the strange one because there’s rarely any indication when one act ends to begin the next. I did enjoy the curtain pulling of the number of comedian cliches that feel far too close in irony to ever be false. Certainly the disruptions of audience members, as well as the Youtube generation always keeping their phones on, works wonderfully in capturing the very innovation of the business, albeit with its very positives and negatives for how the game has changed. I was fine with a movie called The Comedian having a dramatic pulse when he is off-stage, but it doesn’t work here for an array of reasons. The first is the material going to the Raunchy side of comedy one too many times to ever take itself seriously when it needs to be. The second is the array of distracting celebrity cameos from Billy Crystal to Hannibal Buress that always limits the progression of dramatic exposition to a screeching halt any time we get slightly closer to Jackie’s unbreakable wall of shutting people out. The final reason deals more in the character’s decisions that has them taking some fairly unpredictable and risky stances for the main cast. This wasn’t a movie where I could side or even at times understand the very dispositions from De’Niro and Mann’s characters, and without strong leads, the film’s script implodes on a lack of drama to really make the comedy pop more in audience investment.

It’s amazing that with this many A-list cast, there’s so little to take away from performances. De’Niro is decent at portraying an asshole, but that doesn’t make his character any more intriguing or inviting to two hours spent with him. As Jackie, Robert hints that there may be something more to the past of this character that keeps him guarded at all times, but the lack of spiritual growth within his register casts great concern at where this character will go once the camera is off. If celebrities being snobs is the message, I read it loud and clear. Thanks Robert. Leslie Mann has always been the perfect supporting cast, but as a lead she leaves slightly more to be desired. The relationship between her and De’Niro is startling to say the least. Not because it doesn’t gel with their near thirty year age difference, but because there’s very little chemistry between them when it takes more than an hour for them to lock lips. Their union always feels like a fling to fulfill some lifetime fantasy (ala sex with Santa in Bad Santa), so it’s kind of like preparing for the worst for the both of them. Two inconsiderate people just aching to grow up, but it never happens. The lack of character transformation is clearly evident in a finale that feels as thrown together as it gets for movies that don’t know when to fade to black.

At the very least, The Comedian should provide an overwhelming layer of comedic substance to send the audience home on a positive mood. Sadly, the serious lack of positive characterization, as well as scenes that carry on for far too long, alienates audiences who are thirsty for some kind of gaining momentum along the way. Hackford’s portrait of post-fame celebrity drops the mic on several occasions. Unfortunately for us, his lead character picks it up every single time.

4/10

XXX: Return of Xander Cage

The return of XXX means one thing; looking good while saving the day is certainly no crime. In XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, the third installment in the series, Extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), thought to be long dead, comes out of self-imposed exile as recruited by the CIA to race villain Xiang (Donnie Yen) to recover a powerful weapon known as “Pandora’s Box” which can control military satellites which could cause catastrophic damage. Recruiting a group of thrill-seeking cohorts (a sharpshooter and a hacker), Xander finds himself caught up in a deadly conspiracy of corruption among world governments including insiders in his own country’s government. The movie is directed by D.J Caruso and is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language.

For anyone who was asking for a direct Vin Diesel sequel to the 2002 failure XXX, fifteen years later feels like the right time and place to remember what was so terribly tragic about this franchise to begin with. Return of Xander Cage arrives in the thick of January to compete with films like The Bye Bye Man and Monster Trucks for early favorite honors on the worst film of 2017. For a movie that prides itself on being extreme and going against the rules, a PG-13 rating should tell you everything that you need to know about how rebellious that this movie can get. If there is one positive, it is that creatively this movie doesn’t feel like a sequel of the same movie that took itself far too seriously, many moons ago. The movie is ridiculous and it’s incredibly self-aware of that fact, so there is great possibilities in sitting back and not treating this movie like the same James Bond films that it tries to spoof with a modern edge. In summarizing this movie, I disperse my experience using a formula that I call the three I’s to relate the true debauchery and waste of an opportunity that this movie was to produce at least a humorous sit to gravity and screenwriting.

The first I is for immaturity. To say that this script feels like it was written by an adolescent, is the understatement of the year. While fifteen years has been tacked onto the age of our shovanist protagonist, it seems that is mental stability seems to be going backwards with how he treats women and antagonists alike. Diesel has always been a solid action movie presence for me, but what doesn’t work about his roles as Xander Cage is that he lacks even a shred of vulnerability. If he never feels fear or conflict, how can we as an audience invest in his struggle? If this wasn’t enough, he sleeps with no fewer than ten women in the opening fifteen minutes of this movie. It’s called solid story building…..yeah right. Then there’s the dialogue, which made me cringe so hard that I nearly broke my pointless 3D glasses. One such example is when Diesel utters to a group of females “It’s time to get down to the thick of it”. Only a man child who is living out his unfulfilled fantasies of being a pimp would find this humorous. I can usually laugh through such muck, but this was so terribly underwritten that I found myself getting angrier by the minute.

The second I is for impatience. This is evident in the character building that feels like it’s quickly becoming a trend among Hollywood bombs like Suicide Squad and Yoga Hosers. Every time a new character is introduced, instead of carefully constructing their traits in personalities, the movie instead rushes everything along by halting the process so we can read a five second character file that does nothing to explain why they were chosen for the XXX mission. One such crew member is a DJ. This guy literally does nothing dangerous throughout the movie, nor does he play records during the final confrontation, so why even have him as a character? The subplots (If you can call them that) too struggle brutally, with the story moving so fast that if you miss even the slightest detail, you will wonder what happened. Characters change sides, conflict arcs never reach their potential, and plenty of missed opportunities at creating something valuable for the audience to take home is missed in careless wrecklessness. There is also a surprise cameo with about fifteen minutes left in the movie, that the last trailer spoiled for everybody. To say this is a surprise is stretching it a bit because if you never saw the direct-to-video sequel from 2005, and I’m guessing a majority of fans didn’t, this surprise will mean very little to you in terms of the XXX saga. If you do follow this correctly, then using this person for the final fifteen minutes is another strong reminder of how little patience or effectiveness that screenwriter F Scott Frazier has for this continuance.

The final I is for Implausibility, a staple of the XXX franchise. Look, I can get past how insanely ridiculous the thought of raising X-gamers to be Central Intelligence spies is, but what takes it to another level is when this movie so articulately debates the laws of physics without even a shred of backlash. An example of such feats comes in skateboarding off of the side of a moving bus, water-skiing with a motorbike, and my personal favorite; finding your running balance on a car that is moving fast at you. At this point in modern action movies, I guess we should just go with the fact that anything is possible. Perhaps for Vin Diesel’s next movie he can strap a rocket on a pool stick and ride it to the moon. I mentioned earlier how there is no vulnerability to this character, and that goes double for machines and automobiles, because there’s never a moment when Xander even sweats at something headed full speed at him. Also, the very concept of a Macbook that has the power to take down every satellite in space requires some suspension of disbelief. If you believe the world’s central powers are this easy to hack, then surely someone would’ve already done it by now. The film never explains how it can do such a thing, it just does. This black box pops up out of nowhere and magically has this capability. If it has existed and wasn’t manufactured by some computer genius recently, how come nobody else has tried to steal it? Because movie convenience, that’s why.

Not everything is a flaw in this movie however, as the film has some solid stunt work, as well as fight choreography that tastefully remind the viewer that this is an action-first movie. Donnie Yen is a strong addition to this cast, and his couple of violent dances rain down brutality hard on the audience that are thirsty for some semblance of what this movie once was in 2002. Xander’s stunt work also deserves kudos for the many different location settings that he explores with inducing anxiety on the audience. It’s clearly obvious that Diesel isn’t performing his own stunts here, most notably because the stunt man who is portraying him has a head that is far too light-skinned, as well as drops about forty pounds magically from one frame to another. However, the fast-paced cuts and shooting style to this movie at least present a capable enough presentation when the screenplay is aiming completely off of its mark.

Overall, the Return of Xander Cage is an unnecessary and at often times uninspiring sequel that plants its feet firmly on the January film docket that keeps jabbing after all of these years. If this were a comedy, it would succeed on the grounds that it is simply too ridiculous to take seriously. As it stands, the XXX franchise feels like it’s finally out of octane, a fact that is evident by how much time has passed since our last Xander pleasure. Lets hope even more time passes.

4/10

Assassin’s Creed

One man serves his prison sentence by inhabiting the memory of his ancestor during the Spanish Inquisition, in “Assassin’s Creed”. Through a revolutionary technology that unlocks his genetic memories, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), an experienced criminal, experiences the adventures of his ancestor, Aguilar de nerha, in 15th Century Spain. The process created by two mysterious scientists (Jeremy Irons, Marion Cotillard) allows someone to inherit the memories of the person they inhabit, and transport to that destination era. Callum discovers he is descended from a mysterious secret society, the Assassins, and amasses incredible knowledge and skills to take on the oppressive and powerful Templar organization in the present day. “Assassin’s Creed” is directed by Justin Kurzel, and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, thematic elements and brief strong adult language.

The curse of the video game adaptation sure isn’t going to be conquered anytime soon. Assassin’s Creed is the latest failure for such a venture that never seems to get it right. After seeing the trailers for this movie, I was very intrigued by the star power as well as the fast-paced visuals that only a trailer can instill for so much hope. It was easy to take this one seriously at face value because it felt like this movie had a purpose to silence the doubters like me who think it can be done at a price that fans can rejoice in. As it turns out, this movie is more of the same, but among the best video game adaptations to date, a compliment that isn’t sure to grant it dignity or the slightest bit of respect by feeble comparisons. What I will say is that for 100 minutes, Assassin’s Creed knows what kind of movie it should be; fan service for lovers of the franchise, as well as a premise so hokey that it’s hard not to have some kind of fun with it. Kurzel and Fassbender are no stranger to one another. Most recently doing Macbeth from 2015 together. This feels like a cash grab film for both, with very little inspiration or energy diverted into a finished product that has more than just a few noticeable problems.

The biggest one is the script that feels convoluted, incoherent and most importantly disjointed. This film certainly feels like the victim of a vicious hack-and-slash by the production studio, as many scenes are told backwards. The first half hour of the movie was the most difficult for me to get intrigued by, mainly because we are flying through character exposition, as well as eras in time with very little time to slow down and register everything. So essentially, we know very little about Fassbender’s character by the time he takes his first jump into his virtual past, therefore making it nearly impossible to invest in his mission. Once he comes out of the first attempt, it is then that we start getting clarity not only for him, but for the purpose of this entire project, and what sloppy delivery it is. Conjuring up cliche flashback sequences, as well as selective memory, and you’ve got the recipe for character pasts that happen no earlier than forty minutes into the movie. As far as incoherence goes, the movie does a poor job of establishing character motivations for certain actions. This is not the movie to sleep on for even a minute because you will be lost in jumbled developments. So much is deposited in a single film that could easily be distributed over a trilogy of movies, and that convolution that feels like a history lesson instead of a video game most of the time, slithers away at a snail’s pace before ever gaining traction to tell what should be a simple story that has already been written for you in no fewer than six video games.

At least Kurzel is a capable director even if his cinematographer does him wrong with some of the most eye-irritating visuals that I have seen this year. Justin lands some beautiful set pieces that certainly set the mood for the dramatic change in historical eras that the film lands in dual formats. The Spanish Inquisition looks glorious, and the pages of our history books comes to life vibrantly during this sixteenth century exposition. The problem comes in visual establishment and lighting for the movie, when the action scenes begin for some reason. I was offered two different chances of squinting my eyes during such a mess. The first coming in present day when every scene in the prison feels like it is being shot in the dark, and the second was in the Spanish Inquisition scenes when it looked like a child from the production team went overboard on the smoke machine that fogged entire sequences. I get the point of this is to serve to the Assassin’s credo that they work in the shadows, but I had great complications in registering what was going on in between some truly ugly shading and coloring palates that gave the film anything but visual life.

The action sequences and stunt work are some of the only positives that I can faithfully stand-by for the movie. Every throw-down is beautifully choreographed and synchronized to create poetry in motion, and it was during these sequences when the movie minimally reached the potential that it should’ve carried for the better part of two hours. The parkour delivery from this stunt team is not only risky in practical delivery, but also heart-pounding in just how easy they make it look. The parkour style gives the movie something fresh and original that we have rarely seen in video game adaptations, and this choice will live on among the very few positives that Assassin’s Creed will be known for in infamy. One problem that I had with the fast-pacing of these scenes was the pee-brained decision to keep cutting back to present day to show Fassbender’s reaction every time something major happened in Spain. I understand to make this decision during the first invasion. Audience members would at least be remotely curious as to how these is transpiring in real time. But to do this every single time for the entirety of the movie only served as an annoyance that grew into a concrete wall on the tracks of such heart-pounding intensity.

The performances were surprisingly disappointing, but I blame it more on a misfire in direction and minimal deposition in script that established these characters as embrace-worthy. Fassbender is someone who I feel is one of the absolute most versatile workers in the business today, but here he plays Lynch as very monotonous. When is Hollywood going to understand that the fans want a badass, but one we can also feel empathy for? Without letting Fassbender bring the pain emotionally, Callum was doomed from the start, and served as nothing more than another prisoner being used against his own free will. Jeremy Irons is barely used at all, ridiculed to be the “Mob Boss” of sorts looking on from behind the glass window. There’s only one scene of dialogue between he and Fassbender, and it left me licking my chops and wanting more in a virtual passing of the torch from two great actors from distinctly different eras. Marion Cotillard is probably the biggest return in terms of the trio of actors. Her character goes through a struggle of sorts with this project, knowing it doesn’t have the purest of intentions, but the desire to always impress her Father is something we can all relate to. Cotillard feels like the beating heart of a movie that doesn’t have much of a pulse. Her narration helped wonders during some scenes that come off as slightly cloudy in delivery, but she literally has very little to bounce off of, making her character memorable in the slightest.

Assassin’s Creed sacrifices important factors like story and character arcs for straining artistic merits that muddle the impactful action at nearly every step. More importantly, it wastes a cast that should guarantee a winner in even the most obtuse of frustrating garbage. If Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons can’t give us a winner in the genre, perhaps it’s time to put the controllers down and leave the memories alone.

4/10

Incarnate

One scientist is the key to saving a possessed child, in WWE films newest shriek-fest “Incarnate”. “San Andreas” director Brad Peyton helms this story that takes place after a single mother (Carice van Houten) witnesses terrifying symptoms of demonic possession in her 11-year-old son (David Mazouz). Within days, a Vatican representative (Catalina Sandino Moreno) calls on wheelchair-bound scientist and spirit chaser Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart) to rid her boy of the evil spirit. Ember developed a technique to enter the mind of his patients and rid the mind of evil, where possessions take place. Driven by a personal agenda rooted in his own tragic past, Ember enters the boy’s unconscious mind where he confronts a demon as ferocious as it is ingenious. “Incarnate” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements.

“Incarnate” has enough solid ideas for the possession genre, but falters along the way with speedy, flimsy execution that fails to articulately describe the visions it has for its script. In short, WWE Films fails again at making something cheap into a diamond, but luckily its the 79 minute run time that doesn’t leave much room to do a lot of harm to the moviegoer mind. As far as horror movies in 2016 goes, there’s a lot worse that one can do, but this movie is bad none the less. As something that tries to make its own rules within the world of the film, this movie relies heavily on classic possession films that do things much better than the story depicted in this movie. The ending is stolen from “The Exorcist”, the rules of the demon passing the sickness from one person to the other is stolen from “Fallen”, and entering the mind of the victim feels far too familiar with the 2013 possession achievement “Insidious”. This one feels like a desperate cash in on a recent popular craze, instead of ever validating its own voice within the overcrowded genre.

A lot of this movie feels like a television procedural, and that is because this is a legitimately failed television pilot from 2014 that never materialized. That lack of urgency or dire consequences to our characters is never there because it always feels like something better will happen in the next episode. There’s also not a lot of noteworthy special effects or budget that went into these sequences, leaving me always wanting more visual examples of just what this female demon can do. Those are perhaps some of the biggest examples of material importance that is never presented, but the biggest nuisance comes in the form of the rules. The movie describes this man with the ability to enter the dreams of these possessed people, but never says how he does it. I guess we’re not supposed to ask many questions. There are no wires or mutual setup from one character to the other, and the only thing we see is that they are in the same room together. So my question is does this possession work like Wi-Fi? If a character is in the living room, will he be able to connect? If they’re in the same room together and possession happens by touch, wouldn’t Aaron Eckart worry about the trouble of being at his most vulnerable while asleep? Logic…HA.

As far as thrills go, there was nothing of any notable instances. There are a couple of jump-scares for those of you who dig this annoying horror trope, but they won’t have the same effect upon this sitting because of a glaring problem in the technical achievements of this film. The sound editing/mixing was slightly off with the movements of the event unfolding in front of us, and that premature sound jump takes away from the full effect in each desired scare. An example happens towards the end of the second act when the little boy makes a move towards Eckhart, yet something is off slightly in triggered effect. We hear the noise, but the character doesn’t move for nearly a second later. One could write this off as maybe a theater problem with their projector, but it happens far too often and inconsistently in the movie to blame this on an outside source. Sometimes the sound is right on point, but more times than not it lags in execution, and this negative failed to even set the mood for this story.

If there is one saving grace to the film, it’s in the performance of Eckhart, who never flounders any opportunity to stand out. What’s truly compelling about Aaron’s body of work so far is that he accepts roles in movies that are clearly beneath his standing, yet makes the most to turn every negative into a positive. As Seth, Eckhart channels the pain and trauma of losing the two most important people in his life, and the lack of desire to hang on if only to fight for revenge in the face of the taker. Aaron never flinches when it comes to his delivery here, and there’s something admirable about a man who believes in delivery the kinds of things that he’s told to say, no matter how silly or inane they might be. It’s great to see one of Hollywood’s most dependable here. Even when I held little to no faith with this project before seeing it, I knew Eckhart would never falter in the desire to add a layer of human emotion to the script, and Aaron’s constant professionalism kept this movie from ever being worse than it finished being.

“Incarnate” won’t inspire you to change your pre-conceived notions on B-grade possession flicks, but it is too brief of a presentation to ever leave any lasting damage. It is a creative, albeit flawed tweaking to the genre ideal that is marred in cheap, technical execution, but the dedication by its male lead lifts this dreary dud as something slightly above tolerable. It is time though for WWE Films to get out of the horror genre altogether, because in their hands “Incarnate” is IncarNOT.

4/10