A Cure For Wellness

Through the depths of unchained terror and psychological horror, one man seeks to hold onto his sanity through A Cure For Wellness. An ambitious young executive (Dane Dehahn) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem. When he begins to unravel its terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure. The film is directed by long time visionary mastermind Gore Verbinski, and is rated R for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and adult language.

The very definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect different results. If this rings true, then A Cure For Wellness stumbles over its ambitious direction with an derivative script by Justin Haythe that never does it any favors in lasting impressions. In regards to a television style of storytelling, A Cure For Wellness works beautifully, offering a wide range of psychological thrills to mesh with its truly breathtaking complexity in the mind of one of the most ideal visionary directors going today in Verbinski. But when you consider that this long term investment of 142 minutes is a feature film, you slowly start to feel the momentum and excitement slip from its grasps, resulting in one of the truly most destructive third acts that I have ever seen. If I am being brief, there’s a reasonably solid offering of a movie somewhere within the deep clutches of this convoluted and often times disjointed mess. I myself enjoyed the first 90 minutes of the film, with the approaches in screenplay reaching more for simplistic, while presenting grade-A cinematography that is alluring and complementary to the former. Unfortunately, it all goes out the window fast with a cluttered script that easily could’ve used another re-write.

For all of its hints towards the brain and how it works, the film sadly depends more on plot twists that are every bit as unnecessary as they are taxing to the very investment of the audience’s psyche. One interesting aspect of these mysteries that I didn’t understand was why they were treated as such with an audience who could’ve easily pieced the answers together on two hours of sleep. The script treats its characters like morons, most notably in a subplot on the dependency of water to the patients of the facility that was obvious from the first mention of it. After that, it and every other setup is repeatedly hammered over the head, giving way to the first of many cuts that should’ve been made to this hearty helping. If the film wanted mystery, It should’ve focused on the mental health of Dehahn’s character as he navigates his way through the halls of the box of madness. The focus on if this man really is crazy would’ve intrigued me a whole lot more than knowing the answer to that question in the first act of the movie. Because these mysteries are so obvious and apparent, we as an audience just wait patiently for them to catch-up, halting the progress of a script every ten minutes or so to introduce a new aspect of cluttered storytelling that overwhelms in the worst of ways.

The ending goes completely batshit, force-feeding a supernatural aspect not only to logical thinking, but also to the compromising attitude of this picture that it had set up for itself two hours earlier. No one should ever laugh in a negative sort of way to a picture this disturbing, but the finale of this movie not only overreaches because it had a perfectly tucked in ending at the two hour mark, but also takes the cartoonish aspect in wrapping everything up. What were they thinking? It feels like something that was tacked on after an original screening for the movie disappointed test audiences. If this is what they think will satisfy that same crowd, then it’s clear that this idea in plot never had a satisfying exit to boot, and the film instead leaves its audience in a comfortably numb kind of feeling.

For Verbinski, at least the time investment does pay off in spades to some horrifically entrancing visuals that terrified well when placed against the greenish tint of exceptional cinematography. This color in shading certainly gives off the impression that there’s constantly an unseen sickness in the air, and that diagnosis plays well to the blind mice patients who are constantly in search of “the cure”. It’s great to see a horror movie that is given a professional presentation of sorts to creative camera angles, as well as shot framing that is unorthodox to this particular style of genre. Some of Gore’s artistic directions involve a camera on the side of the cars to keep the audience riding alongside its movements, a stuffed horse’s head whose eyes reflect the establishing shot being seen before our very own eyes, and the water level still shot that always leaves room for something more to be lurking just beneath the surface. All of these and many more proved that Verbinski was the right man for the job, and his more than prestigious reputation is made even more commendable in a sanity-slipping euphoria in a thick cloud of toxic haze.

The sound mixing by sound effects editor David Chrastka also plays hand-in-hand with the musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch that teamed up for my single favorite aspect of the movie. Every scene of suspense continues to build a band of accompanied sounds that hammers a chorus of repetition to the viewer, driving them a little mad in relating to the characters in tow. When you hear such crisp detection of aspects like Dehahn’s crutches or the jiggling of a toilet handle that serves as a metaphor for Dehahn’s slipping psyche, you really come to admire just how much detail and precision was used to flatter audiences with audio capabilities in the same manner that Verbinski steals the show with luxurious visuals. The duo of Wallfisch and Chrastka constantly kept my ears glued to the ensuing madness, even if my eyes had left the building with how many times the script let me down.

As for performances, there’s very little to rave about, and most of that is of no fault to the cast. The backstories in character expositions are so flawed that I still have a couple of questions regarding Dehahn’s history as a child that were shoe-horned in to this lengthy offering. Two and a half hours isn’t enough to tell every subplot in detail? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Dehahn has always been someone who I’ve been a fan of, but once again he is choosing a role that does him no favors on showing his dramatic leverage. As far as characters go, his is not only detestable for his Business head arrogance to go and do whatever he wants whenever he wants, but also naive in how many times he continues to fall for the same trick, rendering his character caught each and every time. Dane does as much as you can ask with this little of likeability, but there’s nothing memorable of heart-wrenching to the prisoner-like conditions that he is held to. Jason Isaacs is solid, but the damaging finale leaves his character in perhaps the biggest jumbled mess of the movie. A reveal during this time cost us any chance in charm that we would get to see with typical good guy Isaacs making a long-winded antagonist speech. When he’s kept simple, Isaacs works, but my moral stigma favoring his character more than Dehahn’s only further hammered home how outside of the box this film’s thinking process was.

A Cure For Wellness slugs through three grueling acts of convoluted material that weighs down heavily on the grand scale of award-worthy sights and sounds that the movie treats us to. As the film goes on, you find yourself slipping through the depths of sanity, resulting in a test of patience for the mind that is orchestrated by a clock that is constantly playing tricks on you. I would only recommend this movie if you stop watching at the 90 minute mark, otherwise it’s another disappointing offering in a genre that is still searching for the cure.

5/10

Fist Fight

Two teachers find themselves at odds at the end of a super long day, waiting for a Fist Fight. Ice Cube and Charlie Day star as high school teachers prepared to solve their differences the hard way. On the last day of the year, mild-mannered high school English teacher Andy Campbell (Day) is trying his best to keep it together amidst senior pranks, a dysfunctional administration and budget cuts that put jobs on the line. But things go from bad to worse when he accidentally crosses his much tougher and deeply feared colleague, Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), who challenges Campbell to an old-fashioned throw-down after school. News of the fight spreads like wildfire and ends up becoming the very thing this school, and Campbell, needed. Fist Fight is directed by first time director Richie Keen, and is rated R for adult language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material.

Fist Fight appears to take place in an alternate dimension where adults nor students endure the consequences of animalistic actions. For a by-the-numbers R-rated comedy where brainless activity is all the fuss, Keen’s film has brief underlying moments of 21st century public school depiction, offering a reflective stare into our own fundamentals with such. In this post-apocalyptic setting of sorts, the students are treated soft, and the teachers are walked all over like spineless jellyfish. Considering that this is a movie that takes place entirely on Senior Prank Day, it’s easy to comprehend that some limits would be tested within the very student body of this fictional school, but the script for Fist Fight nearly translates this to a Young Adult novel where the youth have taken over. A Twilight Zone backdrop if you will, of vandalism, student-teacher sexual relations, and drug trading that is treated like just another daily activity. This is perhaps my biggest problem with Fist Fight; its astounding nature to look the other way in a consequence-less society that tries to establish any kind of rules or structure to its script. Cube’s character is fired for taking a weapon to a student’s desk, yet he’s allowed to stay at the school until the end of the day? There’s security everywhere, but the teachers and students have weapons inside every bag or pocket? This stuff is easy to dispatch when you mention “It’s just another silly comedy”, but without believability this is one story that never goes above the dumbed down capacity that it entails, cutting itself short as a breakout hit behind every corner.

The comedy certainly isn’t a problem. There were several times in the movie where the straight man approach of Charlie Day’s character blending with the hard knocks of Ice Cube’s made for a truly endearing combination of these two different kinds of comedy style that fit like a glove. The wise decision here is to make this an R-rated picture because a lot of its material would feel watered down with the very setting of a world where rules don’t exist. The R rating doesn’t feel like a gimmick here, simply to use and abuse the power of curse words to give it an adult feel. Instead, they are sparsely saved to bring out the strongest reaction (Mostly by Day) to a line of humor that sometimes requires the audience to do a double take, questioning if they really just heard that. Some of my favorite scenes were in the interactions of Day with Tracy Morgan, the latter being the kind of corner man to the former’s cowardice with picking a fight with the toughest man in school. Their bond feels like a genuine friendship between two colleagues who go through year after year of torture from a student body that shows them no respect in mental or physical altercations. For laughs alone, people are going to get everything they came for, with the strongest point in the script for this material definitely being in the opening half hour.

Besides a strong comedic backbone, the film was unfortunately weighed down heavily in the second and third acts with predictable material that offered nothing fresh or original to this take. After the first act, with all of the subplots and character traits to the film revealed, it was quite easy to detect where these character arcs and scenarios were headed, keeping my intrigue to a minimum at how slow the 85 minute sit was treading by. The entirety of the movie is building up to this confrontation that takes us all the way to the final fifteen minutes of the movie. I wasn’t entirely disappointed with the fight, because the action
and fight choreography felt real to the situations of two every-men duking it out, but the problem is more about the lasting result. Without spoiling anything, I can say that this script does play it far too safely with how neatly tucked away the closing moments of the fight were. It’s not quite the Martha moment of Batman Vs Superman, but it’s not too far off either. Multiply that with a crowd of violence-hungry youths, and you leave us with a fight that not only doesn’t go the distance, but also doesn’t translate any better to the lack of moral fabric that this movie has lacked for its entirety on its characters.

One thing I was grateful for, was to see Charlie Day getting a starring role for once. Day continues to be not only one of the best reactionary actors, but also one of the most genuinely funny actors going today. What works so brilliantly with his casting in this film is physically he is clearly against a stacked deck here when compared to his physically superior antagonist, but there’s great delight in seeing the intellect of Charlie at work, even if it doesn’t always work to the best of his advantage. He was probably the only character in the film that felt like a human being, and a lot of that comes from the film not trying to make him into a cartoonish outline of that character that happens in spades from the teenagers and adults around him. I also greatly enjoyed Jillian Bell handing in another noteworthy performance as a supporting cast. Bell was great in 22 Jump Street, and she continues that momentum with another helping of her dry stick that always thinks one step ahead of the ears of the listeners. Jillian fills in the gaps when Day can’t always carry the load, and the duo make sweet gut-busting deliveries that at least kept my funny-bone oiled when my mind went numb.

Fist Fight gets knocked out late in movie by an unavoidable cloud of predictable material and anarchist setting that hinders any grasp of believability. For mindless fun, this one will give you a rentals chance of an entertaining evening inside, even if the showdown of Day and Cube doesn’t live up to its imposing marketing. Keen’s debut leaves more to be desired, and doesn’t quite have the stand-up game to last ten rounds with smarter, meaningful, and all around better comedies.

5/10

A Dog’s Purpose

Through many lives and owners, a canine searches for “A Dog’s Purpose”. Based on the beloved bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, “A Dog’s Purpose,” from director Lasse Hallström shares the soulful and surprising story of one devoted dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love. Through his many adventures and life lessons, the furry friend inches one step closer to finding meaning for life’s many different roads of reincarnation. The family film told from the dog’s perspective also stars Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, Juilet Rylance, Luke Kirby, John Ortiz and Pooch Hall. It is rated PG for thematic elements and situational peril.

A Dog’s Purpose is a movie that has been getting beaten down in the media lately, after a TMZ story broke the news that dogs on the set were being suspiciously treated and even in danger for one specific stunt scene in the movie. When this broke, it didn’t surprise me because I view these animal movies more time than not as manipulative and dishonest. However, I’m a critic first, and I can accurately say that this movie surprised me in more ways than one for how maturely it handled its material. That’s not to say that A Dog’s Purpose won me over completely to the point of me giving it a pass, but as far as bad movies go, it’s quite harmless. There’s still that air of manipulation for what this movie entails to use its audience for something like animal deaths. This shouldn’t come as a spoiler to anyone, but there’s more than one dog death in this movie, considering it centers around reincarnation, and that fact alone opened my eyes slowly to the concept of Hallstrom’s film offering a mature circumference to equal that of the kid audience that this thing easily sinks its hooks into.

The story is very minimal for what transpires on screen. Although we are given some credible voice narration by Gad to narrate our way through the very thoughts and feels of our furry protagonist, there’s very little sense on how or where the dog is telling this story from to make sense of it. The film also plays everything pretty one-note on its cycle of repetition through four different stories in this movie. At 95 minutes in run time, this makes for a very pinched and confined script that does start to run out of gas midway through, when you realize you’re seeing the same formula being played out with interchangeable faces. The film’s opening story arc with Bailey the dog meeting little boy Ethan, is definitely given the most amount of screen time and character development to hammer home its importance in this picture. I would be lying if I said that this arc didn’t give me goosebumps through my investment within the characters of this first act. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the opening half hour is as good as it will ever get. Through some abruptly fast-forwarded exposition, we are in and out of three different homes over the course of the second act, without ever solidifying the relevance or even building something as meaningful as the original. I found myself struggling to stay invested over this time, and while this is a movie about the many lives of this dog, it does start to weigh itself down vitally with repetition for formula that never changes its structure or ups the ante in the slightest.

On a note of positivity, this movie does attack some of the more risky material with children’s movies that I have seen in a long time. The very idea of reincarnation is one that can be considered in religious subtext, but thankfully the movie never preaches a gospel or hidden agenda within its walls. This is very much a “What you see is what you get” kind of offering, and that is something that I valued greatly in my overall experience. Besides reincarnation, the film is also very unapologetic with how it shoots and documents the treatment of animals by their human counterparts. This is one of those movies that really got under my skin for just how easy it is to forget about the most important member of a family, and its depiction for how these animals are literally plucked from birth to serve a purpose to a higher master is one that only conjured up great empathy from me, as sometimes the importance of animals in general is vastly overlooked. I was also happy that the movie didn’t try to relate to the audience that all dog owners are great dog owners, like other animal movies that paint a deceitful picture. One of the four owners represented in this movie is very unloving and selfish when it comes to what they seek from this canine, but it’s importantly informative to showcase that (like children) not every life is pleasant with these lovable creatures. Sometimes their drafting doesn’t work for the best, and it could hammer home the reality of a life wasted if reincarnation doesn’t exist like it does in this movie.

As for the overall production of the movie, there’s not a lot to gloat or talk about. This is very much a simplistic presentation that never overwhelms itself by style over substance in the most dramatic of methods. There are a lot of POV angles from the dog’s eye level, and thankfully it never gets dizzying or distasteful after an overabundance of it. The editing and framing are passable with very little risks taken, and a visual representation of each decade depicted is certainly a clever enough idea if this movie had the budget to go all the way with it. As representation, there really is the bare minimum of a song from that decade playing, even when the fashion trends and furniture stylings don’t quite level that concept up to par. It’s one of those things that you probably wouldn’t think about with a story that spans easily forty years, but I give kudos to Hallstrom for at least testing the waters for a concept whose bite never quite reaches its bark in cinematic capabilities.

A Dog’s Purpose is surprisingly poignant, sweet and occasionally honest in the very tribulations of man’s best friends. With some stronger storytelling elements, as well as relying less on puppeteering the heartstrings of audience members, and this could’ve been quite the adventurous sit. As it stands, sits and rolls over, A Dog’s Purpose appears to be cementing the bond between human and kleenex through an hour-and-a-half of watery eyes. Too cute to hate, but too stupid to ever quit running into the table of predictability.

5/10

Sleepless

A dirty Vegas cop gets burned by a former associate in the ransom deal of a lifetime. “Sleepless” stars Jamie Foxx as undercover Las Vegas police officer Vincent Downs, who is caught in a high stakes web of corrupt cops and the mob-controlled casino underground with his partner Derrick Griffin (T.I). When a heist goes wrong, a crew of homicidal gangsters kidnaps Downs’ and wife Gabby’s (Gabrielle Union) teenage son. In one sleepless night he will have to rescue his son, evade an internal affairs investigation led by the straight-shooting Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan) and bring the kidnappers to justice in a race against the clock. Sleepless is directed by Baran Bo Odar, and is rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout.

Sleepless tries to model itself after the 90’s deceptive crime thrillers like Wild Things and Basic, while trying to push a modern approach to the mob drama. The end result crafts a Frankenstein experiment that surprised even me, as I found it to be not entirely a terrible experience. To go even further, for the first hour of Odar’s film, I was having the time of my life, not taking the narrative too seriously enough to override what was transpiring on screen. This is a movie with very little exposition or character development to open up the movie, so I found myself resorting to great levels of patience in waiting for something groundbreaking to pay off, and while this isn’t a movie that I would confidently recommend, I can say that it is a bullet-riddled night in Sin City that never slows down or lets its foot off the pedal. That is until the final act of the movie where (like those 90s thrillers I mentioned earlier) the ending feels convoluted and cluttered with twists that lose their value because of their abundance. To say that I saw 95% of the twists coming, would be an understatement. They were easy to call, not only because of a trailer that reveals far too much, but because the actors playing these specific characters always play vilains in all of their other movie roles. A.K.A, the Gary Oldman rule of the 90s.

As far as locations go though, I don’t think there’s a better choice than the beautiful neon decals of Las Vegas itself. This is a movie who’s central theme is a city overrun with dirty cops, so what a wonderful choice it is to cast the backdrop as the same place where sin and betrayal are a commodity to money and power? It sounds cliche anymore to mention this, but Selfless is yet another movie where the city itself becomes a character in this story, complete with Odar offering no shortage of long-angle transitional shots of the beautiful landscapes on the strip. This style in presentation, as well as an ominous musical score composed by Michael Kamm. In only his third big screen composition, Kamm’s organ-heavy sounds gave me a striking similarity to Johann Johansson and all of his work in Denis Vilenueve films. In fact, Sleepless as a whole reminds me of a movie where Odar might have watched Sicario a time too many, as the similarities in production quality and cinematography are certainly there. I’m not saying Sleepless is anywhere near the quality of Sicario, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

The action and editing are best when they are well-reserved, and unfortunately this is another example of how the movie falls apart by the climatic finale. During the first hour of the movie, the characters feel very vulnerable to their actions and deceptions, and the attitude and aura in the air give it that crisp feeling of real life quality. By the ending though, we have been through parking lot chases that make it difficult for any adult to crawl, let alone walk out of, characters dodging death after massive car crashes, and one character going through the slowest blood wound that I have ever seen. How this person doesn’t bleed out a half hour in with the size of this wound is beyond me, but its kind of left forgotten like the other plot conveniences in the movie. As far as positives go, the editing is very quick-cut and paced accordingly, without ever feeling rushed or sloppy in the transition shots. The fight sequences triumph without needing any cheesy sound effects to get their pain across, and the makeup work is quite exceptional for a movie with a budget of 30 million dollars, most of which going to the detailed chase sequences.

I mentioned earlier that the film’s overindulgence of plot twists kept it from just getting over the passing grade for me, and it all felt unnecessary to the compelling story and attitude that the film already positively bestowed for itself. The final half hour of the movie feels like it finally bought into the same movies that it may or may not have been spoofing, and that settling for mediocrity is a shame because Sleepless has so much to say not only about primal motivations, but of dealings in the world itself. The very last shot of the movie at least sent me home with a positive, as I think it is genius to leave some matters in this story left wide open and not settling for the cookie-cutter finish that all films are handicapped to. It feels valuable to social commentary without ever feeling like sequel-bate, something that I have severe doubts about since I am concerned that this movie will even make back its budget.

Performances like Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan’s always lifted their flimsy characters to new heights, putting everything they have into their deliveries. Monaghan is the single best aspect of this movie. In Jennifer Bryant, we grasp a female ass-kicker who has clearly spent too much time in a profession with law deceivers. She has built a career on busting those who swore an oath, and her character never settles for anything less than going down swinging. This was a refreshing take for Monaghan, and I hope she can keep taking roles for action movies, instead of the crappy romantic films that have plagued her filmography. Foxx is terrific, offering a complex character who we don’t always relate to. As Vincent, there’s A lot that Foxx toes the line with morally, but there isn’t a better pair of eyes throughout the movie to stick with, as Jamie is every bit as passionate in emotional delivery as he is relentless in reaching the finish line. The rivalry between he and Monaghan is something I simply couldn’t get enough of, and I’m thankful they never reduced it to just another forced love interest. Even the supporting roles by Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, and Scoot McNairy chilled on both sides of the moral coin. Harbour and McNairy join forces again after 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, and it’s clear that both actors have grown into dependable supporting cast mates in a field of big name heavy-hitters. McNairy in particular delivers satisfaction in an antagonist mob boss’s son who takes a piece of his victims with him after every failed transaction. It’s can’t miss cult-like chills.

Sleepless wasn’t quite the positive that I was looking for, but the infectious fun in another crime story set in an appropriate place and time, gave me more than enough to praise for this movie critically than I may have if I wasn’t forced to sit down and endure it. For a rental, this is about as safe as you can get for popcorn action, and the dramatically dark narrative reminds you early that you have stumbled into a world where the rules don’t apply to any profession.

5/10

The Great Wall

1700 Years to Build. 5500 Miles Long. What Were The citizens of China trying to keep out, with “The Great Wall”? Set in 15th century China, The movie tells the story of two English mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) hell bent on seeking a mystical black powder that withholds its own secrets. The duo who happen upon the hurried construction of the massive wall search for answers for the purpose of the immense structure. As night falls, the warriors realize that the haste and urgency in building the wall isn’t just to keep out the Mongols, but something completely inhuman and more dangerous that is anything but human. Together, the two cultures team up to survive the day against this ruthless barrage that brings the legends of Asian culture to life. The Great Wall is directed by visionary director Zhang Yimou, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action and violence.

From an aesthetics point of view, The Great Wall more than stands tall to its immense 150 million dollar budget. This is very much a gorgeous take on Asian culture and folklore that translates seamlessly throughout the many varieties of costume designs and backgrounds that ignite the creative touch in presentation from the mind of Yimou and his very definition of the term epic. There was never a point when I never felt fully immersed in the very vibrant colors and CGI work that felt very rich and luxurious in rendering capabilities. Not all of it is perfect, but the monsters that make up the movie actually move and respond with a physical presence because of the attention to detail that went into the action responses that went into the very elaborate set designs that make up our story. As usual, these monsters feel more believable from a distance, as opposed to the up close technology that just hasn’t perfected the palate of live action transitions yet. The 3D capabilities on a film like this are endless however, as there’s many times of gimmick pageantry to feed to the audience not afraid to spend the extra dollar for a more thrilling experience. Between arrows, flaming cannonballs, and POV base jumpers, Yimou’s presentation offers plenty to feast upon to make this movie at least a visual highlight.

Unfortunately, the positives all but reside within the visuals, because this movie’s screenplay is one of the most jarringly difficult sits that I’ve been through in some time. Over the course of dipping myself in very layered and exuberantly rich artistic merit, the screenplay to this movie constantly removed me from the element of suspension with some truly hauntingly bad dialogue to match the flimsy degree of logic that goes into this setting in time. Expecting a movie like this to be two hours feels commonplace anymore, but to get a quick sit of 92 minutes all but guarantees the hollow point material that resides. One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is when a film’s final resolution feels obvious and simplistic because of the obvious foreshadowing being presented early on. With the ending of this movie, I couldn’t help but struggle with how this army of thousands never came up with an idea like this considering they hold all of the cards in this game. This movie treats conflict with such a lack of importance, and that obvious handicap shows frequently as this movie feels desperate to give us something more in addition to the fight scenes. Some movies are just simply that; war movies, so the attempt to force our characters to abide by Americanized cliches shows more damage and disrespect to the story, further alienating it from its origins.

The editing also feels jumpy and often times confined because of its brief run time. There’s very little character development or backstory immediately in the first act of this movie, so we’re essentially coming into this world with these characters with no understanding of their motivations or moral compasses, and this is made even worse when certain scenes feel like they were sliced by a Hollywood studio thirsty to add in some last minute elements that were frankly unnecessary. The most intrigue that I got from the screenplay was when they let everything play out on the battle field. Without those scenes, this movie feels very cut-and-dry, and even mostly predictable to where the story was headed. Rushed, impatient and most of all flimsy, The Great Wall feels more concerned with the spectacle instead of understanding the brick-by-brick ground work to what makes the Asian war genre so enticing.

Matt Damon leads a supporting cast of relative unknowns to American culture, but it’s in those supporting characters where I felt the performances ranged the strongest. Jing Tian in particularly presents a strong female character who is usually demeaned for the damsel role, but here holds the movie’s resistance in the palm of her hands. Tian has the look of the next Zhang Ziyi, and a lot of that is because of exceptional stunt work that packed a violent punch in such a small frame. As for Damon himself, I honestly didn’t think that his performance was anything memorable or justified as being picked for this particular role. Damon is a fantastic actor, but I think Hollywood is at that point where they are trying to make him into something that he most definitely is not. As William Garin, Damon’s release feels very hollow and dry. He’s not a character that is anything more than one-dimensional, so I found it difficult to absorb Damon’s delivery in this kind of setting. Willem Dafoe is completely wasted with very little to do for his arc. Considering he is in the movie for about a half hour, Dafoe’s Ballard feels like a missed opportunity for the very origin and importance of the Black Powder. It’s great that a film so wrapped in its Asian history can reflect that on-screen, but the lack of excitement from Damon and Dafoe leave more to be desired on the argument against Hollywood Whitewashing.

The Great Wall’s size lies in its near flawless execution of visual fireworks sure to catch the attention of those who take it in its ambitiously wonderuos feats. Where it crumbles under the pressure is in voided character charisma, as well as predictable expositional arcs that feel too rushed to keep everything from collapsing. Zhang Yimou’s latest dazzles in spectacle, but fizzles out in technical incompetence, limiting the audience with an experience that fails to capture the history and legend of its prominent structure.

5/10

Passengers

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are strangers who are stranded in space, as “Passengers” for a greater cause. The Starship Avalon, on its 120-year voyage to a distant colony planet known as “Homestead II” and transporting 5,259 people, has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers, awaking its inhabitant, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Preston later opens Aurora Lane’s pod after he looks at her videos and files, leaving them both stranded on the spaceship, still 90 years from their destination. Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is a journalist from New York City who is interested in cosmic travel. Jim Preston is a mechanical engineer from Denver who wants to leave Earth and bought the ticket for the journey. The two soon discover that the malfunction is not the only problem afflicting the huge spaceship, and as they try to find a way out, they soon find themselves falling in love and racing against the inevitability of what they have been chosen for. “Passengers” is directed by Morten Tyldum, and is rated PG-13 for sexuality, brief nudity and action/peril.

Mortel Tyldum takes one of the most notoriously unused scripts on the Hollywood black list to offer a very refreshing and stylistic approach into another futuristic vision of our inevitable fates. One thing that I always love is when a movie with a setting in an uncertain future gives us depictions of everything from socialism to our technological advances, and it’s in those ideas where Passengers thrives well beyond a script with more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese. The basic setups for everything does take time with this many buttons and gadgets to feature for this audience, but everything feels even more enhanced with gorgeous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, as well as sexy backdrops and set designs that always meet their appealing marks. If I was grading this movie purely on style over substance, then Passengers would be one of the very best presentations that I have seen this year. Unfortunately, the material doesn’t match in substance what the artistic integrity pursued in style, and as a result we have one of the most flawed creations in a love story design that we have seen most recently.

During an era and age where Nicolas Sparks offers some truly wooden and artificial substances in material, Passengers manages to take it one step further with this truly insensitive flub that is always in search for a proper attitude in tone. As some of you may have read, the twist to this movie is revealed about a half hour into the movie, and this head-scratching technique steps on so many opportunities to ever elevate this movie beyond Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence doing things. I don’t do spoilers, but I feel like this surprise and manipulation of the audience could’ve garnered more emotional response if it was presented midway through the movie when we’ve invested so much of our time and hope in this man and woman as one. To give us it early on in the first half means that we can telegraph everything predictably every step of the way. Consider it like someone telling you about Bruce Willis’s secret in The Sixth Sense before you even watched it, so now everything feels like a waste of time before the inevitable happens. In addition to this, take out your love for the two main actors and see if this movie’s premise sounds like a horror/suspense thriller to you. To make this a love story, goes opposite of everything that is being presented to a logical thinker like me, and it really makes the emotive responses from the characters less relatable during each scene of backlash once this secret becomes known to everyone concerned.

There were also so many different directions that the script signals towards that it simply never takes. This is a screenplay that had plenty of wiggle room to grant us a third act that was pleasing to everybody despite the jaw-dropping portrayal in tone that this movie set, but it instead chooses to take the predictable road every chance it gets. The final half hour of this movie is so frustrating to a science lover like me who understands not only the inconsistencies in their usage of gravity, but also in their adversity that is easy to solve for anyone not involved in the movie. To say I came up with a solution to most of the problems with the ship during the final act is an understatement that further establishes I was smarter than the cast involved. This flimsy layer of dramatic garbage instead dooms this movie to be Titanic in Space, and nothing ever feels as remotely satisfying as that over-exceeding counterpart. If I did have one positive for the screenplay, it was during the opening half hour when Chris Pratt presented a peeling layer of sanity to the isolation that one faces when they are doomed to be alone for ninety years. This arc of the story is simple enough and certainly offered me the most bang for my buck in entertainment before everything gets complicated and shallow during the midway point. To know it only goes downhill from here is made even worse by the fact that you know the answer to the question long before our characters do, a decision in screenplay that should never be warranted regardless of the terms.

There’s nothing compelling in terms of drama for Pratt and Lawrence in their performances, but their chemistry on-screen is enough to make this nearly two hour experience feel beneficial. Pratt in particular offers glimpses into a side of his acting that we have yet to see, channeling a possible genre change someday for the higher waters of dramatic flow. His character feels human in a world that has advanced around him, and Pratt’s every-man routine never wears thin when there’s so much for him to react to with comedic generosity. Jennifer Lawrence simply feels too good for something of this magnitude, but it’s clear that she had a lot of fun with her sexy co-star. If nothing else, people love watching beautiful people interact off of one another, and that much is evident here with the charm from two of Hollywood’s most prominent actors currently. It’s easy to fall in love with Lawrence’s Aurora because she’s the unattainable girl for all of us guys, made even more attractive when you realize how personable she is. While matters creatively around Pratt and Lawrence crumble or diminish their growth, you can’t deny these two keep you from ever being bored, and their magnetic force in delivery will keep you constantly intrigued through some difficult times in structure.

Passengers soars just high enough with an enhancing visual spectrum to ever keep it from crashing, but there’s certainly enough turbulence among its first act decisions creatively, as well as eye-rolling convenience in the finale, for it to ever reach its true potential. Tyldum relies a little too much on his fresh faces to get him over the hump of a script that is terribly flawed, as well as morally irresponsible, and the those two factors are shrugged off so much that it’s hard to take anything at face value. There’s no gravity in space, and even less in Morten’s picture, which takes every chance to test its audience.

5/10

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

A former military veteran returns to his origins from out of the shadows of hiding, in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”. Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) returns with his particular brand of justice, hurting bad guys at day and night. Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) is the Army Major who heads Reacher’s old military investigative unit. She is arrested for Treason and knowing that she is innocent, Reacher must break her out of prison and uncover the truth behind a major government conspiracy in order to clear their names and save their lives. On the run as fugitives from the law, Reacher uncovers a potential secret from his past that could change his life forever. Based upon “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” author Lee Child’s 18th novel in the best-selling Jack Reacher series, that has seen 100 million books sold worldwide. “Never Go Back” is directed by Edward Zwick and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some bloody imagery, adult language and thematic elements.

For all of its spins and story arcs that are inserted for the title character, “Never Go Back” feels like more than a familiar theme for a movie riddled in familiarity and conventional. This is a cash grab sequel that fails to take very many chances to make it stand out from the overcrowded genre. I enjoyed the original “Jack Reacher” movie, but that dealt more on the underlying aspects of Cruise comeback after a disappointing decade that saw many flubs from him. What you establish in a first movie of any series is the tone and the average of everything that you should come to expect in that particular group of films. The problem with “Never Go Back” is that it doesn’t raise the stakes after four long years on the shelf. This isn’t a sequel that many people were clamoring for, and the script reflects that flimsy concept that really didn’t present its audience with many kinds of intrigue or revealing looks at our main protagonist. It is very much forgettable for all that it’s worth, and I couldn’t help but feel this movie run out of gas about halfway through, as everything feels very easily choreographed.

A lot of that reason is because this movie flounders in obvious screenplays that we have not only seen hundreds of times before it, but seen it done a lot less predictably. We are presented with two different arcs for Reacher early on in the film; one being his tracking of this woman who apparently meant a lot to him. I say apparently because the movie never really tells us much about their pasts and why Reacher has such admiration for her. The second arc is Reacher finding out that he may or may not be the father to a young adult girl. These are two different feels in creative direction for this movie, and they just don’t blend well together. The latter is portrayed with a comedic layering of sex jokes and parenthood hijinks, and the former is as straight-laced as you can get with chase thrillers. When you mix them together, it feels very in-cohesive, and never gels together to capture a tone that is continuously pleasing. Then something funny happened. About halfway through this movie, Reacher becomes a supporting character in his own movie. This is very much about Smulders character, as we start to understand why this mystery and capture is so important to her character. It does allow Smulders to break free from the mold of cliche female arm candy for these type of films, but it really says a lot more for a script that can’t give enough interesting things for its title character to play off of.

The action is very limited, slow in pacing, and felt very much rehearsed because of the lack of chemistry from our two conflicted characters. In particular, the final conflict feels very stalling and forgettable, void of any major devastating blows or lanscapes that relay the idea that this is it. For as little time that is dedicated to it, this ending really lacked any kind of definitive stamp that this was the last stand. One thing that does carry well is the terrific sound editing, which left me very impacted, and kept me from ever completely dosing off to sleep. The gun shootouts in particular really subject the audience to some crisp, clear strikes, and do a great job of conveying the dangeous atmosphere that is present in every battle. I also appreciated the variation in concept of each fight sequence, refusing to ever feel repetitive or redundant in design, even if the end results felt very much so. One of the reasons Reacher has always been uninteresting as a badass to me is because there’s no human side of vulnerability to his character, and without it he might as well be a robot. The audience will lack emotional investment if he runs through a barrage of men time after time, very much the case here.

As for performances, Smulders easily steals the show, offering the female audience a powerful pony in this fight. The most valuable thing that Zwick instills in this movie is the spacing to let Cobie shine. We’ve seen her butt-kicking side in “The Avengers” movies, but it’s nice to see her at the forefront of all of the action here. Smulders adds some heart in her delivery to the tough girl exterior, and I found her a delight every time she graced the screen. A movie with her character is probably the only direction for this now defunct series to tread. Cruise very much phones his performance in unfortunately. There’s nothing from an acting standpoint that makes his delivery standout, instead opting for the straight-faced, monotonous superman that we got in the first movie. It’s sad that his character hasn’t grown much in such a time span, and while Cruise does feel believable despite his less-than immense frame, there’s simply no vulnerability or moment of panic to ever warrant my feelings for him. Even worse, this movie has one of the very best villanous actors working today in Robert Knepper and they waste him. Until the final act, Knepper is in ONE SCENE??? How did this make the final draft of the script? With someone like Knepper’s slimy on-screen personalities, you simply turn a camera on and let him create magic. Just another wasted opportunity begging us to “Never Go Back”.

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is mindless, gutless, and a virtual checklist of tireless cliches that will have you writing out the screenplay minutes before it develops. With overhyped action scenes and close to no character development, mediocre was all this movie was ever going to be. It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t heed the advice that the title had given me in big bold letters.

5/10

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Peculiar children get their turn at saving the world, in Tim Burton’s newest science fiction offering “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children”. When tragedy strikes close to home, 16-year-old Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield) is forced to travel to a mysterious island in order to discover the truth of what really happened. Jake’s ordinary life takes an extraordinary turn as the childhood fairytales he’s heard from his grandfather start to become more plausible. After stumbling into what seems to be a different world, Jake is introduced to the extraordinary Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. But when what seems to be a fairytale takes a horrific turn, when Jake is forced to make a life altering decision in order to protect the ones he loves from the monsters of his grandfather’s past, the creepy Hollows and the dangerous Wights led by the terrifying Mr. Barron (Samuel L Jackson). “Miss Peregrine’s” is rated PG-13 for for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril.

Tim Burton is perhaps the perfect visionary to lend his artistic talents to the “Miss Peregrine’s saga” of novels that have been the talk of the literary town, and for visual spectacle this one certainly hits on all of the right cylinders. Burton has always done considerably well with time pieces, and a lot of that stems from a satisfying blend of detailed set design and faded visual cinematography that accurately depicts a feel from decades ago. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment from the movie comes from visual effects that offer the best in 2016 computer animation and CGI touch-ups that crafts the worlds that we indulge in from him that much more believable. Capped off by a dreamy musical score from composer Michael Higham, and we have a pulse-setting background in tone that blends well with the imagination of such a dreamers concept. The world of these characters and this style of magic was very attractive to someone like me who has never read one page of the books, and after the two hour feature I am kind of glad that I decided to keep it that way. Without knowing much of what was kept faithful, I can say that this movie’s substance doesn’t quite reach the magnifying integrity in style that Burton tends to go overboard on. The problems begin as early as the first act of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m someone who is grateful to a new concept in story that establishes all of the ground work and rules for the logic-defying heights that this story will take us on. “Miss Peregrine’s” takes great time and focus on presenting us with characters, who all of which get their time in the sun for deposition. For an ensemble piece, I was quite impressed with how generous the creative direction of Burton was with the many talented co-stars, and this informative direction gets its audience prepared for the atmospheric shifts in tone that the movie takes us on. Where this could serve as a weakness is taking too long to get to the point. The entire first hour serves as the opening act of the movie, so with an hour left there’s really not a lot of time to establish the antagonists, as well as the effects from so many subplots that water down a smooth transition during the first sixty minutes. The problem with the second half of the movie is similar to a magic trick; once you know the secrets and how everything plays out, you don’t seem as interested. This is a meaningful metaphor for the remainder of the movie because there’s a serious shift in tone that completely took me out of the movie.

It’s almost played out as a comedy, complete with laughably bad antagonist (Played by Jackson) who lacks any kind of directional purpose for a story like this. I honestly would’ve been fine watching the Nazi subplot of this movie played out with the creative time loop that the movie informed us on. This idea of a boogeyman antagonist really off-set the nostalgic tragedy that I enjoyed between these kids being stuck in the same day over and over again, never knowing true acceptance or happiness among the society that goes on around them. Considering the villains names in this movie are The Hollows, it’s pretty easy to make a joke on the lack of creative depth or personality from their jarringly dull movements. It all gets crazy quite quickly, and by the end of the movie it feels like you have seen three stories compressed into a single offering that never quite gets its footing back. There’s noticeably dismantling plot holes that spread wider the more that I think about them, and even for a movie that thrives on suspension of disbelief, it can stretch its ridiculous bone ten feet too far.

I did enjoy the characters and their hidden talents. To me, the movie was an equally satisfying mixture of Harry Potter meets X-Men, and the characters of this one will always have a warm spot in my heart. A lot of that thrives on the surprising age of the cast involved, many of which are children who are acting for the first time. With the exception of two casting choices I will get to later, I found all of their work exceptionally well, juggling childlike innocence with extraordinary feats that made entrapped me in their likeability every time another one came around. One performance in particular from that of twenty year old actress Ella Purnell as the wide-eyed, gravity defying Emma. What I find so charming about her character is how much encapsulates the power of controlling air from someone with such a small frame. There’s plenty to like about Purnell, but her focus and reactionary depth in commuting accurately on more than one emotion, gave her a relatable personality to that of her respective decade in the movie. Eva Green though, is definitely the glue that holds the movie together, firing off line after line of deep-breathed dialogue that makes her simply irresistable to the audience at home. Miss Peregrine’s demeanor is one of mother-like concern with a faint dark side somewhere off in the distance for anyone that threatens the lives of the kids she has come to house. Green is perfect casting not only for Burton’s kooky demeanor of creative direction, but with the chemistry she exuberates with the children she plays off of.

Samuel L Jackson and Asa Butterfield are two casting decisions that really took me out of the movie. Jackson’s main problem is that his character dialogue expressed Improv to me, and it was hard to take him seriously from his noticeable personal characteristics that everyone has come to know him for. You don’t see Barren the evil hollow, you see Samuel L Jackson hamming it up to distracting levels. This angle never instilled any kind of fright or conflict for the characters for me, and I would’ve liked to have seen a more menacing side to play against characters who are extremely gifted. Butterfield was perhaps my least favorite thing about the movie. His emotional response is virtually non-existent, and without that I found it difficult to invest in his character or the true dilemma regarding his plot to find out about his grandpa’s past. Butterfield plays everything at one continuous level, and I can see where this would be appealing to the sometimes monotonous Burton, but that doesn’t always make for the most entertaining of characters, and Asa’s reserved delivery took me out of the story on more than one occasion.

Overall, “Miss Peregrine’s” is a visual feast that brings to life the storybook fairytales that only a man of Burton’s stature can accurately depict. With a story that didn’t feel as convoluted or as crawling as the one in the second half, this movie could’ve provided the breath needed for the currently struggling Y-A genre of films. As it stands, this one lives up to being peculiar, but in the negative condensation. muddled in missteps every inch of the way.

5/10

The Hollars

John Krasinski’s debut directing effort revolves around a family of characters picking up the pieces in their own lives, after the Mother of the family gets some bad news. In “The Hollars”, we meet John Hollar (Krasinski), a struggling NYC artist who is forced to navigate the small middle-American town he left behind when news of his mother’s (Margo Martindale) brain tumor brings him home. Back in the house he grew up in and recounting the past, John is immediately swept up in the problems of his dysfunctional family, high school rival (Charlie Day), and an over-eager ex-girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as he faces impending fatherhood with his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) in New York. From a script by Jim Strouse that is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, John Krasinski’s second feature is a poignant look at the bonds of family and friendship. “The Hollars” is rated PG-13 for brief adult language and some thematic material.

I’ve been a fan of John Krasinski’s acting career ever since I saw him on an episode of “The Office” over a decade ago. To me, Krasinski always had the look of a 21st century movie star, complete with great comedic timing and a personality that could spread to more than one genre of film. When I heard that he was taking the directing reigns for the first time in his career, I couldn’t wait to see what the man was capable of after acting in nearly thirty movies to date. Coming out of “The Hollars” I realized that there’s a period of about fifteen minutes within this movie where Krasinski’s story reaches its truest potential, substituting insensitive comedy for hearty dramatic emotion, and it made for the most entertainment that I had in my sitting. The problems mount fast however, for a movie that lacks any kind of artistic merit and very little inspiration for the 83 minutes that you previously sat through. The characters are rudely obnoxious, their lifestyles are as unappealing as you can possibly imagine, and the movie sifts through a barrage of boring ideas that feel like they are thrown against a wall to see what sticks. Truth be told, little does.

There’s a vast difference in tone and tempo from the first half of the movie to the second. For the first forty minutes of this movie, there is certainly no shortage of subplots to avert the audience from the flavor of tasteless paper that has enveloped the creativity for this movie. We have see this story played out plenty of times. Son comes home to the town and family that he left behind while on a search for riches, family is a group of oddballs who live their lives by their own rules, girlfriend of son is put on hold so he can find himself by retracing his roots, and occasionally a family member is dying within the dust of a cluttered mess. All of this is true for “The Hollars”, but none of it is as remotely compelling or intriguing as the movies that have come before it. I sat there amazed at how similar in tone and design that every scene looked, and that is the biggest problem with Krasinski’s early offering; he lacks any kind of artistic stamp that makes him stand out as a director. The second half of the movie did improve, but it felt like it was trying to do too many things at once with the finale. What is refreshing is that this movie isn’t afraid to take chances with its characters. Even if that means destroying their moral fiber in the process.

The acting is fine enough, mostly in Margo Martindale who proves that no flawed script can ever hold her down. She’s in the movie for about twenty total minutes, but every scene with her offers a fine display of veteran magic that magnifies her beautiful heart. Much of my emotional response to the movie fell on Margo’s shoulders, and I simply couldn’t get enough of her presence on screen. In addition to Martindale, we get a who’s who of Hollywood heavy hitters alongside Krasinski. Charlie Day, Mary Winstead, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Coplay and Anna Kendrick are just a few of the contributors who are nice to see, but not always nice to hear from. If “The Hollars” is a portrait of how John Krasinski views the American family in 2016, it’s a very obnoxious and selfish one. What makes a movie truly boring is the lack of investment that you put into each character, and I simply couldn’t care less about anyone’s lack of real problems in this movie. Coplay is an unemployed drunk who can’t see the sun through the trees with the fact that he has two beautiful little girls who look up to him. Krasinski can’t make an adult decision to save his life, and he doesn’t stop himself when his high school sweetheart kisses him behind his girlfriend’s back. I could go on, but I’ll save you the time.

Where the movie garners the biggest emotional response is in its drama, that while conventional, will send lovers of a good tear-jerker home satisfied. This certainly has all of the telling’s of an indie drama from the folk dominated soundtrack to the soft coloring of a cinematography that at least presents a beautiful place with ugly people. For as predictable as most of this movie plays itself out to be, it really is its greatest strength when it comes to a third act twist that I actually didn’t see coming. The script feels like it plays with and against types for independent dramas when it comes to material that travels many hills of rocky roads. The final act of the movie is where everything feels the most honest with the audience it looks to take in, and that’s because all of the gimmicks of ironic life commentary are dispatched for an ending that feels focused for the first time all script. I did enjoy the way everything closed up, even if it felt a little too convenient at times.

Krasinksi certainly has a future in directing, but I would prefer to see him take a singular approach when it comes to his next project. “The Hollars” certainly wore his talents thin, but in the spirit of any capable director, the focus is definitely on the other players. In that regard, Martindale thrusts herself into the stratosphere as one of Hollywood’s sweetest souls. Even for those who enjoyed it, I can’t see this one staying around in the memories of moviegoers for longer than a month. It’s forgettable and quite often insensitive.

5/10

Mr. Church

One stranger changes the lives of a desperate family with some rough days ahead. In “Mr Church”, we get a story set in 1965 Los Angeles, with Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy) begins with the title character arriving on the doorstep of 10-year-old Charlotte “Charlie” Brody (Natalie Coughlin) and her single mother Marie Brody (Natasha McElhone), who is battling breast cancer. They soon learn that the quiet man, Henry Church , has been hired by Marie’s recently deceased former lover to cook for them and help maintain the daily household chores. As Mr. Church’s time with the Brodys extends from months into years, he becomes a father figure for Charlie (Britt Robertson) during her formative years, nurturing her love of literature and making a lasting impact on her life. Even as Mr. Church tries to keep his own life separate from the Brodys, he eventually learns that the connection he feels to Charlie is what he has been seeking for a long time. “Mr Church” is directed by Bruce Beresford, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements.

Eddie Murphy has always been someone known for his comedic talents. Surprisingly, a lot of people forget that he is an Oscar winning actor, and has a strong emotional resonance within him that grants him the capability to succeed in any role he takes on. Even the worst Eddie Murphy movies still presents us with a fully-invested performance from the 52 year old star, and that is probably the best way to explain “Mr Church”. Upon my first trailer view of this movie more than two months ago, I welcomed it with open arms for the ability to restore Murphy back to top shelf as one of the most imposing figures on screen in any genre. The comedy will always be there, yes, but Murphy’s ability to razzle us with heartfelt compassion for the characters he takes on, is fun to watch for every person in the audience who need a little something more to get by a problem filled script. “Mr Church” might not be the Murphy movie that we deserve, but it does give us the chance at seeing a rare side of Murphy that few even realized he had. The rest of the movie however doesn’t quite measure up to par.

For the first act of this movie, there is a strong chemistry bond between the trio of characters in this movie. So much so that even your favorite critic was on the edge of tears for the first time this year. You really do feel for this Mother and child who had everything ripped from their lives and now struggle to find the energy to carry on. Murphy’s Church is a prophet of sorts that is sent to them to save their household, while saving himself at the same time. I loved that in the opening half hour of this movie that a lot was guarded about our characters, specifically Church, who is played off as more of an employee than a loving member of the family. What this slow progression offers us is a chance to see the bond between these people grow as this family of sorts that turns into much more than just a daily routine. Screenwriter Susan McMartin sees a lot of compassion in the characters she pens. This movie very much feels like a Hallmark movie of sorts without the terrible acting or sqeaky clean material within its boundaries. During this period of the movie, I struggled to find a single thing that offended me to the point of matching the 18% that this movie currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes. Then the inevitable happens with McElhone’s character and everything feels like a shell of what it once was.

From here, the movie presents us with a couple of new subplots for the movie that dive heavily into Church’s tortured and abusive past. There’s also a great sadness presented within the eyes of Murphy after someone he knew for only a few years passes away, giving us a glimpse at a possible romantic link between Murphy and McElhone. What left me dumbfounded is how neither of these issues really delve into the endless amount of possibilities that their tone shifts can bring for this movie. McMartin would rather play everything at face value without rocking the boat too much, and this lack of bravery leaves this script feeling hollow inside. Their resolutions just kind of die out before the remaining minutes of the 99 minute presentation, but those problems feel miniscule when compared to the jumps in time frames for the characters stories. On more than one occasion, this movie transitions into jumping a few years, and nothing ever feels smooth or cohesive with where the last scene just left off. It pushes the second half of this movie along, feeling impatient for the many subplots that it got itself into in the first place.

Then there’s the predictability. Within this movie, there are only so many places that these conflicts and resolutions can go, and by halfway in you can already start to see the bigger picture that is as painfully obvious as a stop sign that is approaching a freeway. The emotional register is still there in the heartfelt finale, but a lot of that is more about the performances themselves and less about the painfully dull narrative that misfires on nearly every cylinder. Everything just kind of wraps itself into this neatly little tucked package without ever reaching for a sampling of surprise that is perfect for this kind of melancholy audience. For something that felt wonderfully honest during the first act, I found myself laughing at the cheesy and obvious outcomes of the finale to such a strange blend between the contrasting styles in this script. It’s all a sloppy mess that could’ve worked had it slowed down to answer some of the questions that this movie got us into in the first place.

If you are going to see this movie for just Murphy though, you’re in the right place. His performance as this friendly figure will tug at your heartstrings for the kind of believability in range that Murphy exerts with ease. It’s kind of appropriate that the movie and the family alike relies on the strength of Murphy to carry both because his delivery is what kept me invested into the movie between every scene of contrived plot allowances. I would go as far as to say this is Murphy’s best performance in twenty years, and the reason for that is in his generous offerings of edible love for the souls that he feeds this family day after day. Eddie’s quiet demeanor go a long way in relating the kinds of tragedies that his character has endured. It’s very rare that we get what feels like honest, heartfelt love in a movie between its characters, but Murphy relishes in the opportunity to be great one more time. Britt Robertson is also a nice opposite female protagonist to play against the brilliance of Murphy. Robertson is the actress who spends the most time with the title character in this movie, and it’s in that chemistry between the duo where we get a healthy offering of dual complimentary. This is the best that I have seen out of Robertson so far, and the decision to make her the narrator of sorts for the movie is a welcome one.

Overall, “Mr. Church” is held above water by a masterful performance by Murphy, as well as a first act that lays the groundwork for a tear-jerker that won’t leave a single eye dry in the house. The careless script is what spoils everything around it, opting for a few select scenes of brilliance instead of a sum of parts that simply doesn’t blend well together. Decent tastes, but no desire for seconds with this main course.

5/10

The Sea of Trees

Two strangers set on ending their torturous lives, head to a legendary forrest known as “The Sea of Trees”. Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a depressed low-paying professor whose marriage is on the bend after the pressures of living fall squarely on his wife, treks into Aokigahara, known as The Sea of Trees, a mysterious dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji where people go to commit suicide. On his journey to the suicide forest, he encounters Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man who has lost his way after attempting suicide, only to fail. The two men begin a psychological journey of life reflection and survival, which affirms Arthur’s desire to live and reconnects him to his love for his loving wife, Joan (Naomi Watts). “The Sea of Trees” is directed by Gus Van Sant, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing imagery, and minor adult language.

After being booed heavily at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “The Sea of Trees” has received near-unanimously negative reviews, citing the film’s dull and soggy repertoire of uses for serious human psyche conditions, instead of offering informative insight into such material. Gus Van Sant is the kind of director who has always thrived with making depressing films. Some I have enjoyed, but most have been dreary offerings that feel more like resolutions for sleep depravation than visual masterpieces from a mostly ambitious filmmaker. This had me curious to sit down and ingest this movie myself, to see if there was something that I found positive about it. After taking in 105 minutes of this movie, I can clearly say that there is plenty of notoriety to keep this from coming anywhere near the top of my worst films of the year list. The movie definitely has its problems, but this film was never anything that offended me to the point of anger. I went into this film expecting nothing, and got a surprisingly pleasant amount of positives back in return. It’s sure to not win many fans, but if you can hang on through some agonizing tests of patience, “The Sea of Trees” might prove to be sentimental enough of a watch.

First of all, the acting is very sharp here. The movie plays through a somber feeling in tone pitch, so actors like McConaughey and Watts really have to bring a real passion to these characters to off-set the drowsy layering in tone, especially considering they aren’t the most likeable of people. Their chemistry rings true though, and as the movie went on, I found myself growing more and more invested into their trying relationship. Sad news is revealed halfway through the movie for these two, but what benefits this in terms of Matthew’s character development is that we finally see his desire to want to live, and it’s a welcoming fire that is needed to get through the rest of the film’s mumbling mess. There’s a real aspect to McConaughey and Watts as a relationship that feels believable because their trysts are similar to the kind of negatives that many couples go through when it gets to be too tough. The distance between them is well documented, but it’s certainly a pleasurable sit to see their love grow stronger through the thick of a troubling cloud that surrounds their relationship. Ken Watanabe is also in the film, and while I usually love Ken’s honest delivery, his character here feels completely unnecessary to the film. More times than not, I was annoyed with his mumblings, wondering if his character were drunk through three days of story. His presence lacks clarity until the end, when the most perplexing of endings rears its ugly head, and makes for one of the most jaw-dropping negative finales that I have seen this year. I can’t say much else about Watanabe without spoiling it, but McConaughey being alone in the forest would’ve increased the dread of vulnerability.

The visuals here are beautifully shot on location on Mount Fuji, and there’s certainly plenty to appreciate about the backdrops that feel very green and immense for miles around our protagonist. If you can’t find anything else that you enjoy about this movie, you must stop fighting with yourself and admit that this is a visually beautiful movie that at least put the investment into a budget to shoot on location. Thankfully, this isn’t a horror film about this forest, so a lot of colors can be digitally enhanced here to bring out the most beauty in every shot. There’s certainly an artistic irony to presenting beautiful backgrounds to a film with such depressing material in script.

That script itself shuffles around many themes throughout the movie, often refusing to settle for just one type of genre. Sure, most of it feels like a tear-jerking drama, but there’s elements to the film’s less-than-satisfying ending that pits this as a psychological thriller. It feels disjointed in the least, and that is what stands out as one of the main reasons why this movie is such a dull watch. If you can make it through the first half hour of the movie, you can make it through the deepest fires of hell. There were so many times where my patience was tested with the misfires in direction for this movie, and it certainly didn’t make it any better with the dialogue that garnered more laughter than tears. I am convinced that this is a movie that should be watched on mute. I feel like you can follow the story equally as invested as you would with sound, and at half the ironed-over fluff that over-materialized throughout the picture. I mentioned earlier how I hated the ending, and even in a world of Walt Disney, and Fast and Furious cars jumping bridges, this feels like a stretch. Considering every plot device is wrapped up with fifteen minutes left in the movie, the final scenes are just a banal wink to the audience to try to answer even the smallest of questions that we have absolutely no interest in. If the film lasted ten minutes too long in the conflict aspect, it lasted twenty minutes too long in the entertaining one.

Overall, “The Sea of Trees” isn’t quite the disaster that critics across America have painted it as. The performances from the two protagonists operate leaps and bounds higher than the script they are presented, and the visuals certainly inspire an artfully crafted production design that never flounders this small opportunity. The biggest problems come in material that feels far too paced in satisfying deliveries, as well as an ending that will send you home with nausea right before sitting down to enjoy the main course. This film would feel more believable if M Night Shyamalan hijacked it, but this is simply far too sagging for Van Sant’s message of mortality that was done better in films like “Gerry” and “Good Will Hunting”.

5/10

Morgan

The imprisonment of a dangerous evolving force takes form in that of a teenager named “Morgan”. Written by Seth Owen and directed by Luke Scott, the movie centers around Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) being not like any other girl. Created and raised as the third attempt at evolution in a secluded laboratory environment by a group of scientists, she defies nature with her super-human qualities. Walking and talking within one month and self-sufficient after just five-years-old, her rapid progression is remarkable, exceeding the expectations of her creators. After Morgan has a “tantrum” in which she viciously attacks and injures one of the scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh), corporate troubleshooter Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is called in to determine whether or not to terminate Morgan and the program before she can cause any more havoc or escape to the outside world. When Morgan catches wind of this, she takes it upon herself to plan an escape that will endanger the outside world that shun her. “Morgan” is rated R for brutal violence and adult language.

If the name Luke Scott racks your brain for comparisons to another famous director with that very same last name, it’s because Luke is Ridley’s son. For their first major writing and directing efforts, the team of Owen and Scott present us with a ‘Nurture Vs Nature’ story with a Sci-fi twist and the results are neither edging into positive or negative territory. There were things and concepts that I enjoyed about “Morgan”, but it never fully develops itself beyond cliche action and lack of intelligence during the film’s final act. We have seen the idea of gifted lab rat before, so what makes this movie any different from something like last year’s awful “The Lazarus Effect”? First of all, this girl isn’t telekinetic. There’s very little about her that stands out as supernatural or logic-defying. For the most part, Morgan as a character stays very grounded, but just excels in the kind of things that we take for granted every day: fighting and intelligence. The movie doesn’t have a lot of time at 82 minutes to really grasp the capabilities of Morgan’s powers, but there’s certainly enough during the first act that builds the story first on its own.

As to where the other two acts in the film feel very rushed, the first act is a patient settling in period for the audience, when it comes to getting to know the many characters in this movie. Through forty minutes of expositional dialogue, we come to understand that these workers who’s soul mission is the study of Morgan, have come to be a family of sorts to her. Every decision that a higher up has for this child feels personal for this elusive staff, and that is where the movie really centers its moral dilemmas on. Would we as human beings treat someone as dangerous as this with any more leniency if it were our own child? A child who we’ve come to love and teach like one of our own? The film has great ability to offer an equally compelling argument for both sides of the coin in this movie, and sometimes the correct answer never really is just one thing. At the center of it all, Morgan is still very much a child, and one who harbors an immense amount of responsibility, considering she is evolving with each passing minute. The idea to make this character human won’t feel as exciting to someone who is seeking a character to move walls, but this makes the fight sequences a little more realistic.

This is the area of the film that really surprised me. Scott has a distinct editing style when it comes to shooting the two different fight scenes in this movie between Mara and Taylor-Joy. These are quick cuts, with brutally crunching fast chops, and it makes for some spellbinding fight choreography between the two leading ladies. While the fight scenes are impressive, there is a slight problem with these scenes in particular. The movie has a plot twist that it delivers in the very end of the movie, but anyone paying attention should see it coming from a mile away because of how these fights are dissected. A good plot twist can make or break a movie, sending the audience home on a particular grading scale about the movie. This one made me feel like Morgan, in that I felt like I knew the answer early on, and was waiting for everyone else to catch up to my intellect.

The visuals and set pieces clearly show a kin to the man who once perfected claustrophobia in “Alien”. While this movie isn’t as visually ambitious as that movie, Luke shapes a cloud of great doom and uncertainty for the men and women working at this medical facility, and that air of all of them being prisoner to Morgan certainly satisfies that notion of the hunter now being the prey. We are introduced to the characters in the movie just after Morgan does something harmful to another doctor. Besides the fact that the movie just kind of ignores what made Morgan snap in the first place for the entirety of the movie, we feel the character of Lee walking into a volcano that is just about to erupt. The lava being the emotional resistance from nature’s greatest reply to man playing god, and creating a genetically superior baby to anything our world has ever seen. Luke Scott might not accomplish everything he set out to do creatively, but his catering to crafting the perfect attitude per scene is something that I will be watching for in his future efforts.

I mentioned earlier that the movie can be praised for its ideas, but where it falters is in the sloppy execution that carefully places this film back into the box of complacent mediocrity. Last year’s “Ex-Machina” conquered plenty of the ideas and executions that “Morgan” currently finds itself performing with, but the problem here is that Owen never cracks the intelligence of a third dimension, settling for mundane, instead of ambitious ideas that could really carry such a character. Morgan’s intrigue comes from her ability to learn, but we never feel like her intelligence is getting the best of the people around her. There’s never enough depictions on just how powerful this character can really get, and because of that we have a movie who’s trailer showcases everything as big and powerful as it ever gets. Cleverly enough, the trailer cuts it to where it feels like Morgan has more telekinetic powers than she rightfully does, and the deception really limits the sci-fi in an otherwise shoddy drama flick.

Anna Taylor-Joy is leaps and bounds the very pulse of this movie. There’s so much that the young actress can display in a single look that others can’t say in a long-winded delivery of speech, and it’s in her haunting facials where I felt a chill down my spine on more than one occasion. Taylor-Joy’s Morgan can change her attitude in the drop of a hat, and it’s in that uncertainty where we feel compelled to pay attention and focus hard on her every word. Kate Mara gives one of her better performances today, despite being wooden for the entirety of the movie. There is a reason for this of course, so I didn’t fault her for it. The internal fire during the showdown of these two ladies represents human versus evolution, and it makes for a satisfying climax to play side-by-side with the impacting fight choreography that I already mentioned. Besides Taylor-Joy and Mara, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Rose Leslie each offer memorable, albeit brief performances, and their big name quality lends itself to greater meaning for a story that we have seen play out a hundred times.

“Morgan” can’t overcome its inabilities to take a stab at answering questions greater than the content. It’s a mediocre, forgettable thriller that attracts attention by including an A-list cast and big budget presentation. Its predictability dissolves what minimal suspense the movie instills by offering a tight room with very little exits. Very derivative of something far much greater.

5/10