The Mountain Between Us

The meeting and befriending of two total strangers will require them to depend upon one another in the coldest of conditions, in ‘The Mountain Between Us’. Stranded after meeting and co-ushering a tragic plane crash, two strangers (Kate Winslet and Idris Elba) must forge a connection of trust between them to survive the extreme elements of a remote snow covered mountain in the coldest of conditions. When they realize help is not coming, they embark on a perilous journey across hundreds of miles of wilderness, pushing one another to endure and discovering strength they never knew possible. Along the way, they learn plenty about each other that prove appearances aren’t everything. ‘The Mountain Between Us’ is directed by Hany Abu-Assad, and is rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury imagery, and brief strong adult language.

‘The Mountain Between Us’ has a lot of potential from its personality and charm as a result of the turns of its two extremely likeable leads, but treads on thin ice with a barrage of romantic genre cliches that ultimately sink it. Undeniably, there’s too much weight of predictability and unnecessary comedic tone here that takes away from the intrigue and suspense that counteracts what the film builds on itself for an isolated disaster movie during the first act, and it’s proof that these opposite directions clash with the most dire of consequences, leading to much of what the audience will wisely enough discover from just the brief character outlines. It was maybe thirty minutes into this film when I mapped everything out that was going to happen in this movie, complete with character backstories and forced innuendos in screenplay that really takes the breath from a movie this limited. Sure, there isn’t a lot that you can do with a movie primarily set in one place, but films like ‘127 Hours’ and ‘Cast Away’ serve as validated examples of keeping the focus equally on the characters, as well as the conditions in consequences of the landscape, the latter of which Abu-Assad’s drifts away from like the very snow coming off of the landscapes.

From the get-go, Winslet and Elba’s characters meet and feel like old college friends. This is a puzzling direction immediately because it lacks some of the awkwardness and the vulnerability that will come into play later with trusting someone you just met. If these two are working together as a team early on, it will limit the transformations and growth that each character supplants with one another as the film goes on, and their resources become more and more limited. What I did enjoy about the screenplay is that it all kind of centers around this one conversation that the two characters have about brain versus heart, and in that instance the roles that each one of them play in such a debate. Elba is definitely the brain, considering his character is a surgical doctor and he is the one who plainly speaks “The heart is just a muscle”. Winslet’s character takes offense to that statement, and it’s clear that her drive and perseverance provide her with so much of that muscle that it often provides the light to keep on going. The film is also tightly paced until the third act, in which the movie feels like it tacks on one too many endings to cater to the audience who might feel alienated from a brave approach in closing minutes. I found this to drag on immensely, and I wish that some of the risk taking that the screenplay took in the mountain’s final minutes would’ve carried over to the film’s closing because it screams out the desperation that feeds into the redundant machine of romantic movie cliches.

On the subject of some of those cliches, this film has absolutely no shortage of them, providing an unintended spark of comedy that some can’t help but roll their eyes at. Considering these are two good looking people in the heart of the winter season on the rockies, this script practically writes itself. This feels even too obvious to someone like Nicholas Sparks, whose films revel in the opportunity to make a teenager’s most romantic fantasies come true, and leave out the logic or awkward exchanges between two strangers who met only days before. My issue with this aspect isn’t so much the overflowing amount of their uses, but more so in just how dishonest and undercooked that it makes this story feel. As the film carries into the second half, I found myself occasionally forgetting that these two were stranded because it’s clear that the film’s focus of that aspect felt secondary to the importance of a man and woman in seclusion, miles away from anyone, and with only the power to keep each other warm. If you think that sounds bad, I’m literally vomiting in my mouth as I type this out.

At least the scope of Abu-Assad and company bring aplenty to the film’s breathtakingly gorgeous production that certainly set the stage for the cold and unforgiven conditions. The decision to film this movie on location reaches levels of importance not only in immersing yourself in the very environment that our protagonists are thrust into, but also in the believability in physical performances that feel authentic to the toll of their body’s beat-down. The wide angle lens plays a valuable role here in accomplishing some the immensity of this landscape and the kind of uphill climb that the two now face. But not to lay back and play it safe from afar, the film also is credited with some vibrant experimental shots that had me twisting and turning in my seat quite a few times from the kind of point-of-view that the visuals cast us into. One such example is a scene involving Elba near the peak of a mountain, when he loses his footing and is sliding down towards the edge. Elba stops himself, but the camera keeps on going over the cliff, and it gives off this feeling of unpredictability even when the curtain has already revealed the result.

The performances as well are equally praising, even if the material frequently lets Elba and Winslet down in nearly every instance from conventional stakes. There’s no question that these two are too good for this kind of film this late in their careers, but I indulged none the less in their impeccable chemistry that they enveloped each and every scene with. I mentioned earlier that these two give such physically gifted performances on top of their already resilient personalities, but it’s in the work of Elba and the kind of secrets that transpire late into the movie surrounding his past that prove how capable he is of holding a script in the palm of his hands. Winslet is no slouch either, it’s just that the emotional register of Idris when it feels like a camera has got him cornered, is an illuminating shine that only gets brighter for him with each passing role. Kate’s on-time delivery in sarcastic wit plays valuable into keeping the attention spans firmly locked in on the movie during some trying times in pacing, and it all just serves as a testament to one of the most dependable leading ladies even still in all of Hollywood.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Mountain Between Us’ will certainly have its fans of date night moviegoers looking for a few simple thrills in action sequences, as well as some soft tenderness to go with a love story that you can get behind. Unfortunately for this critic, my heart is worth so much more, bringing to mind the never-ending inclusion of romantic movie tropes that exposed the predictability in every direction. If the film ends ten minutes before the string of false finishes, then it would be enough for me to push this through with a passing grade. But this, in addition to the overly telegraphed peril, and there’s nothing that could’ve closed the mountain of distance between me and Abu-Assad’s film.

5/10

American Assassin

One man’s devastating loss results in the molding of the single greatest weapon in the fight against terrorism. ‘American Assassin’ tells the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien), A 23 year old who lost his parents to a tragic car accident at the tender age of 14, as well as his girlfriend to a terrorist attack just as they were recently engaged. Seeking revenge in the most punishing of ways, Mitch is enlisted by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) as a black ops recruit. Kennedy then assigns Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to train Mitch. Together they will later on investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on military and civilian targets. The discovery of a pattern in the violence leads them to a joint mission with a lethal Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), to stop a mysterious operative, nicknamed “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), intent on starting A world war in the Middle East. ‘American Assassin’ is directed by Michael Cuesta, and is rated R for strong violence throughout, some torture, adult language and brief nudity.

‘American Assassin’ feels like the search for the next great action hero to follow in the steps of James Bond, Jason Bourne, or John Wick, but never reaching the potential of those physically gifted heavyweights. Instead, we get a taut spy thriller that unfortunately underachieves in A lot of possible potential, especially in that of its title character. As an action protagonist, there was very little for me in Rapp that ever made him stand out as something extraordinary. His biggest dominating trait is that he is disobeying, a ploy that the movie isn’t afraid to hammer home on multiple occasions. Aside from that, he’s small, borderline racist, and at times lacking extraordinary personality to make him at least appealing in the audible sense. I get that size isn’t everything, but to take down these mammoth men who clearly outweigh him by at least forty pounds is something that weighed heavily on my thought process watching the many action sequences in the movie. But to understand the problems with Rapp, let alone every other character in the movie, you have to first understand where they are getting their instructions from.

Look, I don’t know much about Michael Cuesta as a filmmaker, and there’s certainly the arguments for the aspects in film that he does do well, but character direction simply isn’t one of them. There’s no soft way to put it, these characters are as one-dimensional as you can possibly be in a movie that needs boastful exposition in getting them over. In terms of Rapp, this story feels like it abandons him about halfway through, opting instead for the mysterious link between Ghost and where he fits in to his American heritage. This isn’t something I’m necessarily against if done correctly, but Ghost himself vibrantly lives up to his name because his one-off scenes do nothing in shaping a worthy opponent who he himself did present some brief flashes of brilliances. This is kind of the story for all of these characters; it often feels like Cuesta wants their real life personas to over-extend to their on-screen characters, and it just isn’t enough. Where there’s smoke, there is often fire, and the flames burning through the expense of some much needed character for the movie negates every one of them to bland tough guy personalities who are missing that link to make them relatable to anyone but the fraternity brotherhoods that will see this movie in droves.

The film clocks in at 106 minutes, not terribly unexpected for an action origin story, especially since this one stays firmly paced, but one that sometimes weighs heavily on the thought process in shaping out a vital first act of the movie that slips on banana peels in reaching for a dramatic pulse. The idea is there, mostly because I am a huge Punisher fan, and the backstory of Rapp’s conveniently matches that of Frank Castle on more than one occurance, but the girlfriend death scene happens right away at the beginning of the film, giving us little time to appreciate our couple or invest in their union before it all goes south. And right when you think we would see a grieving period from Rapp, the character moves straight on to vengeance without ever second guessing himself. To miss this opportunity really blew my mind because if you can’t get behind a guy who lost something so important to him, your attachment to the character or story will float away like tears in the rain. The death isn’t used for anything except cheap manipulation towards the end when it makes little sense because of another surprise that flourished about fifteen minutes into the film. We all know that Taylor Kitsch is our central antagonist in the movie, but to find out that he isn’t the character who ended the life of Rapp’s girlfriend, and then to see that killing terrorist dealt with early on in the movie, makes it very difficult to ever reach that peak again. Imagine John Wick killing the person who shot his dog within the first half hour of the movie, and then asking the audience to care about some totally unrelated guy on the side.

It’s not all bad for Cuesta however, as the man definitely knows how to hold a camera for some pretty decadent sequences in devastating destruction. This can at least pack a vibrant punch for the film when all other areas are lacking. The fight sequences are crisp, moving in fluidity and depiction with such articulation because the camera work of Cuesta knows to never get too close and outshine the brutality. It stays right on the side and decides to let our characters dictate the direction of where it’s headed without it getting to jerky on the movements. The chase sequences, as well as the major blowout finale revealed to me that the producers definitely weren’t afraid to shell out the extra cash in order to enlighten the audience to how dangerous plutonium is. The gore as well impressed me to no end, pushing hard on that R-rating that proves it is the only way to do a film of this caliber. For the carnage candy nut in all of us, ‘American Assassin’ can at least play with the big boys, and its graphic material supplants itself at the head of the highlights for the film’s positives.

I mentioned earlier that the direction is poor for the character outlines, but the performances hint that something greater could’ve been met with an enjoyable cast. O’Brien is the only actor who I feel is miscast here because of his physical limitations and dry personality. I liked Dylan in ‘The Maze Runner’ series, but the transition to adult roles takes three HUGE steps with a role like Rapp, and maybe a few more years down the line he could’ve grown into it. Keaton was the most enjoyable for me even if his character is basically just an off-the-wall counterpart to everything that he has ever played. The madness in macho American toughness within him made me laugh unintentionally on more than one occasion, but at least it did give me something to enjoy in regards to the characters. Kitsch as a villain could be great. In the earlier years of his career, he’s kind of found it difficult in being a lead protagonist, but the waters of villain might be where his heart truly lies. There are spry occasions when we see Ghost as an intelligent mental chess player who always thinks a move ahead, but the script’s investment in him is too slim for his portrayal to ever imprint something memorable on the audience who are already sour on him.

THE VERDICT – ‘American Assassin’ more often than not misses its target in compelling spy thrills with a dramatic twang, but there’s plenty to appreciate in graphic brutality and high stakes action sequences for it to possibly gain cult status someday. The painful underwriting of these hollow characters, complete with protagonist without a pulse, drops the bar on every rule of audience investment since the dawn of time, and the first act mistakes in storytelling left me without a vest to succumb to the devastating blows that the bullets of logic spun at me. A bomb went off in the theater, but no one was there to hear it.

5/10

The Only Living Boy in New York

A boy becomes a man in Marc Webb’s newest dramedy, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), the son of a publisher and his artistic wife, has just graduated from college and is trying to find his place in the world. Moving from his parents’ Upper West Side apartment to the Lower East Side, he befriends his neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges), a shambling alcoholic writer who dispenses worldly wisdom alongside healthy shots of whiskey. Thomas’ world begins to shift when he discovers that his long-married father (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair with a seductive younger woman (Kate Beckinsale). Determined to break up the relationship, Thomas ends up sleeping with his father’s mistress, launching a chain of events that will change everything he thinks he knows about himself and his family alike. ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ is rated R for adult language and some drug use.

Ever since the dawn of Woody Allen and his library of films, the world has ushered out more than A few of his disciples whom you can clearly taste the Allen influence in their respective pictures. Marc Webb is one of those mentioned, and the taste of pretentious filmmaking reeks in his latest movie ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. That’s not to say that this is A terrible film, it’s just terribly bland. Once you have watched the trailer for this film, you can take pleasure in knowing that you have witnessed the entire first hour of this rushed 83 minute production. To say that we’ve seen this kind of film before is quite the understatement, so what makes it noteworthy in the slightest? The New York Backdrop (Cough Cough Allen)? The soft and unsubtle lighting textures that make every shot feel like a painting (Allen)? or maybe it’s the snobby cast of characters who complain about A life that most would wish for (You know what? You get the picture). I felt like I have already seen this film up until A last second swerve that is far too late in hitting us hard with the big life lesson. Was I shocked? more so noticed, as it’s the first point in the film that I began investing myself in, but it doesn’t fix what’s been broken through this vapid script of insincerity.

This film early on takes a popular cliche by instilling some narration by Jeff Bridges character in the movie, but it feels completely unnecessary with the creative direction of the film, albeit except for one stance in logic; exposition. Because this film is so brief in its runtime, it doesn’t have time to bring along these characters and their respective backstories, so Bridges is tasked with filling in the blanks to outline the proper traits in these characters that do sometimes run together because of their limited expressions. Then the film decides to just drop it forty minutes in. There is no longer anymore narration by Bridges, and suddenly it feels like we’re on our own, and my honest fear of sloppy exposition seems to have been affirmed by the film’s lack of attention in keeping up with its own rules. If there’s one positive that I had, it was in the relationship between Bridges and Turner’s characters, serving as the film’s blackboard for emotional pulse. The film feels the most light hearted during these scenes, mainly because it isn’t trying to take itself too seriously, and just enjoying those quiet moments in life when clarity is necessary.

As I mentioned before, the pacing does feel incredibly rushed, and this limits the potential in clearing these hurdles in continuity and progression that far outruns our waning interest. From the romantic triangle perspective, too much happens far too quickly during the early scenes of the second act, and it often felt like the film was hinting at where it was going long before we had the possibility to accurately depict it. I’m not saying this movie is the most unpredictable offering in the world, but showing your cards far too early will shatter the boundaries of immersion that anyone will have in this project, leaving it void of any suspense. There is never enough tension being built with Brosnan’s character that he will either find out about Turner and Beckinsale, or that he himself will be caught having this seedy affair. Those elements could’ve done wonders in establishing the proper attitude for this film, which often feels unattended by the proper creative direction. I could swear that this film was A comedy, but I’m still completely unsure.

The performances aren’t too bad considering what little this extremely talented cast is given to work with. I do believe that this is my first engagement of Turner’s work, and I have to say that he wins the award for best James Franco impersonation. As Thomas, Turner can sometimes come across an sniveling and callow, making for the wrong guy to want to spend an entire feature with. His character lacks anything that makes him come across as engaging, and I would’ve much rather spent time with the adults in the movie who properly keep the flow of these conversations going. To that degree, Bridges is definitely the best here. Besides being the pulse in narration for the movie, Jeff can make A line of dialogue delightful by simply emoting that rugged sarcasm that has earned him universal praise. Pierce Brosnan isn’t too bad, but lacks enough proper screen time, and Kate Beckinsale is virtually playing every character that she has for the past three years. It’s got less to do with her talents, and more to do with the writers she is working with who time-and-time again write her unflatteringly against type.

With the choices for cinematography and artistic expression, the film does yield some exceptionally elegant lighting, giving way to the Allen environment that Webb articulately demonstrates. Some of the wide angle interior shots in this film are so gorgeous that they belong on a rich person’s wall, so they can show off their rich people to everyone else. See the problem here? New York is also very prevalent in the film, but there’s never enough gorgeous establishing shots to ever make it too A character who is present and talks back against all of the bad that is being said about it by these people. Anytime you have A setting as big as this, you MUST embrace it to relay the kind of heartbeat in culture that many of us have only heard about and never seen. Everything else is quite conventional, and that’s kind of A disappointment because Webb’s sleek style usually plays A prominent role in his visual breath-stealers like ‘500 Days of Summer’ and ‘Gifted’. There’s not enough on the experimental side to ever make this one his own, and it serves as A reminder all around of A project that is entirely forgettable.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ is A bit of A boring one. There’s A word used often in the film that is “Serviceable”, and that concept would be giving this one far too much credit. Webb’s latest lacks the kind of patience in precision storytelling or insightful characters to ever make this must-see entertainment from someone we’ve come to know as A modern day master. The visual specter tingles in patches, but the art isn’t enough to save itself from A screenplay lacking any kind of hardened drama or edge. This boy isn’t living, he’s mumbling through A life that has already moved on from his constant moaning.

5/10

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Even a ruthless hitman needs protection, so he calls on ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’. The world’s top special protection agent (Ryan Reynolds) called upon to guard the life of his mortal enemy, one of the world’s most notorious hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson). The relentless bodyguard and manipulative assassin have been on the opposite end of the bullet for years and are thrown together for a wildly outrageous 24 hours. During their raucous and hilarious adventure from England to the Hague, they encounter high-speed car chases, outlandish boat escapades and a merciless bloodthirsty Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman) who is out for blood. Salma Hayek joins the mayhem as Jackson’s equally notorious wife. The trio must team together if they wish to defeat their ruthless stalker. ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is directed by Patrick Hughes, and is rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout.

Remember that time when Deadpool, Nick Fury, and Elektra all teamed up to ruin the evil plan of Commissioner Gordon? That cute and colorful attempt at humor is going to possibly be the most memorable aspect of ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’, a film so ridiculed by amateur filmmaking that even the charismatic combination of two charming male leads isn’t enough to overcome its deficiencies. This film serves as the latest in 90’s action comedy buddy flicks like ‘Money Talks’ and ‘Bulletproof’, that draws a noticeable rinse, wash, repeat outline to its script, offering nothing new to make it memorably salvageable. Of the two films I mentioned, the latter one feels eerily similar to the very outline of this movie, in that two rivals must team together after one has wronged the other, they take a cross country trip together that takes them through the backroads of some pretty silly situations, and it all centers around the concepts of taking a bullet for one another. That’s not to say that ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is ripping off ‘Bulletproof’, it’s just that this genre of film has been tapped so dry that the only thing interchangeable at this point are the actors who can personalize it to theirs and the audience’s amusement.

Before I begin to critique this film, I will tell you that the performances lift my score dramatically, and kept a lot of this generic action movie fresh for me. I have always been a huge fan of Reynolds, but he’s best when he has a force of equal value to bounce off of. As the deadpan, straight man of the movie, Ryan is irresistible when it comes to drawing a smile out of you, even if it comes at the expense of his character’s calculated precision. With Jackson, it’s everything at an opposite. His character thrives on impulse and rash decision making, so when these two come together, they make a dynamic duo that equally compliments one another fluently. The film definitely moves accordingly whenever these two are on-screen, but what does the rest of it offer? Well, an R-rated performance turned in by Salma Hayek, who is easy to fall in love with, but isn’t the widest range of character once you’ve seen her material on one scene. The film refuses to elevate her as anything more than this expletive instilled firecracker who serves as nothing more than the trophy to that of Jackson’s character, and that is a missed opportunity of shame. Gary Oldman hands in another committed antagonist performance, mimicking his German accent with range and consistency that never flounders. The unfortunate aspect with him is that the film kind of forgets about him during a second act that fluffs the past rather than enhance the progression of the current. By the end of the movie, we’re supposed to feel intrigue towards his terrifying plot, but the film hasn’t approached matters from his point of view enough, leaving us with a set-up that is just put in pause until our two heroes can save the day.

As for that script, there’s many problems, but the most apparent to me was the jumbling of atmospheric mood for the film that tries to be too many genres at once. First and foremost, this film thrives best when it is a goofy comedy that stands tall with the personalities of its two leads. There’s also action, and that is Ok until the movie tries to blind us with a side that we haven’t grown to expect; violence and terrorism that speaks wonders to a serious side of film that feels out of place in this plot. During the nauseating third act of the movie, there’s also a switch to infuse some romance into the fold, concocting an overstuffed sandwich that feels harder to swallow the more we continue to chew on its ever-changing atmospheres. For my money, this film could afford to shave about fifteen minutes off of its runtime, most notably from a dependency on five different flashback scenes that fluff the hell out of this 110 minute show. To make matters worse, the ending could’ve concluded three different times, but because so little has progressed most notably with the antagonist angle of the movie, we must tough out the murky waters of convolution during the final twenty minutes that does the pacing very little favors.

After directing ‘The Expendables 3’, the personal worst of the series, Patrick Hughes came back with this film to kind of redeem his influence behind the directing chair, and there’s kind of a noticeable personalization of his pictures that have yet to cast him into efficient filmmakers. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have his charms, but when I think about the visual presentation of this movie, it does leave so much more to be desired in a major motion picture. The C.G backdrops and explosions adhered to the same problems that 2015’s ‘The Transporter: Refueled’ experienced, in that there’s a noticeable dimension of off-coloring that peaks every time this effect is present, relaying a feeling of cheap ambiance that sets a small stage for the A-list cast to perform on. Beyond this, the musical score is among the worst of the year easily. At the beginning of the film, this music is blared to such ear-deafening levels that I couldn’t hear the opening dialogue of the movie’s first scenes. It also beholds that annoying gift where its easy tones do nothing in adding to the scene except to tell audiences audibly how they are supposed to feel because the producers feel they’re to stupid to understand something so basic. I could honestly make a review on this aspect alone, but I will only go so far as to say that visually and audibly this movie really let me down. It feels like it could be a spoof movie at times, but the film isn’t clever enough to capitalize on that kind of medium to bring the sensibility to such bland tastes in visual stylings.

The action sequences are hit and miss, providing a combination of chase sequences and fight scenes that cater to the catastrophic hound in all of us. For me, the chase sequences are where the money is. If there’s anything that Hughes has a knack for, it’s in the fast paced intricacy of plotting out a chase that is shot with exceptional confidence. The movements of the camera keep up fine with the speeds of these vehicles, even enhancing the editing with some experimental perspectives that refuse to ever settle for mediocrity. I would’ve been fine with chase sequences for the whole film, but there are fight sequences to make it all the more personal. There’s certainly nothing condemning about Hughes methods to shooting fight scenes. At the very least, he isn’t too close to the action to where the audience doesn’t register what is happening. My problem is that the camera movements here become slightly too ambitious, mimicking the movements of the actors rather than capture the magnitude of every crushing blow. This jerky style of shooting left me winded after one scene, let alone four different fight sequences that don’t get any easier on the eyes as the film progresses. Experimenting is fine, but I think too much movement can feel taxing to those watching closely for each balance of power happening in the scene. At least it’s not as bad as a POV shot, but too much movement sequencing these violent dances more often than not had me looking away.

THE VERDICT – This bodyguard can take a bullet or two and keep charging because of energetic performances from Reynolds and Jackson, two leading men who are far too great for this movie at this point in their careers. Hughes scattershot creativity limits the film in tone and sequencing quite often, even so that the laughs from witty dialogue fade into the air like smoke rings because of the atmosphere being too thick of genre recycling to withstand lasting power. This one earns its place in the late Summer graveyard, but thankfully its impressive cast will rise from the dead once they shake themselves of this pity project that constantly misses its mark.

5/10

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

The gang of furry friends and lovable creatures are back, this time to do something much more urgent than cracking nuts, in ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’. Two years after the original movie, Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his friends, Buddy (Tom Kenny), Andie (Katherine Heigl) and Precious (Maya Rudolph) discover that the mayor (Bobby Moynihan) of Oakton City is cracking one big hustle to build a giant yet quite-shabby amusement park, which in turn will bulldoze their home, which is the city park, and it’s up to them and the rest of the park animals to stop the mayor, along with his daughter and a mad animal control officer from getting away with his scheme, and take back the park. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ is written and directed by Cal Brunker in his first big budget presentation, and is rated PG for action and some rude humor.

Considering it was three years ago and arguably the very worst animated film of the year, ‘The Nut Job’ offers very little that comes to memory when I think about it now, and while this same problem might suffer the same fate with its unnecessary sequel, I can happily say that this is an improvement for the series that nearly meets the requirements to be an enlightening and entertaining movie for kids. Make no mistakes about it, some of the same problems involving inferior animation, limited storytelling involving cliche plot, and of course plain Jane characters who have little or no exposition for their respective arcs. Those problems are still there, but what ‘The Nut Job 2’ has going for it is that it truly feels like the makers of this film threw away all of the rules and just didn’t care as long as it was memorable. It attains this status at least temporarily because of a third act that completely flew off of the rails, and serves as a hotbed of anarchy that doesn’t stop until the credits end. That could be where this franchise finds its voice, even if it as at the hands of another sort-of loss with the overall finished product. The positive is that it isn’t a devastating one, and at least gives me some hope that a third film could turn everything around for this tortured story and characters if they just throw out the tired formula of what makes a good kids movie.

Yes, the animation continues to underwhelm, despite some much needed improvements to the backdrops that speak to that French artistic visionary of animation designs. Where this positive sticks out like a sore thumb is in the character dimensions and outlines in design that make the pop to the eye for all of the wrong reasons. Open Road Films still struggle when it comes to the live action movements of its animated characters, with everything from their speech patterns being dramatically off from what is coming out of their mouths, to the expressions on faces that don’t feel as detailed when compared to the flock of kids movies that are setting precedents today. But what those landscapes do with precision in beauty is float a dreamscape full of colorful residence that really pop in front of the camera. I can remember the first film being an ugly one because its backgrounds weren’t used accordingly enough to immerse the audience in this particular world, but thankfully ‘Nutty By Nature’ doesn’t have this problem, as it leaves little to the imagination of what can be done with story when it has a beautiful canvas to play out on.

This is really where the film suffers the greatest for me, because the first two acts of this movie are really just throwing a bunch of tired ideas at the screen and seeing what sticks. As seen before, there is the evil mayor of the town who has somehow gotten voted in despite breaking every zoning code, as well as human right known to man, but none of that matters because every kids movie needs a villain right? The film knows how overblown and laughably bare this antagonist feels because it chooses to focus so little of its 80 minute run time on him and his evil child who had some real possibilities when laid out in material that could’ve laid into the effects that bad parenting have on their spawns. I mentioned that this film barely breaks an hour, and what little of material that the film does try to progress forward is often times slowed down to a grinding halt when a new character is introduced, and this film has no shortage of them. Instead of presenting their introductions in smooth detail, the film supplies us with no fewer than three exposition montages that bring their stories up to date to this moment, and whether or not you agree with me that this feels like sloppy character introductions, you can’t debate that this method feels redundant by the second time it is brought up. The last half hour is easily the climax for my interest in this movie because it turns into kind of a shit show firework that lights the longest fuse to keep the madness running. I did laugh quite a few times during this part not only for the breaking of logic that was being displayed so non-chalantly, but because there are winks to some pretty sinisterly occurances that feel like the appropriate bone thrown to adults who have had to endure this series up to this point. That is what I want to see more of, and I hope that if there is a Nut Job 3, that it takes the risks that will award it the single craziest scene that I have seen in a kids movie in quite a long time.

As for the performances, there is certainly no shortage of credible actors and actresses who lend their familiar tones to these characters. Will Arnett has a vocal range that was made for children’s movies, emoting Surly as a know-it-all who sometimes gets carried away with his brash personality. Arnett takes this film on his back and carries it when it feels like no one else is getting a chance to. On that direction, I point to Katherine Heigl and Jeff Dunham who despite their generous influence on this script, underplay every scene-stealing opportunity that the movie gives them. Dunham in particular is the surprise here because his whole stand-up stick is based around vocalizing dummies that he brings on stage, but his presence isn’t enough here with energy in delivery to ever compliment his talented male lead. Jackie Chan was a solid addition as a mouse who is anything but just cute, but his character is introduced almost to the point of insult stereotypes, with oriental music and Chinatown backdrop being present to his arrival. The character almost becomes a running joke of itself before we ever learn anything about him, and that’s truly unfortunate for Chan, as his career is kind of in a comeback mode with a lot of buzz surrounding the upcoming ‘Ninjago Lego Movie’ and ‘The Foreigner’. Arnett sets the table, but it often feels like others are afraid to eat off of it, a true disappointment to a cast of A-listers who could’ve made their presence felt immensely.

THE VERDICT – It couldn’t have gotten worse than 2014’s ‘The Nut Job’, and thankfully it didn’t. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ still lacks the kind of creative bite in consistency to ever compete with the smarter, more ambitious competition of the genre, but the nourishment of this nut wasn’t as far of a reach when presented with an improvement in aspects of animation, as well as a leaning on the values of friendship that make the hearty center something more with this sequel. Maybe it’s the fact that I just saw ‘The Emoji Movie’ two weeks ago, but this film didn’t upset me anywhere near to the point that I was expecting, and hopefully the next nut will fall even further from this tree of familiarity.

5/10

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Among the immensity of a thousand planets, lies two soldiers tasked with protective peace between it, in ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’. The film is the new adventure film from Luc Besson, and is based on the comic book series which inspired a generation of artists, writers and filmmakers. In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense, the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha-an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material, and brief language.

It should never be said that Luc Besson isn’t a visionary when it comes to capturing the attention and the imagination of his audience. Ever since ‘The Fifth Element’, Besson has etched his name as one of the very best in his field. So it should come as no surprise that ‘Valerian’ is undoubtedly the most beautiful film visually that I have seen this year. There’s a certain weight in matter that Luc establishes effortlessly with C.G.I effects and backdrops that nearly everyone else fail at, and his commitment to task sets a vibrantly colorful backdrop that constantly keeps raising the bar. Because this is a film about a thousand planets, it is important that each one comes across as contrasting, yet beautiful to the iris that takes it all in, and there was never a moment visually in this movie where I wasn’t completely blown away at the specter in immensity that an epic like this one captures so breathtakingly. For a movie set in 2150, I had zero doubts believing that the kind of concepts and visual extravagance like this could exist in a galaxy beyond the stars.

As for plot, there is a healthy offering that takes this film a tad bit above those other movies that I have deemed as all style and no substance. The problem is that as a writer Besson could use more hands-on in this bloated script that drags on for about thirty minutes too long. As I mentioned before, the concepts and the dissection of a variety of species will certainly satisfy even the most hardcore of Sci-fi buffs, but its more in its graphing that could definitely use some trimming, even despite it at times being so appealing to the masses who are foreign to their livings. When you’re 90 minutes into a movie and character exposition is still a thing, you’ve certainly got a problem, and this kind of storytelling certainly limited my investment and patience in this movie that was wearing thin with each passing minute. The pacing caught up to me with about forty minutes left in the movie, when it becomes apparent at just how frozen we are in story progression. So much of this filler during the second act could certainly use an edit button, as it often times feels like we’re watching a director’s cut instead of a theatrical release. In addition to contrivances, there’s also an antagonist subplot involving a certain actor in the movie that is treated like a mystery, when from the very beginning of this character’s intro, you can tell from the ominous tones in music, as well as his speech patterns that this character isn’t in to the best of intentions within this galaxy. The resolution between our duo and this character amounts to nothing more than the simplest of ways out, and the lack of confrontation between them in the film’s closing moments leaves with a wimper, and not quite the bang that we so rightfully deserved.

The performances was also an aspect that greatly bothered me. When Rihanna as an evolving chameleon who is in the movie for twenty minutes serves as the single best performance, you’ve got problems. On Rihanna, she gives a presence here that proves she has grown immensely and is destined for the silver screen. There’s a sadness in her eyes that brings a much needed layer of melancholic weight to the ever-adjusting tonal shifts within the movie, and I found her to be quite enjoyable in this role. As for the duo of protagonists, I found that I enjoyed them separately, but when they are together (Which is very minimal), they lack great chemistry to ever come across as believable in these roles. Call it lack of conjoined screen time, or the fact that their constant bickering is about as enjoyable to listen to as Nickelback’s greatest hits, but they don’t work well together. Delevingne does exert some swift action moves to feed into the females in the audience, but her character constantly gets in these binds where she has no choice but to become the damsel in distress, and after a while, enough is enough.

With enough negatives, there is one more positive that I had for the film, and that is in the pulsating musical score of craft composer Alexandre Desplat in the chair. Usually known for sophisticated tones in films like ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, Desplat here feels slightly more at home omitting these rumbling numbers that really feed into that space opera kind of feel that is transcribed throughout the film. Alpha feels like a place where there’s always music in the air, the most echoing of sorts happening when a chase sequence or shoot out happens among them, and it makes for a much-needed pulse and reminder of excitement that this film should’ve provided otherwise. What I found so delightful about its blends is how each number that gets repeated somewhere else in the movie has these minor tweaks and twists to them that make it sound like an entirely different number, but in deep listening you start to hear the familiar notes that bare resemblance. Because the action sequences are only so-so in the film and barely worth mentioning, I will say that Alexandre did lift their depictions slightly, encompassing the kind of urgency to play with hand-in-hand with the surreal atmospheres that adorned the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ can at times feel like we’ve visited them all. The two hour-plus runtime does very little favors in combating the wooden performances that lack chemistry, as well as the jumbled narrative that can sometimes stop a bit too much to keep the fluidity of the story competent. What works is strictly the scope here, with luxurious eye-catching details, as well as musical accompanying that breathe life into this picture, but ultimately fall a bit too short in overcoming the increasingly stacking odds against them. Besson is still one of those directors who you anticipate their next big project, but it’s clear that this planet might be his orbit from prominence.

5/10

All Eyez On Me

The legend of arguably the most influential rapper of all time gets the big screen treatment, in the musical biopic “All Eyez On Me”. The story, directed by Benny Boom, tells the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. The film follows Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) from his early days in New York City hustling to make ends meet, to his evolution into being one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices alongside Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard), all before his untimely death at the age of 25 in 1996. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mind-set propelled him into becoming a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow more than twenty years after his passing. “All Eyez On Me” is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Tupac Shakur lives on again in the latest rap music biopic that depicts for fans young and old to embrace the voice of the man who spoke for them. With previous efforts like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Notorious” leading the way for the genre, the idea of Shakur’s life on the big screen seems like a no-brainer, and while “All Eyez On Me” does play to an accurate depiction of the man’s brief time in the public eye, it fails to reach the uncovering satisfaction and production values of the previous two movies. Being a big Tupac fan myself, I was greatly looking forward to this film, but I can’t help but taste a distinct taste of disappointment coming out of the theater from people who were thirsty for a refreshing look at Tupac Shakur the man, not the superstar. For any great musical biopic, you must carry an equal importance of knowledge and entertainment to instill upon your audience. The film has no struggles with the latter, but greatly neglects the former by speeding through some trait defining moments in his life, in favor of fast-forward pacing that cuts short far too much.

On that distinct trait of the movie, the pacing early on feels like it’s in a hurry to get to a certain finishing point, rushing harshly through the earlier points of Tupac’s life living in the slums and searching for a positive male role model like so many other youths who support Tupac can relate to. It was almost surreal how the movie was already at the start of Tupac’s amateur rap career a half hour into the movie, and it begs the question why so many other biopics, both music and non, feel it is important to push through the backstory in exposition so you can see the entire growth of the central protagonist? For a movie that shocked me at being 135 minutes, there is simply no excuse as to why some of these moments and relationships couldn’t use further emphasis early on, as it would touch on more of the sentimental peaks that the film reaches for later on that simply isn’t there. One positive that I can say about this aspect is that the movie never drags, nor slugs along for too long. It constantly keeps getting back up on its feet, and signals one of the easiest two-plus hour sits that I have had in a long time. The third act of the movie is undoubtedly my favorite, as Tupac’s time with Death Row seems to be the established direction that the movie was focusing on for its majority. Everything during this time feels appropriately paced, and finally it doesn’t feel like our backs are up against the wall, despite a hearty run time that should offer no handicaps for storytelling measures.

As far as story goes, the film feels like it is catering more to the casual fans of Tupac, whom occasionally heard through the grapevine some chilling occurrences within the rapper’s past. I say this because so much of what makes up the material in this movie plays to the rhythms of a glorified television movie-of-the-week production, choosing to hit all of the high points in Tupac’s life, and leaving so little for what fills in the gaps along the way. My favorite parts were finally seeing behind the walls of Death Row Records, and the horrors that befell its clients every single day. I found the character of Shug Night to be the snake in the grass that waits for vulnerability to strike, a true villain in the purest definition. I mentioned the pacing earlier, and why it plays such an important role in this film in particular is because not every scene can be a shootout or a high-stakes fight. You need those scenes and sequences of exposition building along the way to fill in the gaps, but the trio of screenwriters that make up this script fire off one round after another at the audience, and after a while it feels muddled in repetition, even to the point of redundancy on this long-winded script that constantly keeps punching. No hardcore fan will take much new away from “All Eyez On Me”, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with opening the eyes to new fans, but I think it’s a huge misstep to ignore the droves of fans who will see this movie to get one step closer to their favorite rapper for one more night knowing that they may never get this chance again.

The editing too showcases possibly my least favorite aspect of editing films that I have mentioned a time or two in my reviews. I have never been a fan of fading to black until the end of the movie, but “All Eyez On Me” repeatedly chooses this route, damaging the cohesiveness of a script that jumps in many avid directions because a majority of it is being told in flashbacks. This often gives the film a bunch of scattered pieces feel, instead of one well-working machine, and I greatly wish that the production of this film would’ve instead ushered for quick cuts, as I feel it would do wonders with keeping up with the story chronologically. One example of such a mess in editing comes in Tupac meeting his eventual girlfriend in the third act. The scene in which they meet has them at odds, but after fading to black, they are immediately together and living together in the next scene. This is a fault on the writers as well, but the editing makes it feel like so much was left out from the night of their meeting that was ommitted from our presentation.

One immensely positive area for the film is in its Oscar-worthy casting direction that single-handedly blew me away for the attention to detail that often left me riveted. Casting director Winsome Sinclair has outdone any and everyone before her, ensembling a cast of mostly fresh faces that chillingly indulges in the likeness of their respective characters. To name just two, Shipp Jr is Tupac Shakur, make no mistakes about it. I don’t believe for a second that Demetrius Shipp Jr is his actual name because there were moments in the film when I actually thought footage from Tupac’s life had been taken to mold into this movie. While we could use a closer look at the person, Shipp Jr does more than enough in radiating the charisma of the rapper, juggling valuably the way he saw the world, as well as the naivity that came with being so young at the time of his death. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira steals the show however, as Tupac’s Mother Afeni. Early on in the film, Afeni struggles to be the positive adult influence in her children’s lives, and it’s clear the demons within her are often at war for a distilling anger that she feels towards this unfair world. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch Gurira steer this character to such a satisfying transformation; she’s essentially playing two halfs that make up this depthful complex African American woman, a theme that is often neglected in modern cinema.

THE VERDICT – “All Eyez On Me” steers a bit too conventionally to the rapper’s well known events in biography to ever open the eyes of anyone seeking a broader canvas of the revolutionary’s life behind the lens of a camera. There’s some truly compelling performances in the work of Shipp Jr, as well as Gurira that prove visually and emotionally that no one better could’ve been cast, but the muddled waters of shoddy editing, as well as a flawed script early on that pushes along without stopping, does very little to value the immense run time given to Boom’s production. The movie flounders this opportunity, but Keep Ya Head Up Tupac fans, the real story is in the lyrics of perhaps the most gifted MC to ever pick up a mic.

5/10

Cars 3

Pixar Studios sets out once again to prove that the race isn’t over until lightning strikes, in the third chapter of the animated trilogy “Cars 3”. Racing is starting to become tough for Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), as he is becoming one of the oldest race cars on the race track and a generation of new rookies are coming into the evolving racing world. After he is pushed out of the race track, he begins a road of redemption that inspires his aging model to turn back the clock once more. For Lightning to prove that he is still a top racer, he is going to need help from an eager young female car named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who is to help and train Lightning. He’s not quitting until he shows the world that he is still a top racer, and silences the younger, faster doubters on the track who want him gone. “Cars 3” is written and directed by Brian Fee, and is rated PG for scenes of disastrous peril.

It isn’t reaching too ambitiously, but “Cars 3” is a greater improvement to that of “Cars 2” that flopped at nearly every turn, conjuring up Pixar’s absolute worst movie to date. However, the third film in this trilogy proves that no sequel can quite attain the greatness of the first movie that throughout stayed competently focused, and excited us for what could follow in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world run by automobiles. It is a step up, but one that comes with great caution for how not to introduce an ensemble cast with a brief 104 minute run time. That may seem lengthy for this plot, but when you consider how much material this movie truly has, it’s but a fraction of what is needed to smoothly depict. Brian Fee’s film is one that starts out a lap or two behind, due to a rocky first half of the movie that greatly overcomplicates and convolutes the importance of exposition in all of its flimsy details. Because of this, the film often lacks consistency in momentum, and finds itself trying to catch up for the rest of the film, nearly pulling it off in the final act that finally plays to the dramatic pulse in this kids movie, but still flounders away the possibilities of its gripping material and breathtaking visual displays that up the ante to this once prosperous franchise.

Simply put, there are far too many characters in this movie, and that is often the root for the cause of every problem associated with this movie. There is some commendable voice work, mostly in that of Wilson and Alonzo who radiate an innocent friendship over the grounds of the teacher becoming the student. But all admirations aside, the first two acts of this movie constantly halt plot progression each and every time to introduce a character who doesn’t have a lot of weight to the importance of this blossoming comeback story. Sure the immediate value is obvious with most of them, but by the film’s conclusion you will wonder why they even bothered. Because of this, our antagonist and Lightning’s up-and-coming new blood to the race track feels virtually ignored for the entirety of this movie, only occasionally bringing him back as a reminder to the audience who have long since forgotten about him. Even more confusing is how this film manages to pile in so much progression during the first act, but then screeches itself to a grinding halt during the second, trying to balance out misfiring pacing that feels like it’s riding on two bad tires. Without developing the antagonist plot, the film rarely feels like it’s building to something bigger, and often sifts through a second act that will bore audience members of every age bracket. Believe me, I know, my auditorium carried on conversations without ever thinking twice about it, a sure sign of the disconnect from film to viewer that only maximizes as “Cars 3” carries on.

What the film does do well is conjuring up a genuine comeback story that does have some emotional grit to it, particularly during the final half hour that does remind audiences of the weight that these Pixar movies can respect audiences with. There are the obvious measures of the occasional music montage playing to the training of Lightning, as well as the subplot that involves our hero finding himself in ways that he never deemed necessary, but what impressed me more was the surreal aspect that we as stars of our sport are someday told that we can no longer play the game, and when that day comes it’s in your hands with how you attack it. This was the aspect of the film that drew me in during the trailers, but unfortunately didn’t arise until nearly the end of the movie. I mentioned earlier that this is the strong point of the movie for me, and that’s because the movie doesn’t play it like your typical Disney style ending, a fact that I greatly appreciated having seen stories like this play out quite a few times. It does kind of pull the wool over the eyes of its audience, in leading the film down a familiar path, then throwing a curveball, but it’s one that I greatly appreciated despite the rules of the switch leaving a huge plot hole or two when it comes to the rules of racing.

At least the animation springs forth an early contender for best visual presentation of the year, spiraling us through scene after scene of breathtaking speed and force that constantly kept me gripping on. Pixar Studios have become so embracing of the live action backdrops in their stories that it now feels like these polarizing characters, complete with eye-popping layers, are now present in our own world. The ability to make these vehicles stand-out might feel on the same field as a movie like last year’s “The Good Dinosaur”, but it works more accordingly here because the cars often feel like the foreign concept in a land as we know it is inhibited by humans, so their conflicting volumes in colorful depiction serve to a greater purpose to single out the characters first and allow the viewer to soak in the vibrancy of the pixelated palate around them. Nobody does this better than Pixar, and it serves as a testament to award-winning effects work when we as an audience have to occasionally stop to ask the question if these three-dimensional characters are being super-imposed on a two-dimensional canvas to feed into a real world backdrop.

THE VERDICT – While “Cars 3” is a serviceable enough improvement from that of its predecessor, there’s a great conflict in the flow of consistency that renders it as just another red flag to an overall disappointing series of films made by a studio that often over-exceeds. Had the first half of the film tried a little harder in adding something in addition to the impeccable visual stylings and Lightning’s battle with time, the film’s triumphant third act would feel more like a victory lap. But instead, Fee’s film lacks the intensity of the emotional gut-punch that a conceptual offering like this one promised in the trailers, moving absolutely nowhere with a tank running on empty.

5/10

Snatched

Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn are a Daughter and Mother on vacation, running from the clutches of being ‘Snatched’. When her boyfriend dumps her, Emily (Schumer), a spontaneous woman in her 30s, persuades her ultra-cautious Mother Linda (Hawn) to accompany her on a vacation to Ecuador. Polar opposites, Emily and Linda realize that working through their differences as mother and daughter involves getting thousands of miles away from it all. At Emily’s insistence, the pair seek out adventure on the island, mostly involving that of a good looking guy that Emily meets at the bar, but suddenly find themselves kidnapped. When these two very different women are trapped on this wild journey, their bond as mother and daughter is tested and strengthened while they attempt to navigate the jungle and escape their dangerous captors. Snatched is directed by Jonathan Levine, and is rated R for crude sexual content, brief nudity, and language throughout.

Trailers played everywhere for half a year promoting this movie, and after finally sitting through a screening of it, I can safely say that Snatched is one of those films that is easily diagraphed from seeing a trailer that gives away a bit too much, while also giving away its biggest laughs. There were very few surprises or contrasts from its two minute promotional tour, and that left me feeling like I had watched this movie long before I actually watched this movie. As a critic, one of the most difficult things to grasp for me has always been how people could laugh at a particular line that they already know the punchline to from seeing the trailer. Snatched has some competent enough throwaway scenes, but as a whole it will leave you feeling disappointed for the juxtaposition in attitude that this film searches to be. On the surface, this can easily be labeled as a female raunch comedy, but as the film goes on I found it to be ridiculous for how serious that it was trying to take itself, despite not fully committing to such directions. Late in the second act, the movie tries to pay homage to kidnapping subgenre films, but too much illogical and frankly paper-thin setup, keep you from ever feeling even a slight chill from the urgency in danger that alludes these two protagonists.

The set-ups to said danger feel hollow, with our leading ladies easily escaping the clutches of their captors time-after-time to really highlight just how mind-numbingly awful that their opposition really is. Some scenes paint themselves into such a corner that there’s nothing else to do except have a character go to sleep and wake up in a different place, freeing them from danger. Then there’s the conveniences of of objects that just happen to be in the room to help them escape. It definitely feels unlikely that these antagonists wouldn’t take the time to case the room out to remove any possibilities before placing their victims inside, and I can’t imagine how this passed through the minds of writers and directors, let alone an idiot writer who is seeing this for the first time. From the structure of how everything feels with the plot of this movie, it forgets to have fun with itself during the final act of the movie, instead opting for a confrontation that feels slightly rushed, if not meaningfully undercooked.

At least there are some delightful supporting cameos even if the leads feel underwritten behind every turn. Joan Cusack shows up as a former FBI agent turned mute to keep her secrets secure. It was very refreshing to see Cusack in this particular role as she’s usually relegated to the tight-ass conservative of every film. Without ever uttering a word, Joan brings enough flare in reactions to make her the one you must watch whenever her character pops up. Christopher Meloni was my personal favorite of the movie, and his character resolution gave me the single biggest laugh of the movie. As for the leads, Amy Schumer’s character was the hardest pill to swallow for how detestable she is as a person. This is a character that does the charisma of Schumer absolutely no favors, bringing along the luggage of someone who hates to spend time with her Mother, never listens to other people talking around her, and makes stupid decisions that she later seeks forgiveness for. It should be a testament that Amy is given almost nothing as a character and spins it enough to still harvest some decent one-liners. It was great to see Goldie Hawn back, but I felt that the writing did very little to make her stand out as a welcome back party for the veteran actress. This was really a chance to play into the irresistible chemistry of Hawn and Schumer, but instead the movie would rather take away the family element between them and split them up at nearly every chance.

The humor did bring me a couple of solid laughs, particularly in that of catchy dialogue sporadically, but as a whole the timing of each zinger kind of spins by without the emphasis on the punchline for audiences to follow along. There were times when the retort to each set-up sometimes felt rushed or overlooked, and that unfortunately did more to step on important scenes for future jokes that the film returns to. One of the strangest subplots in the film is that of the increasing hunger of Schumer’s Emily that leads to a climax of pure ridiculousness. I won’t spoil much, but the writers felt it was important to stop the movie for ten minutes to focus on a scene that involves a tapeworm and the illogical ways that they feed. This is stupid in composition and totally does nothing for the progression of the script that was finally building some momentum just before this. I can give credit to Schumer to know what works for her female fans that will follow her through a firestorm, but nobody can tell me that this scene did anything but crave the desperation of the gross-out humor that is all the craze in every modern day comedy. Snatched went to this well far too often for me, and it just doesn’t mesh well for Schumer’s dialogue driven comedy.

THE VERDICT – Snatched is so out of touch with reality that it supplants a moral lesson that drinking with a good looking man in a foreign country could lead to danger, the reality of which its audience is already leap years ahead of in logical thinking. Jonathan Levine’s film holds us ransom for laughs, diminishing the endless possibilities of Schumer and Hawn who could make for a dream team clashing of past and present comedic heavyweights, but instead flail in the same way a fish does when they are taken out of their element. Laughs will happen, but the inconsistency in flow of their firepower leaves a lot of boredom on the table to fill in the gaps from one to the next. If you love your Mother this Mother’s Day, give her something that shows how valuable she is to you, not an hour-and-a-half of missing personalities.

5/10

3 Generations

Elle Fanning makes a life-altering decision that has her identifying as a male gender, in 3 Generations. A Family of four living under one roof in New York must deal with a life-changing transformation by one that ultimately affects them all. Ray (Fanning) is a teenager who has come to the realization that he isn’t meant to be a girl and has decided to transition from female to male. His single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), must track down Ray’s biological father to get his legal consent to allow Ray’s transition. Dolly (Susan Sarandon), Ray’s lesbian grandmother, accompanied by girlfriend Frances (Linda Emond), is having a hard time accepting that she now has a grandson. They must each confront their own identities and learn to embrace change and their strength as a family in order to ultimately find acceptance and understanding within the other’s tender capabilities. 3 Generations is written and directed by Gaby Dellal, and is rated R for adult language.

3 Generations is a film that has certainly had its fair share of problems with finally seeing the light of cinematic day. Set to release in Summer of 2015 under the original title of About Ray, this film sat on the shelf after receiving mostly negative reviews from the Cannes Film Festival of that year. Nearly two years later, I have finally sat down to watch it, and I must say that I agree with a lot of the criticism. For a movie that could easily be as compelling and insightful with engaging the audience into the world of transgender lifestyle, Dellal often times jumbles her movie with tonal shifts and script directions that frankly feel slightly offensive to that of someone going through the same problems and looking for understanding in their particular desire to become the person that they were born to be. With a bit more focus, there’s clearly the capability of being the forefront piece for transgender relations, but 3 Generations focuses too much on issues that have little to no relevance with the vital foreground plot to the movie, feeling often times like two different kinds of movies colliding on the same track, with a few tragic fatalities.

The first act of the movie lays the groundwork for a tortured soul like Ray to identify with who he really is, but it doesn’t show us the examples of how this hinders his life, minus a brief scene of being jumped and robbed by a street mugger. This is ultimately the pause button that the movie never presses play on; we’re never treated to what’s going on inside of Ray’s head, and this is HIS movie. With that lack of ability of making a film like this cerebral, the majority of whom see things in their lives as one-dimensional will lack the kind of understanding that comes with such a responsible film. There are a few moving scenes along the way, particularly in that of this feminist manifesto that at least conjures up the feel-good nature of seeing them presented in such respectable and groundbreaking lights, the same way that 20th Century Women did earlier this year. Unfortunately, the focus in comparison between those two films never feels close, even by the kindest of judgements.

As for the second film that feels more prominently displayed here, we are treated to a Neil Simon kind of clashing of personalities film from the 1960’s. There is some solid Mother/Daughter kind of humor to the movies that made me chuckle a couple of times, and should make it a worthy sit for the females in the family this Mother’s Day, but it rarely finds the capability in crossover appeal. What my biggest problem with this contradiction in direction is just how off-beat and unbalanced that the film’s direction takes us into a final act that doesn’t seem focused on the right character. This becomes a bit more of a dysfunctional family movie, instead of what we have been steered along to at this point, and Ray’s issues suddenly feel miniscule in a movie that hasn’t completely forgotten about her, but has made it clear that she is now a subplot. When you start taking into account some of the problems with the direction and clashing attitudes, there’s an understanding for why this film remained untouched for nearly two years. A lack of concern for that often silenced voice in cinema that we could certainly use more insight into in 2017.

At least the cinematography and overall shooting scheme for the movie is one that I can commend for its rich and elegant tastes. For color scheme, there’s often a white gloss that fills the screen from shot-to-shot, giving the movie that blend of independent movie visuals that the sets it apart in terms of familiarity. The editing is quite experimental, giving way to some inter-cutting shots of Ray’s reactions while listening to a documentary that he is filming about his experiences. There’s even a POV style scene in which we as the audience see things from Ray’s point of view, as he clashes with insensitive people that choose to poke fun at his situation. It is slightly obvious and a little ham-fisted at times with the necessity to include a scene of bullying to entice the audience into pity, but there is genius in forcing us the audience to understand things on a visual level when the story just isn’t working out for itself, putting us at the heart of the situation and asking the internal question of what would we do.

Most of the performances stay pretty grounded, but the lead protagonist is played with a fireball of emotional response from that of rising actress Elle Fanning. In what is definitely her most challenging role to date, Fanning commands Ray with the blending of teenage rebellion and closed-out personality that really omits a cloud of loneliness for his particular situation. Elle is someone who has stolen the screen in films like The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women, but here her theft feels more accustomed because it is after all her movie to steal. I just wish that her character resolution was given more time to grow, and that we as an audience got that scene to bask in her happiness. Sarandon and Watts are decent as a budding Mother and Daughter who have clearly spent far too much time together. Susan is practically playing the same character that she did in last year’s The Meddler, but that doesn’t make her any less enjoyable. She continues to be a familiar face that you can’t help but smile at, and her relationship with Watts in the movie really casts that shadow of doubt as to who really is the parental figure here.

3 Generations is a sign that we are headed in the right direction with showcasing movies that speak to the modern day growth that we as a society need. Unfortunately, this isn’t the film that we will look back on twenty years from now that signaled the change of understanding. With the exception of a strong performance by Fanning and the embracing of feminist-first material, Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations has a lot to learn about focus and what her own audience deems as important within the central plot. Like its title character, this movie wants to be something completely else, but lacks to find its identity the same way that Ray does.

5/10

Phoenix Forgotten

The mysterious appearance of unknown lights plague the valley of the sun, in Cinelou Films Phoenix Forgotten. Based on the shocking, true events of March 13th, 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona. This unprecedented and inexplicable phenomenon became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, and remains the most famous and widely viewed UFO sighting in history. Phoenix Forgotten tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed. Phoenix Forgotten is directed by Justin Barber, and is rated PG-13 for terror, peril and some adult language.

Going into Phoenix Forgotten, I didn’t have the greatest of expectations. The found footage epidemic that has more times than not plagued movie theaters into offering up the cheapest kind of horror movie is one that I feel is rarely done well. The fondest example that comes to mind is The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a blending of found footage horror with a real time documentary playing out right before the eyes of the audience. Amazingly enough, Phoenix Forgotten follows that very same plan, conjuring up an experience that finds the values of educating and mystery equally important in the properties of these type of movies. For the first hour of this movie, I was glued to the screen at the history lesson that Barber feeds his audience. The Phoenix lights mystery is very much an actual event that took place in the real world in 1997, so this film practically already has a story written out for itself, and now it’s just filling in the gaps. For the most part it does a solid job, but sadly a lot does shift in the final scenes of the movie, saturating what refreshing taste this movie maintained for the first two acts.

What I found so cool about this film was the expanding contrasts in modern technology when compared side-by-side with that of twenty-year-old counterparts. As you may or may not have read, this movie is telling two stories simultaneously, one that was recorded by this teenager who went missing, and one by his Sister who now stands alone in leading the charge to discover the truth about what happened. For anyone who was lucky enough to be alive during such an age, these flashback sequences will tickle your nostalgic muscle, depicting an age where High-Definition concept wasn’t even in existence. I love the weathered camera picture quality, as well as the fashions of our characters which accurately depict the post-grunge era of shirts and pants that have since been pushed to the back of the closet. It proves to me that Justin Barber definitely did his homework not only on his mystery, but also in the day-and-age that feels like millions of moons ago when shown to an especially younger audience today.

This is definitely going to be a hard sell for conventional horror fans who only flock to the movies to scream out loud or jump at the overabundance of jump scare cliches. Phoenix Forgotten simply isn’t that kind of horror movie, and instead concerns itself with the fear of the unknown. It’s quite brave of screenwriters T.S Nowlin and Justin Barber to embrace the pacing of letting the story play out, instead of trying to scare the audience every ten minutes. Where that will make-or-break audiences depends on who you are. I find this lack of necessity to be something that is valuable in compelling storytelling, but I can certainly understand the arguments in teenagers thinking this was a waste of their time. In general, it’s only in the very beginning and end where we get any kind of riveting imagery from our guests in the sky, and that long wait in between could definitely test the patience along the way. For me, it was just right and felt like the movie cared equally about its story as it did the frights.

That is however until I got to the final act of the movie. I’m not going to act like the previous hour of the film didn’t have problems. Most notably, there is an enormous plot hole that becomes evident once new information shows up regarding the last night of the brother and his friends exploring the light origins. MINOR SPOILERS HERE – The school calls up the Sister to let her know that a different camera and tape has been found in their storage closet, and she should have it. My biggest problem with this is two-fold; 1. Who handed this tape in, and why aren’t they being questioned? 2. Why hasn’t the FBI taken this evidence into possession? You could say that maybe the FBI didn’t know about that, but that gets debunked during the next scene when an army general tells her not to let the tape get out. If they’re so concerned about it, then why don’t they take it? Anyway, moving to the third act that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and felt like the exact polar opposite of everything that came before it. It is during this timetable in the movie when the film completely reverts from all of the originality that it had conjured up, and instead felt the pressure of desperation to feed the conventionalists. This is a major mistake because the final act of the movie feels jarringly different from anything that came before it, and I for one would’ve been happy with a little more mystery. It takes the honor code of the film even lower when the film’s final twenty minutes are showing exactly what happened to the Brother and his friends. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the movie’s ending text didn’t signal that the case is still a mystery. The Sister has the biggest evidence to blow this thing open, how is this still a mystery? HUH?? There is also a shameless borrowing of The Blair Witch Project during this act that I won’t spoil. I will instead just say that it became evident at that moment how far off of our map that we were approaching.

The acting honestly didn’t bother me, despite the fact that the dialogue is repetitive to the point fist-clinching. These are after all actors who are supposed to be portraying every day human beings, so some of their awkward deliveries and lack of general charisma made for an understanding logic to their character development. The trio of friends in the 1997 footage did make for the best pacing of the movie, mainly because it’s in that aspect of the story where we feel like something could happen at any time. I am also thankful that Barber chose not to make the girl in the group the significant other of either boy, instead deeming it not necessary for every single horror movie to have this concept. The modern day acting is also solid, mostly in Sophie the Sister (Played by Florence Hartigan). Since she is our lone hope in discovering what happened, most of the film’s conflict and resolution lies in her uncovering, and Hartigan steals the show in voicing what is wrong about the world forgetting about these missing people.

Phoenix Forgotten should be commended for blending enough fact and fiction to where reality never gets lost within its clutches. There is a great found footage movie just dying to get out here, but unfortunately all of the originality in real time documentary structure, as well as nostalgic visual presentation are for naught with a final act that reverts too much to the tired formulas that have soured this idea. Even still, there’s much to be applauded for a movie that early on didn’t deem it necessary to cater to shocking twists or gross-out gore. There might just be a place in this world for Justin Barber.

5/10

The Promise

The Turkish dream for an Armenian refuge envelopes him into ‘The Promise’ that will shape his life for better or worse. Empires fall, love survives, hope stands still. In 1915, at the beginning of World War I, Michael (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant medical student, meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), their shared Armenian heritage sparks an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry between Michael and Ana’s boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), a famous American photojournalist dedicated to exposing political truths that shake in controversy. As the Ottoman Empire crumbles into war-torn chaos, their conflicting passions must be deferred while the two men join forces to get their people to safety and survive themselves to get back to their cherished woman. The Promise is written and directed by Terry George, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material including war attrocities, violence and disturbing images, and some sexuality.

At 129 minutes of run time, Terry George’s World War I epic walks a tight rope of entertaining nature between two areas; love and war. After watching the trailer of this movie, you might be steered in an incorrect momentum with the film’s direction, but I was legitimately shocked at how opposite the finished product gears itself towards. For a movie that hints at the love triangle between that of Isaac, Le Bon, and Bale, there’s very little exposition or payoff to that particular emphasis of the story, opting more for the conflicts and suffering that the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire brought these characters. I don’t have any problems what so ever with a film that is surrounded by bloodshed, but there’s so much setup during the first act of this triangle that honestly goes very far or resolves itself accordingly for dramatic syntax. What I did enjoy was that for once these are two equals in male moral stigma, making the female protagonist’s choice, as well as the audience’s that much more enthralling. This gives more pull to the idea of you not wanting to see either one of them broken-hearted. Props to for George, who remains faithful throughout the film in keeping this an Armenian told story of bravery. Through a lesser director, this would easily become Bale’s movie, but Terry keeps the focus right where it needs to be, offering a fresh take of this angle of World War I that has rarely been told on-screen.

The pacing is what will honestly be the biggest negative for audiences, because this is one movie that goes back-and-forth between which conflict deserves the majority of the run time. It feels like an 80-20% ratio in terms of war dominating love here, and because of that we never get the kind of focus on the characters that dilutes their one-note angles. I was right there for the first act of the movie, because there is a strong coming-of-age story here with Michael’s branching away from home on his own. There is a kind of hinted at poetic justice for the idea of this terrible tragedy that has befuddled all of these people, yet life still moves forward for Michael on a road of love-and-loss that pushes him to age that much faster. The second act is where things really kind of halted for my experience. During this time, the setup feels slightly repetitive and even rushed through some notable events that could’ve used more psychological sting on our protagonist. The attitude of the film stays on one level of somber throughout the film. That is expected for war, but not something that gravitates audiences to the story closer. A fine example is in Saving Private Ryan, when despite the war, these young men are still stopping to tell a joke or bust each others chops. That kind of depth in personality felt non-existent here, and due to its lack, this story will drag in more ways that one for you as you push through the second hour of the film.

Props to the production team is evident in nearly every aspect of the visual spectrum of this movie, as HD cameras combine modern medicines in filming to really grasp that epic feel. When reading about this style choice for this film, I worried that it would take away too much of the taste in time, when everything felt weathered and bleak. Thankfully, George is the kind of filmmaker who knows when to pull back, and because so we are treated to some gorgeously infinite landscape shots in the Turkish deserts, as well as a some water sequences that put us right in the middle of this chilling compromise in weather shifts. With an HD camera, the splashing of water can feel authentic, replicating a movement in volume that you can’t help but adore at. There are some shaky transitions in chase scenes, but thankfully the editing covers up a majority of the problem, leaving very little to point out when they happen. For me, it was really the angles leaving slightly more to be desired in the characters that we’re following. Close is always better for suspense, and I have no clue as to why everything was pointed so far out.

I mentioned earlier that the characters could’ve been stronger in the film, but thankfully that didn’t hinder the performances, as this trio of actors never phoned in one aspect to their performances. Bale is one of the best character actors in the world, no doubt. I was slightly worried in the beginning that his wooden release would stick around, but as the film went on I distinctly heard the urgency and vulnerability in his voice that relayed the dire consequences of this situation. Le Bon definitely gives her best performance to date as Ana. In her, we get a woman who loves children, and at times feels like one herself. This aspect gives her performance a compassionate aspect to the movie that we rarely get. It certainly makes it easier to justify why these two men are willing to travel the ends of the Earth for her heart. Oscar Isaac has been one of my favorite actors for a while now, and The Promise is another example of his movie to steal. The transformation for Michael from a once ambitious medical student to a veteran of war who suffers some great losses along the way, played beautifully into Isaac’s hand of emotional distribution, an aspect that never runs low on tears or goosebump-appearing moments. Isaac himself isn’t even remotely Armenian, so the credit to make his accent that much more authentic rests solely on the shoulders of one of the truly most versatile actors of the past decade.

The Promise is a long-winded and often times convoluted screenplay that rarely gives us the answers in dramatic climaxes that we seek to satisfy in such an investment. What does work about George’s ambitious project is that of his leading cast, as well as the camera work in landscapes that easily immerse our imaginations back to a hundred years ago. This is very much a movie of two opposite directions that are never equally distributed, nor never crossing paths to offer a moment of peaking example. Giving us a story that unfortunately doesn’t live up to the grandeur of visual offerings.

5/10