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

The Fate of the Furious

The fastest moving series of movies get an eighth installment, in Fate of the Furious. Now that Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon, and Brian and Mia have retired from the game-and the rest of the crew has been exonerated, the globetrotting team has found a semblance of a normal life. But when a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) seduces Dom into the world of crime he can’t seem to escape and a betrayal of those closest to him, they will face trials that will test them as never before. From the shores of Cuba and the streets of New York City to the icy plains off the arctic Barents Sea, the elite force will crisscross the globe to stop an anarchist from unleashing chaos on the world’s stage… and to bring home the man who made them a family. Fate of the Furious is directed by F Gary Gray, and is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language.

After eight movies in this series, one thing is for certain; this film jumped the shark a long time ago. With its latest chapter titled The Fate of the Furious, the shark isn’t just jumped, it’s pulled out of the water, laced with steroids, and told to do the humpty dance. F Gary Gray’s latest is the first truly bad movie in the series, and that’s disappointing coming from a director as prominent and accomplished as he. I’m not crazy enough to think that my thoughts on this movie will be in the majority with Furious fans. This is very much a movie that they will eat up because it is basically catering service full of pokes and prods that know are used accordingly when the audience requires a smile or giggle to remind them that they are having a good time. This forceful method clearly illustrated how manipulative and desperate that this film felt as opposed to the previous efforts. Before, the idea of the characters and subplots being enough were given the free time to reign supreme, but in here there’s no weight or gravity to the events in these two hours and eleven minutes to justify the offering after a near perfect conclusion in the last film.

For the first half of the movie, I was actually enjoying myself. There’s a cheesy feeling of superhero atmosphere to these films now that relay the idea that anything on and off of the road is possible. The mission briefing in airplanes and government labs practically scream that of S.H.I.E.L.D in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the idea of turning a hero against his team has recently been done in films like Civil War and Batman Vs Superman. The first act gets our blood pumping with some dynamic expositional work on where our characters have been, and it works in reiterating their traits and personalities well. The second act does up the ante, as there are two big surprises that shape out the remainder of the film. My problem with these attempts were how they are literally fizzled away as the movie goes on, leaving very little cause or effect for their existence. One of these involves the past of Dom’s character, and I really commended the film for adding intriguing depth to his character, but it makes it clearly obvious for another character on what’s to follow, thanks to an introduction early on in the movie between Dom and Lettie that spilled the beans on the future of their relationship. The other was a disappointment because it proved to me how much bravery is lacking from this series to pull the trigger on casting a memorable scene to make this one stand out with the better films in this series. This leads to the third act, which not only felt weightless to the previous two hours that I spent with these people, but also costly in character to one particular character who is relegated to wink-and-nod moments at the camera. More on that later. If you consider what happens in this movie from point A to point Z, there’s so little impact or shifting in the conflict of this plot, and this related more to the actual superhero genre aspect that I mentioned earlier.

I do commend the movie for some outstanding devastation action sequences that remind audiences just how far this series has grown in overall gross. This film is full of awestruck moments that defy the kind of stunt work and aerodynamics that we can muster on a public setting like New York City. The Big Apple isn’t alone however, as the chaos follows our cast of characters on more than one continent, carrying with it a simmering pot that is constantly rising in carnage-inducing mayhem. Most of the camera work does do the quick-cut editing that drives me nuts, but here those cuts are used to show the angle of the same crash from a different angle, something that does go a long way in registering the fast-paced action. I was overall floored by how many cars and buildings are sacrificed to conjure up the richest budget to date (250 million) in its sixteen year existence, and this steep investment pays off grandly for some gravity-defining moments that brings the gas to this supercharged engine of gripping proportions.

Accordingly, the pacing too is constantly kept moving, despite an overall run time that does feel about twenty minutes too long. A lot of that reason is because the action sequences take a majority of the screen time over exposition, that while it doesn’t do wonders for our characters, does keep the eyes of the auditorium glued to the screen in building the ever-growing intensity. The overall tone for the film does clash on more than one occasion however, jading the compromising blend in earlier editions of off-the-wall silliness and espionage scenarios that still find a way to bring out the fun in the most tense of situations. My guess for what it doesn’t work here is two-fold; one, we’ve already seen this multitude of attitude played out on more than one occasion, so it doesn’t feel as fresh by chapter eight, and two, this film in particular does rely slightly more on the serious manner to sludge through the compromising second act. To me, it’s either go big or go home, and the idea of anyone trying to take these movies seriously waived goodbye a long time ago. I myself get a lot of criticism for this aspect in my grading, but if we rake weaker movies than this over the coals for their juxtapositions on tone, then why does a bunch of mechanics gone spies given an alternative take?

On the subject of some of those people in this story, I often wonder why any of them ever worked on cars in the first place. Surely their capabilities in martial arts fighting, computer hacking to the highest government degree, and intelligent planning for events that haven’t even come up yet, clearly could have made them some of the more sought out people by government agencies. These characters don’t even slightly resemble who they were when we were first introduced to them many moons ago, so I won’t go there. What I will say is that there are a couple of solid performances in the movie, and a majority of mostly bad or ineffective ones. On the latter, my logic is that the ever-growing number of series regulars in this film has clearly reached its ceiling level, and could afford to lose more than one. Charlize Theron was sadly unmemorable as the antagonist for the film. Some of her dialogue with Dom sounds like it was written by a college student seeking his first script approval, and there’s little about her as a villain that makes her complex or memorable. The Rock is as charismatic as ever, but some of his dialogue too suffers from the syndrome of the big guy trying to be the cool guy far too often. His long-winded deliveries sometimes require an edit that we sadly don’t get, and are relegated to sitting by for him to reach his point. My positives are that of Vin Diesel (Surprisingly) and Tyrese Gibson. Tyrese stands out from everyone else because he is the one silly character who knows his purpose; he’s the comic relief. Gibson manages this by poking fun at himself on many numerous occasions, and I couldn’t get enough of his honest observations of how ridiculous this whole thing truly is. Diesel gives arguably his best performance to date. His screen time is brief, but what I dig about him here as opposed to other films is a hearty layering to his performance that gives him that human vulnerability for once. Diesel does bring the tears, and his fleshed-out deliveries give us faith that he will one day star in something better.

If this is The Fate of the Furious, then let it be the last in what little respect that this franchise has left. F Gary Gray’s turn takes several misfires on dialogue, consistency in tone, and bravery in script that constantly settles for predictability. This eighth installment is a constant reminder of the overabundance of mileage that the creativity has endured, so now might be as good of a time as ever to evacuate the car. Unfortunately, I’m sure Dom Toretto will figure out a method using toothpicks and Jolly Ranchers to keep this engine running long past its logical date.

5/10

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The key to freedom for the Jewish community resides in the secrecy of ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’. The story revolves around the real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance, and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk. ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is directed by Niki Caro, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.

In an ever-increasing backdrop of Nazi Vs Jewish films that revolve around World War I, The Zookeeper’s Wife resides somewhere in the middle, offering a compelling enough story that unfortunately gets muddled under some less than favorable screenplay negatives. For a majority of this movie, I found myself patiently waiting for something of pizazz or firepower to grasp my intrigue back into this story that offered more than a couple of insightful and original voices in a sense to this tragic era in our world’s history. But unfortunately there’s a healthy offering of bland deconstruction that constantly lacks great emphasis on the importance of urgency within this story. Surprisingly, a lack of direction by Caro is the aspect that plagues this movie through some pretty roughly paced long-winded spurts in story that more often than not miss out on a chance to stand out. This is one of those films that will inevitably get lost in the cracks of mediocrity, and that’s unfortunate because the film does pride itself on some moments of pure heart that these characters find in the most obvious of places that films rarely take us.

Those places to sort of speak, is in the emotional investment of animals within the movie. The film’s production value isn’t one that should be easily skimmed over without great discussion, and proves that the film at least boosted ambitious visuals where its screenplay lacked. An important observation here is the use of live action animals that are rarely or often never subjected to CGI effects work. The only moments when the computer kicks in is when these furry friends are involved in the dangerous situations that envelope them. Otherwise, the involvement of exotic animals, particularly in the opening act of the movie, is one that constantly reminded how no cent was spared at getting over the immensity of this zoo. On the subject of such a location, the vintage styles of European architecture showcased an insightful blast into the past, even so much as offering an obvious metaphor with the Jewish captives who reside within its walls. The fact that these people now live behind cages of bars relayed to me two things; how they now live as prisoners, and the very manor of how they are subjected to being figurative animals in the eyes of the Nazi entity. The film isn’t afraid to offer that comparison to humans and animals, and at its heart, the answers feel more harrowing than one can imagine. A blurred line that further jumbles the concept of all men and women are created equal.

As for the script, the film has more than enough problems compensating for a lack of details that derive this film of ever living up to this incredible story. The first act has the animals that I mentioned, but just that. There’s very little focus on the world outside of this family business that has a lot of bearing on what follows. Sure, the Nazi’s invade, but the how and the why are just sparse details in the atmospheric dread that is virtually non-existent. The second act is definitely the weakest section of the film for me, and a lot of that I believe focuses on the enticing subplots that the film pulls out of thin air, and then doesn’t fully engage in. There are moments in this film where these directions are hinted at, and then never mentioned again, backing off in a way that shows no telegraphing for these characters and their respective stories. One could look at this and think that means it’s unpredictable, but it’s more so sloppy because there’s no logic for a right turn to exist if it doesn’t lead anywhere to begin with. The final act does pick it up and pays off so-so in the conflicts that we have been waiting on for nearly two hours. The final half hour of the film does come to a head, but I never felt satisfied on the winnings for the grave emphasis on the gamble that the movie took leading up to it. It all feels manufactured, and the polarizing antagonists don’t feel as intimidating when the film has very little to say for them.

I wanted to discuss some of the time jumping and editing sequences in the movie because they over-convolute on more than one occasion, and could possibly leave the audience fumbling at scenes that jarringly fly by without warning. One scene in particular is Chastain’s character becoming pregnant and having the child in a virtual montage that could’ve used more attention. In fact, this kind of pacing does very little favors to someone trying to keep up with story continuity. Seven years pass over the course of this film, and there’s no change in hairstyles, no weight losses or gains, no remote stress or weathering on the face of our characters. My point is that the great lack of believability rears its ugly head, so much that I almost forgot on more than one occasion what particular year at that point of the story were we in. The editing does sometimes feel jumpy, cutting scenes much too quickly, instead of letting them breathe in the winds of clarity for the audience. There were times when I felt that scenes would go on for too long, yet some scenes that could’ve used more time for development, and this problem constantly kept it difficult to invest myself fully into these characters.

At least the performances brought a lot to the table for me to feast on. Jessica Chastain continues her push as one of the very best actresses going today, juggling a blend of genuine heart with character immersing that astounded me through two hours of delivery. As Antonina, Chastain garnered a German accent that not only sounded authentic, but also stood the test of time with Chastain being in roughly 85% of the scenes in this film. Her accent never cracks once, and that is certainly a testament to her undying commitment to her rich craft. Daniel Bruhl was also riveting as the antagonist of sorts for the face in this instance of the Nazi party. Daniel seems to be one of those guys who is making a living off of being the creep in every movie, and his turn as Lutz feels like his greatest triumph to date. There’s clearly not much exposition for his character other than the typical Nazi villain, but Bruhl constantly makes the role his own with shifting eyes that do more than narrate some sinful intentions that his character feasts upon.

The Zookeeper’s Wife has earnest intentions, but ultimately lacks the kind of urgency in danger, as well as impact in lasting impressions that earn it a seat at the ambitious dinner table of World War I dramas. The performances of Chastain and Bruhl grant us plenty of chances to catch a glimpse at greatness, but the muddled, dry, and often times poorly paced screenplay does little justice to two heroes who shaped a chapter in fighting back against religious and geographic bigotry. There’s plenty to like and dislike about it, and that’s why its rating falls right in the middle.

5/10

The Boss Baby

There’s a new boss in town, and his imposing stature leaves slightly more to be desired, as ‘The Boss Baby’. A man named Tim Templeton (Tobey Maguire) narrates and describes his imaginative and adventurous seven-year-old self (Miles Christopher Bakshi) as being envious of his fast-talking, briefcase-carrying baby brother named the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). When he goes on a mission to win back the affection of his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), he finds out about a secret plot by Puppy Co.’s CEO Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi) which revolves around his baby brother and threatens to destabilize the balance of love in the world. Both brothers must unite to save their parents and restore order to the world and prove that love is indeed an infinite force. ‘The Boss Baby’ is directed by Tom McGrath, and is rated PG for some mild rude humor.

The Boss Baby is the very definition of the term ‘Throwaway kids movie’. It’s one whose investment of 92 minutes isn’t a burden or crippling to the intelligence of audience members who take it in, but rather just something that is easily forgettable a week after you leave the theater. There are very few chances taken, or personal originalities that make McGrath’s animated feature crawl on its own two knees. The animation texture and physical features on characters are distinctly borrowed from Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a movie that McGrath himself worked on. The big eyed designs, as well as lack of fluidity in animated hair movements more than support this claim, and the film (like its earlier counterpart) has a squeaky clean visual palate to it that constantly reminds me of post-2000 Nickelodeon cartoons. As for the overall structure, Toy Story is borrowed once again to perhaps further cement it once again as the most influential kids movie of all time. The concept of two opposites coming together to send one back to where he belongs, and embarking on a long-distance journey, more than draws comparisons to the better feature from Pixar, and with movies like The Secret Life of Pets, and pretty much any movie where the object comes to life, this is becoming a popular trend among children’s cinema in the 21st century.

Through a couple of facelifts, the movie does feel slightly in-cohesive with its act-to-act structure. The first act does come out of the gate swinging, with precision in pacing, as well as comic timing firing away on all cylinders. Most of this early exposition we saw in trailers, so there’s not a ton of surprises. What did set me back a bit with seeing all of these trailers scenes is what would be left for the remainder of the movie. More on that in a second. I think what preserves the first act as the strength of the film is how conventional but accurate the story plays these characters and their conflicts. The house setting is perfect because that is where the fight for struggle resigns, but unfortunately the second act feels like a completely opposite film from the slapstick feud that was previously built. The idea of ambition can be a negative if the story feels like it is being over-complicated, and The Boss Baby quickly turns into a road trip movie complete with the most obsolete of screenplay offerings, as well as ridiculous antagonist subplot that triggered the sound of slowly omitting gas from the energy of this film. The third act delivers on as-promised conflict resolution, but it does it with fifteen minutes left in the film, an obvious foretelling of where the remainder is headed once you see the setup. A brother Vs brother film would’ve been more than enough for me, but unfortunately The Boss Baby’s ever-changing atmosphere between acts leaves the syncing acts feeling unnerving and even jaded.

The humor to the film is certainly acceptable for all younger audiences. What disappointed me was that the film rarely tries to appeal to adults like wiser, funnier offerings from Dreamworks or Pixar, and instead soils itself with juvenile material that while effective, does leave slightly more to be desired. The best bits to me in the entire film involved a creative aspect to imagination that is rarely represented for the dreamer in all of us. Tim enjoys every day adventures in his own mind, with the reality events transpiring around him. For instance, if he’s taking a bath, he dreams of being a scuba diver who clashes with the angriest of sharks. If the childlike innocence of dreaming didn’t tickle my funny bone enough, the exceptional transpiration from fantasy to reality is one that adds an immensely important layer of fun to the project. Just as Tim’s awareness to reality is happening, you see a physical line of clarity that slowly overtakes the dream world and surrounds him with the real world. It’s one of the touches of adventure that I thought played very strongly into the film’s comic core when it wasn’t settling for poo and fart jokes.

As for the voice work from this notable cast of influential personalities, all reign supreme inhabiting these characters, but lack the element of disguise in losing their familiarity. Alec Baldwin is just that…Alec Baldwin. The purpose is for him to have that business class vocal levels to combine with a physical counterpart that alienates the former. So you can’t say he’s doing a bad job, he’s just being him and that’s good enough for this film. Tobey Maguire offers a soft, subtle narration throughout the film, and I think he was the right choice for someone who channels the blend of child and adult baritones. That is no insult. Kimmel and Kudrow play it too safely, and I never for a minute forgot who vocalized their respective characters. Amazingly enough, not one person cast in this film can grab that brass ring of vocal abilities, and that great lack breathes a message of quick payday for anyone wrapped in this production.

The Boss Baby never left me kicking or screaming, but its pointless antagonist subplot, as well as lack of originality to stand out even in the slightest against the competition, doom McGrath to an offering of bland proportions in a genre that is constantly raising the bar. The illustrations are promising enough, particularly in the blurring line of fantasy and reality, and Baldwin generates enough interest with his raspy, dry delivery. But it isn’t enough to hold the comic integrity of a script this flimsy for an hour-and-a-half, and often overshoots its delivery frequently. This baby tries too hard, earns too little, and is in desperate need of a changing.

5/10

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