Power Rangers

Five teenagers turned heroes learn of the impending doom upon their town of Angel Grove, forcing the group to become the ‘Power Rangers’. Five teens with attitude are inexplicably brought together by coincidence or destiny to become the newest generation in a line of warriors known as the Power Rangers. The world rests in their hands as Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a powerful witch and former Green Power Ranger, launches an assault seeking the Zeo Crystal with an army of stone golems called Putty Patrollers and a giant golden monster called Goldar. Based upon the popular American television series, ‘Power Rangers’ is directed by Dean Israelite, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, minor adult language, and for some crude humor.

There are times in my writing career when I take honor for being correct in my assumptions. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for all of my doubters, ‘Power Rangers’ will not go down in history as being one of these times. When I first heard that they were producing a big budget silver-screen version of the popular 90’s kids show, I thought about how negatively some of these properties like ‘Jem and the Holograms’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ have been treated along the way. Thankfully, Saban Productions knows the kind of property that they have on their hands, one that speaks to generations younger and older who adore this folklore. For my own personal grade, I view two important aspects to this movie; does it do damage to the original offerings? and does the film present enough of a fresh perspective to justify its re-imagining? Both of these answers play hand-in-hand with one another, but I can gladly say that this 2017 version should pleasantly please audiences of every timeline. Whether you were a 3-season fan like me, or you followed this evolving group of kids through every manifestation, there will be plenty of positives to instill that fun in you that you felt as a child, as well as have you anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel that is hinted at in a mid-credits scene that is carefully orchestrated.

First of all is this fresh cast that a lot of this film rides on. The movie immediately introduces us to three valuable characters who are equally built among their respective angles and storylines. These are Jason, Kimberly, and Billy. Oddly enough, Billy was my least favorite character in the original ‘Power Rangers’, but here R.J Cyler combines nerdy intelligence with teenage awkwardness that places him in the spotlight of this adolescent who I just couldn’t get enough of. Likewise, Naomi Scott and Dacre Montgomery (Winner of the Zac Efron look-alike contest) too live up to their important characters as Kimberly and Jason respectively, and what I dig about both of them is that they feel like they come from two different worlds, and would otherwise never frequent one another, but this adventurous secret between them and everyone else, crafts a ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of arrangement that hits on that classic 80’s film setup on more than one coincidence. There are two other Power Rangers played by Becki G and Ludi Lin, as Trini and Zack, but sadly neither are given the valuable screen time or smooth transitions to their story that would otherwise build them equally with their other three protagonists. In fact, the film kind of forgets about the two of them until about midway through, when we are told vital information about one character’s sexual orientation, as well as the other one fearful to go home for their own personal dealings. These could’ve used more emphasis in a two hour run time, and regretfully character building is something that this film does feel jarring with all of its picking and choosing. Even still, I thought it was cool how they kept the names the same from all of the original rangers, and yet switching their heritage around with the color of their uniforms.

If there is one MAJOR flaw to the casting, it’s in Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I definitely admit that I got my prediction for the finished product of this movie wrong, but I was absolutely correct about this being an immense miscasting for the rangers biggest villain. Not that it’s completely Banks fault. She is given a very miniscule amount of on-screen time not only to build the backstory of her character, but also put her in any scene that doesn’t jumble the teenage drama kind of tone that the film surprisingly hit on wonderfully. Any time that Repulsa is on-screen, we return to the hokey kind of atmosphere that the original series dabbed in, and while this may satisfy some, I can humbly tell you that I never once believed that Banks fully immersed herself in this character. For the most part, it feels like she is playing dress-up and spouting off some cheesy lines that make it difficult to ever take serious. Banks is a decent actress, but this kind of action movie is anything but her forte, and the absence of a strong antagonist keeps this film as consistently predictable.

I mentioned the tone, and what works in its dramatic regards is that a lot of these teenagers in the movie are dealing with issues that mirror that of what our current youth entail. Sexual orientation, high school identity, and loneliness are just a few of the depictions that ‘Power Rangers’ hits on, and the portrayals consistently feel honest and not at all like a gimmick used for plot convenience. To watch this group of kids merge into a family is one that does a lot for the moral integrity of the film, and adds a dramatic layer of depth to your investment in those characters and their well-being. What’s smart about this is that this is an origin story, so the film feels it vitally important to build the men and women inside of the suit before it shows us the goods, a point that pays off soundly. At the end of the day, this is still a group of teenage superheroes who form a gigantic dinosaur, so there is some humor to boot, but the sprouts of it inserted throughout are used wisely and accordingly so as not to jumble the increasing tension within these inexperienced rangers and the impending doom that awaits them.

The action is given a nice big budget presentation in CGI destruction value. It’s kind of funny to watch this once little engine that could be transformed (Poor choice of words?) into a Michael Bay kind of depiction in crumbling buildings practically falling from the sky. The fight choreography pays homage faithfully to the kung-fu kind of brawling that engaged in the original series, even so much as turning the amps to eleven, with fast-paced movements that always feel tightly in-sync with one another. The camera work could definitely be stronger however, as there’s either often too much going on within each frame, or the direction of each shot is negatively compromised because of experimental camera work that reaches a little too much in aspirational pull. Some of what I mean for instance is when a character or machine will get knocked upside down, and the camera has to follow the flip all the way in the same vain that said object does. I certainly do not need this kind of accuracy to understand the pain associated with being knocked on your head, but if feeling the brutality was the intended purpose, then I most certainly did with some of the most visually sickening camera work of 2017.

The only other two things that bothered me was that of some viciously disgusting product placement, as well as an ending that could’ve lasted slightly longer in resolving Repulsa’s immense army. On the latter, this movie does touch on the familiar cliche that if you defeat the biggest one, the rest will fall. If you’ve seen ‘The Avengers’ you know what I’m talking about. On the former, there is a local donut business that gets the most repetitive two hour commercial that money could’ve bought them. Once or twice is OK, but to keep showing, and even having a character feast on a donut during the big climax, angered me to the days of Adam Sandler and all of his cheap usage to put some more change into his pocket. It feels as desperate here as ever before, and the intended purpose for this building could’ve been any other abandoned building or otherwise to get its point across.

‘Power Rangers’ was a brace for the worst kind of modern-day adaptation, but the marriage between 90’s cheesy kids shows and big budget productions is a gift-wrapped delight to fans who have been waiting for this kind of rangers movie for over two decades. With a better casting for the antagonist, as well as some modest step-taking when it comes to shooting action sequences, and Israelite could etch his name as a premiere filmmaker. Even still, the pacing never slows down for two solid hours of nostalgic insanity that will remind you of a simpler place and time.

6/10

The Devil’s Candy

‘The Loved Ones’ director Sean Byrne returns to write and direct this demented horror treat revolving around a sinister haunting. ‘The Devil’s Candy’ centers around Jesse (Ethan Embry), an artist seeking a fresh start, and his family that think they’ve moved into the house of their dreams, full of extensive space and tranquil detail. The family are told that an older couple passed away in the house, but we soon learn there’s much more to something that is simply too good to be true. Jesse soon discovers not all is structurally sound however, when he comes face-to-face with true evil. What follows is a brutal and bloody fight for survival for the family who see change and recluse to the once attentive father. ‘The Devil’s Candy’ is rated R for brutal violence and adult language. The film is currently making its way around the country’s independent cinemas after being shelved for the better part of two years.

Considering this film has been in development hell for over two years, ‘The Devil’s Candy’ succeeds with an obviously cheap budget where films of more lucrative offerings can’t comprehend. It is a brief, albeit satirical look at the concepts of Metal and its referral to being “The Devil’s music” in relation to the occult and other forces of nature that our unseen in our own world. Sean Byrne is a filmmaker who I have closely followed since the success of ‘The Loved Ones’, a movie that I heralded as being one of the best kept secrets of 2015. This film doesn’t quite reach the heights of that movie creatively, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying, as this film is full of energy and intense camera work that constantly pushed it a little further. The kind of B-grade horror flicks that you pick up on at festivals and can’t wait to tell your friends about. Most recently, the movie’s star Ethan Embry shopped this movie around the Horrorhound Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, so I’ve been dying to see what his hard work merited, and as it turns out, Byrne has picked up the mantle of 70’s horror buff where Rob Zombie has dropped it on more than one occasion.

Films about possession before this one have often taken a look at the subject and its effects from an exterior angle, rarely pushing further to give us something of vision for what the possessed is seeing and taking in, and in that regards, this film is a rare treat. One of my favorite aspects of this movie was artistically crafting the storytelling capabilities of audio and visual to gift wrap the audience a truly terrifying intake that could happen to any family seeking to better themselves. The story opens up typical enough, with this husband, wife, and daughter moving into a new house, ala ‘The Amittyville Horror’. However, the similarities stop there, as ‘The Devil’s Candy’ teaches its audience that less is more in the narration department. This is very much a movie that would rather show then tell, a concept that has positives and negatives to it. On the latter, this is a film that desperately could’ve used another twenty minutes to pay slightly more attention in particular to the wife’s character. She basically disappears midway through, and we’re kind of left with Father, Daughter, and only two-thirds of a reactionary stance for the bizarre events that surround them. On the positive, the film never slugs along, quickly breezing through 78 minutes of solid, sound pacing that constantly kept the story moving. I wasn’t completely satisfied with where the film ended, as it feels like a forgotten layer of the story tacked on at the last minute for the hell of it, but the movie did leave a lasting impression with me that kept me constantly guessing as it played against all of the famous horror troupes that dull down these life-threatening scenarios.

As I mentioned before, the technical aspects are a breath of claustrophobic fresh air, detailing the very internal struggles going on with Jesse as he keeps this terrifying secret from the two people he loves the most in this world. There’s some cutting-edge experimental effects work here, not only from CGI fire that actually looks passable for once, but also in the way Byrne navigates through the flames in presenting art in motion. I also loved how the sound from the rest of the room would slowly evaporate as the possession verses took place. It made it easy to comprehend all of these possessions in movies when it feels like the character is a thousand leagues under the sea. These are not the only example of his greatness however, as he also uses lighting and set devices to cause uncertainty with which decade this story takes place in. With Metallica t-shirts that the Father and Daughter don throughout the movie, it’s obvious that this film takes place at least in the post-80’s, but the usage of neon lights and pasty colored wallpaper take this story right out of the 70’s, especially when you consider how impactful the occult was during such a time.

The metal dominated soundtrack is also something that has always gone hand-in-hand in a sanctimonious marriage with horror, and its presence here is nothing short of fitting with the very satanic material. Heavy-hitting rock gods like Slayer, Machine Head, and Goya are just a few of the sampling artists that lend their credits to this film. You never realize it until a song captures the perfect essence, but music plays such an important detail to movies, especially that of horror, whose sound is constantly eclectic for the kind of worlds that it is depicting. This genre of music is always associated with cult movements from misunderstood generations past, so the inside joke of throwing its importance into the faces of those same crowds, casts an irony that definitely wasn’t missed by this critic in particular. In a sense, the music itself thrives when the most is on the line, and what better offering than rock to set the stage?

There are a few supporting one-line characters thrown in from time-to-time, but this is mostly a four character story between the split sides of possession. Pruit Taylor Vance is back to always exude his creepy quiet. I do wish the running time wasn’t so brief because this character deserved a bit more of exposition to make him someone of reputable value to the story. At least his performance never misses the mark, as he could play a character like this in his sleep by now. Ethan Embry is virtually unrecognizable as the male lead, donning a scruffy beard and dirty wig to cultivate the rocker within him. You really feel for his character considering he is at the will of something much greater than him. For his performance, Embry masters a devilish side of himself that we have yet to see from the 90’s stud, and I very much enjoyed his investment in the film. But beyond who I previously mentioned, this is quite the coming out party for 16-year-old Kiara Glasco. This stirring starlet shrieks her way through scene after scene of blood-curdling screams and vein-popping frights that would put her as the front runner of scream queen for her up-and-coming generation. Kiara has a personality that always feels like she’s one step ahead of her adult counterparts, adding an appreciative maturity for someone who would otherwise be a throwaway character in mainstream horror. She was unquestionably my favorite character in the movie, and I hope that she will save some of that goosebump-inducing adrenaline for more horror offerings in the coming future.

‘The Devil’s Candy’ is one of those sweet tastes that hooks itself onto fans of the 70’s B-movie glitz. With a run time that hurts and helps its cause, Sean Byrne touches on just enough mystery to constantly keep the audience guessing, making his latest the perfect opportunity to cut the lights out and indulge on everything from Metallica, V-neck guitars, and the occult. A stirring riveter that casts its claws into genre enthusiasts everywhere just begging for the perfect soundtrack to hell.

6/10

The Belko Experiment

One terrifying project named ‘The Belko Experiment’ has employees of a prestigious company witnessing a new kind of hell for the work day. In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans of mixed race, gender, and official rank are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed. Over the course of an allotted time limit, the workers must put the law in their own hands by murdering the very same colleagues that they refer to as friends. The last person standing will undoubtedly possess the strongest iron of wills, leaving a trail of bodies and consequences for what lies ahead. ‘The Belko Experiment’ is directed by Greg McLean, and is rated R for strong bloody vioelnce throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.

A couple of times a year, I will read reviews for a movie that is getting mostly panned by critics across the globe, then I see that particular film and feel like it must have been made just for me. That seems to be the case with ‘The Belko Experiment’, as I had lots of fun with this B-movie horror treat. The team up of James Gunn and Greg McLean is simply too rare to pass up, so when I heard that two of the more popular directors going today were making a terror shriek, it certainly intrigued me well beyond the point of curiosity. Sprinkle in a cast of familiar faces, mostly from supporting roles over their respective careers, and you have 83 minutes of a plot that certainly treads the line of originality for anything else going today. In the day and age of plots like ‘The Purge’ and ‘Saw’, the concept of ‘The Belko Experiment’ feels like it trumps them all, depicting the elevation of terror with a gimmick that feels like we’re constantly watching mice in a maze for our own sadistic enjoyment. It’s films like these that make you thankful that you are watching at home and not in it, because McLean takes great pride in elevating the very vulnerability of the work station. A charm that never goes unnoticed with the variety of characters that make up this film.

The movie opens up for the first fifteen minutes or so giving the audience what little exposition on its characters that it mostly had for the entirety of the picture. Sadly, we don’t learn a lot about our characters, just the daily annoyances that make their layer of patience bend ever so slightly further. With this being a horror movie, of course all of these scenarios will play out to give us the audience a reminder of where certain characters divide the line of alliances. It’s true that there is very little exposition in narrative as the film goes on, but it’s not something that takes a big enough bite out of the creative stance here. Because this is an EXPERIMENT, the study of human interaction is what really takes the floor here, and the progression in logical stances quickly gets more and more humbling through the steps of panic. With the first introduction by those in charge, our characters are told that they have two hours to kill twenty people or those in charge will kill thirty of them. This is of course met with slight confusion, albeit in a joking manner, and that uncertainty is certainly something that any of us would be met with. Then, when they prove their intentions in visual results, you slowly start to see the weaker mentalities coming forward, forming bonds with the stronger players, and setting forth the motions in surviving this day of hell. The study of just how far people will take things was the single most compelling aspect to this movie, and there was never a moment when their reactions didn’t feel anything but authentic.

I also greatly enjoyed the visuals in set pieces, as well as vicious deliveries that this seemingly endless supply of blood garnered. On the latter, there’s so much to appreciate about a director who doesn’t feel the need to hide or shield the audience from the ferocity of eighty people fighting for their lives. The carnage candy is delightful for a horror buff like me, and even though the shots are done with dramatic quick cuts, there’s still enough emphasis on close-ups to fully comprehend the impact in damage. The brutality gets more barbaric as the film progresses, and I took this devastating progression in the same continuous flow that I did the slipping sanity of many of our loose cannons. On the former, this set design feels necessary to achieve its message in simplicity. That message is that Belko Industries could double as any office workplace where people spend a majority of their lives together far too closely. The casual white shirt and tie becoming more-and-more decorated with the remains of co-workers as the film goes on, serves as a symbolism of sorts to the corruption that has overtaken this typical work day.

The music soundtrack provides an orchestral accompaniment of sorts to the madness that is developing around us. Seeing as to how this movie is set south of the border, the Mexican translations of many top 40 classic hits feels appropriate. Songs like ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘I Will Survive’ strike an ironic, if not somberly tragic musical note, and it relates to us that the film isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor in an otherwise abysmal environment. An unknown operatic musical number plays during the final confrontations, and it couldn’t feel more unnerving when played to these visuals nightmares in this fight for survival. It proves that music most certainly still holds an important place in 21st century horror films, and Mclean never disappoints in compromising visuals that artistically paint him as a visionary for this particular genre.

All of my problems with this movie, coincidentally enough, revolved around the pacing, which feels too fast to fully immerse into this plot and characters. I feel that a film like this could’ve really used that 100 minute run time to simmer some of the slow burns in vulnerability or unpredictability that takes over this building with each passing minute. What’s disappointing is that we don’t learn a lot about our mysterious antagonists, and it almost feels like our characters aren’t even asking about them, an important question that could’ve used some thoughtful pondering. There’s an element that is introduced around the half hour mark that keeps the workers in line with the demands of the voice, and I felt like it was a significant leap of faith logically for what the audience will choose to believe with these characters. I certainly understand its intention, but it just feels like an aspect that is there to be convenient to the plot. Other than these things, the third act also feels slightly rushed with everything that needs to be wrapped up in the final twenty minutes. It’s during this time when the desperation not only in the characters, but also in the script sets in, and that hour of lightly treading becomes a fast-paced marathon of executions and goodbyes that don’t fully get the deserving gasp.

Work is murder quite literally in this cherished team-up between Gunn and Mclean, and ‘The Belko Experiment’ is harmless, maniacal fun too delightful to be missed. Despite some impatient speeds in pacing, the film is much better than the unjustifiable negatives by critics that have been slung its way. Overall, it’s a viciously bleak character study on human morality and rationale, when played against the most dangerous of ‘What If?’ scenarios that we discuss in private with our friends. A smooth day at the office with very little manual labor involved.

6/10

Before I Fall

One girl must live her nightmare of a day over and over again, in Before I Fall. What if you had only one day to change absolutely everything? Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutsch) has it all: the perfect friends, the perfect guy, and a seemingly perfect future. Then, everything changes. After one fateful night, Sam wakes up with no future at all. Trapped reliving the same day over and over she begins to question just how perfect her life really was. And as she begins to untangle the mystery of a life suddenly derailed, she must also unwind the secrets of the people closest to her, and discover the power of a single day to make a difference, not just in her own life, but in the lives of those around her, before she runs out of time for good. Before I Fall is directed by Ry Russo-Young, and is rated R for mature thematic content, sexuality, violent imagery and adult language.

‘Before I Fall’ opens as another typical teenage time-stamped film, but slowly unweaves itself full of insightful character exposition and social commentary for the teenage years, setting this one as a rare delight upon the young adult genre. The very idea of repeating the same day over-and-over again is certainly nothing new. Films like ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Premonition’ most recently come to mind as movies with a similar plot, but ‘Before I Fall’ takes that familiarity and makes it something fresh and organic when combined with the pressures and regrets of high school. This kind of plot when used as a dramatic force, brings out not only the comical side of repetition in fashion trends and dated musical interests, but also in re-living the same kinds of decisions that don’t make you proud. It is thrown in the face of our protagonist with each day that is stuck in the same place, and with that, she is able to grow from a unlikeable follower when we are first introduced to her, into a full blown woman who moves to the beat of her own drum by the end of the movie.

My first commendable appreciation was in that of director Ry Russo-Young for giving a film that revolves around and geared toward teenagers, an artistically merited design within the backdrops and style decisions in the film. The setting of Seattle is certainly nothing new with this crowd, but it works better here more than ever for the kind of foggy and dreary emotional roller-coaster that Sam is trying to get to the bottom of. There are many gorgeously ominous shots involving fog curling around the wooded landscapes that surround the endless forests, as well as a lot of cold and damp interior shots of the Kingston’s residence, relaying a strong presence of distance between the once loving family. These directions do so much more in removing some of the burdens of carrying the movie on the script, and grant us a stage of wondrous beauty for us to appreciate during some of the lackluster moments of the film. More on that later. For the first act of the movie, there’s also a lot of reliance upon the soundtrack. There are no doubts that this is one of those movies geared at spiking up ITunes numbers, but I didn’t have as big of a problem with it, simply because it isn’t geared towards my age bracket. The repetition of hearing these songs might annoy some audience members, but do quite the job of understanding the shock and anger associated with living through the same events without end.

The exposition in character reveals and thickening plots is also to be appreciated here. Beyond the slow points of the first act, where the setup is to repeat the same events a few times, our patience is finally rewarded with each passing day, when we learn a little more about character details and plots that paint a brighter picture for certain actions and responses between them. It is in that beginning of the second act when you feel how truly heavy that this script really is, and I found myself on the edge of my seat for the histories and pasts of these revolving characters coming in and out of frame. The film is also smart enough to give audiences a provocative chance that is too sweet to take, on having the opportunity to go back and change some of the things that we regret about our youthful years. With each day, Sam tries to change something different, giving us a butterfly effect of sorts not only for herself, but also for her ensemble group of people who she interacts with every day. As I mentioned before, this is certainly nothing original, but the fresh young adult perspective offers plenty of insights into peer pressure and breaking trends that are too self-reflective not to enjoy.

Unfortunately, the main plot of the movie wasn’t as rewarding to me because of a reveal that I figured out with about an hour left in the movie. The film’s big mystery on how Sam is stuck in this disposition, as well as what happened that night on that lonely road, is maneuvered to be what the audience should care about, but after seeing the same scene play out twice, I figured out the twist with ease. I won’t spoil anything, but through the many amounts of car crash sequences that I have watched in my career, I know a thing or two about sights and sounds, and overall what to expect from this kind of scene. The big trigger was a certain sound missing from the equation that more than revealed to me just what happened. After this point, the movie slowly starts to leak energy from the enjoyable enough setup that it garnished before this. Because of my advantage, it felt like waiting for the inevitable on something that wasn’t shocking or even informative for the audience to understand the logic behind Sam’s pause button. It feels a lot like asking three questions and only getting an answer for one, the one that seemed the most obvious at the time.

What does lift this well beyond the status of a passable rental however, is the stirring performance of Deutch at the helm of her first dramatic starring role. Sadly, Zoey has only been cast in comedies up to this point, so her turn as Samantha is something of a coming out party for the woman being asked to juggle so many emotions in her repertoire. In this role, I consider that she is playing two totally separate characters from start to finish, and each she achieves with an honest register of teenage emotions that feel brutally honest. Considering the actress is only 22 years old, she is still fortunate enough to channel these feelings and actions like they were yesterday, and we’re fortunate enough because ‘Before I Fall’ gives us a glimpse into her inevitable stardom. As for the supporting cast, I also enjoyed Halston Sage as Samantha’s troubled, albeit flamboyant best friend. Sage first appeared in 2014’s ‘Paper Towns’, but here she is given slightly more camera time to perfect the bitchy best friend that we fear talks about us behind our backs. Sage does her character well, even if she is kind of one-note on material. Beyond this, I couldn’t get comfortable with anyone because the characters were frequently interchangeable. I did however notice some terribly bad ADR within that of the two other best friends involved in this group. I don’t know if it’s because they are appearing in their first major motion picture or what, but it’s clear that post production fixed some otherwise faulty line reads between them.

‘Before I Fall’ leaves a lasting impression and sets itself apart from a genre of disposable trash by laying heavily on the darker layers creatively and visually in its atmospheric drama. At the helm is an eye-opening performance by Deutch, as well as a breakthrough direction by Russo-Young that hinders on the importance of empathy, judgement and family, and less about the temporary imbalance of high school endeavors. Profound and poignant without ever demeaning itself for shallow waters. This is one fall I gladly recommend.

6/10

Gold

One down-on-his-luck struggling businessman exchanges his rags for riches after the startling discovery that brings attention to his newfound wealth. Gold is the epic tale of one man’s pursuit of the American dream, to discover gold. Starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells, a modern day prospector desperate for a lucky break, he teams up with a similarly eager geologist and sets off on an amazing journey to find gold in the uncharted jungle of Indonesia. Getting the gold was hard, but keeping it would be even harder, sparking an adventure through the most powerful boardrooms of Wall Street. The film is inspired by a true story, and also stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Toby Kebbell and Edgar Ramirez. It is directed by Stephen Gaghan, and is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

Ever since The Wolf of Wall Street graced the theaters with real life riches-to-rags drama, there have been many films that have tried to replicate its pulse. Gold is the latest of those imitations. Upon watching the trailer, I found myself noticing a distinct direction in tone to that of Scorsese’s masterpiece, casting itself an immense shadow that could doom it before it even gets off of the ground. In short, Gold is a success….barely. This is a movie that does have plenty of narrative distractions, but does succeed because of a couple of aspects that does keep it from ever being fool’s gold. This is loosely based on a true story, but upon some studying I can accurately say that the movie does take more-than plenty of liberties with the characters itself, muddling any kind of authenticity for the audience to soak in and endure. Because this is a biopic that chooses to entertain instead of faithfully depict its story, there should’ve been plenty of responsible directions for this story that could’ve prospered more on an entertaining value, and eased much of the cluttered mess that continuously handicapped this story from ever distinguishing its own shine.

The screenplay by Patrick Massett and John Zinman crumbles on its ambitious feats to be too many things at once in tone. There are times during the movie when I thought for sure I was watching a dark comedy, then it turned into a harrowing drama, then it turned into nearly a heist movie of epic portions. The worst of which is during the first act when the glaring problem stares you right in the face; this is a very poorly paced production. If you can make it past the opening half hour of Gold, then your wait will be rewarded in some strong conflict that at least opens the door to greener pastures. It almost feels like Massett and Zinman placed everything of entertaining value in the 2nd and 3rd acts, and instead ignored the opening that was so important to introducing the audience to so much about gold that they don’t know. There’s also a narration of sorts with McConaughey being interviewed by the FBI that keeps cutting into our story. This is fine and dandy, but the initial scene of this interview doesn’t happen until an hour into the movie. What did I miss? It would’ve probably been wise to kick the movie off with this interview to convey to the audience that muddy waters are coming for our passionate protagonist. Instead, this comes out of nowhere and feels so jarringly force-fed into the continuous plot, popping up every twenty-five minutes or so.

The third act of this movie is the one that I was promised in the trailers, and really served as the strong-suit of the film’s conflict. Over the course of these two hours, there’s two different conflicts that harm the prosperity of McConaughey’s band of thirsty miners, and frankly the first one isn’t as intriguing as the second. I would’ve focused more on this second plot twist because it not only levels McConaughey, but also leaves a longer lasting impression on how he will pick himself back up after the news of it. Under this act, we finally learn the significance of the FBI’s investigation, and at least it offers a half hour of how great this film really could’ve been.

What Gaghan can do wonderfully is produce a valuable vision for the movie, mainly in editing in a virtual slide-show to relate to the audience the very kind of moral compromising that comes from the powers of that illuminously beautiful color once you find it. We see our characters lifestyles and backdrops go through such a lavishly decadent change, and the montage scenes really serve a higher value here to relay how fast everything changes for them. At the very least, Gaghan knows where to frame the camera beneficially to harness the energy of this little gem with so much power. The cinematography faithfully depicts that of the 1980’s without relying on it too heavily to become its own gimmick in the movie. The cars and fashion styles maintain subtly, while the luxurious landscapes like New York City and Las Vegas represent the advancement in monetary stance that this crew has embarked upon. Gaghan invests the most bang for a very little buck in budget (27 Million) that made for this at least a visually enticing product when the script floundered.

McConaughey once again commits himself to a role that completely steals the show. Behind a thinning offering of hair and bulging teeth that slightly alter his physical features, Matthew, like Dicaprio’s Belfort before him, presents a protagonist who you can get behind, despite the slimy exterior that reminds you to stay away from guys like this. Edgar Ramirez is also fitting as Matthew’s right hand man in the gold mining business. The chemistry between them is what really sold the movie for me, offering a uniquely vast contrast from duo friendships before them in dramatic biopics. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Ramirez’s character is equally as important to McConaughey’s in the triumph of this company, so that equal footing is what allows the movie to succeed through that plot twist that I mentioned earlier that really shakes things up for the audience investment in both. Bryce Dallas Howard plays McConaughey’s love interest in the film, but sadly she isn’t given enough memorable screen time to boost her currently fledging Hollywood filmography. Howard exits the movie a little more than halfway through the film, and her absence is missed for much of the latter second act that could use a woman’s presence.

Gold’s value decreases the longer it goes in less-beneficial directions in search of entertainment. To keep this story trimmed tightly without the constraints of formulaic setup could’ve produced an early favorite for best film of 2017. As it stands, a worthwhile performance from McConaughey and a beautifully constructed visual direction by Gaghan that proves he has grown fruitfully since the days of 2002’s Abandon, keeps this one shining. This is one story that tops out far too late in the script, compromising it of the creative value that it once bolstered.

6/10

Live By Night

Ben Affleck returns to the silver screen to write, direct, star and anything else, in Live By Night. Boston, 1926. The ’20s are roaring. Liquor is flowing, bullets are flying, and one man sets out to make his mark on the world. Prohibition has given rise to an endless network of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters, and corrupt cops. Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a prominent Boston police captain, has long since turned his back on his strict and proper upbringing. Now having graduated from a childhood of petty theft to a career in the pay of the city’s most fearsome mobsters, Joe enjoys the spoils, thrills, and notoriety of being an outlaw. But life on the dark side carries a heavy price. Beyond money and power, even the threat of prison, one fate seems most likely for men like Joe: an early death. Joe embarks on a dizzying journey up the ladder of organized crime that takes him from the flash of Jazz Age Boston to the sensual shimmer of Tampa’s Latin Quarter to the sizzling streets of Cuba. Live By Night is rated R for for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.

After seeing the trailers for Live By Night, I was on the edge of my seat for a powder-keg of bullet-ridden mayhem for this period piece. Affleck has proven himself as a solid director, with The Town and Argo, so the man certainly knows what it takes to shoot powerfully gripping action. What surprised me however, is that film is not what you get here, instead opting for a dramatic offering of gangster life and prohibition during the roaring 20’s. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Live By Night, but after sitting through it, I can confidently say that its misfires do make this Affleck’s least favorable film of his early work behind the camera. With much honesty, my interpretation is that Affleck has worn himself slightly too thin for this production, as one of his three responsibilities don’t quite reach as far as the other two. More on that later. Live By Night feels like the victim of a ruthless slaughter by a studio that was destined to make this into their kind of movie, while the writer had something completely different in mind. Evidence of that is made apparent during some jarringly noticeable plot holes throughout the movie that always miss their mark being that the audience isn’t involved in the topic at hand, resulting in some sloppy desperation for storytelling.

In that regards, what Affleck does charm at as a writer is being faithful to this time and era when the world was still changing post-war, and it does invite the audience on a rather insightful and original side to the gangster way of living. This is very much a story about business and the importance of making yourself something more than just another hitman who takes lives instead of gives them, and Affleck’s character in the movie prides himself on the latter with running a successful bootlegging business, as well as aspiring to be the first licensed gambling establishment in South Florida. The film’s two hour run time has some sluggish moments, but quickly picks up if you can wrap your interest around these characters who always feel more dangerous than they’re letting on. Live By Night thrives on the feel that this is very much a paradise where law enforcement doesn’t exist, and so much of what we see doesn’t have to be done under the table with a salesman like Affleck at the helm. I can say that for 2/3 of this movie, I was glued to the screen because it felt like it was constantly building for something bigger that was to take place right around the corner.

The final half hour does generously feed our need for bullets and blood to fly after being deprived for so much of the movie, but I feel like it was the wrong time and place for this to happen. So much unfurls towards the end of the movie, complete with characters making abrupt and unnatural motivation changes with no telegraphing. Surprising? Yes. Logical? Not quite. It feels like Affleck’s script starts to run out of gas when it realizes this moment that it has been building for has been tip-toed around, and because of it, a lot changes quickly with our characters and plots that make them shadows of who we once knew. The second ending of this movie was actually the better situational ending for me, and I wish more time was dedicated to that aspect and the heart punch that it delivered. All in all though, I can’t say that the story ever bored or delayed me from what it eventually gave. The ending is satisfying enough, even if some of its layers come quite literally out of nowhere, making us wonder what we missed along the way.

Affleck once again far exceeds expectations visually, with his strongest cinematic work of his early directing career. This is very much a success in terms of gorgeously luxurious backdrops, as well as wardrobe design that articulately conveys the very fashions and cultures of this era in time. The suits are thick, the dresses are flimsy, and the romantic backdrops are aplenty. For Affleck to accurately depict two different areas of the geographical map that couldn’t be any different in climate and civilization is an achievement to his artistic merit. Ben’s capabilities far exceeds his reach of experience behind the camera, and at this point there is no project that shouldn’t be greenlit with Batman himself sitting in the directors chair. My favorite style choices for his cinematic work were that of some beautifully detailed revolving shots early on in the movie, as well as the symbolic framing that he uses for Elle Fanning’s character during her sermon of lost followers to relate the feeling and aggravations with religion. Ben’s efforts and designs pushed Live By Night slightly further when it was being downgraded by some aspects of the production that were less than thrilling.

That brings me to the performances that were as a whole sadly underwhelming. Nobody is terrible in this movie, but with the exception of two supporting cast members, this movie never reached its emotionally climax with the underwriting that most of them endure. Zoe Saldana and Siena Miller are practically wasted as the two love interests for Affleck. This is clearly Ben’s movie, but their lack of involvement with our protagonist always makes their chemistry with him that much more difficult to read, and this script definitely could’ve used more of both. Affleck himself feels very reserved and almost busy to ever open up to us the audience on the more than one occasion he experiences conflict. Ben plays Joe a little too cool for too long, and it makes his lack of vulnerability at times underwhelming as a whole for his character. The only two that I thought made the most of their minimal screen time was that of Chris Cooper as the police chief of Tampa, and Elle Fanning as his troubled daughter who turns to God after some second act reveals that serve to work in Affleck’s favor. Fanning is very much again the same hypnotizing figure that she was in The Neon Demon last year, and a lot of that is because of her emotionless stare that constantly feels like it’s burning a hole in her prey. She feels threatening without conveying her menace, and they certainly don’t make many actresses like her. Cooper has always been one of the best hidden secrets to any film that he joins, but here we see the brutal unfolding of a once prosperous town figure who is changing for the worst with the times. Cooper’s interaction with Affleck made for some of the very best scenes of the movie, and it serves as a testament to Chris’s polished routine to feed off of any personality that he bounces off of. Cooper and Fanning are the very glow that keeps the movie lit, and their work definitely shouldn’t be underplayed here.

Live By Night balks at the action grouping that it received in a pulse-setting trailer that underplays its true value as a dramatic period piece. It proves that even the most beautiful places have dangerous consequences, and the climax of faith and sin are always destined to meet on a one-way track. Affleck dazzles behind the chair, producing illuminating beauty in some truly breathtaking backdrops and faithful approaches to style that overshadow some holes in plot and underwhelming performances. Merely a footnote in cinematic mob stories, but one that deserves a chance from fans of Ben.

6/10

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The mystery of a nameless body prompts an investigation that lead a father and son through “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”. Experienced coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his grown-up son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a family-owned morgue and crematorium in Virginia. When the local Sheriff brings in an emergency case; an unknown female corpse nicknamed ‘Jane Doe’, found in the basement of a home where a multiple homicide took place, it seems like just another open-and-shut case. But as the autopsy proceeds, these seasoned professionals are left reeling as each layer of their inspection brings frightening new revelations. Perfectly preserved on the outside, Jane Doe’s insides have been scarred, charred and dismembered, seemingly the victim of a horrific yet mysterious ritualistic torture. As Tommy and Austin begin to piece together these gruesome discoveries, an unnatural force takes hold of the crematorium. While a violent storm rages above ground, it seems the real horrors lie on the inside. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is directed by Andre Ovredal, and is rated R for bloody horror violence, unsettling grisly images, graphic nudity, and language.

Once in a while, I will get a B-grade horror movie that over-exceeds to end up highly on my end of the year list, and while “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” isn’t quite to that level of spectacular, it is enough of a fun time to offer popcorn thrills between a group of friends and restore my faith once again in underground horror. This isn’t quite your typical ghost story, and thankfully the trailer didn’t give much away to the finished product. For about an hour of the 85 minute sit that this film produces, I was constantly kept guessing as to the direction of horror subgenre this movie was heading down. The concept of creepy setting, as well as stormy background certainly isn’t anything original, but the artistic integrity of Ovredal is strong for a director who is only in his second offering in cinema. The movie repeatedly kept me guessing, building up a list of possibilities, much like the coroners examining Doe, and one-by-one the predictable avenues that the movie built for itself were diminished as to say I totally didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

There’s a solid build-up during the first two acts as a psychological thriller, diving into the tortured past of Jane Doe, and what it took to bring us to the lifeless body that we see in front of us. During this period, the movie feels like a CSI procedural combined with a slasher mystery, providing us enough information on the very step-by-step process that coroners jobs entail when they are trying to nail down a cause of death. The pushing between the two genres that I just mentioned really stimulated my desire to keep watching, and conjured up one of the very best whodunnits? that I have seen of the past decade. Then it happened. The final half hour of the movie decides to take us down a road that I frankly could’ve done without. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling, but the curveball thrown by screenwriters Richard Naing and Ian Goldberg feels very contrary to the kind of mystery that they built up in the opening hour. The movie’s turn for the supernatural burdens this movie to the same light that we see a lot of modern horror films today, complete with untimely jump scares and illogical jumps that are big for even the most convoluted of scripts. This was a shame because “Jane Doe” felt like 2/3 of a good movie, with the finale feeling like an entirely different script from the earned tension that the movie conjured up for itself to that point.

As far as some of the other aspects to the movie went, the makeup work here is extraordinary for the corpse in question. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the very damage done to this body, and every kind of shot used to relate the blood or gore is justified artistically by presenting the very beautiful side of death. This film and the career of being a coroner could’ve definitely gone overboard on what the movie showed, but Ovredal’s touch behind the camera shoots everything respectfully in the same way that our two central protagonists see it, and this is something that goes miles to relate to how they are studying the body. I also appreciated the aesthetics of the lighting within the picture. The corny storm going on in the background is overused in every movie, but the darkness in each frame that surrounds our characters certainly peaks the intrigue of what is lurking in the dark in a room full of the deceased. This artistic direction never feels forced or convenient because a real coroner’s office is visually entrancing in the same way that this film gave us. Ovredal shoots an eye-enhancing movie with only a budget of less than five million dollars. It makes me interested to see what he can do with a future lucrative project that could invest the buck for the constantly moving bang that he swings.

The performances offer very little breakout moments, but the veteran cast certainly add a dimension of depth to something that might otherwise be ignored on video shelves everywhere. Emile Hirsch is someone I have adored since 2004’s The Girl Next Door, and here it’s more of the same for someone as personable as it gets from Hollywood leads. Brian Cox also offers a personality for his own character that feels like the pulse of the film’s direction throughout the 85 minute sit. Cox serves as kind of the crypt-keeper of sorts for the narrative, and it’s in his lurking delivery where we question early the kind of intentions from some of the characters we follow through the terror-filled night. The chemistry between Hirsch and Cox carry a lot of the load and heart against the film’s tragic aspects, omitting a very empathetic within me as I watched the movie. The most important aspect to any horror movie is its characters, and the inevitability with Hirsch leaving for college certainly wields that sting of importance in counterbalance for the dark directions that their characters must endure. Beyond this, the movie has a limited supporting cast, but it’s really a two-man show when it comes to this one, but the team of Hirsch and Cox are up for the task of narrating through Doe’s complicated past, which grows in shock-and-awe with each startling reveal.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe nearly ruins all that it builds up in a tension-filled impressive first two acts to settle for mediocrity in the finale. But the artistic merits of an ambitious director festering with atmospheric tension, as well as two likeable male leads that yearn to learn the truth as we do, more than makes this an effective and engaging mystery with some unexpected turns in story that proves there’s always something worse than death. Campy 90’s style horror goodness summarizes Ovredal’s meaty delivery to hold the audience in the palm of his hand.

6/10

Sing

The animal inhabitants of a small town will never be the same again, when a prized contest inspires every one of them to “Sing”. The story stars Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a dapper Koala who presides over a once-grand theater that has fallen on hard times. Buster is an eternal optimist who loves his theater above all and will do anything to preserve it. Now facing the crumbling of his life’s ambition, he has one final chance to restore his fading jewel to its former glory by producing the world’s greatest singing competition. Five lead contestants emerge: A mouse (Seth MacFarlane) who croons as smoothly as he cons, a timid teenage elephant (Tori Kelly) with an enormous case of stage fright, an overtaxed mother (Reese Witherspoon) run ragged tending a litter of 25 piglets, a young gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton) looking to break free of his family’s felonies, and a punk-rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) struggling to shed her arrogant boyfriend and go solo. Each animal arrives under Buster’s marquee believing that this is their shot to change the course of their life. “Sing” is written and directed by Garth Jennings, and is rated PG for some crude humor and minor peril.

Illumination Studios has always held their own when it comes to gorgeous animation that holds its own among the best illustration studios in America. The compromise however, has been that their stories always fall short of producing something engaging in characters or materializing depth in their scripts. Everything is usually played at face or trailer value, and that is the case with their newest effort “Sing”. It’s not a bad movie at all, in fact, I had just enough fun to recommend something like this to anyone who enjoys television shows like American Idol or The Voice. Like those shows, this movie offers about five minutes of important exposition and 100 minutes of musical performances. I’m not shallow enough to ask for something more in a movie called Sing, but I feel that not enough of this extensive runtime is used wisely for anything other than karaoke hour on “Must-See TV nights”. The energy and positivity from this script is just enough to warrant a watch, but I would suggest that Illumination up the ante with the next bet, or Pixar will come along one more time and steal the reigns with innovative storytelling that rarely ever fails or underwhelms.

This is a movie that offers over eighty (Yes eighty) musical songs and sequences, and offers a surprisingly satisfying blend of classic and modern favorites that are sure to bring enjoyment to parents and kids alike. On more than one occasion, I found my toes tapping to the eclectic tastes in all genres of music, something that gave me great respect for Joby Talbot, the musical director for the movie’s song choices. Talbot appropriately times the variety in moods for each of the characters he is trying to depict in song, and while I mentioned that my biggest problem comes in this movie establishing its characters by anything more than one-note throwaway scenes, it is on stage where they open up and shine at their brightest. The concept in general of advertising a winner-take-all showdown is certainly enough even still to intrigue audiences, and while the ending falls flat on when the winner is revealed, there is enjoyment in watching each of them battle it out with a musical scrapbook of my favorite hits from over the last fifty years.

The mood of the movie was very surprising in its decision to feel more like a drama than a typical comedy. If this was the intended direction in mood, I give Jennings credit for playing a kids movie against type, but his biggest risk will come in what his light-hearted youthful audiences will garner from it. This is a film that sadly only gave me one real strong laugh in terms of material; a car wash scene that involved some creative methods from a main character using his unique animal traits to earn him the cash he needs. Overall, this is a film that angles these characters as surprisingly dramatic, most notably in a teenager who is cheated on by her boyfriend, as well as a married housewife who endures disrespect from her husband and kids against a light that they see her as. None of what I said is a spoiler since they are both revealed in the trailers, but it was eye-opening to see just how far they were willing to take this somber toll. This was never a problem with me because I feel great respect for a movie that treats kids like adults, showing them the many sides of emotional release, but I’m curious to see if that same risk will agitate children to the point of the movie losing their attention. This coupled with the overabundance in musical repetition setups, and this could be a tough sit for the ones begging to see this in the first place.

As far as the animation goes, this is another cherished effort from Illumination Studios, offering many vibrant set backgrounds, as well as character designs that always spring the palate. I got to see this movie in 3D, and while the eye-popping extras leave a little more to be desired, the energetic tones in color provide more than enough to explore the value of what went into this picture. One difficult aspect to pull off in animated singing is the mouth movements of characters and if the believability from that sequence feels organic in delivery. Thankfully, this is never a problem with Sing. The animation between throat throttling and facial expression nailed everything note-for-note, and I couldn’t signal one instant in depiction where any of the movements felt anything but richly layered in muscle movements. As for the landscapes, this unknown town in the movie is very relatable to our own suburbs. It’s nice to see a film that revolves around animal characters not taking place in a town that is silly or constructed by a madman, and this authentic touch holds its own against a script that sometimes lags or underwhelms on characters.

Sing does sometimes muddle in predictably familiar waters with its story, but the cheerfully exuberant musical numbers, as well as lively animated visual aspects are more than enough to lift it one note above forgettable. The film still could use ten minutes or so shaved off for young audience members who will already be exhausted with more than 80 songs, but thanks to a message that encourages them to follow their dreams, they too might feel inspired to write a song that will someday be adorned in an Illumination Studios picture.

6/10

Bleed For This

One boxer’s quest to return to the ring after a life threatening injury has him pushing the limits of his body. In “Bleed For This”, we get the incredible true story of one of the most inspiring and unlikely comebacks in sports history. Miles Teller stars as Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, a local Providence boxer who shot to stardom after winning two world title fights in different divisions. After a near-fatal car accident leaves Vinny with a broken neck and his dream taken from him in one night, he is told he may never walk again. Against all odds and doctor’s orders, renowned trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) agrees to help Vinny return to the ring just a year after the accident for what could be the last fight of his life. Vinny puts his all into training, avoiding the aches and pains of his situation to rise once again. “Bleed For This” is written and directed by Ben Younger, and is rated R for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images.

The story of Pazienza is one certainly worthy of its Hollywood big screen adaptation, compelling audiences with a true story of courage and pain to get back the thing that you love most in this world. On that ideal alone, “Bleed For This” should’ve been a better movie overall, but it struggles during the second act that is riddled in storytelling issues, and fails to ever find its feet to get back up before the count of ten. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy “Bleed For This”, it’s just kind of a disappointment for how high my expectations were set with an all star cast and scintillating story that screams dramatic temperaments. Unfortunately, this movie serves as one missed opportunity after another, and the problems are all simple things that could’ve been fixed with more patience and effort to establish its characters and tones. There are some attempts to make this stand out amongst an overcrowded sports genre of films, but Younger never escapes the same cliches that give us trouble distinguishing one of these films from the other.

The cinematography is gorgeous, illustrating a faithful backdrop in television production visuals during the late 80’s and early 90’s. What I love about the lighting in this movie is the decision to kind of black everything else out besides the fighters, a decision that wonderfully sets the importance front-and-center where it needs to be. This kind of style and production certainly isn’t anything new with films like “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” capturing that style first, but what I love about what Younger does here is top it with some experimental camera work. The revolving style of art that plays out in front of us takes us inside and out of every punch, and is increased with every quick edit that has us feeling the brunt of all of the damage. I also loved some of the concepts with editing in this film, and the idea to inject actual television coverage of the fights that played out in real life. Because Pazienza and Teller bare a striking resemblance, there’s never much need to cover or touch up the grainy footage that puts us in the audience watching a fight play out in real time.

The first act of the movie is intriguing enough, but does something with its protagonist not usually seen in these underdog stories. Pazienza is a bit of an egotistical jerk, so it’s a credit to Teller who plays him faithfully with enough charisma that makes it impossible not to laugh with him. Teller’s on-screen transformation is certainly evident by the end of the film, and it pits the actor in the boxer’s mentality of difficulty training for his highest physical peak. The on-screen magic between Teller and Eckhardt tugs at the heartstrings a bit because we understand that each needs the other equally to make a bang in this sport again. Eckhardt was my favorite performance of the movie, even with what little time they actually take to understand his character. It is disappointing that the movie doesn’t view Pazienza and Rooney as equals in importance to the script, but Eckhardt is possibly the only positive influence in Vinny’s life, battling a troubling usage of alcoholism and regret for his best days being behind him. I feel like the movie owed Eckhardt to explore the troubles surrounding his drinking, but it’s just kind of swept under the rug with very little mention. With films like “Rocky”, we are given ample timing to meet and understand Mickey’s position because the fight is equally as important to him as it is to the title character. Here, Vinny’s story can often times be repetitive, so the opportunity to capitalize on Rooney’s painful disposition serves as one of the many opportunities that this movie flounders with very little care.

Some other problems that I had with the storytelling aspects were that of some scenes that feel like they are missing from what develops rapidly in front of our eyes. There’s a scene with about forty minutes left in the movie where Vinny brings a new love interest to dinner. This girl is never brought up once before this, nor is she mentioned ever again after it, and you have to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor that could serve great interest to the audience who are begging to express more empathy and encouragement for Vinny. This isn’t the only scene like it, just an example to not spoil much for you the reader. The film’s tone is always kind of depressing and dreary, so the opportunity to open up some optimism could’ve done wonders for the audience who were barely hanging on halfway through the movie. Another problem I had with the storytelling is the overall fight sequences in delivery. There’s some excellent sound editing used sparsely where the sound around the fighters is muted to focus on the hard-hitting of ring blows. I would’ve used this concept during the entirety of round twelve when it’s most important. It really is a cool effect that brings out the most in each devastating blow, but it’s kind of forgotten for fight choreography that feels a tad bit sloppy and rushed and begging to heighten the dramatic influx of a movie’s screenplay. Finally, the wounds from Vinny’s Halo neck brace disappear literally five minutes after they come out. No serious amount of time has passed during this time, it’s just another fine example of how sometimes Hollywood productions don’t pay the best kind of attention to continuity in wounds.

“Bleed For This” has enough here to put up a fight against the problems it suffers from mostly in directional aspects. During an era filled with much better boxing efforts, this one is sure to fall behind the crowd, but should be appreciated for its compelling transformative performances from its two male leads, as well as production design that details the darkness that surrounds the boxing world. The biggest pulled punch comes from this film’s decision to timely follow the same narrative patterns of other underdog stories in the genre. A decision that leaves this movie knocked out by round (or act) three.

6/10

Almost Christmas

The holidays is a time for giving thanks, even if the family in question is one of pure chaotic mayhem. In “Almost Christmas”, the newest in holiday hijinks films, we meet Walter (Danny Glover), a retired automotive engineer who lost the love of his life one year earlier and finds his life a little empty because of it. Now that the holiday season is here, he invites his four grown children and the rest of the family to his house for a traditional celebration. Poor Walter knows that if daughters Rachel (Gabrielle Union) and Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) and sons Christian (Romany Malco) and Evan (Jessie Usher) can spend five days together under the same roof, it will truly be a Christmas miracle. Over the next week, the family digest secrets and a crossing of lifestyles that have them reaching for the bottle, or in some cases the gun. “Almost Christmas” is written and directed by David E Talbert, and is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, drug content and adult language.

For great laughs and family fun entertainment, “Almost Christmas” might be your safest bet this holiday season. David E Talbert commands an instructional film on the very importance of family essence during the times when we feel the loneliest, and in that aspect his movie succeeds at garnishing a warm center amidst the chaos of these very loud and vibrant personalities meeting under one roof. For a majority of this movie, I had a good time and exerted some hearty laughter streaks that worked well because of the so-so material that was executed brilliantly by its excellent cast. The problem comes late into the second act when the pacing of cramming too much too fast in every scene, as well as a lack of narrative in exchange for repetition in improv, makes this 107 minute movie feel like over two hours. Never does this feel tragic for the overall presentation, but a second edit could’ve done wonders for a movie that sometimes doesn’t know when to quit or hinder its emphasis on going to the same well far too often.

The movie starts off with a brief rundown of this family’s story and the sheer importance of this deceased woman to the family that depended on her so much. As much as this movie is set around the Christmas season, I believe that this can be a good watch for Mother’s Day as well, and that serves as a testament to the best holiday comedies; when they can be viewed under multiple lights that never hinders or diminishes its charms. Talbert’s script and direction feels like a tribute to Mothers all across the globe, and it’s in that prime centerpiece where so many treasures in moral integrity and cultures become established. Never for one moment does Talbert let you forget that stance in this movie. That can be a positive and a negative. A positive for the very well-being of our characters, for they must now pick up the pieces after receiving the biggest possible heartbreak to all of them. But a negative in that the movie reminds the audience far too often of its existence just when we feel like our protagonists have received some clarity in their situations. The movie also has far too many subplots within this family, often creating a tug-of-war in screen time to let everything play out. Resolutions feel rushed by the third act, and this feels impatient considering we were ever introduced to some of these flimsy details in the first place. Some subplots simply aren’t necessary, and could use the edit button in the grand scheme of emotional register that this movie was trying to accomplish while playing against some quite humorous banter.

To say I loved the comedic material in this movie would be an understatement. It’s been a long time since a movie has had this critic coughing in laughter so hard, and that’s a testament to Talbert’s witty direction that more times than not makes his comedy relating to families of every race. Never does this movie’s laughs single out the white audience, and I can certainly appreciate that as it often feels like the desperation button to many scripts that don’t know how to create laughs among their own characters. This movie simply doesn’t have that problem, as there’s a real feel of energy among this cast and crew that make it impossible not to be touched by the magic in atmosphere, as well as Christmas cheer. One of my favorite scenes in particular was the dinner scene that can be noticed during the trailer. One of the family members are caught cheating and it leads to some of the most jaw-dropping scenarios played out under the holiday glimmer. This is very much a dysfunctional family, but I think Talbert’s idea is to relate that we’re all dysfunctional in one way or another. The real challenge is how we overcome those dysfunctions together, and to that David should be commended on his important message.

This is very much an A-list ensemble that can be seen in a lot of these family reunion type films, but the chemistry among this cast in particular lifts this movie to passing efforts because of their overabundance of chemistry. One thing that I appreciate in a movie is when the casting agents never have to suspend the audience’s disbelief in a family’s physical appearance in similarity, and that is the case with “Almost Christmas”. I never had to squint to see the similarities, and the bickering between them felt authentic to the kinds of quarrels that brothers and sisters deal with from year-to-year. These aren’t people who hate each other, but more so that feeling of bothered and intimidation by the other ones successes, and that’s a difficult thing to play off without feeling wooden or forced. In particularly, the work of Kimberly Elise and Gabrielle Union as sisters who have been on opposite sides of the fence for far too long is an enriching one to watch. They very much love each other, but always see something in the other that they can’t stand. Danny Glover was also very prominent as the leader of this family. In Danny’s performance, we see a lot of heartache and pain, and certainly root on his holiday success as the time with his family is always winding down. There’s a lot of decisions that his character must make for the future, and the arrival of his loved ones push those under the rug for an inevitable confrontation by film’s end. I also greatly enjoyed JB Smoove again, even though his character is somewhat of a douche bag. Smoove’s character is always one who swallows his own Kool-Aid about how great of a person he is without ever truly proving it. The exchanges between he and Monique make for the collision of two of the very best comedic personalities working today.

“Almost Christmas” is almost a great movie. Unfortunately for some repetition in material, as well as some poor pacing that drags the movie on a little longer than it rightfully should, this cost the movie from being just a little more than its finished product. Is there enough to enjoy? Certainly. The non-stop laughs from an ensemble cast that never slows down, or the hearty centerpiece of family values, makes this movie a little easier to forgive for some of its storytelling sins. Overall, it’s a tad formulaic, but the awkwardness in familiar family exchanges is more than enough to keep the coal out of this stocking.

6/10

Trolls

The world of fuzzy-haired, multi-colored lovable “Trolls” get the big screen treatment. From the creators of Shrek comes DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls,” a smart, funny, and irreverent comedy about the search for happiness, and just how far some will go to get it. This film transports audiences to a colorful, wondrous world populated by the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant dance in their step and a song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomachs. After the Bergens invade Troll Village, Poppy (Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born, and the overly-cautious curmudgeonly Branch (Timberlake) set off on a journey to rescue her friends. Together, this mismatched duo embark on a rescue mission full of adventure and mishaps – trying to tolerate each other long enough to get the job done. “Trolls” is directed by Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn, and is rated PG for some mild rude humor.

“Trolls” is a sweet post-Halloween treat that adults and children alike will get plenty out of. With its rich tapestry of cotton candy like atmosphere color in character design, as well as dreamy landscapes, Dreamworks strides in presenting another fairytale come-to-life that adds to their reputable library. Teaming together two of the most popular pop culture figures today in Kendrick and Timberlake, Mitchell and Dohrn construct a very energetic blend of eye-popping visuals to compliment the comedic stylings of their co-stars, vibe their chemistry around a soundtrack that beats through toe-tapping musical numbers that will no doubt increase in download sales after their use in this movie.

Funny enough, the property does of course come from the popular line of children’s toys that really blew up during the 90’s, so I was quite curious to see what they were going to do in terms of storytelling depth and plot when it came to an 83 minute feature. Luckily, with any musical genre movie, there is an equally important string of song numbers that accompany the storyline to fill in the holes from a hollow script. There’s nothing of any major detailing, plot devices or character development here. It’s all played pretty close to the hip, without taking any major chances or risks, deeming the mostly enjoyable a little predictable in delivery. The main story here is Timberlake playing a troll who hates happiness and doesn’t like to sing. Considering he’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it certainly makes you think they cast him for a reason, so you see quickly where this whole thing is going. Besides this, we’ve seen the outline of this story before, mostly in movies like “Toy Story” or “Wreck-It Ralph”. There’s usually a protagonist who has to get back to living for happiness, and needs the help of a slightly more annoying co-protagonist who pushes all of their buttons. Predictable yes, but enjoyable none the less, and that’s because of a cast that is every bit as infectious as its narratives.

Timberlake and Kendrick have certainly enjoyed their respective success in movies during the past decade, but what makes this different aside from it being animated, is their essence in charisma translated to a vocal-only delivery. The movie doesn’t have the most risky or edgy of material in jokes, so what always kept me laughing was how far these two pushed the most out of every reactionary joke, investing everything into sending the audience home with a good feeling. Timberlake’s character is kind of reserved for a majority of the movie, but his character is one of a kind against an environment of annoyingly pleasant characters. I found myself appreciating his character most of all because it was closest to my personality. These two are a great one-two punch of opposites, and I appreciate that the movie didn’t beat us over the head with an inevitable romance. Kendrick is the star here for sure. Most of the movie rests on her shoulders and vocal ability, and she proves that she can still deliver on the pipes she polished in the “Pitch Perfect” series of movies. Kendrick’s tender delivery and endless heart will captivate audiences into falling in love with this character. So much life to someone so small.

The soundtrack offers a compromising blend of top 40 hits from the past and present, never singling out anyone on the age scale of audience members who take it in. There are definitely no shortage of musical montages here, as I counted seventeen musical tracks throughout the movie. I normally wouldn’t have a problem with this, but it does take up more-than a majority of the brief 83 minutes that the movie has to tie everything together. Part of me feels that a lot of the reason very little chances are taken is because there’s not a lot of wiggle room to play opposite of this majority in music that feels like a pause button every five minutes. So we’re left with a flimsy script that doesn’t explore the most in adventurous opportunities. If you’re here to have a good time though, the music will certainly inspire you and your little ones to always keep moving through the vibrant colors that intoxicate us in this colorful world.

There’s not much for accompanying 3D effects here, so sadly this will be a wasted opportunity for anyone who is expecting more out of visual effects. I was disappointed to take off my 3D glasses halfway into the movie and watch a 2D presentation like I never bought a ticket for a third dimension. The only minor kind of usage is for character outline shading for personal shots in camera direction, but that is the bare minimum of what this kind of technology can do in 2016. There is certainly enough beauty to go around in the dreamlike atmospheres that don the film’s landscapes and character designs, but this one lacks any reason to spend extra to see it in 3D.

“Trolls” is surprisingly an infectious blend of rendering color palate, combined with the chemistry in timing of two charismatic actors in their prime. It’s a visual LSD trip of positivity for the whole family that will make it difficult for anyone not to give in to the concept of happiness that the movie so spiritually teaches. Despite the tiresome story rich in cliches, this movie will resonate with you in that area of the chest that still beats to the rhythm of life.

6/10

Denial

The biggest killing ritual in Germany’s torturous past might be the most difficult thing to prove of its authenticity. In Mick Jackson’s “Denial”, Based on the acclaimed book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”, the story recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s (Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, the burden of proof is on the accused, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred. What starts as a passionate discussion on Jewish pasts, leads to a dirty court battle for historical accuracies. “Denial” is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief adult language.

“Denial” was a movie that I was looking very much forward to after seeing the thought-provoking trailer that played for the last few months. This is a real life story based on the legitimacy of the Holocaust, and while I do believe that the Holocaust did indeed happen, I am still free-thinking enough to open up my mind to the arguments and debates that this movie would present to me. That’s where this movie actually started to lose me, as it’s not quite the courtroom drama that I was looking for. Trailers to make this movie into something it isn’t, showcased a Weisz Vs Spall kind of showdown, but unfortunately Weisz’s Lipstack is left very much on the sidelines for much of this case. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy “Denial”, but I found that it was a different kind of litigation case presented in real time than we as an audience are used to seeing. This moving is still valuable for the valuable kind of information that it presents for the horrific details of these torture camps in Germany, and just how different of a time it was. What also worked for me is the very specifics of what it takes to win a court case that is essentially free speech Vs historical accuracies.

The idea that some kind of historical event that shocked and murdered thousands of people can be challenged some day down the line is one of great intrigue for me because I was very interested how without pictures or video that Weisz’s defense team was going to prove such an event happened. That is essentially what this court case revolves around; for her team to win, she must prove accuracy. What disappointed me about this aspect is the third act which kind of ignores this aspect of the case. Without saying too much, whatever side won this case simply didn’t prove or disprove anything on the subject matter. It’s an out that feels too easy when you consider what is the turning event that signals the judge’s decision. The other problem that I have with this aspect is something from the past coming back to haunt either Weisz or Stall’s character to cost them the trial. Not only does this have nothing to do with whether the Holocaust did or didn’t happen, but it’s something that I have a difficult time believing that one of the lawyers couldn’t find this nasty aspect of their history. For a litigation team, this is their job, and it just seems to me like if that’s the way the movie is going to play it, then this case never needed to happen in the first place.

What I respect about this film is that the producers never try to paint Lipstack as something she isn’t. This woman wears her heart on her sleeve for this case and the people that it effects, and by virtue she can be very vocal during the case about what parts effect her beliefs. She isn’t the most admirable of protagonists and that’s what really gives this movie an authentic slice of life feel. You can certainly understand not only how close-minded that Irving can be, but Lipstack as well because her passion prevents her from ever seeing the other side. There is kind of an understandable immaturity of sorts in her character since Holocaust victims are coming to her and laying the pressure of their pasts at her feet. Early on in this case, Lipstack’s team tell her that they won’t be calling on her or any Holocaust victims to testify, so the odds are already against them when you consider that no witnesses will be used. We start to understand that the very history of the world’s darkest day might be alone in the hands of Lipstack, and it’s a layer of pressure that feels unavoidable in every deposition scene that we witness inside the hollow walls of the courtroom.

At 105 minutes, this feels like an appropriate enough allowance of time to properly tell this story, but the pacing of this storytelling never feels satisfactory to me. The movie starts to lose gas around the final act of the movie when this monumental discovery that I mentioned earlier happens. It makes the final third of the movie not only predictable, but a vital shift in tone opposite of how the movie had equally played the two main characters on a chess board of moves up to this point, in favor of one character casting a brutal checkmate that leaves the final twenty minutes on an anti-climatic tilt.

As for the performances, there’s a mixed bag here. I mentioned earlier that Weisz is rendered move less because of her lack of involvement in the court case, and as for the rest of the movie, this is pretty close to the chest for an accomplished actress like Weisz. What her performance is missing is what this case internally means for her, as there’s a great lack of development over the real life Lipstack’s Jewish heritage and how important this case is to her. Weisz tears could’ve been enough to push this just one notch higher on my grade scale, but it’s a missed effort for the top bill of this movie. What is the meat of these characters are in that of Spall and Tom Wilkinson as opposing councils. The one memorable scene that stands out above the rest here is the deposition that Wilkinson gives Stall, and really serves as the first instance of Stall’s character being rattled along the way. Stall is utterly despicable, but there is some truth to the things that he says. The worst kind of antagonist is one who believes in what he’s saying, and convinces you of the same, and Stall’s delivery is on the mark for the perfect villain. Wilkinson’s soft spoken delivery offers a magic in film that you rarely see anymore. With decades of experience, Wilkinson continues to amaze on roles that have a capability of showing off his long-winded dialogues meant to impress. These two more than make up for the regretful lack of female characterization in this movie, but overall an impressive list of collective actors.

“Denial” doesn’t rank among the best of courtroom dramas, but its real life narrative and thought-provoking delivery present more than enough things to commend this history lesson of morals. This kind of story feels urgent and necessary to the kinds of prejudices plaguing our own society, and Jackson’s plodding hand offers a history lesson by way of the very lack of knowledge when dealing with freedom of speech.

6/10