Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

The dreaded road trip for the Heffley family turns into ‘The Long Haul’ for Greg and his newest disastrous plot. Based on the record-breaking book series, the Heffley family organize a long-distance road trip to attend Meemaw’s 90th birthday party. But everything goes hilariously off course thanks to Greg’s (Jason Drucker) newest scheme to get to a popular video gaming convention for all of the sweetest prizes. This twisted, off-the-rails family cross-country adventure turns into an experience the Heffleys will never forget, experiencing one wacky shenanigan after another to keep the spirit of the family together forever. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is directed by noteworthy child director David Bowers, and is rated PG for some rude humor.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is cinematic birth control. What I mean by that is this is the kind of movie that adults who are becoming parents dread when they think about the kind of modern day fecal matter that is slopped up upon our children’s plates. As time has progressed, companies like Pixar have continued to test the intelligence of their youthful audiences, with colorful characters, as well as plots that challenge the mind and the heart to offer something special in memorable movies. Then there’s movies like this one that consider your precious children to be mindless idiots that only react to loud, animated noises or a barrage of physical comedy whose only punchline is that of gross-out gags, with each one vying to out-do the previous. To say that I hated this movie is an understatement. I simply gave no emotional response to the 86 minutes of bits that barely passed for a big screen script. Being that this is the fourth film in the Diary franchise, and that everyone in the movie has been re-cast, this is the kind of film akin to that of Beethoven’s 4th or Home Alone 4 that belong strictly on a video store shelf, free from the wallet pressures of adults who work hard for their money.

I myself only saw the first Diary movie in this franchise, and while I only felt that it was OK, it was leaps-and-bounds above the material that passes for plot in this movie. The Heffley’s long distance trip to Indiana somehow clocks in at 47 hours on the van’s GPS, and right away my mind pondered as to where in America takes 47 hours to get to Indiana? Beyond this, the main goal is of course to celebrate the 90th birthday of the boys grandmother, but this ambition is cast aside so much in this movie that I constantly kept forgetting where this ending was taking us. Along the way, there are subplots that deal with Greg being the subject of a vicious viral video that has made him famous for all of the wrong reasons. Compelling huh? On top of that, the film feels like a series of skits instead of one cohesive script that beats to the same drum. For instance, each scene that feels like it was written by a second grader has a setup, a conflict, and the shenanigans that follow. Because this routine became so predictable by the end of the first act, I found myself being able to constantly sniff out what was coming with each (So-called) payoff. If there is a villain or adversary in the movie, it’s with this rival family that is on the exact same road and hotel path that the Heffley’s are on. This leads to a final showdown that (I’m not kidding you) spoofed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, complete with slashing music and shot-for-shot re-creations. If this movie didn’t have enough guts from having the words LONG HAUL in their title, the bravery to mock one of the master filmmakers of all time certainly blows my mind.

Don’t worry though, I’m sure the laughs are aplenty from a movie with no shortage of urine, vomit, poop, and fart jokes. At this point in the game, these directions feel desperate, and even in a kids movie we should be reaching a lot further. On the scale of disgust, the film certainly makes a threat to 2015’s horrible Vacation remake, testing your stomach’s limits for what is tasteful. A pet pig is introduced midway through the film. Why? so he can fart and cause a big accident. The family stops at a country fair. Why? So one of the boys can vomit all over the people riding the ride. In case you’re wondering what the urine joke is, they borrow that too from another movie, this time from 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, in which Harry keeps filling up bottles. I’d elaborate a lot more, but frankly I just don’t want to. In a nutshell, I never laughed a single time in this movie, and the single greatest emotional response that I felt was that of two once prominent stars (I know I’m stretching that term) who now have to settle for this muck.

The two who I am referring to are of course Tom Everitt-Scott and Alicia Silverstone as the very parents of the Harelly clan. Silverstone is at least committing to this role, even if her character feels to cynical to ever be a progressive parent. Her character is wound slightly too tight, and it feels like she is trying to live up to an adjective like ‘Square’ that the director told her to aim for. Her singing of Wannabe by The Spice Girls that was seen in the trailer is so damaging to my ears that I began writing her a scathing e-mail to ease the pain. Scott feels asleep at the wheel for a lot of his performance, and often only pops up whenever it feels like he is required to earn a paycheck. For a man who stole many of movies like Dead Man on Campus and That Thing You Do, Tom feels like a shell of himself, going through the motions of workaholic Father who is forced to spend 47 unflattering hours with his family. We too suffer Tom. As for the lead role of Greg, Jason Drucker doesn’t have the personality or charisma to make this an appealing lead protagonist. For much of the movie, Drucker is relegated to complaining or reacting to the comic relief around him, and the lack of emphasis on the actual diary of the movie leaves him squandering for life support to live up to those who donned the role better. Greg embraces the embarrassment of being a child, but never the energy of what goes into being the pulse of this mind-numbingly bland family.

Perhaps the single worst aspect of The Long Haul is how its producers care so little about fluid continuity or the aspects that just don’t add up. Besides the 47 hour trip that I mentioned earlier, there’s also plenty of other mistakes or poorly efficient measures of filmmaking that shows the kind of care that went into this project. I’m certainly not asking the world out of a movie like this, but when I see two characters sitting in their respective seats in one shot, then immediately in the next one that shows them together they are in different seats, I wonder. This movie also re-uses actors and actresses like they think the audience is simply too stupid to piece this all together. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if a black man in the movie who carried a Southern accent during an earlier scene didn’t pop up as a completely different character during the final act. This is as sloppy as it gets with production decisions, but it pales in comparison to that of truly awful voice editing that adorned a particular character. The actor who plays the oldest brother in this film must’ve mis-read a lot of his lines because his lips rarely add up to what is being heard from his character. The volume levels are also slightly higher in his deliveries as opposed to his counterparts, pointing to post-production nightmares that aren’t tightly fixed enough for cinephiles like me to notice.

THE VERDICT – The Long Haul runs out of gas early and finds itself running on fumes for the entirety of this humorless, lifeless picture. If the film captures just one thing perfectly, it’s the torture that envelopes being stuck in a vehicle with people who annoy you to death, with you thinking about the better things that you could easily be doing at that particular moment. There isn’t a single moment original from its gross-out material to the way it savagely borrows from greatly more impactful films, and this is one diary entry that should be scratched-out, ripped-up, and left in the same trash confines where it found its humor.

2/10

Snatched

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

The most unlikely of heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe return to save the galaxy again, in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Written and directed by the original film’s James Gunn, the film is set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and the newly born Mini Groot (Vin Diesel) as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos to stop a new threat. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage involving a mysterious new acquaintance (Kurt Russell). Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand. The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, adult language, and brief suggestive content.

After the surprising smash hit that was Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has decided to strike fast while the iron is hot, churning out an ambitious sequel three years after that original effort. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is very much that first film turned up to eleven, with an unabashedly driving force direction for the best aspects of that original effort, and pushing them into overdrive here. This was a movie that I found very entertaining, with some problems on the side that Marvel still has had trouble with adjusting to. Because of those hiccups, Volume 2 falls just short of the first effort for me, but there’s still more than enough in artistic overdrive to recommend this movie to the faithful fans of the first film. For story in concept, In the same manner that the first movie was about this rag-tag group of misfits becoming a family, Volume 2 focuses on them actually being one, a decision in directional force that caters more to the light-hearted atmosphere of these worlds and characters respectively, and focuses almost entirely on the bond by these protagonists. What follows is over two hours of the most colorfully explosive action that you will see this Summer on the big screen.

Striking a perfect stroke of artistic expression is the color scheme that radiates the contrasting blends of a vintage comic book. Gunn plays so distinctly to color in each and every planet that is depicted here, and it really casts such a gorgeous detail to a setting that is already polar opposite of the one that we live in. Some of my personal favorites were that of the army of gold soldiers that really pop in the dark blue backdrops that illuminate these ships. This use of gold signaled the royalty that was inhabited amongst these people, setting the stage mentally for the kind of character exposition that is to come from us just meeting them. I also enjoyed that very vibrantly breathtaking visuals in explosions and fireworks that is sure to cash in on the most bang for your buck with paying extra for a special screening. I saw this movie in XD, with the wall-to-wall big screen, and I feel like I underpaid for a spectacle that radiated color in comic book movies far greater than anything that I have seen to this point. With Thor: Ragnarok just around the corner, it’s clear that Marvel is moving into an artistic phase to match that of the colorful contrasts in characters that we have come to know and love.

Perhaps that mission in color might’ve cast a shadow slightly too thick however, because the story in Volume 2 pales greatly in comparison to that of the original movie, and that’s mostly because this film is overstuffed with subplots that doesn’t know where to trim. First of all, the positives. I did enjoy the introduction of Peter Quill’s father to the story, and felt that it added a satisfying layer of conflict to that of the family that Peter has come to know with his family in arms. With the introduction of Ego, Peter clings to that last bastion of his past life that still burns inside of him, and the temptation to get closer to a figure that he has only heard about proves to be too intriguing. Another satisfying plot was that of Gamora and her Sister Nebula (Played by Karen Gillian), and the peeling back of their pasts that comes to light. Volume 2 casts Nebula in a different light of sorts with these big reveals, and you tend to feel great empathy for her character and the deadly game of revenge that boils in her fragile state of mind. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from here, as I thought a lot of the film’s tone in scene-to-scene transition felt very jumbled and all over the place. This is a film that rarely ever slows down (Not a good thing) and allow itself time to build to the next big reveal, therefore hurling everything in our direction of narrative too quick to fully register the impact of its reveal. There is a big twist midway through the movie with our intended antagonist, and it just never felt earth-shattering to me or the characters that it impacts. This is mainly because Gunn lacks great restraint in orchestrating sequencing in transition, leaving many scenes of jarring correlation that doesn’t flow together smoothly.

This movie also continues the spell that Marvel has been under since using Loki as a central antagonist in two different films, and that is a great lack of compelling villain to match the protagonists that it so richly devotes time to. Many people will disagree with me here, but this movie uses three different antagonists to make up for its lack of vision with even a single one. When the answer and intended direction finally does appear, it not only feels far too late to make the impact that this character deserves, but this character’s brief appearances on-and-off never give us time to build their importance. This can also be said about the other two groups of antagonists that couldn’t have been more boring during the first two acts. What does work about the characters is that this film feels like an apology to some supporting characters in the first movie that were glanced over. Nebula is given appropriate time in character dissection to finally cast an element of humanity to her tortured soul, Drax the Destroyer carries the comedy with brutish strength and stability that serve as the most dependable aspect in personality that Gunn is trying to convey, and Yondu embraces a road to retribution that has him seeking his own identity. Each of these characters play pivotal roles in the movie’s pacing and entertainment factor, and Volume 2 levels the playing field for their lack of involvement in the first movie that proves it may have been a tragic misstep.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of the movie are slightly overdone, and this distinctly speaks to that of the music and comedy that was depicted in the film. What I can say positively about the music is that very few films use it to the level of importance that Guardians of the Galaxy does, and this revival of 70’s and 80’s rock favorites kind of serves as the Glee of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for what it does in reverting interest back to these tracks. But here it is gone to the well a bit too much. At 135 minutes, a lot of the length can be attributed to these scenes that completely stop every story or subplot to show Peter or Rocket listening to their favorite track. It doesn’t feel as smoothly depicted as the first movie because it’s so practically delivered here, and it’s a shame because it really is a smashing collection of toe-tapping struts. The comedy level is also raised much higher here, catering more to the laughs instead of the character in the sake of our actual Guardians. You will definitely laugh more than a few times if your experience is anything like mine, but once again this humor slows the movie’s progression down to work in scenes of improv that feel irritating after the first few times. If it’s a one-off line, I’m all for it. Make them laugh and move on. But there are quite a few scenes in this sequel that overstay their welcome far too much and far too long, giving the audience ample time to use the restroom and not miss anything. I’m not naive to not think that this group doesn’t cater to the feel good mood, but much of these lasting setups should’ve been deleted scenes that pushed the sales of the DVD, instead of testing the patience of humorous flow that took a beating by the stretched third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 lacks the patience or practicality to play its greatest go-to hits of the first film that made it such a breakout smash, but Gunn’s return to the scene of his delightful crime does possess enough infectious laughter and visual flair to make this enticing well into the second hour. James sequel is overstuffed, but it’s overstuffed with the kind of joyous, silly, and often heartfelt family elements that makes this latest return to the galaxy one of undeniable pleasure. Good not great.

7/10

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

How To Be A Latin Lover

The sleazy, scheming lifestyle of an arrogant sex-crazed man goes for broke when he gets the worst kind of news that will hinder his get-rich-quick scheme, in How To Be a Latin Lover. Having made a career of seducing rich older women, Maximo (Eugenio Derbez) marries a wealthy woman more than twice his age. 25 years later, spoiled and bored from waking up next to his now 80-year-old wife—he gets the surprise of his life when she ends up dumping him for a younger car salesman. Forced out of his mansion and desperate for a place to stay, he must move in with his estranged sister, Sara, (Salma Hayek) and her nerdy but adorable son, Hugo (Raphael Alejandro) in their small apartment. Anxious to return to the lap of luxury, Maximo uses his nephew’s crush on a classmate to get to his new target—her grandmother, Celeste (Raquel Welch), a widowed billionaire. As Maximo tries to rekindle his powers as a Latin lover, he finds himself bonding with his nephew Hugo, and he begins to learn that being a Latin lover means that loving money isn’t as important as the love of your family. How To Be a Latin Lover is directed by Ken Marino, and is rated PG-13 for crude humor, sexual references and gestures, and for brief nudity.

By rating his movie PG-13, first time actor-turned-director Ken Marino settles for the smarter kind of comedy, and one that doesn’t need the perils of raunchy humor to get its laughs. That’s not to say that How To Be a Latin Lover is a smart or intelligent comedy that pushes the boundaries of intellect, but it is one that focuses primarily on that of dialogue driven humor, instead of physical or gross-out material to get its intended purposes across. There have been a lot of people who have related this movie to that of a Happy Madison production, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s true that some similarities are there with a jerk antagonist character who treats everyone around him like garbage, but still asks to be redeemed by the end of the movie, but Marino’s picture resorts more to the heartier side, displaying a fine layering of family importance that could never be touched by that awful company known as Happy Madison. I had some fun with this movie. It’s certainly got its problems, but it wasn’t enough to derail my time or keep me from the consistent laughter that Derbez’s commitment to character brought me.

The material in comedy does unfortunately have its flatulence jokes, but they are brief enough in the grand scheme of things. This is very much a character that feels on the same levels as that of Gerard Depardeu in the mid 90’s, showcasing a pleasantly humorous side to ignorance. There’s plenty of bravery in a script that could or could not label Latin Americans in a particular light, but the light-hearted consistency in tone makes it a difficult task to take anything to heart. Some of my fondest laughs in the movie usually dealt with the adapting that Maximo’s new chapter of life was taking on, complete with gut-busting facial reactions to the kind of madness taking place around him. With no lies, not all of the comedy here meets their designated marks. There are some truly terrible line reads in the movie that don’t register the fullest of laughs as intended, and sometimes the punch lines do feel slightly too long for a payoff that either never comes or emotes a pity laugh. Overall, there were too many times when this movie ripped the laughs out of me, so I give credit to working hard for this insanely difficult critic when it comes to comedies.

What’s commendable about the screenplay is that it doesn’t just settle for one-level storytelling to get the entertainment value across. The sleazy scheming that we see in the trailers are certainly there for a majority of the three-act structure, but something happens about midway through the movie that starts to earn your respect; the transformation of Maximo. What I love about Marino’s directing here is that he makes us pity our central protagonist by having him endure the same kind of humiliations that he ridiculed other characters for early on in the movie. By leveling out the playing field, the movie’s overbearing message of treating others kindly radiates with each passing moment, and it opened up the access to an otherwise cold-hearted individual. From here I was treated to a family element that even in predictable setups took over the movie accordingly, and brought depth to something that would otherwise be a throwaway comedy. The ending does tend to slightly go back on its transformation a bit, but it’s obvious that Maximo can never fully retreat to the materialistic pig that he donned for twenty-five years of his life.

One aspect that could’ve used trimming was that of the run time that at 110 minutes feels about fifteen minutes too long. The pacing holds up wonderfully for the first two acts, even despite how thin the material feels during this stage of the game, but it’s in that third act where the wear-and-tear of the long endurance starts to take shape. One reason for this honestly is in the setup of the third act conflict, which Hollywood has repeatedly done for decades, and only feels there to setup the retribution that inevitably always follows. This is simply not one of those comedies that can spring for the full two hours, and I worry that some of the antsy motions that come with such a long sit will pop up in those moviegoers who can accurately diagraph what will happen from this point forward.

There is plenty to offer from the cast, most of which includes a variety of famous celebrities that range in importance to the story from very much to not at all. One of my problems with cameos in movies is that they rarely do it to where it feels justified or vital to the inclusion of their character. For Latin Lover, it’s about 50/50 in terms of this. I loved Salma Hayek as his Sister for all of the bickering that they do back and forth that feels very reminiscent of the kind of sibling rivalry that we all deal with at one time or another. I enjoyed Mckenna Grace as Hugo’s school crush. As a little girl, she showcases a personality that is years above her age, and with Gifted, this is the second time that she has impressed me this month. As for who doesn’t work, the additions of Rob Riggle as the film’s antagonist of sorts, Kristen Bell as an obnoxious cat lover and frozen yogurt shop manager, and Rob Coddry as a limo driver with very little dialogue or material to showcase. Without question however, this film was intended to be a one man show, and Derbez is certainly up to the task. As Maximo, we meet a man that has let the better part of a life pass him by, with pursuing a shallow dream. Eugenio commands brilliance out of this character, so much so that he becomes him in the same way that Sacha Baron Cohen became Borat or Bruno. It’s rare in a comedy that an actor can be commended just for acting, but that is what we have here. In many ways, this character sometimes feels too big for this movie, but together they make the most out of a good time.

For an initial effort, Ken Marino’s How To Be A Latin Lover might not come to mind when it comes to memorable comedies, but there’s enough suave and debonair in the performance of Derbez commanding presence, as well as mostly clean cut material that can appeal to the whole family to keep this one staying fresh. The third act does slightly overstay its welcome, but the compassionate lessons that this movie instill make it one of the rare comedies that we can cherish in a terminally polluted 2017 comedy landscape.

6/10

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

The awkwardness of high-school is given an animated dimension, in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Dash (voiced by Schwartzman) and his best friend Assaf (Watts) are sophomores at fictional Tides High School and write as a team for the school newspaper, edited by mutual friend Verti (Rudolph). Verti assigns a solo story to Assaf, who become closer friends, and Dash gets mad at Assaf breaking up their friendship. Upon being sent to detention, he finds that the school is built on an earthquake fault, and will collapse once the auditorium on the top floor is opened. Dash tries to warn everyone in the cafeteria but is ignored due to his low social standing. The high school collapses into the sea and slowly sinks, as the students have to work their way up the floors to the auditorium to get rescued, but encounter various obstacles in between. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is written and directed by acclaimed graphic novelist Dash Shaw, and is rated PG-13 for some images of peril, sexual references and drug material.

Dash Shaw definitely remembers his time in high school vividly. So much so that the material surrounding his big screen companion piece to the critically acclaimed novel feels like a humorous, reflective stroll down memory lane, in all of its awkward circumstances and hierarchy of the hallway elite. By recruiting one of the more prominent graphic artists to depict a modern day vision of the scholastic system, we have opened our arms wide to a presentation that is every bit as imaginative as it is exaggerated. That second verb might sound slightly negative to my overall perspective on this film, but it’s actually labeled accordingly because of the animation that can fill in the character blanks where words and actions can not. Shaw’s film is very dark at times, relying on haunting visuals and catastrophes to hook the audience in to his unique point-of-view. Dash blends the worlds of unorthodox animation and dry wit sarcasm to offer a union that kept moving full steam ahead through the bar of obstacle that continuously raises with each act.

The material here goes much further than face value. On that end, it can easily be judged as Titanic in a high school, but from a metaphorical approach is where Shaw finds him most compelling vibe in storytelling, and it gives his movie a much needed dose of social commentary within the scholastic system. There are many hidden meanings that I choose not to spoil entirely for you the reader, but I will say that a couple of my favorites were that of the structure of the high school, as well as the symbolism behind this cold, liquid antagonist of sorts. On the latter, it’s clear that Dash is screaming at us how schools are our most important investment to the future of our children, commanding a lesson that is easily reflective within the troubles that we face in tax levies and overall funding. This school cracking at the seams is certainly no accident, but a lot more goes into the classification of these students long before any of them enter the work force. In this regards, the four-floor school, with seniors at the top and freshmen at the bottom, shouldn’t come across as difficult to grasp. I loved this concept because as our protagonist group of five race to higher levels, they go through that of the Sophomore and Junior floors, experiencing a helping of fights, labeling, and awkward romance similar to that of what we all go through during the supposed four best years of our lives. The seniors are the royalty of the school, and the visuals that accompany them are simply too delightful to spoil. Instead I will just say that Dash’s script echoes the voices of students lost in the fray over hundreds of years of social classification.

The visuals are entrancing, depicting a visual spectrum reminiscent of mid 90’s MTV in animation offerings. There’s very little that you can compare Shaw’s photo-shop motion work with in the mainstream world of film, but I did find the movements very synthetic to that of Daria or Beavis and Butthead, in that these characters move with their whole bodies and not just their legs. Because of these visuals, you can’t help but laugh and have a good time, a good sign in any movie. The backdrops were simply gorgeous and radiated a colorful personality in the movie’s ever-changing attitude with character conflicts and thought processes. A movie like this uses color for symbolism, and that direction led to what I can only describe as an LSD trip of every crayon in the Crayola box, displaying a decadent spin through this world that is literally crumbling down around all of our characters. My favorite aspect here, as I mentioned earlier, is that this glowing world feels like it constantly keeps moving, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary when we see snakes or rats to represent a truly detestable character. This gets across the point that so much of the exposition is limited to because of its brief run time (72 minutes)

Being that this was definitely one of the shortest review experiences that I have ever been through, I can say that among the movie’s weaknesses was this run time that hindered particularly that of the opening act, when everything feels rushed along to get to the point of the conflict. It’s not a poorly paced movie, but I feel like not getting to know these characters a little tighter is a big mistake, as very little stands out about them in this sea of faces. The only other weakness that the movie had was an ear-shattering musical score that consistently overtook the visuals that it accompanied. I was in a theater with arguably the poorest sound in town, so I can only imagine what this erratic, ear-piercing blend could do with credible surround sound. In that sense, I guess my experience could also be labeled as a positive, so not to put me through what could’ve evidently been much worse. Small blessings I guess.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea never floods under the waters of adolescent responsibility, echoing a voice of awkward humor so strong that it often casts a warning to our own educational blunders. For a brief period, Shaw’s film succumbs to teenage angst under the magnifying glass, giving us a first-hand account of adolescent vulnerability, with a beautifully rendering hand-made aesthetic visual to boot. A real Twilight Zone offering in which anything can (And often will) happen.

8/10

Colossal

The invasion of a giant creature from parts unknown centers around a down-on-her-luck-girl who bares a ‘Colossal’ effect on the rest of the world. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an out-of-work girl who, after getting kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend Time (Dan Stevens), is forced to leave her life in New York and move back to her hometown. After re-connecting with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), the two examine Gloria’s past while the city around them literally crumbles. When news reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, South Korea, Gloria gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to his far-off phenomenon. As events begin to spin out of control, Gloria must determine why her life is the motivation for this creature’s presence. Colossal is written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo, and is rated R for adult language.

Colossal is one of those films that is very difficult to translate into words. I know that I had a great time, and that Nacho Vigalondo is still one of the most effective directors in terms of relating to the heavy-handed themes that comes with the human spirit. More than anything, it feels like one of those movies where anything and everything is possible, most notably from the humans in the story who feel more self-destructive and imposing than that of their colossal counterparts. This is a world that feels distant from our own, but brings it all full circle with some honest reveals about self-reflection. It’s a story about empathy and the kinds of people that we surround ourselves with, on the road to returning to seek the kind of greatness that we were once destined to attain. But what makes it all so difficult in paraphrasing is that this beast (Pun intended) is something unlike anything that you have ever seen in terms of structure and attitude that don’t just rattle the audience, but rivets them to something much more than just a casual monster movie with loads of destruction. Vigalondo sir, you grabbed my attention early, and you held it in the palm of your hands through a truly challenging experience.

What I commend this movie most of all for is how many different tones and shifts within those tones that the movie breezes through effortlessly. The most difficult thing is grouping this kind of film into any kind of particular genre or sub, and that’s because it’s a film with a very surreal pulse that always kept me guessing. The comedy is rich, hitting me in the gut several times with well-timed awkward humor, compliments of observational material that always feels one step ahead of the audience just waiting to pull the curtain back. Beyond this is the drama, a nerve-shattering crescendo of dealing with the demons of alcoholism and abusive relationships that hinder our growth. It’s easy to see the problem, but it’s more cathartic to understand how it came to be. The thriller aspect was one that I never saw coming, but one that takes the second act of this movie to heart-pounding heights. This was where the film feels the biggest change in terms of tone, but it works because of how patient Nacho is with his characters and their actions, a true personal highlight of the film for me.

As for the screenplay, the film approaches this story at a metaphorical and literal level, obstructing the boundaries of our wildest depictions. I personally enjoyed the film more on a metaphorical stance because there’s so much to this puzzle that easily translates to that of human consequence that is easy enough to read between the lines. Gloria’s destruction on South Korea feels similar to that of the roller-coaster that she puts her closest acquaintances through. It’s also obvious to see the kind of monster that she becomes (Literal and metaphorical) when she reaches for the bottle. This aspect to her character is delivered so honestly and unapologetically that its embraces sometimes left me very embarrassed, as well as sad for this woman who knows the terror she inflicts night-after-night, but still returns to the scene of the crime. Is that scene the bar or South Korea? It all only adds to my point. As the film goes on to the later acts, it does start to lean slightly heavier on the literal side of things, building to a finale that did lack the fire power of what was built. I don’t say this in terms of the monster itself, but the demons inside of Gloria are never really given that moment of clarity. During the third act, it no longer feels like her story (More on that later), and that direction never allows us the time to celebrate her growth. The very end is proof of all of this, and it sometimes left me feeling like the most important battle was never defeated.

Without strong performances from Hathaway and Sudeikis, this film would feel the crunch of its imposing stature, and thankfully our two leads are more-than up to the task of carrying the weight. Anne Hathaway is an Oscar winner, so there’s no surprise at the layers of depth that her embrace of Gloria steers through. But what is so gripping about this woman is you see her doing all of these irresponsible things, yet the heart of her innocence is what shields you from the rain. So much of her performance is a callback to the girl she used to be, so there is that kind of hope that she’ll get there with persistence, a feat that leaves Anne standing as tall as her gigantic counterpart. Jason Sudeikis, where have you been? I knew this guy could act after stealing the show in 2016’s Race, but his work as Oscar is on a completely different level than anything he’s ever done. Perhaps the most honest aspect of Oscar’s character is that he always keeps you guessing, fighting through his own past that has molded the enigma that you see before you. Sudeikis’s performance doesn’t feel like a transformation, but more of the same guy who we’ve been watching for years, who we feel like is opening up for the first time. There’s a lot of fire in that basement that has been begging to be let out, and Nacho is happy to add the coals. There were times he shocked me, scared me, and settled me, a trio of emotional response that I didn’t know this comedian from Saturday Night Live could command. From here on out, I’ll never view him the same again.

Colossal is a screaming reminder to the monsters in our own closets that sometimes come out during the most undesirable of circumstances. Sometimes the biggest re-actions are caused by the smallest actions, and the struggles of self-control that define us. Vigalondo weaves a rich tapestry of tonal tantalizing to construct a new kind of beast all together, bringing along Hathaway and Sudeikis who leave very little room for error with their spell-binding portrayals. When people say they only wish to have fun and not think during monster flicks, they aren’t referring to Colossal. This one requires the mind and the heart to stay on.

8/10

Free Fire

The meeting of the minds between two rival gangs takes them to a warehouse the ends in an all out ‘Free Fire’. Set in a colorful yet gritty 1970s Boston, Free Fire opens with Justine (Brie Larson), a mysterious American businesswoman, and her wise-cracking associate Ord (Armie Hammer) arranging a black-market weapons deal in a deserted warehouse between IRA arms buyer Chris (Cillian Murphy) and shifty South African gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley). What starts as a polite if uneasy exchange soon goes south when tensions escalate and shots are fired, quickly leading to a full-on Battle Royale where it’s every man (and woman) for themselves in a heart-stopping game of survival, with enough firepower to take down an army. Free Fire is written and directed by Ben Wheatley, and is rated R for strong violence, pervasive adult language, sexual references and drug use.

What Ben Wheatley does so efficiently is blending two distinct styles of shoot-em-up blends to compliment one another to make the ammunition-riddled Free Fire. From a filmmaking standpoint, Wheatley’s visual stylings and quick-cut edits reminded me so strongly of an early Guy Ritchie kind of offering. From a dialogue perspective, this film hits close to my heart in narrating the kind of personalities and speech patterns of an Elmore Leonard novel. These two effective combinations, in conjunction with the echoes of a John Denver soundtrack makes Free Fire live up to its name in the game of riveting surrealism. What I found so provocative about this plot was just how simplistic the approach to storytelling is. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that the shootout itself is what stands out the most, and that’s because it makes up the heralded second and third acts of this film. Wheatley’s distinct voice of unapologetic response to gun violence is one that speaks volumes to our own current dependency on them, and that killer instinct to always keep pulling the trigger. In that response, you can’t help but laugh at the responses and directions that these hot conversations take. A room full of egos is always one second away from jumping off, and Ben proves to us that jump comes from the least likely of places.

The first act is the most in storyline narration that you are going to receive. While it’s true that these characters aren’t exactly chalk full of depth, it’s more than made up from in the concept of coincidence. To see these two rival gangs who essentially are supposed to be shadows to one another, is quite intriguing when the pasts of each person is brought to life, instilling a backlash of sorts against the opposition. I find it humorous that the reason this hour long shootout happens is because of something that happens entirely off-screen, and therefore it is in the confidence of these actors as storytellers to relay the information to the audience watching at home. Do they succeed? I think so. While this film leaves storytelling behind for the wounds of semi-automatic fire power, these actors each bring something vibrant and delightful about their quirky personalities that gets us over the hump. It all leads to a showdown in the closing minutes that provides some poetic justice and some middle fingers to the kind of movies that treat one room presences like there is nothing waiting outside of this particular room. The last shot gave me a smile of sorts for the coaster of thrills that Wheatley so brilliantly conducts.

The violence is impeccably gory in brutal detailing, richocheting the cause-and-effects that each and every character seem to never run out of. One thing that did make me kind of scratch my head was how many bullets that each character could endure, but I guess it only adds to the setting and sequencing that you can’t help but laugh at. Every character has no problem spouting off at the jaw, so it makes it humorous to see them taken down a step when the reality sets in. Some of the death scenes in this film will satisfy even the most deranged of gore-hounds, like myself. There is a contrasting irony to the basis that the most impactful deaths in the film do not involve the gun, but the human instinct, signaling that the person holding is every bit as cold and calculating as that of the chamber they unload. The third act does kind of pay homage in an indirect sort of way to Tarantino for how cartoonish some of the death scenes become. It does this without really sacrificing the authenticity or the severity of the movie’s creative, and I was often time reminded of 2015’s The Hateful Eight for this one dangerous setting in which these walls have witnessed so much.

The camera angles were a little too jumpy and inconsistent for my taste, often times speeding through too closely or too quickly to truly grasp the consequence of the bullet. This is most notable late in the second act when characters are clearly hit but there were many times when I couldn’t tell you where or by who. Because there are a lot of characters in this particular shootout, the film’s editing team have to walk a very tight line of registering each and every action along the way, and they don’t always succeed. This was a problem that I mentioned in films like Jason Bourne or Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and it seems to be something that is slowly taking over these important action movies. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the lone major problem that this movie has, so it doesn’t cost it too much on my final score, but I would’ve preferred that the audience were given the capability to see all of the pieces on the chessboard interact at the same time, more often.

Props to Wheatley’s dedicated direction and this wide range of character actors for bringing to life some energetic personalities. There’s a respect to be found for a director who doesn’t deem it necessary for one person to stand out above the rest, and because of that we are treated to one of the most balanced ensemble casts in recent memory. Each person knows the kind of gritty traits that they have to get across, and there’s certainly no one who feels like they don’t belong here for the kind of lifestyles that they live. Some of my personal favorites were that of Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Sharlto Copley, whom all are given ample time to get across the manneurisms of their respective characters. Hammer continues to be Mr. Dependable, and I’m glad that he is getting the scripts that he so rightfully deserves. As Ord, Hammer balances equal parts cocky and cool, making for a side of the young actor we have yet to see. Murphy and Copley are the leaders of their respective clans, so it’s interesting to see the contrasts in their leadership. Copley repeatedly made me laugh for his flamboyance, as well as his interaction with Ex-girlfriend Justine. Murphy is more of the calculated bloke that we’ve come to expect, but never fails at giving us a three-dimensional character that blurs the lines of moral righteousness.

Overall, Free Fire more than lives up to its name by delivering on some thought-provoking social commentary with our own thirst for violence, as well as instilling another chapter in the ever-growing procedural of The Butterfly Effect. An energetic and committed cast is more than enough to get over the hump of some sequence backfires that don’t always reach their marks with shaky camera and overabundance in zoom options. Wheatley empties his creative clip on a bullet-riddled battle royale that never overstays its welcome. Loud, brash, and delightful.

7/10

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

Gifted

The responsibility of a vastly intelligent little girl falls on the shoulders of an uncle who knows that she is ‘Gifted’. In a small town in central Florida, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) shows remarkable mathematical talent on her first day of school. She is offered a scholarship to a private school for gifted children but her uncle turns it down. It emerges that Mary’s mother had been a promising mathematician, dedicated to the Navier–Stokes problem , before committing suicide when Mary was six months old. Since then her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has acted as Mary’s de facto guardian. Believing that his sister would want Mary to experience a “normal” childhood, Frank is adamant that Mary be enrolled in regular public school. However, she somehow has already mastered advanced calculus before first grade. Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) seeks custody in the Florida courts, believing that Mary is a “one-in-a-billion” mathematical prodigy who should be specially tutored in preparation for a life devoted to mathematics. Gifted is directed by Marc Webb, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material.

In 2009, director Marc Webb materialized perhaps the most honest and heralding look at love in 500 Days of Summer. After falling off with the two Amazing Spider-Man movies that divided audiences right down the middle and blurred Webb’s hearty attention to detail, he seems to have returned to form with Gifted, a movie that is every bit as heartfelt as it is a study of what we deem as different in the prestigious sense. If Marc is gifted and excels at just one thing, it’s in his ability to take audiences on a bumpy road, full of feel good moments and tear-jerking sobs that will give something for everybody in the audience. Surprisingly, I had a great time with this movie, and I say surprisingly because it wasn’t one that I was necessarily looking forward to after a trailer that felt very meandering and manipulative to what we as a society deem as cutesy funny. Add on top that I saw the trailer half a billion times during every movie that I saw over the last six months, and I worried that Webb’s one hit wonder would further feel like miles away. Thankfully I was wrong. Gifted orchestrates its magic through the eyes of one exceptionally special girl, one whose gifts include but are not limited to carrying the integrity of this movie.

This is one of those rare movies where the youth takes center stage and you’re either on-board or you’re not. As Mary, we come to embrace a protagonist who dominates the equations of advanced mathematics, but her gift is only limited to this one aspect. What I appreciate from this screenplay is that the film feels responsible in leaps-and-bounds by depicting that certain kids excel at different aspects, and while much can be said about the prestige in solving problems before her teacher can, Mary struggles with the concepts and conflicts of friendships and fighting back against the alienation that comes with possessing such a gift. It’s proof that this kind of road has difficult decisions ahead, in that Mary must choose between having a real childhood or having the legacy that comes with being one of the truly great minds. There’s plenty of contrast to the positives and negatives of each possibility, and I really dug that position because it casts the audience to almost make the decision for this little girl, offering a conundrum of ‘What Would You Do?’.

For the first act of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised with how much hearty laughter that I exerted on the very timing and emotional responses of our little girl wonder. I haven’t laughed this much during a movie in quite a while, and I award a lot of that response to real life situational humor that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, the screenplay does mature as the film moves forward, trucking through a second act that does take a quick step into the dramatic territory. The movie is happy to oblige, taking us through a battle between family for the well-being of this cherished mind. The shift never felt glaringly obvious nor disjointed with the first act of the film, but could’ve used more time accentuate its importance in subplot. More on that later. After 96 minutes, the finale did leave me feeling good, hinting that the truest of gifts don’t come from that of what makes us different, but the heart that makes us one in the same. Webb instills in our visions that maybe one can have it all, a concept that Mary is happy to indulge in.

The pacing definitely could’ve used some slowing down through the court scenes in particular to play to the dramatic effect of the movie. Until the final half hour, there is so very effective conflict or obstruction in the light-hearted of this story. Sometimes the court scenes feel slightly out of place when a scene will take place outside of the courtroom that will all but seal up the very reason for the conflict, then in the next scene were back at it like the scene before never even happened. Also in relation to the speeding is a romantic subplot between Chris Evans and Jenny Slate that not only feels forced because they are two good looking people who we have to hook up, but also never gets the screen time to push the value of its importance with all of the events that are speeding by. Slate could be the solidarity that Evans needs to settle down, but sadly their romance is one in a few aspects to the movie that just never lands its feet on the ground.

As I mentioned before, Mckenna Grace wins the award of the night for show-stealing performance. She gives Mary a maturity in speech patters well above her age, but does it in a way that isn’t cutesy for the camera. Some of her responses early on in the movie I would legitimately rank with some of the better comedic performances for timing, personality, and facial reactions that never hide for a minute what this marvelous mind is thinking. The chemistry between her and Evans is evident in that the film casts them as uncle and niece, instead of the usual Father/Daughter that we’ve been saddled with often. What this does is blaze a layer of friendship to play to their family bond, doing wonders for emotional clarity when the two characters find themselves on opposite sides of the road in conflict. Evans as a D.I.L.F (look it up), is the aspect that is for the ladies in the audience. Chris tightropes a thin line of adult responsibilities while still trying to embrace the rebellious youth that was practically stolen from him overnight. It’s nice to see him in more dramas recently, as I think he’s much more than just another Marvel superhero. Octavia Spencer also shines during the few scenes that she spoils us with. You get a Motherly instinct of sorts from her character in what Mary means to her, and Spencer’s moral stigma is greatly appreciated to often times set in motion the focus of what’s really at stake for Chris’s character.

There’s enough uplift and compassion to keep Marc Webb’s newest gift an unwrapped treat for all of us through some murky waters of hollow exposition. This is a film that feels like it’s in a race to reach the finish line, but the hamster wheel keeps moving along with a trio of solid performances, particularly in the coming out party of 10-year-old Mckenna, as well as the responsible observation telling us to find the gift in all of us. This film does live up to its title, and its film is one that is a safe bet for the entire family.

7/10

Going In Style

Three senior citizen best friends get a raw deal on life, and choose to fight back against the system, sending them ‘Going In Style’. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin team up as lifelong buddies Willie, Joe and Al, who decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow for the first time in their lives when their pension fund becomes a corporate casualty, causing a necessary shift in the every day routine of these sluggish pals. Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, the three risk it all by embarking on a daring bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money. Going In Style is rated PG-13 for drug content, language and some suggestive material.

After a big success in 2004’s Garden State, and an overly ambitious failure in 2014’s Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff returns to the director’s chair to construct his single most mainstream feature to date, Going In Style. Far beyond its designation as a comedy however, Braff’s film ejects the heart from his characters and their stories to craft a truly weightless good time for all ages to enjoy. Going into this film, I wasn’t expecting much except to laugh, but it turns out that Going In Style is one of those rare opportunities where a few pennies of interest will earn you dollars more in returns, because this is a movie that I had a great time with. It turns out that Braff’s three years away from the chair was one that has done him well, because everything about this movie pays homage not only to senior citizen comedy romps, but also that of 70’s heist movies that had a particular aura about their designs and sequencing that lift the suspension to another level. Led by a trio of film veterans that know a thing or two about elevating mediocre scripts, Braff’s movie gets a big boost of humorous dialogue and delivery that makes the infectious personality of this movie one that is irresistable to anyone with a pulse.

Ted Melfi’s script is one that focuses on two soul aspects in getting across the understanding nature of such a heist; hard fought friendships and a reflection of social commentary in blue collar Americana that any laborer in the audience will easily grasp. These trio of friends do get royally screwed out of their pensions, and when they are offered little help or compassion from the banks, the evil, greedy business suit becomes the film’s prime antagonist. A shadow figure that while it does lack originality, does come through in a 21st century backdrop that sees many longtime employees watching their jobs ship overseas. There’s nothing heavy or resiliant about this script, it just knows where to stick the pricks and prods on the audience’s feelings by putting them in the shoes of their worthy protagonists. The friendships are everything here because we come to understand that these three men would do anything as long as the others are standing next to them. It’s in that concept that makes the idea of robbing a bank for these 70-something robbers that much more believable, and an irresistable ride that brings along all of the pacing for an enjoyable first hour that practically flew right by.

Where my problems do lie is in the third act execution that did slightly leave me with a bad taste in my mouth going home. It doesn’t ruin the film, nor the energetic good time that I had with the picture, but rather fizzled out the build and conclusions of these respective storylines and characters. With the heist itself, there are some obvious aspects to the characteristics of this cast that are introduced early on that is easily telegraphed with where it will pop up later on. It’s not even that the film is predictable, but more that it knows what steps it needs to get across some truly ridiculous aspects later on. One of such aspects is in that of two big events that go on during the heist. The first slows the trio down, and there’s something that gets revealed during that give-away that any robber with a brain would’ve gotten rid of before attempting such a feat. The second is a minor spoiler and it’s in the fact of them giving away that they are using blanks to a room full of people. Once this happens, the security guard should’ve fired away. It’s not enough that these elders return to the same bank that got robbed three weeks prior, but they use ammunition that is essentially consequence free. The ending of the film also tends to drag on a bit too long, closing up some respective subplots a bit too ‘Matter-of-factly’ to push the run time past an hour-and-a-half.

The commendable side of Braff’s hands-on direction is in that of the presentation, which does surprisingly offer an array of positives that outweigh the lone negative. The editing here is exceptional. There’s some very crisp cuts not only on the montage scenes, but also in that of faithfully representing the three sides equally in each conversation or engagment that places them all on equal footing. I also greatly enjoyed the 70’s style slide editing that weaved its way in and out of every summary scene. This feature is mostly evident during interogation scenes, when our characters are remembering aspects about the past events. It was a grade-A feature that was placed into a throwaway film, and it’s those kind of tweeks that push a comedy to the next level. What doesn’t work however, is that of a musical score that is very much meandering to the kind of emotions that it deems its audience too stupid to comprehend. I compare this style in tones to that of Full House or any 90’s TV Dramedy whose subtelty wasn’t its strongsuit. The same goes for this picture. It is every bit as annoying as it is repetitive, and it serves as one of the few times that I will complain about a musical score in any movie.

Caine, Freeman, and Arkin lead a dynamite cast that define the word ‘chemistry’. Caine and Freeman have done probably two handfuls of pictures together at this point in their careers, so it should not be any kind of surprise to interpret their friendship as anything but authentic. Arkin is clearly the sarcastic one of the group, Freeman is the family man, and Caine is the grounded one who wants what’s coming to him. I mentioned earlier that these three lift a decent script and make it something that is entirely enjoyable, and that is because (like their characters) these actors have paid their dues and supported enough terrible projects that it’s nice to see them get center stage in a film that brings out their strengths in spades. There’s a line in the film that states “We used to be kings…….we still are”. A throwaway line that more-than tells the kind of motivations and attitudes for what brought them to this vital dance. When you believe and embrace the concept of friendships, anything else is possible in a movie, and with these leads, you won’t see three better reasons to embrace the buddy comedy genre.

Going In Style is feel good cinema that doesn’t overstay its welcome until the final fifteen minutes that drag just slightly in execution. Braff and company definitely live up to the title of the movie, with fast-paced editing and camera effects that bring a special layer of 70’s heist homage to this film. The dependency of the film lies entirely in its rich, charismatic cast who never fumble or drop the gun in this opportunity. A rare heist that takes your money, but also gives back so much more in endearing laughs and wholesome friendships aplenty.

6/10

Smurfs: The Lost Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10