Lowriders

In southern Los Angeles, the lower you go the better in the competition that has the Mexican-American community battling for prestigious rights. In “Lowriders”, Set against the vibrant backdrop of East LA’s near-spiritual car culture, Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) is a talented young street artist who is caught between the lowrider underworld inhabited by his old-school father (Demián Bichir) and ex-con brother Ghost (Theo Rossi), and the adrenaline-fueled outlet of graffiti art that defines his self-expression. When Danny’s life comes to a crossroads, he must make the decision between family and family to steer him on the right path towards an ambitious future. “Lowriders” is directed by Ricardo de Montreuil in his first feature film, and is rated PG-13 for adult language, some violence, sensuality, thematic elements and brief drug use.

“Lowriders” approaches the concepts and the histories of one of automobile’s most prolific models and spins it into a family drama that is equally as compelling as it is informative. For the first half hour of this movie, I really didn’t know what to expect, but was slightly worried that this movie would serve more as a biopic for its automotive title character, and less about the spinning web of family tangling going on within the picture. Thankfully, my worries were put to rest, as de Montreuil’s film is a portrait on the struggles of family grief, as well as a front-and-center love-letter to the kind of arts and concepts that go into the car. From Ricardo’s point-of-view, the car is really just the table dressing to the main course that simmers underneath the hood. The real story is in the trio of family characters here whose pasts have set them on different sides of the tracks respectively. There’s a real understanding of the essence not only in the Mexican-American community and its families, but also in that of Southern Los Angeles for the visual spectre and feels of this melting pot that constantly keeps on boiling for its many of stories under one roof. This is just one of those stories, and it brought me enough suitable entertainment for 93 minutes that it’s really difficult to ever begrudge it for the few things it does misfire on.

What I enjoy about the narrative is that we as an audience are coming into this story with the past already playing a pivotal meaning in the relationships between each of the sons with his Father. Danny as a protagonist is kind of that young adult who is at a crossroads within his own life, so when the return of his absent Brother comes into play, we immediately see the effects of such an influence in his own life. For me, the most compelling aspect of this movie was between the divided relationship of Ghost and his Father, which took the movie on slightly more serious turns than what the gimmick of lowriders could do for the story. It’s in this subplot where we attain the knowledge of just how important these man-made structures are to the overall enlightenment of the audience watching at home, and for me it was during the brief interaction between these two when the movie prospers the most. The film doesn’t necessarily paint Ghost as this villain character, instead choosing to focus on the positives and negatives within each of the three main characters. After he gets out of prison, his actions dictate the kind of person and influence that he wants to be to Danny, and this is where the film nearly lost me in the shuffle of conventionalism that felt like it was playing desperately to studio needs.

The film does at times feel slightly by-the-numbers, in that you can see the outline of the predictable story, even if it takes some unorthodox methods of attaining this status. The second act of the film is definitely the dullest for me in terms of wiggle room for this outline, and suddenly there are some vast character shifts that kind of alienate the equal moral compass that the film once prescribed for itself. There is also a romantic interest for Danny introduced in the form of Melissa Benoist that felt shoe-horned in, and assured even more of such towards the end of the movie when it’s never brought up again after their “Routine” couple drama that happens in every movie for the sake of it. It’s nothing that I could fault it for too much, but if you’ve seen one of these kind of hard knocks lifestyle movies, you’ve seen them all, and “Lowriders” does very little to distance itself from an overcrowded genre that feels like we’ve seen everything by this point. The final act does pick itself up slightly, and there’s enough mystery and intrigue in the film’s closing minutes to put the story back to where it needs to be first and foremost; the dramatic circumference between this family’s tangled web that desperately needs healing. Without spoiling too much, I think the ending satisfied this craving while adding enough uncertainty between them that feeds into ideals of cleansing, in that not everything is as simple as open and shut.

One aspect to the movie that did fruitfully achieve the Los Angeles color palate was that of the shot composition and overall cinematography by Andres Sanchez that really illuminated this picture. There’s a constant tinge of yellow to the film’s illustration, radiating the always sunny backdrop of Southern L.A that shines on its blacktop streets. The camera work here is carefully depicted in that it has that grainy kind of visual to it, but moves fluently with and around our characters to capture the cheap essence of an independent movie. This is a worthy choice to me because pristine visuals that are too clean will sometimes spoil the feel of the environment that the movie’s creative engine is trying to depict. Because of such, de Montreuil feels like the right man for the job in constructing the right visual tones for the film that depict the city of angels as a character in itself. A place where the streets can make or break you, depending on which one you take.

As for performances, “Lowriders” has a solid Mexican-American dominated cast that more-than gladly took the ball and ran with their meaty characters. Demian Birchir is someone we’re starting to see more of, with recent turns in “The Hateful Eight”, as well as “Alien: Covenant”, but he feels most at home with family drama as gritty as this. Birchir’s pop character has lost a lot in his life, most notably his wife who passed away off-screen, so the values that he tries to store upon Danny feel like the only thing he has left. Birchir is warm and humble as this father figure, but not afraid to raise his tones when he feels threatened, a true Father figure if there ever was one. As for youthful approaches, Chavarria takes his first lead in a major motion picture, and Rossi once again steals the show as a sneaky antagonist we love to hate. On the former, Danny is every bit the kind of typical protagonist you expect to see in these films, often times making the stupid decisions to cater to his youth, but the slow aging of how Chavarria supplants this character is what makes him profitable to this story. Rossi himself can do so much in a look that tells you everything you need to know about his character, and as far as visual traits go, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Hollywood who can stare into the camera emoting such deceit.

THE VERDICT – “Lowriders” does muddle occasionally in predictably shallow waters in overall plot structure, but the film’s warm-hearted peak into an often under-executed Mexican-American setting, and authentic visual presentation more than make up for some of the short-comings that can hinder it from going the full mile. Ricardo de Montreuil’s film doesn’t feel forced to keep the story on the road, instead choosing to focus on the ardent entanglements of forgiveness that has plagued this family’s future.

7/10

The Book of Henry

Things will never be the same for a small town neighborhood once a mother discovers a troubling book written by her son, called “The Book of Henry”. Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman). Her younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother, and through investments, of the family as a whole, Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler), has a dangerous secret, and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it. “The Book of Henry” is directed by Colin Trevorrow, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief adult language.

This movie has been the victim of a lot of negative reviews lately in the media, so going into it I kind of found myself at the questioning position of how a trailer with what I felt had so much promise could receive a critique as low as it has shamefully received, but we must remember that these trailer magicians are the same people who make money by presenting a less-than stellar film in attention-grabbing detail. Upon viewing “The Book of Henry”, I am here to add my two cents to the pile of growing naysayers for the film, as this movie is very much a disaster in everything from tone continuity to lack of moral integrity for characters that violently shift with each passing moment. It’s a jumbled experiment that is often trying to pass itself off as too many things at once, and because of such a concept, it often feels like you are watching three different acts from three different movies. Even the shining performances of three marvelously gifted child actors wasn’t enough to steer this film, as well as its condescending direction out of the woods with even so much as a compass to find its way.

Director Colin Trevorrow, as well as screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz should definitely be commended enough for crafting a story that does play with respect to these children that they are front-and-center of this unfolding melodrama, even if their ambitious reach of plot does over-exceed what should be a simplistic approach. What was appreciative for me was that this duo seem to understand and see children as this driving force within the world who will stop at nothing to help when they see danger. Hurwitz depicts the point of view of a pediatric as such that there is no filter with them in their wanting to get involved in compromising situations, a detail that any adult in the audience will wonder with curiosity where we went wrong in deciding to turn our heads to help those who are troubled along the way. It’s encouraging to see a director who sees the value in child actors, and doesn’t choose to wither away their increasing value in cinema. Because of such, Colin does succeed in crafting a surreal world where children can get involved with adult actions, a concept that only gets stronger the further you dive into “The Book of Henry”.

Where he goes wrong however, is in the increasing ridiculousness of cliches that continuously overstay their welcome, as well as the violent tonal shifts that cut this film’s momentum down at nearly every level. The light-hearted coming-of-age story of the first act was the only section of the film that felt natural to me. Trevorrow’s immediate introduction of our characters and their worlds is one that instantly pulled me in and had me demanding more for the personality in dialogue that leaps off of the page of the script. Then it all goes wrong. Instead of continuing with this vibrant feeling, the film turns into a crass melodrama due to a sudden plot twist that shakes everything up. I’m fine with different layers to a story in a movie, but when it’s as violently forced as this was, it can feel like it never finds its footing back to what made it great in the first place, a problem that sticks with this production. The third act throws everything at us, as the craziness of this plan between our protagonist and her children is one that not only annoyed me in logic, but also angered me in how much it repeats itself. Without spoiling much, sometimes you will have a scene in a movie where a character will listen to a tape, that character will say something, and then the person on the tape responds back to what they just said. It’s often used as a throwaway comedy line that is harmless, but here it happens every minute when this tape is on-screen. There’s geniuses among children, and there’s God-like characters. “The Book of Henry” casts its title character as the latter, and soon this ability to predict action and consequences in something as unpredictable as people, is one that does great harm to the believability of this once humane piece.

With twenty minutes left in the movie, and very little answered or satisfyingly concluded, Hurwitz moves fast in offering us a conclusion that really made me take a step back and compare how far we’ve come in the short 100 minute offering that rode a wave of unnecessary twists and turns to get here. That’s of course a back-handed compliment, because I found the ending of this movie to be bafflingly dull when compared to what was the lead-up before it. Everything is put together a little too “Matter-of-factly”, and it constantly left me with a bitter taste in my mouth of the juice never being worth the squeeze, a harrowing reality that starts to set in the more you think about the actions of this movie. On that thought, “The Book of Henry” feels like an irresponsible plan of mind-numbingly barbaric execution, instead of a gripping therapeutic plunge into the perplexities of grief and how it affects everyone else, a missed opportunity that could’ve played this film as slightly more cerebral than the outside-of-the-glass treatment that we got here.

What does keep my score on this film from falling too far down is in the charming circumference of this ensemble cast that each add wonders to their respective characters. Lieberher has been a star in the making for quite some time, but the momentum of the film rests solely in his small hands, as he portrays Henry as a boy genius who never feels rude or condescending. Tremblay relies more on the dramatic pulse of the film to get his points across, and I’ve never seen a child release the tears so heart-achingly surreal as he has in films like this and 2015’s “Room”. Maddie Ziegler, despite not having many line reads in the movie, is a force to be reckoned with for how she visually commands the presence of this tortured girl next door. Christina is someone who lives out her worst nightmares every single day of her life, and Ziegler doesn’t falter this in facial responses that define the absence of positivity. Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, all also buy into what Trevorrow is selling, so much so that their adult counterparts blend satisfyingly well enough to never feel like they are cutting in on the children’s time to work their craft. Norris is great as a villain, but does so without ever needing to come off as some Lifetime Television cliche. The worst kind of antagonist is the guy we should trust the most, and it’s very unsettling to know just what is going on under the roof of the police chief’s house that has left the surrounding patrons shattered in its wake.

THE VERDICT – “The Book of Henry” is three movies for the price of one, and only one of them should’ve been interesting enough to continue. Because of an overabundance in tone shifts, as well as fourth-dimensional breaks in logic, Trevorrow’s latest crashes and burns fast, leaving a finished product that feels slightly incomplete and muddled in seemingly unnecessary directions. The film definitely crafts an original take on child-first stories, but does so in a way that robs those intentions by the increasingly silly plot mechanics that would rather be the umpteenth “Home Alone” rather than the first “Book of Henry”.

4/10

Cars 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Lifted from the pages of the best-selling children’s graphic novel, a new superhero has come to town, and he doesn’t even require pants. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” boasts a terrific A-list cast like comic heavyweights Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, and Nick Kroll. DreamWorks Animation brings audiences the long-awaited global movie event, That revolves around George and Harold, two child pranksters living in Piqua, Ohio, who hypnotize their over-controlling principal Benny Krupp into thinking he’s a ridiculously enthusiastic, yet incredibly dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants, whom the duo have illustrated in their own personal free time. After donning the cape and tighty-whities, Krupp must deal with the arrival of the evil German scientist known as Professor Poopypants who is out to end world-wide laughter. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is directed by David Soren, and is rated PG for mild rude humor throughout.

Growing up, I remember reading the Captain Underpants novels as an early teenager, and I found their brand of toilet bowl humor, combined with practicality when it comes to animation style, to be a cut above the rest in bridging the gap from one age group to the next. The movie catches wind on a lot of the same sails creatively, bringing to life perhaps the craziest superhero that the graphic world has ever encountered. For a limited run time of 80 brief minutes, “The First Epic Movie” conjures up a thoughtful side to the superhero genre that the entirety of live action offerings just can’t capture. Comics first and foremost should be for kids, and a world of imagination that peels back the layers of fantasy and making them reality. David Soren’s film certainly captures that aspect in spades, providing a satirical commentary on childhood imagination that encourages its story to tell it from their point-of-view. In doing so, this movie finds a comfortable medium in tone that proves time-and-time-again that nothing is off limits when it comes to the bizarre and unorthodox, and it’s that unchained response that offers something for the whole family.

From an animation perspective, this is a gorgeous movie, offering throughout a breaking of the fourth wall that doesn’t limit the artistic integrity to just one kind of style. What I mean by this is that in addition to the breathtaking rendering here of the town and its inhabitants, there’s also cut away scenes that colorfully narrate what each boy is discussing for that sequence. I compare its style in illustration to that of the 2015 “The Peanuts Movie”. Where the alteration comes in is that these textures radiate more to the amateur drawer in all of us when we were kids, presenting a style that swims in a Crayola current of free-flowing streams. In addition to this, there’s also a lot of scenes in which the colors splash across and overtake the look and feel of each character to emote whenever they are happy, sad, or in grave danger. This gives the movie a kind of comic book authenticity that constantly reminded me that we are indeed in the land where superpowers make anything possible, speaking levels to the chain that bonds this delightful duo of protagonists in their unbreakable link to their favorite hero.

On the subject of that friendship, we get a real candid look at the importance that George and Harold play in the other’s lives, even going so far as to hold its value hand-in-hand with that of the madness developing around them. There is no getting around it, everything that happens in this movie is because of them and their imaginations that never stop, nor slow down, and always feel continuously in-sync with one another. What I commend the film for is not presenting some flimsy subplot that temporarily divides them because of a stupid argument or differing opinion. These two stay together for the entirety of the film, and it really spoke volumes to me that this might be the single best duo of any film in 2017. There is a negative side to that in terms of narration however, as Captain Underpants himself plays such a miniscule role overall in the finished product. Considering the title of this movie, there is a bit of a letdown with the exposition of Underpants, and what makes him tick. He certainly made me laugh, but his urgency in time and inevitability that his existence must end soon, certainly leaves more to be desired with the dramatic itch that went unscratched within the movie. This film stays purely comedic, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

I’m usually not one for toilet humor because it reminds me constantly of the Adam Sandler B-movie plots that have sunk a once prominent actor, but in “The Epic First Movie”, those moral capacities make sense and never hinder or take away from the fluidly moving pace that rarely ever slowed down. Some jokes do last for a tad bit too long, speaking to the kind of Seth Mcfarlane humor that can sometimes overstay its welcome. It doesn’t do too much harm to the movie, and most of it feels like fluff for how quick of a movie that we are presented with. Overall, I did laugh quite a few times at this movie, and that’s mostly because of its impeccable timing when it came to the bizarre observations that it was saying out loud. I have great faith that this movie will win older audiences over as well because as dumb as it gets, it seems to build itself stronger for a third act that requires you to leave any maturity at the door. The film even pokes fun at this concept, signaling out the ones who balk at toilet humor, and check our age at the door. To this regard, “Captain Underpants” is an infectious little-engine-that-could of a film that constantly reaches for a pulse in its audience, depending on the very wonderment and mayhem of youth that never ends.

Credit to Hart and Middleditch for lending their electric personalities to the vocal work of George and Harold, leading a comedic cast of who’s who in the industry who give to this picture. Hart in particular has always been an off-the-wall personality, so the decision to voice an adventurous child is one that feels like a meant to be marriage. I don’t know much about Middleditch, but his commitment to playing the straight man of the duo and registering the biggest response from his dry demeanor is one that is very valuable to the material here. Together, the two of them make it difficult to focus on anyone else, and certainly give in to the temptation of being bad influences when they are together. Nick Kroll also deserves major praise for voicing the villain known as Professor Poopypants. Kroll is virtually indistinguishable here, delivering a German accent that increases the laughter for how serious his character is trying to pass for. I just spoke about “Wonder Woman” and how comic book movies in general lack intriguing villains. Then a guy named Poopypants comes along and puts them all to shame with a sinister plan to wipe away laughter, and despite how silly it is, it actually works behind a terrifying plan.

THE VERDICT – Animation movies have gotten off to a rocky start thus far in 2017, but “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” puts the horse ahead of the cart by embracing a thirst for silly sight gags, as well as endless pranks and hijinks that transform all of us to a simpler time. Besides a lack of the title character, as well as a brief stretching of the occasional one-liner, Soren’s epic catches wind early on with indulging animation that sets a colorful stage for our pranksters to highlight their craft. With Hart and Middleditch at the helm, there’s no constricting or wedgie in this charming brief(s).

7/10

Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Men Tell NO Tales

Johnny Depp returns to the big screen as the iconic, swashbuckling anti-hero Jack Sparrow in the all-new “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The rip-roaring adventure finds down-on-his-luck Captain Jack feeling the winds of ill-fortune blowing strongly his way when deadly ghost sailors, led by the terrifying Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), escape from the Devil’s Triangle bent on killing every pirate at sea; notably Jack. Jack’s only hope of survival lies in the legendary Trident of Poseidon, but to find it he must forge an uneasy alliance with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a brilliant and beautiful astronomer, and Henry (Brenton Thwaites), a headstrong young sailor in the Royal Navy. At the helm of the Dying Gull, his pitifully small and shabby ship, Captain Jack seeks not only to reverse his recent spate of ill fortune, but to save his very life from the most formidable and malicious foe he has never faced. The movie is directed by the team of Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content.

There are two scenes in “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, in which Captain Jack Sparrow is caught sleeping, a suitable metaphor for the latest installment that relies far too heavily on the fan service of the better, past movies in this saga. With five films produced over the last two decades, it’s clear that the Pirates franchise has overstayed its welcome, thriving on derived concepts and plots that were done accordingly in their originality, but now lack the kind of influential impact that these movies once used to conjure up the imagination of their audience. Some of these examples within this movie are; Sparrow being introduced in a silly manor by appearing on land, a new guy and girl supporting cast that bicker at each other until they fall in love, a ghostly antagonist who has been wronged by that of Sparrow, and an execution scene early on in the first act that our characters will inevitably escape from. All of the scenarios that I just mentioned have popped up somewhere in the first two films of this franchise, and it leads me to the conclusion that “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is perhaps the laziest of a sequel chapter that is supposed to stand on its own.

One of the biggest problems concerning this more-than two hour feature is that the film immensely lacks any kind of vulnerability or urgency to ever put us on the edge of our seats for one moment. If this chapter instilled one lesson to us, it’s that this is a world in which there are very few consequences or actual deaths in the series, and this concept is highlighted early on when we realize the ties that bind this film with that of the previous movies. One of the scenes that truly drove me crazy in this film was that of Salazar releasing some ghost sharks into the water to hunt the trio of protagonists in a canoe. It’s obvious that these sharks could tear them apart in seconds if they really wanted to, but they only tease them for absolutely no reason. During the sequence, a shark jumps out of the water, flies over the canoe, and extends his jaw like he is going to dine on Sparrow for a snack. Of course the shark doesn’t even make a move, and the slow motion scene was used more as a tease instead of an actual taste. There are so many scenes like this in the movie, and because of it, I never feared for the lives of our characters even for a minute. Without spoiling anything, there is one death in the movie, but I guarantee this character will return in a couple of films.

The pacing too also hits a lot of speed bumps, especially early on in the second act when the same deposition is repeated no fewer than four times by four different duos of characters. Seriously, every time a new development in the script is revealed, mostly about Smythe’s character, we must get a reaction shot from Sparrow’s crew, Barbosa’s crew, Salazar’s crew, and the British Empire at home. I understand that this is a concept from a character standpoint for each of them to be filled with all of the knowledge, but so much of this could be cut or combined in a summarized scene to please all parties concerned. If I knew this many scenes were repeated in the movie, I could’ve received my first bathroom break of 2017 during the actual movie, and my bladder would’ve obliged. The first act of the film comes out of the gate with some serious firepower, but we never reach that level of excitement again because the action sequences often stay neatly tucked away in the closet of conventionalism.

At least the action sequences themselves still dazzle in their epic depicting, illustrating the hundreds of year old Pirate era as colorfully faithful in palate. The war scenes do happen too few and far between during the movie, most notably in the second act when the film exchanges its firepower for flimsy subplots that rarely have any weight in the inevitable conclusion. But there is some gorgeous detail work in the establishing shots of the ships, as well as the fast-paced sword work that happens within, and the movie’s angles never felt compromising or overzealous in editing despite the volume of scope that it has to cover. The framing work here is exceptional, capturing the volume of production from the crew that goes into every ocean movement, all the while previewing for us the kind of adversities that await them in the distance. It proves that at its heart, the Pirates movies are still one of the very best action/adventure franchises going today, and can instill the excitement behind something as dull as cannonball fighting to the next level.

The comedy itself does overtake the action in terms of tonal shifts for the movie, and the tired use of slapstick humor can only take the already wining interest of the audience only so far. So much of the humor in the film flops, and the stuff that does land speaks more to the adults in the audience, with material that I’m not sure children should be hearing. Just some of the material engages in jokes about sexually-transmitted diseases, infidelity, and a joke about prostitution that we’re fortunate enough to hear from every ten minutes during the entirety of the film. Because of this, I’m starting to find it difficult to immerse myself within the epic scope in landscapes that the films entail because of crude humor that constantly goes over the line of taste. I compare it to that of the Geico Insurance pirates commercial, in all of its cringe-worthy dialogue.

As far as performances and character work goes, there is one pleasant addition to the series, in terms of Scodelario as Smythe, an intelligent female presence that holds the key to the trident of the sea. What I love about Smythe as a character is that she feels like the lone voice of reason for her extensive knowledge of the sea, but it’s made even more apparent how important she is once her family lineage reveals itself to our eyes and ears. Keira Knightley evolved into something great for little girls in the audience, but that took three movies. Smythe is someone whose benefit is approached right away, and it’s clear that her character offers a refreshing blend of feminist approach for a change. Depp is still solid as Sparrow, but it’s evident just how little of material that he has in this phoned-in script. At this point, Sparrow lacks the kind of cunning bravado that he combined with his evident humor in the first two movies, instead becoming a Three Stooges kind of character that stumbles at every turn. From the antagonist side, Javier Bardem’s Salazar is menacing in C.G appearance, but lacking in importance from dwindling screen time, sound editing and mixing that does him no favors in fluent speaking. Bardem’s Spanish accent is already difficult enough, but the decision to fill his mouth with cups of blood at a time is like trying to speak with marbles in his mouth, and made his speaking parts tone-deaf on my sensitive ears. As a villain, Bardem has the right personality, but there are leaps in the script when he goes hidden, a definite mistake for someone who has crafted some of the best villains of the past twenty years.

THE VERDICT – This is one tale that deserves to never be told. The fifth installment in the Pirates franchise is the perfect campfire story in terms of putting us to sleep for the night, but lacks the kind of excitement or unpredictability to ever stand with its first two immortal efforts. The action is still there, lending itself to the kind of Disney immersing that peaks the imagination particularly in its younger viewers. But the holes amount aplenty in this ship, springing from a reliance upon previous film material, as well as mostly forgettable performances and poor pacing that sink our sails.

4/10

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

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

Spark: A Space Tail

Spark: A Space Tail, takes place Thirteen years ago, as the power-mad General Zhong (A.C Peterson) seized control of Planet Bana and tore it to pieces in the process. Now splintered into hundreds of shards, Zhong is Bana’s evil-overlord, ruling with an iron fist. Enter Spark (Jace Norman), a teenage monkey and his friends, Vix (Jessica Biel), a battle-ready fox, and Chunk (Rob Deleeuw), a tech-savvy pig. Spark learns of Zhong’s secret plan to take over the universe by capturing a giant space monster known as the Kraken – a beast that has the power to create black holes. If Zhong manages to harness the Kraken’s power, he’ll have history’s deadliest weapon at his fingertips, and it’s up to Spark and his friends to stop him. Spark’s journey takes him to the farthest reaches of the universe, where he encounters great dangers and discovers the secret of his true identity. An action-packed space adventure full of humor and heart, Spark is the story of a boy who takes on great responsibility and in the process discovers his rightful place in the universe. Spark is written and directed by Aaron Woodley, and is rated PG for action and rude humor.

Bad animated movies are bad for an array of reasons, but mostly it comes down to two aspects; bland animation and bland story. Most of the time, you will get one or the other, but it’s incredibly rare to find a movie that represents the worst in both. Cue ‘Spark: A Space Tail’. A film so dauntingly repressed when compared to the bigger, better animated delights of modern day that it even lacks solid justification for its big screen release. Ever since movies like Norm of the North, as well as Ratchet and Clank were able to somehow get the green lights to coax their studios into releasing these movies worldwide, we are bound to get more and more of these lifeless leftovers for the forseeable future. After seeing this film, I am left with a strong taste of two films in my mouth that accurately depicts what movies that Woodley was watching at the time he penned this script; Ratchet and Clank, and Rogue One. The former is certainly evident not only in some of the jokes that repeat themselves from that very movie, but also in the actual setting itself. You could tell me that this was a sequel and I would have no choice but to believe you. The Rogue One factor is evident in the story. Evil Empire takes child’s family to better their own situations. When child is old enough, he fights back against them, leading a rebellion of misfits. Ripping off movies isn’t a problem, but when those movies are leaps-and-bounds better than what you bring to the table, the similarities start being used as a negative, and this negative is far from the only thing plaguing the creative specter in this film.

For starters, this is a very difficult movie to get into right off of the back. The film starts with a brief two minute recap scene that not only speeds through perhaps the single most important scene of the movie, but gives us absolutely no narration exposition to get to know our characters or feel a shred of investment into their conflicts. It stays this way through 85 minutes of throwaway storytelling that misfires on more misses than hits because of its Saturday Morning Cartoon structure. If this film could take five minutes to slow down and soak in the effects of what should be some major character vulnerability, then maybe we could squeeze an ounce of audience investment out of them. The main character especially, lacks any kind of special trait or talent that makes him destined for this crown, other than him being born into it. Spark is the kind of teenager who gets by on being a slacker, and thankfully for him every adversary that he comes across is a braindead moron who you can’t believe for a second could lead an army, let alone an every planet takeover.

The comedy was non-existent for me. I remained stone-faced for the entirety of the movie, and my theater roommates who were mostly kids, did more of the same. It’s hard to get a sturdy grasp on who this movie is marketed for because the comedic material feels slightly advanced and wordy for that of a child, but far too boring and juvenile for an adult. If I were to accurately hit on it, I would say a young teenager of about twelve to thirteen years old would be the right target demographic. The only problem with it is that particular age group will be booming out of their animation phase by that time, seeking the brighter lights and bigger budgets of Summer Blockbuster action thrillers. The biggest negative for me in terms of dialogue was that of the speed bumps that become a frequent occurance as the film goes on. There are these scenes of stretched material that are either used to pull the run time closer to a big screen telling, or because the film is self-conscious about the abnormal pacing that continues to rush us along. The big showdown in this movie begins with about a half hour left in the movie, and it feels jarringly constricted because it packs so much into this third act and leaves the rest of the movie reaching for scraps that never satisfy. With no heart or sentimentality, Spark might as well be a Playstation One video game. At least then it would combine with a visual presentation that underwhelms at every turn.

I am a firm believer that you give the audience pulse-setting visuals first, above anything else in an animated feature, but the production team of this film lack any kind of energy or synchronicity to address the 1000 pound elephant in the room. I mentioned earlier the similarities of a video game, and that’s because the movements and rendering of physical features leave more than enough to be desired. For a movie that is set in outer space, that great lack of visual pizazz and ambition in backdrops can be blamed on a color scheme and shadow palate that contradicts the foreground characters with their landscapes. It constantly felt to me that the backgrounds were done by one company, and a completely other did the character designs that feel jaded and out of place. The two feel like they are moving at two totally opposite speeds, giving the characters a lagging of about a second before their actions catch up to their ideas.

The voice work however, isn’t all terrible. The positivity can be found in that of A.C Peterson, who is having the time of his life in this antagonist role of General Zhong. Peterson’s performance is a delightful throwback to the days of past flamboyant villains whose tones brought a comfortable combination of power and fear to their releases. I got what little enjoyment that I did out of the movie when Zhong was on-screen, and that alone is a testament to A.C’s work in this picture. After doing some digging, I was able to understand why the trio of big names volunteered themselves to a movie that isn’t an eighth to their standards; the director is related to David Cronnenberg. Yes, THE David Cronnenberg. So it’s obvious that they were doing a solid to the kin of a legend, but their presence in this film collectively doesn’t get it done. Biel, Sarandon, and Stewart aren’t bad, but they’re just so brief that they never get time to make the roles their own. Stewart comes the closest, voicing a weathered captain who has clearly seen better days. Unfortunately, these characters go through noticeable gaps in screen time appearances, and their absences cause a noticeable void that grows with each passing second. As our central character, Jace Norman is decent for a kid, but trails in charisma to hold a production in his growing hands. Spark feels like a hero on accident. The same can be said for Norman’s casting at top bill.

A Space Tail would be a fine enough title, because Woodley’s picture lacks any kind of spark or positive energy to get this film past the threshold of forgettable floundering kids cinema. Plenty happens in the movie, but little of which you are bound to remember five minutes after the credits roll. Generic, charmless, predictable, and narratively unoriginal. The worst kind of kids movies are the ones that make you owe apologies to a better animated film that you at one time deemed “garbage”. To that I say, I’m sorry Ratchet and Clank. You deserved better.

2/10

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

Leap

The ambitious dreams of an 11 year-old-girl take her on a cross country adventure one choreographed step at a time. In Leap, Félicie (Elle Fanning) has one dream; to go to Paris and become a dancer. Her best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) an imaginative, but exhausting boy with a passion for creating has a dream of his own, to become a famous inventor. In a leap of faith, Victor and Félicie leave their orphanage in pursuit of their passions. But there’s a catch, Félicie must pretend to be the child of a wealthy family in order to gain admittance to the prestigious and competitive Opera Ballet School in Paris. And with no professional dance training, she quickly learns that talent alone is not enough to overcome the ruthless, conniving attitudes of her fellow classmates, led by the devious Camille Le Haut (Maddie Ziegler). Determined to succeed, Félicie finds her mentor in the tough and mysterious school custodian, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen) who, along with Victor’s encouraging friendship, help her reach for the stars. Leap is directed by Eric Summer and Eric Warrin, and is rated PG for impolite humor, and action sequences.

The Weinstein Company in conjunction with Quad Productions are the latest to throw their animation caps into the ring against the bigger conglomerates, and for a majority of Leap, there’s plenty of imagination in the winds of luxurious backdrops and whimsical dance sequences to more than hold its own. I am not someone who knows a lot about ballerina dancing or the expressive arts to begin with, but Leap is one of those treats of animated features that transcends that of every opinion that you may or may not have gathered from the arts that you would otherwise have no interest in. This is a movie that has currently gotten moved back five whole months, and that’s a shame because this is an underdog story that could do wonders during a spring movie season that doesn’t have a lot of uplifting messages. Have we seen and heard this story before? Absolutely, but the tweeks and adjustments to that popular fable, as well as an artistic direction that paints an ambitious backdrop of Paris, France to accompany such a light-hearted film, is one that tugs at the motivation of the heart within all of us to be better.

At 84 minutes, this is as brief of a structure as you can imagine, so a lot of the first act exposition does breeze by slightly too quickly for my taste. I would’ve preferred some slowing down to capture more of Felicie’s undesirable home life in the orphanage and just how important that it is for her to break free from her mental shackles. There’s nothing terrible offending about quick pacing, but thankfully the second act reminds us of why were here; the dreamer’s story. This is where all of Felicie and Victor’s dreams come true, and what better place than the city for lovers? I loved the hinted romantic chemistry between their characters that even morphed into a triangle when another desirable character introduces himself to Felicie. In addition to this, the second act also lays the groundwork for just how out of sync our central protagonist is with other dancers her age. This film paints such a responsible canvas of illustrating just how difficult the dance of ballerina really is, and through a couple of musical montages, we see our girl grow not only into an incredible dancer, but also an admirable woman in this coming-of-age story.

There are two antagonists that are introduced into this story early enough. One of which I thought worked, in that of Camille, Felicie’s biggest competition to taking the starring role, and Camille’s Mother Regine, whom I felt dragged the story down to familiar cliche territory. This is one of those children’s stories that simply doesn’t need an antagonist. The sweaty and endearing climb up the mountain of sorts for Felicie’s dream is really the central antagonist, so anything else just feels strongly out of place or desperate to adhere to studios who deem it necessary to always feature a bad guy or girl. This becomes even more evident during the final ten minutes, when a sequence involving high risk comes into play, and suddenly I felt like I was watching a completely different movie, in which violent intent became necessary. With Regine’s character, there is a sly nod to the overbearing dance moms of the world who are a tad bit hands-on sometimes, but this is taking that angle and pushing it to unnecessary lengths.

The animation here is mostly gorgeous, making the most of a miniscule 30 million dollar budget that is only a fraction of what the big name studios are offered. Paris is the perfect place to set a story of dreams, mostly because its beautiful landscapes relay a sense of the kind of place where anything can happen and often does. The use of shadow work, as well as lighting effects on the animation amazed someone like me who sees fifty of these animated movies a year, and still felt like something fresh all together. It’s easily noticed most of all during the nighttime scenes, in which our characters pass through a street lamp. The personal attributes do leave slightly more to be desired, mostly in the movements of Felicie in particular during her dance numbers. Her movements feel slightly jerky and about a second delayed when compared to her walking or running. It is the sole aspect of the illustrations that could’ve used a second look, and sometimes make Felicie’s body feel out of place or uncomfortable with what she’s drawn to do.

I really dug this collective cast, most of which get lost behind their animated bodies effortlessly. It’s great to see so much responsibility hanging in the balance for a fresh, young cast full of popular faces that are currently burning up the market. Elle Fanning is someone who has embraced versatility in performances with roles in 20th Century Women and The Neon Demon, but as Felicie we finally get to hear the teenage girl inside of her come out to embrace this endearing dreamer. Felicie is definitely a female lead that holds her own against Disney princess oppositions, and does so even more because everything that she attains with dancing are realistic things that don’t need fairy tale magic to be told. The chemistry between Fanning and Wolff presents itself frequently throughout the film, as I greatly enjoyed their playful innocence with one another. Wolff’s Victor is the comic relief for the film, and the young adult does more than his fair share of humorous antics that make it easy to embrace him as one of the more memorable characters in the film.

Leap twists and turns its way into a choreographed dance that has twice as many dives as it does dips. This is one dreamer’s story that doesn’t deem it necessary to become a princess or a superhero to get the attention of kids. With complimentary animation, as well as stirring vocal performances from Fanning and Wolff, Leap has enough bravado to compete with some of the bigger animation companies that otherwise have a tight grip on the genre. Familiar territory? YES, but the unwavering enthusiasm from this whimsical treat is enough to stand on its toes.

6/10