The Snowman

The disappearance of a local woman sends a team of investigators on the hunt for a killer with a chilly side, in ‘The Snowman’. Michael Fassbender , Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in this terrifying thriller from director Tomas Alfredson. Based on Jo Nesbø’s global bestseller of the same name, the film begins when an elite crime squad’s lead detective, Harry Hole, yep that’s his name, (Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter. Harry fears an elusive serial killer may be active again. With the help of a brilliant new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), the cop must connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new one if he hopes to outwit this unthinkable evil before the next snowfall. ‘The Snowman’ is rated R for grisly imagery, brutal violence, some adult language, and sexuality involving brief nudity.

History has proven that novels are often the winner in their often times inevitable showdowns with the big budget adaptations. More times than not, a book can grant you the kind of freedom from restrictions that hinders a film cold from keeping up the entertaining factor. No sentence will better define ‘The Snowman’, as this jumbled, melted mess that limps its way to a finish that had me questioning where it all went wrong. It is my opinion that much of the problems that screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini encounter is in their desire to over-convolute a story that doesn’t require a thinker’s approach. The case within this story is your basic serial thriller, so when the film tries to demand that unnecessary reach to intelligence, it comes up short in its returns that bore you out of your seat. At nearly two hours, so much of ‘The Snowman’ can be trimmed or edited to fit its narrative, but this film is so poorly directed that it makes it easier to understand the negative side of when a film is left in improper hands, the making of such a decision that soils Alfredson’s often prestigious name and leaves him out in the cold for a story that fumbles at nearly every given chance.

The story for the film makes the conscience decision to craft this as a dual narrative for the first half of the movie. This second tier is led by Val Kilmer as an alcoholic detective nine years prior whose own obsession for The Snowman Killer ruined his life. I see the importance of what this arc played to our story in the bigger picture, but its insistence upon eating up valuable minutes of exposition comes at quite a hefty price. This could’ve easily been used in various flashbacks throughout the film, but every fifteen minutes or so, we are reminded of its existence by a brutal shoving in the script that doesn’t distinctly signify when this flashback happens or give any kind of indication of the time switch. Elsewhere, this screenplay feels gobbled up by a series of gaps and holes in sequencing that leave its audience struggling when trying to keep up. Things just kind of happen without any rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder if a bigger director’s cut is lurking on a shelf somewhere. Either way, I’m not interested. As for the mystery itself, it’s somewhat intriguing, particularly during the early third act when it does start to feed into its ambiguity, but it’s ruined on one brutal shot of spoiler with about twenty minutes left in the film, that gives away everything without reaching a beneficial shock in its reveal. The final fight sequence is so underwhelming in its conclusion that I found myself asking repeatedly if that was it.

Possibly my biggest problem with the film is in the editing that can’t possibly be justified at a professional level. I’ve already mentioned that it feels like this script is subject to holes in progression that make it feel like an entire movie is missing, but the true horror comes in the fact that somewhere someone lacks that kind of personal imprint from the director that tells them when a scene should be shortened or ran longer. With ‘The Snowman’, there are many scenes left in this final cut that had me scratching my head for what pivotal role they played. There are also scenes that I felt were finally getting us somewhere, but were jarringly ripped from the screen with malicious intent. The editing is so devastatingly awful in this film that it in its own way is responsible for the mind-numbingly dull pacing that never bothers to pick up momentum or move cohesively as one continuous movement. Until the third act when things start to somewhat pick up in mystery, I was bored to tears because of the lack of energy or impressionable character that exerted itself into this movie.

On the latter of that concept, the performances within the film are about as good as they could be considering this top notch cast is getting no direction beyond the camera. Considering this is a film that takes place in Oslo, Norway, not one character speaks with the proper accent or even remotely struggles in speaking English. Fassbender can only do so much, despite being one of the most versatile actors working today. As Harry, we hear about a legend that has done so much, but there’s nothing about him that ever makes you understand why he is depended upon so much. To me, I feel like Harry’s biggest positive is that he’s in the right place at the right time, and that’s about as underwhelming with a protagonist as you can get. Val Kilmer is depressing because you can see on-screen how much life has worn him down, and shitty films like this will only make it worse. Kilmer’s painfully obvious ADR voice-dubbing is something that adds a jarring aspect of immersive break for me in each scene, and Kilmer can barely move at this point, let alone invest every emotional muscle to giving a performance for the ages. It’s just not there. J.K Simmons and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wasted in the bigger picture that doesn’t involve their characters holding weight within the complexity of this screenplay, and sadly Chloe Sevingly is only in one scene for the movie. Possibly the only actor who gets away with a passing grade is Rebecca Ferguson. Her performance at least feels like one with the proper kind of motivational pull, and there were times in the film where it feels like this should definitely be more of her movie than Fassbender’s Hole (Sounds terrible) because of this perspective. Ferguson commands Bratt with the kind of intensity in vengeance that has me screaming out to Hollywood and begging them to put this woman in a STARRING role for once, atop her own movie. To make something out of this hodge-podge, we owe her at least that.

Not all was terrible for me however, as the film’s visual compass was stunning in its overall cinematography and tonal volume that visually appealed to me. ‘The Snowman’ is very much an absorbing kind of movie that locks you into its setting almost immediately, and you can’t help but feel transfixed by the seclusion in immensity of the grand scale being depicted in the film’s opening shots. The sound mixing could’ve been better in audibly immersing me tighter in the experience, but the landscape shots and shooting locations were used superbly in setting a stage that unfortunately lacks the fire in material to combat the ever-enveloping cold around us. What this setting does wonderfully is replicating in detail the kind of character response that eats away at our main cast almost entirely. It feels like Harry and company have lived here for too long, becoming a product of their cold, harsh environment that has swallowed them whole and left them bitter.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Snowman’ collapses under a series of devastating plot holes and contrivances that leave it struggling to reach air from its numbing series of unnecessary plot contrivances. This underdeveloped mess of a film wastes its talented cast almost entirely, and leaves itself falling as the latest victim to being inferior to its multimedia predecessor of the same name. Adaptations can be done with excitement, but Alfredson’s dreadful direction here leaves this snowman without a base to prop itself up on.

4/10

The Foreigner

Jackie Chan returns to the silver screen, this time to do battle against Pierce Brosnan as a deceitful business head, in ‘The Foreigner’. Quan (Jackie Chan) is a humble London businessman whose long-buried past within the crime underworld erupts in a revenge-fuelled vendetta when his teenage daughter dies in a senseless act of politically motivated terrorism. Quan struggles to find a reason to go on, but the thrill of revenge against those who hurt the one he loved most, motivates him to keep going. His relentless search to find the terrorists leads to a cat-and-mouse conflict with a British government official Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), whose own past may hold the clues to the identities of the elusive killers. ‘The Foreigner’ is directed by longtime action director Martin Campbell, and is rated R for brutal violence, adult language, and some sexual material.

At its heart, ‘The Foreigner’ spends a minority of its screen time as a revenge action flick, and a surprisingly overwhelming majority of it as an espionage political thriller. It attains this satisfying counterbalance between these two parallels well enough by a sharing of screen time between many characters whose twists and bends in storytelling binds them together with many different motives, synching it all together in one free-flowing movement of direction for Campbell at the helm. I had a lot of fun with this film personally, and adored it for putting Chan back on the map after a couple of bombs during the early 2000’s that hindered his status as an action star. In many ways, ‘The Foreigner’ feels like Chan’s ‘John Wick’ moment, re-introducing the world to perhaps the very best on-screen martial artist going today, and leaving very little doubt if the man does indeed still have it. Thankfully, this is a serious adult action flick, and it’s in that perspective where it feels like Chan can benefit the most, offering a compromising blend of heartfelt acting to match his ruthless aggression in fight sequences that still pack a wallop of a punch internally to anyone who is watching.

Over the course of 109 minutes within its clutches, you start to understand the evolution that this story takes in comparing the decisions in one’s past that comes back to haunt each respective character. For Chan’s Quan, it is finding the momentum to get back up after losing the last piece to his ravaged past. We see a man who is rendered visibly emotionless after this terrible tragedy, deciding to take the law into his own hands when the higher-ups decide to keep the investigation from him. There is of course a reason for this, as Brosnan’s Hennessy is a conniving chess player with his own self-centered inspirations for getting things done. His character feels like he’s in too deep with the many movements that he is making to the board from both sides, and it kind of creates a suffocating atmosphere in which the water keeps filling deeper for him and his family, especially now that Quan is knocking on his door and searching for answers. It makes for two incredibly fleshed-out characters who no matter how you feel about them personally, you understand the equal importance in the value of each coming out on top. This doesn’t feel like a world with good guys and bad guys, it’s just a big shade of grey that groups them all together, and it’s in that perspective where the film feels like it doesn’t adhere to the conventional tropes that limit an action screenplay in a particularly predictable method.

As for the entertaining factor, my favorite act of the film was during the second act, in which several pivotal movements are made in setting up some jaw-dropping third act surprises that gives the film longevity. This is also when the intensity in action sequences feels like it picks up dramatically in spades, leveling us with impactful fight choreography that riveted with each concrete blow. Overall, the decision to stitch Quan, Hennessy, and the terrorist’s stories together on one screenplay does become a slightly cluttered in a fight for screen time, but I can say confidently that I was never bored or taken aback enough to jar me out of interest for the film. The second half of the movie is so much more beneficial for me personally, and I could see a lot of other people who see the film who might be conflicted by how difficult it can be to get to this point. The first act was definitely the weakness of the film, mainly because the lack of exposition for Quan is something that I feel was a major disappointment to the overall investment in who is supposed to be our central protagonist. This area of the film noticeably stands still when compared to the cerebral movements that take place later on, but I promise that if you can stay patient this film will pay off beneficially to anyone seeking a gritty, bare-knuckled brawler.

The aesthetics aren’t completely a winning combination here, but there’s enough to be praised from some stand out gripping touches that livens up the destruction action sequences. For one, the musical score from legendary composer Cliff Martinez brings so much riveting urgency in influence to each chase scene, bringing a sort of callback to the same late 90’s heart-stoppers that Chan mostly adorned. The camera work during the fight sequences are also done competently well enough, relying on a lot of handheld artistic directions that tend to follow the actor’s movements faithfully. What does drive me nuts occasionally about some of these scenes is the choppy editing that can get carried away with the complexities of a sequence that is so simple. The unnecessary amount of cuts that take place is something that has driven me crazy for years, and ‘The Foreigner’ certainly isn’t going to change my stance on this anytime soon. It gives the film a feeling of ADHD from its most exciting scenes that humbles the pacing of each sequence in the least flattering of production enhancements.

One thing that I want to talk about candidly is the enjoyment from the dual offering of seeing Chan and Brosnan prove they have plenty to offer in their respective action careers. It is such a delight to watch them collide in the few scenes that they are on screen together, bringing out the prime of two charismatic heavyweights that each offer something vividly different in portrayals. In Chan, we get a surprisingly limited amount of screen time, but he’s up to the task in making a lasting impression from a brief portrayal. He’s older, a little slower, but it’s in his vulnerability where Jackie feels like he finally earns each physical encounter. As a performance, Chan sports Quan with a ruthless, yet human approach to the young man’s game of revenge. This feels like the first time that we are treated to Chan’s acting first, and it shows that he has a lot to offer, emoting an emotionally crippled man with a fire of revenge in his eye that will burn for miles. Brosnan definitely steals the show, and why shouldn’t he? He is given an overwhelming majority of the film’s screen time to portray one of the most versatile villains of the year. It shows that Pierce is having the time of his life here, and that’s always the biggest benefit to individual performances. He proves that the most dangerous men in an action movie are often the ones who never throw a punch.

THE VERDICT – Jackie Chan returns to the forefront of action cinema with a complete offering of physical stunts and emotional acting that supplants his most versatile role to date. ‘The Foreigner’ feels a little convoluted in story midway through, and will test your patience early on, but once the smoke clears on some of these important subplots, you’ll start to see the materializing of a much bigger picture at work. Director Martin Campbell fires off more than a round of riveting revenge, hitting his target with unstable force each and every time he re-loads with satisfying shifts in coil.

7/10

Blade Runner 2049

Back in 2019 Los Angeles, things were much easier for the jobs of Blade Runners commanding the actions of replicant androids, but three decades later, one man will take the reigns against the advancement of technology that will paralyze society. Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new determined blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to seek out and find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing from the public eye for 30 years. Along the way, Officer K will investigate the seedy business practices of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), better known as ‘The Creator’, and the surprising revelation of K’s involvement in it all. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is directed by Denis Villeneuve, and is rated R for scenes of violence, some sexuality involving nudity, and adult language.

Denis Villenueve is a master magician behind the lens, crafting modern day masterpieces like ‘Sicario’, ‘Prisoners’, and of course my very favorite from him, last year’s ‘Arrival’, which I gave the coveted 10/10 to. But in accepting the job to helm the sequel to one of the most beloved science fiction movies of all time, ‘Blade Runner’, he tests strength in his biggest uphill battle to date. When you consider the adversity of this being thirty-five years after the original, the extremely difficult task of equaling the award-worthy visual presentation of its predecessor, as well as establishing a chapter to the Blade Runner realm without doing damage to that original movie, it certainly seems impossible that this would be anywhere on the same field. But once again Denis proves that he was the first, last, and only choice for the role, as ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a more than worthy competitor to the kind of lightning in a bottle that originally struck for this series. This is every bit the kind of film that fans of a franchise dream about when they hear a sequel is being made, but rarely often get. I went into this film with the highest of expectations that any normal director would crumble under the pressure of, but Villenueve continues to raise the bar for cinematic experiences that bring back the emphasis in taking in his films on the silver screen, assembling a team of over-achievers that each bring their best to offering not just another replicant.

There’s so much to breakdown with this film, but lets begin first with the story. It’s difficult to dissect without giving anything away, but screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Francher offer an equally encompassing dive into the themes of what defines a human being. Certainly the trait of one’s soul would be more than enough to establish this narrative, but this film proves that there’s so much more than just what is beating on the inside. The themes of love, loss, personal identity, and even freedom more than add their two cents to the very parallels of what divide us from the replicants here. On top of this, there’s much advancement over the last thirty years in story time that has transpired. In this future, it feels like the replicants have advanced, mirroring human emotional response without any qualms, and the sparse humans that roam the Earth are losing what articulately defines them as the envied race. It’s smart to market so much backstory (Including three online shorts that fill in the gaps of the transpired events prior to the film) surrounding these ideals, and there’s so much concrete social commentary within its grasp that offers a glance at the similarities within our own world that are still evident even in this Los Angeles. Most future movies center around themes and ideals that feel like decades away, but Green and Francher provide stern warnings that these environmental issues are closer than we may think.

What I love is that no matter how much material and pinpoints that this screenplay has to hit, it does so in a way that feels entirely satisfying to those seeking answers to the questions that come up. Villenueve is known for his cryptic approach in his movies, challenging the audience to feed into their own theories, but in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, it feels like the answers are always presented in a way that offers little debate. This is certainly a different take from the original film, as many have speculated Rick Deckard’s authenticity since it aired in 1982. But much of the answers are presented early on during the first act. It’s important to pay attention during this time because many of the establishing minutes focus on foreshadowing that will play an important role later on. It certainly feels different to have a detective story with all of the answers almost immediately, but even in knowing the ends to the means, I still found myself perplexed at how this film surprised me over and over again, presenting a contrasting angle to the kind of truths that I already knew without falsifying the scene narration. Speaking of narration, if I did have one tiny problem with the film, it is once again in the overstepping in boundaries that the rare audio narration sometimes provides. This was a big problem in the original movie, and during the third act of this film I feel that yet again it tries to hard to force-feed the audience into knowing the emotional response in the head of K without giving us much time to soak it in. I think the performances are so strong that none of this feels necessary, and I’m thankful it only occurs in a few scenes later on.

As for some of those performances, this ensemble cast prove that there’s no such thing as big or small parts, just impactful ones. Ryan Gosling feels catered for this role. In commanding K, Gosling feels like a product of his weathered environment in personality, as there’s no sign of satisfaction or defining trait that establishes him being happy with his life, emoting a great underlying sadness in his situation that blurs the definition of slavery that I really connected to. Jared Leto was also valuable in fronting the antagonist of sorts in Niander Wallace. Truth be told, Leto is only in three scenes during the movie, but his lasting impression is one of great money and power that center around the legitimacy of what he is doing with the Nexus program. The visual darkness that surrounds his character is more than just a clever metaphor for what Niander has done with this business, and Leto’s almost robotic delivery will have you hanging on his every word. The favorite for me however, was definitely Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Niander’s trusty right hand replicant. Luv partakes in all of the dirty work for the antagonists of the film, especially with Leto’s noticeable absence during the second act, but she is more than up to the task. Luv is the kind of female antagonist that ushers in a refreshing combination of exuberant confidence, as well as deadly muscle to make her a more than a worthy representation of feminist progression during modern times. Hoeks steals every scene that she is in, giving forth to the inevitable threat that is hot on the tail of K and company. A taste in direction that is better suited with a woman’s touch.

But what Blade Runner sequel would be a success without an entrancing visual stage that pops the eyes without the use of 3D technology? Enter the best cinematographer working today, Roger Deakins, as well as one of the very best musical composers of all time in film, Hans Zimmer. Together, these two set the mood in stage and sound that transfixed me in ways that made me want to pause the film to soak in every epic shot for just a bit longer. This has always been my favorite fantasy landscape in film, and Deakins presence behind the screen captures a barrage of visual enticements during every shot that casts great replay value during its brief fly-by’s. The duo of Zimmer and Deakins are so in-sync here that they often feel like the same person, crafting a presence of beauty and despair equally in sight and sound at the beginning of every establishing shot that rivets your immersion into these foreign backdrops. Deakins scope has never been bigger, but it’s in his lighting for each scene that offers a diversity of color that never limits him to just one shade. Despite being computer generated for the most part, his manipulation of natural light feels authentic in a kind of stained glass kind of feel to the sequences, providing the important emphasis that color constructs in appropriately setting the mood. The sound as well is Oscar worthy, vibrating the tones of Zimmer to pulse-setting levels of diversity in instrumentals that constantly always give that sense of dread in the air. It was a dream team combination to see and hear these two together, and because of their importance to a film so wrapped in presentation, you couldn’t have chosen two better men for the job.

THE VERDICT – The best kind of sequels are the ones that establish the importance of its own chapter while adding depth to the original, and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is the rare example of a perfectly crafted science fiction film that will equally stand the test of time to its predecessor for its own wondrous reasons. Through nearly three concentrated hours of epic cyberpunk presentations and imaginative thought-provoking material, Villenueve spins a spellbinding immersion of biblical proportions that doesn’t require nostalgia in getting its feet wet. One of few films that must be seen in theaters, and one of the only that this critic will see again.

10/10

The Mountain Between Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The world’s most intricate group of spies become that much more versatile in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” introduced the world to Kingsman, an independent, international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion, whose ultimate goal is to keep the world safe. In “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” our heroes face a new challenge. When their headquarters are destroyed and the world is held hostage, their journey leads them to the discovery of an allied spy organization in the US called Statesman, dating back to the day they were both founded. In a new adventure that tests their agents’ strength and wits to the limit, these two elite secret organizations band together to defeat a ruthless common enemy, in order to save the world, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Egerton). ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, adult language throughout and some sexual material.

Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 surprise hit of the season, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ was everything and more for an action comedy that introduced us to how cool this secret society can really be, in all of its gadgets and gizmos that bring up the rear of a taut shoot-em-up. For all of its positives and negatives, ‘The Golden Circle’ falls into the category that I refer to as ‘Sequelitis’. This refers to a series second chapter that is bigger in budget, overdone in celebrity cameos, and thrives off of the material that made the initial effort original in its depiction. This film definitely does all of this in a manner that feels like Vaughn just can’t help but show off his studio approved budget that is nearly twice of the 81 million that he was approved for in the first film. Kingsman doesn’t need all of this if the fun is still there, which for the most part I can say that ‘The Golden Circle’ is still an infectious good time that combines the pacing of a spy thriller with the fun atmosphere of a modern day comic book. But getting out of the shadow of its original, better structured predecessor is an inescapable trap that Vaughn places himself in and can’t find the secret door out.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours is certainly no easy feat for any film to accomplish, so as a screenwriter Vaughn has an uphill battle to climb with keeping the audience firmly paced while riding on the edge of their seats for some top budget theatrics in fight sequences. We’ll get to the latter in a bit, but the former gives us enough material in subplots and adversity for our fellow Kingsman to fill two movies. This feeling is made even more obvious with hiking across the globe multiple times during the film that doesn’t add up to the Kingsman’s American invasion within this plot. For my thought process, I would’ve left Firth’s return as an integral part of a possible third film, giving it time to breathe and effect the psychological growth of Eggsy for an entire film. It’s easy to find so much of this redundancy in exposition expendable, especially for that of Moore’s antagonist Poppy who overstays her welcome almost immediately. So much so that as the antagonist, the film forgets about her for nearly an hour before returning to these scenes only when it’s mandatory to advance the chase. The pacing feels particularly uneven between the second and third acts when we stick to one landscape mission for extended periods of time, giving us little room to breathe when a scene feels like it has run for far too long. It’s easy to see where you could cut a half hour off of this movie and not lose a thing, mainly because this introduction to the statesman feels like an origin story that the film isn’t fully committed to pursuing. Outside of Pascale’s Whiskey character, there’s very little impact or weight that any of them have to this chapter, making their introductions all the more time filler.

Where the material does work is in the underlying drug epidemic plot that Vaughn springs upon us almost halfway into the movie. I found this not only relatable to the current problems that are bending and breaking our own real world structure, but also responsibly bitter in the thought-provoking stance that Vaughn proposes to the audience watching at home. Matthew’s war on the current drug trade reveals how this problem, no matter how dirty or ineffective that it feels to some of us, is our problem, and it’s ours to deal with by our own compassion. This gives the film something more than just a typical action flick that many of us have come to see, and I always grade with the curve when a film that is supposed to be dumbed down can lean in from time to time with a poignant approach. The mentor approach from Eggsy to Harry is also one that elated me with the kind of heart and chemistry that proves how far these protagonists have grown in two movies. Harry feels like the dad that Eggsy never had, and where ‘The Secret Service’ was Eggsy’s teenage years, ‘The Golden Circle’ feels like our grown man who has finally bloomed into a leader, and oh boy what a transformation it has been.

As for the action sequences, they are still shot eloquently enough in high definition to radiate that of a comic book feel. Where I feel that Vaughn succeeds in his choreography and camera style as opposed to someone like Zack Snyder is that Vaughn can slow things down just enough to where it doesn’t feel like a matrix spoof and gear the audience ready for the blow that is about to be dealt, while bracing for what’s to come next in the background. Because of this, the first scene of the film is a personal highlight for me, echoing to the sounds of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ for enticement. If the action sequences have one problem, particularly later in the film, it’s that their C.G capabilities can sometimes manufacture the scenes to look like one collective take. Where this feels like a problem is some of the illustrations of characters can sometimes come off as jarringly hollow, and the punches feel like they lack detection outside of their quick movements. Thankfully, the camera angles stay consistent and everything is telegraphed precisely from the audience, but some of these scenes could use more of a practical approach to their gain, leaving a lot of the big screen magic to the pros who train for this kind of thing.

On the subject of those pros comes some winners and losers on the grand spectrum of this A-list ensemble that hit the screen. First the positives; Taron Eggerton is again a delicious slice of personality and confidence that highlight how far this troublemaker has come from his early days. Taron is the one performer we have seen transform the most, so we feel beneficial any time his tinsel overtakes center stage in going toe to toe with some very accomplished actors. Colin Firth is also a welcome breath of fresh air, even if I didn’t fully agree with how he was brought back in this film logically. As a performer, Firth’s soft spoken demeanor embody everything that Kingsman stand for, but it’s in his slow-peeling psyche of a man trying to get everything back where we embrace that vulnerability for once and show a slice of a man who is broken and on the way to being fixed. Pedro Pascale as Whiskey is probably the best new addition to the team, mainly because he’s the one that doesn’t feel like just a cameo. There’s a bit of a tortured past with his character, and Pascale’s morale disposition makes his wild card of a character a thrill to watch when comparing actions to that of the Kingsman. Outside of these three, everyone else was quite expendable to me. There’s celebrity singer cameos for the hell of it that very much overstay their welcome, and then there’s celebrity cameos who are supposed to be an integral part of the script, but don’t make enough of an impact due to shoddy screen time dedication. To this degree, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and especially Julianne Moore are all pointless to this film. Moore is the antagonist, yes, but her character is so poorly written and a bit of a male shovanist infused female that it’s easy to ever engage in her squeaky clean villain with something lurking beneath the eyes. Moore is an amazing actress, but I found her performance here to be unconvincing and forceful to the degree that the film’s momentum stalls every time she’s on screen.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Golden Circle’ is still the same fun and wild ride helmed by Vaughn that made its predecessor one of the most talked about movies of 2014. But this overstuffed and often times over-budgeted production can take something unique for all of its original quirks and transform it into something nearly unrecognizable for its convoluted directions. I do feel that there is enough magic in the performances of the trio listed above, as well as a timely social message, to expell a majority of the negatives, but if there is a third movie, it would be best to not overthink what puts this sassy satire ahead of the bullet.

6/10

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The world of childhood imagination comes to life once again, this time in the art of the ninja underworld in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’. the battle for NINJAGO City calls to action young Master Builder Lloyd, aka the Green Ninja (Dave Franco), along with his friends, who are all secret ninja warriors. Led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), as wise-cracking as he is wise, they must defeat evil warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), the Worst Guy Ever, who also happens to be Lloyd’s dad. Pitting mech against mech and father against son, the epic showdown will test this fierce but undisciplined team of modern-day ninjas who must learn to check their egos and pull together to unleash their inner power of Spinjitzu respectfully. ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is directed by first-timer Charlie Bean, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The lively innocence of the lego world is back for a third helping of childlike storytelling and imagination like only they can provide. Over the last couple of years, the lego property has given us not just exciting kids pictures, but also something that even the oldest of family members can enjoy with timely humor and visual spectrums that are second to none. This time the property takes advantage of one of their most popular toy lines, in the Lego Ninjago Force. The line itself has a television show that currently airs, and while I don’t think it is imperative that you must watch that show to get the references here, the film more than feeds into the aspects of that show, offering plenty of winks and nods to the source material. The biggest problem that this film faces is not competition from a lackluster Summer of underwhelming kids movies, but within itself and how it fares to 2014’s ‘The Lego Movie’ and 2017’s ‘The Lego Batman Movie’. To have two of these films in the same year will offer likely comparisons, and while ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is still a fun dip in immersive waters, it fails to hold the consistency of its predecessors, making this the Iron Fist of the Lego film world.

Lets get the positives out of the way first, and focus on the visual presentations which once again thrill and awe us with flawless animation. A majority of this film is again used with the lego toy line, and it really never fails to amaze me just how detailed the backdrops and landscapes detail even the most minute of properties to get it all correct. What’s impressive to me here isn’t so much the visual features, which are oscar-worthy, but more in the camera work that feels like it is at its most experimental peak with the series. Considering there is so much going on with so many monsters and gigantic robots flying through the air, the camera work follows along cohesively without too much shaking camera effects to throw us off. Throughout the weaving of building and towers, you really get a sense of the urgency that carries itself in the atmospheres, and it all really just makes you wish these tiers in effects were able to be used more effectively in live action genre flicks. The color palate is also jaw-dropping, especially with the wardrobes of the characters who come across as a Power Rangers of sorts with their varying colors to represent their inner gifts.

With the setting, the setup is the same as ‘The Lego Movie’, and for anyone who saw that film you will understand the deeper intention of what is really going on here. My problem with it however, is that once you understand the real life setting of where this is all taking place and between what characters in the movie, it starts to add up how this wouldn’t be possible in such a limited amount of space. Even the widest suspension of disbelief doesn’t sync accordingly to the kind of pulled back practicality that the first film in this series showed us, and I would’ve been fine with this just being a stand alone animation film that doesn’t depend on human architects to tell its story. Aside from this, I never had a problem with anything included within this stage. Even the C.G additional work is used in such a practicality that it never overrides or feels jarringly artificial when compared to the practical properties of these toys. It proves once again that Lego is doing things with animation that serves them as the only consistent competition to Pixar at this point.

Where the film does go wrong for me is during the second act, in which we feel the sacrifice of humor for a more enveloping dramatic swing on the forefront. Up until this point, the first act was the very best intro in the series for my money, complete with smooth pacing and articulate exposition. But the second act makes us all feel the sharp turns that seven different screenwriters on the same set can push it. Too many cooks in the kitchen is one expression, but these cooks jerk this story harshly to a setting and direction in plot that make it feel like two opposing properties are being conjoined together. I certainly have no problem with a film giving us a heartfelt center, and the material for father and son is as real as anything could possibly get, but too much reliance upon that sentimentality spoils the atmosphere in which it once felt like anything could be discussed and dissected even in the name of harsh consequences. This period of the film feels so sharply dry and opposing that of whoever wrote the first forty minutes of the movie, and I wish it hadn’t tried to override so much of what made it a delightful sit early on. Does it get any better in the finale? Kind of. It’s at least back to the kind of tone that we felt in the first half of the movie, but this too makes the second act stick out even more for its jarringly compromising disposition towards the rest of the film.

On some of that comedy, there are some quick-cuts that burned deep within my enjoyment early on, but the handicaps of repetition can sometimes make this feel like a Seth Macfarlane production. If one thing is clear, it’s that this film doesn’t have the kind of endless material in satirical firepower that ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ did, but the decision to slow the jokes down to grant the viewer more time to soak everything in is much appreciated in not being rushed to the next scene. This is vital not only to the pacing of the overall storytelling, but also to the joke’s release, for when you have more time to omit the laughter that those jokes deserve, you don’t have to worry about missing the start of the next one. If you did miss a particular joke, fear not, the film will say it at least one or two more times to remind you how good it hit the first time. It feels like a friend who launched a zinger, but then burned it into the atmosphere of redundancy, each time it’s being told losing a little bit more of its offensive sting.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ might be the current black sheep in the trilogy of Lego offerings, but it’s only because the precedent set by the first two films was exceptionally high in bringing together the universes of kids and adults in the theater. The film’s biggest obstacle is overcoming too many minds coming together under the same script that can derive and contradict the film’s smooth beginning and ending, making a middle that is every bit as sentimental as it is comically dry. Even still, the artistic expression is still there, and the film’s scope in presentation snaps together like its miniature counterparts. Two films in one year might be too much for this property, and unfortunately this one takes the bite in head-to-head competition.

6/10

American Assassin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

9/11

The most devastating day in United States history hangs A group of strangers together in the balance of ‘9/11’. Based on Patrick James Carson’s award winning play “Elevator”, which premiered in October 2011 at the Red Barn Theater of Tucson, Arizona, the film takes place On the morning of September 11, 2001. A messenger (Wood Harris) sings “Happy Birthday to You” to his daughter, a billionaire (Charlie Sheen) argues with his wife (Gina Gershon) in a divorce hearing, a maintenance man (Luis Guzman) begins his day, and a young Russian (Olga Fonda) decides she’s breaking up with her sugar daddy. When the first plane hits the World Trade Center, these five elevator passengers find themselves trapped. Forced to band together, they fight against all odds to escape before the imminent and inevitable collapse occurs. ‘9/11’ is written and directed by Martin Guigui, and is rated R for adult language.

Films like ‘World Trade Center’ and ‘Reign Over Me’ are fine examples of screenplays that have entertained the masses with A compelling screenplay alongside its dark and devastating day in American history. What worked so fluently for these pictures is that they focused almost entirely on the characters and stories first that you don’t know and are meeting for the first time, and let the rest peek in from time to time. During the most opportune times, these films provide us with the ensuing crumbling backdrop in details that we are so enriched in from already knowing about them during the last sixteen years, and increases the dramatic pull as to how it plays into that original telling. Along comes A film like ‘9/11’ and the desperation for compelling drama is what is needed most to generate any kind of intrigue to this bare bones script and the audiences who see it. Considering I found out about this film only two days before I saw it, should tell you everything that you need to know about the faith that these five (Yes five) production companies had in it. It isn’t the worst movie that I have seen this year, just possibly the most pointless because of its increasing nosedives of missed opportunities to present what we already know from an original angle.

The movie begins by introducing us to these five strangers, most of whom have no affiliation with one another, and all of whom simply do not have A single piece of credible exposition beyond these flimsy outlines that do nothing to jar our investment into them. Depth doesn’t even come into focus with these characters. These are basically shadow puppets commentating on the life-changing event around them, and what they have to say is frankly exhausting. Harris’s character is A racist, that’s it. Sheen is rich and involved in A divorce hearing with Gershon, that’s it. Guzman is A janitor, that’s it. Fonda is A prostitute I guess?? And that’s it. The screenplay doesn’t invest enough of its interest into these characters, so they never come across as anything other than expendable, feeling like A biding of time between inevitable disaster movie victims that have overstayed their welcome. A film like this increases its value when the peril that the characters come across impacts us significantly because we wish to see more of their stories continue. With ‘9/11’, I couldn’t care less, and you can tell about halfway into the movie how desperation sets in on Guigui’s screenplay, and his desire to remind us of the events that we already know pushes through boundaries of tasteful exploitative.

For my money, this film makes two major mistakes with its pacing; it rushes to get to the first attack on the Twin Towers, and it approaches the sequence of events in real time. On the former, I would’ve preferred the entirety of the first act focus more on the importance of the characters, as well as the environmental tones around the campus that day. It is seriously only ten minutes into the film when our characters become trapped, so film’s attention span feels to be limited to the inevitable climax. The attack is what everything that follows revolves around, so why not build up more of the drama in tension to that devastation? We know what’s coming, but our characters don’t, so why not take your time to get into the elevator? By focusing on the after, we miss the value in the before, and because the majority is post-impact, the film is far too routine and limited in its tight setting to ever spread its creative wings as anything beyond A secluded disaster film.

Production value certainly isn’t A perk for this film in the majority sense, but there is one aspect that brought A pleasant surprise to the rest of the disappointment; shot composition. Because so much of the elevator scenes are shot in tight spaces, the close ups in each conversational piece accurately depicts the kind of claustrophobia that comes with being stuck in the same place with four other bodies taking up their own share of the mass volume. It’s difficult to ignore that this film has an overall cheap look in design, but the pressing angles make up for A lot of the laughably bad effects in C.G design smoke, shaky camera touches to replicate action sequences,  and A painful lighting filter that is sometimes far too overbearing to present A film with that rich texture that we’ve come to know by the 21st century. If it wasn’t for some of the valuable camera work and plotting, this film would serve as nothing more visually than A Syfy movie of the week.

Dean E. Fronk and Donald Pemrick also make their presence felt, conjuring up A cast of past due celebrities for this film that consistently do not meet the bill. Once you’ve seen what Charlie Sheen has done in his real life shambles, it’s difficult to ever look at him the same way as A serious actor again. ‘9/11’ wants us to view Sheen as A protagonist who values life and love as two important aspects to his happiness, and it couldn’t feel more phony because of this casting. Sheen for the most part sleeps through his performance as Jeffrey Cage, juggling funny facial reactions with uninspiring line reads that makes this feel like A cash grab for the main star. Guzman is good, but the problem is he’s playing Luis Guzman, the same actor who approaches each role the same way in every movie. The worst without A doubt is Fonda though, as the RUSSIAN Tina. The reason I capitalized that one word in the last sentence is because I can’t understand where the plot got that she was Russian anywhere in her performance. The film doesn’t mention her being Russian, and there’s definitely no accent at any point in her depiction. Her real life name is Olga, and she can’t play A Russian? We’ve got some real problems here.

THE VERDICT – Overcooked by A helping of exploitative material and lackluster exposition, ‘9/11’ is yet another reason why this painfully tragic day will continue to haunt for decades to come. No one will ever forget the sacrifices laid by the men and women of New York during this devastatingly trying time, but Guigui’s watered down drama is better left in the closet of obscurity from this point forward for its lack of resiliency in presenting A fresh perspective to play into its crushing opposition. The assembly of the cast of opposites would make for A better story than what unfolds in this soggy “Tribute” that wastes away.

4/10

Logan Lucky

The down-and-out luck of two loser brothers hinge on the theft of millions that will earn them the tag ‘Logan Lucky’. Trying to reverse a family curse, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who is recently unemployed, and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), who is forever with one arm, set out to execute an elaborate robbery during the legendary Coca-Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do so, they will need the help of a crime mastermind Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) who himself is behind bars. The brothers ban together to construct a plan to get Joe out of the hole, as well as construct the step-by-step procedure in ripping off the Nascar circuit without getting caught or even losing their lives. ‘Logan Lucky’ is the comeback movie from critically acclaimed retired director Steven Soderbergh, and is rated PG-13 for adult language and some crude comments.

Thank the movie cinema lord above that Steven Soderbergh is back behind the camera where he belongs. Following an impressive career with box office hits like ‘Traffic’, ‘Contagion’, and of course the ‘Oceans’ trilogy, Steven opted to take a break from the silver screen to front success in the television market, and while I wish him all of the luck in any kind of media that he attempts, it is clear that the man has not lost his touch with visual storytelling that fronts arguably the best narrative in a Soderbergh film that I have ever seen. ‘Logan Lucky’ is definitely not without its problems. At nearly two hours long, the film does start to overstay its welcome with a third act that presents some unnecessary tension and dramatic pull during a time when it feels like the movie should be wrapping up. But on the overall spectrum, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a fun time with the wacky hijinks surrounding this historically unlucky family, and their quest to restore their good name amongst a town that has practically written them off a long time ago. To that degree, Steven too feels like the right man for the job, and his latest is proof that this critically heralded director still has some strong days ahead, even if he is venturing back to familiar territory.

With four heist movies now under his belt, it’s difficult not to credit Soderbergh with being the best heist movie director of all time, if such an award truly exists. For ‘Logan Lucky’, I will credit him as a director and writer because we all know Steven plays with pseudonyms in his cast when he chooses to do things incognito. With helming this script, he manages to add some original flares in narration to keep it fresh along the way, pointing to the belief that he has in his audience to be patient with this developing plot and characters. There are aspects to the story that immediately will feel like throwaway dialogue or one-off scenes to pad time, but what I found astonishing was that each and every little piece connects to a bigger picture, and once you start to understand how the grinds turn in this giant machine, you start to truly appreciate what the movie is trying to communicate in if you’re still paying attention. Like most heist films, it does take a degree or two of sustaining disbelief, being that some of these methods to get the cash rely on faith at best, so it’s in those aspects of the film that I feel people will either be on board or not when it finishes their overall dissection on the picture.

The film is very funny and responsible with its dialogue and depiction of Southern U.S.A without feeling too truly overbearing on stereotypes or cultural perception to an insulting degree. I feel like Soderbergh understands these small towns and the conversations alike, so much so that he conveys between these colorfully animated characters that he orchestrates with a light-hearted element of focus on family and the importance that it plays into every decision.. I compare it a lot to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, in that so much of their disconnect from the rest of the world isn’t seen so much as something that is lacking, but rather an educational spin on atmosphere that could help everyone outside of the bubble understand their knowledge of the way the world spins tri-fold. Steven’s award winning cinematography behind the lens is also important in said atmosphere, mainly because his exceptional work in editing and pasting keeps the air fresh with movement to feed into these vulnerable angles. Some scenes will have you wondering why they were depicted in such a manner, mainly the crotch shot of Daniel Craig doing push-ups, but it’s to constantly remind audiences that this is a comedy first, and it is one that goes hand-in-hand with juggling such extreme consequences that come with laying it all on the line for one wealthy score.

If there was a weakness to the film for me, it was as I mentioned earlier the spotty third act that feels like it prolongs the dramatic pull long after we as an audience have crossed that bridge, as well as a twist during the third act that frankly doesn’t make sense. A certain A-lister is introduced to the film with only twenty minutes left of it, and it all felt like slightly unnecessary tension that honestly goes nowhere with the film’s ending. Just before the credits roll, it’s kind of left in a hinting way that this story is far from finished, and that feels like a cop-out with how cleverly decisive everything was wrapped up in the closing moments from seeing the whole plan play out in real time. It sticks out more evidently because the first two acts of this movie are so crisp and careful in its planning, choosing to focus more on the build-up to the big day, rather than the heist itself, and it’s incredibly smart in this direction. Once we care about the characters and what is going into every measure of this plan, the impact of it all will connect like falling dominos one clap at a time.

This especially well-rounded cast also does a marvelous and committed job to their characters, sticking to details in personal traits that held up astoundingly through two hours. We can all silence the doubt that Channing Tatum cannot act anymore because this kid can lead a film with such heart and empathy that it makes you almost forget you are watching one of the best looking men in Hollywood, and instead seeing a small town hick with a bad knee spitting tar. Tatum’s accent is consistent throughout the film, and I feel that he has always flourished with wacky comedies like this and anything from the Coen Brothers. Adam Driver for me was the true whirlwind of this picture however. We’ve gotten to the point where Driver is so much more than just delightful with his dry delivery, he’s also gravitating an emotional pull under the surface that channels a side to humanity that very few are able to pull off in 21st century cinema, and I credit him for being so much of the movie’s pulse when sometimes the moral fiber is wearing thin. The reason for a lot of that is Daniel Craig and his unforgettable turn as explosives expert Joe Bang. With a name like that, you know you’re destined for a layered wild card of a character, and Craig certainly doesn’t disappoint, exchanging his English accent and Bond tuxedo for a Southern drawl and bleached blonde hair that truly brings out the hick in him. Craig is possibly the last guy I would expect for a role like this, so it makes it all the more mesmerizing when you see a suave actor like him commit and have fun to a role that couldn’t be any more polar opposite of his demeanor. A true hoot.

THE VERDICT – ‘Logan Lucky’ races to the finish line ahead of most of the pack in the overcrowded heist genre, and does so with one of its master drivers at the helm. Soderbergh’s much anticipated return to the silver screen is a fun thrill ride that does skid at the end of the journey, but the entertainment factor of a big list cast, as well as a carefully mapped out script, gives this one enough traction to pace itself through the slick turns of dramatic digestion that sometimes oversells itself. With a successful comeback, perhaps we are the lucky ones.

7/10

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Batman and Harley Quinn

The Dark Knight of Gotham returns to the animated silver screen, joining forces with one of his greatest nemesis, in ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’. The city of Gotham comes under grave danger yet again, this time under a poisonous spell from Pamela Isley (Paget Brewster), better known to her enemies as ‘Poison Ivy’, that transforms citizens into plants. Faced with a dire urgency to save the day and find out quick about their powerful foe, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) seek help in the most unlikely of sources; the sinisterly dangerous Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch). The trio collide on more than a few occasions, but learn quickly that they must achieve the common goal of taking down the Poison if they are to return to simpler times. ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ is rated PG-13 for scenes of action and peril, and is directed by Sam Liu, the very same man responsible for some classic animated hits from Marvel and D.C.

It’s become a bit of a tradition to get a new Batman animated feature every year now, with Fathom Events, and ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ continues that tradition with arguably the most clashing of ideals team-up that comes to mind. I was a bit disappointed with last year’s ‘The Killing Joke’, but If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve come to appreciate that film a bit more. That’s not to say that this newest chapter is anything terrible, it just feels so contradictive to what we have come to expect from the legendary D.C Animated Films productions that seem to get things correct when the live action movies do not. This film truly felt like one of those experiences where I myself had a lot of fun with what was transpiring on-screen, it just came at a steep price for those characters and concepts that I grew up, and how some less than stellar liberties were taken with their source materials. There’s some nice Easter Eggs in dialogue with past editions of Batman comics like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, or even the original live action television show, complete with BAM!!! and KAPOWS!!! hitting the screen. But this (like other straight to video releases from D.C) feels like a chapter in itself, and that will undoubtedly divide audiences looking for more of a callback from the 90’s animated series that might just be the single greatest Batman offering that has ever graced a screen.

At least the animation is still carefully detailed, depicting the Gotham skyline with that same crimson red filtering above that reflects that of the blood spilled in these corrupt streets. This is the one aspect where I feel like fans of all Batman walks will agree that D.C continues to amaze. During an age when other studios have moved onto 3D outlines for their presentations, this company remains faithful to the style and traditions that brought it to the dance, echoing a rich vibrancy in color coordination, while never overdoing it into making Gotham somewhere that it isn’t. This definitely feels like a callback to my childhood days of soaking in the colorful personalities and costume designs within this world, but there’s enough experimentation to commend it for never playing things moot. Some of the fire and smoke illustrations are really attention-grabbing, and continue to move even when it feels like a character is in pause because of the next stenciling in page flips. The finale too, sets the stage appropriately once again for the central antagonist, immersing us into an ever-changing swamp that changes the more the situation does.

One thing that I commend these films for is that even though their visual stylings and plots can be considered for younger audiences, the material is anything but. This film has no problems with earning its coveted PG-13 rating, as there is no shortage of adult language exchanges, mature content in both the violent and sexual nature, and reliance upon comedic stick that does overstay its welcome quite often. I understand that this story relies around the Quinn character, but I feel that the campy vibes that radiate from this film are ones that do a disservice instead of an enhancement in creativity. I did laugh a few times, but there are plenty of examples of material that drowns on for far too long, feeling like a comfortable padding for the barely 75 minute presentation that we got. A fine example is a scene that takes place in a gay bar, complete with Harley musical performance and Batman pick-up lines. Awkward? a bit, but it pales in comparison to yet another unwanted sex scene between two characters that is every bit as unnecessary as it is cringe-worthy. Hinting is fine, but when the film stops to subject us through these sequences, I can’t help but feel bad for the youth in the audience who were as embarrassed as I was when I saw my first sex scene at 9 years old in ‘Heavy Metal’.

The script too has its problems, mostly because once again there’s an uneven distribution of plot progression that hinders our antagonists. Based on the title, it’s obvious where the film is focused on, but without that compelling antagonist plot to combat them, their journey of unlikely teammates doesn’t gel the way it rightfully should. I did enjoy seeing the daily life of Harley in her environment, as I feel it offered us a look at the human side of Quinn that we rarely get to see, especially in the day and age of the ‘Suicide Squad’ further diminishing her character origins. One problem for me that picks up in this film where ‘The Killing Joke’ left off was the notable absence of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, or even Bruce Wayne from the fold. On the latter, I feel like it’s important to offer audiences an equal dose of Wayne versus Batman, and doing so only limits the true capabilities that a force like Conroy can convey. More on that later. A scene or two with these characters could certainly do wonders in keeping up the pacing, which does an alright enough job through the minimal runtime, but something great always beats something good. The ending left me slightly disappointed, mainly because one of the two antagonists is defeated in the most eye-rolling of ways, and the other we don’t get much of visually. The film just kind of ends with more of a hint than an actual result, and if this were a live action movie, I would be wondering if the production ran out of cash for a cheap exit like this one. Even the emergence of a D.C favorite hero felt completely unnecessary, especially when poked for fun by Harley herself after his brief cameo. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the greatest taste exiting this thing, and that is unfortunate because it feels like some solid performances were virtually wasted.

Upon them, Kevin Conroy is once again putting on a clinic as the defining Batman for all time. Conroy has been playing the caped crusader for over two decades at least, but he never feels redundant in his portrayals. Here, Batman is every bit as cryptic as he’s been, while playing into the intelligence that renders him a step above his competition. Kevin’s brooding release is everything that we have come to define for this character that was alive long before Conroy walked the Earth. Loren Lester adds up to one truly charismatic Nightwing. Not only was it nice to see this seldom used character depicted on screen, but Lester vocalizes him with the young adult side of the spectrum, falling for good looking girls, as well as fart jokes that he at least committedly plays into. The only performance I wasn’t in love with was Rauch as Quinn. The reason I say this is because she only truly channels one side of Harley, the jester, and leaves the menace in the closet for another actress to pull out. As the comedian Quinn, Rauch is well timed and articulately captures the Bensonhurst accent that is essential to the character. But I never felt the truly deranged side of her performance, and that missing link feels like only a half performance for such a complex antihero.

THE VERDICT – The newest Batman animated adaptation has wings, but quickly gets winded with a thin script, as well as an over-dependency of humorous material that frequently lets the air out of the mystic sails. Conroy and Lester make a solid team, and the animation is as good as it’s ever been. But the ambiguous ending leaves much more to be desired from the ambitious set-up that never quite quenches the thirst of the audience it narrates to. Even still, the nostalgic glee of the animated setting is worth the cost of a DVD evening in with your own Harley or Batman.

6/10

Detroit

One of America’s darkest and most troubling nights is recalled in this part-fact, part-theory depiction of the racist fueled events that terrorized one of the biggest cities in the country. In ‘Detroit’, critically acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow returns to her spot behind the camera, helming a drama recalling the true story of one of the most terrifying moments during the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967. Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel. 50 years after the events of July 25th, 1967, the question remains: what happened at the motel? and who is to blame? ‘Detroit’ stars John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, and Will Poulter, and is rated R for strong violence and pervasive adult language.

Kathryn Bigelow has always been a master of circumstance within a particular environment for her films, crafting her war films like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, where the talented director has set a precedent for the way settings and atmospheres are to be established for the importance of their stories. For all of its merits on this subject, ‘Detroit’ might be the movie that elevates her already impressive resume to the kind of levels in diversity that prove she can tell a heart-racing story on any continent, during any time in history. ‘Detroit’ is the kind of film where you leave angry, but certainly not because you didn’t enjoy the film. Your displeasure is contributed mostly to the idea that even fifty years later, the war for equality for minorities is still being fought, reminding you just how little has actually progressed when you think about how these same kind of stories are in the news even today. Bigelow transports us back to a time-and-place within this city when racial tensions were already boiling over, but the pride of the patrons within this city wouldn’t let their injustices go unnoticed. It’s a big bang theory that evolves into suffocating tensions by way of the smallest acts being enough to reach a breaking point, and what is unknown about the facts, might be the scariest aspect to the event.

From a narrative perspective, the film’s 138 minute runtime are divided into three different ways; before, during, and after the tragic events at the Algiers Motel. This is a refreshing take because most historical biopics will usually only cover two out of the three, leaving some unanswered questions or motives for the audience to speculate on. Bigelow feels much more responsible in this method because she finds all three angles to be equally as important when contributing to the heart of this story. Yes, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it is a notable investment on the audience, but it is this length of time that is needed to articulately depict a bad situation gone worse over the course of three nights. With that said, there are some small scenes that could’ve used an edit, but I was never taken out of the story completely, just curious to move on to the next confrontation for position between these two sides. As for those sides, the film is also responsible enough to not lash out or overly support either side to the point where the film becomes propaganda. The police force of Detroit are represented in a way that shows (like any other job) there are good and bad eggs that contribute to the cause, and that judging them as a whole (like minorities) is simply not the right kind of message.

What surprised me about the performances is that nobody stands out on a pedestal more than anyone else. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have a worthy cast, quite the opposite. It means that this feels like an ensemble piece instead, with the city of Detroit being the lone character in the film that is the one constant. Each human character like John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Anthony Mackie to name a few, come in and out of the story in the same manner that stage actors do, and that concept does result to sort of coming across as a stage play that is taking place at this troubled motel. Poulter is probably my favorite performance of the film if I am singling out anyone, and that makes me sick to my stomach to even compliment him for the malicious job he does here. As we know, every good story needs a worthy villain to increase your interest in the film, and Will is definitely the brains and the execution of these dirty police officers who often act with their emotions before they think with their minds. Boyega too is solid enough, but I was slightly disappointed with how little of a presence that he has during the second act. I thought this would be the film for him to carry, but his character just kind of blends into the fold of this bigger ensemble that each carries their own respective load.

Another aspect that shouldn’t be ignored is the beautifully layered cinematography by Barry Ackroyd that single handedly makes the immersive experience that much easier in taking in 1967 Detroit. The film’s overall look has a glossy documentarian kind of style to it, making us feel like we are watching historical footage that we shouldn’t be watching. The inclusion of stock footage shots in between each establishing or transitional scene makes the accuracy that much more appealing, and one that proves this production has definitely done its homework. As for Bigelow, she also commands such a presence behind the camera that includes us personally on each and every character perspective that the film takes us through. The shots are so close and invasive that there were those brief moments of tension within me that made me feel uncomfortable to even be in the same room as these disgusting acts that are happening. That aspect alone is a very difficult one to channel, especially to adult moviegoers, but it’s Bigelow’s ambition for setting and set pieces that spring forth the believability in every movie she helms.

THE VERDICT – ‘Detroit’ is without question the most important film that you will see in 2017. It’s a somberly poignant reminder of the kind of grizzly details from our past that will continue to haunt us until we as a society change for the better. This makes three films in a row that Bigelow has taken a true story and ran with it through artistically decadent and provocatively rich waters that grip onto the pulse of the American subconscious. By putting us right in the heart of the action, Kathryn forces us to take everything in without looking away, an eye-opening concept necessary for the forgetful. This was nearly two-and-a-half hours that shook in ways that horror films don’t do anymore.

9/10