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

Baby Driver

The assistance of a driver simply known as ‘Baby’ is the best case scenario for the criminal underworld, looking for the fastest route out. In “Baby Driver”, the newest from critically acclaimed writer/director Edgar Wright, A young and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the personal beat of his preferred soundtrack, to be the best in the world of crime, as music heightens his focus and reflexes to extreme levels. A car accident as a child killed both his parents, and left him with permanent tinnitus, which he blocks out using music. He is preferred as a driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind organizer of bank robberies and other high-earning heists. During the biggest mission of Baby’s career, he finds himself and his loving girlfriend Debora (Lily James) in grave danger at the hands of some rough customers who want him dead when Baby decides to flee town. “Baby Driver” is rated R for adult language and violence throughout.

Edgar Wright, take a bow. After nearly twenty years of directing both feature length films and brilliant cinematic shorts, the master of satirical modern comedy dons his absolute best film to date, in the adrenaline powder-keg known as “Baby Driver”. As far as cinematic experiences go, this is easily the most fun thus far that I have had in a movie in 2017, and is only really matched or topped in my six year critic career by that of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Wright is the kind of director who always seems to pull one over on his audiences, advertising and marketing a movie one way and then completely peeling it back to show you the never-ending multitude of layers that his stories boost for themselves. To define “Baby Driver” as just a satirical comedy on 70’s speed flicks, or smash-em, crash-em big budget carnage films of modern day, is doing this movie the greatest disservice that I could possibly muster up. It’s a play on a magnitude of genres, never settling for constant direction, and this gives the movie a kind of playground where all of these tonal shifts can meet and play as one, an aspect nearly impossible without suffering compromising damage to the film’s integrity. But it serves as a testament to Wright for not only being a name that makes us perk up when we hear he’s got a new film coming out, but also one that proves his versatility is only getting started.

Even after seeing trailer after trailer for this film, it still manages to have a strong ambiguity quality about its plot that makes it feel like nothing has been spoiled. In the first act of the movie, Wright kind of just introduces all of the essential chess pieces on the board and has them play up to their moral fiber safely, and for a second you feel like you are typically getting the story you were promised. In Baby, we meet a young man who feels stuck in a job that he knows is wrong, but he keeps doing it to pay off a debt to a crime lord boss who took a chance on him. This is probably the lone critique of the movie that you will hear from me, because unfortunately we never really hear much else about this expositional past between Elgort and Spacey’s characters that maximizes the importance of this crossroads that the title character is on. Thankfully, the second half of the movie did more than enough to make me forget about such miniscule negatives. It’s in the second act when you start to understand the evolution of this story and how little you truly know about where it’s headed. With some surprising brutality twists along the way, this one constantly kept my eyes glued to the screen, pacing itself out accordingly across 108 minutes that felt about half of that. The ending itself might sour some audiences, but I found it to be responsible with the dark and twisted alleys that the film’s third act took us down. In Edgar Wright’s world, it’s understood that there are consequences for every action, unlike other crime films that make the existence of cops feel like a joke.

What Wright does with a pen and a pad is impressive, but I would say takes a silver medal to that of his mesmerizing scope behind the camera. This movie doesn’t just play safely to the genre’s standards, it completely re-defines them in how each and every little shot maximizes the potential of each sequence even further. The editing here is textbook, garnering a quality about it that illustrates and combines the importance of quick-cut jabs to reflect the modern age, and a forceful close-up occasionally to reflect that of 70’s chase flicks like “Duel”. This gives the action sequences a monitor for us to tell that it’s fully beating and increasing in pumps with each passing dodge. On top of this, there are some impressive long take shots during character confrontations that proved Wright has a lot of faith in his star-studded cast. Because our view is with the camera’s, we often get to immerse ourselves in each ever-passing environment that has engulfed these unpredictable situations. A credit to this camera work is that we never once see one robbery in the movie, but we feel like we’re with these characters through every bullet fired. The sound mixing is also quite impressive for the kind of tricks that it plays on our own ears, making us feel Baby’s situation front-and-center. Music will occasionally drop out in volume if a shot is taking place outside of the car, and this is respectable because it would otherwise feel fake if we hear the same kind of volume outside that the characters do inside of the car. Edgar also pays attention to Baby’s peculiarity because we get several examples of the muddled “Hum-in-the-drum” that has left him somewhat impared, and it’s in that stance where we feel more personal with a protagonist than other films can get. We’re hearing what he hears, so when the music hits, it sounds so much sweeter.

On the subject of that music, “Baby Driver” boosts a collection of mostly classic ballads and toe-tapper funk grooves that is sure to have you fighting back the urge to mouth the words to some of your favorite jams. The cleverness comes out of how each song shapes not only the tone, but the editing of each and every scene. If there’s a drum beat that is constant in the song Baby is jamming out to, it becomes evident that we too will be treated with the riddling of bullets richocheting to the bass of such a powerful audio level. There’s also some clever Easter eggs along the way that add lyrics to the song that is being listened to at any given moment. For instance, during the scene where Baby walks to the diner for his first meeting with Debora, we see scattered lyrics all around the sidewalk, windows, and street signs that he passes by. This gives the movie some quality re-watches to see just what in the backdrop you may have missed upon initial watches.

But a film this impactful would be nothing without a charismatic cast that guides it through these often entertaining waters, and thankfully this collection of heralded A-listers know a valuable chance when they see one. For anyone who thought Ansel Elgort’s most memorable role would be Augustus Waters in 2014’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you have no idea the oral crime you just committed. As Baby, Elgort unlocks a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, and because there’s so much personality to his character, it’s the spunk and likeability of a leading man that he lends his talents to marvelously. Elgort proves he can hang with the big names by giving us a character who constantly evolves into being a product of his environment, and when the tough get going, Baby is no infant. Two other members who I want to praise are Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm for completely stealing the show. Not that either of them need help in their careers, but their roles in this movie are the shot of adrenaline that both need from being typecast into the safe roles that have plagued their careers. Foxx dominates the first half of the movie as a menacing robber who always has his finger on the pulse of everyone involved. Because of such, he’s kind of a leader who always likes to stir the pot, and I found him to be authentic in his push for greed. Hamm too is a worthy opposition, but not until later in the movie do we see his truest of colors. In fact, the movie tells us all we need to know about Hamm’s character when he’s not living up to that immense shadow, but treat this as a warning because you will never look at Don Draper the same way again.

THE VERDICT – “Baby Driver’s” tank never runs close to being empty, taking us on a fast-paced thrill-ride that will have you holding onto your seat, afraid to take that breath of release for fear you might miss a delightful peak on auditory capabilities. There’s enough firepower and unpredictability in the mastery of Edgar Wright’s closely-guided touch to keep it from ever stalling, and the personalities from some of Hollywood’s finest make this one impossible not to want to strap in. Even if you just seek a movie to shut your brain off, “Baby Driver” will take the challenge one step further by astonishing you at every feat of the technical specter. Mister Wright can do no wrong.

9/10

All Eyez On Me

The legend of arguably the most influential rapper of all time gets the big screen treatment, in the musical biopic “All Eyez On Me”. The story, directed by Benny Boom, tells the true and untold story of prolific rapper, actor, poet and activist Tupac Shakur. The film follows Shakur (Demetrius Shipp Jr) from his early days in New York City hustling to make ends meet, to his evolution into being one of the world’s most recognized and influential voices alongside Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard), all before his untimely death at the age of 25 in 1996. Against all odds, Shakur’s raw talent, powerful lyrics and revolutionary mind-set propelled him into becoming a cultural icon whose legacy continues to grow more than twenty years after his passing. “All Eyez On Me” is rated R for adult language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Tupac Shakur lives on again in the latest rap music biopic that depicts for fans young and old to embrace the voice of the man who spoke for them. With previous efforts like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Notorious” leading the way for the genre, the idea of Shakur’s life on the big screen seems like a no-brainer, and while “All Eyez On Me” does play to an accurate depiction of the man’s brief time in the public eye, it fails to reach the uncovering satisfaction and production values of the previous two movies. Being a big Tupac fan myself, I was greatly looking forward to this film, but I can’t help but taste a distinct taste of disappointment coming out of the theater from people who were thirsty for a refreshing look at Tupac Shakur the man, not the superstar. For any great musical biopic, you must carry an equal importance of knowledge and entertainment to instill upon your audience. The film has no struggles with the latter, but greatly neglects the former by speeding through some trait defining moments in his life, in favor of fast-forward pacing that cuts short far too much.

On that distinct trait of the movie, the pacing early on feels like it’s in a hurry to get to a certain finishing point, rushing harshly through the earlier points of Tupac’s life living in the slums and searching for a positive male role model like so many other youths who support Tupac can relate to. It was almost surreal how the movie was already at the start of Tupac’s amateur rap career a half hour into the movie, and it begs the question why so many other biopics, both music and non, feel it is important to push through the backstory in exposition so you can see the entire growth of the central protagonist? For a movie that shocked me at being 135 minutes, there is simply no excuse as to why some of these moments and relationships couldn’t use further emphasis early on, as it would touch on more of the sentimental peaks that the film reaches for later on that simply isn’t there. One positive that I can say about this aspect is that the movie never drags, nor slugs along for too long. It constantly keeps getting back up on its feet, and signals one of the easiest two-plus hour sits that I have had in a long time. The third act of the movie is undoubtedly my favorite, as Tupac’s time with Death Row seems to be the established direction that the movie was focusing on for its majority. Everything during this time feels appropriately paced, and finally it doesn’t feel like our backs are up against the wall, despite a hearty run time that should offer no handicaps for storytelling measures.

As far as story goes, the film feels like it is catering more to the casual fans of Tupac, whom occasionally heard through the grapevine some chilling occurrences within the rapper’s past. I say this because so much of what makes up the material in this movie plays to the rhythms of a glorified television movie-of-the-week production, choosing to hit all of the high points in Tupac’s life, and leaving so little for what fills in the gaps along the way. My favorite parts were finally seeing behind the walls of Death Row Records, and the horrors that befell its clients every single day. I found the character of Shug Night to be the snake in the grass that waits for vulnerability to strike, a true villain in the purest definition. I mentioned the pacing earlier, and why it plays such an important role in this film in particular is because not every scene can be a shootout or a high-stakes fight. You need those scenes and sequences of exposition building along the way to fill in the gaps, but the trio of screenwriters that make up this script fire off one round after another at the audience, and after a while it feels muddled in repetition, even to the point of redundancy on this long-winded script that constantly keeps punching. No hardcore fan will take much new away from “All Eyez On Me”, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with opening the eyes to new fans, but I think it’s a huge misstep to ignore the droves of fans who will see this movie to get one step closer to their favorite rapper for one more night knowing that they may never get this chance again.

The editing too showcases possibly my least favorite aspect of editing films that I have mentioned a time or two in my reviews. I have never been a fan of fading to black until the end of the movie, but “All Eyez On Me” repeatedly chooses this route, damaging the cohesiveness of a script that jumps in many avid directions because a majority of it is being told in flashbacks. This often gives the film a bunch of scattered pieces feel, instead of one well-working machine, and I greatly wish that the production of this film would’ve instead ushered for quick cuts, as I feel it would do wonders with keeping up with the story chronologically. One example of such a mess in editing comes in Tupac meeting his eventual girlfriend in the third act. The scene in which they meet has them at odds, but after fading to black, they are immediately together and living together in the next scene. This is a fault on the writers as well, but the editing makes it feel like so much was left out from the night of their meeting that was ommitted from our presentation.

One immensely positive area for the film is in its Oscar-worthy casting direction that single-handedly blew me away for the attention to detail that often left me riveted. Casting director Winsome Sinclair has outdone any and everyone before her, ensembling a cast of mostly fresh faces that chillingly indulges in the likeness of their respective characters. To name just two, Shipp Jr is Tupac Shakur, make no mistakes about it. I don’t believe for a second that Demetrius Shipp Jr is his actual name because there were moments in the film when I actually thought footage from Tupac’s life had been taken to mold into this movie. While we could use a closer look at the person, Shipp Jr does more than enough in radiating the charisma of the rapper, juggling valuably the way he saw the world, as well as the naivity that came with being so young at the time of his death. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira steals the show however, as Tupac’s Mother Afeni. Early on in the film, Afeni struggles to be the positive adult influence in her children’s lives, and it’s clear the demons within her are often at war for a distilling anger that she feels towards this unfair world. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to watch Gurira steer this character to such a satisfying transformation; she’s essentially playing two halfs that make up this depthful complex African American woman, a theme that is often neglected in modern cinema.

THE VERDICT – “All Eyez On Me” steers a bit too conventionally to the rapper’s well known events in biography to ever open the eyes of anyone seeking a broader canvas of the revolutionary’s life behind the lens of a camera. There’s some truly compelling performances in the work of Shipp Jr, as well as Gurira that prove visually and emotionally that no one better could’ve been cast, but the muddled waters of shoddy editing, as well as a flawed script early on that pushes along without stopping, does very little to value the immense run time given to Boom’s production. The movie flounders this opportunity, but Keep Ya Head Up Tupac fans, the real story is in the lyrics of perhaps the most gifted MC to ever pick up a mic.

5/10

Rough Night

Scarlett Johansson, Kate Mckinnon, Zoe Kravits, Ilana Glazer, and Jillian Bell are five best friends whose one “Rough Night” puts them on the wrong side of the law. Five best friends from college reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami, involving drunken debauchery that is their one last thrill before Jess (Johansson) ties the knot. Their non-stop hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper during his musical routine, forcing the friends to think fast in order to avoid serious jail time. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most, and at the very least should inspire some hilarious bridesmaid speeches in the long run. “Rough Night” is co-written and directed by Lucia Aniello in his first big screen offering, and is rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug use and brief bloody images.

Raunch comedies are a dime a dozen these days. Typically you will take a comedy with a bunch of promising talents and combine it with sophomoric humor to test the boundaries of an R-rating. Now the ladies get their turn with “Rough Night”, a film that borders a little too closely to the 1997 Christian Slater film “Very Bad Things”, in that they are both movies that take place over the course of a bachelor party, and a stripper ends up dead. Beyond those identical plots, “Rough Night” paves its own path by taking a so-so script and elevating it even higher than it rightfully should be because of the performances and chemistry of its five leading ladies. The film doesn’t push the sadistic envelope quite as far as its male comparison did two decades ago, but its charms lie in its ability to never take itself too seriously, and focus from square one on the comedy first. This is the kind of film that is easy to just kind of turn your brain off and allow yourself to succumb to the entertaining nature of a R-rated, free from the watered down humor of kids cinema that can wear thin on the intelligence of its audience, and that is where I think this film will resonate best; in its female moviegoers who are seeking comparisons to their own wolfpack of friends for the many wild nights that they have shared. Because of that, this one is full proof for the ladies, and one that they will undoubtedly hand over their cash to see in droves.

What I appreciate about a film like “Rough Night” is that it doesn’t allow itself to be something that it isn’t. Comedies these days can sometimes think that two hours is the way to go, keeping in every bit of sequences that should’ve rightfully been put on the cutting room floor for DVD extras. The script here is written by Paul Downs, a guy who actually portrays the leading male in this movie. If you’re like me, you can smirk at the guts of a guy to not only cast himself as the boyfriend of Scarlett Johansson, but also to promote himself into more than forty minutes of this movie. There are things about Downs style of writing that I appreciate, and the things that are better left to a minimal. On the former, I certainly picked up on the delightful irony that the women portray the men in this film, with all of their drunken debauchery and careless antics, and the men played the women, in all of their subtle and cozy surroundings to embrace bottles of wine. It’s genius because it doesn’t necessarily have to be too overbearing to be obvious, and I think Downs should be commended for giving a voice to this feminist tribe. Where he could use some work however is in the scatterbrains plotting of subplots that can often overstay their welcome. Whenever the film isn’t focused on the females, there is a side story developing for Paul to track down his fiance because he is legitimately worried about her well-being and their relationship. This perspective slowed down the momentum each and every time I felt comfortable to kick back and enjoy myself, and will most likely be the brake pads for those who take this one in. Most of the material falls flat during this time and feels raunchy for the hell of it, without much creativity to push it further.

That is where we get to the comedy of the film, which surprisingly gave me several hearty chuckles, despite not being my go-to brand of humor. The film feels like it flows best when it is sticking to Downs method of mayhem that is unraveling before our very eyes, and less with scenes of long-winded improv that can sometimes drown on for far too long. For my money, the strongest material blossomed when the girls were each getting their respective characters across, and just indulged in a pizza and booze hangout with one another. Honestly, if you didn’t have a plot to go with this film, I would be fine, as these characters (Minus one who I will get to in a second) are just a riot to be around, and the camera serves as that lucky eavesdropping that has served as our invitation to this debauchery that proves the ladies can do it just as well. Because these are human characters, their sometimes stupid decisions can seem genuine, and there were many times when I couldn’t wait to see how a scene played out with what felt like me thinking several minutes ahead of where our girls hadn’t even thought about yet.

On the subject of characters, most are delightful to embrace in their melting pot of differences that make up this clan, leaving only one girl who I couldn’t stand, and that came in the form of Jillian Bell as best friend Alice. Bell is usually one of my favorite parts of any film because her dry stick can sometimes be the wise-cracking sarcastic reality that a blown out scene can rightfully need, Unfortunately for her, Alice is a wreck of a human being, and serves as that one friend who the others complain about when they aren’t around. Don’t act like you don’t know one. If this isn’t enough, Downs writes her into a kind of “Bridesmaids” subplot where her character reeks of jealousy towards Mckinnon’s engaging Pippa. Speaking of which, Kate gives probably her best big screen performance to date, not only carrying much of the comedic backbone to the film, but also in a solid actors performance that showcases her holding an Australian accent for the entirety of the film. The accent can sometimes crack, but as far as accomplishments for her career goes, acting is the next step to take, as she has already proven she can steal laughs from anyone in the audience, during a movie that she is leap years ahead of. Mckinnon doesn’t feel like she is being used as just a reactionary character here like she was in “Ghostbusters” or “Masterminds”, and Pippa often feels like the breath of fresh air for this band of women who have sometimes spent far too much time together.

THE VERDICT – “Rough Night” thankfully is just a clever title, as this R-rated raunch-com offers the perfect 95 minute getaway for the ladies seeking laughs, thrills, and most importantly escape in their female-led comedies. For me, the film works best when its focus is solely on the ladies and less with a male subplot that should’ve been trimmed in favor of building momentum. The script is kind of all over the place in terms of structure, but what settles it down is the off-handed dialogue that constantly made me do a second take, as well as the undeniable chemistry of its female cast who are not afraid to take chances. Nothing of breakthrough for the genre, but a good time to waste the night away.

6/10

Kidnap

Halle Berry races against the clock and the road with anything in her way, as the victim of a “Kidnap”. A single mother named Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) lives a perfect life with her young son Frankie (Sage Correa). One day, upon entering a local park, Karla sees her son suddenly being abducted out of the blue by a savage kidnapper. To save Frankie from abduction, Karla goes out on an unending and thrilling car chase behind Frankie’s abductors. Her steely resolve and determination to save her son at any cost takes her on a dangerous mission, endangering herself, as well as her son who is held captive in the antagonist’s car. With little help from the local law enforcement, Karla realizes that if she wants something done right, she’s going to have to put the pedal to the medal and do it herself. “Kidnap” is directed by Luis Prieto, and is rated R for some adult language, scenes of peril, and automobile devastation.

Prieto’s second directing effort has had a bit of problems en-route to making it to the silver screen. After the closing of Relativity Media, “Kidnap” was one of a few films that sat on the shelf well past its designated release date. Set for debut in December 2016, Prieto’s movie never reached the light of day for whatever reason, being pushed to the end of 2017 for its new possibility. After finally getting my hands on a copy of it, I can once again understand why such decisions get made by big budget studios. “Kidnap” is very much as conventional and underwhelming as it gets with the chase subgenre, mainly because there’s nothing extraordinary or memorable about the 90 minutes that you sit through to reach the predictable ending. If you’re fortunate enough to sit through the trailer, you will already have an idea in your head about the meandering direction and risk-less sequences that play out before our very eyes. Its biggest sin is that it isn’t terrible enough to be laughable, it’s forgettable enough to be wasteful, an idea that too many of these B-90’s films are settling for twenty years after their expiration dates.

Right off of the bat, we are treated to everything that we will come to understand with what follows in this careless picture. A slideshow of Frankie growing up and being narrated by Berry opens the film, but her vocals are clearly inserted in post production. How do I know this? Because her voice never sounds any different in tone from scene-to-scene, nor blurred any in volume when a video takes place outside or around loud circumstances. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much because this is among the only narration that we received for the entirety of the movie. The biggest problem with having a film take place entirely on the road is that there’s very little time to soak things in and allow the audience to follow along with our protagonist. Because of this, Berry is relegated to coming off as a psychopath by continuing to talk to herself and explain her plans in great detail. It’s evident that this is for the audience and not so much for her worry towards the ensuing developments, but because this movie has virtually no evolving plot aside from what you read above, we have to be satisfied with the crash-and-stash mentality that Prieto conjures up.

The story stays faithfully grounded, limiting what happens off of the road with character exposition or plot advancement. If there is one positive, I can safely say that “Kidnap” is everything that it advertises. There’s no manipulation when the movie phones in the emphasis on urgency that films like these need to steal your emotional investment. Despite this, the film’s pacing rarely ever lags or drags due to boredom, but the overly-anxious push to a speedy conclusion throttles to a dead end road full of neatly tucked away conclusions. Believe me when I say that there is nothing remotely fascinating about the ending of this movie, even skimping on the setup for a possible fight scene that could’ve showed the true rage of a Mother protecting her cub. The film’s final fifteen minutes just kind of come and go with very little adversity, and it proved to be the final stamp on a movie that didn’t care enough to offer a satisfying enough poetic justice for those who commit the most unlawful of crimes.

As far as the actual action goes, the stuff on the road is satisfying enough, very rarely slowing down to give us the chance to breathe. The problem comes in the logic of the circumstances that our hero, as well as our villain makes along the way. If one thing was clear to me early on, it was that this film certainly isn’t raising any geniuses, and while there is something to be said about thinking under the pressure of the moment, there’s a louder voice speaking to the depths of just how easy it would be for Karla to defeat her faceless nemesis in minutes, or how said nemesis keeps managing to run into her despite getting several head-starts and immense advantages. Because this isn’t a cerebral chase film on the heels of 90’s thrillers like “Breakdown” or “Highwaymen”, it immediately takes away from how cunning that the mental chess game between these characters could’ve been.

Some more of the technical achievements that I pulled from the movie only added further to the already lackluster approach that handicaps Prieto’s abilities. Each chase sequence is shot in the same formulaic tone that it rarely offers it from different levels of perspective to appreciate what a crew can do with a camera. There were several scenes that embraced the style of shooting Berry’s ridiculously cheesy facial expressions, then cut to the front of the car, then zoom out. Rinse, wash, repeat. It’s only impressive by its generic nature. In addition to this, there was a scene early on when the chase starts that is so ugly in depiction that I find it hard to believe that Ray Charles couldn’t have shot it better. It reminded me eerily of how you will watch a trailer and watch the cliche of everything fading to black scene after scene. That’s fine for a trailer, but when that happens in the movie that you pay hard earned money for, you’ve got a real problem. Thankfully, they only do this the once, but its soul appearance gives off the impression of a different editor who left the job early on.

Thankfully, Halle is a competent actress when it comes to giving it her all, as her performance was one of very few notable positives that I pulled from the movie. Aside from the goofy facials that I expressed about earlier, Berry commands Karla as a mentally unfurling force of one who refuses to ever give up when it comes to the thing she loves most in this world. On that sense, Karla feels like a character that many women will easily get behind, and Berry’s conscious effort behind it seals the deal for a protagonist who grows in doubles by the end of the film. I’ve always thought she was a solid actress, just accepts the leads in movie scripts that are well below her potential in terms of material. Don’t believe me? See “Gothika”, “Catwoman”, and “The Call”, the latter of which is essentially the same movie as “Kidnap”. Berry definitely deserved better antagonists for the film, because if the movie doesn’t even find them interesting enough to focus on until the final act, why should we as an audience?

THE VERDICT – “Kidnap” catches a flat tire of modest ambition early on, and then spins out of control by the end of the film, with stretched logic and lackluster consequence. Berry’s performance proves that she can still bring a tasty center to a meaty delivery, but unfortunately the miniscule scale here is what kept her abilities and the film alike, on the shelf for the past five months. This one steals our childlike dreams of ambition for hopes of an enjoyable hour-and-a-half, and never gives them back. Unlike Berry in the movie, I’m still in search of my time back.

4/10

Sleight

As a street magician by day and a guardian by night, the gifts of a young man are exposed to those with ill intentions, in WWE Films, Sleight. A young street magician named Bo (Jacob Latimore) is left to care for his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) after their parents untimely passing, and turns to illegal activities and a life of crime against his better conscience to keep a roof over their heads. Everything is going great until the living fast lifestyle catches up to him with dire ultimatums, and he gets the wake-up call of a lifetime. When he gets in too deep, his sister is kidnapped and he is forced to use his magic and brilliantly cunning mind to save her. The film also stars Dule Hill and Sasheer Zameda. Sleight is written and directed by J.D Dillard, and is rated R for language throughout, drug content and some violence.

For all of its bells and whistles, the concepts of magic are very strange when you see their impact on the audience that knows none of it can be real. Like this performing art, Sleight too is a movie that is perfectly serviceable enough, but seems to lack any real weight or emphasis once you see the curtain rise in the final act of the movie. We know the big finish because we’ve seen this trick before, but how it gets us to that final point is what can make or break this picture. Lets be honest, WWE Films hasn’t won over very many critics for their straight-to-DVD library that includes some real stinkers. But Sleight might be the right kind of facelift that a company struggling to find its own original voice can learn from. There’s enough of a take here that feeds off of our modern day obsessions with superhero flicks, and how so many of them have fallen into formulaic territory, offering little intellectual or gratifying to play to the kid-friendly tones of comic book trajectory. J.D Dillard hears those cries, and the influence that follows his film doesn’t feel like an accident even in the slightest.

From a narrative standpoint, Sleight prides itself on a cross-pollination of superhero structure and urban backdrop that adds a fine layer of dramatic circumstance for our characters. We learn very early about the tragedies that have befallen the brother and sister in this movie, so immediately we are emphatic to their situations that beg for a way out of it all. What I love about this approach is that Bo’s background felt very similar to that of Peter Parker, in that tragedy has amplified the need to grow up quicker, magnifying the importance of great responsibility and great gifts along the way. On a surface level, this is usually enough, but I found myself very intrigued with adding an urban backdrop full of questionable characters with dangerous motives to play into their melting pot. In 2014, many people were applauding Dope for its originality on minority engagements, but I think a film like Sleight approaches it with more honesty and earnestness to never pull one over on its audience. A lot of kids do fall into these dark holes, and rarely ever find their way out of it, and Bo is such the character that he lives the lifestyle while offering a shred of motivation because of his little sister that keeps him hungry to keep pushing through.

This brings me to my biggest problem in the movie, which ties the other problems together like a family tree; the pacing. Sleight feels like it is always rushing through and undercooking these scenes to misfire on puppeteering the dramatic pulse. This is particularly evident during the first act, in which we are presented with the most brief of introductions to our characters and their pasts. This kind of minimal exposition is severe in terms of how this writer treats the past with a lack of importance as the present, a decision that I felt was a big mistake in depicting the bond between brother and sister in a situation that is less-than desirable. So much takes place during the opening half hour, yet the remaining 55 minutes of the movie grinds to a screeching halt because of how little movement that the creativity has to breathe for a remainder of the movie. The third act continuously feels like we are stuck in the same position, leading to a confrontation that wasn’t given enough slow-cook to even out the playing field. Because of this, it’s easy to spot the finish line early on in this movie, and I was quite disappointed with how little chances that it actually took with unpredictability. As for Bo’s gift itself, there is of course an answer for it, like most magic tricks, and even when you are shown the secret, you still feel like you’re missing the bus of logic that has departed minutes before your arrival. Even if this angle were somehow possible, it would raise great questions on how the trick is performed with proximity.

Credit to the production team for never going overboard on the aesthetics for the film, as they are almost entirely rich in texture and captivating in essence. The cinematography and color schemes do radiate that sunny kind of yellow tint vibe behind each and every place that our characters frequent, but I was even more pleased with the handheld style in camera work that never overstepped its boundaries in front of the story that was playing out before our eyes. This is a shining example of patience in a particular style of movements, and it never made the movie feel limited or pressured into artistic shots for the hell of it. The one problem that I did have with the visual specter of the movie was that of the transition sequences fading to black repeatedly, feeling like an overused gimmick that cut into the symmetry of the film’s progression. When this happens in movies, it always feels to me like a collection of scenes instead of one free-flowing story, and Sleight unfortunately falls victim to this spell, one too many times.

There are also a few supporting performances that stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise hearty cast that give their everything to their respective roles. In particularly, the two henchmen of Dule Hill’s character are bumbling idiots who fumble each and every line of dialogue like the last slice of pizza. I promise you that this is NOT a trait of their characters, but rather that these two are incapable of making me take any threat seriously from their lack of subtle deliveries. Onto the good of the cast though. Lattimore is progressing smoothly as an adult actor who has made the transition smoothly from promising adolescent. As Bo, Jacob plays to the residing fire that is slowly burning within him, riveting everything and everyone around him. Zameda is also eye-opening, despite not being in the movie very much. Her character is kind of a Mother figure of sorts for Bo and Tina, and Sasheer’s presence feels immensely important in steering the young man in the right direction. I definitely could’ve used more interaction with her against Dule Hill. Speaking of which, Hill steals the show with a performance that erases any doubt of how versatile he can be. Dule is known for playing the quirky and nerdy in the earlier part of his career, but here is very much a dangerous and calculating business owner who doesn’t let anyone stand in his way. I was blown away at how effective Hill played this character, silencing the lack of believability that I thought would hinder the film. These trio of actors elevate flimsy material that doesn’t completely fill in the shadow outlines of their characters, making the most of vital opportunities that they would otherwise not get.

There’s enough going on with the prestige of the magic trick known as Sleight to ignore some of the grave problems that saw the movie’s creativity in half. Dillard’s film is not only a non-conventional spin on the low budget investments of a superhero subgenre flick, but its urban setting satisfies the craving in minorities to see a story that speaks to their situations in volumes. Sleight would be better suited to take its time around the edges of some of the initial engagements, but the clashing of two promising actors like Lattimore and Hill bending the typecasting of what they’ve been to this point is no illusion. There is indeed some magic spinning to this little film that could.

6/10

Free Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

The Fate of the Furious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

Going In Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Trainspotting 2

Twenty years after a heroin binge sent their lives in spirals, the gang of Edinburgh return to the silver screen, in ‘Trainspotting 2′. After betraying his friends and running off with (almost) all the money from a scam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is back in Edinburgh. It is his first time back since the events that split him, Spud (Ewen Bremmer) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) apart. He looks up Spud and Simon but their lives are hardly much better than when he last saw them. Spud, after getting his life together, has seen it all unravel, to the point that he is suicidal. Simon is running his father’s loss-making pub, in between bouts of blackmail. Meanwhile, the fourth person in their caper of 20 years’ ago, the psychotically intense Begbie (Robert Carlyle), is in jail. He has no intention of staying incarcerated and revenge is foremost on his mind. Mark quickly finds himself unraveling in the same circular direction that nearly ended his life two decades prior. ‘Trainspotting 2’ is directed by Danny Boyle, and is rated R for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence.

Danny Boyle became notorious after crafting the original ‘Trainspotting’ in 1996, a movie that unapologetically depicted the live fast lifestyles of drug use and the consequences that came with them. Over twenty years later, it’s interesting to see an artistic imitation of life, as just like the protagonist of Mark Renton, Boyle too returns to the spot of his youth to dabble once again in the waters that would inspire him to grow as one of boldest artistic expressionists of our time. ‘Trainspotting 2’ might not prosper to a complete success in the same vain that its predecessor did, but there’s much to indulge in the nostalgic slice of pie that Boyle conjures up for his audience. It was certainly interesting enough to catch up with these characters with so much time removed from one film to the other, and the continuing script by John Hodge gels perfectly to bridge the gap of rust, emulating a story that feels very in-sync with that of the first movie. A difficult thing to do once so much time has passed not only in real time, but also in screen time between character to character.

From Hodge and Boyle’s standpoint, this film packs several impactful messages surrounding the importance of friendship and how the memories that we make as youths shape us to be the people we grow up to be. In regards to this film, it’s clear that so much can happen after two decades, but we can’t change the moral integrity of the heart beating inside, and it’s in that thought process where so very little has changed over time for our four main characters. Where the first film centered around addictions and selfish indulgences, ‘Trainspotting 2’ focuses more on the beauty of life and living with eyes wide open for the very first time. Sure, there is drug use in this film as well, but these feel like characters who are thinking clearly for the first time, and it’s more than satisfying enough to see them prosper, despite the ghosts of Edinburgh past coming back to haunt them occasionally. The difference in age and lifestyles go far beyond that of what’s depicted in story, but also that in pacing of this film versus the 96 original. At nearly two hours, this film feels sauntering when compared to the upbeat pacing and flow of the first movie, channeling the aging process accordingly of the 40-something cast that now deal with maturity. I found this angle in storytelling to be beneficial, even if there is about twenty minutes or so of the movie that flounders in purpose, and would’ve wisely been better left on the cutting room floor.

With Boyle being a magician behind the lens, we are once again treated to a visual fiesta of experimental lighting, editing, and overall camera work that integrates soundly into the picture. The scene-to-scene transitions are beautifully decorated here, characterizing the landscapes not only in Amsterdam to Edinburgh, but also in the coincidences in repetition that Mark realizes from his own past. On the latter, the touches and insertions of child actors being edited into what’s happening on-screen tugs at the heartstrings of anyone watching, highlighting the innocence in every one of us who once had a dream of greatness when we were younger. This film embraces nostalgia with open arms, so it’s beneficial to the creativity and relaying of internal feelings to the audience to include these youthful images, a feature that only someone like Boyle could master, with such similar touches in films like ‘127 Hours’ and ’28 Days Later’.

The character involvement was kind of hit or miss for me, treading a delicate line of material that could only go so far for so much cast. The redeeming friendship of Renton and Sick Boy, as well as Begbie’s escape from prison is a focal point of face value for the movie, but aspects like Spud’s new lease on life, as well as Diane’s one or two throwaway scenes felt very shoe-horned in for the storytelling that was taken place with the trio of main protagonists in the movie. Their performances all consistently reach their designated marks, particularly in that of McGregor who once again balances on a tight rope of personal wants that hinder his growth for the needs in his life, but there are times in this movie where it felt like I was watching two different films that were smashed together, both of which fighting desperately to get out. What I mean by that is it feels like Diane’s scenes in particular should be amounting to more, but they just never happen. I felt no one-on-one confrontation between her and Mark is a dropping of the ball for the ways some of the questions were left unanswered from the previous events, leaving a noticeable gap for the supporting cast of both movies.

My biggest gripe with ‘Trainspotting 2’ is that it feels like a commercial for the first movie, without ever selling its own chapter of merit for fans who seek the continuance. There is certainly nothing wrong with reflecting on events that happen in a previous movie, but this film goes to the well far too much, signaling a flimsy offering of original material that ‘Trainspotting 2’ has for itself. It feels like every time that this movie might be heading in search of its own identity, only to be told once again how great the first movie is. These reflections certainly coincide with that of the past playing such a prominent role in this movie, but after the third or fourth time, you can almost set your watch by when it will happen again, expressing a layer of predictability that these films should never have.

‘Trainspotting 2’ is a welcome and appreciative sequel that could do little better about having a twenty year lay-off that would normally doom a sequel with this kind of waiting power. Boyle and Hodge reflect artistically the kind of harsh realities that our pasts play on who we are shaping ourselves to be, and that disillusionment of age that forces us to earn our wisdom. Boyle’s return to Edinburgh is a good film that could be great if it had more faith in its current story, but the dabble into the past ironically enough is the undoing of a movie that centers around it.

7/10

John Wick: Chapter 2

The streets and our animals are a lot safer with legendary hitman John Wick back on the scene, in John Wick: Chapter 2. After being forced out of retirement by a former associate plotting to seize control of a shadowy international assassins’ guild, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is Bound by a blood oath to help him. John travels to Rome where he squares off against some of the world’s deadliest killers on an ammunition-filled road of rampage. The film also stars Laurence Fishbourne, John Leguizamo, Ian Mcshane, and Common. It is directed by first chapter director Chad Stahelski, and is rated R for strong violence throughout, some adult language, and brief nudity involving sensuality.

Most of my lack of excitement for sequels in general to a hit original movie relies too heavily on their dependency on the first movie. These films usually become watered down parodies of the former, soiling the very fresh originality in concept and progression that a sequel should provide. Thankfully, John Wick: Chapter 2 seems to be a movie that makes its own rules by further progressing the story of this cryptic hitman and the society’s underbelly nightlife that thrives on eye-catching neon set pieces and bullet-piercing rounds that never seem to run out. This is very much a sequel that works because it stands on its own two original feet, and has little relation or reliance on conjuring up the same situations and structure to get it across to its blood-thirsty audience. The second film in this obvious trilogy more-than packs a brutal punch, feeling like a completely fresh offspring all together to the Wick franchise and just how much further it can grow from this point on. Many movies that prepare for the finale in a trilogy will sometimes neglect the presentation of the second film by playing it too safe before all of the chips go on the line. What Stahelski has managed to do is nearly guarantee gold hitting three times in the same spot because the progression of this script from start to finish has me possibly the most excited that I have ever been for the third part in an action movie saga.

The script in question picks up literally days after the events of the first movie, the only connecting link to the carnage candy that we have already been through. I didn’t have a problem with this brief scene of correlation as it perfectly renders the audience motionless with a pulse-setting sequence that is every bit as fast as it is cohesively choreographed. To open a movie with arguably the best sequence in the film is quite the risk that gives the movie a positive and a negative for where it headed with the opening act. The positive is of course enriching us with the kind of gore and brutality that we have come to expect by Reeves donning the suit and classic Mustang. The negative is that the film’s opening forty-five minutes of so slugs through a noticeably long time before the next action sequence. This wouldn’t be a problem if the opening fifteen minutes weren’t so riveting in the endurance of this artfully crafted demolition derby, leaving a long dry spot to anything that follows. We do get some solid exposition during this time, notably in the backstory of Wick’s deceased wife and her impact on the house and car that haunts John’s daily routines. To me, the lone negative is that this film takes slightly too long to set everything up, and subtly lacks the audience investment of the first movie with the passing of Wick’s dog. That’s not to say that I wasn’t riveted by what transpired on-screen, but if this movie lacks anything it’s in the lack of capability to give us a story that we care as much about as the animal vulnerability of its predecessor.

What I did found enlightening was that of the change of scenery from New York to Rome in this picture. My favorite aspect of the first movie was the depiction of this secret society of assassins that lives and breathes at the hands of lucrative contracts and shoot now think later reactions. The cinematography feels like it goes above and beyond here, radiating a sense of taboo surroundings for the audience to immerse themselves into. The script feels like it never stops building. Proof of this comes late in the second act when the game changes up for our central protagonist, as he finds himself on the opposing end of a limitless onslaught of contracted killers who want him dead. The fresh twist into a spy thriller really re-energized me before a finale that subtly pays homage to Bond set pieces of the 70’s. When the film closes, you will realize that the film not only provided everything that a sequel rightfully should, but also promoted a third chapter that will have you screaming at the concepts of all good things coming to those who wait.

The action here is heart-pounding, mainly because of a riveting sound mixing by sound editor Michael Head. It’s a pretty safe bet that an IMAX screening of this film will throttle your ears, but what surprised me was how much jumping that I was doing in a rundown theater with a lack of the best sound technology on the market. The crash scenes in the film felt very personal because the exceptional camera work is choosing to follow, instead of attach to the characters in each shot, and the unpredictability of something else coming just off screen feels like an inevitability of exciting offerings sure to rattle the audience that takes this movie in. The gunshots are as loud and honorable as they rightfully should be, forcing the audience to understand their grave impact each time a round is fired into the frame. One particular fight sequence in the movie between Reeves and Common is choreographed mesmerizingly, and the lack of musical accompany makes the audience feel and hear every devastating blow without diluting the reactions of their fast-moving motions. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road have I felt that sound has played such a visceral part in the dissection of an action movie, but Chapter 2 doesn’t disappoint in placing the audience in the way of the most dangerous atmosphere, while granting them immunity for watching this in the audible peaks of a confined theater.

The film isn’t free from some predictable action movie cliches however, even if these things weren’t a major proponent in my final grade. The first is of course the usual keys in the visor trick that seems to happen in every movie ever made, but never once in real life. How does this keep happening? A simple scene where Wick finds keys in an office can subdue my disbelief and earn some honor in the code of solid screenwriting. The second is in the lack of re-loading by Wick with a handgun that holds no more than twelve rounds. This is particularly evident during the Rome club-shooting sequence whose length in screen time only makes the lack of round exchanges that much more humorous by comparison. The third cliche was in the number of times that Wick eats it at the hands of an automobile. I’m not saying John isn’t tough, but to get up so fast from an overabundance of car interactions is highly unlikely. My final problem was that of a stomach wound that Wick suffers in the second act, only to have it forgotten about completely by the final confrontation. One could say that this wound could’ve been stitched up, but to that I call bullshit on how many times he took forceful hits and kicks to that particular area over the last half hour of the movie. One shot can easily rip stitches open, but several should at the very least have you gushing like a fountain.

The performances were solid, even if they don’t rely entirely on the acting of their respective cast. Reeves has proven that not only is Wick his comeback story, but that he was born to play such a tortured character. If the film does one thing well, it’s in keeping his sentences short and straight to the point. That’s not to say that Keanu can’t act, but more that this character who is described as “The Boogeyman” remaining as cryptic to the positivity of his menace. Reeves noticeable emptiness in the character of Wick is one that is heartbreaking, as well as relatable to the audience in knowing that this is a man with nothing left to lose each time he goes back into the game. Ian McShane was also attention-grabbing once again as the leader of this chilling hotel of contractors. The on-screen interactions between Ian and Keanu make for some of the best scenes of the movie, as their relationship signals a missing friend and family from Wick’s personal life. If McShane does just one thing well it’s in the ability to play both sides of the moral coin without coming off as cartoonish or practical in his delivery. Sadly John Leguizamo is only in two scenes in the movie, and I for one hope he has more of a commanding presence in the third chapter.

Overall, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a justifiably necessary sequel because it packs twice the brutal action and stunt choreography of the first movie. This sequel did lack the full power of immersing myself in the revenge plot of Wick, like the first film did effortlessly, but there’s plenty of other positives to commend Staheleski for that other sequels simply don’t commit to. Most importantly, the newest chapter keeps the pages rolling of not only the best action saga going today, but also one of the very best and most impactful of all time. With a gun, Wick is unstoppable. But with a rollercoaster of thrills and exceptionally shot carnage candy, his sequel is irresistible.

7/10

Collide

A youthful couple ‘Collide’ with a group of dangerous drug dealers that has them on a high-speed chase for survival. After a heist goes terribly wrong, Casey Stein (Nicholas Hoult) finds himself on the run from a ruthless gang headed by mob boss Hagen (Anthony Hopkins). Now Casey has precious cargo that belongs to Hagen, who will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Left with no choice, Casey calls his former employer and drug smuggler Geran (Ben Kingsley) to protect his long-time girlfriend Juliette (Felicity Jones) before Hagen gets his hands on her. Casey sets out on an adrenaline-fueled car chase on the German highways to save the love of his life before it’s too late for the both of them. Collide is directed by Eren Creevy, and is rated PG-13 for violence, frenetic action, some sexuality, adult language, and drug material.

There’s plenty that can be said about a movie that has been on the shelf since fall of 2015. Relativity Studios crash of that year left plenty of movies on hold until a studio could come along and finance the release of the finished product. In this case, Automatik Entertainment has come to the rescue, and there’s so many methods of thanks that I have to give to them for giving the audience this kind of offering. To be surprised by a movie this bad by February, isn’t a surprise at all, but rather solidification to the kind of lack of inhibitions that this month is famous for releasing. Collide is a mess of a picture that at times feels unfinished, and in general feels quite contradictory between two varying styles of attitude that feel so jarringly opposite that it often feels like two different movies that were merged together as a Frankenstein experiment. It’s the latest in the feel of post-2000 fast-paced action flicks that are churned out at a dime a dozen, and in general offers nothing fresh or memorable to cast it as anything different from the movies it spoofs that do it a hundred times better.

To grasp the extent of damage from this film, you must first understand that 2015 was a much different year than the 2017 that we now find ourselves in. The four person leading cast of this movie now feel FAR too good for a movie of this stature, mostly in that of Jones and Hoult, who have had a successful past two years with Oscar nominated films that have made stars out of both of them. As for Hopkins and Kingsley, this is nothing more than a paycheck film for two class actors who have each dived in Oscar enchanted waters. Kingsley offers another film-crushing role similar to that of his role as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. This time, he’s a Russian pimp gangster who has one of the worst accents that I have ever heard. At the very least, he’s having fun. Hopkins feels like he’s sleeping through the motions of a Bond villain, complete with hokey one-liners and cartoonish evil running through his veins. Jones feels virtually non-existent as the eye candy of the movie, who we are only reminded of during the rare occasion when the plot needs her. To view the poster, you would think that she is equally as important to this chase as Hoult’s character is, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nicholas is decent at carrying the load, but his character is so uninteresting and void of development that it’s hard to ever get fully invested in his Casey. Hoult and Jones never develop into a believable duo, and that’s because of a lack of chemistry from a script that keeps them apart for virtually the entire film. Collide does command a strong A-list cast, but none can break free from the shackles of a flawed script that cuts them short at every corner.

It’s evident early on that this film is going for a modern approach of a Romeo and Juliet story, even going as far as naming one of their characters after such. But this is clearly a script that doesn’t develop the relationship of Hoult and Jones, instead opting for sharp-cutting chase sequences that make up more than 80% of the 94 minute run time. Because of this, anything else that has to do with exposition or dialogue is sacrificed in an overabundance of misdirection. The latter of which was responsible a few times for cringe-worthy delivery that consistently kept me from taking the movie as seriously as the first act treats it. Such an example of this comes halfway through the movie at a gas station scene, when an attendant tells our antagonists “My name is Suri, and you better back down before you get blown away”. The antagonist responds “Apologies Suri. Do you speak English?”. This is only one of the many problems that would’ve been better left on the editing room floor. But the visual deserves its claim to fame as well, and there’s plenty to balance that of the dialogue that drops the ball repeatedly. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie that is a flashback scene of an event we missed. The problem comes in discovering that this is a false story that is nothing more than a joke between two characters. What a complete waste of time for something that could be used equally as effective as a one-line throwaway.

One thing that can be dissected fruitfully for the movie is some solid action sequences that competently shoot with precision sound mixing throttling the set pieces around them. There is that usual quick-cutting in editing, but the good news is that it’s never terrible enough to lack definition in the fast-paced situations that are constantly changing with one push of the pedal. This is a film that got my pulse running with some impactful carnage and high-speed octane exhaust that consistently went above the bar in the more than four sequences that adorn the picture. What the film benefits from is a distinct music video style of cinematography that feels like a tribute to early 21st century action flicks like The Transporter or Death Race. The techno music feels appropriate with the Eastern European landscapes that beautifully decorate our backdrops. What Creevy lacks in conventional storytelling, he more than makes up for in bone-crunching projection, and it’s clear that he has the capability to be an action presence for years to come.

The ending convolutes itself to stuffy levels because of the many twists that it tries to pack into a logically-challenged explanatory scene that totally feels every bit as unnecessary as it does tasteless to the closing memories that we have for this effort. Because this movie is predictable at nearly every turn, there is a desire to wrap this story and its conflict up as soon as possible, but this is one collision that would instead rather take the long road in third act structures to get there.

The collision in this film deals with lack of consequential story and hollow characters that always feel like an outline instead of actual people, and because of that, Collide speeds too fast on the highway to mediocrity. Some films are better left in the dust of obscurity, and Creevy’s music video spin on 2000’s action cinema slams on the brakes quite often of an otherwise tightly-paced offering.

4/10