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

Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

XXX: Return of Xander Cage

The return of XXX means one thing; looking good while saving the day is certainly no crime. In XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, the third installment in the series, Extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), thought to be long dead, comes out of self-imposed exile as recruited by the CIA to race villain Xiang (Donnie Yen) to recover a powerful weapon known as “Pandora’s Box” which can control military satellites which could cause catastrophic damage. Recruiting a group of thrill-seeking cohorts (a sharpshooter and a hacker), Xander finds himself caught up in a deadly conspiracy of corruption among world governments including insiders in his own country’s government. The movie is directed by D.J Caruso and is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language.

For anyone who was asking for a direct Vin Diesel sequel to the 2002 failure XXX, fifteen years later feels like the right time and place to remember what was so terribly tragic about this franchise to begin with. Return of Xander Cage arrives in the thick of January to compete with films like The Bye Bye Man and Monster Trucks for early favorite honors on the worst film of 2017. For a movie that prides itself on being extreme and going against the rules, a PG-13 rating should tell you everything that you need to know about how rebellious that this movie can get. If there is one positive, it is that creatively this movie doesn’t feel like a sequel of the same movie that took itself far too seriously, many moons ago. The movie is ridiculous and it’s incredibly self-aware of that fact, so there is great possibilities in sitting back and not treating this movie like the same James Bond films that it tries to spoof with a modern edge. In summarizing this movie, I disperse my experience using a formula that I call the three I’s to relate the true debauchery and waste of an opportunity that this movie was to produce at least a humorous sit to gravity and screenwriting.

The first I is for immaturity. To say that this script feels like it was written by an adolescent, is the understatement of the year. While fifteen years has been tacked onto the age of our shovanist protagonist, it seems that is mental stability seems to be going backwards with how he treats women and antagonists alike. Diesel has always been a solid action movie presence for me, but what doesn’t work about his roles as Xander Cage is that he lacks even a shred of vulnerability. If he never feels fear or conflict, how can we as an audience invest in his struggle? If this wasn’t enough, he sleeps with no fewer than ten women in the opening fifteen minutes of this movie. It’s called solid story building…..yeah right. Then there’s the dialogue, which made me cringe so hard that I nearly broke my pointless 3D glasses. One such example is when Diesel utters to a group of females “It’s time to get down to the thick of it”. Only a man child who is living out his unfulfilled fantasies of being a pimp would find this humorous. I can usually laugh through such muck, but this was so terribly underwritten that I found myself getting angrier by the minute.

The second I is for impatience. This is evident in the character building that feels like it’s quickly becoming a trend among Hollywood bombs like Suicide Squad and Yoga Hosers. Every time a new character is introduced, instead of carefully constructing their traits in personalities, the movie instead rushes everything along by halting the process so we can read a five second character file that does nothing to explain why they were chosen for the XXX mission. One such crew member is a DJ. This guy literally does nothing dangerous throughout the movie, nor does he play records during the final confrontation, so why even have him as a character? The subplots (If you can call them that) too struggle brutally, with the story moving so fast that if you miss even the slightest detail, you will wonder what happened. Characters change sides, conflict arcs never reach their potential, and plenty of missed opportunities at creating something valuable for the audience to take home is missed in careless wrecklessness. There is also a surprise cameo with about fifteen minutes left in the movie, that the last trailer spoiled for everybody. To say this is a surprise is stretching it a bit because if you never saw the direct-to-video sequel from 2005, and I’m guessing a majority of fans didn’t, this surprise will mean very little to you in terms of the XXX saga. If you do follow this correctly, then using this person for the final fifteen minutes is another strong reminder of how little patience or effectiveness that screenwriter F Scott Frazier has for this continuance.

The final I is for Implausibility, a staple of the XXX franchise. Look, I can get past how insanely ridiculous the thought of raising X-gamers to be Central Intelligence spies is, but what takes it to another level is when this movie so articulately debates the laws of physics without even a shred of backlash. An example of such feats comes in skateboarding off of the side of a moving bus, water-skiing with a motorbike, and my personal favorite; finding your running balance on a car that is moving fast at you. At this point in modern action movies, I guess we should just go with the fact that anything is possible. Perhaps for Vin Diesel’s next movie he can strap a rocket on a pool stick and ride it to the moon. I mentioned earlier how there is no vulnerability to this character, and that goes double for machines and automobiles, because there’s never a moment when Xander even sweats at something headed full speed at him. Also, the very concept of a Macbook that has the power to take down every satellite in space requires some suspension of disbelief. If you believe the world’s central powers are this easy to hack, then surely someone would’ve already done it by now. The film never explains how it can do such a thing, it just does. This black box pops up out of nowhere and magically has this capability. If it has existed and wasn’t manufactured by some computer genius recently, how come nobody else has tried to steal it? Because movie convenience, that’s why.

Not everything is a flaw in this movie however, as the film has some solid stunt work, as well as fight choreography that tastefully remind the viewer that this is an action-first movie. Donnie Yen is a strong addition to this cast, and his couple of violent dances rain down brutality hard on the audience that are thirsty for some semblance of what this movie once was in 2002. Xander’s stunt work also deserves kudos for the many different location settings that he explores with inducing anxiety on the audience. It’s clearly obvious that Diesel isn’t performing his own stunts here, most notably because the stunt man who is portraying him has a head that is far too light-skinned, as well as drops about forty pounds magically from one frame to another. However, the fast-paced cuts and shooting style to this movie at least present a capable enough presentation when the screenplay is aiming completely off of its mark.

Overall, the Return of Xander Cage is an unnecessary and at often times uninspiring sequel that plants its feet firmly on the January film docket that keeps jabbing after all of these years. If this were a comedy, it would succeed on the grounds that it is simply too ridiculous to take seriously. As it stands, the XXX franchise feels like it’s finally out of octane, a fact that is evident by how much time has passed since our last Xander pleasure. Lets hope even more time passes.

4/10

Live By Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Sleepless

A dirty Vegas cop gets burned by a former associate in the ransom deal of a lifetime. “Sleepless” stars Jamie Foxx as undercover Las Vegas police officer Vincent Downs, who is caught in a high stakes web of corrupt cops and the mob-controlled casino underground with his partner Derrick Griffin (T.I). When a heist goes wrong, a crew of homicidal gangsters kidnaps Downs’ and wife Gabby’s (Gabrielle Union) teenage son. In one sleepless night he will have to rescue his son, evade an internal affairs investigation led by the straight-shooting Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan) and bring the kidnappers to justice in a race against the clock. Sleepless is directed by Baran Bo Odar, and is rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout.

Sleepless tries to model itself after the 90’s deceptive crime thrillers like Wild Things and Basic, while trying to push a modern approach to the mob drama. The end result crafts a Frankenstein experiment that surprised even me, as I found it to be not entirely a terrible experience. To go even further, for the first hour of Odar’s film, I was having the time of my life, not taking the narrative too seriously enough to override what was transpiring on screen. This is a movie with very little exposition or character development to open up the movie, so I found myself resorting to great levels of patience in waiting for something groundbreaking to pay off, and while this isn’t a movie that I would confidently recommend, I can say that it is a bullet-riddled night in Sin City that never slows down or lets its foot off the pedal. That is until the final act of the movie where (like those 90s thrillers I mentioned earlier) the ending feels convoluted and cluttered with twists that lose their value because of their abundance. To say that I saw 95% of the twists coming, would be an understatement. They were easy to call, not only because of a trailer that reveals far too much, but because the actors playing these specific characters always play vilains in all of their other movie roles. A.K.A, the Gary Oldman rule of the 90s.

As far as locations go though, I don’t think there’s a better choice than the beautiful neon decals of Las Vegas itself. This is a movie who’s central theme is a city overrun with dirty cops, so what a wonderful choice it is to cast the backdrop as the same place where sin and betrayal are a commodity to money and power? It sounds cliche anymore to mention this, but Selfless is yet another movie where the city itself becomes a character in this story, complete with Odar offering no shortage of long-angle transitional shots of the beautiful landscapes on the strip. This style in presentation, as well as an ominous musical score composed by Michael Kamm. In only his third big screen composition, Kamm’s organ-heavy sounds gave me a striking similarity to Johann Johansson and all of his work in Denis Vilenueve films. In fact, Sleepless as a whole reminds me of a movie where Odar might have watched Sicario a time too many, as the similarities in production quality and cinematography are certainly there. I’m not saying Sleepless is anywhere near the quality of Sicario, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

The action and editing are best when they are well-reserved, and unfortunately this is another example of how the movie falls apart by the climatic finale. During the first hour of the movie, the characters feel very vulnerable to their actions and deceptions, and the attitude and aura in the air give it that crisp feeling of real life quality. By the ending though, we have been through parking lot chases that make it difficult for any adult to crawl, let alone walk out of, characters dodging death after massive car crashes, and one character going through the slowest blood wound that I have ever seen. How this person doesn’t bleed out a half hour in with the size of this wound is beyond me, but its kind of left forgotten like the other plot conveniences in the movie. As far as positives go, the editing is very quick-cut and paced accordingly, without ever feeling rushed or sloppy in the transition shots. The fight sequences triumph without needing any cheesy sound effects to get their pain across, and the makeup work is quite exceptional for a movie with a budget of 30 million dollars, most of which going to the detailed chase sequences.

I mentioned earlier that the film’s overindulgence of plot twists kept it from just getting over the passing grade for me, and it all felt unnecessary to the compelling story and attitude that the film already positively bestowed for itself. The final half hour of the movie feels like it finally bought into the same movies that it may or may not have been spoofing, and that settling for mediocrity is a shame because Sleepless has so much to say not only about primal motivations, but of dealings in the world itself. The very last shot of the movie at least sent me home with a positive, as I think it is genius to leave some matters in this story left wide open and not settling for the cookie-cutter finish that all films are handicapped to. It feels valuable to social commentary without ever feeling like sequel-bate, something that I have severe doubts about since I am concerned that this movie will even make back its budget.

Performances like Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan’s always lifted their flimsy characters to new heights, putting everything they have into their deliveries. Monaghan is the single best aspect of this movie. In Jennifer Bryant, we grasp a female ass-kicker who has clearly spent too much time in a profession with law deceivers. She has built a career on busting those who swore an oath, and her character never settles for anything less than going down swinging. This was a refreshing take for Monaghan, and I hope she can keep taking roles for action movies, instead of the crappy romantic films that have plagued her filmography. Foxx is terrific, offering a complex character who we don’t always relate to. As Vincent, there’s A lot that Foxx toes the line with morally, but there isn’t a better pair of eyes throughout the movie to stick with, as Jamie is every bit as passionate in emotional delivery as he is relentless in reaching the finish line. The rivalry between he and Monaghan is something I simply couldn’t get enough of, and I’m thankful they never reduced it to just another forced love interest. Even the supporting roles by Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, and Scoot McNairy chilled on both sides of the moral coin. Harbour and McNairy join forces again after 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, and it’s clear that both actors have grown into dependable supporting cast mates in a field of big name heavy-hitters. McNairy in particular delivers satisfaction in an antagonist mob boss’s son who takes a piece of his victims with him after every failed transaction. It’s can’t miss cult-like chills.

Sleepless wasn’t quite the positive that I was looking for, but the infectious fun in another crime story set in an appropriate place and time, gave me more than enough to praise for this movie critically than I may have if I wasn’t forced to sit down and endure it. For a rental, this is about as safe as you can get for popcorn action, and the dramatically dark narrative reminds you early that you have stumbled into a world where the rules don’t apply to any profession.

5/10