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

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The mystery of a nameless body prompts an investigation that lead a father and son through “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”. Experienced coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his grown-up son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a family-owned morgue and crematorium in Virginia. When the local Sheriff brings in an emergency case; an unknown female corpse nicknamed ‘Jane Doe’, found in the basement of a home where a multiple homicide took place, it seems like just another open-and-shut case. But as the autopsy proceeds, these seasoned professionals are left reeling as each layer of their inspection brings frightening new revelations. Perfectly preserved on the outside, Jane Doe’s insides have been scarred, charred and dismembered, seemingly the victim of a horrific yet mysterious ritualistic torture. As Tommy and Austin begin to piece together these gruesome discoveries, an unnatural force takes hold of the crematorium. While a violent storm rages above ground, it seems the real horrors lie on the inside. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is directed by Andre Ovredal, and is rated R for bloody horror violence, unsettling grisly images, graphic nudity, and language.

Once in a while, I will get a B-grade horror movie that over-exceeds to end up highly on my end of the year list, and while “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” isn’t quite to that level of spectacular, it is enough of a fun time to offer popcorn thrills between a group of friends and restore my faith once again in underground horror. This isn’t quite your typical ghost story, and thankfully the trailer didn’t give much away to the finished product. For about an hour of the 85 minute sit that this film produces, I was constantly kept guessing as to the direction of horror subgenre this movie was heading down. The concept of creepy setting, as well as stormy background certainly isn’t anything original, but the artistic integrity of Ovredal is strong for a director who is only in his second offering in cinema. The movie repeatedly kept me guessing, building up a list of possibilities, much like the coroners examining Doe, and one-by-one the predictable avenues that the movie built for itself were diminished as to say I totally didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

There’s a solid build-up during the first two acts as a psychological thriller, diving into the tortured past of Jane Doe, and what it took to bring us to the lifeless body that we see in front of us. During this period, the movie feels like a CSI procedural combined with a slasher mystery, providing us enough information on the very step-by-step process that coroners jobs entail when they are trying to nail down a cause of death. The pushing between the two genres that I just mentioned really stimulated my desire to keep watching, and conjured up one of the very best whodunnits? that I have seen of the past decade. Then it happened. The final half hour of the movie decides to take us down a road that I frankly could’ve done without. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling, but the curveball thrown by screenwriters Richard Naing and Ian Goldberg feels very contrary to the kind of mystery that they built up in the opening hour. The movie’s turn for the supernatural burdens this movie to the same light that we see a lot of modern horror films today, complete with untimely jump scares and illogical jumps that are big for even the most convoluted of scripts. This was a shame because “Jane Doe” felt like 2/3 of a good movie, with the finale feeling like an entirely different script from the earned tension that the movie conjured up for itself to that point.

As far as some of the other aspects to the movie went, the makeup work here is extraordinary for the corpse in question. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the very damage done to this body, and every kind of shot used to relate the blood or gore is justified artistically by presenting the very beautiful side of death. This film and the career of being a coroner could’ve definitely gone overboard on what the movie showed, but Ovredal’s touch behind the camera shoots everything respectfully in the same way that our two central protagonists see it, and this is something that goes miles to relate to how they are studying the body. I also appreciated the aesthetics of the lighting within the picture. The corny storm going on in the background is overused in every movie, but the darkness in each frame that surrounds our characters certainly peaks the intrigue of what is lurking in the dark in a room full of the deceased. This artistic direction never feels forced or convenient because a real coroner’s office is visually entrancing in the same way that this film gave us. Ovredal shoots an eye-enhancing movie with only a budget of less than five million dollars. It makes me interested to see what he can do with a future lucrative project that could invest the buck for the constantly moving bang that he swings.

The performances offer very little breakout moments, but the veteran cast certainly add a dimension of depth to something that might otherwise be ignored on video shelves everywhere. Emile Hirsch is someone I have adored since 2004’s The Girl Next Door, and here it’s more of the same for someone as personable as it gets from Hollywood leads. Brian Cox also offers a personality for his own character that feels like the pulse of the film’s direction throughout the 85 minute sit. Cox serves as kind of the crypt-keeper of sorts for the narrative, and it’s in his lurking delivery where we question early the kind of intentions from some of the characters we follow through the terror-filled night. The chemistry between Hirsch and Cox carry a lot of the load and heart against the film’s tragic aspects, omitting a very empathetic within me as I watched the movie. The most important aspect to any horror movie is its characters, and the inevitability with Hirsch leaving for college certainly wields that sting of importance in counterbalance for the dark directions that their characters must endure. Beyond this, the movie has a limited supporting cast, but it’s really a two-man show when it comes to this one, but the team of Hirsch and Cox are up for the task of narrating through Doe’s complicated past, which grows in shock-and-awe with each startling reveal.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe nearly ruins all that it builds up in a tension-filled impressive first two acts to settle for mediocrity in the finale. But the artistic merits of an ambitious director festering with atmospheric tension, as well as two likeable male leads that yearn to learn the truth as we do, more than makes this an effective and engaging mystery with some unexpected turns in story that proves there’s always something worse than death. Campy 90’s style horror goodness summarizes Ovredal’s meaty delivery to hold the audience in the palm of his hand.

6/10

Bad Santa 2

The baddest Santa on the planet returns for another holiday heist, in “Bad Santa 2”. Fueled by cheap whiskey, greed and hatred, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) teams up once again with his angry little sidekick, Marcus (Tony Cox), to knock off a Chicago charity for the picking on Christmas Eve. Along for the ride is ‘the kid’ chubby and cheery Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a 250-pound ray of sunshine who brings out Willie’s sliver of humanity. Mommy issues arise when the pair are joined by Willie’s horror story of a mother, Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates). As a super butch super bitch, Sunny raises the bar for the gang’s ambitions, while somehow lowering the standards of criminal behavior. Willie is further burdened by lusting after the curvaceous and prim Diane (Christina Hendricks), the charity director with a heart of gold and libido of steel, who throws a kink in Willie’s plans. “Bad Santa 2” is directed by Mark Waters, and is rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity.

I have this theory that we all have an alcoholic family member who has a little one too many around the holiday season, and spouts off more than they rightfully should in front of their loved ones. This is a welcoming metaphor for the sequel thirteen years in the making; “Bad Santa 2”. I say this because said family member could be a riot the first time you hear him sling a curse word or two, simply because you didn’t expect such a thing. As time goes on, it gets old because you soon realize that person has a deeper problem. Are you getting where I’m going with this? This movie is a train-wreck that only further cements the ideal that comedy sequels don’t work in 2016. Why don’t they work? A majority of them settle for relying on material from the original, better predecessor, and it usually can only create damage to any creativity that the newest effort can muster up. This movie should’ve never even been a thought process. The original “Bad Santa” might not be the movie everyone conjures up when they think of Christmas, but I enjoyed it for an original take on holiday movies that can sometimes feel a little unrealistic. So what makes a sequel marketed in the same light and tone of the original so much different? I made a list and plan on checking it twice.

First of all there’s the characters. The sequel re-unites Thornton, Cox, Kelly and Octavia Spencer. The latter of which have a two minute cameo involving the same stick she spun in the original film. It’s funny to see the most notable actor/actress in this movie as nothing more than a two-bit prostitute who calls her female genatalia a ham sandwich. It goes to show you where her career was at in 2003. Anyway, The other trio are reduced to nothing more than outlines of who they were in the first movie. According to screenwriter Johnny Rosenthal, these characters haven’t changed so much as a pair of socks since the original movie. He proves this by a repetition in jokes and material that was much better set up thirteen years ago. Thornton is still a drunk, cursing womanizer, whose emotional growth at the end of the first movie is ruined in favor of redundant class. Cox is a little person, so of course we have to poke fun at his height every five minutes. Cox witty backlashes against these satires are perhaps the only joy I got out of the movie, and created some legit hearty laughs between the nasty appeal of raunchy comedy. Kelly has absolutely no reason to be in this movie. Between his love for sandwiches which was nothing more than a footnote in the first movie, Kelly is still every bit a weird, albeit slow functioning human being. The difference here is as a twenty-one year old, it doesn’t have the same kind of charms it does as a child. What worked about the union of Thornton and Kelly in that movie was Kelly serving as the anti-child of sorts to Thornton’s daily abuse of dealing with every snotty-nosed child that invaded his space. It crafted a heartwarming side to our protagonist, but here the movie even struggles to find a reason to keep them together for a scene or two.

Then there’s the newbies. Bernie Mac and John Ritter are unfortunately no longer with us, and I didn’t understand until I saw the movie just how big of a loss they were as supporting characters. This film’s best attempt at bridging the gap is introducing Kathy Bates as Willie’s crude Mother, as well as Christina Hendricks as his newest love interest. Did I say love interest? I meant screw-in-an-alley-interest. The romantic relationship between them not only feels unbelievable in concept, but also in execution as Thornton and Hendricks have absolutely no chemistry between them. Her character feels too good for him, and a subplot involving Hendricks cheating spouse goes absolutely nowhere. I’m serious, his sexual act gets recorded by a character and then never mentioned again. As for Bates, she’s a solid addition, but her material is nothing fresh or witty for this level. She’s very much just a female version of Willie, and the two of them together makes for the most unhealthy of relationships that involve him slugging her across the face upon reunion. Nothing like female abuse to get the holidays rolling, eh?

I mentioned before that the laughs rely too much on the original movie, but this one lacks one strong detail in difference that halts the success of those laughs; an emotional register. What was great about “Bad Santa” was that there was a dysfunctional twist in family importance during the holidays that the movie stressed. There is a legitimate transformation emotionally in Willie, and it was a positive to see him grow by the finale of the film. We regress here because not only has Willie stepped on those same achievements that he flourished in that movie, but gotten worse as the crude factor is turned up to twelve. The jokes here seem to have very little setup, so the punchline is visible from miles away. The worst kind of comedic material is that of which you can see coming from a mile away, and I found myself correctly predicting most of the paths that each flimsy scene took us down. Without the heart and compassion of the first movie to direct our characters to what is right and wrong, “Bad Santa 2” lacks a valuable moral compass that never limits the overexposure of redundancy in script deposition. This movie is a very light 82 minute sit, and it only serves as a reminder the bare minimum in laughs and story that this movie settled for to make some money on a still valuable property.

It’s shot competently enough, but the first movie did a much better job at capitalizing on the very backdrops and imagery of the Christmas season that bit into the psyche of Willie and his contempt for routine. The benefit of a film location of Chicago as opposed to Arizona from the original movie is that it at least feels like Christmas, and that’s one of the only positives that I can give this movie. Some of the editing is a little lingering, pushing the boundaries of the stale humor resonating in every give. Sadly the original director didn’t return for “Bad Santa 2”, and something as meaningful as that really plays its hand in the situational humor and character arcs that I’ve already mentioned. Without it, you’re taking the characters you know and love, and are putting them in something that might as well be “A Madea Christmas”, ya know, with two or three good laughs.

Overall, “Bad Santa 2” is a lump of coal for a once prosperous and original Christmas traditional movie. It relies too much on the past gags and sight humors, neglecting the ability to ever stand out on its own feet. It’s definitely not the worst comedy sequel I’ve seen, but even the most die-hard of fans will find very little to appreciate about a script that dumbs down redundancy to classless levels. After unwrapping this gift, you realize there’s a better movie still out there that you didn’t get.

4/10

The Girl on the Train

A troubled alcoholic struggles with trying to remember the events of a disappearance that she witnessed. Based on the best-selling novel, “The Girl on the Train” is the story of Rachel Watson’s (Emily Blunt) life post-divorce. Every day, she takes the train in to work in New York, and every day the train passes by her old house. The house she lived in with her husband (Justin Theroux), who still lives there, with his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and child. As she attempts to not focus on her pain, she starts watching a couple who live a few houses down; Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans). She creates a wonderful dream life for them in her head, about how they are a perfect happy family. And then one day, as the train passes, she sees something shocking, filling her with rage. The next day, she wakes up with a horrible hangover, various wounds and bruises, and no memory of the night before. She has only a feeling: something bad happened. Then come the TV reports: Megan is missing. Rachel becomes invested in the case and trying to find out what happened to Megan, where she is, and what exactly she herself was up to that same night Megan went missing. “The Girl on the Train” is directed by Tate Taylor, and is rated R for violence, sexual content involving nudity, and adult language.

As a reader and fan of the novel that the movie is based on, I was curious to take in Tate Taylor’s vision of a story with so many twists and turns in an unreliable narrative, and while this movie is a passing effort, it does suffer greatly from a translation that forgets to include the most basic of concepts. The biggest one here being character motivations. The movie depicts scene after scene of changing atmosphere to always keep the audience guessing, but it fails to interpret that faint voice that is screaming inside of the head of Rachel. The opening scene is solid in displaying the real effects of loneliness and just how torturous of a road it is to recovery, but her character feels like just another face in the growing crowd of expressionless mannequins. Rachel’s feelings inside are perhaps the most important aspect to this story, and the audience deserves to know why she jumps to the most drastic of conclusions. Something that felt comfortable with the novel, considering we are standing next to her every painful step of the way.

Another major problem that I had was some of the diagraming in logic being left out of some of the more important scenarios. I won’t spoil anything, but a novel will always have an advantage over its multimedia counterpart simply because it has more time to include all of the important details. With that concept and this movie, I noticed a lot of scenes happening in the background with very little exposition. There are scenes in the movie in which we hear a lot of the detective’s theories, but we never understand how they arrived at these conclusions. The most important of scenes from the novel are virtually non-existent and produce a rather obvious hole in each of the subplots that they represent. Imagine singing the alphabet, and you try to get from A to Z with L, M, N, O and P being left out. How did we arrive at such a conclusion that comes out of virtually nowhere? This won’t be a problem to people who haven’t read the novel, but will be like a burning glare to anyone fortunate enough to dabble in the better narrative first.

Not everything is negative however, about this adaptation, as the casting is truly magnificent. I had my doubts when I first heard that Emily Blunt was cast as the main protagonist. Not because she’s a terrible actress or anything, but because I just don’t see her as the train-wreck described in the novel. After seeing her performance, I can thankfully rejoice in being wrong on this one. Blunt performs what can only be described as an Oscar worthy performance by really involving every bit of her body in the role. Her facial expressions lack any kind of life, as her eyes serve as the only kind of color in an otherwise flushed skin tone. The makeup work here is subtle, but detailed in the fact that eye shadow is used to cover up the pain and suffering behind eyes that witness the kind of things that her mind doesn’t always record. Rachel’s battle with the bottle is one of great sadness, and even through some ridiculous actions, you find yourself hoping for the best in this woman who is killing herself one sip at a time. The rest of the cast is also right on par with the kind of traits described within the pages, but one stands above the rest, and that is Haley Bennett. Haley continues to steal movie after movie this year, with roles in “Hardcore Henry” and “The Magnificent Seven”. Here, she dazzles as Megan, a girl who has endured so much heartbreak at such a young age. The biggest poison that is plaguing Megan is repetition of every day. A problem that is painfully rendering because how do you run from routine? Bennett captivated the screen any time she is in front of our eyes, and really surrenders a gentle seduction before tearing down the walls of every pre-conceived notion about the character that you may have had ten minutes prior.

The musical score is also of great importance to a story with such rich backgrounds. The light touch of classical atmospheres presented by musical guru Danny Elfman really accomplish par in feelings for the scenes they accompany. There is certainly a comparison to “Gone Girl’s” melancholy piano that never seems to quit playing through scene-by-scene transitions, but I think it works for these kind of murder mysteries that always seem to be relaying that something bad is being hidden in every location. There’s great embrace to such ominous tones being presented, and Elfman has always been a maestro of setting the mood just right for the story that plays out before our very eyes. The music that is being played while on the train scenes smoothly presented a fantasy of sorts for a world where our character feels the most protected; silently cast away in a 70 MPH boxcar where she clings to a window in search of what once was.

As for differences from the novel, there isn’t anything of major alternative here. Really just how every end result kind of takes the shortcut to get to its finishing point. That isn’t always a problem, in fact, I was applauding a lot of the editing of scenes that involved pointless exchanges between Rachel and her roommate Cathy (Played by Laura Prepon) that really serve as nothing more than another world falling down around Rachel. There’s certainly enough of that to go around in this story, and I applaud screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson for knowing what to leave out as expositional fluff. At 107 minutes, the story has enough angles and leg room to present its newest audience to always keep them guessing. It’s in the blank page audience who will attain the most from this story, and the fast paced thriller has enough gas creatively to always keep the engine burning, wiggling through clue after clue of many picket fences lives, and just how different things can be when those fences are closed.

“The Girl on the Train” struggles to find the same kind of magic that won over many with its literary presentation, but there’s enough glow in the performances of Blunt and Bennett, as well as a juicy R-rating that never disappoints for an adult kind of bedtime story. Taylor’s adaptation reveals to us that to know the whole story you really must look closer. A concept that echoes through more than one household just off a rattling track.

6/10

Masterminds

A boring life takes a turn for the rebellious, when an unsatisfied man decides to rob a bank, in “Masterminds”. David Ghantt (Zach Galifanakis) discovers the true meaning of adventure far beyond his wildest dreams. He is an uncomplicated man stuck in a monotonous life. Day in and day out he drives an armored vehicle, transporting millions of other people’s money with no escape in sight. The only glimmer of excitement is his flirtatious work crush Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) who soon lures him into the scheme of a lifetime. Along with a group of half-brained criminals led by Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) and an absurdly faulted heist plan, David manages the impossible and makes off with $17 million in cash…only problem is he foolishly hands the money over to this wild group of double crossers and has been set up to take the fall. With the bandits blowing the millions on lavish and ridiculous luxuries, they leave behind a glaring trail of evidence. Now on the run and in over his head, David must dodge the authorities, evade a hilarious hit man, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), and try to turn the tables on the ones he trusted most. “Masterminds” is directed by Jared Hess, and is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some language and violence.

“Masterminds” is a movie that sat on the shelf for over a year, originally being intended for an August of 2015 release, and while movies get dismissed for an array of reasons, you can immediately understand what was wrong with this one. This is a real life story that is played off as nearly a satirical sense when it comes to robbery movies, and that contrasting tone in direction just doesn’t mix well together, leaving “Masterminds” one of the more dreadful movie-going experiences of 2016. This movie should’ve never seen the light of day. It diminishes the capabilities of a usually charming comedic cast, limiting them to these Southern stereotypes that offer nothing different from what we’ve seen done a hundred times before. Hess’s direction is virtually non-existent considering every scene is played off of endless improv that always feels like it’s trying too hard to goad the audience into cheap laughs. If you’re going to do a real life crime story with some comedy infused, you have to know when are the right times to insert your brand of humor. Far too many times does the childish stick outweigh the story it’s trying to tell, and that’s a major problem. It’s sad when you consider the best parts of this movie are in the trailer, and that was two-and-a-half minutes that didn’t make me laugh once.

The pacing is recklessly bad. Off-setting a 90 minute feature with moments of untimely braking for the many of Galifanakis’s visual gags. This movie grossed me out on more than one occasion, and while that certainly says something for being memorable, it doesn’t say it in a positive light. The movie is very slow and takes forever to get to where it’s going, slowing down the progression of what little the movie has going for it. I did mention before that this story is certainly an intriguing one, but unfortunately not a lot is true about its basis, with a script that goes off-road on logic on more than one occasion. Of the many things that don’t make sense, I think the logic in Owen Wilson calling the feds on Galifanakis makes the least amount of sense. At this point in the script, Zach has never seen Owen’s face, and can only visually describe Kristen Wiig’s, which he won’t because he loves her. Essentially, this gang of theives could get away scot-free, but because the movie has to go on for another hour, it plays against even a shred of logic.

Think about something that you would never expect this movie to have. If you guessed a terrible CGI scene, you are surprisingly correct, and I worry about your psyche. There’s a scene in the movie where Galifanakis brawls underwater with an eel, and someone should be fired for approving this finished product. The shading and coloring in design are almost cartoonish in its offering, and I have seen better animation in a Microsoft Paint application. It was at this point in the movie where I realized that the producers of this movie gave up a long time before I did, and there was no coming back from something so jarringly repulsive in visual design.

The biggest tragedy of all is in a cast that have made us laugh several times being used and abused for cheap comical costumes, as well as stupidity that you can usually only find in a Kevin James flick. I’m not someone who finds Galifanakis funny to begin with, so maybe that’s part of the problem. But man is he detestable in this movie. If you can get past the fact that this idiot can even remotely pull off a heist this big, then you have to contend with other grander idiots who he is outsmarting. His sketchy southern accent feels like he will soon be opening for the Wal-Mart blue collar comedy tour, and his dead pan delivery does nothing to understand his leading man status. Galifanakis isn’t the only problem however. Nobody feels even remotely interested except Sudeikis, who continues to add to his legacy as a credible actor. His character’s introduction offers the kind of darker tone that we have been longing for in the movie, and Sudeikis is up for the task, displaying reserved sociopathic tendencies with his usual dark comedy delivery. For me, he was the only remotely enjoyable performance in this movie, and it proves that Jason could sell a ketchup popsicle at this point. Other Saturday Night Live greats like Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon are all wasted in the same characters they play in other movies. McKinnon in particular casts a string to her “Ghostbusters” role from July. I didn’t have many positive things to say about that film until four months later, but that was the best project that the trio took on this year.

“Masterminds” would be the worst comedy of the year in a year that didn’t feature “The Brothers Grimsby” or “Fifty Shades of Black”, but this forgettable mess of wasted talent fails to garner anything to make it memorable. It’s a repetitious flub of awkward humor that always misses its mark, and brings down the quality talent that is encased in it. The biggest robbery of all is in the 90 minutes that was ripped from my otherwise euphoric Saturday.

3/10

Hell or High Water

Two brothers down on their luck in the game of life, set out to rob banks across the Texas landscape, to get rich come “Hell or High Water”. Texas brothers Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land for missed payments. For them, the hold-ups are just part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that seemed to have been stolen from under them. Justice seems to be theirs, until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide, leaving behind a trail of blood and money that will leave the four men changed forever. “Hell or High Water” is directed by David Mackenzie, and is rated R for some strong violence, adult language throughout and brief sexuality.

David Mackenzie has certainly seen his fair share of Westerns, and after taking in a showing of his most recent effort, I can say that he maximizes the most of that experience with a presentation that left me rattled in my seat. For those who don’t know, “Hell or High Water” is garnering quite the positive reactions on all of the movie critic websites, so I was quite intrigued to see how well this movie lived up to the entirely positive reception that it has for itself. I can easily say that this is one of my very favorite films of 2016, and I feel confident that it will still be up there four months down the line when I make my annual countdown list. This movie has everything; sound precision that really packs an audio charge for people who take this movie on in a theater, superior acting to anything that I have seen during this movie season, and a narrative that builds such a powder-keg of spine-tingling tension that never disappoints. What’s amazing to me is how predictable Westerns have become over the last twenty years or so, but “Hell or High Water” breathes new life into a genre that is easily choreographed. This film always kept me guessing, and really builds to a third act climax that will send everyone home with a blurred vision on character morals and what motivates the risky decisions that we take on.

Some of that blur comes in the form of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s emphasis on meaningful characters building to a bigger payoff when that inevitable confrontation finally comes. This movie centers that importance of its characters with an equal time share between two duos that the movie depicts. The first is the law abiding Marshalls in the form of Bridges and Birmingham, and the second is in the on-screen brothers of Pine and Foster. On the former, the law figures could easily come off as the antagonists of this movie, but instead this well devised script tests its audience on the decision of who’s right and who’s wrong by letting them understand both sides of the coin. This makes for an even more difficult decision to that moral question, and as I said before; the answer feels very blurred. With the brothers, you soak in a lot of personality from their robbing of banks day after day. Despite some terrible things they do and poor decisions they make, these two are dedicated to the mission at hand of saving their family farm, and this becomes more evident with the introduction to the sneaky corporate banking system that has become a staple in this West Texas setting. This was one of those movies for me where I wanted everyone to win and come out unscathed, but I knew that simply wasn’t possible. When the consequences come, they mean that much more because of the details I mentioned here. Great characters make for meaningful story arcs, and “Hell or High Water” would be a passing grade if it rested simply on those laurels alone.

Fortunately, the movie has so much more to give to its audience, in the form of sound mixing/editing that rumbled the foundation of my safe zone in the theater. This movie was quite easy to immerse myself into because on more than one occasion I shook from surprise, as several times in the movie the bullets and ammunition hit your ears in an almost fourth-dimensional layering. Everything here feels authentically timed and telegraphed in terms of the firepower that it abuses positively on more than one occasion. The impacts of which left me flinching in my seat, with the reading of every devastating blow.

The cinematography and use of natural lighting also plays a big part in setting the correct tone for this deserted Texas landscape. It’s true, most Westerns take place in a dusty Texas town, but what pushes this movie one step further is that you can almost see the pain from so many citizens who lost what they had because they weren’t bold enough to fight for it. The brothers in this film are the only ones we see near or around their home soil, and that goes a long way in the creative feeling of just how alone these two central characters really are. The banks act as a kind of diamond in the rough or free cheese in a mouse trap, depending on how you see this story playing out. In addition to the visuals, the pacing is impressive considering how dry a story this can get. I never felt bored or uninterested in where the story was going, mostly because the exposition between these brothers kept growing more and more important as the film went on. I mentioned earlier this week in my review for “Indignation” how the greatest parts of the movie aren’t seen, and how important seeing those things are in a film that is played so dry. “Hell or High Water” proved me completely wrong, as this is brilliant storytelling without even one visual to play off of as proof. We learn so much about these characters because their chemistry intrigues us into hanging onto their every word.

For some of that chemistry, the work of Pine and Foster are simply magnetizing here. Ben Foster has always been a very underrated actor to me, charming his excellence and undeterred passion for each role he takes on. But here is something completely different for him. Almost a feeling like the creative leash is taken off of his neck, and we are seeing Foster shine through honestly for the first time ever. That’s not to say that Ben is a gun-toting man-child, but Foster definitely gave me that inside feeling of improv in his character, and it added more and more laughs to a story that needed some light-hearted humor. Pine continues to dazzle. This time encompassing raw human emotion that is so expressive without ever having to raise his voice or shout. I honestly had my doubts about Pine in this gritty role, but Chris has proven me wrong, with a range that delivers patiently for his time to shine within the confines of a loaded cast. Bridges is perhaps my favorite as this rundown Marshall just days from retirement. We have heard this character arc a thousand times before, so what makes the performance here any different? Bridges feels like something out of a Coen Brothers film, channeling menace without ever needing to prove it. I believed that this officer was someone you didn’t want to be on the other side of, and a lot of that is in Bridges grizzled veteran exterior that communicates his best days are behind him. This final case is like getting Bridges ‘Marcus’ in his prime for just a couple days. His intent to strike down becomes more and more clear as the film goes on, and Bridges becomes a metaphorical hawk who is always one step ahead.

Overall, “Hell or High Water” is a lethal dose of Texas gun-slinging that builds sharp tension with carefully constructed precision. It’s a callback to a forgotten era of film making that rough its rugged, timeless feel, offers an air of thought-provoking idealism taking place in a post-recession world. This one is a MUST SEE, and deserves all of the money that your big blockbusters didn’t during this disappointing Summer season.

10/10