Saturday, February 24, 2018

Movie Review: “Game Night”

Game Night

**** 1/2 out of 5
100 minutes
Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

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The best black comedies walk a line between being too jokey and too dark. Thankfully, co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein know when to go for broke in both cases for Game Night. Screenwriter Mark Perez delivers a hilarious alternative to David Fincher’s similar, little-seen masterpiece The Game. Especially with a cast that’s up for anything Daley and Goldstein throw their way.

For Max (Justin Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) it’s love at first pub quiz. Simultaneously answering a Teletubbies question they are instantly smitten with each other and their competitive natures. After years of happy marriage the two are now trying to start a family. Turns out, Max may be too stressed due to a lifelong sibling rivalry with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). And just wouldn’t you know it, Brooks is coming to town and wants to join them for game night.

But this time, Brooks wants to hold it at the house he’s renting. The trick is Brooks has set up a murder mystery, but doesn’t know that it’s gonna be crashed by a real kidnapping which Max and Annie — along with their pals Ryan (Billy Magnussen), fellow married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan’s date Sarah (Sharon Horgan), all think is fake. The kidnappers show up, the game is afoot, and hilarity ensues.

I’m not sure exactly how much of Perez’s Game Night screenplay is intact — there sure seems to be a lot of ad-libbing — but he’s come up with some hilarious jokes. While a lot of this scenario has been played out before, there are some blisteringly funny scenes. One in particular involving a bullet extraction is almost laugh until you cry funny.

There are also plenty of movie references, in-jokes, and a hilarious is-that-really-him cameo. It helps that the cast is spry for shenanigans. Bateman may be playing another version of his snarky funnyman, but he’s super likable here. It probably helps that he’s paired with McAdams who seems to be having the time of her life.

And then there’s Jesse Plemons. Playing the creepy cop neighbor who used to join in on game night until his divorce, giving one of his best performances ever. He’s so funny, he’s already on my shortlist for Best Supporting Actor. Directors Daley and Goldstein may have been divisive after having directed the Ed Helms Vacation reboot, but more than make up for it here.

Movie Review: “Annihilation”


**** 1/2
115 minutes
Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Paramount Pictures

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Writer/director Alex Garland finally made a name for himself with one of 2015’s best films in Ex Machina. Whenever this happens, there’s bound to be plenty of scrutiny no matter their next project. Deciding to adapt Annihilation, a possibly unfilmable novel that’s the first part of a trilogy — Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series — proves Garland is more than up for continuing to take on hard sci-fi. Paramount’s decision to release the film overseas via Netflix shows even they had no idea how to truly market it. Filled with more questions than answers — and one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed — Annihilation may not be here to break box office records, but it sure makes you think long and hard after it’s over.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist, trying to cope with the absence of her missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). When Kane randomly shows up after a year — and acting super weird — she wants answers. But before she can have them, Kane has a seizure. En route to the hospital they are taken to the Southern Reach compound. Here, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains to her that “Area X” aka “The Shimmer,” is expanding after an object from space collided with a lighthouse in a national park. Kane is the only person who has managed to come back after going in to investigate. Now, Ventress and Lena are headed in — along with physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) — to see if they can find the answers the military couldn’t.

And that’s all you should know. No review outside of a full thesis would be able to cover what’s going on in Annihilation. And multiple viewings are definitely required. This is one of those sci-fi epics that will long be dissected and analyzed for years to come. Even if most people might not see it. With that being the case, at least I can say that Garland has put together a film that’s so intense — even though a little too slow at times — and hypnotic that you’re glued to the screen.

The cast is fantastic with Garland leading a female lead cast into what used to be men-only territory. Just another layer of his cinematic onion. Visually compelling — it’s probably mesmerizing in a Dolby Vision theater — and mentally challenging, Annihilation demands your full attention. While never a love-it or hate-it affair, it’s certainly going to have just as many deterrers as those of us who love it. Garland continues his winning streak and proves that Ex Machina was no fluke. It left me dying to read all three of VanderMeer’s books and hope the trilogy gets completed theatrically.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Movie Review: “Black Panther”

Black Panther

***** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Marvel Studios

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The most redundant statement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that each new movie is “unlike anything they’ve made before.” Every Marvel film gets slapped with this — and it’s something I’m guilty of as well. But when it comes to Black Panther, I really mean it. Here’s the first Marvel movie with a truly broadened audience.

Bringing in director Ryan Coogler was one of Kevin Feige’s best ideas yet. Following through on his rise from independent (Fruitvale Station) to mainstream (Creed) to blockbuster, Coogler makes good on his potential and delivers one of the best Marvel entries yet.

Starting in 1992, Oakland, California, we meet Wakandan Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) confronted by his brother King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani, son of John Kani who plays the older version of T’Chaka). N’Jobu has betrayed their homeland, enlisting black market dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to steal their beloved vibranium.

In present day, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned to Wakanda as heir to the throne after his father T’Chaka was killed in Civil War. Along with Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Chaka brings Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) back to Wakanda. He enlists further help from his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), to stop the impending menace of Erik (Michael B. Jordan), aka Killmonger, who seeks the ultimate reparation by using Wakanda’s precious vibranium to wreak havoc upon the world.

The best thing Coogler decided to do with Black Panther was to make a Black Panther movie. Never worried about trying to reference the 17 MCU films which lead us here, Coogler — and co-writer Joe Robert Cole — focus on telling their own story. Think Guardians of the Galaxy. It fleets with origin story necessities for those of us new to the character while providing a villain to love in Killmonger. Motivations are crystal clear and the threat feels real.

The other amazing thing about Black Panther, is its cast. Boseman is terrific in the lead, but he’s surrounded by a killer backup of badass women. If you’re going to get in a fight, who wouldn’t want Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri standing next to them? As fantastic as Nyong’o and Gurira are, Wright overshadows everyone and steals the whole movie. We’ve been blessed with a new Disney Princess and she’s feisty, super smart, hilarious, and every bit as heroic as her brother.

This is the film that was needed to cast a great big spotlight on how fantastic it can be when given the chance. It’s too bad Wakanda isn’t real because we sure could use it these days. With one of the best ensembles in years, a Bond/Mission: Impossible-styled plot, breathtaking action, and Marvel’s most fully fleshed characters in a while, Black Panther lives up to the hype and is the year’s first must see blockbuster event.

Movie Review: “Early Man”

Early Man

**** out of 5
89 minutes
Rated PG for rude humor and some action
Summit Entertainment

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When it comes to animation, Disney and Pixar will always reign supreme. While not everything they churn out is gold — both Cars sequels — Aardman Animations can’t help but continue their own winning streak. While they may be British, the humor is global and anyone is sure to have a jolly good time. Their new Early Man is no exception. With handyman Nick Park at the helm — after success with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run, and the Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit shorts — he makes sure to include the patented laughs with as much heart as we expect from our family entertainment these days.

Back in the Stone Age, a group of cavemen, led by Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall), live deep in a lush valley where they hunt rabbits for sustenance. One night, the tribe is run out of their home by the Bronze Age army led by Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston). Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) tries to defend their home and winds up being whisked away to the Bronze Age city. Here, he’s mistaken as a player at a football, err, soccer game and winds up needing the help of local vendor Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), after challenging the Bronze team to a match. If they win, they get their valley back and if they lose, they’ll all be cast away working in the mines.

Filled with jaw-dropping stop-motion animation, hilarious antics, and plenty of spunky heart, Early Man may not quite aspire to the same heights as Shaun the Sheep Movie, but don’t be too quick to count it out. The biggest surprise was the fact that it’s a through-and-through sports film. The voice cast are having a grand time with Mark Burton and James Higginson’s screenplay, but it’s the animation that steals the show. Stunning from start to finish, Park has not lost his touch. It’s gorgeously animated and lovingly told. Early Man may have to run to keep up with the rest of this year’s animated features, but if 2018 is anything like last year, it’s bound to wind up nominated come awards season. Early Man is an early gift for the whole family.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Movie Review: “12 Strong”

12 Strong

** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated R for war violence and language throughout
Warner Bros. Pictures

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Considering how important the mission was of the “Horse Soldiers” — the first Special Forces team sent to Afghanistan following 9/11 — it’s a shame 12 Strong is as dry as the Middle Eastern deserts. Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig never finds a spark through a bloated 130-minute runtime adapting Doug Stanton’s non-fictional Horse Soldiers.

It’s a shame considering Ted Tally — Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs screenwriter — has his name attached, because he’s better than this. So maybe it’s Peter “Son of Sally Field” Craig who’s to blame. Or maybe it’s casting an Australian (Chris Hemsworth) to portray a US war hero in a film that’s preempted by a trailer for Clint Eastwood’s 15:17 to Paris where the real soldiers play themselves. Whatever the reason, 12 Strong never finds its footing and is already the year’s loudest Prozac alternative.

For those who don’t know the story, Task Force Dagger — made up of, but not limited to, Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) — is sent to Afghanistan to join US Army Green Berets ODA 595 to take down the Taliban. Along the way they must join forces with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance to do whatever they can to keep themselves alive.

The pace and length kills 12 Strong’s momentum. There’s no reason for this to be 130 minutes. Not a whole lot happens in it. Which is a shame because it’s being advertised with an emphasis on action. It wouldn’t be so bad if we ever cared about the members of Mitch’s team. Shannon and Peña fare the best, but that’s not surprising considering they’re two of the best character actors working today. It’s a shame 12 Strong is so boring because these were real people.

All intensity is thrown out the window if you know going in how it ends. It’s like the opposite of when you watch a movie being touted as “Based on a True Story” and then everyone dies. In this case, when you know everyone lives, there’s never any sense of urgency to their fates. And you’d be damned hard pressed to find anyone who can walk out of the theater and tell you who any of the rest of the team was or what they did. 12 Strong is in need of a serious jolt of adrenaline, as is, it’s another DOA January dump-month release.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Movie Review: “The Commuter”

The Commuter

*** out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language

Article first published at

Poor Liam Neeson — that’s Neesons to you and me. Try as he might, every action film he’s in these days feels like a broken record. Truth be told, we can blame Christopher Nolan after casting him as Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, because it was only three years later that the first Taken ushered in the last decade of Action Neesons we know today. Considering The Commuter is Neesons’s fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra — after Run All Night, Non-Stop, and Unknown — it should come as no surprise if things feel overly familiar and plays out like a greatest hits album.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) leads a typical, boring life. He loves his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) and commutes to work as an insurance salesman. Until the day he’s laid off, boards the train, and gets swept up into a conspiracy thanks to a not-so-chance encounter with the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga). Now, Michael has to decide if his ex-cop instincts can solve the game he’s set into motion trying to discover who on board is “Prinn” amongst a trainful of suspects.

Back in the ’90s, The Commuter would have been a surefire hit. Having waded our way through these waters before, now it just seems sillier than ever. Collet-Serra keeps the film chugging along, but takes things way too seriously as the screenplay — from Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle — ramps up the ridiculousness. Neesons performs as well as always, even if Collet-Serra seems to be losing his grip in the finale.

It doesn’t help that you can guess who one of the big baddies is from a mile away and how things are going to play out beat for beat as it comes to a close. The Commuter features one of the funniest homages to Spartacus ever put on film. The Commuter isn’t quite bottom of the barrel — it’s way too dumb to not have at least a little bit of fun — but it’s also far from good. The most unintentionally hilarious moments are “spoilers” so I’ll leave them to be discovered by interested parties. Those who want to board will find it a good enough time waster, but those expecting The Commuter to be something more akin to The Grey better keep their expectations in check.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Movie Review: “Insidious: The Last Key”

Insidious: The Last Key

** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

It’s disheartening to watch a series you love fall apart with a case of onset sequelitis. What’s even worse is when the series’ creator is the culprit. Try as writer Leigh Whannell might, he’s allowed his once terrifying Insidious franchise to quickly sink to direct-to-video quality with the fourth installment, The Last Key. It doesn’t help that James Wan only directed the first two chapters, but even Chapter 3 was better under Whannell’s own direction. Here, director Adam Robitel makes his sophomore film feel more like a freshman attempt with horrible editing, forced humor, and a laughably bad finale.

Kicking off in 1963, a young Elise Rainier (Ava Kolker) is living in a house filled with spirits. The family home is located on the grounds of the New Mexico State Penitentiary in the small town of Five Keys. Her mother Audrey (Tessa Ferrer) believes in Elise’s abilities, but her father Gerald (Josh Stewart) is content with trying to beat it out of her.

In 2010, Elise (Lin Shaye) is living with Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) when she receives a phone call from the terrified Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), who happens to be living in her childhood house; as Elise literally says, “that house was not a home.” Elise travels back to New Mexico to investigate one of the most insidious spirits she’s ever encountered, in spite of her estranged brother (Bruce Davison). But has brought along the help of Specs and Tucker, and discovers that her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) can also astral project which comes in handy when the evil spirit tries to capture Elise in “The Further.”

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road three times before. Director Robitel is half content with keeping things straight forward — which is when the film works — but Whannell has garnished the script with the series’ worst jokes. Watching Specs and Tucker try to woo Elise’s nieces is not something we should ever have to sit through. It doesn’t help that this entry to the Insidious universe centers around side characters that work best as support. There is way too much Specs, Tucker, and Elise. They come off far better in the other films where they’re called upon for assistance, but none of them have what it takes to carry a film.

The scares are of the expected variety. The camera pans across a dark room and something creepy passes by then it cuts back and it’s gone. Unfortunately, Robitel also relies far too heavily on LOUD NOISES! to scare the audience. It’s the oldest trick in the book and it’s extremely annoying to find this dead horse getting beat to death in an Insidious film. The new monster is also showed way too much. It’s what we don’t see that’s scariest, only proving how lacking producer James Wan’s input was. Even Whannell seems to be on autopilot, probably due to him writing/directing another upcoming Blumhouse horror film. He’s also managed to continue muddling the film’s timeline.

It saddens me that Insidious: The Last Key hopefully lives up to its title and this will be the last. At least we still have the first two films to remind us just how good things used to be.