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

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

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
Lionsgate

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

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 TheReelPlace.com

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.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Movie Review: “The Greatest Showman”


The Greatest Showman

***** out of 5
105 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

There’s no better feeling than when a film takes you by complete surprise. By the time the credits rolled for The Greatest Showman I was obsessed. Expectations were not very high walking in. Fox’s advertising has relied extensively on the fact that the film’s songs — yes, it is a full-blown musical — are “from the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land.”

No movie left me more cold last year than White Privilege: The Musical. It also looked like it was trying way too hard to be Moulin Rouge 2. Not that that would have been a horrible thing, but I was just hoping it could manage to be its own thing, even if owing more than a little debt to it. Well low and behold, The Greatest Showman is officially my favorite film of 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up! Behold the story of P.T. Barnum and his rise to becoming The Greatest Showman! Beginning with his meager days as the son of a poor tailor (Ellis Rubin with Ziv Zaifman providing vocals) and meeting the love of his life in the young and rich Charity (Skylar Dunn), Barnum sets off to prove he’s more than a worthless street rat after Charity leaves for finishing school. Cut to adulthood and Barnum has a steady job and whisks Charity away where the couple now have two children and live very happily.

But Barnum wants more. Soon enough, he has the grand idea to open a curiosity show featuring everything from a bearded lady (Keala Settle) to a dwarf named General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) to a brother/sister trapeze act: Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). With the funding help of playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), Barnum has just the show he’s always dreamed of. And what would a three-ring circus be without a little drama in the form of Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, vocals by Loren Allred).

If it weren’t for studio embargoes I would have proclaimed my love for The Greatest Showman for a while . But now I can finally let everyone know that this is the best holiday pick. Even if you don’t love musicals, there’s plenty to enjoy. Jackman gives another excellent performance after bidding farewell and adieu to Wolverine earlier this year in Logan, and he’s surrounded by a top notch cast to back him up.

Efron continues to prove he’s not just that guy from those High School Musical movies and makes a fantastic pairing with Zendaya. The duos’ “Rewrite the Stars” is a literal showstopper. When the scene came to an end, I literally looked at my colleague next to me and exclaimed, “Holy (expletive)!” It’s that good! Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have completely redeemed themselves after the failure that was La La Land’s cloying nature.

Every song is performed at full tilt vying to be the best song on the soundtrack, but the true standouts are “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Tightrope,’ and, of course, “Rewrite the Stars.” The song “This Is Me” has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination — along with Best Actor and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy — but there’s a smorgasbord of goodness here.

As if the performances aren’t enough, director Michael Gracey gives us the best musical since Moulin Rouge and Chicago. While it may not quite be considered Best Picture worthy, it’s absolutely one of the year’s best. Every scene is shot (Seamus McGarvey) and edited (Joe Hutshing) with precision. I won’t be surprised if it winds up being nominated for Oscars in those categories, along with plenty of other technical awards. Everything comes together beautifully to give us the spectacular spectacular we’ve been waiting for.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”


Star Wars: The Last Jedi

*** 1/2
152 minutes!
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com 

A few months ago The Dark Tower was released to dismal reviews. While I didn’t love what Sony Pictures cobbled together, I was just about the only person I know who didn’t despise it the second the credits rolled. As a Tower “junkie” fellow fans could not believe I didn’t hate the film considering how indepth my reading of the Tower was. Now, I find myself on the flipside of the fence gazing at the Star Wars fanboys as they proclaim The Last Jedi the greatest entry since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not. While far from a bad film by any means — it’s absolutely entertaining — it has a lot of issues.

Picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, the Resistance is facing an evacuation led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). A fight ensues against the First Order with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leading the way to both save the day and lose most of their fighters in the process. Meanwhile, General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) is enduring the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) for failing to prevent the evacuation. The race is on as the Resistance heads for cover with the First Order hot on their tail while Rey (Daisy Ridley) commences Jedi training under the tutelage of AWOL Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the adorably Porg-infested island of Ahch-To. Oh yeah, and like a million other subplots to drag out the 152 minute runtime.

Now don’t get me wrong, The Last Jedi is hugely enjoyable. So long as you turn your brain off. Meaning there are lots of things that just may infuriate you if you think about it too long. The biggest offenses include Rey’s heritage, Snoke, and plot contrivance/convenience/coincidence. Not to mention the final scene features a flaw perfected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Director Rian Johnson has clearly been through the Disney/Marvel School of Screenwriting. Which also means there are jokes. Tons of jokes. I was happy with them. There’s never anything wrong with a little levity.

The actors all fall right back into their roles as expected. New characters are hit and miss. Some may instantly be smitten with the naive-yet-energetic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) after they warm up to her. Others may be instantly put off by codebreaker DJ (Benicio del Toro), the man Rose and Finn (John Boyega) hire for help. The best surprise comes in the form of a character from episodes past. Fans may shed a tear or two.

The plotting sometimes makes hyperdrive leaps into nonsense with some scenes and situation stretched to their breaking points. But the action and thrills is where the film mostly succeeds. And characters suddenly pop up where they need to be right when they need to be there. As I said, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is mindless popcorn entertainment hiding under the guise of something bigger — it is the middle movie in a trilogy after all.

Both The Force Awakens, and even more so Rogue One, are better movies. The Last Jedi is definitely bigger, but that doesn’t always mean better. I fear that with Disney looking to pump out a new Star Wars film every year, for those of us not as fully invested it may start to wear thin. At least if they only set the bar as high as this. The Star Wars franchise is finally coasting on fanboy service. For the rest, may the Force truly be with us.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Movie Review: “The Disaster Artist”


The Disaster Artist

***** out of 5
104 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
A24

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Oh hai! A lot of films have vied for the title of “worst film ever made.” OK, maybe not vied for, but a lot of them are certainly deserving. There are those just trying to be bad — Sharknado — and those so inept it boggles the mind like Birdemic. Or even better, The Room. Some may hail Ed Wood as the worst director of all time, but you have to consider when his films were made and their budgets.

In the case of director/producer/writer/star Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Wiseau makes Wood look like a true auteur. And according to James Franco’s biographical film The Disaster Artist — based on co-star Greg Sestero’s book of the same name (co-written with Tom Bissell) — at least $5 million was somehow sunk into it. Considering that amount was disclosed while still filming means there was even more to be spent. Probably the most telling aspect of all.

There’s no denying, The Room is a terrible film, but it also deserves the “praise,” cult status, and even celebration it has developed over the years. On the flip side, Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a smartly written, brilliantly directed, and hilariously acted piece of filmmaking that manages to be so surreal and authentic that it damn near feels like a documentary. The Disaster Artist is a spectacular glimpse behind the velvet curtain at just how wrong a production can go before it even starts.

It’s 1998, San Francisco, and Greg (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor suffering through classes with no prospects. Until the day he bears witness to Tommy (Franco) literally hanging from the rafters during a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire in class. The two strike up a very unexpected friendship as Greg learns that Tommy has money coming from somewhere and an accent from nowhere. Eventually, after they move to L.A. together, Tommy gets the brilliant idea to make his own movie since no one in Hollywood will cast them.

The Disaster Artist is surreal to the extreme. It’s a film based on a book based on the production of one of the worst films ever made. What we also have is one of the year’s best films based on one of the worst films ever made. Franco pulls triple duty as director/writer/star (much like Wiseau himself) — word on the set is that he directed the film never breaking character — and puts in his best performance yet. It truly is a transformation. I know I would never want to spend time in Tommy’s skin, so thank you, Mr. Franco!

The rest of the cast are every bit as good as James. His younger brother Dave gives his all bringing a sweet naivete to Greg who just wants to become more than a bit player in one episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The rest of the Franco gang shows up with Seth Rogen stealing scenes as Sandy Schklair, the poor script supervisor who is continuously blown away with Tommy’s ineptitude. He just can never wrap his head around why they would build an alley set when there’s a literal alley right outside. It’s also pretty amazing to watch scenes from The Room reenacted with the film’s actors doing everything they can to be as bad as the original cast didn’t know they were. Prepare for lots of cameos.

If you haven’t seen The Room, see it before going into The Disaster Artist. But there’s still plenty to love if you go in blind. James as Tommy is a revelation and career milestone — as is the film itself. Considering where it all began just makes the film an even bigger accomplishment. It seems critics can be scared to declare comedies as best films of the year, but for anyone who’s ever been wanting to, here’s one of the best. The Disaster Artist is a comedy so good it’s tearing me apart!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Movie Review: “Coco”


Coco

**** 1/2
109 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first publishedpublished at TheReelPlace.com

It was only a matter of time until Pixar finally got back to business. After trudging their way through Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, and Cars 3, it’s nice to see them make their way back to glory with Coco. While some may find the marketing a little misleading — the title takes on a whole new meaning by the end credits — Coco is set around Dia de los Muertos, but that’s not what the film is actually about.

Coco is really a fantastic story about the power of remembering those who have departed ways with their earthly bodies. Director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and co-director Adrian Molina bring the feels — and plenty of laughs — to a celebration of all things family showing that our friends to the south have way bigger hearts than most of those residing here in the States.

Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old living in fictional Santa Cecilia, Mexico with his shoe making family. Miguel is convinced his family is cursed and explains how his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) was crushed by a giant bell during a concert. Miguel believes Ernesto is his great-great-grandfather who abandoned his mother to chase his dreams, leaving all music banned in his family through four generations.

With music as Miguel’s passion, he wants nothing more to perform at the annual Dia de los Muertos talent show. Something he can’t do after his grandmother Abuelita Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) smashes his secret guitar. Miguel hatches a plan to steal Ernesto’s guitar from his mausoleum causing him to be swept away to the Land of the Dead where he is set on a quest to find a way back before he’s stuck there forever.

For an animated film, Coco has more plot than necessary — and runs just a touch too long — but that’s exactly where Pixar excels: focused on story and characters more than selling toys or filling in release date gaps. (Think The Incredibles, Up, or Ratatouille.) Coco is an astounding visual playground that will look amazing even if you’re not living nearby a Dolby Vision theater or pick it up when it hits 4K on home video.

The voice cast are all loveable and the songs hit home — not surprising when they’re co-written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the Oscar winning husband/wife team behind Frozen. The songs are charming, but “Remember Me” and “Un Poco Loco” are definite earworms. Unkrich may not be firing on Toy Story 3 cylinders, but Coco is still hands down one of Pixar’s best in years — at least since Inside Out. The cultural aspect is just the icing on the cake. You will need plenty of tissues for this one.