Friday, April 21, 2017

Movie Review: “Free Fire”


Free Fire

** 1/2 out of 5
90 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

With how many film festivals there are throughout the year, many of the movies shown are never seen again. If it packs a good enough cast and a high profile producer, chances are better than others. In the case of Ben Wheatley’s wheezy action-comedy Free Fire, the cast is trying to have a good time, but there’s always something missing. There’s no spark to blast it into full fun mode, instead, it limps along most of the time, much like a lot of the characters caught in the crosshairs.

The plot is simple: a ragtag group of different level low lifes have gathered at an abandoned warehouse. Ord (Armie Hammer), has brought everyone together so that Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) can sell firearms to Frank (Michael Smiley), Justine (Brie Larson), and Chris (Cillian Murphy). Turns out, Vernon has brought along a helping hand in the form of Harry (Jack Reynor) who beat up one of Frank’s crew — Stevo (Sam Riley) — the night before. Soon enough, ulterior motives pit everyone in a firefight, with no one to empathize with, in a fight to the finish.

Free Fire is striving to be the new Reservoir Dogs. Trouble is, Wheatley doesn’t have Quentin Tarantino’s flair for character and dialogue, leaving plenty of limp jokes flopping alongside disorientingly choreographed action. Sometimes a film can have too much action — as odd as it may seem to say — and this is where Free Fire makes its biggest mistake. It takes too long to get going, with no connection to the characters by the time bullets start flying, leaving you bored. If it weren’t for the likes of Larson, Hammer, and Reynor, we’d have absolutely no one to root for. Especially since Copley keeps proving that a little bit of him goes a long way. Ever since District 9 he’s just become more and more obnoxious and comes across as a name brand version of Rhys Darby. The difference is, Darby is always likeable.

The film also shouldn’t feel as long as it does when it’s merely 90 minutes, but long stretches of just yelling at each other takes its toll on your patience. And just when it feels like the action may start heating up, another pacing misfire makes shows how much runtime is left.

Wheatley made quite a name for himself after Sightseers premiered at Cannes back in 2012, but if this is all he has to offer five years and two films later, then he’s still got a long road ahead of him to live up to the hype. In fact, I just realized A Field in England was another style over substance episode for Wheatley. At least Free Fire is nowhere near as boring and unapologetically confusing as that one. So maybe he has learned a lesson or two. Hopefully, he’s learned a couple more here. Just because your film caught the eye of Martin Scorsese and he gave you money to put his name in the credits and help with distribution, doesn’t mean it was a worthy investment.

Free Fire is a misfire of a film that could have been so much fun. Instead it’s simply firing blanks.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Movie Review: “The Fate of the Furious”


The Fate of the Furious

**** out of 5
136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

If there’s any franchise embracing its evolving lunacy, it’s The Fast and the Furious. With a new director comes new levels of redonkulous. With the passing of the baton from Justin Lin to James Wan and now F. Gary Gray, the series continues to show no signs of waning. Everything just keeps getting bigger, crazier, and even more physics-defying. It’s exactly what we fans want and The Fate of the Furious — or as it should be titled: The F8 of the Furious — delivers in spades.

If you want convoluted, never fear, writer Chris Morgan — singlehandedly responsible for the “screenplays” since Tokyo Drift (part 3) — has you covered! A cold opening finds Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) honeymooning in Havana — finding time to win a car race while driving backwards and the car on fire, no less. Soon enough, the maniacal Cipher (Charlize Theron) inspires Dom to turn his back on the family for reasons only he’s allowed to know.

Treason erupts after the crew — Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Parker (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) — are brought together by Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to collect an EMP in Berlin. After Dom makes off with the device, Hobbs is captured and thrown in prison where Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new righthand man Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) try to recruit him to go after Dom who is working for Cipher. The two are on the hunt for — wait for it — nuclear launch codes from the Russians. Meanwhile, the prison stint forces Hobbs to work alongside his archnemesis Deckard (Jason Statham).

The Fate of the Furious is turn your brain off and ramp your testosterone levels to 11 entertainment of the highest order. One liners abound while each action sequence tries to outdo the previous. With the passing of Paul Walker, you would think that having fewer characters would help Morgan keep the shenanigans a little tighter. Instead, everything is bloated to a standard two hour-plus runtime with some major characters making surprise appearances. One of which is so unnecessary you forget they were even in the movie until you try to remember what happens to them.

I was a little worried with Gray taking the reins to be honest. The man has made some horrible films in the past — Be Cool and Law Abiding Citizen being the worst offenders — but this is at least his fourth best film yet. Straight Outta Compton and Friday are his best. But looking over his IMDB page you’ll see he’s at least worked with some of the crew before. And the gang’s mostly all here! It’s still horrible about Walker and his presence is missed. The beating heart has clearly been ripped from the center. All things considered, at least they found a way to keep the franchise moving along. This one ends on a cliffhanger which is no surprise since at least two more have already been announced.

Fans will find everything they love in fine form. Although, the two who work best together are The Rock and Statham. They seem to be the only ones in the cast who know how to fight and every time they’re onscreen together you can sense they’re having a raucous time working together. This should not come as a shock considering the highly publicized feud between Johnson and Diesel. But with Statham back in Transporter mode, facing off against The Rock and his ever-expanding biceps, you almost wish the film completely centered around them. As it stands, fans will revel in every gloriously nuckin’ futs minute.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Movie Review: “Gifted”


Gifted

**** 1/2
101 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It may be only April, but it’s been a pretty good year for film so far. Irregardless — a fantastic joke from the movie — leave it to director Marc Webb (both Amazing Spider-mans and (500) Days of Summer) to blast spring with a breath of fresh air anyway. Working with Tom Flynn’s touching and hilarious screenplay, along with the perfect duo of Chris Evans and 10-year-old Mckenna Grace, Gifted manages to be heartwarming without being sappy and full of laughs without having to dumb things down.

Frank Adler (Evans) lives a simple life. He repairs boats while homeschooling his niece Mary (Grace). But today is different: it’s Mary’s first day of first grade in the public school system. Against her will, Mary trudges onto the bus and is carried away where she meets her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate), who Mary instantly doesn’t like because she’s already proven herself lightyears ahead of her classmates. Soon enough, her intellect is found out — Mary’s mother was a genius, and so is she — and the Principal offers to pull strings to get Mary into a school for gifted children. Turns out, Mary isn’t the only one who’s smarter than they look and Frank winds up in a custody battle with his estranged mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).

It’s films as good as Gifted where it’s hard to heap on the praise. However, if there are a few things that don’t necessarily work, it’s the casting of Slate and Octavia Spencer in what amount to throwaway roles. It’s a good thing Spencer is so damn likable no matter how small the screentime. Unfortunately, Slate gets the short stick and has the weakest character of the whole movie. But not even these extremely minor things can get in the way of Webb working his indie magic, making good on his acclaim after (500). If you need some real praise, take it from my wife. There’s a scene featuring Frank and Mary having a discussion silhouetted against a sunset where she turned to me and said, “If I wasn’t already pregnant, that would make me pregnant.” Gifted makes for a fantastic night at the movies where you can sit back, laugh, and feel all the feels.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Movie Review: “Going in Style”


Going in Style

** 1/2 out of 5
96 minutes
Rated PG-13 for drug content, language and some suggestive material


Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It took Zach Braff a good three years after the premiere of Scrubs to show us what he could on the big screen with Garden State. An instant independent classic, it’s a good thing we didn’t hold our breath waiting for his next directorial effort. A decade later, Wish I Was Here finally arrived, and no one — except Braff’s biggest fans, our own Luke Hickman especially — even knew it existed.

We didn’t have to wait as long between projects for Going in Style to arrive, unfortunately, he’s brought us another entry in grumpy old men acting cartoonish. Here we find the exceptional cast of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin bumbling their way through Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent, Hidden Figures) cliched script, acting buffoonish for the sake of a laugh.

Joe (Caine) is visiting his bank to confront the swindling Chuck (Josh Pais) after receiving a foreclosure notice on his home. A bank robbery erupts and Joe gets the idea that he should rob them too. He sets out to recruit his long time chums Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) to convince them that they need to set things right after finding out that their pension plans will be dissolved to pay off their work’s debt after sending the steel mill’s jobs overseas. Now, they’re out for revenge, but it won’t be without the help of Joe’s lowlife ex-son-in-law’s acquaintance Jesus (John Ortiz).

Braff obviously wants the film to have a laid back appeal to it, but there’s only so much the cast can do. While the main trio is as loveable as ever, Braff has brought in the likes of Christopher Lloyd — hopefully playing much more senile than in real life at just 78 — and Ann Margaret — an all too obvious Grumpy Old Men reference — to try to keep the shenanigans fresh. But all we’re left with is the cast grumbling about how old they are and how hard it is to move. You would expect them to be yelling at kids to get off their lawn aside from the fact that they live in New York City and there’s nothing but sidewalks and busy streets.

It’s a shame that the film isn’t funnier because the cast could have been a breath of fresh air with the onslaught of summer inching closer and closer. Braff at least seems to know what his audience wants and it’s the aforementioned “hilarity” of his cast exuding “look at how old we are, aren’t we hilarious?” with every take. Melfi also seems to know his niche for what older audience members are looking for, and I suppose even they need to turn their brain off once in awhile. It’s just all such a shame that everything is played either way too broad or too subdued at the drop of a hat. One thing’s for sure, no one involved is Going in Style by the time the credits roll. Proceed with caution and you could have some fun, but it tries too hard while never trying hard enough.

Blu-ray Review: “Three”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: *****
Extras: **

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Over the years, it’s been clear that Johnnie To’s main inspiration is Martin Scorsese. If you’re going to aspire, why not look up to the best, right? The most surprising thing — at least probably for American audiences — is that To has been directing since the ’70s. It wasn’t until 2005’s Election that To came on our radar. Granted, the only other To film I’ve seen is 2012’s Drug War — which is excellent — but his new explosive thriller Three is a slow burn of the best kind.

The story is super simple: Dr. Tong Qian (Wei Zhao) works in the emergency room and the police — lead by Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo) — has just brought in the criminal Shun (Wallace Chung). Shun has been shot in the head during an interrogation and refuses to allow doctors to operate. Shun has a sinister plan up his sleeve. With the Inspector suspicious of his shenanigans, he hatches his own to set Shun’s in motion, giving Ken the opportunity to capture Shun’s whole crew.

Well Go USA can deliver some incredible looking discs — when afforded the breathing room of a 50GB disc. The first thing I do before I pop in a disc for review is flip it over to see what they’re working with. Unfortunately, Three has been delegated to a 25GB, with the expected anomaly wreaking havoc: banding. Thankfully, that’s about the worst of the picture. The rest is crystal clear with tons of detail causing some of the more gruesome moments to shine. Colors pop, just on the edge of blooming, with crush never an issue as the entire film takes place inside a brightly hospital.

Where things really shine — and makes one scratch their head even more regarding the disc space — is the included Cantonese DTS:X audio track. Downgraded to 7.1, this is a phenomenal mix with incredible pinpoint detail. I can only imagine how much more lifelike it would be with the additional speakers for it to play with. Or a bigger disc to hold it. As it stands, even the most seemingly mundane scene is filled with an active soundscape. And it ramps up even more during the big finale. This being where the bass also finally kicks in. A Cantonese 2.0 Stereo track, along with English and Chinese subtitles are also included.

Considering the disc size, it’s a good thing the special features are scant. A “Making Of” is broken up into two sections: “Master Director Johnnie To” (2:30) and “Three Complex Characters” (3:12). Here, things are swift as the cast talk about themselves, their characters, and working under director To. They’re quick to point out that first impressions may seem like he has a temper, but as he gets to know the cast and crew things get more playful and relaxed. They also point out that To likes to do on set script revisions, something that could be looked down on, but at least they’re coming from the director and not maddening studio head demands. The film’s trailer (1:10) is available, along with previews for Cold War II (available now), Sky on Fire, and Operation Mekong (both available in June).


Action fans are always going to get what they want when they watch a Johnnie To film. With Three, they just may want to know that it takes a bit longer to get to the goods here. Even with the film running a mere 88 minutes, the final 15 tear down the house. The shootout is one for the books and can only be described as stepping right into the middle of a 360-degree war zone. Ho Leung Lau, Tin Shu Mak, and Nai-Hoi Yau’s screenplay stretches the tension to the breaking point, and its balls out until the credits roll. Aside from Zhao’s annoying Dr. Qian getting in the way dramatically here and there, Three is an action film that will leave no one dissatisfied. With almost stellar video, and exemplary audio, the technical aspects — and the finale which has to be seen to be believed — make this one a blind-buy no brainer.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Movie Review: “Ghost in the Shell”


Ghost in the Shell

** 1/2 out of 5
107 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Raise your hand if you’ve seen Blade Runner, Robocop, The Matrix, or even the original Ghost in the Shell anime. Oh, you’ve seen all of these? Then you’ve seen the new Ghost in the Shell. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) may know how to make a visually interesting film, but he has no idea how to make a mentally engaging one.

It doesn’t help that the three credited screenwriters — Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger — have somehow managed to suck any kind of humanity out of Masamune Shirow’s story. For a film about a woman losing her identity and trying to find her new place in the world, you sure never give a damn for a second. It doesn’t help that this is an absolute bore.

In the future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) has been brought to life in a new body. Told she was rescued from a sinking refugee ship, her brain has been transplanted into a robot — something that’s never been done before, while robotic enhancement is all the rage. Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) keeps Major’s body in tip top condition after spending her time as a counter-cyberterrorist agent getting beat up.

Lucky for her, Batou (Pilou Asbæk) is her right hand man, helping to save her during a deep dive — think a Matrix version of Get Out’s “sunken place” — where cyber hacker Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) begins his recruitment of Major after installing some new memory. Meanwhile, Major’s boss, Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) has his sights set on a more human target, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).

Anyone bored to tears after reading through that synopsis is bound to be even more bored by Sanders’ lackluster direction. While he does take time to keep some iconic shots from the classic anime and comic, you never care for anyone’s plight — especially Major’s. Anyone crying about the whitewashing of another fan favorite need not worry, they threw in an excuse you’ll see coming a mile away. But it doesn’t make up for the rest of the dismal direction. Scene after scene plods on while you’re left wondering what happened to the action film Paramount’s marketing team has been feeding us for months.

Johansson sleepwalks her way through, while no one around her even bothers to chew any scenery, which at least could have helped perk up the tone. The only one who comes close to having a shining moment is Aramaki, but what else would you expect from Kitano. The man can be a badass simply sitting in a chair doing nothing.

My guest did enjoy it far more than I did, and considering he’s a fan of the material may warrant enough of a recommendation for those who have been waiting for this to finally hit theaters. It feels like everyone has some kind of big picture we’re drooling over in anticipation — mine are both The Dark Tower and It. So for those wanting to see Ghost in the Shell, you should leave satisfied. As for anyone unfamiliar, you’re best waiting it out for the next actual action film to come along, because this absolutely is not for the rest of us.

Movie Review: “The Boss Baby”


The Boss Baby

**** out of 5
97 minutes
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
DreamWorks Animation

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

In a change of fate for the Star Trek franchise, the rule of thumb used to be that the even films were superior to the odd. With the new timeline, it appears that the odd films fare better. What does this have to do with The Boss Baby? For director Tom McGrath, the old saying holds true. His first Madagascar was a fun little romp for DreamWorks which McGrath then continued to drive into the ground with two sequels. In between, he squeezed out the hilarious Megamind and now The Boss Baby. Don’t let the marketing fool you, this is one of the more hilarious — and cutest — films of the year so far. While there’s bound to be something far better coming down the pipeline — all eyes on Pixar’s Coco — for now, this is a surprise no one anticipated.

Adult Tim (voiced by Tobey Maguire) introduces us to seven-year-old Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi) who lives for adventure. An only child, he does what he can to live life to the fullest. Imagination is his middle name and exploration is his game. Until the day the Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) shows up to steal the spotlight. Decked out in sunglasses and a designer suit, Boss Baby proves he’s not here to play games. Turns out, Boss Baby is literally on a mission and comes from a long line of adults in baby bodies. He’s here to stop the scheming Francis Francis (voiced by Steve Buscemi) from unleashing a new line of pets upon the world to end the battle between babies and puppies: the “Forever Puppy!” Now, the two must set aside their “sibling rivalry” to keep the world safe for cute bouncing babies.

McGrath is in a wheelhouse he’s very familiar with tossing every joke he can think of at the audience. It helps that writer Michael McCullers (Baby Mama, both Austin Powers sequels, and Undercover Brother) knows how mix crude and cute better than most. With a dash of smart to go along with it, there’s something for everyone to enjoy with The Boss Baby. The cast — especially Bakshi and Baldwin — sound cute together, even if Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow as Mom and Dad aren’t able to score as many laughs as they should. But this isn’t about them, this is the Tim and Boss Baby show and the two lay on the hijinks better than most live-action duos. While the pacing does get a little bogged down as the third act sets up the finale with some out of place tearjerking, it never gets in the way of the laughs.

The only misstep is a preggo plot hole. At the beginning of the film, Mom is pregnant and they mention that Tim is going to be a big brother, next thing we know, the Boss Baby shows up getting out of a taxi after an extended opening credit sequence showing us where the film’s babies come from. Basically they’re manufactured babies who either go to loving families or are stuck in a pseudo-heaven where they’re permanently pint-sized thanks to a magical formula that keeps them young forever. It’s a throwaway plot point seeing how the film skirts right by it. While some of us may wonder whatever happened to Tim’s real sibling — spoiler alert: Boss Baby gets back into a taxi and leaves — kids will never notice and even you may forget. The Boss Baby has one goal in mind and it’s tickling the funny bone. And that alone it makes it worth seeing in spite of the awful advertising.