Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Movie Review: “Rules Don’t Apply”

Rules Don't Apply

*** 1/2 out of 5
126 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references
20th Century Fox

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Having been out of the Hollywood spotlight since 2001’s atrocious Town & Country, there’s something a bit ironic about Warren Beatty portraying Howard Hughes. While I’m sure Beatty is no recluse, it just feels good having him back on screen. As good as it is to have Beatty back, it’s not necessarily a triumphant return. Writing, directing, and starring seems to get the upperhand this time, with two separate movies fighting for their spot in the limelight. Thankfully, costars Alden Ehrenreich (our new young Han Solo BTW) and Lily Collins hold their own amidst the anarchic storytelling.

In 1958, Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich) is working hard as a driver for Hughes. While having never driven Hughes himself, he has high hopes that he can work his way to the top. Only problem is, Frank is driving around the hottest young actresses all vying for roles in Hughes’s films. While Frank may fall back on his good ol’ boy persona — he’s engaged to Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) after all — he finds out that he may not be as engaged as he thinks when the young Apple Blossom Queen herself, Marla Mabrey (Collins), comes calling. Hughes has one rule, that his drivers cannot get mixed up with his actresses and as Frank finally finds Hughes bringing him up the ladder, Marla may be the one thing standing in his way.

While Beatty’s screenplay and story may be all over the map, at least he manages to make two really good movies — even if they always seem at odds with each other. On one end of the spectrum, we have Ehrenreich and Collins delivering one of the year’s most romantic performances. The two have wonderful chemistry together and the film is a pure delight anytime it’s focused on Frank and Marla. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, we start spending more time with the loony Hughes.

As much as I love watching Beatty work — and you can tell he still loves being in front of the camera — a romantic subplot involving Hughes and Marla feels extremely trite. It also doesn’t help that there are some terrific supporting players who barely get their chance to shine. Matthew Broderick gets the rare chance to be funny as a fellow driver, but Farmiga barely registers with Ed Harris even less so as Sarah’s father. I honestly forgot he was even in the film until I just looked through the IMDB credits. Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen are also wasted.

Thankfully, Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a complete wash. The love story makes for a fantastic date night option, it’s just too bad the film doesn’t have much meat on its bones, considering it runs over two hours. Had the film been trimmed down and more focused on Frank and Marla, it could have wound up as one of the year’s best. As it stands, Beatty manages to stuff the film with too much padding and it becomes every bit as self/overindulgent as you’d expect out of a film revolving around Howard Hughes.

Movie Review: “Moana”


***** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Walt Disney Animation Studios 

Disney has been in the princess movie a long time, so it’s surprising it took awhile to make them strong, independent characters. The tides have certainly changed since the days of Snow White, Cinderella, or even Ariel. Their newest addition, Moana fits right in, standing as their best yet. While not meant as a slight against the likes of Jasmine, Tiana, Merida, or power sisters Anna and Elsa, Moana is by far the clear winner.

Headstrong, and with no love interest in sight, Moana is here to stake her claim as a force to be reckoned with. It helps that directors Ron Clements and John Musker know a thing or two about the Disney formula. They are the duo behind The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog after all. With the help of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-writing a host of earworms, they pull out all the stops, delivering one of the year’s best animated films.

On a mystical Polynesian island, we meet infant Moana as she is enchanted by her Gramma Tala’s (voiced by Rachel House) stories of demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti causing the islands to slowly wither and die out. As a teen, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is fighting an internal struggle between doing what’s best for her island versus her inner yearnings. Moana, with a push from Gramma Tala, knows she’s destined for more. It comes calling after the ocean hand picks her to take to the high sails to track down Maui and restore peace to the islands.

As much as I was hoping I could tout Moana as the best animated film of the year, I suppose I have to call it a draw against Zootopia. While the latter may find itself with the better story, Moana has a fighting spirit, and girl power to spare. Combined with Miranda’s amazing songs — co-written by Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina — it’s hard to declare a clear winner. But it is a fantastic twofer year for Disney. Packed with some of the year’s most eye-popping animation, Clements and Musker — along with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams — bring Jared Bush’s (who also co-wrote Zootopia) creative screenplay to breathtaking life.

Moana also features some of the year’s most memorable characters, including a few animal sidekicks like Pua the pig and Heihei the chicken (voiced by Alan Tudyk no less), no one will leave the theater without a smile on their face and a song stuck in their head. Special mention goes to “The Rock” for performing his own hilarious demigod song and Jemaine Clement nearly stealing the whole movie . The young Cravalho stands tall against Johnson and the two make a hilarious vocal pairing. Everything just works superbly here, and in the words of Maui himself, “you’re welcome.”

Blu-ray Review: “Morris from America”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: ****

Article first published on

Fish-out-of-water and coming of age films are two staples at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not too often when you get both in one film. Writer/director Chris Hartigan manages to do just that with the sometimes hilarious, but more often thoughtful, Morris from America. Considering how hellish it is to be 13 years old to begin with, imagine what it would be like to be a transplant in Germany. Add to that being black and you’re bound to struggle. Thankfully, Hartigan and his cast keep the misadventures on a realistic level — even if uncomfortably at times — ensuring that Morris never feels cheap.

Morris (Markees Christmas) is struggling with his new homelife. After moving to Germany with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), he deals with having to learn a new language — taught by his tutor Inka (Carla Juri) — while trying to find a way to fit in amongst all the white kids who don’t speak English. One day, 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) catches his eye and he’s instantly smitten. Katrin takes a liking to Morris, but keeps him at arm’s length, always caught in the ebb and flow of does she like or not? While Katrin may invite Morris to parties, she quickly manages to ridicule him with cheap pranks like soaking his crotch with a water gun. Soon enough, Morris is learning the hardships of misadventures culminating with being abandoned far from home after following Katrin, and a band, on the road with some fellow fans.

Lionsgate Films squeezes Morris onto a 25GB disc in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Detail is on the high side with facial features, clothing textures, and interior facades showing realistic levels. Once the characters move outside, the contrast pumps up colors resulting in a slight downtick. Colors verge on blooming and bleed, but never get too unrealistic. Thankfully, black levels remain consistent and there are no compression artifacts to worry about. Considering the amount of rap/techno music featured on the soundtrack, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio keeps the party going. Dialogue is never drowned out no matter how loud the music gets, and bass keeps things thumping nicely. Surrounds finally get some use during the party sequences. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

The special features may not be overindulgent, but they make for as good of time as the film. “Making Morris from America” (11:22) starts off like your typical EPK, but quickly the director begins discussing the cast and how much he loved working with them. It’s interesting to hear Hartigan talk about finding Christmas via YouTube and a clip featuring Juri reinforces the film’s main theme to not not rush getting older. “Bloopers” (2:35) are standard and surprisingly never result in any laugh-out-loud moments, not even from Robinson, a shame. One “Deleted Scene” (1:18) features Katrin trying to get Morris to give her a hicky. “Casting Tapes” (4:28) feature Markees and Lina and it’s very interesting to see how much more evolved Christmas’s performance become with Keller’s being spot on from the beginning.

Hartigan has crafted a great slice of life feature showcasing exactly how awkward it can be to be a youngster. And how much harder it can be to be an outcast way out of their comfort zone. While it may frighten some parents to see teenagers involved with alcohol and MDMA, the life lessons always feel true. Christmas gives a fantastic debut performance, always managing to keep up with the likes of Robinson playing his dad. The two are hilarious together and, often, emotional. A particular scene with Curtis driving Morris home gives Robinson the chance to really shine and show that he’s so much more than Daryl from The Office. I’ve read that this film is how he wound up on Mr. Robot and I’m in no way surprised. I’ve always been a fan and he does not disappoint here. Featuring a really good transfer and an even better audio track, anyone interested in giving Morris from America a chance is going to find themselves as smitten with the film as Morris is with Katrin.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Movie Review: “The Monster”

*** 1/2 out of 5
91 minutes
Rated R for language and some violence/terror

Article first published on

Two films coming out this fall have the word monster in the title. Coincidentally, they both also deal with child/parent relationships. While one is a big studio effort, The Monster, is an entirely different beast. Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s film, is a stripped down creature feature filled with practical effects and strong female performances. Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine play off each other fantastically, even if their characters may hate each other for most of the runtime. While I may have despised Bertino’s breakout feature — 2008’s unintentionally hilarious borefest The Strangers — there’s plenty to love for horror fans and they even have the opportunity to choose between a darkened theater or at home via DirecTV.

The Monster is as straightforward and minimalist as they come. Kathy (Kazan) has an estranged relationship with her daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) thanks to her alcoholism. But fate makes the two put their strengths to the ultimate test after Kathy hits something while driving. With a surprisingly working cell phone, Kathy makes Lizzy call for help. Now, they get to sit stranded in the middle of the road, in the rain, while a monster lurks in the woods. Kathy and Lizzy are in for the night from hell as they battle not just a ruthless killing machine, but each other as well.

Leave it to Kazan to make even a horrible mother likeable. I’m sure that’s how she scored the lead because it takes a lot of skill to make that possible. Not even Emily Blunt was able to pull that off in The Girl on the Train — although, her character is far different from Kazan’s. A horror movie always needs characters to root for. Especially when there’s only two key players. When you’re in every scene, you can’t have the audience hoping you bite the big one. There wouldn’t be any reason to watch, unless they were to go out in spectacular fashion by the end. As it is, Bertino keeps things reasonably tight — even if the film’s 91 minutes start to feel padded out. Thankfully by the end, we’re treated to enough shock tactics and practical effects to keep us riveted through the finale.

The Monster may not be a new horror classic, but it does harken back to a more simpler time for horror movies that don’t rely on a pretty cast of dead teenagers walking. The creature is never a product of a computer which makes it a far more frightening entity. It may be seen in the light a few too many times, keeping your imagination from having to do the heavy lifting, but it could have been trimmed in that aspect a bit too. Sometimes what you don’t see is scarier. However, anyone interested in The Monster will likely have a good time. It’s a way better entry than Lights Out, and many will find what’s lurking in these woods scarier than the Blair Witch. It may not be an instant classic, but it gets the job done.

Movie Review: “The Edge of Seventeen”

The Edge of Seventeen

**** 1/2
104 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens
STX Entertainment

Article first published at

Every adult understands the awkwardness of life right before entering “adulthood.” It’s still odd to me how anyone at the age of 18 is legally an adult. As it stands, there have been many teen movies over the years, all clamoring to be a new generation’s voice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and almost all of John Hughes’s résumé, through Clueless, She’s All That, Mean Girls, and Juno. Now, the Millennials can lay claim to their own, with a film that gives hope that everything may be OK after all and to just let life happen — because there’s no stopping it and it is a force to be reckoned with. And in quite a leap, writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig has gone from the abysmal Post Grad to The Edge of Seventeen. If one thing’s for sure, Craig understands the teenage crowd far better than the newly graduated.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always lived in the shadow of her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). An outcast by nature, she finds the friend of a lifetime in elementary in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) as they cruise the high school scene together. That is until after a night of drinking while Nadine’s mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is out of town. Krista hooks up with Darian and now Nadine’s life is ruined forever. Instead of lashing out, she introverts more than ever, but not without taking a time out to stalk older classmate Nick (Alexander Calvert) while possibly starting up an actual relationship with the every-bit-as-awkward Erwin (Hayden Szeto). Nadine finds refuge and advice from the least likely of sources, one of her teachers, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

It seems unfair to place all the blame on Craig for the disastrous Post Grad — she did only write it. However, all films start with the script. Thankfully, she’s certainly bucked up, or got in touch with her inner teenager, because there’s far more that resonates here than in her first attempt. It also might have helped that she directed Seventeen and had complete control. Whatever happened, The Edge of Seventeen lives up to the hype it’s been coasting on for the last few weeks. With a razor sharp script and a fantastic cast, Craig delivers a film that fits right alongside Juno — another hilarious teenager up to shenanigans.

Steinfeld finally gives another lead performance living up to her True Grit debut. Harrelson tries to steal the whole movie away from her and Szeto is another standout, with Richardson also getting a few moments to shine. Not sure if there’s anything here I’d consider buzzworthy, but it’s better than most films released this year, and one of the funniest. The Edge of Seventeen thankfully is being marketed correctly harkening back to the classic teenage comedies of yesteryear, and rightfully so. I’m not sure if it’s an all out classic, but it’s definitely a shining example of teen comedy done right.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Movie Review: “Bleed for This”

Bleed for This

*** 1/2 out of 5
116 minutes
Rated R for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images
Open Road Films

Article first published at

There must be something therapeutic about sports films. They’re all nearly identical, yet audiences till flock to them. I suppose the same thing can be said about any genre really. But when it comes to sports biopics in particular, would they have made a movie if they weren’t going to come out on top at the end? (Rocky may be the only exception.) Thankfully, the journey is at least usually different. In the case of Vinny Pazienza’s uphill battle after breaking his neck in a car wreck, leaving doctors questioning whether he’ll even be able to walk again, the journey is more worth it than others. That is if writer/director Ben Younger’s pacing doesn’t put you to sleep along the way.

Beginning in 1988, Vinny (Miles Teller) is at the top of his game going toe to toe with Roger Mayweather (Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin). But after he loses the big fight, even Vinny’s manager Lou (Ted Levine) openly thinks Vinny should throw in the towel. Now, Vinny seeks out a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), to help him get back on top. Soon, fate comes calling and Vinny winds up in a car wreck. Insisting on a halo surgery, he finds himself in the biggest fight of his life as he goes against the odds to train in spite of his disability. Anyone who can’t see what’s coming has never seen a sports drama.

A lot of people simply cannot stand Miles Teller. Considering he plays the same character in every movie, it’s easy to see why. I’ve never been on the Teller hate bandwagon, and here he’s far more likeable than usual. It’s easy to make jokes before seeing the movie that you can’t wait to see Teller get hit in the face, but he does manage to give humanity to Vinny’s plight. They take a moment to point out that Vinny doesn’t drink or do drugs, so that also makes it easier to feel bad for Vinny. Younger surrounds Teller with a great supporting cast — Eckhart is nearly unrecognizable — which helps carry the film to the finish line. If it weren’t for them, Vinny’s story would be a been there, heard that affair. The saddest part is that being released in November you would hope it would be an Oscar contender, but alas, the only honorable mention is Eckhart.

Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

*** out of 5
133 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

It may seem like an odd way to start a review, but it just feels weird to me that it’s been longer since a new Harry Potter film has been released than Star Wars. Five years have passed since we last saw the boy wizard and if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of any indication, it’s already time for J.K. Rowling to head back to the well. While there is the Cursed Child available to scratch that itch, Fantastic Beasts only delivers some of the magic the original series accomplished.

The Wizarding World may not be my favorite fantasy series, but this is not the long-anticipated installment fans deserve. It’s high time for Warner Bros. to bring in some new blood and let David Yates out to pasture. After directing the last four installments, he’s officially on autopilot. It doesn’t help that he’s hindered with two awful choices for leads. Eddie Redmayne is as polarizing as ever as Newt Scamander, but he’s no match for the stilted, uncharismatic likes of Katherine Waterston who is one of the most boring leads cast in a major motion picture in quite some time.

As for the film proper, Fantastic Beasts ushers us 70 years prior to the beloved Potter & Co. and introduces us to Newt as he arrives in New York City during the roaring ’20s. Strange happenings are afoot, with the dark wizard Grindelwald wreaking havoc, while Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is on the case for the Magical Congress. It’s not long before Newt runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just wants to get a bank loan to open a bakery and make his grandma proud. Soon enough, Jacob is attacked by one of the creatures Newt snuck into the U.S. and the two are taken into custody by Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston). Together, the trio must find out who’s behind the malicious city attacks, with all signs pointing to a family of New Salamers Army (an anti-witch cult) including the creepy Creedence (Ezra Miller), his young sister Chastity (Jenn Murray), and their mother Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

Fantastic Beasts feels likes a TV pilot. Full of clunky exposition and the most convenient of denouements, hopefully the next four announced sequels can find more to expand upon. Considering the film is written by Rowling herself, she’s really to blame here — except for Yates’s lackluster direction, questionable special effects (I’ve never found any of the Harry Potter effects to be convincing from the beginning) and poor casting decisions. Redmayne seriously needs to learn how to open his mouth and enunciate when speaking. I get it, Newt is supposed to be introverted and awkward, but that’s no excuse for not being able to understand most of his dialogue. The film should require captioning, and for once, not due to any thick accents.

The worst offender here is Waterston who shows no business as a lead actress. She’s boring and wooden. That being said, it’s clear that Yates has lost quite a bit of interest in this world, or maybe with film altogether if his Legend of Tarzan is of any indication. The man cannot move a film along at a reasonable pace to save his life and stages some of the most boring action scenes of the year — in both Fantastic Beasts and Tarzan.

If there’s any further proof that the film is a misfire it’s my wife’s reaction. She’s the reason we visited Orlando’s “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” two years ago, and even she was let down by the movie. Only the most diehard Potter fans will find something to love here, and I guess that’s really all there is to say. The film is critic proof, so if you’re reading these final thoughts, you were probably questioning whether you should see it all. If you want to, you might as well. But don’t say you weren’t warned. There may be some Fantastic Beasts in the movie, but you won’t be asking Where to Find Them by the time the credits roll.