Saturday, May 27, 2017

Movie Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

*** out of 5
129 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

If there’s one thing the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have in common it’s excess. Even the  newest one — while being the shortest so far — is as bloated and convoluted as the rest. Disney was smart to bring in two talented seafaring directors with Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg after the far better Kon-Tiki, and at least they gave it a good shot. Unfortunately, it’s Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay that bogs down Dead Men Tell No Tales. With characters we barely care about, they squeeze in a few old, familiar faces just to remind us they were in previous movies — and to make sure they continue their royalty checks. Johnny Depp may be able to play Captain Jack Sparrow in his sleep, but it’s starting to look like he literally is.

Young Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan) has rowed out to sea, tied himself to a rock and jumped into the ocean. Lucky for him, his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is awaiting aboard the Flying Dutchman. Will is not excited to see his son, but Henry vows to save him from his curse. Nine years later, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) works aboard a British Royal Navy warship which is chasing a pirate ship. Henry realizes they are sailing into the Devil’s Triangle, but it’s too late. The undead attack — led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) — and the crew of ghosts leave Henry to tell the tale for dead men tell no tales.

Now we’re introduced to Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), accused of being a witch and always on the run from the law. Turns out, knowing too much about astronomy is means of witchcraft and she’s been sentenced to death. Before she knows it, fate steps in for Carina and Henry and they’re off in search for the Trident of Poseidon to save poor dad. Along the way, they stumble across Captain Jack in the midst of a bank robbery and then they’re all off on another adventure with Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) being forced into helping Salazar find Jack to kill him.

It may sound like faint praise considering the bombastic Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, but compared to the almost home video feel of On Stranger Tides, Dead Men Tell No Tales is definitely the best Pirates film since Curse of the Black Pearl. Directors Rønning and Sandberg at least try to give the film an epic feel, but even at a mere 129 minutes, it’s still a pretty big bore. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty good pairing, but they still only come across as Orlando/Keira Knightley Lite. And I already told you that Depp is sleepwalking his way through another episode of cash cow milking. At least he’s better here than he his return as the Mad Hatter in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

The effects are as top notch as always, which is where the film has the most credibility. Salazar’s spectral crew are the best part of the film. Super creepy. But not even a bout with zombie sharks was enough to leave me enthralled. As always, there’s way too much going on and Dead Men Tell No Tales is every bit as confusing as the last four entries. The series has never been the smartest of blockbusters, but audiences should be given a little more substance than CGI. Summer is off to a rickety start, hopefully things get better from here. I had high hopes for this year’s season, but this is not setting the bar off very high. The fact that there’s a post-credit scene only worries me as it inclines there are more adventures afoot. Guess we’ll have to see how the film does overseas. If the half empty free screening was any indication, we may be ready to see the series walk the plank.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Movie Review: “Baywatch”


Baywatch

*** out of 5
116 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Have you heard the one about the two-hour dick joke? Oh, you don’t want to? Well then I can assure you Baywatch is not for you. For anyone else, there is some fun to be had, even if director Seth Gordon careens wildly from tone to tone. Never knowing whether to take the material seriously or not — it shouldn’t — the film yearns to be another Jump Street, but only winds up merely better than CHIPS. The cast may be  having more fun than the audience, but the few laughs to be had are few and far between.

Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) loves his beach of Emerald Bay, Florida more than anything. Aside from your safety. He takes his role as lead lifeguard very seriously and expects nothing but the best from his fellow crew. Leave it to newbie Matt Brody (Zac Efron) to throw a wrench in his spokes the day of tryouts for new recruits. Mitch hates Brody’s two gold medal-winning former Olympian’s entitlement thrust on him by Captain Thorne (Ron Huebel). Mitch has his eyes on the enthusiastic, but out-of-shape Ronnie (Jon Bass) who has a crush on lifeguard C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach), and over achiever Summer (Alexandra Daddario).

The three new recruits have arrived just in time for drugs to wash up on Mitch’s beloved beaches with all signs pointing to Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), owner of the Huntley Club, who’s been buying up local real estate as a what Mitch assumes is a front for drug smuggling. Now, the motley crew must band together to prove Mitch’s hunch, while trying not to step on the toes of local cop Garner Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and keeping the Captain off his back.

Considering the amount of funny folks behind the scenes of Baywatch — the director, story creditors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant from Reno 911, producer Ivan Reitman, the reliable cast — the film should be way funnier than it is. The biggest culprit is Damian Shannon and Mark Swift’s tone deaf screenplay. The pair’s biggest celluloid contributions are Freddy vs Jason and the Friday the 13th reboot. Both are far more entertaining than this. Abruptly shifting from over the top to melodramatic, the cast can barely keep up. Gordon can hardly make an exciting action sequence, and a lot of the joke build up falls flat on its face.

The cast is the best part and do their best with what they’re given, but this feels like one of the most scripted comedy in years. Not a good thing. While there are moments when the cast improvs a little, there’s a lot of time wasted on plot. Even Rohrbach is hilarious in spurts. The saddest part is that they don’t even truly embrace the R rating. The only reason for the rating is an overindulgence of f-bombs and a scene involving a corpse and its penis.

It’s too bad Baywatch didn’t go full throttle and capture the hilarious start — the opening scene is by far the funniest — so don’t let the moment get you too excited. It may not be a complete failure, but it never tries to be anything better than what we get. Let’s put it this way, there’s a character named Brody who spends a lot of time on the beach and in the water, and there’s not one Jaws joke. Even The Fate of the Furious let Johnson make a Jaws joke. When it comes time to sink or swim, Baywatch flails for safety, but at least it’s never dead in the water.

4K Blu-ray Review: “3:10 to Yuma”

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

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

It’s an anniversary year for both James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma as well as the 1957 original. With the remake celebrating its 10th year, it’s fitting for Lionsgate to release it in 4K rather than simply slapping an anniversary title on the cover with no real upgrades. It’s nice to see the film holds up so well after 10 years. It helps with it being a western because the genre never feels like a product of its time. Maybe with Blazing Saddles as the exception. But with Mangold in the hot seat again and Logan heading to home video next week, it’s even less shocking to see the 4K disc hitting shelves. And while the image quality isn’t exactly head and shoulders above the now also 10-year-old Blu-ray, it offers enough of an upgrade for those worried about a double dip.

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, 3:10 to Yuma tells the sweeping story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a father trying to wrestle with his son William (Logan Lerman) on the cusp of manhood. Events are set into motion when the nefarious Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) offers Dan his herd of missing cows in exchange for Dan’s horses after Tucker (Kevin Durand) set Dan’s barns on fire and gives Dan one week to make good on money owed. Turns out, Ben stole some money and killed some folk and the local law has tracked him down to take him to Contention where they’re going to throw him on the titular train ride to his imminent hanging. Suffice to say, Ben isn’t going down without a fight.

Originally mastered at 2K and 10 years ago, it’s no surprise that 3:10 to Yuma isn’t the knockout it should be. Upscaled to 4K, the film certainly has the advantage of being shot on film offering plenty of detail — that is when Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is in focus. There’s no need to adjust your sharpness settings, the same soft focus permeated the Blu-ray release also. The new transfer excels in blacks and HDR. The blackest blacks make the night sequences feel more realistic while it does take a slight hit on shadow details. As for the HDR, the film feels hotter than ever. If you can’t feel the heat blistering off the cast then you need to do some setting tweaks. On the downside, there is some slight blooming off the cast’s faces. The gorgeous vistas are even more sweeping than ever now, even if the soft focus can cause some of trees and various landscapes to look less than razor sharp.

Back when 3:10 was released on Blu-ray, it came with a rip roaring Uncompressed 7.1 track. While still not having been able to upgrade my sound system to take full advantage of the new DTS:X track, the upgraded 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is still every bit as spectacular as it always has been. 3:10 was a demo disc 10 years ago and it’s still every bit as impressive. Featuring even better ambiance and prioritization, no one will be disappointed if they aren’t able to hear it at its full potential.


In a rare instance, Lionsgate has ported over all of the special features from the Blu-ray aside from the trailer. Considering the inclusion of the Blu-ray, this could have been skipped giving the film even more room to breathe. It is nice to see at least one studio putting forth an effort in the extras department. A few of the better features are Mangold’s “Audio Commentary,” a picture-in-picture feature titled “Inside Yuma,” a collection of “Deleted Scenes,” and I can’t help but love “3:10 to Score” spotlighting Marco Beltrami’s score.

3:10 to Yuma may not be one of the best westerns ever made, but it’s absolutely one of the best modern westerns. Considering how bad even Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven wound up, it just makes me realize that not many directors truly understand what makes them tick any more. At least we still have the classics — which this now qualifies as — to fall back on. Featuring a worthy 4K upgrade — if even more so on the audio front — Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma manages to stand tall among the more questionable 4K additions. With Logan right around the corner, it’s nice to have one of Mangold’s earlier efforts back in the spotlight to prove that he’s always been known for delivering stellar entertainment. 3:10 is a no brainer and videophiles will be more than  happy to add this one to our ever expanding 4K collections.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Movie Review: “Alien: Covenant”


Alien: Covenant

**** out of 5
122 minutes
Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Ridley Scott took an interesting gamble with the release of Prometheus. Instantly divisive, the film was full of huge ideas while surrounding them with some admittedly boneheaded characters. All sci-fi/horror films can be prone to this, so the best approach was ideas first, characters second to get the most enjoyment out of it. With that being said, Scott has taken an even bigger gamble by slapping the official Alien title upon Alien: Covenant.

Beginning with a prologue featuring our new favorite synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) waxing poetic with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), we skip to the year 2104. A colony ship — the Covenant — is headed to a remote planet when a solar shockwave awakens the crew. Forty-seven colonists wind up dead, along with the Captain, Branson (James Franco). Among the crew are Branson’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the new Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) and wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo), the ship’s pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and his wife Faris (Amy Seimetz), along with plenty of other fodder for slaughter. Also on the mission is another synthetic named Walter (also played by Fassbender). A ghost transmission leads them off course to an Earth-like planet where all hell breaks loose as they all soon learn that they are not alone.

To issue a warning upfront, Covenant is way more a Prometheus sequel than it is an Alien prequel. But with Scott having already announced another entry, therein lies the biggest stumbling block: middle child syndrome. All Covenant wants is to find where it fits in and, unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait at least a couple years before we finally find out. As it stands, Scott — and new writers John Logan and Dante Harper — has somehow managed to plant even bigger ideas this time around, even if it only creates more questions than answers. Hopefully, Scott isn’t digging himself into a hole as he tries to marriage the new mythology to the existing Alien universe. The beauty of the original series was it’s simplicity of the xenomorphs picking everyone off one by one. It was the ultimate game of cat and mouse between prey and the hunted. All of this grand backstory is starting to feel even more unnecessary. While it’s amazing to be back in the Alien universe with Scott at the helm, he better find a way to merge the two series together and come up with an epic endgame to make it pay off.

For those of us trusting in Scott’s masterplan — myself included — I say sit back and enjoy the ride. While Alien Covenant may be one of the most predictable — at least as far as tension and scares go — it’s still filled with plenty of reason to go along for the ride. Hopefully, audiences aren’t turned off by the fact that it feels way more Prometheus than Alien so that it can make plenty of money to provide Scott the freedom to take us on another trip. Just because the next entry has been announced doesn’t mean Fox can’t yank it from their slate whenever they want. Covenant may not be the best entry — that claim will undoubtedly always belong to the original — but for now, it’s safe to kick the tires and light the fires.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Movie Review: “Snatched”


Snatched

*** 1/2 out of 5
90 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content, brief nudity, and language throughout
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) may have her share of detractors, but Goldie Hawn is a downright national treasure. Pairing them as mother/daughter — and opening Mother’s Day weekend — in Snatched was a brilliant move casting wise. It’s too bad Katie Dippold’s (The Heat, Ghostbusters) screenplay isn’t as inspired. With director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness, 50/50, Warm Bodies, and The Night Before) at the helm, there should have been more coherency at play. What we get instead is something that feels more like a forgotten ’80s action comedy — something along the lines of Volunteers — where it veers wildly through inconsistent tones. It never knows if it is a wacky adventure or serious mother/daughter vehicle? No one seems to know, so it’s a good thing it’s still hilarious.

Emily (Schumer) is a having a horrible day. She’s been fired from her job and her boyfriend Michael (Randall Park) has broken up with her to go on tour with his band just before they’re supposed to leave on a trip to South America. In order to not lose out on her non-refundable getaway, she talks her mom, Linda (Hawn) into joining. Soon enough, Emily thinks she’s going to hook up with James (Tom Bateman), but instead winds up kidnapped with Linda and the two are on their own to try to find a way home. Meanwhile, they’re being hunted down by the nefarious Morgado (Óscar Jaenada) with only an agoraphobic sibling at home, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz), annoying the U.S. government trying to get some help.

Aside from the scattershot tone shifts, Snatched is every bit as raucous as you’d expect from a Schumer vehicle. It’s a good thing she continues to surround herself with a hilarious supporting cast and a director who understands that sometimes it’s the little things that can be funniest. Plenty of verbal wordplay is at hand such as Emily asking her mom to help her put the fun back in non-refundable or Linda not hearing “welcome” correctly. Thankfully it doesn’t rely on xenophobic jokes and the women manage to become better people, no matter how forced it feels by the end.

Schumer and Hawn make a fantastic mother/daughter duo and with Schumer working on a vehicle for her to play sister opposite Jennifer Lawrence, I am crossing my fingers she brings back Hawn to play mother again. I’m ecstatic to see Hawn on the screen after 15 years and she’s still as winning as ever. Snatched may not be a slam dunk as a whole, but it never tries to be the best comedy ever. Once it finally settles into its shenanigans it starts to pick up the pace. It may have no idea how it wants to end and finally just settles on the most obvious, but the adventure is worth the laughs and this mother’s day, at least audiences weren’t assaulted with a Mother’s Day 2. That in itself may be the biggest blessing of all.

Movie Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

** out of 5
126 minutes 
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures


Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

In the wastelands of Hollywood reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword certainly falls at the bottom of the heap. I figured this could go either way once Ritchie was attached, but I had higher hopes when I saw he had a hand in the screenplay. Maybe that’s where things went awry. While Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur tried its hand at being too realistic, Ritchie takes the exact opposite approach.

This version of the legend infuses itself with horrible acting, bad CGI, no sense of fun, a plodding pace, and a cameo from The Little Mermaid’s Ursula and her Ladies of the Lake. Warner Bros. has a catastrophe on their hands, and judging by a pretty empty theater during the screening I attended, I cannot fathom who this King Arthur was made for. It’s too caught up in the supernatural for hardcore Arthur fans and too boring for anyone else with a pulse to make it out without catching a few zzzs before the credits finally roll.

While it feels convoluted, it’s really quite simple. Uther (Eric Bana) has just defeated the evil Mages — that’s magician, wizard, or sorcerer to you and me — and tries to allow his wife Elsa (Katie McGrath) and Young Arthur (Zac and Oliver Barker) to escape. Just wouldn’t you know it, the Mage Supreme winds up killing Arthur’s mum and pa and he is swept away to be raised by the common folk. Meanwhile, Uther’s brother Vortigen (Jude Law) has taken the thrown after Uther is slayed by the same Mage who killed mommy dearest, but the tide has lowered revealing a magic sword in the stone sending everyone into a frenzy to pull it from it’s resting place.

Once Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is finally old enough to realize his destiny, he sets out to claim his rightful place as King with his band of merry men, err, Knights of the Eventual Round Table — Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Back Lack (Neil Maskell), Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), Percival (Craig McGinlay), Kung Fu George (Tom Wu), oh, and Bill! (Aidan Gillen) — and a Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) of his own in tow.

If there’s one thing made clear, it’s that Disney is still the winner of the King Arthur adaptations. With no Merlin or sense of humor in sight — at least not after the first half hour — all audiences are left with are A Knight’s Tale outcasts with just enough rapport to make you wish the film was about them and not the boring Hunnam’s version of Arthur. There are so many issues with the film, most of them spoilery, so it’s really hard to tell where to lay blame for this fiasco. There apparently is an audience for the film based on some of my colleagues’ reactions. This King Arthur is not just one of the worst, it’s also one of Guy Ritchie’s worst. And this is the man who made Swept Away and Revolver! That should be just about all you need to know to make anyone fear stepping foot into a theater showing this waste of two hours. You can’t blame Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for its imminent demise, the film is every bit as bad as it looks, if not worse.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

***** out of 5
136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive
Marvel Studios

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Ant-Man and Doctor Strange raised eyebrows when they were announced. But it was Guardians of the Galaxy that had its work cut out for it the most. Spotlighting a talking tree and a lovably maniacal raccoon, co-writer/director James Gunn had more to prove than anyone. We wound up with one of Marvel’s best entries to their Cinematic Universe — the MCU in geekspeak. A ragtag group of losers — Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) words, not mine — wound up saving the universe and proving that Marvel could mine gold out of the most offbeat titles imaginable.

Now, here comes Vol. 2 with an even bigger scope, bigger laughs, and bigger heart. Anyone worried about Gunn dishing up a case of sequelitis can rest their fears. Vol. 2 is one Marvel’s best films.

Kicking off in Missouri, Earth, 1980, we are whisked back in time to meet Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) and Ego (a spectacularly CGI-ed Kurt Russell). The two are madly in love and Ego takes her into the forest to show her something. Cut to 34 years later and we’re thrust into the Guardians’ latest shenanigan to protect a power source for the Sovereign, lead by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). Soon enough, they’re on the run from the Sovereign and are rescued by what Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) refers to as a one-inch man.

Peter and Rocket manage to crash land on Berhert where they’re followed by their mystery savior who just so happens to be Ego, Peter’s father. Now, Ego has taken Peter — along with Rocket, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) — to his planet, where Peter must come to terms with his heritage as part Celestial, while Ego’s resident Empath, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), harbors a secret. Oh, and Yondu (Michael Rooker) is also on the hunt for the Guardians and dealing with his own discretions and outcasting from the Ravagers.

Drax and Baby Groot completely steal the show this time around. Yondu and Ego also bring plenty of life to the galaxy. Don’t get me wrong, the entire cast is great, but Bautista, and Sean Gunn (brother of James and On-Set Rocket), are true showstoppers. The special effects are as amazing as we’ve come to expect — and even bigger with alternating aspect ratios returning for the IMAX version — but Gunn has clearly been entrusted to deliver the film he wanted to make. Loopy, goofy, full of heart, and gut-bustingly hysterical — with just a dash of gallows humor for good measure, he is, after all, cut from the Troma cloth — no one will leave dissatisfied.

Yes, there is the expected now-annoying Stan Lee cameo, and there are five end-credit scenes — the very last not worth the wait — but Vol. 2 is overstuffed in the best possible ways. The soundtrack is every bit as awesome as Vol. 1, even if not necessarily at first listen. The villain this outing — no spoilers here — is way better than Lee Pace’s Ronan, and while Thanos never makes an appearance, he’s still talked about quite a bit, foreshadowing some characters’ involvement with upcoming Marvel releases. It’s a great start to the year for Marvel.  Next up we have Spider-man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok to look forward to. For now, the Guardians are here to kick off the summer movie season in spectacular style.

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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Movie Review: “Life”


Life

**** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It was certainly an odd choice for Columbia Pictures to release Life so close to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake. While I get the tactic of counter-programming, Life had a ton of rumors swirling around it. Non-disclosure agreements were signed at SXSW and the long-gestating Spidey-villain Venom film was announced for next year. Suddenly, what seemed like a little sci-fi thriller with a great cast was thrust into the spotlight with some asking, “Is this a top secret Venom prequel?” While there’s no spoiler in confirming that director Daniel Espinosa’s Life has zero to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is safe to say that it still holds its own. Thanks to the cast and screenwriters’ Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s (Zombieland, Deadpool) intense atmosphere, Life is still a whole lot of fun.

In an unspecified future, the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission aboard an International Space Station, has just captured a Mars space probe returning with sought-after samples on board. The crew — Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), Rory (Ryan Reynolds), Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), David (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), and Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) — are excited to be the first to discover that yes, there is life on Mars. Unfortunately for them, what appears to be a single cell organism quickly evolves. Rory doesn’t trust it. Hugh is fascinated by it. And Miranda is standing by for the CDC in case of an emergency. Soon enough, their discovery — named “Calvin” — starts to morph into a murderous monster. Now, the crew is pitted in a race against time to save themselves while keeping Calvin from finding its way to Earth.

Some may have a hard time with Life considering it careens so far off in the second act, away from its original homages to 2001 and Alien. What we get instead is a space station funhouse where the crew is picked off one by one as the creature continues to grow and become more vicious. There are a few random instances where the screenplay gets bogged down in exposition, but as a creature feature, it plays like gangbusters. Once it gets to the action that is. It also takes its cues from ’80s slasher films as Reese and Wernick find unique ways to kill everyone off. Meanwhile, Espinosa — best known for his foreign language offerings — makes sure to keep the pace, and heart rates, at full tilt with Calvin manages to literally be anywhere while also showing just how smart it’s becoming.

Others may balk at the anticlimactic ending. The creative team aims for a downbeat, ironic twist, and makes you wonder if Sony is planning on making enough money to warrant a sequel. Instead of a sequel, they should have had the writers stretch the screenplay out a little more, to finish the story off. As fun as Life is, it probably won’t get a second installment This is not a franchise starter. Thankfully, I was able to separate my hopes for a Venom prequel and let the film prove itself. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s definitely every bit as slick and vicious as Calvin. Could it have been a little leaner and meaner? Possibly. But that doesn’t get in the way of having a good time at the movies. This is a popcorn sci-fi entertainer and for those willing to not let the second half get in the way, you’ll walk out asking if you can finally breathe again. And that’s fine praise for any thriller. Just because it’s called Life, doesn’t mean it has to be philosophical.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Movie Review: “Beauty and the Beast”


Beauty and the Beast

*** out of 5
129 minutes
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

The old saying “lightning never strikes twice” may have been debunked, but it still holds true in the case of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Clinging to nostalgia, there’s not enough new to warrant director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) live-action existence. While never quite a Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake, it comes pretty close at times. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos may get full credit, but all they’ve done is padded out Linda Woolverton’s original screenplay to an excessive two hours. Thankfully, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs save the day whenever the pacing starts to lag. For the remake — with Ashman having passed before the 1991 classic was even released — Menken has joined forces with Tim Rice to add a few new songs, all instantly forgettable.

The tale as old as time barely moves away from the original. The Beast (Dan Stevens), and his castle full of workers have been cursed by an enchantress. Years later, Belle (Emma Watson) spends her time reading books, wondering why she has to put up with the sordid village her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) has raised her to be an outcast in. Gaston (Luke Evans) preens around town with his unrequited piner LeFou (Josh Gad) in tow as the women fall at his feet even though he only has eyes for Belle. Soon enough, Maurice is trapped in the Beast’s castle, with Belle taking his place as his captive. Now, Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) must find a way for Belle and Beast to fall in love to break the spell before they all become stuck as household appliances forever.

I did not have high hopes for the remake. From the first trailer, something seemed off to me and I couldn’t put my finger on it until Disney finally released the first clip of Belle singing her theme song. Then it hit me, it looked like a live TV production. Was this going to be no better than the recent string of Peter Pan, Grease, Hairspray, or even worse, The Sound of Music? The good news is that once the film moves past this opening number, it manages to open up and feels like a real movie. The bad news is, as good as the cast may be — particularly Stevens as our beloved Beast — the visuals are never as good as they should be. Beast fares the worst. Ron Perlman worked wonders beneath heavy makeup back in the ’80s TV show — something this film easily could have been nominated for had they used any — but alas, they have gone and made the Beast a complete motion-capture study in wasted opportunity.

As if that isn’t bad enough, this Beauty and the Beast feels much darker than the original masterpiece. It could just be that it already was, but never felt that way considering it was animated. But the ending to this just feels warped in live action and ultimately creepy. Anyone looking forward to this will probably love every minute of it. As a huge fan of the Best Picture nominated, Best Animated winner, all I could do was breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t the disaster I had prepared myself for. While it may get the songs stuck in your head, you’ll only find yourself hearing the originals, having ingrained themselves into our subconscious over the last 26 years.

Disney will continue beating their live-action remakes into the ground — Aladdin has already begun the casting process, along with The Lion King — we all know no one milks a cash cow the way the Mouse House does. Unfortunately for the rest of us, all we can do is be grateful that Beauty and the Beast may not be as good as The Jungle Book, but it’s also never as mediocre as Cinderella, and nowhere near as painful as Maleficent. Although, it is every bit unnecessary as can be.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Movie Review: “Kong: Skull Island”


Kong: Skull Island

***** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

My love for monster movies/creature features runs deep. It’s wondrous when they get them right: full of spectacular special effects and the watching something truly larger than life. And it brings me nothing but joy that Kong: Skull Island is everything fans could hope for and more. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts — of the criminally underseen indie The Kings of Summer — and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), and Max Borenstein (Godzilla) have kickstarted the Warner Bros. monsterverse with one of the best since the original Jurassic Park.

Beginning in 1944, we find a young Hank Marlow (Will Brittain), crash landing on Skull Island during a dogfight against the Japanese Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi). They quickly learn they are not alone on the island. Jumping to 1977, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have just arrived in D.C. to convince Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to fund their expedition for Project Monarch. Their mission is to discover Skull Island before the Russians can, to prove the existence of creatures from a land where time never stopped. Now, they’re headed for Skull Island with a military escort in tow, lead by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), with tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) along for the ride. But ulterior motives come to light and quickly turn into a fight for survival. And Hank (John C. Reilly) just may be their only hope of getting off the island alive.

The only thing potentially working against Kong’s favor, is too much action. Make no mistake, this is absolutely not a retelling of the original 1933 story. There’s a specific reason the film’s IMAX poster recalls Apocalypse Now. Even while packed with way more humor than you’d guess — a Jackson one-liner steals the movie — it rarely slows to catch its breath. This is also the most flat-out violent version of King Kong put to film yet. There are some jaw-dropping moments that make you want to scream, “Did we just see that?” While it may be PG-13, there is plenty of carnage candy to behold. And yes, there is a bonus scene after the end credits.

Kong: Skull Island may be stripped down story wise, but it’s all for the better. Gone is the damsel in distress sequences. All of the action is contained to the island setting. Some may feel that the ending is anticlimactic, but in the grand scheme of things, it works as a setup. Plus, it doesn’t exactly have full closure, giving an immediate jumping point to the next film. If you’re wondering why it’s set in the ’70s when Godzilla was set in the present, pay attention. It makes sense. The new monsterverse needs the room to grow, as does Kong himself, with the already announced Godzilla vs. Kong a mere three years away. This is an amazing adventure of epic proportions sure to please anyone looking for some true fun. I know I already have a ticket to see it again this weekend in IMAX 3D. Hail to the King, Kong is back and better than ever!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Movie Review: “Table 19”


Table 19

*** out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity
Fox Searchlight

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
Not every comedy needs to be a complete laugh riot. With a likeable enough cast, and characters you at least care somewhat about, you can get away with a lot. While not everything works in writer/director Jeffrey Blitz’s Table 19, it’s a pleasant enough diversion to get through the week as we await for the big Hollywood blockbusters to start revving up. IMDB may be misleading with it giving screenplay credit to brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, but Blitz still manages to throw together a nice little throwback to ’80s comedies that had just as much drama to go along with the comedy.

Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is in a pickle. She’s just received an invitation to her oldest friend’s wedding — which she helped plan no less. She’s torn on whether to attend or not as she was dumped two months ago by the bride’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell). She decides to throw caution to the wind and shows up only to find out that she’s been delegated to the dreaded table 19 at the back of the reception hall. Thrust into the woes alongside fellow miscreants diner owners Jerry and Bina Keep (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), the sexually adventurous virgin Rezno (Tony Revolori), secretly on vacation from the halfway house Walter (Stephen Merchant), and Teddy’s old nanny Jo (June Squibb), Eloise has come to make amends, expel a truth, and face her past whether Teddy — or his new girlfriend (Amanda Crew) — likes it or not.

Simplicity is the name of the game for Table 19 and if this had been a TV episode it would almost be a bubble episode. Thankfully, Blitz was smart enough to cast engaging performers to make the material work better than it should. Not every character rises to the occasion — Rezno barely proves himself more than a nuisance — but it all comes down to Eloise’s plight in the end. If you can feel for her, you’ll be able to make it to the end of the film with a smile on your face and least a few good laughs along the way.

Table 19 will not wind up winning any awards, but it never makes itself out to be more than it is either. It’s a chance for Kendrick to be as awkwardly adorable as expected. Merchant makes a bid to steal the film away from her, but Kendrick continues to prove she can carry a film, even if it’s with a little help from the supporting characters. It does start to feel long at times, and at a mere 87 minutes it’s far shorter than most films these days. Kendrick fans will not be left wanting more. But for those wanting something a little broader, it would do you well to steer clear.

Movie Review: “Before I Fall”


Before I Fall

*** out of 5
99 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images, and language-all involving teens 
Open Road Films

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

I was truly conflicted after sitting through Before I Fall. On one hand, I completely loathed the first 30 minutes of director Ry Russo-Young’s dark twist on Groundhog Day. On the other, I almost loved the last hour. Unfortunately, Maria Maggenti’s cliche-filled screenplay — adapting Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel — could have pulled a rabbit out of her hat, instead, she simply falls back on exactly what you saw coming from the moment our protagonist wakes up on her first of many replayed days. It’s such a shame, really. What could have wound up as quite the surprise only leaves you walking out of the theater with a bad taste in your mouth.

Samantha (Zoey “daughter of Lea Thompson” Deutch) loves being in high school. Being part of the “Mean Girls” — along with Lindsay (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu) — she spends her day collecting roses from admirers for “Cupid’s Day” before getting their party on that night. Samantha’s childhood friend Kent (Logan Miller) is throwing the party, but the outcast and bullied Juliet (Elena Kampouris) decides to crash it. Unlucky for Juliet, her message doesn’t get through and she’s thrown out. Samantha and her girls decide they’ve had enough and leave as well, only to wind up in a car wreck, where Samantha is spent reliving that day ad nauseum. Now, she must figure out why she’s stuck in a time loop and find a way out before she loses her sanity for good.

Before I Fall starts off to a rocky start. How rocky? When Ally is talking about the butterfly effect at lunch, Lindsay jumps in about how she’s heard a story that for every person who watches a pretentious video, three other people die of boredom, causing me to grab a colleague’s arm and ask him, “Are we going to die?!” But once the crash happens and Samantha sets out on her journey of self discovery and spiritual awakening, she starts spending time with other characters who used to be very minor. She takes a day off to spend one day with her younger sister Izzy (Erica “sister of Jacob” Tremblay) and then another day she skips the party altogether to go to dinner with the family.

Considering the film is a mystery at its core, it’s sad that it all falls apart so drastically in the last five minutes. It also makes the rest of the film a bit of a headscratcher. You’ll know what I mean once the credits roll. Teenagers are the obvious target here, so considering I loved most of the film, means they should really enjoy all of it. And since they’re the target demographic after all, that’s a good sign. Because there’s not much else for teen girls to flock to, this could be just the sort of counterprogramming Open Road Films can rely on against Logan for at least a decent opening weekend. It’s not the worst thing playing in theaters, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Blu-ray Review: “Bad Santa 2”

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

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

The first Bad Santa came out of nowhere and wound up being a delightfully raunchy surprise. It honestly shouldn’t have been too surprising considering it was directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), written by the duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (This Is Us, I Love You Phillip Morris), and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen. Along with an amazing cast, they delivered an instant holiday classic for adults. Helped considerably by Billy Bob Thornton’s lovably seedy turn as Willie, it was only a matter of time before a sequel came along. Unfortunately, Bad Santa 2 got stuck in development hell for 13 years. Considering it took as long as it did to finally hit theaters, it’s a wonder director Mark Waters’s film has any laughs at all.

It’s been a long time since Willie and Marcus (Tony Cox) have seen each other. That’s what happens when your partner turns on you, leaving you to get shot by the police and serve your time. But Willie is every bit as surly as ever. He may hate his life, but soon enough, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) arrives with a mis-delivered package, and the opportunity to reunite with Marcus. Turns out, Marcus wants to offer Willie a piece of a huge score worth millions of dollars in Chicago. And just wouldn’t you know it, the real mastermind winds up being Willie’s estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). A conspiracy is brewing and Sunny wants to defraud a homeless charity run by Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks), whose husband Regent (Ryan Hansen) is stealing from. Now, the crew is back together to make, and settle, the score.

Broad Green Pictures has released Bad Santa 2 in both 4K and standard Blu-ray, and includes the theatrical and unrated versions. While I did not receive the 4K disc for review, it was finished in 4K so I would have to imagine that while the picture looks really good here, it should look even better on that disc. Colors are bright, almost verging in bloom, with some reds having a pink tone. Details are impeccable — sometimes for better and worse — with no technical anomalies. Banding, aliasing, and crush are nonexistent. As was the case with Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, some improvement can be made in the realm of shadows. Blacks aren’t as dark as they could be, but if they were — as was the case with Billy Flynn — it would result in the loss of detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio gets the job done. The film is a comedy after all so don’t expect to be overwhelmed with surround usage. Music never drowns out the dialogue, so don’t worry, you’ll never miss any of Willie’s snide remarks. An additional Spanish 5.1 DTS Surround track is included, along with English and Spanish subtitles.

It may not necessarily seem like a film ripe for an abundance of special features, but there are a lot stuffed in its sack. Kicking things off is a quick looks at how much Thurman hasn’t changed over the last 13 years — “Thurman Then & Now” (2:27). They joke about how Kelly has grown up and slimmed down so he was asked to put back on 50 pounds and bleach/perm his hair. “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette” (2:00) is a chance for the cast to let off some more profanities. “That’s My Willie” (3:51) is an original animated series featuring the misadventures of Willie and Thurman. “Jingle Balls” (0:35) is a quick reimagining of “Jingle Bells” using swears from the film. “Trailers and Spots” (7:14) is a collection of, well, the film’s trailers and internet spots.

A “Gag Reel” (3:59) is every bit as unfunny as the finished film. “Alternate Opening” (1:00) reintroduces us to Willie working as a janitor. “Deleted Scenes” (2:41) aren’t separated and offer nothing more to the shenanigans. “Alternate Ending” (2:49) is completely forgettable, but revolves around Willie learning life lessons. And finally, a gigantic offering of “Sneak Peeks” includes trailers for 14 films(!): Bridget Jones’s Baby, Last Days in the Desert, Knight of Cups, Song of Lahore, Break Point, 10,000 KM, Samba, Eden, I Smile Back, Learning to Drive, The Infiltrator, A Walk in the Woods, 99 Homes, and The Dark Horse. The last four all front-loaded for your skipping pleasure.

It’s too bad that absolutely none of the original creative team returned, because Bad Santa 2 really needed it. Simply slapping the ol’ Santa suit on Thornton and have him act(?) drunk while saying mean-spirited quips is not enough to make up for its existence. The original still stands as one of the funniest holiday films and thankfully, this one doesn’t tarnish its name. Featuring great video, expected audio, and flat-lined special features, only the first film’s biggest fans will find this a worthwhile follow up. It’s far from the worst sequel ever made, but Bad Santa 2 is absolutely one of the most unnecessary. At least this one was not the runaway success the first one was. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell we’ll have to endure a third round.
 

Blu-ray Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

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

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Ang Lee is known for making quality films. Unfortunately, every director is known to have a bad day. For Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk wound up being an outright disaster. Wanting to present one of the most immersive film experiences possible, he filmed Billy Lynn in 3D, at 4K, and a frame rate of 120. It’s basically unwatchable in its native state. With next to no theaters even equipped to play it as it was meant to be seen, it was downgraded to 2D and the standard 24 frames per second. Not even the formatting could cover up the fact that he simply chose the wrong material to approach such an ambitious undertaking. The fact of the matter is, war may be hell, but so to can be filmmaking. And the real culprit, is Jean-Christophe Castelli’s mediocre adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel and his sleepwalking cast.

Billy (Joe Alwyn) may be an Army specialist who was caught on film saving a wounded Sergeant Virgil “Shroom” Breem (Vin Diesel) during a firefight, but he’s still just a 19-year-old boy. With the rest of his unit — deemed the “Bravo Squad” in the news — he returns home to Texas where he finds himself trying to deal with his own PTSD and newfound fame. Bravo Squad is scheduled to be part of a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving halftime show, and the stage is set for the extravaganza. But behind the scenes, the unit is dealing with their newfangled reality, while film producer Albert Brown (Chris Tucker) is negotiating the rights to their movie.

I have to admit, I was a little sad when the 2D standard 1080p Blu-ray disc arrived. I was hoping to give the 4K presentation a firm shot at redemption, especially since it plays at 60 frames per second. Alas, even with the 4K 3D 120fps picture downgraded to 2D 1080p at 24fps, it gets the job done. Unfortunately, there are only a few moments where the picture is as good as it should be. Detail is as crisp as expected, but with this being a digital production, sometimes blacks aren’t as dark as they could be. Thankfully, colors generally pop more than anticipated, even if skin tones waver into pinkish hues. The best scenes are any taking place outside in the blazing Iraqi landscapes and during the big halftime show.

Also downgraded for the Blu-ray disc is the audio. The 4K comes equipped with both Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 tracks. Here, we get a standard 5.1 DTS-HD track. The 2D disc really feels like Sony dropped the ball. However, the titular halftime show and the Iraqi war sequences manage to get the job done. It’s never as immersive as a 7.1 track might have been, but things still blow up real good when they do. Also included is a 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio Description track and subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.

A collection of “Deleted Scenes” kick off the special features. The only one that really could have changed the film for the better is the first, “One Nation, Nine Heroes” (3:41) which is an alternate opening giving the unit their dues. Character introductions could have helped immensely, because you never once really care about any of the squad throughout the movie. Something that should never happen when based on true events. The rest of the scenes are: “Family Dinner” (1:27), “Old Enough to Die For My Country” (1:25), “What You’ve Seen” (1:38), “We’re Just Messing with You” (1:13), and “Get Ready” (1:16).

Four featurettes cover the production (“Into Battle and Onto the Field: Stepping Inside Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” 9:21), cast (“Assembling a Cast” 11:29), halftime show (“Recreating the Halftime Show” 6:27), and the extremes Lee put the boys through as they had to endure a boot camp to prep for the shoot (“The Brotherhood of Combat” 4:24).

Had as much time been spent on punching up the script as Lee put into attempting such a visually immersive picture, perhaps the technical merits could have stood up to scrutiny. As it stands, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a vague mess that never knows whether it’s trying to get a point across or simply aiming for satire. The meta bits certainly don’t help. We’re basically watching a filmed version of the making of the film. The cast do what they can with the material, but even they are left high and dry with Lee trying to deliver a feast for the eyes that next to no one even saw.

A colleague informed me that he blind-purchased the 4K pack out of mere curiosity, and I honestly can’t wait to at least see — as close as I can — to what Lee meant the film to look like. The 2D presentation manages to be as good as you’d expect, especially being a Sony disc — they’re always top tier — but the film certainly feels like a missed opportunity from start to finish. Only the most hardcore war film fans will find the film worth sitting through, anyone else will be bored to tears wondering what all the fuss was about.