Monday, February 27, 2017

Blu-ray Review: “Bad Santa 2”

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

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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: ***

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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.

Blu-ray Review: “The Edge of Seventeen”

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

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The teen dramedy was never really considered a genre of its own until John Hughes managed to single-handedly master it. Since his heyday, we’ve been subjected to so many teen movies, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Once in awhile they manage to still hit the bullseye, such as writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious The Edge of Seventeen. Providing Hailee Steinfeld a role that shows her Oscar-nominated turn in True Grit was no fluke, Seventeen also manages to wash the bad taste out of our mouths after Craig’s disastrously received Post Grad. Having learned from her mistakes, Craig proves she’s far more in touch with her teenage angst than she is with millennial entitlement.

Introvert Nadine (Steinfeld) may have always lived in the shadow of her jock older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), but she makes the most out of life with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) by her side. That is, until Krista takes a liking to Darian, making Nadine question everything she knows about their friendship. Thankfully, Nadine has her favorite teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) to bitch to about how awful her life is, not realizing she’s interrupting his lunch, the one time of day he’s supposed to be able to find serenity. Nadine also begins to embark on her own sexual awakening as she maneuvers between her lovably dorky classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and the older Nick (Alexander Calvert), whom she just wants to lose her virginity to.

Universal Studios brings The Edge of Seventeen to Blu-ray for STX Entertainment on a 50GB disc in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Filmed digitally, the film never falters with the sometimes flat appearance digital photography offers. Detail is super sharp with colors extremely natural. Once in awhile, blacks could stand to be a little darker, but considering it would result in loss of detail, it’s a wash. There was one quick instance of banding, otherwise everything from aliasing and crush are non-existent. There is some noisy phone captured footage, but considering its source, it’s acceptable.

Where the disc is on the verge of overkill is with the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While there are very few instances for ambience, it serves absolutely no purpose. At least it does manage to make every hilarious line of dialogue audible and when there happens to be a party scene or anything happening outside, the surrounds envelope the soundscape nicely. It’s the only audio track, but there are Spanish subtitles available.

With the film being an indie endeavor, it should come as no surprise that it is pretty scant on the special features. A “Gag Reel” (5:21) is pretty fun to watch. Mostly for the sake of seeing how much fun the cast had on set. It helps the audience believe the characters all like each other when you know the cast did too. A collection of “Deleted Scenes” comes with a play all option, even if none of them add a lot to the film as whole. Included are: “Nadine Asleep in Mr. Bruner’s Classroom” (1:53), “Mona’s Interior Monologue” (0:43), and “Nadine Needs the Bathroom Key” (1:14).

When it came time to cast our nominees for the annual Utah Film Critics Association voting, Steinfeld made it onto my ballot for Best Actress and Craig’s screenplay almost squeaked in. The Edge of Seventeen was one of the best films of 2016 which is no small feat. It may not have been a great year as a whole, but there were some fantastic films sprinkled throughout. This is definitely one of them. Filled with a charming cast and hilarious, poignant observations on teenagers, the hype was real. Seventeen fits right alongside modern teen comedy classics such as Juno. With a fantastic video/audio presentation — even if light on the special features — The Edge of Seventeen lives up to the hype and stands as one of the best comedies you might not have seen. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, it’s like, totally worth a blind buy.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Movie Review: “Logan”


***** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity
Twentieth Century Fox

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It’s been a long time coming, but Wolverine fans finally get the film they — and the beloved character — deserve. Logan is perfect. A lot of people hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and for good reason. It was a mess from beginning to end.

Ironically, now we’ve been treated to both an R-rated Deadpool film, and Wolverine, that Marvel fans have been clamoring for. Full of foul language and gory action scenes, it feels jaw-dropping, even if because audiences may have worried they’d never get to see Wolverine in real action. The closest being the Unleashed Extended edition of The Wolverine. James Mangold managed to create a much better director’s cut than even the fun theatrical release — filled with the gore and profanity we yearned for. But it was never shown on the big screen.

Now, Mangold is back, and completely unleashed, and the rest will be history.

Logan (Jackman) is trying to make a living as a driver in 2029 where mutants are nearly extinct. He hides out at an abandoned Mexico facility with Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Charles has been suffering from seizures and is growing older by the day, but claims he has been communicating with a young mutant who needs help. Along comes Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), herself being sought after by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who needs Logan’s help getting Laura/X-23 (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota. Here, a sanctuary called “Eden,” may be her last hope for survival. It sets a road trip in motion after Laura takes out Pierce’s crew, forcing Logan, Charles, and Laura to go on the lam.

The years have been mostly kind to the X-Men franchise. The original film — nearly 17 years old now — paved the way for a new kind of superhero movie. Read: films that worked! There have been at least a few fumbles along the way — X-Men: The Last Stand, Origins and, to a certain extent, even Apocalypse — but when an X-Men movie works, it really works. Logan is without a doubt, the best X-Men film ever. And not just because we finally get all the gore and swears. Here’s a superhero movie filled with way more emotion than you’d ever expect.

Everything comes together spectacularly. Mangold proves he can deliver the character pieces he’s known for, while melding with the comicbook genre. The cast is Grade-A solid. Even Holbrook is a great foil to both Logan and Laura. It’s really hard to keep from venturing into spoiler territory. But let’s just say that audiences are in for some huge surprises, and also some not-so-surprises. Not that that’s a bad thing, but there are a few things that are not hard to realize are coming. The best part is Keen’s X-23 is the biggest little badass we may see on screen all year — at least in theaters. Eleven still rules the small screen. Believe the hype machine, Logan is one of the best comicbook films of all time and will undoubtedly stand as one of 2017’s best films. It’s going to be a long two weeks until I can finally see this one again.

Movie Review: “The Great Wall”

The Great Wall

** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
Universal Studios

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Back in the early 2000s when wuxia/kung fu films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or anything starring Jackie Chan, were all the rage in the U.S., I became transfixed on the beautiful artistry of Yimou Zhang’s Hero. Full of amazingly choreographed fight scenes and stunning cinematography, I didn’t care if the story didn’t translate well. I saw it four times and you can bet I was back when Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers arrived. Unfortunately, by the time 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower came around, the genre was repetitive. When I learned Zhang was directing The Great Wall — a creature feature, starring Matt Damon, and set against the backdrop of China’s titular wonder of the world, I perked up. Well, no matter how much money you can throw into a production, plenty can still go awry.

During the Song dynasty, William (Damon) is caught searching for black powder. Along with fellow mercenary Tovar (Pedro Pascal), they are captured after killing some kind of creature. They bring the creature’s hand with them where they are taken prisoner by the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). It doesn’t take long before the creatures spring their first attack, leaving William looked at as some kind of savior after killing one of them, and now, a 60-year-old battle has begun, with William and Tovar caught in the middle.

Any creature feature fan expects the film to be fun, no matter how ludicrous the premise. The Great Wall is not fun. I was hoping for unintentionally hilarious, but even Damon’s dopey accent doesn’t work. Zhang at least still knows how to film an action scene, even if some of them patter on way too long. Sadly, the screenplay — credited to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy — is hindered. It could have been better had the credited story trio (Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz) been allowed to let loose. Not even the shortish 103 minute runtime can save the day. The film feels hours long and you never once care for anyone’s plight. It’s all just a bloated special effects extravaganza. At least the monsters are kind of cool. But even they aren’t worth wasting your time or money. The Great Wall is really just “The Great Yawn.”

Movie Review: “A Cure for Wellness”

A Cure for Wellness

** out of 5
146 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language
Twentieth Century Fox

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Director Gore Verbinski sure can jump from one genre to another. Showing his eye for hilarious visuals and slapstick with Mousehount, he wasn’t heard from again until the Julia Roberts/Brad Pitt black comedy The Mexican. It was an abrupt shift for the director, but what came next was an even bigger shock: The Ring. One-upping Hideo Nakata’s original, The Ring still stands as one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. From there he quickly boarded the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. After jumping ship, he delivered one of his best films after in Rango for Lucasfilm. Cracks began to show in his skills with the gluttony of The Lone Ranger. Now, Verbinski delivers his biggest snoozefest yet with A Cure for Wellness.

Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young executive sent to look for his company’s missing CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), after taking a sabbatical at a “wellness center” retreat in the Swiss Alps. Here, Lockhart discovers that the relaxation may not be as natural as it should. Among the possibly sinister staff are the super-odd father/daughter duo Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and Hannah (Mia Goth). Things go from bad to worse as everyone does whatever they can to keep Lockhart from returning home, and eventually, Lockhart discovers Volmer’s true intent behind his clinic.

I was looking forward to A Cure for Wellness seeing how Verbinski certainly proved he can creep audiences out with the best of them after unleashing The Ring remake. Unfortunately, Verbinski is saddled with Justin Haythe’s overindulgent screenplay. At a bloated 146 minutes, had about a half hour been trimmed, he may have had a modern classic on his hands. It’s too bad the script gets so outright icky in the last 15 minutes, and Verbinski seems to forget his subtle shock tactics when he goes for the jugular.

This is just a boring film. Scenes seem to go on forever while serving absolutely no purpose. DeHaan continues to annoy as a lead and Goth isn’t given as much to do as the virginal Hannah as she should. It is all shot rather spectacularly by Bojan Bazelli, but Verbinski’s plodding pace simply makes A Cure for Wellness only a cure for insomnia.

Movie Review: “Fist Fight”

Fist Fight

* out of five
91 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material
Warner Bros. Pictures

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It’s a shame when a movie really could have come together, only to wind up falling so hard. Fist Fight — which should have been titled Teacher Fight — involves so many normally great comedic actors, it’s surprisingly unbearable from start to finish. Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Kumail Nanjiani — all so great in other things, pretty much anything else — are joined by the likes of Ice Cube, Dean Norris, and Christina Hendricks, to deliver one of the year’s worst films so far.

Andy Campbell (Day) is not looking forward to the last day of school. As a teacher surrounded by shenanigans, it doesn’t help that it’s also senior prank day. Already bullied by the students and fellow staffers — including Coach Crawford (Morgan), Holly (Bell), Principal Tyler (Norris), Ms. Monet (Hendricks), and school security Mehar (Nanjiani) — his day goes from bad to worse when he manages to piss off the most ill-tempered teacher in the whole school, Strickland (Ice Cube), and winds up getting him fired after he attacks a student with an axe. Andy is also dealing with his pregnant wife, Maggie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), and demanding daughter Ally (Alexa Nisenson).

Fist Fight isn’t just a bad comedy, it’s a horrible movie through and through. One could have hoped director Richie Keen had honed in on his experience with Day having directed 11 episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But screenwriters Van Robichaux and Evan Susser only managed to come up with one good joke. And even that one was probably a Bell ad-lib. Spoiler alert: “Whoever dies first haunts the school!” That’s the funniest thing in the film and you’ll be sorry you wasted your time and money.

Not even at a short 91 minutes can Keen keep the pace, nor bother to build momentum. There’s been plenty of comedies that get better as they chug along to the finale — which at least they deliver on. But who knew we needed a remake of the little seen Three O’Clock High or wanted one. Nothing works here and it makes sense for Warner Bros. to dump it right in the middle of February. At one point, Day is dragged down a flight of stairs by a horse on meth, and that would be better than ever having to sit through Fist Fight ever again.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Movie Review: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

John Wick: Chapter 2

***** out of 5
122 minutes
Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity
Summit Entertainment

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Hollywood makes ultraviolence look ultra-cool. R-rated action movies have always succeeded when it comes to bathing in excess, and right now, there’s honestly no action series cooler than John Wick. I missed the first film when it hit theaters back in 2014, but made sure to snatch up a review copy when it hit Blu-ray. That was a fantastic decision. Full of some of the best choreographed action in years, it was a complete surprise that blew me away. With the announcement of the sequel, I was giddy, yet cautious. We all know how easily sequels can screw up a franchise. It is with great honor to proclaim that John Wick: Chapter 2 does everything a good sequel is supposed to do — and then some.

Chapter 2 picks up with an astounding street chase between hitman Wick (Keanu Reeves) and a motorcycle. Turns out, our cyclist holds a key to gain entrance to kingpen Abram’s (Peter Stormare) — brother of Viggo from the first film — chop shop. Abram has Wick’s beloved Mustang and he wants it back. Wick returns home with his battered ride, when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes calling to collect on a debt. Wick owes him a favor and his peace and retirement are going to have to wait. After refusing, Santino blows up Wick’s house — this time the dog survives — and Wick is left with no choice but to return to his old ways for one last job. Santino wants him to kill his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), which winds up putting an open contract on Wick himself. Now, Wick must battle his way through anyone and everyone to take down Santino and save himself in the process.

The Raid 2 is the only sequel that comes close to a comparison of John Wick: Chapter 2. That film also took a simply structured first film and blows it up in the second.

The underground society Wick belongs to is made astonishingly real, with threats looming literally at every corner. Some awesome adversaries abound in the likes of Ruby Rose and Common, in particular, and we get an extended cameo by the original Django himself, Franco Nero! The violence is still every bit as choreographed — while over-the-top — as the first time, but there very well could be twice as many kills. The cast are all having a ball, especially Reeves who clearly relishes having a chance to shine again. The years have been hit-and-miss for him since The Matrix, but this is way more fun than even that first film. Speaking of The Matrix, it’s pure joy to see Reeves opposite Laurence Fishburne having a conversation on a rooftop. Chills!

John Wick: Chapter 2 is the wham bam thank you ma’am action film we’ve been waiting for. Fans of the first film will leave elated and begging for more. Especially with the film ending — mild spoiler alert — on a cliffhanger. Returning director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad are having the time of their lives with these films and I can only imagine where they’ll take it from here. If they manage to one-up themselves yet again, the sky’s the limit and action fans will have a new classic trilogy — if they stop at three, which feels natural at this point. But if they keep making them like this, they can keep making them as long as they want. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the first great action film of the year, and I’m not mincing words when I say it’s going to take a lot to beat this one.

Movie Review: “The LEGO Batman Movie”

The LEGO Batman Movie

***** out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG for rude humor and some action 
Warner Bros. Pictures

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As reliable as family entertainment has become over the years, The Lego Movie blew everyone away. It was mind boggling to think that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — the team behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the Jump Street films — were able to take such a mundane property and show moviegoers the true master builders. When The LEGO Batman Movie was announced — under the new direction of Robot Chicken’s Chris McKay — it’s safe to say that possibly only Warner Bros. were sure this would work. Well, low and behold, here we are with a second LEGO film and it’s even better!

With Gotham City sitting in the lap of luxury knowing Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) will save the day, Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) wants to make Batman realize that they need each other. Unfortunately for Joker, Batman doesn’t think he needs anyone — even with Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) sitting at home keeping Wayne Manor and the Batcave neat and tidy. After escaping Batman’s heroic clutches, Joker decides to unleash a coup de grĂ¢ce just as Jim Gordon (voiced by Hector Elizondo) hands over the reigns to his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson).

Turns out, Gotham City is built upon a bunch of flimsy plates and Joker wants to send Gotham into the abyss. But not before Joker winds up turning himself in and is sent to Arkham Asylum, which could be exactly what he wanted. Meanwhile, Batman is trying to juggle being the superhero, and taking care of newly adopted Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera).

For an animated film, The LEGO Batman Movie is filled with jokes. And the best part is that every single one works. And thankfully, so does the movie. The best part, is that McKay — along with his five credited writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington — keeps the shenanigans under control and it winds up functioning as not just one of the best animated films in years, but as one of the best Batman films ever. There is no hope for anyone who walks out of The LEGO Batman Movie unhappy. Plain and simple. It turns everything you know about Batman, DC Comics, and super villains, on its ear.

Last year, Deadpool ushered in a new kind of superhero movie that audiences and critics instantly fell in love with and The LEGO Batman Movie is poised to do the same. This is a whole new breed of comicbook movie and demands to be seen multiple times. It wasn’t screened for press in 3D, but I can only imagine it looks breathtaking considering how good The Lego Movie looked three years ago. The rest of 2017’s animated features are going to be hardpressed to beat The LEGO Batman Movie. And the same could be said for most of the live action films as well. This is superb entertainment from start to finish and will go down as one of the year’s best films.

Movie Review: “Paterson”


**** out of5
118 minutes
Rated R for some language
Amazon Studios

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On paper, most Jim Jarmusch films don’t sound like much. But very few directors are able to create such entertaining pieces of work out of so little. Paterson is no exception. While Jarmusch may be far from a household name, he has an outstanding following who enjoy his films for exactly what they are. And the best part is that they never try to be more than that. What you see is what you get, and with Paterson, he plops Adam Driver front and center, reminding us how much we adore watching him onscreen. Even more so than when he’s playing the daddy-issue-plagued Kylo Ren.

The plot of Paterson is razor thin. Paterson (Driver) lives a quiet life as a bus driver who gets everything he needs from his diary filled with poems and coming home every night to his eccentric girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Laura may come with a pesky dog in tow — Marvin (played by Nellie) — but he never lets it get in his way. He also makes sure he never gets in Laura’s way either. Her dreams seem to change at the drop of a hat and if he weren’t along for the ride, she’d leave him in the dust.

If there’s one thing Paterson seems to be about most, it’s patience. Patience with everything from your own possibly droll existence, to those who surround you. In this day and age, that message rings true more than ever. You never know what kind of news you’re apt to wake up to. Jarmusch sets up scenarios where Paterson could easily get set off — the biggest involving his diary and Marvin — but even this is shrugged off. While you can see that Paterson is completely flustered with the situation, he knows overreacting is not going to fix anything. Driver commands the film with Farahani providing an excellent ying to his yang. Paterson is a calming film, and that could be reason enough for its own existence. It may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but it’s absolutely worth seeking out and makes for a great watch. Even for those who aren’t Jarmusch fans.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Movie Review: “The Space Between Us”

The Space Between Us

** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language
STX Entertainment

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A trainwreck of a movie can be quite the sight to behold. There are those that are obviously doomed from early production — Fantastic Four — and then there are those that come completely out of nowhere. The Space Between Us is the latter. The first sign something was amiss was an original release date in August. Then it got bumped to December, and is now finally hitting theaters this weekend. The bad news is that there were probably lots of edits over the last six months. This is the first — but probably not the last — hilariously awful film of the year.

In 2018, astronaut Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) is headed to Mars, while Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) has spearheaded the expedition, with hopes of colonizing the planet. Two months later, Sarah is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, but instead of turning everyone around, they continue on with Sarah dying during childbirth. Sixteen years later, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is dealing with his classified status, while living on the red planet. He communicates with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a fellow teen who is tired of being the picked on foster kid at high school. Gardner writes off their not-meeting as having a disease and is housebound. But soon enough, Gardner discovers a photo of his mom with a mysterious man and demands he be brought back to Earth so he can meet his long lost dad.

All of the trailers for the film have sold The Space Between Us as another young-adult-novel-turned-film. I was surprised to find out that Allan Loeb’s boneheaded screenplay was an original. Between Loeb’s ham-fisted plot mechanics and director Peter Chelsom’s bludgeoning idea of heartwarming, the film at least tries to rely on the charm of its cast. And it does pretty well for the first hour. Then suddenly, everything goes awry and just keeps getting worse as it chugs along to its ludicrous final “twist.” The moment is almost hilarious enough to warrant a ticket, but then you’d just be encouraging everyone involved.

Butterfield and Robertson do have occasional moments of chemistry, but there are far more moments when she feels almost like a mother-figure. Which is not surprising, considering she is seven years older than him. Why she is still getting cast as a high schooler is beyond me. This isn’t the ’80s and it’s never believable. Carla Gugino is just about the only one who manages to maintain any kind of dignity as Oldman gives another hilarious over-the-top performance. Something that does not belong in a tween-“romance.” It also features the worst zero gravity effects seen in a long time, and is filled with song choices that make the CW feel subtle.

I’ve heard mention that before the film got pushed back, audiences complained that Gardner was too street smart. Most of that seems to still hold true, except for a scene where a man on horseback frightens the bejeebus out of him. That’s how inconsistent the film is now. There’s no reason to give up your hard-earned cash on this mess. A colleague told me his reaction was that the film was forgettable, but that was when he saw it two months ago. Whatever changes were made were in no way for the better. The Space Between Us is a hilarious disaster now, and it makes sense for the studio to have finally decided to give up and dump it in February.

Blu-ray Review: “xXx: 15th Anniversary Edition”

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

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It’s crazy to think that with the popularity of the Fast and Furious franchise at an all-time high, it’s taken Vin Diesel 15 years to return as Xander Cage. I haven’t bothered seeing the sequel, but heard it’s horrible. With that in mind — and the 15th anniversary Blu-ray release — how does the 2002 original hold up when action films are “smarter” now? While it was never high art to begin with, xXx it was a pretty fun ride back in the day. While it screams its production date with every ounce of its being, Diesel, and director Rob Cohen, keep things moving at a breakneck pace. I was almost 22 years old when I first bared witness to this redonkulousness, but I have to say, it’s never as much fun now as it used to be.

Considering xXx is 15 years old now, it doesn’t really need a synopsis recap. But, in case you forgot, Xander Cage is an extreme sports nut who likes to teach rich people lessons. Like driving their expensive cars off bridges while surfing them down ravines. He catches the eye of Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) who forces him into becoming a new breed of special agent. He’s tasked with infiltrating Russian terrorist Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and his right-hand woman Yelena (Asia Argento) who are set on releasing a biochemical drone called “Silent Night” into Prague’s water supply. Explosions ensue.

Sony originally released xXx on Blu-ray in the format’s infancy in 2006. At the time, it was a fickle disc littered with harsh anomalies and not a single special feature. Now, fans finally get a remastered image, along with an upgraded 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While I’m sure the original LPCM track was nice enough, the new audio is blistering. Surrounds are always in use with rumbling bass and spot-on dialogue. You never miss out on a single horrible one-liner. As for the video, there are still some instances of crush, a sprinkling of noise, and a few soft shots, but this is a far greater image than what I’ve read the first release was. Colors are bold and contrast never runs hot. Detail is fantastic throughout most of the film, aside from those few pesky instances of softness. While it seems odd that Sony didn’t spring for a 4K remaster — seeing how they have spearheaded the upgrading — this release is still good enough to warrant fans a double dip.

Where Sony does take a step in the right direction, at least this release includes the bonus features from the DVD release. That being said, they’re all highly outdated and in 480p. The sole new extra is the EPK-style “Origins of a Renegade” (6:27) featuring the cast and crew of the new xXx: Return of Xander Cage talking about how much they love the first film and are excited to be part of the sequel. With the rest being ported from the DVD, this is what you’ll find: “Audio Commentary,” “xXx: A Filmmakers Diary U.S. / Pre-Production” (15:27), “xXx: A Filmmakers Diary Prague / Post-Production” (25:26), “Diesel Powered” (6:50), “Visual Effects How To’s” — “Creating the Mountain Avalanche” (1:09), “Creating an Avalanche” (1:18), and “Shack Explosion” (0:37).

“Deleted Scenes” (15:51) include “Sam Jackson,” “Plane Interior,” “The Ivans,” “Underworld Club,” “Blood Splatter Dart,” “Castle Extended/Pole Dancer,” “Girls,” “Grooming a Scene,” “Attack of the Czeck Police,” and “Bora Bora.” All scenes include optional filmmaker commentary. “Starz! On the Set – The Making of xXx” (14:32), “Agent Shavers’ Gadgets Presentation” (3:44), “Designing the World of xXx” (14:35), “Building Speed: The Vehicles of xXx” (6:55), “Avalanche Scene” (5:37), “Drug Farm” (5:08), “The End Credit Sequence — Raw and Uncut” (3:34), “Music Video” (3:09) for Hatebreed’s “I Will Be Heard,” “Music Video” (4:18) for Gavin Rossdale’s “Adrenaline.” The theatrical trailer (2:34) closes things out and is surprisingly in 1080p.

The lack of new extras may be disconcerting for the more hardcore xXx, but for those who were just hoping to revisit Xander Cage’s antics with a fresh coat of paint, look new further. The video may not be 4K, but at least it isn’t an 11-year-old disc anymore either. With the audio also receiving an upgrade, there’s no reason to not pick up xXx’s 15th Anniversary edition. They don’t make them like this anymore, and to a certain extent, that’s a good thing. But for being mindless entertainment — and what else would we expect from a Vin Diesel film — this is the only xXx you need to see.