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

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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

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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”


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

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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

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

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

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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

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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.