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in theaters

Review: The Night Before

Nov 26 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220167:42716:0[/embed] The Night BeforeDirector: Johnathan LevineRated: RRelease Date: November 20th, 2015 When Ethan's (Joseph Godon-Levitt) parents pass away, his friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie) decide to start a new holiday tradition where they combine all of their usual traditions and party. 14 years later, that tradition is coming to an end as Isaac's becoming a father and Chris is now too famous an athlete to hang out. As their lives drift apart and Ethan's seems to be going nowhere, he clings to the last hope for their tradition: The Nutcracker Ball, a secret super party which the three have been trying to go to for years. As they look for the party, drug laced Christmas shenanigans ensue.  Night Before is incredibly nostalgic. From the outset you'll notice plenty of shout outs to films of Christmas past (like Home Alone and It's a Wonderful Life), but your enjoyment of these references and gags only really work if you remember them well enough. These gags don't have much at face value, but utilize that nostalgic work around to get a pleasant chuckle every now and then. Thankfully the film doesn't do this too much, but the gags that don't work because of this stick out even more so when the original jokes land much better. These little references feel too much like an afterthought, so I'm just left trying to figure why'd they'd even include these in the first place. It brings the film down a notch since this noticeable roughness often comes paired with bouts of awkward silence rather than laughs.  We could debate taste in humor all day, but the main core of the film is decidedly within its three main characters. Each one having their own little adventure, with only two getting true resolution, Ethan, Isaac, and Chris are crafted well. Thanks to the writing, and how comfortable the trio of actors is with one another, these guys feel lived in. Each character has a strong emotional, and most importantly human, center that helps anchor the film when it goes off the rails. Unfortunately, there are points when they get a bit cartoonish (especially during most of Isaac's drug binge or Chris' encounter with a strange thief) and the story goes through these weird non-sequitors which only serve to diminish the film's actual plot. It just seems weird to, at one point, focus on cocaine shenanigans and then try and remind us there's a Christmas story being told. Rogen and Goldberg's films do this all the time, but I guess there's just a more noticeable juxtaposition when the main story is all about holiday niceties.  Johnathan Levine, who's directed Rogen and Gordon-Levitt before in 50/50, captures the spirit of the holiday film quite well. The little details sprinkled throughout the film like the trio's holiday sweaters, the entrance to the Nutcracker Ball feeling appropriately magical, or even not including any holiday music to keep it all inclusive, help to make it timeless, but there are some odd cameos that really date the film and will set it back. And I know the trio have to separate to serve the story, but I wish we were able to enjoy Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie in the same room more. Each of their scenes together is an absolute highlight as they bounce jokes off one another and generally charm up the place. Even some of the film's occasional wonky dialogue comes across natural for them. It's pretty neat to see in action. I hope they find themselves all together in another project someday. Also, if they could somehow get another appearance from the actor that plays Mr. Green, I'd be there day one.  In the end, there's not really much else to say about The Night Before. I had a good time watching, even if there were a couple of times I found myself scratching my head over their comedic choices. If you've seen Rogen and Goldberg's films in the past, you already know what to expect and have decided whether or not to see this already. The addition of Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the mix helps take the film to a more emotional place than usual, but you're constantly reminded that this is another film in a long line of others like it. It's like that one Christmas where you got a cool Nintendo 64, and you're older cousin keeps telling you he got one first. You're going to have a good time, but it's a little less fun than it should be. 
Night Before Review photo
A partridge in a burning tree
When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produce a film, you pretty much know what you're going to get. As the duo have made their way through the romantic comedy, high school buddy film, stoner comedy, old Hollywood existential, su...

Review: The 33

Nov 13 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220135:42699:0[/embed] The 33Director: Patricia RiggenRated: PG-13Release Date: November 13, 2015 What is this story we're talking about? Back in 2010 33 Chilean miners got trapped when a very large chunk of rock collapsed the mine they were working in. Against all odds, and while the entire world watched, the 33 were eventually rescued. This is ostensibly their story of survival, but it's also the story of how they were rescued. It is a plot so full of happiness, wonder and cliche that if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened you'd be reading a review about how the film was too unbelievable.  To be sure The 33 probably plays it a little loose with events and characters. While the miners themselves, led by Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) and Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), are treated pretty well their above ground counterparts get a lot of fluffing. Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile's minister of mining, gets a very flattering coat of paint with the casting of a ridiculously good looking actor and the insertion of hints of romance with one of the miner's sisters. Luckily the plot line never bores out, but it speaks to just how rote the film can be. The movie hits every survival plot point it can with the emotional gusto you expect, but nothing actually special. This is especially true in the latter half of the film. While the miners are struggling to survive and the rescuers are desperately drilling down to them the film is actually surprisingly tense. Riggen does a fantastic job of developing the 33 as people and a group. The stress of being trapped in the mine is reflected and paralleled with the desperate attempts to rescue the miners. A particularly good scene brings the miners into the realm of fantasy as they eat their last supper around a long wooden table. The heavy hints of what faith means to these men reflected in the visuals of the scene. Riggen may get a bit heavy handed with her visual metaphors for faith, but she plays them well. Unfortunately the moment the drill pierces the cave it all seems to get lost. The screenplay jumps from subtle character study, to obvious social commentary as the miners become international sensations and a miniature revolution starts to occur. The moment the focus is taken off the minors and put onto the rescue the film jumps into cliche and begins to hamper everything that was built in the first half. Riggens visuals fall away as the screenplay struggles to keep the miners relevant for the months they must wait for rescue. Once survival is not longer the driving factor it seems the movie doesn't know what to do with them. It definitely grinds the performances to a halt as well. Banderas is powerful as Mario in the first half of the movie, lacing a relentless force into his performance while Phillips plays behind him, worn and afraid. I was seriously leaning towards Oscar thoughts as I watched Banderas rally the miners in the key survival speech, but as his character devolves into the film's representation for the corruption of the outside world (before, of course, redeeming himself quickly) his performance suffers. We lose the connection to the miners as the plot opens up and in turn lose the connection to the performances. What's most tragic is that The 33 never confronts anything. At the end of the film text points out that the mining company was never punished and the miners never got an retribution from them. However, the movie never really addresses this situation it's so focused on being triumphant for its last half. It hits its dramatic points just fine, but never pushes to the next level where were allowed to talk about what happened. This movie should never need to be made, but instead of looking into that fact when it has the chance it instead revels in its glorious rescue. It's a great rescue story for sure, but The 33 could have been more. 
The 33 Review photo
How do you say 'meh' in Spanish?
You could mess up the story of The 33 I suppose. It would be hard, but not impossible. You could get over melodramatic, but you'd have to try hard because the story its based on is damn melodramatic. You could screw up t...

Review: The Peanuts Movie

Nov 06 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220109:42688:0[/embed] The Peanuts Movie Director: Steve MartinoRated: GRelease Date: November 6th, 2015 The Peanuts Movie is all about Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp), an awkward kid with a debilitating self-esteem issue thanks to years and years of being teased by the other neighborhood kids. Just as he was wishing for a blank slate, a mysterious new, red-haired girl moves into town. After falling hard for her, Charlie's got to muster up the courage and do some crazy things in order to impress her and get her to notice him. While he's doin all of that, his dog Snoopy (thanks to Bill Melendez's archived voice work) finds a typewriter and begins writing about the WWI Flying Ace and his rivalry with the infamous Red Baron.  First things first, Peanuts is absolutely stunning. I honestly have no idea how Blue Sky Studios managed to pull this off. Just like the film's content, Peanuts' visuals are both heartily nostalgic (thanks to a few 2D flourishes like little hearts and backgrounds every now and then) and groundbreaking in its effort. Characters move as smoothly as they would in 2D while avoiding CG's blurring motions thanks to an adept use of choppy movement. I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is Blue Sky's mascot Scrat (from the Ice Age series). Just as his movement is broken, yet fluid so it captures the essence of old Looney Tunes shorts, Peanuts' animation captures the essence of the TV specials. And then there are all the little details therein like Snoopy's fur, the whiskers in Charlie's lone curl of hair, and the Flying Ace sequences look pretty good in 3D. But once you get beyond how great it looks, you'll soon realize that it may be too comfortable taking yet another trip down memory lane.  Because it's both a reinvention and a reintroduction to the Peanuts series, the film is almost required to make the necessary homages to its classic jokes and settings. Every classic Peanuts joke is here, quite literally, and you'll be hard pressed to find them funny again in this new setting. These jokes have already been made available through the specials replayed through the holidays each year, so it's really a matter of whether or not you'll appreciate them again through this new filter. It's a celebration unfortunately caught in the past, and while these jokes are definitely delightful and may mean more to new audiences, it's just a shame that this new film didn't take the chance to create new memories for Charlie Brown. It's even more glaring when the newer bits work very well. There's this scene where Charlie is getting "Psychiatric Help" from Lucy that's absolutely fabulous in how dark the writing duo of Bryan and Craig Schulz take it. At one point, she shoves a mirror in his face and asks Charlie what he sees, and all he can say in response is "A loser." While it sounds wonky on paper, it's a sequence that actually utilizes our knowledge of the characters in the past rather than be hindered by it.  In fact, that's one of the boldest choices The Peanuts Movie makes. While the humor and most of the content is stuck in the past (thus making sequences featuring new pop music from Meghan Trainor feel even more out of place), Charlie Brown has actually become a mix of his many identities. The film only works because the writing, actor Noah Schnapp, and visuals have mastered this newest iteration of Charlie Brown. He's a mix of many of his past incarnations: The outright loser from Schulz's original comic strips. the awkward kid from the holiday specials, and the more positive Charlie from later direct to video specials. Yet with all of those influences, he's still got his own new layer in the film. They've added this crippling self-doubt that's so current, it clashes with the rest of the film's nostalgic tone. As the kids exist in a world with rotary phones, Charlie's pondering existential crises in love.  While the humor can be a bit clunky, and Charlie Brown is fantastic, the film does take some getting used to. Since it is so stuck in the past, it's taking on a format we haven't seen in quite a while. Broken into vignettes fueling a central arc, each major sequence in Peanuts feels like it could be a stand-alone special of its own. Each major scene has a beginning middle and end, so it doesn't really flow like a traditional film, per se. It's an odd pacing that, while not entirely bad, does detract from the enjoyment overall. Going in you've got to realize that you're taking the good with the bad, but the "bad" isn't the worst thing in the world. The Peanuts Movie's biggest flaw is that it's too celebratory and nostalgic, but that's also such a non-problem to have.  I certainly have enjoyed myself, but I also don't feel compelled to watch this over and over again like every other Peanuts thing I've revisited in the past. It's a delightful and breezy film, but I'm not sure if everyone will have the same reaction to it that I did. It's fun to walk down memory lane every once in a while, but you can't expect everyone to stick around.
Peanuts Review photo
Good grief?
Thanks to my mom, I've been following Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang for as long as I can remember. Like Charlie, I too am a sad sack who's life the universe sees fit to ruin at all cost. So when I first heard 20th Centur...

Review: Spectre

Nov 06 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220108:42687:0[/embed] SpectreDirector: Sam MendesRated: PG-13Release Date: November 6, 2015  Spectre is relentlessly old school Bond for better or for worse. It harkens back to the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Moore, the swagger of Connery and even a bit of the romance of Lazenby. This is all pretty interesting since the Craig era of Bond has been marked pointedly by a intentional move away from such things as site gags and gadgets. The return to this style of Bond is both jarring and reassuring, but what can easily be said is this is Craig's most Bond film, complying with all the stereotypes, tropes and action that one came to expect from Bond pre-Craig. It is repeatedly, and possibly a little overbearingly, wistful about Bond's past. Almost every scene could be considered a throwback or nod to older Bond films. Then again when you've got more than 50 years of cinematic history under your belt it's hard to avoid not paying homage, which is the nice way of saying copying. The plot is definitely a repeat. In fact, much like Moonraker after The Spy Who Loved Me, Spectre is the same general idea as Skyfall, but bigger and more ridiculous. We open with Bond pursuing some extra curricular assassination in Mexico City. Turns out he's hot on the trail of an evil organization, eventually revealed to be Spectre, who Bond must destroy in order to save the world from domination. Spectre is basically Quantum from the first two films, but now they're calling it Spectre because old Bond is back (and legal reasons). Much like Skyfall the villain has a personal connection with Bond, is obsessed with collecting information for power and is looking to overthrow MI6. Bond proceeds to jump from one action sequences in a stunning locale to another as the movie attempts to unfold a lackluster mystery and develop an even more confusing relationship between Bond and Mr. White's (remember him) daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). If you're one for logic, pacing and avoiding plot holes this Bond is not for you.  However, if you're one for fast cars, gadgets, one-liners, prolific actions sequences and a general sense of fun then strap in. This film is all style and no substance, but, man, does it have style. This is easily the most charming Craig's Bond has been, which isn't too difficult since the previous three films focused more on the man than the myth. The screenplay, full of the kind of one-liners and site gags that made Bond Bond, might fall through in many ways, but it gives Craig a chance to have a lot of fun. Thanks to the comments he's made after shooting the film it's hard to say if he actually enjoyed the process, but there are moments here that rival Connery in their flippant bravado including what might be the sexiest delivery of the line, "Bond, James Bond," ever spoken. He an Seydoux have fantastic chemistry on screen, and if they're taking the character the direction it seems they are then that's going to be incredibly important. The action is also easily Craig's best. Casino Royale barely had any as it was far more a character study, Quantum's was shoddily directed and Skyfall featured some amazing set pieces, but nothing that compares to the brutal fights and overblown action of Spectre. The opening sequence is a stunning helicopter battle that's an airborne take on the historic train fight from From Russia With Love. It opens the film with a bang, that is unfortunately followed by Sam Smith's disappointment of a song and an opening credits sequence that involves some tentacle porn and will illicit giggles. Get through that, however, and you're slam back into the action, which doesn't let up until the very end of the film's more than two-and-half hour running time. We're treated to what is easily some of the franchise's best action. Sam Mendes's direction is once again stunningly gorgeous and despite the departure of cinematographer Richard Deakins the movie is still one of Bond's most striking. Bond has never looked sharper, with Craig going through more outfit changes than a female Oscar host and Mendes doing everything in his power to make him look awesome. A perfectly tailored white dinner jacket (this is the latter) in a train ripped from the 50s lit like it's Casablanca pulls an entire scene together and makes you happy they went so old school this time around.  Unfortunately, when style isn't a factor things start to fall apart. This is especially true for the villains of the film who are universally wasted. Christoph Waltz's Hans Oberhauser spends the first half of the film in the shadows only to be revealed as a limp, uninteresting character who can barely muster up a convincing monomaniacal monologue. How can you so misuse Waltz as a Bond villain? It seems almost criminal in and of itself, and yet the character is flat and hampered with a plot line that doesn't just make his character worse, but the entire movie. The sad part is this specific piece of the story is almost entirely unnecessary, and seems to have been stuck into the movie simply to attempt to put some of Craig's Bond's "emotion" into the story. It doesn't work, and in turn detracts from where the true emotional focus should be between Bond, Swann and M -- the true character conflict of the film that gets totally lost in the movie's desperate attempts to offer up twists. Even the movie's henchman, another staple returning in true form for the first time in a Craig film, suffers from a lack of attention. Hinx (Dave Bautista) bursts on the scene showing off his metal thumbnails, giving off echoes of Jaws, and then is relegated to a large thug for the rest of the movie. It's a completely illogical choice, especially with such a charming guy as Bautista. Imagine if Oddjob simply threw his hat once in Goldfinger and the decided not to use it again. Hinx does just this and spends the rest of the film running after Bond in cars. Now, he is involved in a fantastic train fight, but he really could have been replaced by any brute. It's just another way Spectre wastes its potential to be a truly great Bond film. SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPHS I hate to write about spoilers for a movie most people haven't seen, but it plays such a large role in this movie and fails so badly that I must bring it up. You've probably guessed it by now anyway: Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld. The film treats this as if we're all supposed to be surprised, but they gave it away by naming the movie Spectre and so when the foot drops it lands with a dull thud. They may have known this as they attempt to pile on other plot twists from here on out to make up for it, but there are about a million different ways this could have played out better, especially if Waltz had decided to bring any life to his character. This all concludes in an ending that is flat and disconnected. In a film filled with prolific action sequences the movie ends with nothing. Instead of an epic take-down of the villain we're given a tepid gun shot that culminates more than two ours of action with no emotional punch. This is followed by a conclusion that feels confusing and out of character for Bond. That may be because the next film is going to bring back the Lea Sedoux character. If this is so it could make the ending work, but as it stands on its own it leaves an odd taste in one's mouth.  END SPOILERS It's also odd that in a film that is clearly obsessed with bringing Bond back to his roots that they ignore one of the most unique aspects of the franchise: it's almost complete disregard for continuity. Instead a ham-fisted attempt is made to connect Bond's last three adventures to this one. Much like Obenhauser's plot points it is generally not needed and only serves to convolute the story. The problem is this clearly wasn't intended from the start. Yes, Quantum may have been a big, evil organization that the filmmakers originally intended to develop, but after they ditched it in Skyfall their plot line fell apart. Now we get a forced conclusion to the story that tries to tie up loose ends as if Bond wasn't a film franchise that was built on completely ignoring whatever happened in the previous films. How many Bond girls have completely disappeared? How many villains are never mentioned again? Why force continuity on a movie that doesn't need it? The question becomes what do you want from your Bond film? If the hard reset we received when Craig took over the mantle was up your alley then this step back in time is going to seriously disappoint. If you've missed the days of ejection seats, gadget-filled cars and perfectly timed quips then Spectre is the Bond you've been waiting for. It's a return to form for Bond, but that form was never for everybody. In the pantheon of Bond films Spectre is definitely on the middle-high end, but in Craig's tenure it is an outlier filled with things that will either make you love it or hate it. The big problem is if you don't love the things its brought back then it's flaws are too great to get over. It's ramshackle plot and poor villains make it incredibly difficult to enjoy if you don't enjoy Bond. When I wrote my review of Casino Royale many years ago I noted that Bond's gun barrel opening had been changed, it was then shoved to the end of Quantum of Solace and again to the end of Skyfall. I noted that this was all well and good since these films were about Bond becoming Bond, but that eventually the gun barrel would have to return to the beginning of the film once the character had returned to has traditional ways. In Spectre the barrel is back at the beginning and Bond is definitely back to his old ways. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you. I think it's a great thing, but it could have been done in a better movie. 
Spectre Review photo
Bond is back, but is that good?
When Skyfall landed James Bond rose to a whole new level. We were treated to a Bond film that both embraced the new, hard edge of Daniel Craig's Bond, but paid homage to Bond's past as well. Unlike the dreadfully dour Qu...

Review: Attack on Titan

Oct 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220069:42671:0[/embed] Attack on Titan: Parts 1 & 2Director: Shinji HiguchiRated: NRRelease Date: October 20, 22, and 27th, 2015 (limited) Attack on Titan (split into two 90 minute parts released a few months from one another) is the story of a small walled off city that's constantly being attacked by giant, grotesque man eating monsters known as the Titans. After a surprise attack leaves their city devastated, two boys, named Eren (Hamura Miura) and Armin (Kanata Hongo), join the military in order to fight them. Also, their friend Mikasa (Kiko Mizuhara), who was once thought to be eaten before being saved by super soldier Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), is also there and very angsty. Then follows are soldier on titan fights, titan on titan fights, and lots of poorly conceived military conspiracy intrigue. I don't have a lot of experience with the original comics, but that's okay since the two films are their own entity and venture into different paths than the stories fans may be familiar with. The stories of the films have to end, after all, and who knows when the comics will do the same.  The first thing you'll notice about Attack on Titan is how great it all looks. Part 1 opens spectacularly as the initial titan attack is well storyboarded and the action flows well from scene to scene. It gives the titans an appropriate horrific weight despite how ridiculous some of them look. Rather than choose to go CG (the terrible green screen actions scenes later in the films notwithstanding), the titans are all people in body skin suits akin to Toho's Godzilla or a very gloomy episode of the Power Rangers. You'd figure it was a low budget shortcut, but it works. Thanks to using actual actors, we're given a chance to sink in to the titans' emotions rather than be distracted by the film's spotty CG. It's just that nothing in these films ever looks as good as the opening scene again.  I'd be willing to forgive the wonky effects had the rest of the film worked, but sadly that's also a problem. I'm not sure what's to blame here. Whether the two films are victims of adaptation, translation, or even the property's fandom, but nothing in the two films makes any sense. Although the film chooses to create its own narrative, it still bases some of the films' bigger scenes on scenes from the comics. But the problem with cherry picking key scenes in order to please its fans, is that without adapting the rest of the story those scenes won't make sense. It's also thanks to the films' short runtimes that everything moves at too brisk a pace to keep up with or even care about in the slightest. Like Eren, for instance. First he's got this plot about wanting to escape from the walls, to suddenly pulling an Ultraman and becoming a giant himself, to suddenly hatching a plot to blow up the walls with a discarded H-bomb. And within all of that, he's still got Mikasa's random angst to deal with. No character is developed well enough, and there're so many that none of them have any chance to leave a lasting impression.  The biggest flaw with either of these films was I couldn't really separate the two from one another. I initially wanted to review each part much akin to Hollywood films like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, but neither part was substantial enough to warrant its own discussion. It only seemed fair to the film to just take it all in as one entity since the majority of the plot and backstory waits in part two, while the visual budget was clearly all exhausted back in part one. I'm not sure how these films were shot, but it's clear that by the end of part two, they had pretty much used all the money at their disposal. The film's big finale looked absolutely ridiculous. And since there isn't any real narrative reason to stay invested, it's all just a wash. At least the acting was good. I didn't personally note any bad performances, and even if an actor was chewing the scenery, they all tried their best. Bringing it back around to my Titanic metaphor earlier, it's like the cast was the string quartet composing a soundtrack for their imminent doom.  But at the end of the day, I understand the film isn't for me. But it really isn't for fans of the Attack on Titan series either. In fact, it may even be more of a detriment to the fandom itself. It's a hollow adaptation that only chooses particular moments from the story in order to manipulate the fans. They want the fans to go out and see the film, talk about seeing their favorite anime/comic scene in live action and hope those same fans ignore everything else.  A fan's worst nightmare is to see their favorite stories and characters wrung through an unrecognizable filter, and that's exactly what Attack on Titan is. I don't think that's the kind of horror the film wanted to embody. 
Attack on Titan Review photo
Sinking ship
Much like how you'll see films based on comics like Marvel's Avengers or DC's Dark Knight Trilogy, manga comics get a huge following back in Japan they don't get here domestically. One of the biggest releases from the last fe...

Review: Knock Knock

Oct 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220064:42670:0[/embed] Knock KnockDirectors: Eli RothRated: RRelease Date: October 9th, 2015 (in theaters and VOD) Knock Knock stars Keanu Reeves as Evan Webber, a family man with a loving wife and two kids. When his family goes away for the weekend, two girls Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) suddenly show up in the middle of the night asking for help. After seducing Evan, he ends up sleeping with them. But after he wakes up the next day, Evan realizes the two girls have some sinister motives. And that's pretty much it. The best thrillers can mine even the thinnest premises for good character work or story material, but that all hinges on whether or not the film has a strong written frame to build on. Unfortunately for all of us, Knock Knock is basically written like a film student's first draft hastily put together two hours before the assignment was due.  Don't get me wrong, I can accept bad dialogue in a horror/thriller because it's usually in service of a greater goal. Maybe the film's intentionally bad or its wackier elements help bring levity to the potentially gruesome nature of the genre, but there isn't just bad dialogue here. The entire package is crafted terribly. From how long it takes to actually get the story moving as the girls don't show up until a third into the film (thus making the terribly written and acted family scenes feel much longer and awkward), to the fact that Evan literally has to sleep with the girls to get to the core of the drama, to how many times it resorts to "crazy bitch!" whenever characters are under duress, to the girls' nonsensical motivations (half revenge, half complete banality), to Evan being a former DJ for some reason, and finally for weirdly off putting lines like "Bitch, you're barking up the wrong f**king tree! I'm from Oakland, hoe! I know two ghetto ass hoes when I see them!" Yeah, that's definitely a thing someone says in the movie. That line somehow made it through numerous edits, drafts, and cuts into the final product. I bet whoever wrote this line did one of those fist pumps to celebrate how clever he was.  I could write about how terribly everything was put together all day, but to get to the core of my issues with Knock Knock I need to do something I've never done in one of my reviews before. I have to outright spoil one of the key plot points of the film because it's something I desperately want to tell you about. I'm sorry if you were still somehow interested in the film after reading thus far, but I promise I'll keep the spoilers limited to this chunk of the review. Okay, so you know why the girls are invading houses and having sex with men in order to humiliate them and ruin their lives? Because men are monsters. There's a hint at some child abuse (which also compounds yet another horribly conceived "idea" on top of this garbage heap), but we're just supposed to believe that these two girls are going around messing with dudes as some kind of misappropriation of the "femme fatale" concept. Sex as a weapon can be fine in media, but if the justification for its use is just so that same character can "trap" a man, it's completely backwards thinking and singlehandedly sets back all of the good work women have done in media I would've accepted these extremely thin motivations had there been actual depth with the two girls, but their actions far exceed the range of their revenge. And Knock Knock goes out of its way multiple times to remove any sense of sympathy or even desire to exist from the characters entirely.  When Evan threatens to call the police, the two girls threaten to send him to prison with cries of not just rape, but statutory rape. Thus adding yet another mysogynistic reason this film is really just for older dudes unhappy with their marriages. In fact, Knock Knock's death knell is a speech Reeves gives that somehow sets his own career back a few years. You could hear his soul dying a little bit when he says, I kid you not, "You f**ked me! You came to me! You wanted it, you came on to me!...It was free pizza! Free f**king pizza! What was I supposed to do?!?"  Sure Knock Knock has one or two moments where all of its badness coalesces into a surprisingly humorous bit, as every film gets one regardless of how bad it truly is, but nothing is good enough to warrant wading through the rest of it. Knock Knock isn't just an embarrassment for all involved, but for the first time, Keanu Reeves looked like he was genuinely phoning it in. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I was almost enamored by how much Reeves was trying to distance himself from the character. He gets bad dialogue and weird movies all the time, but he usually can transcend the material thanks to his effort. And the saddest thing is this is coming after one of his biggest triumphs in the last few years, John Wick, which was also a film caught in this very situation. It was too a film full of cheesy dialogue and clunky writing work, but he made it something special.  Knock Knock is such a worthless heap of garbage, not even Keanu Reeves wanted to try to save it. If Keanu Reeves didn't deem this worthy, why should we? This review is more attention than this film deserves, and I can't wait until this fades from memory. 
Knock Knock Review photo
Who's there? Garbage
Keanu Reeves is a treasure. Thanks to his genuine love of the craft, I'm always willing to see whatever he decides to be a part of. No matter the project he always gives as much effort as possible, sometimes even elevating th...

Review: Jem and the Holograms

Oct 23 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220058:42666:0[/embed] Jem and the HologramsDirector: Jon M. ChuRated: PGRelease Date: October 23, 2015 What I want to believe is that Jem and the Holograms is really an incredibly smart meta film about our current culture and it's emotional immaturity caused by split second reactions on social media. I want to believe that so badly, but more likely it's just a incredibly sloppy screenplay and forced direction that takes what could have been a decent story and turns it into the worst mish-mash of story lines since the original Casino Royale (that film at least works as camp). We meet Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), a painfully shy teenager, and her sisters: Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). A musically talented group, they live with their mother (Molly Ringwald). When Jerrica records herself singing a song and Kimber uploads it to the Internet it goes viral overnight and big time record producer Erica Raymond (Julliette Lewis) steps in to sign Jerrica, now known as Jem, to a record deal. Of course becoming big and famous leads to terribly traumatic events over the next month (yes, only a month) and soon everything starts falling apart even though Jem is falling for the totally dreamy son of Erica, Rio (Ryan Guzman). Also, there's a toy robot that Jem's father made sending her on a secret quest. You know, because the plot wasn't random enough. At first glance one may think that the cliche plot and groan worthy moments -- such as the four girls and Rio kicking into a random sing along after committing a crime -- are intentional. The film makes heavy use of social media and maybe a commentary on the web's short attention span is why they've condensed the normal "band gets together/band falls apart" into only a month of time. Characters go from best friends to mortal enemies to apologizing to each other in the span of an hour. It is the most ludicrously paced and plotted film I've seen in a long while and I kept telling myself it had to be intentional; it had to be a social commentary of some sort. But it isn't because it never makes a point. Jem and her sisters never turn to the camera and admit they're just terrible people. The movie is just plain bad. The plot careens from one random occurrence to another attempting to show... something. Instead it just fulfills cliches. A bunch of privileged teenagers struggle with their inability to get along for a single month. One month! That's all it takes for Jem to fall apart at the hands of all the pressure she's feeling by being torn into two personas (Jem and Jerrica) and getting lots of money. It would be infuriating if it wasn't so laughable. Every time the movie even attempts to make an emotional connection between characters it feels feeble and pointless since Jem and her sister's emotions are about as stable as a table with uneven legs.  Maybe all that would have been OK for Jon M. Chu had directed the movie with any panache at all. Instead it feels like he's bored with it and just checking off every request from the studio for a movie that will appeal to teens. Instead of playing up the camp -- aside from a single (and fantastic) teaser at the end -- Chu takes his bi-polar characters far too seriously. More importantly, the man responsible for making dance movies fun with his stellar direction of dance numbers can't seem to direct his way through a single musical sequence in this film. The entire thing is sloppy and devoid of any tone. Chu could have at least put in a few scenes of the band working together or something to make it feel like times is passing, but instead he wastes the almost two hour (!) running time on repeating the same scene over and over. We get it. Jem and Jerrica are two different people. When a Saturday morning cartoon involving a woman literally projecting a different person on top of herself handles this metaphor better than you do then you've got serious problems. Throw in a strange plot line about Jem's father and the mystical robot Synergy, that was clearly just added to appeal to fans of the cartoon, and you've got a mess no director could piece together, but that Chu does a horrifically bad job of.  It's all too bad because somewhere in there is a movie that could have worked. The hints at camp are there during some of the more ridiculous parts, the musical numbers could have worked with a bit more effort, and with just a bit of ironing out and trimming down the film could have felt like something mattered. Chu even uses a neat trick by inter-cutting YouTube musician's music and videos into the movie as a sort of soundtrack. Unfortunately instead of being innovative it feels forced and tacky like the rest of the film. Eventually they even use YouTuber's videos talking about the influence of the Jem cartoon on them to make it appear they're talking about the life changing film Jem. Again, this all takes place over the matter of a month.  Jem and the Holograms is a mess. It's confusing and directionless and by trying to appeal to everyone appeals to no one. Somewhere, buried deep within this film, is a cult classic that cries to be let out right at the end, but was lost at some point between shoving in a robot mystery and forcing a creepy romance between a possibly underage teen and a college intern.   
Jem photo
Truly, truly outrageously terrible
I have memories of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms. They aren't fond and they aren't bad, they just are. A movie based on the show didn't really get me excited in that way that most nostalgia does, but I could see how i...

Review: Crimson Peak

Oct 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219445:42381:0[/embed] Crimson PeakDirector: Guillermo del ToroRelease Date: October 16, 2015Rating: R  Here is a brief synopsis of the movie I thought I was going to see: Blonde girl falls in love with Tom Hiddleston (and, I mean, who wouldn't?), who lives in a creepy haunted house with creepy ghosts. All kinds of strange things happen, and ultimately we find out that Tom Hiddleston and his creepy sister are actually dead/supposed to be dead but is being kept alive by this house and are confined by these ghosts or something. Terror ensues and probably bloodshed also. Based on the way the trailer is edited, all of this is crystal clear. Spoiler alert. Nope.  I got a few things right: blonde girl, Tom Hiddleston, creepy ghosts, bloodshed. So... the imagery. I was able to see those four things and think, "Yes. I recognize that." But the actual narrative? Not even close. And I tell you all of this because there's a fairly decent chance you are expecting the same thing. And even if you weren't expecting that, you were likely expecting a scary ghost story about scary ghosts. And once again you will be wrong. Because it's not a ghost story. It's a story with ghosts in it.  It's kinda funny, really, because something like ten minutes in, Crimson Peak tells you exactly what it's going to be. You see, Edith is a would-be novelist. She says that she wants to be the next Mary Shelley. She shows her manuscript to someone, who asks about the ghosts. She says it's not a ghost story; it's a story with ghosts; the ghosts are a metaphor. He tells her it needs a love story. And so that's what we really get: a love story with ghosts that are a metaphor. If that sounds good to you, then you may well enjoy Crimson Peak. If it doesn't, you should skip it. I found myself somewhere in between. The narrative is pretty flat and the characters kinda bland, but I will admit that there was an upside to the false marketing: I legitimately didn't know what was coming next. The reality is both more and less interesting than what I was expecting, but the surprise in and of itself is... something. It's certainly not amazing, but it's something. It's worth noting here that the audience laughed a number of times during my screening. At least a half dozen moments elicited not just one or two chuckles but actual laughter. I've discussed this with a couple of others who've seen it, and though some people think those laughs were intentional I don't. If I had been watching it on my own, I would have laughed... once? It was all very serious, even things that were fairly easy to laugh at. There's no humor in the whole thing, and while that can be funny in and of itself, there's no hint here that it's anything but serious. It's just drama all the damn time. It's hard to know actual intent without asking, but I'll say this: If it was supposed to be funny, it half-succeeded at best. You need to surrender to the melodrama. Or, you can just pay attention to the visuals. Because while I can rip apart the film's concept and execution, its production design is unimpeachable. This is a gorgeous movie through and through (with the exception of a single outdoor scene early on in a sunny park that has some seriously weird coloring choices; also, some of the ghosts are a bit too CG for my liking). As soon as they reach Crimson Peak itself, you're in for nothing but amazing visual after amazing visual. And it's really this that kept the film going for me. I was lukewarm at best on pretty much everything that the film contains, but holy cow do I love the way it looks. That adds at least 10 points to my final score and brings it from a "meh" to "ya know, consider it." Just be sure to temper your expectations.
Crimson Peak Review photo
Great Expectations
The best piece of advice I ever got about writing film criticism was this: "Don't write about what the film isn't." Going for long tangents about What Could Have Been doesn't do any of us any good. Let's talk about what the f...

Review: The Martian

Oct 02 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219989:42650:0[/embed] The MartianDirector: Ridley ScottRated: PG-13Release Date: October 2, 2015  Despite what you might think from the title The Martian does not have any actual aliens in it. This isn't John Carter. This is science fiction at its most sciencey and its least fictiony. On what is now a relatively routine trip to study mars Mark Watney is left behind by the rest of his crew during an evacuation. The Martian is about his survival. It's also about his rescue. The crew, consisting of Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), are on a months long trip back to earth thinking he's dead. Meanwhile NASA, led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars lead Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggle to find a way to save Watney. If you've read the book you probably already recognize that Damon is the perfect casting for the wisecracking Mark Watney. The character might be one of the most likableprotagonists ever. Damon brings a layered performance to the stranded astronaut that not only captures the charm of the character from the book, but adds an extra layer of fear and anger that is sometimes missing from the prose. He turns the Watney of the page into an actual person and it is a powerful performance. The rest of the cast keeps pace, though they obviously don't take up as much screen time. Especially surprising is Daniels' performance, which takes an all out heel from the book and makes him far more relatable. There are other changes from the book. For the sake of time and the elimination of hours worth of exposition dialog the science has definitely been dumbed down a bit. More importantly, though, our time with Watney is far less. Since it's a film with less time the NASA parts are brought in earlier and we get less Watney on Mars action. It's a elimination that had to be made, especially to fit in the movie's stunning ending, but it means less Watney. That's actually a testament to just how well the movie plays. If you're sitting in your seat wishing it could have been an hour longer just so you could watch Matt Damon drive around what is basically a big red desert then a film has done something right.  In all honesty the subtraction of more Watney time makes the film work better. Drew Goddard shaped this film into a finely honed screenplay that retains the humor and passion of the book. It jumps back and forth perfectly between Mars and Earth. Tension is derived not from big action sequences (except the aforementioned thrilling conclusion), but instead human interaction and tiny drams. There's a great fluidity to the film that somehow helps contrast the wonder of Mars with the doldrums of Earth. Looking at this movie you can't help but want to strap on a suit and launch into space to explore whatever is out there because it's going to be amazing. Mars is vibrant red, stunningly beautiful and engrossingly alive despite not hosting any actual life. Earth by contrast is dull, full of cramped office space and dreary colors. The film is a visual explanation of humanity's love for exploring even if there was no sound. This may be Ridley Scotts best film since Gladiator and it's definitely his best science fiction since Blade Runner. Prometheus was Scott trying to be philosophical, but The Martian is him getting back to his grounded roots and that's what he's good at. At the intersection of science fiction and thrillers is where Scott hits his sweet spot and it's very evident with this film. He's a master of building tension, especially when isolation is involved. And yet, The Martian is drastically different from his previous science fiction movies. It is both humorous and hopeful. Space is still out to get us, but it's not something to run away from, but a challenge to be conquered. Maybe this is why it is just so awe inspiring. Years of Scott's pent up love for all things outer space seem to flow out onto the screen in this film. There has never been and may never be a better advertisement for NASA or a better explanation of why it's so important for us to explore. Sometimes we need a little great science fiction to know just what reality can be. 
Martian Review photo
Un-sciencing the sh*t out of this
If you haven't read The Martian you should because it's better than whatever you're reading now (most likely). It's one of the most enthralling pieces of science fiction to come along in ages and it's an incredibly quick...

Review: Cooties

Sep 18 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219880:42604:0[/embed] CootiesDirectors: Jonathan Milott and Cary MurnionRated: RRelease Date: September 18, 2015 At the center of Cooties is Clint, a guy who moved to the bright lights of New York City after graduation to become a big shot writer. But after a few failed attempts has moved back home and is forced to take a substitute teaching gig at his old elementary school. There he meets his old school crush Lucy (Alison Pill), her meathead boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), and a bevy of other weird faculty members like the evolution debunker Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad) and the socially inept bio teacher Doug (Leigh Whannell). When a contaminated shipment of chicken nuggets (as seen through such a grossly awesome intro, you won't eat chicken nuggets again) turns the kids of the school into flesh eating monsters, Clint and the other teachers have to escape the school to survive.  The biggest draw, or warning sign depending on your humor, is the writing duo of Saw's Leigh Whannell and Glee's Ian Brennan. The two have crafted a wonderfully twisted horror premise, but the dialogue is distinctly Brennan's. As someone who religiously followed Glee through its six seasons (including, but not limited to, buying the Glee karaoke games and soundtrack CDs and watching the short lived Glee Project reality show on Oxygen), I can safely attribute the brunt of the film's humor to him. That's probably going to shy folks away, however. Just like Glee, Cooties' idea of parody is to come of with jokes that are a few years too old. A post 9/11 kid who wants to join the army named Patriot? A closeted gay teacher making innuendos? The vice principal (Brennan himself) saying "Stop it, kids!" before getting ripped apart? Yeah, those jokes are as tired as they seem. As the film's humor gets sidetracked with these weird jokes, it never quite takes the premise as far as it could. But the cast's ability to complete gel with what they're saying is fantastic.  In Cooties, it's the cast that makes it work. They're completely game with the film's wacky tone, and their performances elevate the film to awesomely cartoonish levels. Since you can't get too overtly violent with children and still try and be a comedy, the action has to be more humorous than not to succeed. Since directors Milott and Murnion can't seem to handle action scenes (as most of the action involves the teachers moving from one room to the other and staying there for a few scenes), the cast should be commended for their ability to command attention. As the film itself strays and lingers on a few scenes, the cast is delivering the dialogue with the quickness it needs to make it work and helps make the hokey bits a little more digestible. As Elijah Wood has shown in the past with films like The Faculty, he's perfectly capable of leading a horror comedy. He's still charming as ever even when he starts, literally, pooping himself. The scene stealer, however, is Leigh Whannell. His stunted delivery finally works for his awkward bio teacher as he delivers the film's hilarious science.  While the directors may not handle action scenes too well (leading to a ending scene that feels convoluted and tacked on while completely undermining the film's bittersweet climax), the duo have got a good grasp on imagery. Cooties looks fantastic. Insidious reds, taut greens and shading, and you definitely get the most out of zombie kids. The kids are covered in gross puss and blood (instead of becoming too gruesome, it goes for the comedic route) and aren't too horrendously attacked, there's a girl playing jump rope with an intestine, a kid riding a tricycle covered in blood, zombie kids playing blood hopscotch, and so on. It's pretty much the embodiment of the "kids are terrifying" mantra. The film never quite reaches the level of visual you'd hope with a premise like this, but what is here is well crafted. There's definitely an attention to detail in the visuals even if there's a lack of it elsewhere.  Cooties has its share of faults, but none of them are completely damaging to the overall package. There'll be stuff within the film that bothers you here and there, but when watching the cast and the kids enjoy themselves it's hard not to follow in their footsteps. For every hokey joke, there's one that works. For every clunky action scene, there's a hilarious conversation between two characters.  By the time it makes the egregious mistake of going on past its natural ending, you won't even care too much. You'll have a big smile on your face. 
Cooties Review photo
Might not need that cootie shot
Zombies are everywhere. Name an object and add zombie or "of the dead" to it, and I guarantee there's a film out there with that title. Bong of the Dead? Exists. Toilet of the Dead? Surprisingly a thing. Redneck or stripper z...

Review: Everest

Sep 18 // Matthew Razak
Everest is based on the real life events of what was then the deadliest day in the mountain's history. A collection of poor decisions, freak occurrences and bad luck that led to the death of eight climbers in 1996. Famed climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads Everest climbing expeditions for groups of climbers, however, in their push for the summit they make a series of poor decisions and a dangerous storm catches them leading to the death of multiple people and daring rescues. I suppose some spoiler alerts should have gone there, but I think we're well past the time limit for this story on those. Interestingly the film is not based on Jon Krakauer's (Michael Kelly) book, Into Thin Air, and ditches much of the editorializing that the book did about the issues with an overcrowded Everest making safety measures a concern. This is both a boon and a bane for the film. The loss of this commentary does mean that the film loses some of its punch. We're never given an overall cause for the events of that day and so the movie can feel pointless in its story. On the flip side we're allowed far more focus on the characters because commentary is removed. It ditches the why for the who and instead of placing blame focuses on the tragedy of the event. This is why, despite being redundant, the isn't a failure. I believe that part of what is supposed to be different about this film is that it's in IMAX 3D. The sweeping vistas and digital recreations of Everest are definitely something to behold on a massive screen for sure, but not enough to excuse the fact that we've seen it all before. The movie does look great, but there's legitimate IMAX Everest movies that look even better that anyone who has been to a natural history museum in the past 35 years has seen. We've also been flooded with disaster movies in this format so it's getting harder and harder to make "Oooo pretty" into something worth putting your money down. As a selling point Everest's grandeur doesn't really work. Thankfully it doesn't just rely on that, nor does it rely on being a disaster flick. While the movie ratchets up the action here and there it's surprisingly more human focused. Aside from a bit in the middle when the storm hits the film is almost entirely character driven, focusing on the lives of these people and not their deaths. It's a great move, especially with the actors they have. A film simply full of destruction would have felt cheap in the face of so much death. Instead we spend the majority of the opening finding out about the characters before we watch them slowly die on the mountain side. Emotionally Everest can pack a punch, and that's where it stands out from the lesser survival films out there whose main focus is to put their characters into harrowing situations. The cast is pretty all star (Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllyenhal, Keira Knightly, Sam Worthington and a bunch of "that guys") so it stand to reason that they can handle the deeper stuff. Most of the emotional punch comes from the folks not climbing, though. It's their reactions that hit you in the gut as they slowly listen to more and more climbers die. The ones on the mountain are covered in snow and winter coats so it means the guys on the ground are where we get the feeling from.  Everest may not be doing anything new, but it does a good enough job of nailing what has already been done. It looks gorgeous and piles on the drama instead of the action. While it might not be anything that's going to change how you see survival movies it will reconfirm one thing: climbing a mountain is not something you want to do.
Everest Review photo
Now in 3D!
You've seen Everist before. Not just in the sense that we've all seen a billion movies about mountains killing people or in the sense that it's based on the same true story that Into Thin Air was based on. You've se...

Review: The Beauty Inside

Sep 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219909:42609:0[/embed] The Beauty InsideDirector: Baek Jong-yeolRelease Date: September 11, 2015Country: South Korea  As a remake, The Beauty Inside is an interesting beast. It takes a 40 minute, episodic experiment and makes it two hours long. It keeps some many of the same moments, but there are some crucial changes that speak to broader cultural differences between America and Korea. Early on I had thought that The Beauty Inside 2015 might go exactly where the 2012 film did. It didn't, of course, and what it does is ultimately far more compelling and meaningful, but the fact that I had those expectations (and that the American version of the story met those expectations) says a lot of things. It seemed like a logical conclusion. But then again, I also thought it would have been a bit too neat, tying things off too nicely at the expense of a greater message. TBI2012 does that. The Beauty Inside does not. But while we're thinking about cultural differences, let's think about the title. I spend a lot of time thinking about movie titles. In the grand scheme of things, they're all sort of irrelevant (especially with translated titles, since they're often different (which is, in and of itself, kind of interesting), but there's something significant in the way a film is presented. Someone(s) thought that any given name was the best way to sell it. "The Beauty Inside" made me think of another Korean film: 200 Pounds Beauty. When I first saw that film, I expected it to have a message like The Beauty Inside, that looks are only skin deep and what really matters is who you are underneath. Cliches, etc. That's not what the film is about. It almost seems like it's going to be... but then it turns out the actual message is that you have to be both interesting and extremely attractive to get the guy. I had a big problem with that. Sure, it's better than just being pretty... but come on. I get it, superficial culture and all that, but that's bad. The Beauty Inside doesn't have that message, though its inspiration's parting note is closer to that than I think anyone involved would like to admit. [embed]219909:42608:0[/embed] Kim Woo-jin wakes up every day as a different person. His running internal monologue (always the same voice) is the only thing we really have to latch onto. One day, an old woman; the next day, a young boy. And on and on. Some days he's extremely attractive, goes out, and has a one night stand (which he runs from in the morning). Other times he just does his work. He's a furniture designer, half of the brains behind the customizable furniture company ALX. He has one friend – the other man behind ALX – and his mom, both of whom know his secret and accept him. But, as is wont to happen, something is changed by the power of love. Not the secret, but Woo-jin's reaction to it. He was cool with the whole isolation thing, but then he fell for Yi-soo, a furniture saleswoman. And eventually, she falls for Woo-jin too. But there are a lot of questions there, big ones, existential ones, for both sides of the relationship.  It's not easy. Obviously. There was a movie I saw at the Japan Cuts Film Festival this year called Forget Me Not. I liked it a whole bunch but I couldn't bring myself to write about it. It was a romance about a high school girl who is forgotten by everyone around her: her teachers, her classmates, even her parents. I didn't write about the film because the whole thing was just too damn bleak. I couldn't get up the energy to write something that did it justice. I bring Forget Me Not up because I was absolutely terrified for about two thirds of The Beauty Inside that it would turn out a similar way. When I figured out that it wasn't going to end the way the 2012 film did, I thought that maybe it would go there; eventually E-soo would forget about him or something to that effect. There's already a supernatural element, so why not add another one? Woo-jin is easy to forget. Everything about him changes from day to day. Some days he can't even speak Korean, but he can always understand it. (This is particularly interesting, since he doesn't actually learn this new language, as evidenced by a back-and-forth in Japanese and Korean where his conversation partner slips into Japanese and he can't translate.) And so some day, he could easily just disappear and no one would ever know.  What makes The Beauty Inside fundamentally more interesting than its source material is its focus on society. In the original experiment, it was just the two characters. But Yi-soo has a family and colleagues and friends. She's not isolated, and so dating becomes a Thing. Colleagues start rumors about her, saying she goes through a new man every day. And... they're right, sort of. But that starts to wear on her. How does she respond to that? How would she introduce him to her family? Where does all of this lead? These are those existential questions, and the way they motivate the characters is fascinating to watch.  This may be a bit too clinical, but I sort of think of it as its own kind of experiment. We take a guy who, every day since he turned 18, has become a new person. We take a woman who, it turns out, he gets on rather well with. Then they just go. It has a very naturalistic style (ripped straight from the social film), and so the whole thing feels oddly real. It looks like a movie, but it feels distinctly non-cinematic. It feels like a bizarrely good looking documentary. The whole thing played out in a way that felt right, and with a narrative like this that's crucial. When things are sad, any overtly manipulative move feels cheap, but so does any deus ex machina. Things don't just get better because they get better. If they get better, it has to feel natural and earned. It may leave plenty of questions open, but you don't need to have all the answers all the time. It's about the moment and making that moment feel as honest as possible. And that's where The Beauty Inside succeeds. It feels honest. And a film (a romance at that) that can feel honest when its protagonist is played by 123 different people is a special one indeed. 
The Beauty Inside Review photo
Thankfully more than skin deep
The Beauty Inside is a remake of sorts. It's taken from a 2012 social film of the same name. "Social film" is a term I learned while writing this introduction. Social films are episodic and feature integration with socia...

Review: The Transporter Refueled

Sep 04 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219881:42589:0[/embed] The Transporter RefueledDirector: Camille DelamarreRated: PG-13Release Date: September 4, 2015  The Transporter Refueled is basically The Transporter, but with a different actor and four girls instead of one. Yes, there's some minor plot differences, but the general gist is that a professional driver, Frank Martin (Ed Skrein), is called into a job and then gets sucked into some drama he doesn't want to be in. In this case it involves a group of sex slaves led by Anna (Loan Chabonal) and his father Frank Sr. (Ray Stevenson). The premise, much like in the first films, is that this is very against Frank's rules and his personal coda. The problem with that premise is that it's never executed. Unlike in the original film where you felt like Frank was constantly upset by this shift in his life this time around it feels like he's all in from the start. It takes away one of the unique edges that the franchise had and instead of a character you get an archetype. Frank stoically goes from fight sequence to chase sequence on the most predictable path there is. His character never really gets pushed into interesting places, and that makes the rest of the flaws in the film stand out even more. Of course part of the charm of the original character was what Jason Statham brought to the role. Skrein brings none of it. Statham's charm, wit and style are replaced by what appears to be a very handsome wood carving. Skreim lacks the every-man demeanor that Statham brings to a role and that means that his Frank Martin is just boring. It doesn't help that he clearly doesn't have the fighting skills to handle the role. He's slow in the sequences he's in and the director has to overly rely on quick edits to make it seem like fights have impact. Not that Camille Delamarre (another failed Luc Besson protege) does very much with his directing. There are admittedly some fantastic ideas for fights and action sequences in this film, but Delamarre can't piece them together no matter how hard he tries. Chases are disjointed to the point of confusion leaving them uninteresting despite copious amounts of flipping cars. A fight sequence in an enclosed hallway with small drawers on its walls is completely wasted while the premise of Frank fighting along side his slowly moving car is awesome, but never executed in a way that makes it feel so. I made the horrible mistake of watching Mad Max: Fury Road the night before this. It was like watching the London Symphony Orchestra perform and then listening to a five-year-old smash his hands into a Casio keyboard. That's clearly not a fair comparison. Comparing anything to the best action movie ever isn't fair, but I'll do it anyway because we should start expecting more.  The film never commits to a style of action either. Switching randomly between a serious car chase movie and ridiculous uber-action, the movie just feels awkward all the time. When some sort of physics defying stunt occurs it feels out of place instead of awesome. If you're going to be ridiculous be ridiculous. Don't try to be grounded and then have your hero fly off a jet ski through a car window with pin point accuracy. Also, jet skis aren't cool. They're never cool. As an action film Refueled fails pretty hard, but it's even worse in terms of its treatment of women characters. Not to keep bringing up Mad Max, but this is the exact opposite of how that film perfectly pulled off a plot about kept and abused women. The four fleeing sex workers in Refueled were all kidnapped as children and forced into the trade. The movie attempts to turn their story into one of triumph over an evil doer, but they're still basically there as sex objects for Frank and his father to play with. What's the first thing these abused women do when Frank helps them escape? They show up in lingerie and reward him with sex. Haven't we moved past crap like that? Do we really need some empty love story just so we can have a sex scene, especially for a character whose entire drive is to be detached. The original at least kept its female "lead" clothed for the majority of the film. This one has them stripping as an older man ogles their body in the first 15 minutes.   Maybe I'm coming down incredibly harsh on The Transporter Refueled. After all it's just supposed to be a dumb action flick. The problem is it can't even pull that off. It's failure at even being popcorn fun opens it up to deeper and deeper ridicule. Honestly, we should expect more from our action flicks anyways. The world of action cinema has improved drastically since the original film released and yet this franchise seems to be going in reverse.
Transporter photo
Empty tank
Many people brush off the Transporter films as crappy, but the first two are actually great examples of 2000s action. The first was around for the birth of the cheap European action flick. Taken also falls into...

Review: Hitman: Agent 47

Aug 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219790:42560:0[/embed] Hitman: Agent 47Director: Aleksander BachRated: RRelease Date: August 21, 2015 Based on IO-Interactive's Hitman series, Agent 47 follows Katia (Hannah Ware) a woman with mysterious heightened skills searching for her father, a man who once ran a covert government (which government? Who cares!) experiment that lead to the creation of super soldiers with highly advanced tactical skills known as "Agents." When Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) claims he's trying to help save Katia and her father from Syndicate agent John Smith (Zachary Quinto), she doesn't know who to believe and must decide whether or not to rely on her mysterious abilities to survive. As you can probably gauge from the synopsis, 47 is as generic as they come. It's a trite plot that doesn't waste time with intricacies or honest characterization. But in the same vein, the flow of the film benefits from the lack of plot or heavy knowledge of the characters. For example, Rupert Friend is "fine" as Agent 47. The film specifically doesn't ask much more of him than to be an emotionless blank slate, but it's strangely never boring. It adds an interesting air of sterility to the film that pushes all of the violence of the film into hilarious territory (since the grit stands out so much). When you watch a guy listlessly kill a guy with a bible while a techno-metal soundtrack blares in the background, you can't help but laugh.  It's almost as if the film is trying to replicate the videogame series in that sense. By having a blank slate as the main character, 47 is trying its best to capture the feeling of experiencing the beats of the story through a direct avatar. It doesn't always work since cinema fundamentally can't connect with an audience at such a base level, but that's why 47 makes the inspired decision to choose a different main character. Rather than follow the blank slate, we're supposed to care about Katia. While that doesn't quite work either since she eventually collapses into the violent world of the film, it allows 47 to be "inhuman" for a bit and lets the audience enjoy how ridiculous the film's world is. It's a near perfect action formula which almost feels nostalgic in the way it wants us to just enjoy this guy shooting other guys.  Evidence of this is 47's fantastically storyboarded opening. With airs of Terminator, two agents follow Katia. The "inhuman" 47 does this awesome slow walk (but thanks to his emotionless state, the film believes in its audience enough to infer that he's walking with pompous confidence), while Quinto's John Smith has this awesome Kyle Reese vibe. Then they fight on the subway tracks and the film becomes a cartoon. It's pretty awesome. To explain why it turns into Terminator would give away the fun of the opening, but it really isn't a big twist if you've seen these films before. Although the plot is generic, Agent 47 does whatever it can to make everything else super fun: action sequences are faithful to the videogames as 47 uses the environment around him to take down a room, the bad dialogue makes the banter between the action hilarious, and the soundtrack seems overbearing at first but eventually subsides.  I'm left wondering whether or not I was "supposed" to enjoy Hitman: Agent 47 in the way I did. The film begs the question of whether or not we're "supposed" to laugh with it or at it. After writing my thoughts down here, I think it's a little bit of both columns. Hitman: Agent 47 is full of intentional goofy choices in order to keep the film fresh. Unlike films that try and be a bad movie in order to reach a cult status, 47 doesn't care whether or not you're going to watch it later. It's invested in keeping you entertained now and doesn't care whether or not you're invested back.  While Hitman: Agent 47 is too generic of an action film for pure action fans, it's got enough flair to appease casual fans of its namesake. It's got bad dialogue, bland characters, but it's so brisk only some of that matters. Hitman: Agent 47 hits its target well enough I'd be interested in seeing what another of these can bring. 
Agent 47 Review photo
A near hit, man
Despite never quite getting a videogame adaptation right, studios are still trying to churn out film after film in order to hit that elusive sweet spot where they please both new audiences and fans of the original videogame. ...

Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Aug 14 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219771:42550:0[/embed] The Man From U.N.C.L.E.Director: Guy RitchieRated: PG-13Release Date: August 14, 2015  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an old school, James Bond, spy thriller. Quite literally, really. Instead of updating the premise of the show -- an American and Russian spy team up to fight world threats -- to meet modern times they simply went back to the cold war setting of the show. Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an American spy and master thief and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is basically his Russian counterpart, but he's better at beating people up. They're teamed up to rescue a nuclear scientist from the hands of an evil Italian fascist named Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki). The plot involves his daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and more fashion, travel and quick one-liners than three Bond films put together. Of course the basis for a film like this has to be the chemistry between its leads. Hammer and Cavill can both easily handle sharp dialog and dressing well, but can they do it together? The answer turns out to be: if they work on it. The chemistry is a little rocky at first, especially since everyone in the film has clearly been told to overplay their adopted accents. The two seem wary of each other for the first half of the film until they fall into a solid patter. Maybe that was intentional, but it makes for a first half that feels a bit awkward, especially with Vikander thrown into the mix as Hammer's love interest. What helps it along is Guy Ritchie's direction (some words I never thought I'd be saying). The film is free over his usual over indulgences or maybe they just fit into the glamorous setting better. The movie feels smooth and stylish throughout and almost has a rhythmic flow to it that ramps up the feeling of a classic 60s spy film. He paces his action surprisingly well and often completely ignores it in favor of a solid gag or split screen montage. It's quite an adept piece of work that feels unique in a summer of action blockbuster that stood out for great stunts, but not so creative direction.  The screenplay isn't quite as suave, though Ritchie tries to imbue it with a little more tension than it deserves. It features twists and turns aplenty, but they don't always pay off as they should. The movie attempts to do what I'm going to call micro-twists. Instead of one big twist (there is one of those too) a scene will be a twist in itself. Multiple times we're shown only half of a sequence only to be filled in minutes later on the rest of what happened. It's an interesting execution and definitely works sometimes. Other times it feels forced, as if Ritchie were trying to add drama to a scene that wasn't working. As a film reviewer it was just interesting to watch it being executed, as a basic audience member I could see it getting annoying. What isn't annoying is that when the movie is clicking it's just plain fun. Once you realize that Cavill's pin-point perfect American accent and Hammer's resoundingly stereotypical Russian are indications that this film is as much a send up of 60s spy thrillers as it is an homage things start working really well. There's a certain je ne sais quoi to the Connery Bonds and their likes from the time period that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. actually grasps at every so often. Considering that most films can't even come close every so often is pretty damn good.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. concludes in such a way that it's pretty obvious that they want another franchise (where this leaves Ritchie for directing another Sherlock Holmes movie is anyone's guess), but I think it's just a little too quirky to get the audience to come. That might be a good thing in the end. The movie feels like something from out of the past, especially with its lackluster plotting. It's smooth and crammed with tight dialog. It forgoes big action for clever direction. It focuses on the spies and not the toys, even if it isn't so good at the spy thing. It isn't always successful, but when it works  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a film out of its time.
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Smooth operator
Does anyone below the age of 60 have super fond memories of the original TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? I'm sure they're out there, but the new movie remake can't really be hitting on the nostalgia gas that hard when half t...

Review: Assassination

Aug 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219742:42539:0[/embed] Assassination (Amsal | 암살)Director: Choi Dong-HoonRelease Date: August 7, 2015Country: South Korea  An American version of Assassination would be rated PG-13. On the whole, the amount of action in the film would be similar, but the effect of that action would be radically different. Why? Well, because there wouldn't be any blood. American action films are bloodless, often problematically so. A lot of people die in Mission Impossible - Rogue Agent, but oftentimes I straight up didn't realize it until I was told afterwards. Is someone dead or just unconscious? You never know, because it all looks the same. It's an important distinction to make. It's important to know if the characters we're rooting for/fighting against are cold-blooded killers or just really good at getting KOs. (I think about this College Humor sketch about Batman and death constantly.) Guns mitigate that to some degree, but a bloodless hail of bullets is always sort of off-putting.  One of the things I like about Korean films is that they rarely have guns. Gangsters use bats because they don't have guns. Getting a gun is a Big Deal that requires actual Effort, whereas in American films (and America in general), everyone and their newborn has access to a firearm. To put it plainly: Guns are boring. There are exceptions to that rule (Hong Kong films with guns are certainly more exciting than American ones), but given the choice between a gunfight and a fist/bat/knifefight, I'd always choose the latter.  There are a lot of guns in Assassination. It's a period piece set in the early 1900s, and I guess guns were more prevalent back then. Whether that's historical license or not, it definitely factors into the way the film's action plays out. There are a few close-quarters encounters, but they're the exception, not the rule. Still, the crucial thing to point out is that the film is anything but bloodless. You always know when someone's been hit, because it's always accompanied by a spray of the red stuff. And to my eye, they looked like they were actual squibs for the most part. If they weren't, that was some of the most effective blood CG I've seen. (Then again, the version of the film I saw was kinda fuzzy at times, so it's possible that the image smoothed out. Either way, the blood looked good.) Assassination follows a ragtag group of killers during the period in which Korea was under Japanese rule. The Korean government was forced underground, and they were being smoked out by the Japanese. So they pull together this group of three killers (and a few pointmen) to take down two figures in the Japanese military regime, one Japanese and one Korean, to hit them where it hurts. From there, things get complicated (as they often do), because one of the pointmen is a double agent (you learn this almost immediately, so… not a spoiler) and he hires an infamous Korean killer to take down the other Korean killers by claiming that they’re a bunch of Japanese spies. And then everyone fools everyone else into thinking that they’re all different people or on different sides or have different intentions. Trying to keep track of everyone’s particular goals at any given moment is difficult, but fortunately their motives remain consistent throughout. The closest thing anyone has to a change of heart seemed to follow that character’s overall desires pretty closely, so it didn’t even feel like a big moment. It was just the next thing that happened. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises (there are), just that the surprises aren’t left-field twists. The biggest “surprise” was more a reminder: Anyone can die. Not everyone does die, but there are no immortals in Assassination. Those guns I was talking about earlier, they are lethal (or at least crippling) to anyone and everyone who stands in their path. It’s a breath of fresh air, really, actually fearing for the lives of characters you’re rooting for. In Mission Impossible, you know who will and won’t survive. There’s no such guarantees here. And it results in some legitimately sad moments that fit surprisingly well with the often over-the-top action that surrounds them. You get the high of the ultra-bloody violence followed by the low of ultra-bloody violence against a character that you've been rooting for. It's emotional, but it's also not a bleak "there is no good in the world" sort of thing either. More often than not, the film can (and should) be described as "fun." That may come with a few caveats, but this is a film that's meant to be enjoyed. It undoubtedly succeeds.
Assassination Review photo
Asassinations, more like
Director Choi Dong-Hoon's last film, The Thieves, was a thoroughly enjoyable film. It wasn't the smartest or most unique thing, but it wasn't dumb or bland either. It was stylish and interesting and fun, so much so that ...

Review: Fantastic Four

Aug 08 // John-Charles Holmes
[embed]219745:42538:0[/embed] Fantastic FourDirector: Josh TrankRelease Date: August 7, 2015Rating: PG-13 The Fantastic Four is one of Marvel’s oldest comic book series, telling the tale of a group of scientists turned into mutants after a freak experiment goes awry. There’s Reed Richards (Miles Teller), who can stretch his body like elastic, Sue Storm (Kate Mara), who can turn invisible and produce energetic shields, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who becomes a living fireball, and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), whose entire exterior is turned into cragged rock. The team decide to use these powers to fight crime and protect the world—it’s one of Marvel’s most colorful send-up series, and this recent movie just decides not to take advantage of its classic appeal. Fantastic Four is much more concerned with focusing on their origins. That’s right, the entire two hours of this film is one big origin story. In this interpretation, Reed and Ben are childhood friends who grow up together to work on and eventually travel through an interdimensional teleporter which causes of the horrific accident. By the time the accident actually creates the Fantastic Four and villain Doctor Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbel) the rest of the running time is spent watching the characters explore their powers and keep themselves out of the hands of the government. You know, because government is bad? Folks, I’m gonna be upfront with you-- this movie is an absolute mess. By focusing so much on where the Fantastic Four comes from, we never get a good idea of who they are. Ben Grimm aka “The Thing” is arguably one of Marvel’s most tragic heroes next to the Hulk and that’s never really touched on over the course of the film. Just about every character is a one-dimensional caricature that gets across basic personalities fast. The scientists are curt and over-analytical, Sue and Johnny’s father is the overprotective parent, Victor von Doom is the aloof hacker kid—there’s just not much the movie has to work with in terms of character here and it hurts for it. There are some great opportunities for character development, be it how Reed and Ben grow distant after being childhood best friends, how Ben has his humanity stripped away when he becomes a living mountain, or Sue and Doom’s past romance that is briefly teased a few times… but instead the movie is constantly jumping ahead in time, just skipping over what would make for an interesting film. Instead, the focus goes entirely on lightly exploring their powers. To their credit, this does lead up to the only worthwhile sequence in the film, with everyone realizing just how their bodies have mutated. The tension and horror of this moment is ripped straight out of a horror film, but ultimately lacks any lasting punch as they never even revisit this trauma any further. Recent Marvel productions have proven that they have a good sense of how to manage the emotional budget of characters, story, and action. Without this balance, Fantastic Four feels more like a superhero movie from the mid-2000’s—all origin, no character, and those really awkward looking “contemporary” costume designs. Even the action of the movie is lackluster—in fact, there’s only one fight scene and its at the very end of the movie. By the time the movie got there, I had no investment, no interest, and minimal context. Honestly, if I didn’t have to watch it to write this review, I would’ve walked out in the final 20 minutes of the film. Perhaps this film may see a second life on home media where internet critics and drunken friends alike will laugh at the Asylum quality special effects (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man get pelted with styrofoam rocks, thusly transforming him into The Thing), the stilted writing, the painful acting, and awkward pacing. I can think of no good reason why anyone should watch this movie. It feels outdated, boring, and about half an hour way too long. In favor of going on for a few more paragraphs as to why Fantastic Four is a mess of a movie that should be avoided at all costs, I instead choose to leave you with a short list of notes I made on the movie while watching it, as they are far more entertaining than this movie itself will ever be. For the entirety of the movie, The Thing does not wear pants. An entire year passes in movie time and he still does not wear pants. This is made more distressing by the fact that he has a rock ass and also possibly a rock dick. This movie was so bad, Stan Lee didn’t even make a cameo. Is this the first time he just hasn’t shown up during a Marvel movie? (Note: It is not. He has a history of not appearing in some of the worst Marvel features.) At one point, Doctor Doom blows up a government man with his mind like in Scanners. It is never explained what his powers are or why he becomes evil. The highlight of the entire film was a five second cameo by Tim Heidecker as Reed’s father. He actually gets a full screen credit at the end. I remind you once more that The Thing doesn’t wear pants and has a visible ass-crack throughout the span of the movie. Do not see this movie.
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Fantastic floor
Marvel Studios has landed on a winning formula in their own films with its vast catalog of films over the past decade. They seamlessly blend lovable characters, engaging stories, amazing effects, enthralling action, charming ...

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Jul 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219530:42420:0[/embed] Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationDirector: Christopher McQuarrieRelease Date:  July 31, 2015Rating: PG-13  The first time you see Tom Cruise in Rogue Nation, he's running. Of course he is. He has to run. It's a contractual thing (probably). He spends a lot of the film running. It makes sense, since he's really on the run this time. In Ghost Protocol, the IMF (which I always get confused with the International Monetary Fund, which says something weird about me) was publicly disavowed but still privately accepted. In Rogue Nation, the CIA is after Ethan Hunt's head. Following the events of Ghost Protocol, with a destroyed Kremlin and the aftermath of a freaking warhead hitting a building (not causing much damage in the process, but none-the-less), everything is blamed on the IMF. No one knows that the Syndicate he's been tracking is a real thing. There's been no evidence that anyone else could see, so... Ethan becomes a wanted man. But you don't catch Ethan Hunt. Unless, of course, you work the Syndicate. Because Rogue Nation gets interesting really early. Every movie, you get to enjoy the hoops that Hunt has to go through in order to hear his mission. It's fun and always a little bit silly. But things are different this time. After picking up the proper vinyl record, he goes to listen. It sounds normal at first, confirming his suspicions about the Syndicate's existence, but then you realize that the use of subjects is... odd. The phrasing doesn't quite sound like something the IMF would have in a transmission. And, of course, it's not an IMF transmission. It's the Syndicate's. Hunt turns around to see the man at the top of the organization put a bullet into the head of the young record store owner who was so excited to actually see Ethan Hunt in person as sleeping gas fills his room. A little much, perhaps, but interesting. Subversion, right? I like subversion. Parts of Rogue Nation are surprisingly subversive. Many of them are not, but with a film of this magnitude, you kinda have to take what you can get.  I saw the film in IMAX. Ghost Protocol remains the only film I've ever seen in LIEMAX, as they call it, and while seeing it big was a treat, there's nothing in the film that quite has the majesty of that tower scaling scene from the previous film. There are some fantastic sights and sounds, and it's definitely a film that takes advantage of a theater, but you'd get pretty much the same experience on a traditional screen that I got on one the size of a building. One of the few things I genuinely like about big budget films is their ability to literally span the globe. In that respect, Rogue Nation doesn't disappoint. Its intrigue takes you through numerous countries across at least three continents. You'll see familiar landmarks and some totally new terrain. It's awesome, really. (As an aside: If you're a big budget movie that doesn't use multiple countries for locations, what are you doing with your life?) And the things that happen in those countries are pretty cool too. There are crazy foot chases, motorcycle chases, car chases, fist fights, knife fights, gunfights etc. It's all very exciting, and it takes place in some excellent locations (the catwalk battle at the Viennese opera house is a personal favorite, though I did spend the entire time internally shouting, "JUST THROW HIM OFF! OH MY GOD!"). That parenthetical does bring me to something that won't come as a surprise but will still affect whether or not you can really get into the film: Rogue Nation insults your intelligence, just a little bit. It explains and overexplains everything, just in case you missed it the first time. Characters will describe what things are, not because they need to know them but because they think the audience does. (Sometimes, they're right, but heavy-handed exposition isn't really the most enjoyable way to get crucial information.)  That said, it's not quite as dumb as it could have been. You could pick it apart until there was nothing left (I expect the fine folks at Cinema Sins will do just that before too long), but... why? What's to be gained from wondering how and why characters do the things they do? They're complicated – too complicated, probably – but that's not always a bad thing. In fact, it allows for some interesting development from Ilsa, the sole female character of substance. Ilsa's a badass, too. Like, an actual one, who can kill people and don't need no man. (Most of the time.) And really, her final interaction with Ethan Hunt was invigorating, not because of what it was but what it wasn't. It's not what you expect these moments to be like, but it's what you hope they will. For all of my complaints, I just sat back and let it wash over me. And I enjoyed the heck out of it. Good on you, Rogue Nation. Good on you.
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Exactly what you want it to be
When Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol ended, I couldn't fathom how a sequel could top it. It went so far over the top that I truly believed it was un-toppable. (Turns out, I actually wrote something to tha...

Review: Vacation

Jul 30 // Matthew Razak
VacationDirectors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. GoldsteinRated: RRelease Date: July 29, 2015 [embed]219710:42514:0[/embed] First off lets give props where props are due. New Line could have geared this film for a PG-13 rating to pull in more people, but they didn't (as Hemsworth's wang below shows). They kept it R like the original and for that they should be applauded because the R-rated comedy is a dying breed. It was a signal that the this new Vacation might just pull itself up by its own boot straps and be funny. The signal got a little diluted. The movie picks up years after the original films. Rusty (Ed Helms) is all grown up, and even more out of touch with his own family than his dad was. His wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate) and kids James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) hate the normal cabin vacation they go on so Rusty decides he'll pack everyone into a car and recreate his family's trip to Wally World. That one went pretty poorly as we all may remember, but they're doing it again. In fairness the film is blatantly forward about the fact that it's a remake and that takes some of the sting out of the copped comedy from the original. There is something refreshingly old school about Vacation's comedy. It feels a bit out of date in its gross out site gags and senseless punchlines. Honestly, it's a bit refreshing in a land of comedies that take themselves too seriously or have forgotten how to properly kick a guy in the nuts for comic effect. Slapstick is a sadly dying art. The problem is that Vacation doesn't really execute its slapstick that well. There are definitely moments when the movie pulls off some solid comedy, but it too often feels forced. The film constantly seems to want to push boundaries with its comedy, but never checks to see if that boundary is worth breaking. The movie works here and there, but never long enough to make it any good. James and Kevin's relationship is actually pretty funny, but it pounds the same joke into the ground for far too long. Helms delivers a solidly oblivious father, but the family relations never feel real thanks to how dumb he is. You never get the connection you got with Chevy Chase's increasingly grumpy Clark Griswold. And not that continuity is something you'd expect in this case, but it's very unclear how the Rusty of the original films turned into the Rusty of this film. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo's cameo is also horribly wasted making the connections to the original feel more like a cash grab than actual care. The biggest problem, however, is when Vacation goes way beyond where it should. It mocks murder, suicide and sexual abuse of a minor. I'm all for comedy being allowed to make fun of disturbing subjects; it's one of the ways we cope. The problem is when that comedy isn't funny. Vacations jokes in these departments fall horrendously flat meaning they're both offensive and unfunny. They're clearly trying to make themselves edgy, but they stink at doing it. It pushes the old school comedy into the background and turns the film into something more akin to a Scary Movie sequel. Vacation is a movie that no one wanted so its hard to say that it's a major disappointment. It can actually be funny at times, especially thanks the Helms being a funny person, but it's mostly just retreaded jokes and poorly delivered gross out comedy. The vacation from Vacation films really shouldn't have ended. 
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Vacation, all I never wanted
National Lampoon's Vacation is a comedy landmark. A boundary pushing bit of hilarity that stands the test of time and spawned two sequels funnier than the original (and Vegas Vacation). Of course National Lampoon has bee...

Review: Pixels

Jul 24 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219694:42503:0[/embed] PixelsDirector: Chris ColumbusRated: PG-13Release Date: July 24, 2015 In Pixels, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) was a kid who was nearly the Donkey Kong National Champion. After losing the big match against Eddie "Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage), he resigns to an unfulfilling life of installing televisions for a Best Buy-esque company while his best friend "Chewie" (Kevin James) becomes a down on his luck President of the Untied States. When a probe full of their videogames is seen as an act of war by an alien race, Sam and conspiracy nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) have to step up and save the world from three rounds of pixel fueled shenanigans. Also Lt. Colonel Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) and her son are there to give Sam something to fight for, I guess.  Pixels may share some troubling similarities with Adam Sandler's recent glut of films (which I'll get to in a minute), but it's also got a faint sense of the good kind of nostalgia. You see, his standard schlub act works well here since the entire film is meant to invoke that 80s "average guy with inane skill becomes big hero" trope. And because it works so well, the rest of the film almost plays out like one of Sandler's early 90s comedies (albeit without the jokes). In terms of overall tone, once the film delves deep into the premise and Sam starts playing against the aliens, Pixels is a lot of healthy fun. Everything's wonderfully simplified. The aliens (who deliver their messages through stock footage of 80s icons) don't have a motive other than to destroy the Earth (or needing a million allowances worth of quarters to do their laundry), the games involved (like Breakout, Centipede, and Pac-Man) aren't filled with complicated rules to weigh the fun down, and the pixelated monsters themselves are gorgeous. But that's unfortunately where the positive stuff ends.  Pixels may be a reminder of the fun these kinds of movies used to be, but it also reminds you of how much movies have evolved since then. Because Pixels leans so heavily on the past, it can't help but trudge up all of the problematic elements of the era it wants to embody. For example, there are only two women featured in the film and they're treated horribly (which doesn't reflect well on the current perception of gaming culture as a whole). Lt. Colonel Van Patten is meant to be this "strong" female character, and she even gets one well choreographed bit toward the end, but her first introduction is belittled by Sandler's character. After he compliments her looks, he finds her crying as a result of her sudden divorce not two minutes later. And the second character, a videogame heroine named Lady Lisa, is literally a trophy the aliens give the Earth for winning one of the games which one of the characters ends up marrying. She gets no dialogue, and ends up with most mentally unstable of the "Arcaders" Ludlow, the conspiracy nut who lives with his grandmother and worships the character.  The lack of agency just feeds into the old mindset of gamers being older white males with social misgivings. One of the running jokes is these guys are only acknowledged as "the nerds." In this day and age where every literal kid and grandparent is able to play games on some kind of device, it's jarring to go back to hearing such close mindedness. Especially from a film that wants to celebrate these games (going so far as to have Sam explain why arcades were so important, and feature a scene where he decries the current violent nature of videogames). It's totally a "cake and eat it too" situation where Pixels definitely wants to mirror classic films like Ghostbusters, yet have a cynical eye toward the folks who might enjoy themselves while watching. It's that kind of self loathing that brings the whole film down.  There's just so much more to talk about, yet so little time. That's why I was so confused when I initially started writing this review. Even after all of this, I still have idea who Pixels is meant for, nor do I know who to blame for its existence. I can't even say Adam Sandler did a bad job because he actually wasn't his usual self. Lacking his usual lethargic attitude (which he starts off with then hastily has to change out of thanks to some well placed dialogue degrading his love of shorts), Sandler's never been more physical. There's also a lack of the standard poop and fart jokes you'd expect because the film's not really for kids (there's no way they'd appreciate seeing Paperboy and Joust sprites on the same screen).  Oh right, I guess I should mention there were zero jokes that appealed to me. While there is fun in the way sequences are set up, none of the fun is stemmed from the dialogue. Also, I saw in 3D and would definitely recommend seeing the pixelated monsters in that fashion. Then again, maybe you should avoid this altogether so you don't end up feeling the same confusion? I don't know.  Pixels plays so poorly, it doesn't even get to put its initials on the high score screen. 
Pixels Review photo
Insert coin to ignore
I really have no idea where to start with this. Usually when I sit down to write a review I'll have an angle by which to tackle a film, but with Pixels, I'm at a loss. I don't really know who the film is for. Is it a comedy a...

Review: Southpaw

Jul 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219692:42504:0[/embed] SouthpawDirector: Antoine FuquaRated: RRelease Date: July 24, 2015 If you've seen any boxing movie you've seen Southpaw. This one picks up in the "boxing movie career timeline" around where Rocky V does, but instead of Rocky we've got Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he defends his title once again. However, truly great boxers can't be rich, they have to work from the ground up and so after a tragedy Billy loses all his money, custody of his daughter, and his manager (50 Cent). That means he's got to return to his roots and get a new trainer in the form of Tick Will (Forest Whitaker), who runs a boxing center in Hell's Kitchen for poor youths. You literally can find every single aspect of this film in a film that has come before it. There is not an original concept going for it in terms of story. There's even less going for it in terms of pacing. The screenplay is horrendously light on tension building and this means that by the time the final fight has rolled in you don't feel like you should be there. The conflict between Gyllenhaal and his opponent is so lightly touched on and poorly handled that the guy just becomes a punching bag. Even the sports training montages feel like they're rushed and disconnected. At no point does the movie build successfully in emotion, leaving its talented actors and director with little to grab the viewer with.  They all try, though. The cast is obviously fantastic and without them the film would be utterly boring. We've seen it all before and we've seen it done better so it's a good thing the actors turn redundancy into something slightly original. Gyllenhaal, who must have had a sculptor chisel his abs for the film, seems to think he's in a quality movie. His tortured and enraged performance brings back echoes of Stallone's perfectly countenanced delivery in the original Rocky.  Whitaker also layers in nuances to a character so cookie cutter you wonder how much the spent at William and Sonoma on him. Tick Will's motivations and character are so awkwardly crammed in that he's barely there yet Whitaker makes his presence known.  Director Antoine Fuqua does as well. While the story may be slapdash and contrived his direction is anything but. Boxing matches are notoriously hard to direct, but Fuqua does a fantastic job of putting his together. His direction is visceral during the matches, sometimes even cutting into first-person -- a risk that pays off thanks to his skill. This move uses its R-rating hard during the matches as they're bloody and powerful. It just can't sustain that feeling throughout, getting bogged down in melodrama too often and forgetting we all came to see a boxer train. Another sticking point for me was the almost forced use of Eminem's music in the film. He was a producer on the movie, and has a single for the film called "Phenomenal." It plays over a training montage, but just feels awkward. It's angry and loud and out of place. That's really a problem for a lot of the film. There's a lot of sound and fury, but in the end it signifies nothing (to steal from the Bard). You know you've watched some great things, but they sure didn't make a great movie. Southpaw is a boxing movie made out of other boxing movies and is only buoyed by the fact that its director and actors thought they were in something more. There's not much of an original thought in here, but that doesn't always matter for a sports movie. What does matter is that you get that little thrill in your heart as our underdog hero climbs up from whatever depths he's been flung into. Southpaw doesn't give you that thrill and because of that it can throw a few good punches, but it never lands a KO.
Southpaw Review photo
No punch
It's pretty obvious why America loves boxing movies despite the fact that boxing itself is dwindling in popularity. Ever since Rocky the genre has proven that it can easily deliver the best of what we want out of our spo...

Review: Trainwreck

Jul 17 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219680:42492:0[/embed] TrainwreckDirector: Judd ApatowRated: RRelease Date: July 17, 2015 In Trainwreck, Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) is a woman who's just enjoying her life. She's got a good job writing for a magazine and doesn't see the need to get into a monogamous relationship any time soon thanks to her father's (Colin Quinn) teachings ("Can you imagine playing with the same toy the rest of your life?"). One day she's assigned an article about Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), a sports medicine practicioner who's about to go through an intense surgery. Then through some ups and downs, the two eventually fall for each other. Through the synopsis you can't really gauge why Trainwreck is great, and that's one of the biggest drawbacks. You have to be willing to accept the film's traditional style in order to enjoy its personality. But this film's been about personality from the beginning.  I've seen so many romantic comedies over the years, I've been able to break them down into four main components: quirky girl is an outsider for some reason, quirky girl meets guy who changes her life, random man candy to oggle, and the quirky girl becomes the most important person in the film's world by the end. Unfortunately, Trainwreck has all of these components. It's completely predictable from beginning to end, but the film would rather you enjoy its components rather than the package as a whole. That's not necessarily a bad thing by any means when all of the individual pieces are as well put together as they are here.  As Schumer has proven in the past, she's a comedic dynamo. Couple that with an amazing cast for her to bounce off of, and we've got a romantic comedy more grounded than anything in years past. Her charm just oozes off the screen and effects the rest of the cast. Everyone in the film has such a natural chemistry it makes Apatow's tendency to run his films a bit long all the more bearable. In fact, I wish there was more of her conversations with Brie Larsen as Amy's sister. There are a bunch of scenes between the two where Brie cracks a laugh, and you can tell that it wasn't an intentional one. It's the little things like that which give the film a lot of character. Something that's always hollow in these romantic comedies. Speaking of chemistry, Schumer and Hader are magnetic. While Hader's character could use more development, Hader fills the role with enough quirk that it elevates it from the material. Schumer's script is amazingly put together too. While there're some jokes that don't work, and Judd Apatow's direction does seep through and you notice a few bits that could've been cut for time (and because they weren't really funny), when the two meet in the middle they knock it out of the park. Like John Cena and Lebron James, for instance. A typical quality of an Apatow directed film are the numerous celebrity cameos from folks you wouldn't usually see in a movie like this. While a bunch of unfunny cameos are here in spades, Cena and James are almost too perfect. As the two fill the conventional "bad bro date" and "quirky guy's best friend," Schumer's writing mixed with their surprising talent completely blindsides. James' acting may be a bit stilted, but he gets the best lines in the film (my personal favorite being a Kanye West riff), and I can't tell you how many times I laughed at John Cena. That guy has a future in comedy. Also, if you wanted to see him naked here's your chance.  Trainwreck is somehow both traditional and unconventional. I don't know how the film managed to find a perfect balance between being an entertaining comedy while still dealing an effective romantic push, but there's so much charm it's easy to write off a lot of the film's technical issues. Normally I'm so jaded with films like these, so I would've torn into how much like other movies it is. But it's not. It's sort of the anti-27 Dresses.  Maybe it's Amy Schumer's persona, or maybe it's how down to Earth it all feels, but when I saw Schumer dancing as a grand romantic gesture at Trainwreck's end (so predictable, I told you), I couldn't help but fall in love with her myself. 
Trainwreck Review photo
John Cena has a great ass
Whether or not you're a fan of her comedy, Amy Schumer is not going anywhere. Comedy's current "It" girl, Schumer's earned all of the accolades through her comedy specials and often hilarious television show, Inside Amy Schum...

Review: Ant-Man

Jul 17 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219677:42491:0[/embed] Ant-ManDirector: Peyton ReedRelease Date: July 17, 2015 Rated: PG-13  Ant-Man might be the most divergent from the original Marvel comic yet. Instead of focusing on the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the movie skips over to the modern iteration: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). As Pym, and his then wife The Wasp, were two founding members of the Avengers in the comics this is kind of a big deal, but it's what you get when you can't roll out a movie based on a shrinking superhero until you've established everything you do is going to be a hit. Marvel has done that and so we get an up-to-date Ant-Man, and Pym's daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), instead of Pym. That doesn't mean Pym was never Ant-Man nor that there was no Wasp. The movie picks up in the past as Pym quits his superhero heroics for the then new S.H.I.E.L.D. after the death of his wife and vows to hide the technologies that allow him to shrink and control ants. Jump forward to modern day and we find Lang just getting out of prison and unable to find a job so he goes on one more heist... and steals the Ant-Man suit. Meanwhile, Pym has been forced out of the technology company he runs and his predecessor Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has finally, after years of denial from Pym, discovered how to shrink people. He's built a suit called the Yellowjacket. The only way to stop him from misusing this power? Steal it. There, my friends, you have a set up for a heist movie, and for the most part this heist works. It's a fun and enjoyable romp highlighted by the great use of Ant-Man's powers throughout. Though his powers cause some of the movie's problems. Any good heist movie is pretty complex, but with Ant-Man's abilities it kind of simplifies things down. The rest of the gang (including T.I. and Michael Peña) seem to be there more for comic relief and to fill a heist movie quota than anything else. The heist itself isn't that clever either as it plays out in a very straight forward manner that you don't see very often in modern heist films. There's no Now You See Me twist coming with this one. The movie does feature a heavier dose of comedy than other Marvel films. This one is very in line with modern heist films that incorporate a humorous gang into the proceedings to liven things up. Plus, you've got Rudd, who delivers his normal comedic talents to the proceedings. This makes Ant-Man easily the lightest of the Marvel films and probably the funniest, though Guardians is right there with it. The problem with the film's focus on traditional heist film tactics is that it trips into cliche constantly. There's a training montage, and a planning montage and a group of stereotypical teammates. Ironically by differentiating itself from other Marvel films it becomes more generic as a whole.  What's great is that it doesn't especially matter because the fun comes straight from the superpowers. Ant-Man's abilities are so unique in comparison to the rest of the heroes out there that it gives a new spin to things. The action is impressively done and uses the shrinking/growing dynamic in some really awesome ways. The final fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is especially well done as they shrink and grow in and out of a variety of locations. Director Peyton Reed did a really admirable job putting the scenes together with just the right amount of comedy mixed into the fight. I'd still rather see what Edgar Wright could have done (he does get screenwriting credit), but Reed does some very cool things here that turn a very straightforward heist into something awesome. One of the possible holdovers from Wright's time is just how referential this movie is to the history of heist films. It is often an homage to the classics of the genre. There's a train fight sequence hearkening back to train robbery westerns, a little Mission: Impossible thrown in, some subtle references to Ocean's Eleven and plenty more for those who know their heist movie history. While other Marvel films have given nods to their respective genres, Ant-Man is by far the most meta of them all. I half expected Rudd to pull a Deadpool and talk to the camera at some point.  Sadly, one of the other effects of Wright leaving is that the story isn't as fleshed out as it should be. At points it feels rushed, as a condensed production schedule would make it. This is especially true of the character Hope, who was created specifically for the film, and creates one of the film's most blatant plot holes. She's a trained fighter who knows how to use the suit thanks to her dad, but we can't have her using it because Lang needs to be Ant-Man. They wrote themselves into a corner with the issue and use the excuse that her father doesn't want her using it to make sure she doesn't. It feels even more forced thanks to the first end credit sequence in which (spoilers) her father shows her the Wasp suit he was working on with her mother (end spoilers). One wonders if Wright had been allowed to finish his version if this pretty sexist problem would still be around.  What really works about Ant-Man, and what keeps its problems at bay is that it's small and and practically immaterial. Much like the hero himself, the film is incredibly micro. It, for the most part, ditches the wider Marvel universes and focuses on fun and adventure. It's not the bloated, overwhelming Age of Ultron and its not the completely disconnected Iron Man 3. It's exactly what the MCU needs right now: a creative dose of fun. 
Ant-Man Review photo
Shrinking down the MCU
Marvel has a problem on their hands with the MCU. They've got a cohesive style that can make all the Marvel films feel very similar. The way they've attempted to address this is to deliver movies that are stylistically simila...

Review: The Gallows

Jul 10 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219651:42478:0[/embed] The GallowsDirectors: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing Rated: RRelease Date: July 10, 2015 The Gallows had plenty of positive buzz coming out of the film festival circuit and it's pretty easy to see why. The movie is scary and does try to shake things up here and there. There's definitely something inherently scary about a high school at night, which is where our four protagonists find themselves. Reese Houser (Reese Mishler), Pfeifer Brown (Pfeifer Ross), Ryan Shoos (Ryan Shoos) and Cassidy Spiker (Cassidy Gifford) are trapped in the high school after sneaking in one night. Two decades before this a boy had died in a freak accident during the production of a play called The Gallows in the school's auditorium. His ghost isn't too happy about it and now he's finally got a group of teens trapped at night that he can terrorize.  The plot is pretty basic for a horror film; a small group of people being tormented by a deadly ghost who has a flare for the dramatic despite the fact that he could kill them all with his mystical powers in a second flat. The found footage gimmick feels more like a forced hook than what the directors originally intended, though since the pair wrote the screenplay as well it probably wasn't. Cluff and Lofing do do some clever things with it here and there, however. A few scenes in particular are fantastically constructed, especially one set in a hallway lit only by a red exit sign that fantastically uses shadows and off camera changes to build tension. The directors also cleverly use the two cameras the teens have with them to play out scenes completely from one perspective and then jump back to show us the same scene from another. Ignoring montage in favor of this style actually works incredibly well, adding fear that wouldn't be there to many scenes while still allowing for kills to play out on screen eventually. It's a great balance between the belief that being scary means leaving something off the screen and the constant need to shock the audience with visuals.  Sadly, the plotting and pacing can't keep up with the cool ideas and the film suffers for it. The movie falls victim to some terrible editing that is horrifically excused by the camera panning to the floor, shaking a bit, and then the teens suddenly being somewhere else when the camera swings back up. It rips the realism out of the movie, which for a found footage film is really problematic. There's even issues with how exactly they're filming at points, which allows for some great scenes but breaks the movie's own rules. Not to mention the plot itself is pretty flimsy. The movie is more of a collection of really interesting horror scenes than a horror whole. Great ideas keep cropping up and scaring you, but they don't accrue into a coherent whole.  Then there's the film's ending that's supposed to shock you, but is both predictable and tacked on. In what is supposed to be a twist the movie jumps out of scary and into stupid in the blink of an eye. Since the film's scenes don't build onto each other the movie's ending feels especially random. The movie makes no attempt to foreshadow what's coming meaning theirs no build to the conclusion, but it also awkwardly pretends like it was a surprise when anyone whose understands how movies are plotted will see it coming a mile away. It's too bad the filmmakers didn't work this out as the ending could have been something people talked about if pulled off correctly. For some cheap (well, as cheap as the movie ticket price near you) thrills The Gallows definitely delivers. There's moments that show that Cluff and Lofing can get up to some pretty interesting stuff with the genre, but their lack of structure and the found footage style mean the film isn't all that it could be. 
Gallows Review photo
Isn't high school bad enough on its own?
If you had hopes the the found footage genre of horror would go away you are in for a sore future. It's here to stay so you might as well embrace it. The sub-genre can offer up some fantastic scares if done right, but its ove...

Review: Minions

Jul 10 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219629:42476:0[/embed] MinionsDirectors: Pierre Coffin and Kyle BaldaRated: PGRelease Date: July 10, 2015 Before the minions found Gru from the Despicable Me movies, they were a species who've existed since the dawn of time. Attaching themselves to whatever evil creature they could find, they tried to serve as the best henchman they could until their boss' inevitable end. Lost and listless, minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob set out across the world in order to find a new boss. That search leads them to Scarlet and Herb Overkill (Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm) the top of the villain food chain who want to steal the Queen of England's crown. All of this, of course, leads to the same kind of yellow tinged shenanigans you know and possibly love.  When this was first announced, I had a few hang ups. I really enjoyed the Despicable Me films, but the minions were always a side bit that I never quite attached to. Originally written into the films in order to make Gru more likable, they're the epitome of easy kids' jokes. Burps, farts, and pure gibberish designed to make kids laugh and provide nothing more than an annoyance for the adults watching the films (which actually have a well crafted narrative of parenthood and coming to grips with sacrificing your dreams in order to support your children's future), so I worried that spinning them off into their own narrative would only highlight their hollow design. And that's kind of true here. Thankfully, there's at least an attempt to give Minions the same amount of heart as the rest of the series.  Once you get used to the long stretches of minion language-less dialogue, there's some nice character development here...but you've got to figure it out for yourself. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob all have some unique personality traits (Kevin is the responsible one, Stuart is the party one, and Bob is the young and cuddly one) but don't go further than the surface level. Geared more toward children than ever, this film is light in both plot and all-ages humor. Thankfully the film is just a breeze, and it's over way before you start thinking about it. At the very least, the main trio is built well enough that you'll emotionally invest in them long enough to follow through the film's short stint. Though I'm sure these minions are reaching a point of diminishing returns (hopefully there's no plan to keep these solo films going) that their shenanigans won't be able to sustain a film on their own much longer. This one's barely held together by the skin of its teeth.  The human cast is fantastic, and they're a breath of fresh air in between all of the shenanigans. Sandra Bullock and Jon Ham completely commit to the film's nutty nature, and both of them need more roles where they're allowed to chew the scenery as goofy bad guys. Bullock seems to enjoy her role the most, but close runner ups are folks like Michael Keaton and Alison Janney who're criminally underutilized. Maybe casting such big names just to give them a bit part is part of the film's slight meta humor. But that might be giving the film too much credit.  At the end of the day, Minions isn't made for you or me, but for the kids. But as I've argued every time I review one of these animated films, it's time to expect better for your kids. Sure not every animated film can, or needs to be, like Pixar, but if we keep paying for things like this they'll keep churning them out for an easy buck.  It's a flavor of the month film that'll definitely be forgotten once the next big cute thing comes along. Minions is not as terrible as I expected, but it's far from great.  But whatever, your kids'll love how cute it is. 
Minions Review photo
Papaya banana blah blah
Whether or not you've seen the Despicable Me movies, you definitely know who these little twinkie looking guys are. Perfectly designed to appeal to almost every demographic (a Xanax like shape, a bright and happy yellow, spea...

Review: Ted 2

Jul 06 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219625:42462:0[/embed] Ted 2Director: Seth MacFarlaneRated: RRelease Date: June 26, 2015 In Ted 2, Ted the Teddy Bear (Seth MacFarlane) gets married and wants to start a family. But when he and Tammy-Lynn file for a potential surrogacy, Ted learns he's legally defined as property. Since he's not a person, he loses his job, his marriage is annulled, and he loses all manner of rights. He and his "Thunder Buddy" John (Mark Wahlberg) decide to fight the decision, enlisting the help of newly licensed lawyer, Sam Jackson (Amanda Seyfried). Then the film is filled with some marijuana infused shenanigans. dick jokes, and the occasional court scene as Ted tries to prove that he's truly human.  We try our best at Flixist to keep you folks out of the back end, but I've got to come at this straight on. Somehow, in some weird way, I'm always the one reviewing comedy sequels. Time and time again, I end up making the same point that one person's comedy trash is another person's comedy treasure. But I think I don't have to reiterate it with Ted 2. I'm sure everyone, regardless of taste in humor, will universally find the humor lacking. While most comedies will mine the humor from the story as the plot finds the funny in interactions between characters, this film relies on non-sequiturs. I'd hate to once again compare this film to other stuff MacFarlane's done, but like A Million Ways, Ted 2 has a lot of Family Guy sensibilities. Very little plot tied together with jokes that don't really belong. In fact, there's even a sperm donor joked ripped right from that show.  What's most unfortunate is there are definitely a few core concepts that would've worked wonders for the film had they been explored a bit further. Sure, I'm not supposed to expect some grand dissection of civil rights in the US but you can't present the idea as a major theme of the film and not elaborate on it further. It makes every tangent even more egregious. But I'm not sure how we wasted so much time since the film far out runs its course about two thirds of the way in. There are plenty of unfunny bits that could've been trimmed for time (most notably the scene in the trailers where they try and masturbate Tom Brady in order to steal his sperm), and lots of random side characters that could've been axed for brevity (like the overly bro gay couple that never go deeper than surface level "I hate nerds" jokes). And those corporate sponsorships? Did we really need a Hasbro executive as one of the villains or a final climax set at New York Comic Con?  If you were a fan of original like I was, I'm sure you're wondering whether or not the rapport between John and Ted is still strong. I'm happy to report that it's stronger than ever. One of the film's few redeeming qualities, Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane have settled into a groove that rarely feels forced. Although the writing between the two was better the first time around, the new routines the two show off are pretty funny. Although they're more examples of jokes that don't pertain to the plot (like the Law & Order or improv heckling gags), it doesn't matter when they're entertaining. Besides, Ted trying to get John back into the dating scene is a better fit for their quasi bro relationship. It's a shame that Amanda Seyfried gets dragged into this (I'm sure it's because of some favor or she genuinely enjoys working with MacFarlane for some reason) since all her character amounts to is a weed smoking failure who needs to ask for help from men more established in their careers.  With Ted 2 you get what you expect. Don't have expectations, and you won't be disappointed. I'm just tired of that criticism being an easy out for lazy comedy. This film just reeks of the same kind of absentmindedness you'd get from using the drug Ted loves so much. Caught in a haze of thick smoke, the humor struggles for air as joke after joke fails to land. Sure, you'll get one or two laughs overall but Ted 2 seriously lacks the humanity it wants you to believe it has.  There better not be a Ted 3 in the works. 
Ted 2 Review photo
No humanity
Say what you will about Seth MacFarlane, but the man knows how to stay in business. Despite many critics noting a decline in all of his television programs and his last effort A Million Ways to Die in the West died a million ...

Review: Magic Mike XXL

Jul 01 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219601:42455:0[/embed] Magic MikeDirector: Gregory JacobsRated: RRelease Date: June 25, 2015  You know how Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) got out of the grind (pun intended) and left to start his own furniture business at the end of the first film? Well, screw that. He's back. When the guys -- Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) -- show up in town on their way to a stripper convention Mike drops everything and joins them for one last ride. It seems that Dallas abandoned them so the group is breaking up, but not before one big fun trip to the biggest stripping event in Florida (a state I assume has a lot of stripping events). Plot kind of ensues and along the way the pick up an MC, Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), hook up with Andie McDowell and see Michael Strahan perform a ridiculous strip. Who really cares, though. The point of this movie was clearly to push the mostly naked men and forget about the rest. The screenplay is paper thin and mostly consists of the gang of guys shooting the shit, which, in all fairness, is actually kind of entertaining. They're clearly ad-libbing a bunch and it lends some charm to a story that's non-existent. It also keeps you in on the joke so you don't have to care quite as much. Everyone seems to know why they're there and they're just having fun doing it. Unfortunately director Gregory Jacobs didn't get the fun memo and shoots the film like he's directing an art piece. He's trying to do his best replication of Soderbergh's direction from the original that he can, but it isn't the time or place and he doesn't have the skill. The strip numbers are a mess, sadly destroying a lot of the fantastic dancing pulled off by Tatum and his cohorts. The grand finale of abs, pecs and banana hammocks feels flat thanks to Jacobs' inability to build momentum or hold a scene together. What should be a bunch of fun starts feeling dragged out and sloppy.  Thankfully he can't crush the cast with his directing. Tatum is as Tatum does. The guy just oozes screen appeal and has actually pulled himself into a credible actor. Meanwhile Donald Glover joins the crew and delivers fantastically, though we never get the full abs show for him. The biggest surprise (pun still intended) is Manganiello) who takes a much larger role in the film and delivers wonderfully. Even Kevin Nash gets to talk a bit more this time around, which was nice of the filmmakers to do.  Sadly, the "road trip but with strippers" plot isn't enough to hold up the film from strip scene to strip scene, especially with the lackluster direction for those scenes. The guy's repartee may be fun, but everything else drags. There's attempted plot lines about love and life and moving on from stripping, but nothing ever clicks in any meaningful way. You get the feeling they're just saying this stuff because they had to put some more words into the screenplay. Every scene without men taking their clothes off feels wasted, except for Andie McDowell's cameo, which is fantastically dirty and fun.  That's really what you're going to see Magic Mike XXL for anyway so why care about all the rest? It is the equivalent of a Cinemax movie geared entirely towards showing mostly naked women off and it does that... except with men. If you want abs, strippers, thrusting loins and more dollar bills than you've ever seen before in a movie then Magic Mike XXL delivers. It's just too bad it couldn't deliver the entire package (pun totally intended). 
XXL Review photo
Abs-olutely what you expect
The first Magic Mike was a bit of a surprise. While it was obviously all about very in shape men dancing mostly naked Steven Soderbergh actually brought a little charm to it. The almost ad-libbed feeling the screenp...

Review: Inside Out

Jun 19 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219580:42445:0[/embed] Inside OutDirectors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen Rated: PGRelease Date: June 19, 2015 The plot of inside out is easy, and it's been tackled before. The movie is the story of the emotions who reside inside a girl named Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) head. There's Joy (Amy Poheler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Everything is going pretty swimmingly for Riley and her emotions until one day the family has to move triggering a flood of sadness in what was a perpetually happy girl. Joy, panicking after a particularly sad moment becomes a key memory, gets herself and sadness sucked out of headquarters and into the nether regions of Riley's brain. The two must find their way back with the help of Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), as Anger, Fear and Disgust attempt to hold the fort down with disastrous consequences. If there is a limit to Pixar's wonderful imagination they haven't found it yet. Just when you thought the studio was going to sit back and rest on its laurels an entirely original and creative movie like Inside Out gets made. They deliver a film that has the emotional impact of the beginning of Up and yet somehow still make it fun and enjoyable. They've taken universal emotions and turned them into a children's film that somehow delivers a commentary on sadness that's more powerful than most overwrought dramas. The film is a lesson in how to address serious subjects while still having fun. The screenplay is brilliant and honed to a fine point. Inside Out's story could be an overly complex and melodramatic mess, but it's crafted to a fine point. Reigning in the chaos of two separate worlds, a plethora of characters and a bunch of complex ideas the film masterfully weaves its story. The juxtaposition of the comical Anger, Fear and Disgust at the helm of a young girl's brain with the real world reactions to that is powerful. It delivers a film that tackles depression and loss in ways that never get melodramatic or cheesy. Somehow in a children's film we find some true heart. That heart is going to make you cry. I don't care how much of a tough guy you are Pixar is going to worm its way into your heart and then play those strings like a classical guitar. Part of this is because they're just so damn good at it, but another aspect is the fact that Inside Out's themes are so universal. We've all been right where Riley is at some point in our life and Pixar has put that on the big screen in a way that is not only relatable, but enjoyable. Often films involving sadness only involve that, but the entire point of Inside Out is that our emotions are all mixed together. Sadness and happiness aren't competing forces, they lead to each other. For a film directed at children this is some of the most adult dealings with emotion I've seen. The movie may also be Pixar's most stunning visually. It's definitely a departure from their usual style, though not entirely removed. It simply looks brilliant and is constantly getting more and more creative with its visuals throughout. Joy is especially well designed as her body constantly shines with happiness. Meanwhile Sadness somehow seems to drip with the emotion. At one point the characters are reduced to abstract thoughts in a brilliant and clever animation sequence that just highlights what Pixar can do.  My only concern with the film is that it over simplifies things. Depression and emotional issues are immensely complex medical issues. Inside Out by its very nature doesn't delve into that as much as it could and it may leave some who have been through these things shaking their heads. That being said it's still an incredibly accessible doorway to talk about emotions and change. Humanity as a whole is often remiss in discussing what we're feeling and Inside Out gives us a chance to say, "Yea, I've felt like that before." It does this not by being overbearing in its message, but by inviting you in to enjoy it. So there are some words on Inside Out. They're OK. I still don't think I got it right. I guess the only words I really need to write are: see this movie. 
Inside Out Review photo
Pixar's best?
I'm having a lot of trouble writing this review, and it's not because my computer crashed and deleted the almost finished product at one point. No, I'd already been through a few drafts before that and nothing was working. Us...

Review: Doomsdays

Jun 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219533:42421:0[/embed] DoomsdaysDirector: Eddie MullensRelease Date: June 5, 2015Rating: NR  Doomsdays wears its Wes Anderson influences on its sleeve. The meticulous, often symmetrical compositions and indie score serve as a reminder that there is a filmmaker out there who many people call an auteur. But it's reductive to just think about this film in terms of Wes Anderson. It's Haneke's Wes Anderson, for sure, but who I really kept coming back to was neither of those directors; it was Christian Mungiu, director of one of my favorite films of all time: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. But it didn't remind me of that film so much as his follow-up, Beyond the Hills. What struck me about Beyond the Hills was how real it all felt. The reality came primarily from the use of extreme long takes (Mungiu knows how to do a gosh damn long take) and the moments that would take place within them. There's a particular moment where a bunch of characters build a cross and then tie another character to that cross. The whole thing happens in one shot. And as I watched it, I thought, "They only did this once, right? It's way too freaking complicated. The lumber costs alone would make multiple takes impractical." Turns out they averaged upwards of 40 takes of each shot, because they didn't get enough rehearsal time and so the first few (dozen) takes were his rehearsal. But even so, it was the feeling that this wasn't just a shot that was done over and over and over again that sold it. The moment felt natural, real, and horrific. Every extra action in a long take requires setup. A character takes off their jacket, their tie, their shoes. Each of these things must be put back into place before the take can be redone. It's complicated, and it requires a lot of time. But it's those little moments that make it feel real. Because you're not thinking about that work that went into setting up the scene. You're just thinking about the scene itself. It feels real. Even if they had to do 16 takes to get it right. By contrast, I'm reasonably sure that every single shot in Doomsdays was done precisely once. The opening shot, a car pulls up, two people get out. They go to their door, see that someone has broken in. They go inside. And then a window shatters, and two people come out. One of them runs up to the car, pulls out a knife, and jams it into the tire. It deflates. They run off.  Doomsdays is a low-budget film. They raised just $22,000 on Kickstarter. But in the opening shot, they shatter a window and stab a tire. And that's just the start. This is a film with dozens of locations, and the protagonists damage nearly every single one. And I spent most of the time thinking about how horribly wrong everything could have gone while being consistently impressed with just how much mayhem they committed on what must have been, again, a very low budget. Because it's the kind of film that only gets made on a low budget, because the audience is, by design, rather small.  Dirty Fred and Bruho wander through rural-ish towns and break into homes. They stay there for a day or two, raid the fridge, liquor storage, and medicine cabinet, and then go off to the next place. They have no real home and no destination. They walk everywhere, because Bruho hates cars. (Hence puncturing that tire in the opening shot.) There are character arcs (though much of the actual arcing takes place in back half of the movie and feels occasionally rushed), but there's not much of a narrative arc. They get some more companions and things happen and escalate, but it all feels relatively inconsequential. The ultimate life decisions (one of which feels far more genuine than the other) should be momentous, but they aren't. They're just things that happen.  This isn't a bad thing, to be clear. It's just a reminder that this is a film with a very particular audience. It's a film for people who are okay with occasionally rough performances, because beyond those rough performances are moments of brilliance. In Cannibal Holocaust, there's a moment where one of the characters shoots a pig. He actually did that. And then, just for a second, he breaks character, clearly affected by it. But the shot isn't over. He still has to monologue. But they only had the one pig, so that's the take that ended up in the film. Doomsdays doesn't have anything quite so obvious, but I expect there were moments where director Eddie Mullens thought, "Well... it is what it is." Each shot builds to something. The longer the take, the more likely something destructive is to happen within it. At the end of 45 seconds, someone throws a brick through a window. And you know what? That may well have been some random person's window. The imperfections actually serve to make the whole thing feel more real. Not realistic, per se, but more like a series of events that actually took place. They broke that window (and that other window (and that other one)), they destroyed that car, and they broke all those glasses and vases and whatever else got in their way. I saw them happen with my own eyes, not in real life, but in a real document of those actions. It's a meticulously composed documentary about rebels without a cause. And it's absolutely fascinating.
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It's time to sing The Doom Song now
I get emails pretty much daily asking me if I want to review this film or that. Most of the time, I ignore those emails. Periodically, I glance at them and then ignore them. When you've read thousands of press releases, it be...

Review: Spy

Jun 05 // Matthew Razak
SpyDirector: Paul FeigRated: RRelease Date: June 5, 2016 The amount of ways that Spy could have gone horribly, horribly wrong are pretty high. It's a spy movie parody featuring an overweight woman full of crass humor. If this had come out with a different director we'd be looking at an insulting, pandering piece of comedic trash, but instead Feig makes Spy a clever and resoundingly unique experience capitalizing on McCarthy's comedic skills and charm.  McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who spends her time behind the desk talking into Bradley Fine's (Jude Law) earpiece as he goes on daring and dramatic missions. When Bradley is killed, however, Susan must go out into the field to hunt down Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and take revenge. Throw in a fantastically comical Jason Statham as a rogue CIA agent out for revenge, and you've got an amazing mix of comedic actors hamming it up while still offering a surprising amount of competent (and graphic) action sequences.  What Spy does best is completely invert what it "should" be doing. A cursory glance at the film would make you think it's a bland spy film parody, but Spy isn't a parody as much as it is a comedic spy film. Instead of mocking conventions with bad site gags and an inept spy as most spy parodies do it plays into them and then finds its comedy elsewhere. Instead of offering up tepid action sequences and fights it goes full bore as if it were actually an action movie. There are some sequences here that the steadily worsening Michael Bay could take some lessons from, especially since the film earns a hard R through violence. It's still the comedy that sells, and Spy's comedy just works. There are fat jokes, but they aren't at the expense of McCarthy. The humor isn't driven by her being a fish out of water as a spy, but instead through actual clever comedy. Feig and McCarthy have some of the best timing together and it shows throughout the movie, even in the beginning when things start off a bit slow. Once the obligatory gadget collecting scene rolls in you won't be able to stop laughing. Once Jason Statham starts rattling off his nigh-impossible spy missions you'll be on the floor. Spy also offers a refreshingly female driven narrative for a genre that is obviously male obsessed. This should probably be expected from Feig, but the director once again delivers. In another instance of eschewing the norm Peggy doesn't rely on any man to save her at any time. This doesn't mean that the film ignores sex jokes or inappropriate behavior, but instead celebrates it as comedic. One of the things Feig's comedies do best is tow the line between inappropriate and hilarious, something another film opening this weekend could have learned from.  You probably weren't expecting such a glowing review of the film. McCarthy has felt tired in her last outings and the advertising for this one did nothing to make one think it was something special. Turns out the ads can be wrong and that McCarthy still has plenty of juice in her tank... as long as she's taking on good projects.  
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Like a good spy, you don't see it coming
Over the past few years I've grown increasingly tired of Melissa McCarthy's shtick. I figured this was because I was tired of her, but it turns out she's just been making mediocre movies. Her shtick still works when someone i...

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