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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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Get Hard

Mar 27 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219200:42305:0[/embed] Get HardDirector: Etan CohenRelease Date: March 27th, 2015 Rating: R Wall Street millionaire James King (Will Ferrell) was on the top of the world. He just made partner at his company, lives in a huge house, is engaged to a beautiful woman, and was sentenced to ten years in prison for embezzlement. With only 30 days to get his affairs in order, he asks for help from Darnell (Kevin Hart), a guy who owns a struggling car washing business and wants to get his family out of the hood, to "get hard" for prison life.  Usually these plot synopsis paragraphs take a bit more space, but Get Hard has nothing else to work with. This razor thin premise, which would seem more at home on a 22 minute TV sitcom, doesn't really evolve. It does pretty much what you would expect it to, doesn't reinvent the wheel nor break it down, and you can accurately predict what's going to happen if you've ever seen one of these films before. But what Get Hard does get right, however, is the thin premise allows Hart and Ferrell to play to their improvisational strengths. Once you get passed all of the jokes you've heard before, there's some goodness underneath.  I'm usually the last person to defend Kevin Hart, but he definitely earns his paycheck here. A lot of the film's humor stems from his commitment to the bit, and he carries the brunt of the weight here. I don't know if it's due to age, or if he doesn't like where his career has gone, but Will Ferrell just isn't here for this one. Turning out a performance I can only describe as "tired," his lethargic delivery never elevates his hasbeen material. Maybe it's because Ferrell realized too late that he was working with an inadequate script, but he just seemed so tuned out. That's why Kevin Hart, with his always effective energy regardless of whether or not his humor is on point, commands so much attention. Yet, it's very depressing to see him flounder around so much for virtually no gain. It's like fighting for air in a vacuum: lots of struggling that only suffocates faster.  As for the film's offensive premise, it's very ineffective. Refusing to push far in any direction, it relies on stereotypical jokes throughout. I'll give the film credit for noting why street gangs can recruit many disadvantaged kids, but it's buried underneath blackface and rape jokes. Seriously, I couldn't keep track of how many times the word "dick" was used, or how many references to anal sex there were. I'm no prude, nor do I care when a film pushes the envelope, but doing so has to result in a good laugh. Resting on the same cheap gags but adding a vulgar twist is not enough to keep folks invested. I'll admit that Get Hard did get a laugh out of me during Ferrell's creative put downs ("Are you at Costco? Because you're getting this dick in bulk!"), but a few laughs out of the film's hundred or so attempts are horrible odds.  At the end of the day, I don't care how loudly offensive Get Hard is. It's boring, dry, and sets back the comedic landscape a few years. This is the kind of film you would've seen ten or twenty years ago before we knew any better. As Kevin Hart continues to rise in popularity, and Will Ferrell is on his way out, you can gauge the kind of desperate situation that brought these two together to beat a dead horse. The worst part of it all is, T.I. was the best actor in this. F**king T.I. 
Get Hard Review photo
The worst criticism a film can get is "harmless." When a film is just "harmless," it's stale, voiceless, and generally fails to make a lasting impression. A harmless film exists, takes 90-100 minutes of your life, and then yo...

Review: Dead Rising: Watchtower

Mar 26 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219149:42297:0[/embed] Dead Rising: WatchtowerDirector: Zach LipovskyRelease Date: March 27th, 2015 (exclusively on Crackle)Rating: NR  In Watchtower, the zombie virus has spread round the world and the government has issued a super drug, known as Zombrex, in order to cure it. Digital journalist Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe) and his partner Jordan (Keegan Connor Tracy) end up getting caught in the latest outbreak when a bad string of Zombrex infects a stadium full of people. As Chase tries to survive, he runs into a woman who's already infected named Crystal (Meghan Ory), and now they must work together to survive the zombies, figure out what's going on with the Zombrex, and most importantly, escape from the group of psychopaths on the loose.  Watchtower had quite a bit of an undertaking on its hands. If you're not aware of the Dead Rising games, just know they're famous for featuring a single guy cheesin' his way through hordes of zombies while he wears crazy outfits, makes anything he can into weapons, and its narrative is one of the worst in zombie fiction. So, having Watchtower not be a complete mess is already a huge plus. It fixes this by creating a narrative all its own rather than try and adapt the current stories available. In fact it relegates Frank West, here in the film awesomely played by Rob Riggle and one of the series' flamboyantly divisive characters, to the sidelines whereas the film could've completely derailed had its tone focused on the wackiness of that character. Instead he's used wonderfully here. Adding a bit of levity in between heavier scenes and getting the laugh like only Rob Riggle can. A line like "I'll smack you with that TV" works because the film allows Riggle to be as slimy and goofy as he can while paying homage to videogames themselves.  With zombie cinema as prevalent as it is, it's hard not to get a sense of "been there, done that" with any zombie film. We've seen everything from the grittiest of grit to the hokiest of cheese, so Watchtower tries its best to find a middle ground between the two. There is a sense of loss as the film struggles to find an adequate tone for a good chunk of the film. It might be a result of the film taking the subject matter at face value. Meaning that any goofiness the series is known for is only implied, and scenes only come off as inherently hokey. While this shouldn't have worked, I really enjoyed the little asides the film gives to its corniness. For example, in an awesome Shaun of the Dead like fashion, one of the first things the characters do when the outbreak breaks is to use whatever they can find as a weapon. Which means at one point, Chase fights a zombie clown holding an axe with a muffler before running it over in such a cool way. It's a nice bit of staging that you don't see much in zombie media. It's always a matter of a survivor fighting with the one weapon they have rather than literally using everything at their disposal. As for its lead, Jesse Metcalfe holds his own well enough but Chase doesn't have enough character for Metcalfe to sink his teeth into. It's just sort of an every man. That's a consequence of having Frank West be a part of the film too. That character is so magnanimous every time he's on screen, that every thing else loses spark unwittingly. That's not to say the film completely lacks personality, however. There's a scene early on that marries the game's quirk with the film's grit and makes for a particularly gripping scene. It's shot well (as it's just a constant, smooth take following Chase through a field of zombies), there's a bit where a weapon wears out and he has to switch, and it was one of the few times there was suspense. Chase just becomes a super zombie killer after that point, and while that's interesting in its own right, it does lose a little pizzazz. Then again, that's also a shout out to the game series so kudos to the film.  Dead Rising: Watchtower isn't perfect as it runs for a bit too long, the psychopaths wear a little thin (as the lead gets a weird speech explaining his motivations), and there's a jarring first person camera trick used too often early on. But don't let that deter you away from watching it for yourself. A fantastic videogame adaptation that absolutely nails why the games sell so well, yet never feels alienating for folks who have no idea where this film stems from.  As one of Sony's Crackle service's big headlining originals, this is indeed a good show of what's to come. If they can keep churning out excellent films like this, I'll definitely stick around to see what's next. 
Dead Rising Review photo
"Zombies, huh? I had a feeling you'd show up..."
Videogames have had a rough time in cinema. Since videogames are such an interactive medium, a film adaptation always misses out on the intimacy of player involvement or the videogame's story struggles to find an identity in ...

Review: Ana Maria in Novela Land

Mar 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219098:42280:0[/embed] Ana Maria in Novela LandDirectors: Georgina RiedelRelease Date: February 27th, 2015 Ana Maria, in a nutshell, is like a better version of Freaky Friday. The film follows the titular Ana Maria (Edy Ganem), a twenty something who can't hold a job and would rather spend her time live tweeting her favorite novela, Pasión Sin Límites (or Passion Without Limits), than hanging out with her friends. As her favorite character Ariana Tomosa (once again, Edy Ganem) seems to have the best life with an upcoming wedding and a hot guy pining for her, Ana Maria wishes that was her life. After a storm, a tweet, and some shenanigans, Ana Maria becomes a part of her favorite telenovela. Now she must make it home before the series ends or she'll be stuck forever.  Ana Maria gently tows the line between homage and parody without ever falling too deep into one of those pitfalls. It's all part of an effort to make the film a bit more digestible for a wider audience. The film already has a few esoteric barriers to entry (the audience needs some kind of knowledge of novela culture, and the film has a cast of native Spanish speakers, for example), so the choices it makes are understandable but a bit disheartening. For example, while the film is a nice comedy, it never quite goes far enough with its premise. I'm not sure if it's a fear of offending anyone, or a lack of confidence in its Spanish flair, but there's a major sense of holding back. For example, Ana Maria joins the show as a character, rather than switching places with the actress playing that character. So the jokes come from the surface level hokiness already apparent in telenovelas rather than trying to find something deeper. And while most of the film is indeed a fun parody of the tropes, there are a few jokes that are definitely derogatory. Like Luiz Guzman's Licenciado Schmidt popping around the corner every couple of scenes is funny at first, but grows tired as the film relies on it.  That lack of confidence also has an effect on the film's outcome. Since Ana Maria joins this fantastical world, her decision to return home never quite feels real. Thanks to the show's plot giving her a deadline, Ana Maria doesn't come to her conclusions through character work but through ease of plot. It's like she'd rather live her boring life than die, and that's not a great message to go out on. But there's one major aspect I would like to touch on, and it's the one thing that separates this film from most comedies: Ana Maria never loses her agency. It's a refreshing skew of Latino culture.  Latino culture (whether they be Mexican, or from the Central and Southern American regions) follows traditional beats. You know, grow up through church, get married and have kids at a certain age. While the film at first criticizes Ana Maria's choice to be alone (notably, it's her choice), the film's ending, while forced, makes that not seem so bad. Ana Maria's sister may have a traditional marriage, but the film allows Ana Maria the freedom to go through the film's journey in the first place. It's a small, but powerful detail.  Beyond its story, the film's production is quite well done. It took me awhile to realize Ana Maria and Ariana Tomosa were played by the same actress, and I'll give the film credit for managing the feat with just some makeup and hair tricks. And while I wish the film would've sunk further into its telenovela world (we only see one set piece, and it's not used very well), every scene in the show is given a nice glaze. A bit foggy, a bit mystical. It definitely retains its fantastical appeal.  Ana Maria in Novela Land is a nice first step into broadening Latino culture in film. It portrays a facet of that culture rarely seen with analytical eyes, but never quite has a statement one way or the other. It's a nice comedy that pokes fun at the genre, and Edy Ganem is a great lead, but the film lacks bite. 
Ana Maria Review photo
She livin' a life just like a movie star
It's been a tough time for Latino representation in pop culture. While television has made great strides in casting Latino actors in non-traditional roles to show off a greater range of characterization beyond "gang banger" a...

Review: Focus

Feb 27 // Jackson Tyler
[embed]219045:42250:0[/embed] FocusDirectors: Glenn Ficarra and John RequaRated: RRelease Date: February 27, 2015 The movie begins with Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) attempting to pull an amateur con on Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), which he sees through instantly. After the requisite amount of flirting, she moves onto step two of Standard Con Movie Plot #3, begging to be let in on the con Nicky's running despite her relative inexperience. The film proceeds along all the expected beats, but whilst most films commit to the formula, Focus cares so little about its plot that about twenty minutes into the movie, it almost gives up on having one entirely. That sounds like a damning criticism, but it's ultimately wise move, as the movie is far more interested in simply letting characters banter back and forth, allowing the actual con part of the movie to drift into the background. Margot Robbie plays her part with aplomb, subtly mixing the fake naivete of a femme fatal she wants to be with the legitimate naivete of the young woman she is. The movie's at its best when she shares the screen with Adrian Martinez - the gross but endearing one of Nicky's crew - in conversations that are frequently laugh out loud hilarious. Surprisingly, the weak link here is Smith. He’s unusually reserved, playing his usual charm as low as he possibly can, attempting to dig into the conflict at the heart of his character, but sometimes seeming like he's the only person on set who isn't having any fun. He isn't bad by any means, keeping up his side of the bargain as it comes to comedy (at one point he needs to convince a crowd he's a disgruntled worker, so he punches a guy and yells "I am such a disgruntled worker!"), but otherwise refusing the audience a way in to caring about his character. It doesn't derail the movie, but you go to Smith because he's one of a few people who can sell a film on charisma alone, and it's more than a little surprising that he lets his foot off the gas, in a con movie of all places. It is that comedic edge that thankfully saves the movie. Smith and Robbie have chemistry, but it's all but impossible to root for their romance as a tragic tale of liars trapped in love and lovers trapped in lies. What is thoroughly possible to root for, is the possibility of another scene of the two bickering, comparing their pick pocketing technique, or just trying to make each other laugh. Focus is, to me, a testament to the cinematic strength of a good conversation. If the camera is pointed at good actors bouncing off one another, then nothing more is needed to have a good time. And luckily, despite the near-irrelevant plot, and despite one of Smith's weaker leading turns, a good time is not hard to be had. Focus is a fun con movie. Nothing less, and nothing more, it is content to be a mid-tier genre movie for adults in a way that is unfortunately going out of style. It's a movie that's confident in its restraint, knowing what it does well, and not overstepping its boundaries. It's never going to set the world on fire and it's not going to convert newcomers to the genre, but for those of us who have been hurting for a good con flick, Focus is here to brighten the day.
Focus Review photo
Die With The Lie
I love a good con movie. From The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven to Catch Me If You Can, the genre is as formulaic as it is entertaining. The secret to its success is a combination of familiar warmth and detached unpredictab...

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Feb 13 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218941:42214:0[/embed] Fifty Shades of GreyDirectors: Sam Taylor-JohnsonRelease Date: February 13th, 2015Rating: R I'm at a weird place with Fifty Shades of Grey as I don't know what to credit or blame for its problems. As much as I want to point out the funkier stuff like its atrocious and pointed dialogue, it's hard to completely criticize given where this film comes from. Based on the Twilight fan fiction turned erotic novels, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first in a three story series where Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) gets into a dangerously abusive, yet apparently arousing relationship with distant billionaire bachelor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). There're S&M sexy times, S&M horrifying times, and stalker times. It's your typical film relationship. But much of the story is unintelligible and if you're even slightly disconnected with the central relationship, there's nothing else to latch on to. Since I've been told that the film strictly follows the book material, good luck finding something you like.  For example, I still have no idea what exactly Christian Grey does. Even the context clues are all over the place. His company Grey House is apparently big in telemarketing, but also plants trees in Africa? And when he's questioned about the nature of his business, Grey's answer is always "don't worry about it." In fact, we're meant to "not worry" about so much in this story, it's incredibly frustrating. There's so much back and forth between Ana and Grey that it's hard to stay invested, and the sex scenes (numerous as they are) feel even more superfluous when there's no emotional attachment. When these scenes drawl on for an extended period of time, it feels incredibly manipulative (which is probably the worst thing a story in which a man wants to own another person can do).  But I bet you’re wondering about the sex, right? The rest of the film would've been easier to swallow had the film at least shown off inspired sex scenes. Unfortunately, book fans won't appreciate the sense of restraint the film has. Other than one sex scene in particular (there's ice involved, if you want to know which one I'm referring to), Fifty holds itself back from some tantalizing scenes. While the Fifty Shades books are widely regarded for their explicit depictions of S&M scenes, it's incredibly subdued. It's a shame that we could've had a positive depiction of S&M culture within a mainstream film, but even those aspects are fudged. Safe words are explained but never used, Ana never completely agrees with the play (and I'll give credit to the scene when she does finally say yes, and realizes how much she dislikes their relationship), and their relationship is always of sheer dominance rather than a shared knowledge between the two of each other's limits.  Honestly, I could've written all of that stuff off (as I'm willing to forgive so much with films aimed at a specific demographic) had Johnson and Dornan shared any believable semblance of chemistry. Credit to Johnson for making some of the dialogue work as her performance is kind of incredible. She's witty, has a good delivery, and drives home Ana's terribly written naivete (she doesn't know what butt plugs are, but is aware of genital clamps?). But it's a shame that she's essentially having sex with a brick wall. I can't tell if Jamie Dornan is intentionally wooden (as Grey is supposed to be this stoic, distant, and broken man), but even when he's turning up whatever he thinks passes for sexual gravitas it falls flat. That's Fifty Shades of Grey's biggest and most problematic issue. Without a compelling central relationship, the film falls apart at the seams. Once you lose interest, you realize how bad the pacing is, how insanely Grey obsesses over Ana (he finds her several times without her revealing her location), how lots of the sex scenes are similarly staged, and how emotionally manipulative the dialogue is.  Fifty Shades of Grey has a few redeeming qualities as some moments hit the right sensual tone, every scene hilariously has the color grey somewhere in it (which should be commended for commitment alone), and Dakota Johnson should use this bad film to star in better films. But the film is an extended tease with the promise of a payoff that never quite comes.  Now I won't spoil the film's ending, but the audience's reaction perfectly illustrates my point. Since the film's story is so horribly handled, it just blankly ends. When the credits started rolling, there was a loudly audible "WHAT," as one woman felt duped. That all comes back to the manipulative dialogue I mentioned earlier. You see, I understand why these types of fan service stories make money. Like those dollar store Fabio cover romance novels, they fulfill a need that isn't met elsewhere. It's a shame the market is so closed off that shoddy projects like this get so much attention because these women deserve something better than this boiled garbage served to them on a stagnant platter.
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Mr. Grey will bore you now
I should start this review by being as frank as possible. I'm not really sure who this review is for. With Fifty Shades of Grey, you'll fall into either one of two camps. You're either planning to see it (or have al...

Review: The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Feb 06 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218919:42195:0[/embed] The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of WaterDirectors: Mike Mitchell and Paul TibittRelease Date: February 6th, 2015Rating: PG When the Krabby Patty formula mysteriously vanishes from the Krusty Krab, Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) end up to blame for its disappearance after some hijinks. As Bikini Bottom falls into post-apocalyptic madness, Spongebob and Plankton form a te-am in order to find the formula and save the town. Their shenanigans eventually brings them to the mysterious pirate Burgerbeard (Antonio Banderas) and a magic book which seems to control their lives.  First off, Sponge Out of Water is definitely for kids. Unlike most animated films, Water isn't afraid to cater to its audience so it's full of hyperactivity a mile a minute. Fortunately, this isn't always a bad thing. While the rapid fire nature of the jokes might turn the older crowd off, enough of them land that the balance is tipped more in the film's favor. I found myself laughing quite a bit at the way the humor was crafted. While seemingly random, punchlines are stemmed from unlikely places and not wasted on obvious jokes. Like when Spongebob and Plankton first work together, there's so much humor mined from Plankton's inability to say the word "teamwork," and the dialogue exchanges during these bits is incredibly nuanced ("Teamwork." "Te-am wok." "Say 'team.'" "Team." "Now say 'work." "Work." "Teamwork." "Timebomb.") that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Or all the post-apocalyptic stuff. That's all golden. Sponge Out of Water is also incredibly animated. It's one of the few films that's absolutely better in 3D, and it's full of slick and gorgeous animation. The transition between the 2D plane and CG shenanigans seen in the trailers is seamless (although it's unfortunately relegated to a short finale). While the first Spongebob Movie felt more like a longer episode of the television show, Water's bigger budget and zealous effort really shines through. This is the first one that feels like a "movie," if that makes any sense. It's wonderfully experimental too. There's shifts in animation styles like with the time machine bits (which are so weirdly done, it's hard not to love), cotton candy brains, and of course with the guardian who watches over time. It's inventive, and these ever changing styles work well with this film's incredibly fast pace.  But the biggest problem with the film is simultaneously its biggest asset. It caters to its young audience, which also means it's of very little consequence. A film you can have on in the background and sort of watch, a film you can sit your kids in front of to buy you an hour of quiet time, and it's a film without some grand message about the human condition (or any message beyond "te-am wok") to interpret. And while the film is fun, there are some decisions that are far too zany and experimental to work even for the kids it's trying to entertain (the final few minutes will definitely make you scratch your head). Yet, it's hard not to love a film with a main character who, at his most rebellious, mixes garbage with the recycling. Oh, and I almost forgot about Antonio Banderas! He completely throws himself into this, and is in one of the funnest roles I've seen him in a long time.  While it's not perfect, Sponge Out of Water isn't afraid to have fun at its own expense. It's a party celebrating Spongebob Squarepants and the fact that it's still popular enough to churn out a movie ten years later. In fact, it won't care what I think as its naive charm will continue to entertain regardless of what I've said here.  If you're going to see The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water for more of Spongebob Squarepants (absorbent and yellow and porous is he) then you won't be disappointed. For everyone else, they'll drop on the deck and flop like a fish.
Spongebob Review photo
A good movie, if nautical nonsense be something you wish
This may come as a surprise to you, but Spongebob Squarepants is still the juggernaut of a cartoon it was when it first debuted back in 1999. Never ceasing to keep kids' attention thanks to its unique characters and ever evol...

Review: A Most Violent Year

Jan 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218877:42166:0[/embed] A Most Violent YearDirector: J.C. ChandorRelease Date: January 30th, 2015Rating: R Taking place in New York City, 1981, statistically the most violent year in the city's history, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a young man from an immigrant family who's just trying to run a legitimate heat and oil company without succumbing to the crooked nature of the business. But thanks to his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and an ongoing investigation into the mafia from District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), Abel is put through the ringer and it's up to him to decide whether or not to keep his hands free of corruption.  A Most Violent Year is an intense breakdown of the mafia genre. While the film does display a lot of the cornier characteristics of mafia films (meetings of all the head honchos, one mysterious man who dictates everything), the film's filter helps to dilute the inherent cartoonishness usually found. Thanks to its gritty, but not overtly so tone, the story is grounded within realistic bounds. Thanks to Abel's hands off approach, the criminal underworld is always kept on the sidelines and Year is left to critique its approach from an open perspective. It's a smart balance between utilizing the themes of the genre while telling a unique story. It turns out to be far more compelling watching Abel distance himself as you root against the American Dream.  You see, A Most Violent Year is one of the few films with a positive Latin protagonist (although the way everyone says his first and last name bugs me a bit), and for once it's what defines the film rather than a consequence. For example, the messages about the American Dream (in which we watch Abel, a successful man from an immigrant family, interact with Julian, a struggling man from an immigrant family) hit a bit harder given that you can feel the amount of struggle from a place of non-privilege. And a smaller, but important step forward is that it's never once implied that Abel is struggling because he's an non-white character. Sure it seems like a weird, non-sequitur of a critique but I can't help but celebrate well put together Latin characters.  What really helps the film sink in is the cast. While the deliberate pace of the film will turn some folks off (the narrative admittedly isn't engaging in certain spots), the cast helps anchor the film and once again reigns in the genre. For example Chastain's character Anna is completely stereotypical, but her performance adds a layer of depth not found in the writing (like that one speech about respect found in the trailer should've been completely flat, but is one of the best scenes in the film). It's a shame she's not in the film enough. A lot of the film's lines and sequences would've failed if weren't for the performances. They're kind of hokey and on the nose, but it's hard to care when Isaac and Chastain are allowed to play off each other. Good thing Oscar Isaac is going to be in more things too. He's fantastic in this.  A Most Violent Year is also a most exquisite one. While some of the scenes and dialogue don't mesh well with the film's grounded tone and serve to almost break the film's reality (and become the film it seeks to reinvent), the cast never once lets that get to them. With a Latin protagonist, a setting used in a new way (although the backdrop is "the most violent" in New York's history, violence never clouds the narrative), and a well thought out take on an aging genre, A Most Violent Year is definitely one of my favorites.  Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain should just be in every movie from now on. 
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This year shouldn't end
I had no idea what A Most Violent Year was before my screening. This was even before the smaller, limited release managed to gain traction and before I realized how good the cast assembled was. With little to no advertising, ...

Review: Foxcatcher

Dec 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218769:42086:0[/embed] FoxcatcherDirector: Bennett MillerRelease Date: November 14th, 2014 (limited), December 19th, 2014 (wide)Rating: R Foxcatcher is based off of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his "training" of Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz in his home of Foxcatcher ranch. As John invites Mark to train at his state of the art facility for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Mark agrees to escape the shadow of his more successful brother. But Mark quickly learns that John is throwing his money behind the Schultz brothers in order to earn the respect of his mother and the world around him.  Foxcatcher is the argument against giving directors freedom from studio interference. Most of the time when you hear of heavy studio involvement, you hear of the bad things like censorship or hard to work conditions. But in an era where films see it fit to run an ungodly length of time (we've lost our chance at a concise masterpiece) just because they can, and every film in theaters is two hours plus, that's when the studios come in and adjust things. Regardless of the actual reason for those adjustments (budget reasons, for example), the tighter leash forces directors to think more creatively and effectively utilize what little run time they're allotted. But if a director is given all of this freedom but chooses not to use the empty space between narrative beats, you get long stretches of nothing. That's Foxcatcher in a nutshell.  It's just a shame too as there are quite a few interesting dramatic moments in between all of the filler.  Tatum as Mark Schultz is wonderful. An intentional stonefaced delivery complete with nuanced physicality, Tatum certainly has a future in films like these. I can't wait to see Tatum challenge himself more. Foxcatcher is at times intense and unforgiving, and during these brief scenes, it's compelling. For example when John du Pont is introduced, he gives this brief speech and Carell fills the air with a sinisterness by just breathing. In fact, Carell deserves whatever awards nominations or wins that he gets in the future. He is a commanding, yet fragile presence. A slightly unhinged individual with shallow breath, you spend the entire film waiting for the him to completely unravel. But if you already know the story that inspired Foxcatcher, there won't be payoff for you and all of the waiting you had to endure will be for naught. In fact, you'll wish it came sooner.  Foxcatcher could've been an interesting character study had it attempted to diversify its tone. There's never any attempt to present these individuals as something other than broken, and when you don't attempt to mask it (or explore that brokenness), there's very little in the narrative to chew on. There's never any attempt to bring the audience in, and your always left on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. When Foxcatcher gives you yet another pregnant pause, or yet another landscape shot, you've lost interest in all of it as you realize the narrative would rather wallow in its pretentiousness than dissect it.  Foxcatcher is a film where you watch a fox chase a rabbit for over two hours, taking time every now and then for a nap. By the time the fox actually catches the rabbit, you've been lulled into such a sleepy state it's impossible to stay invested in anything that happens on screen. It all just fades into the background.  It's a damn shame too as what is in that background is fantastic work. A good show of talent for all of the cast involved with a story based off a little known true story, and some fantastic transitions between scenes. But as mentioned, it's buried under tons and tons of bad pacing. When the most educated criticism I can come up with after immediately watching is "it's boring," I have no idea what to blame. Maybe myself. Maybe there's something here I just didn't connect with, but as it stands, Foxcatcher catches little. 
Foxcatcher Review photo
Catches cold
Foxcatcher quickly grabbed a lot of attention for its stark representation of some big named actors. While Steve Carell has tackled heavier material before, he had never looked as sinister as he did in the first couple of ima...

Review: Into the Woods

Dec 28 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218767:42088:0[/embed] Into the WoodsDirector: Rob MarshallRelease Date: December 25th, 2014 Rating: PG Based of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical, Into the Woods is five different fairy tales weaved together into one plot. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to a festival but is afraid of Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades some magic beans for his cow and ends up stealing from a giant, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants to visit her grandma but gets stopped by the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is stuck in a tower, and a poor Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) can't have a child until they gather important items from these stories for the Witch (Meryl Streep) who's put a curse on their house.  Director Rob Marshall once directed one my favorite musical adaptations, Chicago. But while that film kept some of the bombastic nature of the original stage version, it was toned down in most areas out of a self-inflicted need to keep the film grounded. When that film broke out one of its numbers, it was relegated to a dream sequence far and away from the "real" world. While I've never seen the Into the Woods stage play myself (and thus this is one of the few times I have no experience with a musical before it gets adapted), I was once again worried that these woven fairy tales would lose their mysticism and be grounded in some way. I was way off the mark there. Finally exploiting the inherent wackiness of every musical, Woods is a big, showy representation of what musicals can really do. While the lack of unsung dialogue (until the final third of the film) may throw a few people off as there are no clear starts and stops, it's impossible not to get swept up in the fun.  And there's so much fun to be had from Woods. While the staging itself is a bit small (instead of coming off as intimate, it's stifling when each of these bombastic musical numbers occurs within such a confined area), the cast uses the area given well. Sure it's weird to see so many of these characters cross paths often when the woods is shown as this big place, and it's a little hokey when you recognize certain areas, but that might be more attributed to the original version. A good example of marriage between good staging and cast is when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen perform "Agony." As the two notably attractive Princes cavort and contort around a waterfall, it's a wonderfully self aware, boy band type of performance. It's goofy, wet, and they tear their shirts open for no reason. It's fantastic. There's plenty of that self aware goofiness here and it works for the kind of fantastical tale Woods tells.  As for the cast itself, every person holds their own with Lilla Crawford and Meryl Streep stealing the show. And in terms of arrangement, every song sounds good and there is nary a faulty note to be found. Although the flowing format of the film means I can't tell you about a specific song (as it's hard to gauge the title when so many songs start and stop over each other), it at least sounds nice. But notably, the songs get away with so much adult content. Johnny Depp gets a neat turn (an extended cameo, really) as a predatory wolf who exploits the inherent sexuality in the Red Riding Hood fairytale. But in most cases, I wished the film would've gone further. In the story there are multiple deaths, inappropriate sexual advances, and violent acts hidden within the songs, but it seems there was a bit of holding back. And this held back feeling clashes with the festival vibe the rest of the film gives off.  If there's one major problem with Into the Woods, it's that while it doesn't care what you think, it really should care a little bit. With no clear stopping points, the film hits a bit of a lull at several occasions. It's not impossible to glaze over certain events, and we'd have a much stronger film had it considered a tighter edit here or there. It's especially noticeable during the third act when you realize the characters have little nuance.  But in the end, Into the Woods is a celebration of musicals themselves. An adaptation that reminds you of the kind of fun you can only get from seeing attractive people sing beautifully. Sometimes, that's all you really need. 
Into the Woods Review photo
I'd visit these woods again
For a Disney adaptation of a popular musical, Into the Woods has flown surprisingly under the radar. Coming out of practically nowhere, and with all of the early advertising hiding the fact that it is a musical, you'd think D...

Review: The Interview

Dec 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218768:42087:0[/embed] The InterviewDirectors: Seth Rogen and Evan GoldbergRelease Date: December 25th, 2014 (limited and VOD)Rating: R The Interview is the story of Dave Skylark (James Franco), a sensationalist TV journalist who specializes in celebrity gossip, and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen). After filming 1000 episodes, Aaron realizes he would like to cover more hard hitting news and after discovering that the dictator of The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), was a fan of their show, he sets up a one-on-one interview. Then the two are tasked by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate the North Korean dictator.  I've been anticipating The Interview for some time. As the proper follow up to last year's extremely surprising This is the End (as I refuse to count Neighbors' major misstep), I've come to expect a certain level of intelligence from Rogen and Goldberg. Sure their screenplays are littered with crude jokes (and The Interview follows that trend for better or worse), but when broken down, the core of the comedy always comes from a well thought out place. The Interview does not disappoint in this area. The dialogue is tightly written and well delivered leading to some amazing back and forth from Rogen and Franco. As the two tap into a years developed chemistry (that's so fine tuned that Franco gets major laughs from just his facial expressions), the incredible ridiculousness of the premise is digestible. Even when the film goes to some outlandish lengths, the two always anchor the ship and point the comedy in the right direction.  While the comedy is well thought out, there is an unfortunate sense of familiarity however. As some of the better gags lead to callbacks later in the film, it's like the film depends on those gags to survive instead of crafting new ones. To be more specific, there's the term "honeypotting." Interview defines it as using seduction to manipulate (instead of the actual disgusting definition) and while it's a notable gag the first time it's used, it runs out of steam the more and more the term is thrown out during the film. Interview has a bad case of this with a few other jokes, but sometimes they're twisted in such a way that they're funny again. It's just an unfortunate case of becoming desensitized to the material after a while. And without giving too much away, Interview pulls the same trick seen in This is the End (with a small bit of dialogue heavily foreshadowing the film's events) and it's just not as great the second time around.  But when Interview works, it works splendidly. The cast is so well placed. Franco nearly steals the show as his performance is seemingly effortless (as he combines an intelligent naivete with a suave and narcissistic demeanor), but the casual racism given to his character is quite troublesome. Rogen is the literal butt of most of the crude humor, but he takes it like a champ, Lizzy Caplan gets very little to do and that's a shame, but Randall Park as Kim Jong-un is the real take away. His Kim Jong-un is at times humanized, but never quite able to shed the terrible image of the real thing. There are several nuances in his performances that could be easily ignored if you aren't paying attention. From the way he animates his face, to the way he can stare off blankly to the side and still command attention. Park definitely needs to be in more things.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the elephant in the room. The Interview has a weird portrayal of North Korea. Sort of non-committal, sort of racist and nowhere near as "America, f**k yeah!" as recent events would have you believe. There's always someone saying North Korea is a bad place, but there's never an offer for a better alternative. Both the USA and North Korea are treated as interfering and destructive entities as Dave and Aaron are just roped into this American plan despite their wishes, the United States is shown to have highly advanced military technology at their disposal, and North Korea becomes a cartoonish hellhole of a country. Yet despite all of this, the film just sort of ends. Sure I didn't expect an intense political discussion, and The Interview does get credit for bringing attention to North Korea's issues to people who wouldn't know about them, but it's weird to be wandering around in this grey area. But at the end of the day, The Interview is still a damn fine piece of entertainment. A concise, intelligent film that marks the maturing of the stereotypical "stoner comedy" framework (taking a crazy premise and sticking two random guys into it) as the actors themselves grow older and more confident in other styles of work and experiment with interesting ideas and perspectives. It's stylishly shot (with some wonderful red "communist" hues and backgrounds), and the soundtrack gives empty scenes poignancy. I mean, I had fun...unless I was honeypotted. Whatever, they hate us cause they ain't us. 
The Interview Review photo
Land of the free, home of the butthole
After a crazy couple of weeks of Sony hacks, full on terrorist attack threats, cancellations, and a last minute reneging, I sort of forgot that at the center of all this mess was a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco....

Review: The Babadook

Dec 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218652:42068:0[/embed] The BabadookDirectors: Jennifer KentRelease Date: November 28th, 2014 (VOD) Rating: PG-13 After the untimely (and gruesome) death of her husband, newly widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her aggressively misbehaving son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The more her son misbehaves, the more Amelia pushes the two from society. Her son breaks a child's nose, loudly fits, and Amelia becomes a recluse in order to hide her constant shame of the lack of power she has. Then one day a pop up book, the story of Mr. Babadook, arrives on their doorstep and as the book reveals the sinister contents hidden inside, and her son cries over a monster hiding under his bed, Amelia realizes the storybook monster may be knocking on her door.   The Babadook is psychological thriller with a thin veil of horror. A meticulously crafted tale with darkness bubbling under the surface. It has this perfect way of getting under your skin. Unlike other, more traditional horror films, there are no big set pieces, no major scares, and nary a cheap cut or jump scare in sight. Babadook has a healthy amount of confidence in its concept, and we reap the rewards of that confidence. Thanks to a slow burning narrative done well (thankfully the pace doesn't reflect this), the foreshadowing is never heavy handed and dealt with the proper amount of ominousness. It's never teasing to the point of obnoxiousness. But that's also what brings it down.  Without going too much into detail (because even noting the story beats gives away a bit), nothing really "happens." When broken down to the core, the film's plot has very little progression. While notable story beats help the film's themes evolve, it asks quite a bit from the audience as those story bits are spread far apart (For example, they get the book and read it, several scenes of "living," and then the menacing stuff kicks in). It's like a twisted take on a slice of life film. Your enjoyment of Babadook resides completely with how much you can infer from the events of the film and enjoy the periods of wallowing. But if you do notice what's really happening, it's all wonderfully delivered. When Mr. Babadook himself literally becomes the anxiety barging in on Amelia's life, everything else the film's been working toward clicks (which Matt discussed in essay in greater, thematically spoilery detail). I get that it's a weird criticism to say "the film needs you to work," while simultaneously praising its confidence to exist, but that's just what The Babadook has done to me.  It's a film that made me look at myself more so than any other film this year. An introspective piece that makes me curious as to how I'd react to loss. While I will never know the emotional states of motherhood and child rearing, I feel like I know a little bit more. What if my kid were a big jerk to everyone? What if, like in the film, the only way to deal with that child is through solitary confinement, and he can't develop the proper social skills to survive? Will I ever want to potentially erase that child from my life? Will my child become a reflection of my feelings of incompetence? The Babadook delves into all of that and then some. A slow film about fighting stagnation while never becoming stale itself.  Oh, I didn't even talk about rest of the film. The Babadook is a very technically built thriller. The shots are seeped in the right blends of darkness and light, the camera is always angled in such a way that you never get a good look at Mr. Babadook (but it's never annoyingly so), and the sound design is fantastic with "Baa baaa dook dooooooooook" becoming my favorite horror phrase for years to come.  Guttural, emotionally progressive, and with director Jennifer Kent, we're introduced to whole new levels of horror that a female voice can bring to the genre. The Babadook is a film that reminds you of what a confident film can do to your state of being. If we get more films like this, we won't ever have to worry about the state of thrillers again. 
Babadook Review photo
Reading is the greatest horror
I've been interested in The Babadook ever since our editor supreme, Matthew Razak, wrote a feature detailing how progressive it was. If you've read any of my reviews in the past (or any of my other work here on Flixist), you ...

Review: Annie

Dec 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218715:42059:0[/embed] AnnieDirector: Will GluckRated: PGRelease Date: December 19, 2014 Annie is the story of little orphan sorry, foster kid Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) as she's stuck living under a terrible foster parent, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and hopes every day that she'll find her real parents. After cell phone mogul and New York City mayoral candidate, Benjamin Stacks (Jamie Foxx), saves her from a hit and run accident, the two pal around for publicity. Through their time spent together, the two realize they think they'll like it here. Then the sun comes out.  A good litmus test as to how much you'll enjoy this latest rendition of the famous musical is the film's opening. After a nice prelude featuring a mix of the musical's well known themes, we're introduced to a little red haired girl named Annie. She tap dances then is mockingly sent to her desk before the newest Annie loudly proclaims how much cooler she is. And that scene sets the tone for the rest of the film as it tries to distance itself as much as it can from its less hip history. As "coolness" influences the rest of the film, we're left with odd remixes, poor musical staging (and very rough choreography), and several new songs produced for the film. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to sit through a film that insults both its source material and the people who enjoy it.  The original songs and new arrangements would've been fine had they not been so badly handled. An overt use of autotune (especially noticeable during the film's atrocious "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here") saps the cast of all energy once they have to lip sync to the robot voices. And it's weird to see more attention paid to one of the film's newer pieces like the song "Moonquake Lake," (which is a theme to a joke that overlasts its welcome after two minutes) than say "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," which gets pushed to the background the scene after. It's like who ever produced Annie wanted to write an entirely new musical built on Sia sung pop tunes, but had to use the name in order to make any money. There's a noticeable lack of comfort from the cast when they perform the film's songs, and this awkward scenery weighs down what good there is.  It's just a shame because the stuff in between the music is well put together. There is nary a hint of cynicism to be had as the cast is believable. Quvenzhané Wallis is such a good choice for Annie, and her delivery and preciousness is never anything but enjoyable. Jamie Foxx seems to be enjoying himself, Rose Byrne doesn't do much but is charming, and the dialogue is actually witty. Even when it's corny, it's so full of genuine heart, it's acceptable. It's never overbearingly saccharine. The only blip on all of this is Cameron Diaz. A victim of a washed out role, she is the worst portrayal of Miss Hannigan in Annie's many years of production. From a performance that's too cheap for the film (it's way too on the nose even when the film doesn't call for it), to a shoddy new arrangement for "Little Girls" which only highlights her lack of talent.  That's what confuses me so much about Annie. No matter how much I wanted to like it, I was constantly reminded of how I shouldn't be enjoying myself (though kids won't mind either way, really. There are worst films to take your kids to). While there's no cynicism in the story itself, there is a density in the way it's been put together. It's like whoever produced this hated themselves the entire time and wanted us to feel the same way. It's a constant back and forth between enjoyment and self loathing. That's not how I wanted to see Annie. Don't bet your bottom dollar on Annie. There's no sun here. 
Annie Review photo
Full of hard knocks
Remakes are always at a disadvantage. Regardless of the final product's quality, it will always be compared to the film it's adapting. Remakes usually are stuck with two options: Either pay homage to the original and make fan...

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Dec 12 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218699:42044:0[/embed] Exodus: Gods and KingsDirectors: Ridley ScottRelease Date: December 12th, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Exodus: Gods and Kings is the story of Moses (Christian Bale), raised as the son of an Egyptian general and his close friend Ramses (Joel Edgerton), who's next in line to inherit the Egyptian throne. After Moses learns he's actually a Hebrew child saved from a disaster, Ramses sends him into exile. Through this exile and years of traveling, Moses discovers the Isreaelite God and learns he's been chosen to free the Isreaelites from slavery. Then we've got all the beats you remember: plagues, Passover, and an Isreaelite army training montage.  There was a big casting controversy surrounding this film before its release. When Ridley Scott revealed that the Egyptians (and Moses) were played by white actors while the non-white actors were stuck with the lesser roles (like slave and thief), it caused quite a stir. Arguments went back and forth as to what the cause was (ranging anywhere from "you can't sell a film with non-white actors" to "this is historically accurate"), but I'd like to confirm that at the end of the day, none of that actually matters. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a big, dumb, and goofy epic so the whitewashing is like vanilla icing on the cake. It's an oddly helpful anchor as you slowly realize the rest of the film lacks this kind of conviction. Exodus can't decide whether or not it wants to be religious as there are semblances of both anti and pro religious arguments. While there is an active presence of God in Exodus, it's portrayed as a young boy making rash and violent decisions, and it's wonderfully sacrilegious (He makes Moses raise an army of Hebrews, sends sharks and alligators as a plague, kills without hesitation) when there're hints that Moses might just be senile. But it totally backs out of this by falling back on the "faith over all" that's inherent in this story. It completely comes out of left field as "faith" isn't a major theme of this film before the final third.  Whether or not you agree with the faith, a story praising the work of God at least knows what it wants to do. And it's not like the other side of that coin wouldn't work either. A recent example, Darren Aronofsky's Noah, proves that you can tell an agnostic version of a religious story and still hold weight. Without the fervor brought on from commitment one way or the other, we're left wallowing in this grey matter. Add this to Exodus's overtly long run time, any period of indecisiveness is felt even more so. The pace is almost punishing (exacerbated by the amount of filler present in the narrative). And honestly the turgid pace and whitewashing would've been fine had anyone done anything of note. Other than Joel Edgerton as Ramses (who stands out with his prim, nervous take on the Pharoah), no other cast member (even Christian Bale) survives in this blob. It may be the fault of the source material, but there are far too many characters given far too little screen time to actually care what anyone is doing. And when someone does show up and says something, what little plot they're given is swept under the rug in favor of something else. It's like weaving a rug thread by thread, taking a break, and starting from a different end each time. Nothing's ever started, so nothing finishes.  Oh, and what was that accent Christian Bale? Seriously.  Exodus is evocative of classic Hollywood tropes in the best and worst ways. With biblical stories of this ilk, there's just some things you have to accept. You have to accept they're going to be a certain length, you have to accept it's going to retell the same story once again, and you've got to accept that it's going to have certain underlying messages. But you don't have to accept an un-entertaining film. While this bloated narrative does invoke the "epic" nature of classic Hollywood (and it looks pretty damn good in some areas), and is therefore coincidentally nostalgic (bad as it is, seeing white folks rescuing brown folks is something we've seen time and time again), it's so mismanaged that you're better off with one of the many other takes on this story.  If after reading this review you're still somehow compelled to go out and see Exodus: Gods and Kings, here's a funny tidbit. During my screening, a gentleman in the row in front of me fell asleep...twice. It wasn't the humble, slumped over sleep either. He had an abrasive, loud snore each time.  I don't think there's a criticism more fitting. 
Exodus Review photo
Like wandering the desert for forty years
Folks don't know this about me, but I have a soft spot for biblical stories. Having been raised half Roman Catholic, half who gives a hooey, I have an abundant knowledge of Christian bible quotes and intricacies. Regardless o...

Review: Horrible Bosses 2

Nov 26 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218648:42012:0[/embed] Horrible Bosses 2Director: Sean AndersRated: RRelease Date: November 26, 2014  With Horrible Bosses 2 we get a sequel to a movie that really didn't even remotely set up a plan for a sequel. Clearly a one off, the original kind of wrapped everything up so this movie has to reestablish everything all over again. Basically the film is about horrible bosses in name only. Now the three idiots find themselves screwed out of money by investor Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and in danger of losing the company they founded. In order to get their money back they decide to kidnap Hanson's son, Rex (Chris Pine). Of course they're just as inept, if not more so, as before so things spiral out of control and miraculously pull in their previous bosses played by Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey. Much like the first film this one survives entirely on the charm of its leading trio. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day work really well together even when the stuff they're doing isn't that funny. The movie can be down right stupid at times, but thanks to these guys playing off each other so well it's actually funny. If there's a reason to see this movie it's because these guys are hilarious even if they basically morphed Sudeikis' character into a second fall guy and had Bateman run the entire straight man routine. Kind of fair since there really isn't a better straight man working today than Bateman. That doesn't mean this is a classic or even as funny as the first. The premise is stretched incredibly thin, and while it sets up some truly hilarious scenes it doesn't work all that well as a whole. The trio may be good, but even they can't pull off some of the comedy that just isn't funny. Aniston's sex driven dentist jokes get especially old as the film wears on and Kevin Spacey is criminally underutilized. Surprisingly Pine pops right into the gang wonderfully, but Waltz seems like a fish out of water in his limited screen time. There's also very little to get attached to. Unlike the original where you could somewhat sympathize with the plight of the gang this time around they are truly just idiots. The premise that they'd be able to start their own company is laughable and as the laughs build up the actual plot disappears. A film full of funny scenes is fine, but something gets lost when that's all there is.  Is Horrible Bosses 2 a film with funny scenes? Yes, thanks to its awesome cast. Is it a good comedy? Not really.
Horrible Bosses Review photo
Dirty jobs
You know when something is funny you just have to do it again, right? That's the logic with Horrible Bosses 2. The original film actually had an appealing cast that worked well together pulling the film out of cliche and into...

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Nov 21 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218609:41995:0[/embed] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1Directors: Francis LawrenceRelease Date: November 21st, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Based off some of Suzanne Collins' novel of the same name (to say where the cutoff point is would spoil it, sorry), Part 1 follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just a short time after the events of Catching Fire (and for those oddly just joining, there's a quick recap which is something I truly appreciate). As District 13's President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to film propaganda to turn Katniss into a symbol of the coming war with the Capitol (the titular "Mockingjay"), Katniss realizes President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has been keeping Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) alive in order to send her messages. As she discovers what kind of toll the war with the Capitol has taken on the Districts (as instability reaches a fever pitch), she has to decide whether or not she wants to move forward with the fight. Also some guy named Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is there, but he still refuses to do anything notable.  To be honest, I rolled my eyes when I first heard the final book would be split into two films. When you read the book itself there doesn't seem to be enough content to necessitate the split as the second half is really just one extended action sequence. I feared we'd get another Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows situation where one half is clearly superior to the other. With Part 1 my fears haven't been completely alleviated, but I don't really care. Part 1 is damn entertaining. Fixing a lot of the series' hokier elements, and finally exploring the nature of its dystopia, Part 1 is just a massive improvement all around.  For example, the tone is handled much better than before. In the first two films, the tone fluctuated rapidly It came across as comedic at times during inappropriate moments as the love triangle was forced into the forefront, or when death fights felt less threatening because Katniss was more of a superhuman than not. But there's no room for that here. While the darker tone might be a slight turn off (it's unfortunately overbearing at times as there's no ease, unless you count that one forced moment of Katniss singing by a lake), it gives weight to the world. Katniss is finally in some sort of danger and less in control than ever. And with that powerless direction, Jennifer Lawrence at last has something to work with as she's less wooden here in Part 1 than ever.  Anchoring a set of actors who've found their groove, Lawrence delivers on her initial promise. As Katniss emotes for the first time in the entire series, Lawrence makes sure to nail each opportunity. For example when Katniss delivers her speech to the Capitol after some violent events in District 8, I had a huge smile on my face. I don't know how I became so involved in a scene with such a funky set up (and it's even more egregious in text form), but with every crack in her voice, every boom, Lawrence reels you in. And the rest of the cast is no slouch either as the freedom of the new premise (we're no longer trapped in the "put on a show/fight in the games" setup of the first two films) gives every character but Gale something to do. Josh Hutcherson's physicality is finally put to some use (he's no longer lying on the ground all the time), Julianne Moore is a bit stiff but it works for her character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's going to be truly missed as his Plutarch steals the show. Unfortunately, Part 1 isn't without its faults. Like most films of its ilk, it still falls into the same genre trappings as before (there's still a weird love triangle that feels more out of place than before, Katniss is more of an "It" Girl than ever). It's like a two steps forward, one step back situation. The film also has an odd pace issue which must be a result of splitting the story in two. A lot of the scenes feel like they're meant for some sort of Director's Cut as they're extended far beyond their welcome. That's not to say I didn't enjoy most of these scenes, but some of those longer scenes could be a deal breaker. It completely relies on emotional investment, so I could definitely see someone fighting with boredom by its end.  After my screening, I overheard a conversation between two women and it almost made me second guess myself. As the woman told her friend, "Nothing happened in that movie," I realized exactly how someone could see it that way. You have to know what you're getting into when a film has "Part 1" in its title. When broken down to the essential beats, Mockingjay - Part 1 is all setup for the final film in the series. But what I want you to understand is that it's damn good setup. Sure it's setting plot points for a later date, but there's also an arc (as the series finally elaborates on the meaning of imagery in its world) that's wonderfully realized here as well.  For once in this series, I truly want to see what's coming next instead of going through the motions because I've read the books.  The ultimate goal of the first part of a two part film is to make the audience anticipate the second half while still feeling like a complete film in its own right. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 accomplishes that and then some (At some points it's even better than the source material). I hope Part 2 can keep this momentum.
Mockingjay Part 1 Review photo
Smoke, she is a rising fire
The Hunger Games has come a long way. From humble meh-ish beginnings, to a sequel that, well, caught fire in theaters, the films have gotten increasingly better the more comfortable everyone gets with the material. Going into...

Review: Dumb and Dumber To

Nov 14 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218593:41973:0[/embed] Dumb and Dumber ToDirectors: Bobby and Peter FarrellyRelease Date: November 14th, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Taking place twenty years after the events of Dumb and Dumber, Harry (Jeff Daniels) discovers he's had a child with Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) that he's neglected for the past two decades. He wants to track down his kid now that he needs a kidney transplant, and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) wasn't feeling it until he suddenly develops a crush for Harry's young daughter, Penny (Rachel Melvin). As the two set their sights on a cross country trip, some dumb stuff happens including murder plots, farts, and a whole heap of mean, mean jokes from cranky old men. I should probably say this right off the bat; Dumb and Dumber To is an incredibly polarizing film. It's a film dealing in extremes, so you're either going to love it or hate it. There's no middle ground. As is the case with most comedy sequels stemmed from a nostalgic property, To is content to wallow in what the writers 'think' made the original so appealing. I'll commend To for doing its homework and delivering quite a few little tidbits for fans of the first film, but it's like they focused on the completely wrong thing here. While Dumb and Dumber mined its laughs from Harry and Lloyd's oblivious optimism toward the (literally) sh*tty world around them, To decides to roll around in that poop and hopes the smell doesn't make you gag.  Seeing as many films as I do eventually takes a toll on you. As current films become so parallel to one another drawing toward an ever approaching horizon, I always hold out hope for something different. And that something to me was Dumb and Dumber To. As a big fan of the first film (I'd dare say that "I like it a lot"), I was ready to laugh at butts because not every film needs to be a thesis on the human condition. But (hah, see I laughed there) To, as the film explicitly points out, is "not as" funny. Sure there are potential laughs to be had (the "Stinker" beer gag is an interesting play between crude and intelligent, and the initial road trip fake out got one of the biggest laughs in the film), but they're entirely hollow and forgettable. Harmless really until you get to the crux of most of these jokes. The film really takes a turn when you see these two fifty something year old men yell "Show us your tits!" and watch a girl bounce in her underwear because she's "dumb." Then all of the harmless stuff begins to unravel. Dumb and Dumber To intentionally retreads old ground but, while that'd be fine if it led to new jokes, all that's left are the bad ideas. I'm not sure whether it's because these two actors are older, or if the tone of the film is intentionally more cynical than before, but Harry and Lloyd have become worse since we've last seen them. What was once two guys not spreading ill will toward others has led to full on attacks. Sicking a cat on birds, using colloquialisms like "Gran-gina," unleashing many derogatory slugs toward women, and just tiredly prancing about in general. It kind of makes you question why anyone agreed to the sequel as it plays out like no one wanted to participate in To in the first place. There's such an overbearing sense of "Why are we here?" (especially from Jeff Daniels) that insults your intelligence as a viewer. It's one thing to say these two guys are dummies, it's another to call me one.  Dumb and Dumber To left me with such an overwhelming sadness. Leaving me to question whether or not I fabricated what little charm the first Dumb and Dumber has, To is a textbook example of why these years-in-the-making sequels shouldn't happen. A battle of attrition that challenges the very limits of taste that somehow still wants folks to celebrate its existence.  Now even with all of that said, I'll concede that some of you will still find the film humorous as different strokes/different folks are want to do. But I implore you to find something better. You know what? The first Dumb and Dumber just happens to be on Netflix Instant right now, and it hasn't aged as badly as you'd think. 
Dumb and Dumber To Review photo
To dumb is human, to think divine
Twenty years is a long, long time. I was five years old when Dumb and Dumber first hit theaters in 1994, so the madcap antics of Harry and Lloyd appealed to me. Fart jokes, sex jokes I was not yet old enough to comprehend com...

Review: Laggies

Nov 07 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218563:41959:0[/embed] LaggiesDirector: Lynn SheltonRelease Date: November 7th, 2014 Rating: R Laggies is the story of Megan (Keira Knightley), a 28 year old post-graduate who's stuck in a self-inflicted rut as she chooses to work for her father spinning arrow signs rather than pursue a career utilizing her degree. After seeing her friends mature, get married, and have kids, Megan begins to question her position in life. After a series of shocking events (her father cheats on her mother, hey long boyfriend proposes), Megan panics and runs away. Becoming fast friends with 16 year old, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her father Craig (Sam Rockwell), Megan takes a week to re-evaluate her life.  Laggies is a quiet slice of life film amongst the big releases, and it uses that to its advantage. Both the best and worst thing about it is there are practically no consequences for any character involved. Although Laggies' story eventually strikes a fine balance between inconsequential and world bearingly massive, it does take a bit to get there. I have no idea if the pace of the film intentionally halts Megan's development as a character, but it's definitely a nice touch. It's just when the film revels so much in this lackadaisical pace, you realize how little anything in the film matters.  To follow up this feeling, the world is draped in a fine grey. The colors of Megan's world are drab, and the rest of the setting is given a grey hue. But while that's good for setting the stagnant tone of the film, it's one of the many things that demonstrate how little things change. Sure not every film needs to be a grand evolution of character, but it's certainly missed when Laggies emphasizes that lack of change. But in a weird way, it all makes sense. Megan is caught in the millennial pause. That weird phase in the current generation's life where all the options available lead to a directionless treading of water. You're given complete freedom to choose your path in life, and given a bevy of routes to get there, but are overwhelmed at the possibilities those choices represent. The unfortunate thing about this reflection is, it leads to completely polarizing characters.  It's entirely possible to dislike every character in Laggies despite their well rounded performances. When dissected at a surface level, you get upper class white folks who are generally complaining they've become complacent in their successes. The overall question of Megan's future doesn't really make any sense when you see how well off she is. She's got a Master's degree and a boyfriend who loves her, but she's just being pushed around by other people's desires. Her friends want her to settle because they're all maturing in adulthood, and her parents want her to move on because they're in a broken marriage. It's kind of like Megan's just living her life at a slower pace, and the fact that others want to break it up to conform to their sense of stability (which only seems to produce unhappiness) is definitely a turn off. You end of siding with Megan, the one who's supposed to be going through this revelatory change, when she decides to just escape from all of that.  Now all of this makes sense with the ending. I can't talk about it with too much detail, but I can say I appreciate it's bleak and blunt attitude toward the world. While the tone chickens out toward the end (and there is a bit of happiness to be found), the majority of the film is delightful as you watch broken and unlikeable people scatter about and find each other. That probably sounds like a condemnation for Laggies, but no way. It's got a great cast that works well with one another (with Sam Rockwell stealing the show), it's concise but slow at first, and it's quite thought provoking.  Laggies is a poignant film with a message that doesn't quite hit home until long after the film's over. It's the kind of movie where you'll watch and much later exclaim, "Oh, so that's what it was about!"
Laggies Review photo
A snapping turtle
I'm at a point in my life where I have absolutely no idea what to do next. I graduated from college two years ago and, even with all I think I've accomplished over that time, I sometimes feel like I'm walking in circles. Like...

Review: Nightcrawler

Oct 31 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218521:41924:0[/embed] NightcrawlerDirector: Dan GilroyRelease Date: October 31, 2014 Rating: R Nightcrawler follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man so desperate for money and a job he's willing to go to great lengths to get what he wants. After stumbling on the scene of a deadly car accident and finds Joe (Bill Paxton) recording the carnage, Lou works his way into the world of sensationalist journalism by becoming a nightcrawler, someone who records footage of crime and sells it to local news stations. From there, Lou just tries his damndest to be successful at what he does and no one is going to get in the way of that.  Everything is meticulously arranged. From the setting (it's in LA), the color palette (lots of drab pastels catch the eye and give the film a nostalgic vibe), and the time period it's set in is blurred. Although the film is technically a contemporary take on Los Angeles, it's like the entire film is in a bubble. There are present technologies (like fancy cameras, cars and GPS systems) but they're held back until Lou gets enough money for them. It's an implied "money sets you back a few years" that permeates throughout the film. As more and more money leads to more success, and thus making the power money brings a necessity to move forward, you also sympathize with Lou's plight. The fact you can sympathize with Lou at all is a miracle of storytelling as well.  Lou Bloom is a, well, scumbag. His dark nature is thankfully never kept from sight. As we're introduced to him, he's in the middle of stealing copper wire and manhole covers. When he's confronted by security, he commits a violent act to escape. And with that the audience as a whole is clutched within his skinny little fingers. Everything about Lou is framed perfectly. As you watch a man who's already swimming in a pool of his own grotesqueness, the tension is mined from how far he's willing to reach to attain a semblance of power. I got goosebumps just watching him "interact" with a few of the crime scenes later in the film as I was caught between wondering whether or not he'd get punished for his actions and hoping he'd succeed. But that's also attributed to Gyllenhaal's fabulous performance.  Although Lou has all the makings of a sociopath (he's charismatically detestable, he has a certain routine with his house chores), Gyllenhaal seems like he's just a guy down on his luck. When he gets power you see that facade crack a bit, but it's always hidden by a breathtaking professionalism. Gyllenhaal always has a smile, but his eyes never lose their intensity (thanks to wonderfully filmed angles highlighting the shadows cascading from Gyllenhaal's now angular face). He's slick and dangerous, but Gyllenhaal makes it possible to even want to watch Lou do things. It's like staring at the scene of a car accident yourself. You get this knot in your stomach because you know your curiousity is leading you to do inherently bad things, but you keep watching to see the outcome. When his performance works in tandem with writer/director Dan Gilroy's many close ups, you have no choice but to stay along for the ride.  The amoral nature of viewing tragedy through your TV screen is personified with Lou. While he may not represent the audience directly, he's an exaggerated reflection of our drive to succeed compounded with the distance we create between what we see and how we reflect on those sights. A quite literal "started from the bottom now we here" story that finds the darkest corners of that bottom and twists the views of the rewards from the top. What is there to gain but hollow victory? As Nightcrawler washes over Lou's many successes, and thus makes his transition to a powerful state less visible, it reminds you how little actually changes when you see the world through a narrowed perspective like that of a camera lens.  Nightcrawler isn't a perfect film (there are a few too many on the nose speeches, the pace of the film tends to wallow a bit in certain areas, and if Lou doesn't appeal to you the film won't stick), but it's a highly entertaining dissection of professional aspiration. And the wonderful thing is, that isn't the only way to see it. The film is packed with so much depth with journalistic quandaries, practicality vs. romanticism, and is basically everything you'd want in a thought provoking film.  Nightcrawler has gotten under my skin and refused to leave. 
Nightcrawler Review photo
Crawling in my skin
Nightcrawler has come out of nowhere to become one of my favorite films of 2014. As of right now, I'd even go as far to say that it is my favorite overall. I didn't even know it existed until a few months ago where a brief te...

Review: Ouija

Oct 24 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218506:41919:0[/embed] OuijaDirector: Stiles WhiteRelease Date: October 24, 2014 Rating: PG-13 The Ouija board game is serious business in Ouija. When Debbie (Shelley Hennig) dies from an apparent suicide, her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke) finds out her death was a result of a mysterious game of Ouija. Distraught and wanting to somehow speak to her lost friend, she plays the game with a group of her friends in Debbie's now abandoned house (as all the parents in the town have hilariously left on trips at the same time). Then they find out that Ouija is more than just a game, and now they've woken up something they shouldn't have.  For a film that's a little under an hour and a half, I could somehow feel myself aging watching Ouija. They say mankind's biggest fear is the passage of time, so I'd like to give Ouija some props for reminding me that life has an expiration date. It's from first time director Stiles While, so I'm not really sure how to criticize something like this. There are so many generically made decisions which don't stand out enough to be even ironically enjoyable. For example, there are about 500 jump cuts/scares. To be fair they are set up quite effectively on the first few occasions but, like in every other buffet situation, by the 50th or so jump scare they lose their effect no matter how involved you may be with the material. After awhile it just reeks of desperation. But the saddest part of all of this is Ouija could have worked had it not tried so hard.  While it takes a bit too long to get everything going (the kids don't actually play the game until about 30 minutes in and when your film is only 90 minutes, that's pretty bad), there are some good bits. Before it reveals a ghost that's so overplayed (it's basically the same ghost in every other horror films like Mama and the Insidious films) the final act almost has to follow the same tropes as other films of its ilk, Ouija oddly feels unique. The "seance" scenes themselves were broken down to connect with audience members who've played the game before, the lines you'd expect from a Ouija film ("You're moving it!" "I'm not even touching it!") are sort of interesting in a funny way, and the cast handles the overly serious material well. In fact, it's the first victim Debbie that's the best actress in the whole thing. More so than the main actress Olivia Cooke, Shelley Hennig as Debbie is just wonderful as she seems to realize what kind of film this is. She mixes in a playful attitude into her performance and it lights up the screen.  But unfortunately, no matter how good singular elements may seem, many odd choices (like the numerous cuts, weird soundtrack, yet another vaguely ethnic wise woman) smother what goodness there is. Ouija just sort of piles onto a plate of bland cherry gelatin. You can see some pieces of fruit in there maybe, but what those fruits actually are remains a mystery. Are they chunks of pineapple? Maybe cherries? Who knows as they're all bathed in a red goo that's so thick and wobbly you're not even sure if you're supposed to eat it. You're just left stunned with the thought someone putting it together was a good idea.  In accordance with Ouija's theme, I'll end this review with a seance of my own. Pretend you and I are in a creepy room using our smart phone flashlights like in the movie:  "As friends we've gathered, hearts are true, spirits near we call to you."  "Is there someone there?" The spirits point to YES.  "Should we go see Ouija?" The spirits spell out "PASS" on this one. 
Ouija Review photo
Ouija you glad I didn't say banana?
Ouija, read as "wee jah" and not "wee gee," is the latest in a line of films I can't believe exist. Movies are pretty much made from anything with a recognizable name now. I mean, we're in a post-Battleship world here pe...

Review: The Book of Life

Oct 20 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218468:41901:0[/embed] The Book of LifeDirector: Jorge GutierrezRelease Date: October 17, 2014 Rating: PG The Book of Life is the story of three childhood friends in the small town of San Angel. Two of which, Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), are in love with the third child, Maria (Zoe Saldana). Seeing the two boys compete for Maria's love, two gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, place a bet on which of the two boys will end up marrying Maria in the end. After Maria is sent to live in a convent to become a proper Mexican woman (yes, really), the three grow up in far different fashions. Manolo is trained to become a bullfighter like the rest of his Sanchez relatives (but really wants to be a musician), and Joaquin becomes a decorated war hero thanks to help from Xibalba's magic. All while the super bandit Chakal is threatening the town from a distance.  Book of Life's story is incredibly simplistic. While this makes the film easy to digest, and also gives the film a nice fairy tale/fable vibe (and thus is more appealing to children), it means it has to cram quite a bit into a short amount of time. For example one of the film's best locales, the Land of the Remembered, is filled with vibrant colors and the most fanciful visuals of the entire film, but it's swept away through a brief two minute scene. I'm sure it's a weird criticism to make, but I liked the look of Book of Life's environments so much, I wanted to spend more time in them. There just isn't enough development in most areas. It's like eating a sugar skull. Looks good, but entirely hollow when you bite into it. But even still, the film is just great to look at.  Book of Life is a gorgeous film. It's got a distinct, eye catching character design that works wonders within the nature of its story (it's framed as a tale told to children). Using both influences from both Dia de Muertos decorations (mostly the puppetry and wooden carvings) and Gutierrez's own line of work, each character is built with a blocky, flat outline that blends well with the CG world. It's like you're seeing a puppeteer move the characters along (a quirky little touch gives most of the characters visible metal joints that hold their wooden parts together). Their toy like appearance also makes the fantastical nature of their world far more acceptable as the whole "story within a story" comes together. But unfortunately, this fantastical world also has some troubling real life implications.  While the film makes sure to highlight Mexican culture's better attributes (family togetherness, bravery, music and such), it also critiques some of the darker aspects of the culture. Whether it's a result of the self deprecating humor (the film makes sure to note that Mexico is "the center of the universe" and has plenty of jokes about mustaches) or a consequence of the story, it's pretty nasty toward women. While La Muerte and Manolo's mom have autonomy, Maria doesn't. She's the main woman in the story, yet her ending has to be wrapped around Manolo or Joaquin. Maria is developed as a strong woman who's well versed in all sorts of things (as she openly says she doesn't belong to anyone) yet is still enveloped in the ideals of the "perfect" Mexican woman: kind, listens to her father, and most importantly, virginal.  Despite the film fighting this, the three main characters are still wrapped in their parents' wishes. It's a tragic layer that emphasizes how much control parents have in Mexican families. Book of Life does try to point out that they're finally breaking the cycle, but the ending of the film completely denies all movement forward. It's an odd mash of tones that probably would've worked out well, but Book of Life never gives enough time to develop this idea or find a balance between a congratulatory pat on the back and a stern wag of the finger.  But what if you aren't as engrossed with Mexican culture as I am? Book of Life is still a hearty experience. The cast is well placed (with Channing Tatum and Diego Luna anchoring with great performances), some of the jokes are far too on the nose but work well with kids, the soundtrack is lovely as it's full of anachronistic song choices (American pop music infused with Spanish flair) that help widen its appeal, and is a feast for the eyes.  So, I'm conflicted. I do like The Book of Life quite a bit, but am troubled by what it implies as it never follows through with its criticisms. Like it's whispering weird things in the corner but goes silent when confronted directly. Oh well, vive la vida. 
Book of Life Review photo
Que lindo
Although advertisements for The Book of Life really didn't kick in until a few months before its release, I've been eagerly anticipating the film for a bevy of reasons. It's produced by Guillermo Del Toro (thus giving it a pe...

Review: Fury

Oct 17 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218467:41900:0[/embed] FuryDirector: David AyerRelease Date: October 17, 2014 Rating: R  Taking place in April 1945 as the Allies occupy Nazi Germany, Fury tells the story of a small group of soldiers and their tank: Sergeant  "Wardaddy," (Brad Pitt) "Bible," (Shia LaBeouf), Grady (Jon Bernthal), "Gordo," (Michael Pena) and the newest recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), whose never seen battle before being thrown in the tank with the others. And that's really it. That's both Fury's most well regarded aspect and biggest flaw. As with other Ayer films, Fury is all about the small things. Choosing to focus on character work over big events tends to always make the narrative falter. It's no different in Fury, unfortunately. Thankfully, Fury's built on a solid foundation of character arcs. While the narrative may not have a clear direction, the character evolution is set up quite nicely.  Due to its focus on characters over the grander narrative, it's implicitly broken up into smaller vignettes. If you take each scene as a small pocket of story, it's easier to digest. While that might make the pacing of the film harder to follow, it's far more enjoyable when you realize you're just supposed to take each scene as they come. So it's pretty much like every other David Ayer film where he stretches out smaller beats in between big action scenes. Yet this time, the focus is all on those smaller beats. The best example of this is early on when you first meet the crew. In order to break the tension, they start joking around and there's a beginning and ending to that story before going on to the next thing. It's pretty neat.  The more I watched Fury, the more I fell in love with its well built core. If any one of the five central actors were weak, the whole thing would've fell apart. Luckily, you don't have to worry about any of that as there are no slackers here. Brad Pitt doesn't get a lot to do other than put on a machismo front, but his pensive moments truly shine through when they occur little by little. It's not much more than a stare off into the distance, or a hint at a troublesome past, but it works. Jon Bernthal plays up a country drawl pretty well, Michael Pena plays between comedic and tragic as his character usually gets more of the jokes in the film (along with a well delivered speech), and while Logan Lerman is the weakest of the bunch (which is a shame given the amount of focus he gets), he's fine as a stand in for the audience as we get to find out more about everyone else.  The breakout star is definitely Shia LaBeouf. I've seen different facets of his performance in other films, but it's still surprising to see him pull off emotion with such nuance. At times he gives his dialogue a stone faced delivery so that it's intentionally hard to decode, and at others, he's on the brink of tears. LaBeouf gets the toughest role. He's the one character who doesn't pretend he's hardened through war and instead uses religion to pacify his guilt over committing horrible acts of man, and thus needs to display a well of emotion just bubbling under the surface. That aspect of his performance can't be laid out well through words, so I'll just say every cut to him during the final scenes is heartbreaking. His sorrowful stares are a sight to behold.  Now Fury isn't perfect. Just by writing this review I'm recalling certain issues I had with its finale as it mirrors many of Ayer's other film endings, the film's flow might take some getting used to (with one particular scene feeling totally out of place), and it's got a few shades of predictability, but I can't say those issues had a huge effect on my overall enjoyment watching. Fury is a little over two hours, but I didn't feel it at all. I was completely invested because the characters at the center were so compelling.  Oh yeah, I had forgotten all about the action scenes! The tank fights are pretty damn great too. Haha I got swept up in how well everything else was done, I kind of forgot this was a war film. And that's the point. It's not about World War II, and there's no big mission to kill Hitler or save America or anything like that. It's just about some poor guys who are trying to make due in their mess of a world. 
Fury Review photo
I've been anticipating Fury for quite some time. Writer/Director David Ayer is one of my favorite folks in the industry, and I'm always eager to find out what he's churning out next. From Training Day to The Fast and The...

Review: Drive Hard

Oct 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218415:41872:0[/embed] Drive HardDirector: Brian Trenchard-SmithRelease Date: October 3, 2014Rating: NR Drive Hard is about former racing champion Peter Roberts (Thomas Jane). A later aged man (trust me, his age is important) who dreams of his former glory but now has a job as a driving instructor in order to please his wife. One day he gets a new student, Simon Keller (John Cusack), who then robs a bank, threatens Peter into becoming his driver, and the two get caught up in a chase around Australia as all sorts of folks are after them.  As mentioned earlier, Drive Hard is the latest in a long line of films appealing to gentleman of a certain age. Yet Hard seems far more genuine about what it's trying to accomplish. Everything about the film is directly simplistic (from the title, to the dialogue, to the bad guy's motive), and while that'd be a major flaw in other films, it works well here. Its lower budget also leads to a welcome sense of intimacy with the thematic nature of the film. Although the budget leads to some irksome CGI effects, those are few and far inbetween as the film relies on practical effects. I'm sure the CGI is never a problem because Drive Hard only works within its abilities. It's interesting to see a film keep itself from over reaching and becoming something less than. For example, for a film advertised as full of car chases, there are only two of them. The pace during these scenes is slowed down (which results in unintentional goofiness), but all have a nice flow to them.  But those car chases are only in the film to get their audience's attention. As the film rolls on, it turns into a cruising film where two guys just start bonding over life and women trouble. This is where I'm sure it'll *click* the most with its intended audience. While the derogatory views toward women are troublesome, it oddly makes sense here. You see, the reason Peter eventually bonds with Simon is because Peter is mad about giving up his racing career because he got his girlfriend pregnant. It's a terribly insensitive thing for a character to say, but it has a certain resonance with the older men who'll blame their wife for their regrets. It's a weirdly intimate moment that speaks more to its audience than anything else in the film.  I'm sure the tone I've taken with this review might make Drive Hard seem like an awful film, but it's not all bad. Even if you don't associate the film's tone with a mid-life crises like I did (I mean, Simon spends all of his money on classic American Muscle cars), it's a brisk film in an age where conciseness is lacking in almost every film. Thomas Jane and John Cusack also elevate the film's material as they swap their purported roles. While Cusack's normally the lovable every man and Jane the hardened badass, it's pretty fun to watch them swap mannerisms and flesh out their character as much as they can. Cusack is notably fun when he carries a nonchalant attitude during action scenes.  All in all, I'm sure Drive Hard is a film my dad would like. He's 40-50 something, likes cool cars, and you just kind of have to accept his views toward women. It's built for a very, very specific audience (and if you're not a part of that audience, look elsewhere), it has a good pace, and Cusack and Jane seem to be enjoying themselves.   Drive Hard is the kind of film I'd recommend to my dad on Saturday afternoons. He might fall asleep in the middle, but I'm sure he'd relate to the film's distinct viewpoints. And if not, there're cool cars driving slowly and old man jokes. 
Drive Hard Review photo
A mid-life crisis
There's an entire genre of films built around older men in action films. Whether it was bred from a need for some sort of budding power fantasy or a legitimate strive toward capturing the feel of their halcyon days, this genr...

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