Monday, December 19, 2016

Reviews: Rogue One, La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge

I feel that I can definitively declare that George Walton Lucas Jr. is the individual who has had both the most positive and negative influence on the Star Wars film franchise.  Yes, he did give birth to all the characters, planets and concepts of the universe that has dominated science fiction for the past 40 years.  BUT, he also single-handedly gave us the episodes 1-3 prequels that should have been WAY more entertaining and polished than what they turned out to be.  Director Gareth Edwards throws a middle finger directly at Lucas with his epic Star Wars stand-alone masterpiece Rogue One.  The story of the rebels' plight to retrieve secret Death Star plans is a rousingly entertaining and enjoyable experience that culminates in the best 45 minutes of CGI wizardry I've ever seen on screen.  Disney has responsibly and effectively taken the reigns from George Lucas and it's undoubtedly the best thing that's happened in Hollywood in quite some time.

The general plot of the film is well known by Star Wars fans, but early-on in this movie, we meet the key players in the mission to retrieve the plans.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones - whom I feel is just a gorgeous and talented actress) is the daughter of a weapons expert who helped construct the Death Star under the guidance of Director Krennic (Bloodline's every-man Ben Mendelsohn).  She ends up being stranded as a young girl and looked after by rebel activist Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whitaker).  Meeting up with rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a band of misfit mercenaries including an aging blind ninja-style assassin and his hefty warrior friend, the team steals a rebel ship they codename "Rogue One" and attempt to retrieve the plans left by Erso's father.  The movie starts a bit slow but picks up steam towards the end with the battle of Scarif.  All throughout we get a bit of comedy with K-2SO, a new robot in the vain of C-3PO that has a deadpan delivery and a clever sense of self-worth.  Like BB-8 with R2D2 in Episode VII, K-2SO is an improvement on it's original (and frankly out-dated) golden plated predecessor.

All of the acting is solid and Jones and Mendelsohn stand out in particular.  However, the real spectacle of this film lies within the battle sequences, carefully crafted by Edwards. This is no Transformers/Matrix hodgepodge of CGI clashes in the darkness.  Hell, even Edwards' Godzilla film featured mostly dark-lit combat sequences.  The battle of Scarif at the end of the movie is filmed gorgeously during the light of day on a beach-laden planet.  Stormtroopers and AT-ATs never looked better on screen.  There's something so satisfying as a life long Star Wars fan in seeing such a grand-scale all out war in this universe.  X-Wings and Tie Fighters darting around in a bright Earth-type atmosphere while giant rebels ships and star destroyers wage war against each other above in space.  Edwards simply paints the canvas with all out chaotic battles by using the camera as his brush.  It's truly amazing to witness on the big screen and if the Academy does not honor this technical achievement it will be a terrible omission.

What I experienced during the battle of Scarif was youthful joy pure and simple.  As a kid watching the original trilogy unfold, I kept thinking that these characters and vehicles of this world could be used again to entertain and engage me in future stories.  When the prequels were announced I got my hopes up that episodes 1-3 would be just that, bad-ass Star Wars films.  Unfortunately, Lucas disappointed but hope sprung up in me again with The Force Awakens.  Thankfully J.J. Abrams quenched my thirst with a very entertaining and well crafted follow-up last year.  Edwards has taken that progress and pushed it to 11 with Rogue One.  We FINALLY get a BAD ASS Star Wars film with rebels and imperial forces going all-out against each other.  The battle of Scarif makes the awesome aerial action at the end of ROTJ seem like child's play.  Huge Star Destroyers are crashing into each other.  Imperial walkers are attacking and crashing all over sandy beaches.  All of the epic mayhem is playing out on-screen with the same DNA of A New Hope (all of the ships and uniforms are spot-on in matching the design of the first Star Wars release in 1977 and the action looks "lived-in" like it really did occur right before Episode IV).  Add in the much-satisfying scenes with Darth Vader (including an amazing smack-down at the end of the film) and you get a movie-going experience that speaks DIRECTLY to the pre-teen Jordan Rose who was so enthralled with this universe during the original trilogy.  I especially enjoyed how the movie ends right where Episode IV begins.  You could almost classify this film as Episode 3.5.

This movie is not perfect, but it's damn near close to perfect and the second best Star Wars movie of all time after The Empire Strikes Back.  Yes, this is better than A New Hope and better than The Force Awakens.  5 out of 5 JRs for the most entertaining and satisfying motion picture of 2016.  Edwards has a bright future ahead of him.  He's only 18 days younger than me and he has probably earned the opportunity to be very choosy with his next project.  All I know is Rian Johnson has his work cut out for him in topping this one with Episode VIII next Christmas.  Thankfully, the future of Star Wars is so bright and definitely in the proper creative hands with The Mouse.

Damien Chazelle is Hollywood's new wunderkid Director.  At age 31 he already has a critically acclaimed gem under his belt with 2014's Whiplash.  With La La Land, he gives a throwback nod to the big budget Hollywood musical machine of the past and delivers a unique and enjoyable tale of love, jazz and life in modern-day Los Angeles.

This film is different right out of the gate with a carefully choreographed sequence in traffic on a Los Angeles highway where gridlocked motorists jump out of the cars and sing and dance with glee.  Chazelle gives us nearly a single take as the camera whips through traffic while we hear one of his original songs in a showcase of musical talent.  The choreography continues throughout the film as the plot centers on the relationship between two Hollywood dreamers in Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).  Both are struggling to live up to their childhood dreams in Tinseltown. Sebastian as a Jazz pianist (Chazelle once again focusing on this genre of music after Whiplash) and Mia as an actress.  They meet, fall in love and are faced with challenges along the way as we go in and out of various musical numbers and settings.  Chazelle is always innovating with his camera, adding in classic movie fades and dissolves while mixing in some technical wizardry (including an effective method of dimming all lights in certain scenes to focus on his two talented leads).  The music is good, but not great, although it's supremely impressive that nearly ALL of what we see and hear is the brainchild of Chazelle himself (his friend and composer Justin Hurwitz composed the amazing score and songs **give him the Best Score Oscar right now**).

This movie doesn't work at all without Stone and Gosling in the leads.  Their chemistry is so solid and they're both individually multi-talented in many aspects (singing, dancing, humor, looking good, etc..).  Stone in particular carries a lot of weight throughout and the fact that she delivers such a quality performance in this type of a demanding role puts her in the driver's seat as the front-runner for Best Actress.  The set design is top-notch and everything just looks bright and vibrant.  LA is painted as a living, breathing character on its own and this film comes off as a love-letter to the city as a whole.  It was helpful to me that I had just visited there a few months earlier and saw the majestic Hollywood hills views that Chazelle tried to convey on screen.

After this accomplishment, it's clear that Chazelle is the biggest prodigy in Hollywood right now.  In fact he began 2016 with writing the screenplay for another top ten movie of the year in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  His vision is unique and he's able to do amazing things with the camera. I just wish he would try to branch out a bit and helm a movie that has nothing to do with music (in fact, his third - and debut - directorial credit in 2009 is about a jazz trumpeter).   I can only imagine what he'd do with a dark drama or science fiction film.  Regardless of what he does next, he can hang his hat on La La Land, a welcome musical throwback that showcases two actors at the top of their game.  4.5 out of 5 JRs for one of the best movies of the year.  I have a feeling this is going to win Best Picture, but I really wish that the Academy wouldn't gush so much over every really good movie about making movies in Hollywood (The Artist, Argo, Birdman, etc...).  Chazelle for Best Director is something I can get behind though.

Mel Gibson makes a triumphant return to the director's chair with another epic battle film that falls in line behind Braveheart and The Patriot as a gripping authentic war movie.  Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Southern pacifist that enlists in the Army to help battle Japanese forces during WWII.  The movie starts slow and progresses through Doss'efforts to make it through basic training without firing (or touching) a rifle.  Doss meets and marries the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (the always easy-to-look-at Theresa Palmer) shortly before enlisting.  Schutte sticks with her husband through his various legal issues with the Army and eventually Doss perseveres and is able to be deployed overseas in battle.  This is where the film really picks up as Gibson is able to showcase the brutality of war and the total selflessness of Doss' actions.  There are numerous scenes that feature Doss saving soldier after soldier, lowering each one down over the ridge.  This all happens amidst a slew of violence that Gibson has so much experience with conveying on-screen.  It's truly a remarkable look at a real American hero and one of the better war films I've seen.  I really hope people can look past the fact that Mel Gibson is BAT-SHIT-CRAZY and perhaps the Academy can honor this directorial achievement with a nomination.  Garfield is really good as a green-but-eager young soldier.  His career seems to be taking off and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a handful of Oscar nominations in the next 5-10 years.  This film may be out of theaters by now, but give it a watch on video when it comes out.  I was thoroughly entertained and engrossed by Gibson's vision and I have to give this film a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.

These last three movies that I've seen are all solidly in my Top Ten of the year so-far.  I still have a handful of films I need to see before awards season kicks into high gear early next year.  Moonlight, Jackie and Fences are at the top of the list and I want to give Passengers (J Law, C Pratt) a look-see as well.  Stay tuned for more reviews over the holiday season!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mega Fall Mini Review (8 Films including Manchester by the Sea)

Sorry everyone, I've been pretty busy lately and haven't focused as much on the site.  I'm going to try to catch up quickly with a few rapid-fire short paragraph reviews of the last eight movies I've seen in the theater (in reverse order of viewing).  Thankfully we're starting to ramp up into Oscar season and STILL the best film on my list is Hell or High Water (now available on On Demand!).

Bad Moms

Mila Kunis and company decide to let loose a bit and fight against Christina Applegate and the perfect PTA Moms.  This movie was hysterical.  The funniest film of the year so far and the perfect showcase for the uber-talented Kathryn Hahn.  4.5 JRs

The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's tour-de-force performance as slave uprising leader Nat Turner carries this quality film.  Not as deep or as moving as 12 Years a Slave, this film still resonates and is worth a viewing, even if you don't agree with Parker's questionable past.  I still think Parker has given the best performance of 2016 so-far but his off-screen issues will hurt him come Oscar time.  4.5 JRs

The Girl on the Train

In the vain of Gone Girl, this is a relationship drama / whodunnit that runs off the rails near the end.  Still, Emily Blunt is really good as usual in the lead role as an alcoholic.  Solid supporting turns including the beautiful Haley Bennett help keep the plot together and the end result is still an entertaining experience. 3.5 JRs

Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the sinister/creepy/smart Dr. Strange in Marvel's latest comic adaptation.  I personally knew very little about the character when I went to see this but was quite entertained with a combination of good acting and great special effects.  Marvel should probably give some credit to Dark City / Inception for some of the building-shifting effects.  Rachel McAdams is kind of wasted here in a throw-away role but I can see myself getting into this franchise going forward.  Bonus points for a hilarious stinger post-credits scene with Thor.  4 JRs


Director Dennis Villeneuve had hit it out of the park with his last two films in Prisoners and Sicario, so I was expecting another masterpiece with this sci-fi drama.  Instead I found this tale of communication between humans and an alien race to be a bit disappointing.  Amy Adams is strong in the role of a linguistics expert and mother dealing with a key loss in the family but her performance alone couldn't carry the slow plot and questionable ending.  I wanted to love this film, but I merely liked it.  It's still worth a viewing and parts of it are filmed beautifully.  I still have faith in Villeneuve but this just wasn't his best effort.  3 JRs

Bad Santa 2

Billy Bob is back at it again playing the grumpy Santa role, spewing vile lines of dialogue and getting chummy with his evil Mom played gleefully by Kathy Bates.  Karrin Michael Lauren Graham is missed in the sequel, but thankfully Thurman Murman (the chubby kid) returns and delivers some supporting laughs.  This isn't better than the original of course but it's still a fun time at the movies.  3 JRs

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Eddie Redmayne helms this JK Rowling addition to the Harry Potter cinematic universe.  We get plenty of CGI wizardry through a slew of new characters and beasts including a magical briefcase that is home to a virtual zoo of creatures.  This is a solid entry into what should be an entertaining (5 film!?!?) franchise.  A bit cookie-cutter, but entertaining nonetheless.  3.5 JRs

Manchester by the Sea

I just saw this on Saturday and was very impressed with the ensemble acting in this movie.  Kenneth Lonergan's tale of dealing with extreme grief in New England focuses on Casey Affleck and his relationship with key family members including his ex-wife Michelle Williams, brother Kyle Chandler and his teenage nephew Lucas Hedges.  The bond between Affleck and Hedges is so believable and authentic that it powers the entire film.  My biggest complaint is that the movie STILL feels way too short even at over 2 hours of run time.  The movie ends abruptly and I felt that there was still more to be explored in the narrative.  That being said, the performances across the board are so good.  Affleck will be a contender for Best Actor in a reserved role that emotes withdrawl and isolation due to a key event in the middle of the film.  Even with such a short on-screen performance, Williams will get a serious look at Supporting Actress simply because of one key scene (a win for Michelle would be similar to Anne Hathaway's win for Les Miserables).  I REALLY hope that Hughes gets some real consideration for Supporting Actor as I thought he was so believable as a genuine teenager in today's world.  Go see this film.  I was going to give it 4 JRs initially (backlash for the ending) but I keep thinking about it after the fact and I feel I have to bump up my rating. 4.5 JRs

PS:  I also saw Sausage Party on On Demand recently and I was a bit underwhelmed by it. It had some good laughs and was plenty raunchy but it seemed to be trying too hard and I just didn't find it all that funny overall.  A rather forgettable 2.5 out of 5 JRs.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: Sully

Tom Hanks as Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger is the example of perfect Hollywood casting.  A modern-day Jimmy Stewart and one of the most likable actors in the history of motion pictures, Hanks simply embodies all the qualities of the real-life captain that made a split decision to land US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009.  The events of that day and the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board are revisited in Clint Eastwood's comprehensive and entertaining Sully.

It's not much a of a stretch for Hanks to take on the role of an unassuming, professional, selfless captain.  In fact, he's played a captain many times in his career (Captain Phillips and Captain John Miller - Saving Private Ryan).  Thankfully, Hanks is on top of his game once his hair is dyed white and he dons the trademark mustache.  Hanks IS Sully and it happens in the first frame of the film.  This movie covers all aspects of the crash into the Hudson, jumping back in forth in time and covering all angles of the incident.  The real-time crash itself is brilliantly shot by Eastwood with an unfiltered look at the major players (pilots, stewardesses, air traffic controllers, NYC rescue workers) that banded together to prevent disaster.  It's obvious that Eastwood is trying to make an authentic NYC film, highlighting the spirit and resolve of the men and women who work tirelessly to keep the citizens safe.  Even more poignant was having the opportunity to view this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Aaron Eckhart is very good as Sully's co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, who was able to be there to support his captain both during the crash and in the hot seat while the NTSB conducted their investigation.  Laura Linney plays Sully's wife whom we only see communicating with him via phone.  Still, Linney manages to give a solid performance as a concerned wife who tries to comfort her husband from afar.  Hanks is the real star here though.  This movie is nothing without him.  I'm pretty sure Tom will end up getting his 6th!?!? Oscar nod next year.  This is not his best-ever performance but it is one of his most effortless one.  He eases into this role and is able to emote concern, regret, doubt and authority all at the same time.  The audience is with Tom through this entire journey and we never doubt his intentions and authenticity along the way.

This movie is gripping at times and an interesting dissection of the role of the NTSB and the media in shaping the narrative of a real American hero.  The biggest drawback I had with the movie is that the jumping around in the timeline seemed to be more distracting than anything.  I would have enjoyed it more if Eastwood had played the events in sequence (as Paul Greengrass did in the excellent and superior United 93).  In reality though, that's just a small blemish in an otherwise excellent movie.  A strong 4 out of 5 JRs for Sully, one of Eastwood's better films and a reminder that the 60-year-old who starred in Bosom Buddies might be the most talented living actor we have.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Hell or High Water - Bonus Reviews

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan crafted one of the better film stories of 2015 with Sicario, a gripping thriller about he US/Mexican drug war.  In 2016, another Sheridan screenplay hits the big screen under the careful crafty direction of David MacKenzie.  Hell or High Water is a modern-day Western about bank-robbing brothers with an amazing cast and vast open visuals.  It is simply the very best film I've seen in 2016 so-far.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as brothers in Texas who attempt a string of bank robberies in order to get enough money to save their late Mother's ranch from foreclosure.  Foster plays Tanner Howard the hotheaded just-out-of-prison loose cannon.  Often acting on impulse alone, it's not too hard to believe he's spent many a year behind bars.  His younger brother Toby (Pine) is the brains behind the operation and is simply looking to earn a little extra cash to pay child support to his ex-wife for his two sons.  The bulk of the movie centers on the robberies, escapes and the steps the brothers have to go through to launder the money and keep from getting caught.

In pursuit of the two brothers is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton played by Jeff Bridges.  Nearing retirement, Hamilton is out to achieve justice for one last time before he retires to his front porch.  Bridges is absolutely incredible in this role.  Similar to his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart, he delivers marble-mouthed old-time old-man dialogue that flows perfectly on the big screen.  His mannerisms scream that he's nearing the end of his rope but there's this underlying resolve and determination that make you empathize with the character.  Bridges simply gives one of the very best performance of his career in this film.  Pine and Foster have great chemistry and this is probably Pine's best work of his career.  He really has showed a great deal of range over the past few years in cinema.

MacKenzie lets the West speak for itself in this movie with long sequences of wide-open land shots and gritty small town slices of life.  Rather than dress any set up, it seems that McKenzie simply rolled in with his film crew and started shooting immediately. The authentic gritty look of the film helps add a sense of realism and draws the audience in to the action on screen.  The dialogue throughout seems so natural and unrehearsed.  It's amazing to see such polish and craft from a totally unknown Scottish director.

This movie paces along perfectly and the tension it builds towards the final sequences is unbelievable.  I dare you to try to take a calming breath during the police roadblock scene near the end of the film.  MacKenzie and his uber-talented cast of A-plus actors help make this film one that simply can't be missed.  This movie is still playing in most theaters.  Do yourself a favor and go see Bridges, Foster and Pine at the top of their game in a supremely entertaining movie.  5 out of 5 JRs for Hell or High Water, a film that needs to be recognized come Oscar time.


Three other one paragraph reviews of films I've seen in the past few days:

Jason Bourne - 3 JRs - Another Paul Greengrass shaky-cam special.  Damon is solid as usual in the lead role and the Vegas car chase is nearly worth the price of admission alone.  The motives are not totally clear here and the tech is completely fabricated and laughable at times.  Mr. Robot has set the standard for plausible IT in TV/Film and Bourne falls way short of that bar.

Kubo and the Two Strings - 3 JRs - A stop motion animation film set in Japan, this movie is beautiful to watch but the plot is a bit convoluted and tired at times.  My kids really loved it but I was bored occasionally.  Decent voice acting from a talented cast but this really isn't one of the better animated films I've seen this year.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mid-Summer Mini Review Bonanza

I apologize, but things have been busy this Summer and I haven't had a chance to give the full review treatment for all the films I've seen lately.  I'll try to make it up to you all with a few small mini reviews of the last 5 films I've seen in the theater over the past month.  Some were really good and some were pretty bad, and here they are in chronological order of viewing.

The Nice Guys

Teaming up Russel Crowe with Ryan Gosling in a retro buddy-cop movie seems like a good idea on paper.  The execution is mixed though and under the shaky direction of Shane Black (Iron Man 3), the final product is a little disappointing.  Both leads are good but the movie is not as funny as it's trying to be and the plot is really convoluted and boring at times.  This is a movie I really have no interest in seeing again.  2.5 / 5 JR Rating

Independence Day: Resurgence

Oh man is this movie a mess.  The public wasn't really clamoring for a sequel to the classic 1996 ID4, but director Roland Emmerich made sure we got it anyways.  Jeff Goldblum and a handful of returning characters are back 20 years later to help.  This includes a grizzled old Bill Pullman as the ex-POTUS, Brent Spiner as that crazy annoying scientist and three totally throwaway appearances by Vivica Fox, Judd Hirsch and Robert Loggia in a brief appearance in what very well might be his LAST film (dude looks like he's about to keel over).  Hirsch's character in particular is totally forced into a useless side-plot where he outruns a giant wave and spends half the movie driving a school bus filled with random kids cross-country.    The big problem is that Will Smith is not one of those back for this go-around (WISE move on his part) and the movie's plot makes sure we KNOW about it with CONSTANT references to his character including having his son take on a lead role in the film.  Add in easily the WORST performance of Liam Hemsworth's young career and you have a steaming pile of crap.  The story stinks, the acting stinks and ONLY a solid special effects sequence in the final act saves this from getting ZERO JRs.  To make matters worse, the ending features everyone getting together and saying they want to go find and kill the evil aliens in ANOTHER movie.  You can count me out this time.  Avoid this at all costs!  0.5 / 5 JR Rating


I wasn't wild about this concept when I heard about it and the trailers for the film did not entice me at all.  I still decided to go see it (yay MoviePass!) and I have to say it was a LITTLE better than what the trailers make it out to be.  That being said, this movie simply didn't need to exist.  Not even close to the quality/humor of the first two, this film spends too much time on special effects and a forced plot that features an annoying little evil loner.  Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the best part of the film and there are some good laughs here and there.  Be prepared to see an awful lot of forced cameos from the original cast that simply bloats the movie.  I was entertained at times but I don't need to see this again and I'm NOT excited for a sequel.  3 / 5 JR Rating 

The Secret Life of Pets

Crafted by the same team that brought us Despicable Me and Minions, this story of what pets do when their owners are not around is a real joy to watch.  To put it simple, this is a VERY funny animated film with a good story, great voice acting (including a scene-stealing turn by Kevin Hart as a bad-ass bunny) and some stellar animation.  This is easily the funniest computer animated movie I've seen since Lego Movie and should get an Oscar nom for Best Animated Feature.  For those of you who have seen it, the sausage-land scene is worth the price of admission alone.  4 / 5 JR Rating

Star Trek Beyond

When the trailer for this film first came out it looked like a total disaster.  Directed by Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame, it seemed like one big action film and looked nothing like a typical Star Trek film.  Thankfully, the trailer was all off and while there is indeed a lot of great action, the plot, acting and pacing of this 3rd film in the reboot series is easily the BEST of the bunch.  Having spent two films laying down the groundwork for having this cast gel together, we are able to see the entire cast react to a classic stand-alone Star Trek plot.  There are several nods to the old television series including a fond farewell to Leonard Nimoy.  Unfortunately, the ghost of the recently deceased Anton Yelchin is on screen a lot and while Anton's performance as Chekov is excellent as usual, you can't help but watch him like a hawk in his scenes knowing he is no longer with us.  I do like the recent idea that came out in the news of not re-casting Checkov in future films as a credit to the young actor gone too soon.  Chris Pine, Zach Quinto and (in his funniest performance yet) Karl Urban are spot-on reprising their iconic roles as Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  The added shine that makes Beyond such a good film is the addition of two new characters.  Sofia Boutella plays a new alien named Jaylah who ends up helping the Enterprise crew.  Her makeup and costume design is awesome and Boutella's performance is a fresh and welcome addition to the Star Trek universe.  I hope she stays on in future films.  Idris Elba plays the role of Krall, the latest franchise villain and gives the character a fierce determined presence.  Towards the end of the film when Elba is allowed to give a real unencumbered performance, he shines and proves he's one of the better actors working today.  This is one of the most entertaining and well crafted films of the year and totally raises the street cred of Justin Lin.  4.5 / 5 JR Rating

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reviews: Central Intelligence, Finding Dory

Kevin Hart is a one trick pony these days.  He consistently stars in buddy comedies as the short, manic African American alongside a funny, TALLER partner.  Having performed on-screen shenanigans with Will Ferrell, Ice Cube, Josh Gad and other comedic talents, Hart is fortunately good at what he does and I find him to be very funny overall as a comedian.  Thankfully his partner in Central Intelligence is the supremely talented Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) who gives a flawless comedic performance and balances Hart perfectly.  The result is one of the funnier movies of the year and a reminder to all of us that The Rock is cemented as a legitimate actor in today's Hollywood landscape.

Hart plays Calvin Joyner, a former high-school star athlete and homecoming king who is stuck in a boring accounting job 20-year-later with a troubled marriage.  The Rock stars as Bob Stone, a former fat kid who was picked on and bullied at the same high school but grew up to be and a is-he-or-isn't-he CIA agent.  Joyner and Stone get mixed up in a national security snafu as they meet us for a 20-year high school reunion.  Amy Ryan plays the CIA operative who tries to track down the whereabouts of Stone.  Hart as always plays the scared fish-out-of-water character perfectly and the audience can totally relate to his Joyner character as he tries to make sense of all the craziness that occurs during the movie.  The real star here though is Johnson who does a great job of playing a happy-go-lucky dimwitted big guy with a heart of gold.  His awe-shucks demeanor is refreshing and you really see his range as an actor.  Unlike Hart's one-note performances, The Rock bring unique characteristics to most of his roles.

The film is paced well and features a variety of quality cameos including Jason Bateman as the older version of the bully who picked on The Rock in high school, and Aaron Paul as a CIA agent.  NOTE: There is a line towards the end of the film that gives a great shout out to Jessie Pinkman from Breaking Bad.  Another note to mention is that the CGI early in the film that shows The Rock's face superimposed on an overweight actor is pretty awful.  All of those sequences are critical to the film's plot but I couldn't help but find the visual effects to be distracting and definitely not well-executed.

This movie is worth a rental for sure (don't really need to see something like this in the theater) and it sets itself up for a sequel down the line.  I laughed a lot throughout and give Hart's latest effort a 4 out of 5 JR rating.  It's good to see The Rock balance comedy with action (Fast & Furious franchise) and I expect him to be a very busy man on-screen over the next decade.  He currently has the charm and physical skill set to work on big budget films like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his prime.

Finding Dory is the latest offering from the Pixar machine and yet another sequel.  (If you love Pixar sequels, get ready because Cars 3 and Toy Story 4 are two of the next three offerings from the Lamp Laboratory)  Andrew Stanton is back in the director's chair and he submerges us once again in the underwater world of Nemo, Marlin, Dory and other sea creatures who return from the first film Finding Nemo.  Voice actors Ellen DeGeneres (Dory) and Albert Brooks (Marlin) return along with a new cast of characters including Hank the Octopus (voiced by Ed O'Neill), Destiny the nearsighted Whale Shark (voiced by Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the Beluga (voiced by Ty Burrell although I was 100% sure when watching the film that it was Jim Gaffigan in that role).

Themes of disability, fear and family are all touched on throughout the movie and the addition of Hank and some other new characters are welcome additions but the overall synopsis is a little similar to the first film.  Instead of tracking down Nemo, Dory and friends are tracking down Dory's lost parents.  The journey brings Dory to the Marine Life Institute (an aquarium/research center on the coast of California in which Sigourney Weaver's voice narrates the action) which features a variety of exhibits that Dory gets mixed up in.  The highlight of which is a children's touch area where little rugrats try to touch Dory and her friends in a humorous setup that makes children's fingers look like objects of war.  Dory must overcome her disabilities, work with her friends and try to escape the Institute and find her parents in the process.  The end sequence featuring a crazy truck-chase (yes, a land-based truck chase) is well executed and the final action scenes are shot beautifully along the California coastline.  Hank is probably the best part of the film as his character gives the Pixar animators a lot to work with due to his tentacle-powered movements and ability to camouflage within any environment.

This movie is entertaining and I had fun seeing it with my kids on Father's Day, but I just found myself looking for more from Pixar.  There isn't much revolutionary in this film and while everything looks great under the sea and in the Marine Life Institute, I wasn't really blown away by what I was watching.  Inside Out was a far superior and more original film and I really can't give Finding Dory much more than a 3.5 out of 5 JR rating.  It's kind of a shame that the now #1 animated movie opening weekend belongs to a so-so sequel instead of a more deserving entry.  In fact I think I might have liked February's Zootopia a little bit more than this movie.

BONUS Netflix Review for the movie Creep that was recommended to me by one of my friends and co-workers.  Mark Duplass (who can really do no wrong in my book) plays a man with terminal cancer who lives in a cabin in a remote area.  Director Patrick Brice plays a videographer hired by Duplass' character to film his last few moments of life for his unborn son to see.  The movie is essentially a found-footage mystery with a few jump scares and a dark plot.  I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't seen it but Duplass does a great job of being "creepy" and demented and the movie churns along at a brisk pace (only 76 minutes long) leading to a satisfying/disturbing ending.  This is small-budget gem and another reason to watch anything that Duplass is involved with (even if HBO TAKES IT AWAY FROM YOU!!!!). I don't give ratings for rental films of previous-run movies I see on Netflix, but this movie would probably get a solid 4 out of 5.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: The Conjuring 2

Most horror fans I know really liked James Wan's 2013 70's fright fest The Conjuring.  The premise was simple, a husband and wife investigate a haunted house that is affecting a family in Rhode Island.  The couple (real life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren), played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, tries to perform an exorcism on the Mother of the family (Lili Taylor).  I thought it was rather average for a horror film (3 JRs) but I really didn't find it overly scary or creepy.  With Wan's follow up, The Conjuring 2, featuring the same two lead paranormal investigators and using plot lines ripped from actual events in London, England, everything seems to be kicked up a notch in the creep factor thanks to a demonically possessed 11 year-old and a trio of evil manifestations.

The sequel picks up shortly after the original ends.  Ed and Lorraine are continuing their careers as paranormal experts and appearing on various talk shows as others try to debunk their work as elaborate hoaxes.  When a family in a row house in London (a single Mother, two sons and two daughters) start experiencing strange occurrences at home including moving chairs, teleportation, loud noises and possession of daughter Janet, word spreads and the Warrens make a visit across the pond to investigate.  The bulk of the film consists of the paranormal investigation and attempts to interview the possessed subject and find out if everything that is going on is real or a hoax.  Wan does a great job of using long takes to prolong the creep factor.  I actually jumped a few times but most of the scares are atmospherical and not cheap.  A scene in particular where Wilson is talking with the spirit through Janet is shot with an altered depth of field in a single take so when Janet speaks in a demonic voice, she is blurred in the background while we see Wilson's face the whole time and can focus on his reactions.

In comparison with the first movie, I believe I found the sequel to be much more frightening because of the different levels of evil manifested on-screen.  Without giving much away in the spoiler department the film employs (in order of least-to-most disturbing) a creepy deceased 72-year-old man who is trying to possess Janet, an evil nun-man with a demonic pale face that somewhat resembles Marilyn Manson and The Crooked Man, a tall skinny Slenderman type of childhood character come to life.  All three "monsters" are scary in their own right, but Wan uses them sparingly in just the right amount of screen time to make them very effective.  The Crooked Man moves really erratically and I was sure the effects were done via CGI, but I have since read about a tall skinny actor named Javier Botet who plays the creature.  Real life practical effects are always a welcome sight in the horror genre.  In contrasting the two films, the difference really is in the subjects of possession.  The Conjuring had a middle-aged woman being possessed by a demon.  The Conjuring 2 has an 11-year-old girl being possessed by a deep-voiced old man.  I'm sorry, but Exorcist-style possession always trumps adult possession for me.  Seeing a child affected the way Janet is in this movie is far more disturbing as a viewer.

The acting is solid throughout.  Farmiga emotes well on her character's fears of the supernatural and on the premonitions of her husband's death.  Wilson is great as a father-figure and gives a few scenes of some well-needed comic relief, including a hilarious line that references the bulky videography equipment of the era.  Two actresses who shined in the early 2000's give good performances in supporting roles.  Franka Potente plays a skeptical scientist in the first time I've seen her on-screen since Run Lola Run and Frances O'Connor plays the mother of the family in the first role I've seen her in since being Haley Joel Osment's Mom in A.I.  Madison Wolfe does a fabulous job of playing Janet with a mix of innocence and fright.  Without her believable performance, the movie would not be as effective as a whole.

James Wan seems to be the new master of horror.  His most recent films have all been relatively well received (including a turn at the helm of the Fast and Furious franchise).  I wouldn't mind seeing a third Conjuring film down the line and judging by early box office receipts, I'm thinking New Line will be heading in that direction.  This movie should be seen in the theater and is a must-see for EVERY true horror movie fan.  Not only is The Conjuring 2 the scariest movie I've seen this year by far (take THAT!, The Witch), it is simply the BEST movie of 2016 to-date.  A near perfect 4.5 out of 5 JRs for a disturbing time in London.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Reviews: X-Men: Apocalypse, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping

Today I bring you two new reviews from two movies with a colon in the title.  We'll start with Bryan Singer's latest mutant-fest X-Men: Apocalypse, the SIXTH X-Men ensemble film in the franchise and the fourth directed by Singer.  This movie picks up where X Men: Days of Future Past left off.  Proffesor X (James McAvoy) is back in school leading a new class of mutants including the return of some favorites from the original trilogy (Cyclops, Nightcrawler and  Jean Gray - played by Sophie Turner aka Sansa Stark from GOT), and a few memorable returning characters from the previous film led by the very entertaining Quicksilver (Evan Peters).  He ends up doing battle with an ancient mutant named Apocalypse from ancient Egypt played with gusto by the current it-actor Oscar Isaac.  The entire mutant squad ends up banding together and doing battle with big bad Oscar in a plot that's not all that original.

The CGI and the action are decent overall and the story is pretty entertaining but just like Captain America: Civil War, we suffer from superhero bloat in this film.  There are just too many mutants to keep track of and some extra character we really don't care about.  I don't know why Rose Byrne was even written into this film.  Her character simply gets in the way and we never get a proper back story (well those of us who are not comic book nerds).  As for the acting, Michael Fassbender as Magneto is at the top of his game.  He has some great sequences of personal grief and you keep thinking to yourself that he is above this genre of film and should be hunting a long overdue Oscar elsewhere.  Speaking of Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence is back for her third spin as Mystique/Raven and from what I could tell she seems to be checked-out of this series.  I just don't think she "fits" in these films anymore.  Her range is so much broader than the source material and it almost comes off as she's not being challenged enough in these roles.  A lot of the "new/returning" mutants are well cast (even Storm isn't THAT bad), but there's one glaring problem and it lies in Olivia Munn's acting.  As Psylocke (a character I had never heard of before this movie BTW), she doesn't have many lines to deliver and she looks good for the most part but her character just seems forced and TOTALLY not needed.  She really doesn't even do much until the final battle sequence and I just felt that she was stuffed in to give some added eye candy.  I really do think that in the next franchise installment there needs to be some thinning of the mutants.  Less is more.

So, yes this movie is entertaining and it does fit well in the overall X-Men universe but it's not particularly memorable.  Despite a lot of good action sequences and some much needed comic relief from Quicksilver and Nightcrawler this movie just didn't live up to my expectations overall.  The film needs to be a little shorter and not have Olivia Munn in it but as-is, I can only give it 3.5 out of 5 JRs.  Civil War was definitely better and I'm kinda personally tapped-out on comic book movies for a while.

Saturday Night Live has without a doubt contributed the most to comedy in film over the past few decades.  Some of the best comedic movies in recent memory probably have at least one SNL cast member involved.  One of the better recent exports is Andy Samberg and his two buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer that form The Lonely Island.  The trio is let go and not restrained in any way in their latest collaboration Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, a This is Spinal Tap take on the boyband/pop era of music.  The movie comes off as a sequence of SNL Digital Short sketches that are very funny and witty and serve as a showcase for the collective creativity of The Lonely Island.  In fact, one of the song sequences from the film was already released as a Digital Short on a recent episode of SNL.

Directed by Schaffer and Taccone, Pop Star brings the audience into the ridiculous life of Samberg as Conner 4 Real, a solo pop artist who recently broke from his rap trio The Style Boyz (Schaffer and Taccone once again).  All of the production excess and bloated entourage that Conner employs is lampooned to great heights. There are quite a lot of cameos that play along with the proceedings including Seal, Michael Bolton, Simon Cowell, Adam Levine, Snoop Dogg and countless others.  The movie itself is a hard R, with a lot of cursing (fuck yeah!) and one really awkward but hysterical scene showing full frontal male nudity for a minute or two too long.  The acting is pretty solid for a comedy (including a LOT of supporting SNL stars) and relative unknown Chris Redd shines as Conner's opening rap act on tour Hunter the Hungry.  Samberg and company don't take themselves very seriously and if you do the same, you'll find this movie very funny.

What makes this movie better than what we see on screen is the movie soundtrack itself.  Even though The Lonely Island is clearly goofing on pop music throughout, the songs themselves are actually quite catchy and hilarious to listen too outside of the theater.  I was set to give this movie a solid 3.5 rating but the next day I spent my morning commute listening to song after song from the film and laughing my ass off.  Everything is over the top and there is this perfect amount of randomness to The Lonely Island's humor that it totally works for me.  The end product is a very entertaining (albeit brief) parody of the pop music landscape.  A 4 out of 5 JRs for one of the funniest movies of 2016 thus far.  These three talented friends and comedians should now have free reign to continue to collaborate and create quality comedy at a larger scale.  You can probably wait for video on this one though as most of the film comes off as a Digital Short that you would usually watch on TV anyways.