Passengers (Full Review)

1 + 1 = 2. Simple math. But movies don’t work that way. One great actor, plus another great actor, plus an intriguing concept should equate to a good movie. Unfortunately, sometimes even when a film has all of these factors working for it, a multitude of other things can keep it from being as triumphant as we want it to be. Passengers, is an ‘A’ movie concept, with ‘C’ level execution.

passengers_2016_film_posterThe film takes place in a distant future where space ships ferry humans off to live on different colonized worlds. These trips take decades and often centuries, so the passengers are meant to be kept in cryogenic sleep until they’re months away from their destination. Enter Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), one of over 5,000 passengers aboard the Avalon. Jim is awakened 90 years too soon from his cryogenic sleep after the Avalon collides with a meteor that triggers a slow wave of malfunctions. With an android bar tender as his only companion (Martin Sheen), Jim slowly falls into a deep depression with the realization that he cannot be put back to sleep. That is until journalist Aurora Lane (Jenifer Lawrence) is also awakened. Alone on a randomly malfunctioning ship, the two fall in love until a dark secret threatens their relationship.

The best thing the film has going for it is Chris Pratt. Pratt has the charisma to carry a movie on his own and manages to personify all of the most emotional moments in the movie much better than his co-star. Lawrence isn’t bad by any stretch and the two have wonderful chemistry that makes their love story seem genuine, which is important considering there aren’t many other characters ever on screen. But, Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora seems a bit boring and the movie could almost be more interesting without her. Her presence and the montage that depicts the happier moments of their romance, actually manage to undermine the more enjoyable Cast Away-like tone that the movie establishes when it’s just Pratt onscreen.

But the most significant reason Passengers disappoints revolves around the film’s latter half. The philosophically intriguing twist that engulfs the movie’s middle is barely explored and seemingly tossed aside in the end to make things feel happier, but much more formulaic. The feelings and moral complexities conjured between the characters as a result of the twist could’ve and should’ve been the focal point of the movie. Instead, it feels like a footnote on a film that is essentially Space Titanic.

The climax is filled with action sequences as the two try to fix the ship in ways that seem preposterous even for a science fiction film. Then there’s Laurence FIshburne’s wasted character Gus, the ship’s captain. The character is a commanding, yet calming presence, but isn’t onscreen long enough to be anything other than a plot device meant to forward the arc of the main actors.

The effects are solid and there are plenty of exciting moments to go along with the solid performances. But Passengers could’ve been a film as psychologically stimulating as Arrival. Instead it settles for being a Nicolas Sparks movie with a generic blockbuster ending. And while that may be entertaining for some, it’s disappointing for anyone who hoped to see something unique.

FINAL GRADE: C

Passengers (Full Review)

Sing (Full Review)

It’s been quite the year for animated movies. Disney set the bar high with three fantastic films in Zootopia, Finding Dory, and Moana. But Illumination (the folks behind the Despicable Me franchise) showed that they could create a fun film without minions with this summer’s Secret Life of Pets. Now they close out the year with Sing, an exciting concept aided by a stellar voice cast.

sing_2016_film_posterSing is the simple story of Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a down on his luck koala bear whose rundown theater is about to be taken due to bankruptcy. His last ditch effort is to have a singing competition with a collection of vocally talented locals. There’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), the gorilla son of an unsupportive gangster father, Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) a stressed pig housewife with 25 kids, Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a teenage porcupine who is chosen for the competition over her jealous guitar playing boyfriend, Mike (Seth McFarlane) a rude crooning street rat, Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with a massive case of stage fright, and a confidently flamboyant German pig named Gunter (Nick Kroll). With a talented group, Buster is poised to prove his sheep best friend (John C. Reilly) wrong, if only his elderly iguana secretary (Garth Jennings) hadn’t accidentally put a $100,000 reward on the audition flyers.

The movie breaks no new narrative ground, but that isn’t the purpose of Sing. Instead, it’s a thoroughly wonderful experience because of the different characters and their arcs. They are all interesting, funny, and loveable. And the music is sensational. If you aren’t familiar with the vocal splendor of Tori Kelly, then you’ll be in for a marvelous surprise. Her voice is angelic and her shy, wholesome character is the heart and soul of a film filled with soulful characters.

The holidays should be about family and fun, and for that reason Sing manages to be a triumph without any fresh twists or turns. It delivers what it promises and gives some hefty laughs and heartwarming moments along the way. So while it might not be Academy award worthy, anyone who comes out of Sing without a smile on their face went in for the wrong reasons.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Sing (Full Review)

Moana (Full Review)

Back in 2010 Disney’s Tangled wound up being a surprise hit and thankfully resurrected the animated musical. Then in 2013, Frozen took the world by storm and fully solidified the return of the genre. Now that the animated musical’s swagger is back, the family juggernaut that is Disney is free to explore realms outside of the common fairy tale, like the story of a Polynesian princess for instance.

moana_teaser_posterMoana tells the story of the young daughter of an island chief. While her father wants her to accept the structured lifestyle of a future leader, Moana (voiced by newcomer Auil’i Cravalho) just wants to explore the wonders of the sea. When darkness starts to fall on their island, killing vegetation and scaring away their supply of fish, Moana’s quirky grandmother (Rachel House) inspires her to follow her dreams and search for the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who they believe can restore a magic gem to a legendary island and save their home.

The films features all of the things we’ve come to love about the best Disney films. The characters are all memorable and magnificent. Though not much different from other female Disney heroines in story arc, Moana is a loveable and feisty lead who still holds a warm vulnerability that makes her relatable to audiences. Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is a perfect counterpart. The character has a comedic brashness accentuated by a funny sentient upper body tattoo. Even minor characters, like Moana’s Grandma Tala and a dimwitted chicken are wonderful every second they are on screen.

The music, which was written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is mostly solid. The opening song is a catchy and beautiful chorus that sets the bar high but by the end some songs, like one performed by a giant hording crab (Jemaine Clement), are a bit forgettable. Nevertheless, the movie makes up for any lagging music or cliche story elements with dazzling animation and captivating visuals that perfectly capture the unique world and rich culture of Polynesia.

But what makes Moana the most unique are its endearing characters each with amiable flaws that allow for growth and great chemistry. Carried by strong voice acting and a fun story filled with humor and adventure, Disney has once again created another classic. It’s been a strong year for animated family films, maybe the strongest ever, and Moana manages to put itself on par with the best of the best.

FINAL GRADE: A

Moana (Full Review)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Full Review)

Like George Lucas creating Star Wars or J.R.R. Tolkein creating the Lord of the Rings, inventing an entire fictional world is no easy task. For that reason alone, J.K. Rowling deserves a seat at the table with the rest of the geniuses of creative fiction. I’ve always been a huge fan of Rowling’s (despite never reading a single Harry Potter book) based on the intricacies of the characters and stories in the eight Harry Potter films. So it only made sense for Rowling to offer up another window into her wizarding world in a new era and with brand new characters.

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_posterLoosely based on a novelized version of Harry Potter’s fictional textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a magizoologist who keeps, rescues, and studies magical creatures. His exploits lead him to 1920’s New York where running into a non-wizard factory worker at the bank (Dan Fogler) leads to several of his secret creatures getting loose. When Tina (Katherine Waterston), a demoted former official for the U.S. Magical Congress, and her telepathic witch sister (Alison Tudol) learn of Scamander and his escaped magical animals, they join to help locate them before the already tense relations between wizards and non-wizards leads to war.

There are several suplots in Fantastic Beasts that may make the film feel muddled, especially for newcomers to J.K. Rowling’s universe. One involves an awkward teen (Ezra Miller) being torn between witch hunting with his abusive adoptive mother and helping the film’s primary antagonist (Colin Farrell) track down a dark entity. But the movie really works best when it focuses on Scamander’s search for his lost creatures instead of building an overarching subplot for inevitable sequels.

All of the beasts are fun and interesting from a platypus-like creature that loves to steal anything shiny to a rhinoceros-like beast in dire desire to mate. And all of the best scenes in the movie highlight Scamander’s love for and interaction with these creatures. Eddie Redmayne is born for the role, portraying Scamander with the perfect dose of endearing social awkwardness and genuine heart. As a result, Newt Scamander is an inherently likable character that is different enough from anything we saw in the Harry Potter franchise.

As for the supporting cast, they’re hit or miss. Waterston’s Tina comes off as more annoying than interesting and Tudol’s Queenie Goldstein is pretty and quirky but does little more than make heart eyes at Fogler’s character. Colin Farrel’s villain Percival Graves starts off as an intriguing character with mysterious motivations, but by the end he becomes a sniveling, watered down and less intimidating version of Voldermort. The most enjoyable supporting human in the film is easily Dan Folger’s Jacob Kowalski who provides some fun physical comedy and a fairly charming back story.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends up being a fun and mystifying, albeit overstuffed, introduction into a whole new narrative within an already intriguing universe. No, this is NOT Harry Potter and anyone who goes in thinking otherwise may come out disappointed. Pacing and characters are much different than they were in the Potter films, but the tone is still there and along with a loveable protagonist there’s enough to enjoy this movie and look forward to the future adventures of Newt Scamander.

FINAL GRADE: B

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Full Review)

Almost Christmas (Full Review)

almost_christmas_filmYou know it’s the holiday season when a family Christmas movie comes out. Something about seeing family dysfunction on the big screen brings out folks in droves. This year’s entry is Almost Christmas¸ a movie about as generic as its title. But just because a movie follows a cliché script doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

Almost Christmas stars Danny Glover as Walter Myers, a widowed father of four hoping his family can be civil for their first Christmas since the passing of his wife. His oldest daughter Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) is a doctor whose husband (J.B. Smoove) is a former basketball player with a wandering eye for a grocery store clerk (Keri Hilson). Cheryl also can’t seem to get along with her younger sister, Rachel (Gabrielle Union) a divorced single mother with middle child syndrome who is too proud to accept the advances of her high school best friend (Omar Epps). Walter’s oldest son, Christian (Romany Malco) is a husband (to Nicole Ari Parker) and father of two. He is also running for Congress and can’t help but bring along his annoying campaign manager (John Michael Higgins). The youngest of the siblings is Evan (Jessie Usher), a college football star coping with injuries and his mother’s passing by abusing pain pills. And then there’s Aunt May (Mo’Nique), Walter’s loud, foul mouthed sister in law.

As mentioned, the plot is about as systemic as any movie in the genre. A decade from now, it’ll be hard not to confuse this movie with This Christmas or even Best Man Holiday. From a cheating husband and petty sibling rivalry, to the all too common scene where the family inevitably dances to old school R&B, the movie does little to distance itself from the films that came before it. If not for Mo’Nique’s hilarious performance, the movie would be incredibly forgettable.

But things do pick up when all of their subplots come to a head. The final act is filled with the best laughs thanks in large part to J.B. Smoove’s cheating ways being exposed at Christmas dinner. The raw emotion of everyone finally dealing with the loss of a loved one is endearing even if it is a standard story arc. All in all, while it isn’t a classic by any stretch, Almost Christmas manages to be heartfelt and comical enough for the family to enjoy. After all, being with loved ones during the holidays is what makes the holidays, even when it’s basically the same thing over and over again.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Almost Christmas (Full Review)

The Hateful Eight (Full Review)

I consider myself a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite films of all time, and I absolutely loved the Kill Bill movies, Django Unchained, Inglorious Bastards, and Reservoir Dogs. But 2007’s Death Proof, his only film I flat out despise, also showed me that the films by the stylistic director can sometimes be an acquired taste if you’re not used to him and irksome even if you are.

The_Hateful_EightTarantino’s newest film, The Hateful Eight, takes place in post-Civil War Wyoming where union soldier turned Bounty Hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) crosses paths with famed Bounty Hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his $10,000 bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the midst of a blizzard. The weather causes the two men and the prisoner to seek refuge in a small haberdashery with a dopey, newly elected Sheriff (Walton Goggins), an English hangman (Tim Roth), a quiet loner (Michael Madsen), an old Confederate General (Bruce Dern), and a Mexican caretaker (Demian Bichir). But it doesn’t take long for the two bounty hunters to realize that one of their new counterparts is in cahoots with their prisoner.

The film serves mostly as an old western/mystery. That unique quality alone makes it intriguing. But it does feature all of the things many find irksome about Tarantino’s films. For one thing, the director is excessively methodical, from the film’s dialogue to the often 90 second tracking shots, it’s clear QT has no respect for your notions of a proper film’s runtime. Then there’s Tarantino’s trademark gore and rampant use of the ‘N-word’, neither of which bother me and if you saw and liked Django Unchained, they shouldn’t surprise or distract you either.

Negatives aside, as I mentioned before, I consider myself a fan of Tarantino. And as such, I can recognize all of the elements that make him, in my mind, one of the best working Directors in film. From the costumes, to the attention to character details, to the scenery, The Hateful Eight carries an authenticity and tangible nature about it that makes it feel as if you’re right there with the characters. The acting is also solid, thanks to wonderfully charismatic performances by Jackson, Russell, Goggins, and Roth as well as a gross and gritty, yet lovable job by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tarantino then the violence and three hour runtime with often slow pacing will make you want to leave halfway through The Hateful Eight. But if you’re familiar with the director’s style, then there’s plenty to love about his eighth film. It’s certainly no Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but the latest film is certainly another worthy addition to Tarantino’s impressive archive.

FINAL GRADE: B+

The Hateful Eight (Full Review)

Secret In Their Eyes/The Night Before Reviews

Secret_in_Their_Eyes_posterSECRET IN THEIR EYES Who said Holiday films have to be bright and cheerful? In Secret in Their Eyes, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) stars as an FBI agent obsessed with finding the rapist and murderer of his partner’s (Julia Roberts) daughter. Nicole Kidman co-stars as a District Attorney and Ejiofor’s love interest. Teetering between murder mystery and suspense thriller, the film reaches Prisoners level darkness without quite reaching that same intrigue.

Ejiofor and Roberts are hauntingly strong in their roles as two characters whose senses of morality falter with each failed attempt to bring the suspected killer (Joe Cole) to justice. In fact, essentially every character in the film gets their hands dirty, making most of the characters interesting enough to account for the film’s relatively scattered pacing. The narrative issues are due in large part to a constant switching between past and present that the movie could’ve done without. Still, passionate leads and an unexpected, albeit twisted, ending help make Secret in Their Eyes decent time well spent if you’ve already caught the major releases. FINAL GRADE: B-

TheNightBefore2015posterTHE NIGHT BEFORE ‘Tis the season for family comedies, but every once in a while, myself and other slightly immature adults, are treated to a raunchy ‘R’ rated holiday film. This year that film… made specifically for the Family Guy watchers and those who can’t get enough of Evan Goldberg movies… is The Night Before. This drug filled, profanity laden comedy features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a single New Yorker in his 30’s looking to have his last Christmas Eve party night with the two best friends who helped him through the death of his parents: A star athlete with a dirty secret (Anthony Mackie) and a soon to be father on the verge of a mental breakdown (Seth Rogen).

As you should be able to tell from my description, this is a real niche film. If you hated This Is The End or last winter’s would-be comedy The Interview, then you’ll be disgusted by The Night Before. The rest of us with a good sense of humor will find this movie hysterical from start to finish. Michael Shannon, as a former janitor turned wise Christmas sage/drug dealer is alone worth the price of admission. Well timed cameos and fun, yet surprisingly heartfelt chemistry between the three lead actors make The Night Before good enough to excuse a narrative that seems as if it’s making things up as it goes. FINAL GRADE: B+

Secret In Their Eyes/The Night Before Reviews