The 15:17 to Paris (Full Review)

A true story. The real heroes. You certainly can’t fault director Clint Eastwood for his fervor on this one. But there’s a reason actors are in movies. Actors are professionals at conveying emotion and creating an atmosphere that doesn’t make it obvious you’re not watching something that is staged. Despite a worthy subject matter, The 15:17 to Paris isn’t as compelling as it wants to be.

The_15.17_to_ParisIn 2015, two American soldiers and their civilian best friend stop a terrorist attack aboard a train while vacationing in Europe. The film delves into the back story of Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, exploring how they became friends and their struggles to go from juvenile delinquents to brave heroes. Rather than use actors in the main roles, the three men play themselves.

Knowing what they did to gain notoriety, it’s certainly easier to forgive the three leads for their terrible acting. But virtually every performance in this film feels wooden and cheesy. The dialogue doesn’t feel genuine and it constantly feels like everyone involved is struggling not to look at the camera. Poor writing is accompanied by a dull overall story. Instead of focusing on things that matter, the movie features scenes that are meaningless to the overall story which makes the movie ultimately boring with the lack of engaged performances.

It takes literally an hour and a half for 15:17 to Paris to actually become interesting when the heroic event is finally reenacted. But unless you feel like watching botched military try outs and empty banter between guys watching sports or at a bar, you’ll have to fight to stay awake long enough to reach the climax. Maybe real actors might’ve helped, but a script with better focus on pertinent details and character development is likely the only thing that could’ve saved this dull retelling of actual heroism.

FINAL GRADE: D

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Winchester (Full Review)

There’s a reason I hardly ever review ghost stories. Hollywood seems to be obsessed with jump scares and operates under the assumption that using true events for inspiration is the best way to enthrall moviegoers. Not me. Winchester is basically everything I loathe about the genre rolled up into an hour and a half mess.

Winchester_(film)The Winchester estate is a real mansion located in San Jose, California. The story goes that Sarah Winchester (portrayed by Helen Mirren), a widow and heir to a gun manufacturing company in 1906, believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by the company’s weapons. To keep the unruly spirits at bay, she keeps the mansion under endless construction with halls, doors, and stair cases that lead nowhere. In this film, the company’s board of directors enlists drug addicted psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to give Sarah Winchester a psychiatric evaluation in hopes that they can strip her of ownership. Once invited into the mansion, he begins to experience the haunting for himself.

Let’s start with the scares, or lack thereof, in Winchester. Every single moment meant to frighten the audience is telegraphed beforehand thanks to the usual juvenile tactics of silence and unsubtle camera placement. And, like most films in the genre, these moments are few and far between. When they aren’t lazily yelling ‘Boo!’ at the screen, the movie sluggishly moves along with Jason Clarke’s dull, unlikable lead taking up screen time with a backstory you won’t care to remember.

The supporting cast is useless and forgettable and when the movie turns into a dark and lackluster version of Ghostbusters, it quickly nosedives into unwatchable territory. Despite such impressive talent in the lead roles and a somewhat eerie subject matter it feels like a squandered opportunity. But make no mistake, there is nothing entertaining or suspenseful about this story. You’d be better off just taking a trip to San Jose and walking through the real house at night.

FINAL GRADE: F

The Shape of Water (Full Review)

You can always recognize a Guillermo Del Toro film. The acclaimed director of HellBoy and Pan’s Labyrinth always carries a special aesthetic that usually involves unique creatures and gothic cinematography. His latest film, The Shape of Water, is a pleasant reminder of the charm he is also capable of bringing to his iconic brand of filmmaking.

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman in the 1960’s who lives above a movie theater and works janitorial night shifts at a secret government facility. When a South American humanoid is brought to the facility by a malevolent government agent (Michael Shannon), Elisa befriends and eventually falls in love with the amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones). With the help of her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her coworker (Octavia Spencer) and an undercover Russian scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), she embarks on a plan to help the creature, known as ‘The Asset”, escape.

A movie that teeters on being about bestiality certainly can be categorized as an odd film. But Del Toro’s story never manages to let its bizarre romance subvert its charm. Despite using only sign language, Sally Hawkins delivers a wholesome performance and makes her character’s unusual attraction to The Asset feel holistically human and genuine. Adding to the allure of the story is the supporting cast. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as Elisa’s artist neighbor who struggles with his sexuality while also trying to manage his friend’s dangerous ambition. Octavia Spencer works as the perfect companion and provides wonderful comedic timing as Elisa’s motor mouthed best friend.

Michael Shannon’s performance as the film’s villain is perhaps the greatest triumph of the film. His grotesque personality is accentuated with astute, yet subtle character development that makes him magnetic on screen even if you’re supposed to hate him. With hardly a dull moment, The Shape of Water manages to be a modern fairy tale that coupled with a sound score and gorgeous cinematography is a film easy to enjoy despite its many bizarre moments.

FINAL GRADE: B

Den of Thieves (Full Review)

Den of Thieves is a high stakes thriller with a band of ruthless cops facing off against a team of convicts. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets Training Day. Well… at least that’s what they were probably going for. If you’re going to make a movie like this, you’d better cover all ground, or else you’ll risk being an occasionally fun movie with enough holes to drive an armored truck through.

Den_of_Thieves_posterO’Shea Jackson Jr.  stars as Donnie, an ex-con who is recruited to join a group of former soldiers led by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) and Enson (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson). After a plot to steal an armored truck turns violent, they catch the attention of a team of vicious L.A. officers led by degenerate Nick O’Brien (Gerard Butler). Despite the police being on their tales, the crew of thieves prepares for an intricate plan to steal millions of dollars from the Federal Reserve.

There are moments in Den of Thieves that are truly intense and exciting. The cat and mouse game between Schreiber’s Merrimen and Butler’s ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien is fun to watch. Despite being a police officer, O’Brien is a demon of a character who cheats on his wife and breaks protocol at the drop of a hat with deadly consequences. This creates a film where there are no good or bad guys, but a bunch of characters with their own intriguing motivations.

But for all of the action and cheap thrills, this actually ends up being an egregiously faulty movie. The federal reserve heist, which starts off as an ingenious plan, unravels as it goes. The plan bounces from crafty to outright ridiculous and ends with several instances of poor planning that make you wonder how in the world they ever thought it could work. For instance, the thieves manage to brilliantly distract the entire L.A. police force and sneak into a heavily guarded bank but don’t account for traffic?

As a narrative, things get flimsy too often. There is far too much screen time attributed to O’Brien’s atrocious personal life. It’s necessary for character development to have a moment showing his failing marriage, but do we have to get several scenes reinforcing the fact? O’Shea’s Donnie is also recruited to be a Vin Diesel-esque getaway driver, but the skill is virtually unrelated to the overall plot. Then there’s ’50 Cent’s’ character. Placed in top billing, the character barely speaks and has an utterly irrelevant scene that is ripped straight out of Bad Boys II. A solid ending twist will help you enjoy Den of Thieves if you put forth minimal thought, just don’t expect anything groundbreaking from this one.

FINAL GRADE: C

The Post (Full Review)

Contrary to what some might have you believe these days, the purpose of the news media has always been to serve as a check on those in power. Never was that purpose more evident than in the early 1970’s in the midst of the controversial Vietnam War. Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post tells the story of the battle to uphold that right during the height of the newspaper industry.

The_Post_(film)Meryl Streep portrays Washington Post owner Katherine Graham who is thrust into the leadership role after her husband’s untimely suicide. Her high class social life of dining with politicians is threatened when a whistleblower reveals years of documents proving that several U.S. Presidents had been lying to the American people about the lack of success during the Vietnam War. After President Richard Nixon leads the charge for a court order forbidding the New York Times from publishing the documents, fiery Washington Post editor and chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) decides to challenge the court’s rulings by publishing the documents under the guise of Freedom of the Press. But to do so, he’ll need Graham’s permission.

The movie certainly drags for its first third as it sets up all of the need to know details of the classified documents and attempts to establish many of its dry characters. But once it zeroes in on its main topic, The Post finds its footing and becomes an intensely gripping film. Unsurprisingly, Streep and Hanks are homeruns in their roles. Streep is compelling in the role of Graham, who navigates her difficult position of a woman in power in the 1970’s to become an iconic figure for Women’s rights. Hanks is equally brilliant and manages to brings necessary wit and drive to a film that might be a bit dull without him.

If you can make it through the sluggish beginning, The Post pays off with a smart, passionate rendering of its necessary subject matter. Like many Oscar-bate biographical films, it can feel like a drag to those who want their movies to be more entertaining than informative. But even if it does come off as something that should be shown in high school history classes, anyone watching it should come away with a greater appreciation for the media and its necessary role in our society.

FINAL GRADE: B

The Greatest Showman (Full Review)

Musicals aren’t for everyone. But I’ve been a fan of the genre since my younger days of watching Disney animated films on repeat. Great music can make a good film even greater, adding emotion and a little flare to what might normally be a bland story. The Greatest Showman, directed by newcomer Matt Gracey, features original music written by the minds behind 2016 musical hit, La La Land.

The_Greatest_Showman_posterHugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, the founder of the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus which was established in 1871. Struggling to keep a job that will give his family a better life than his, Barnum sets out and recruits a host of unique individuals to form his New York circus. With the support of his loving wife (Michelle Williams), Barnum’s circus becomes a hit, with backlash from theater critics and high society threatening to damage his legacy along the way.

Virtually every cast member in The Greatest Showman is phenomenal. Jackman, who is no stranger to musical theater, triumphs vocally and emotionally in the lead role. The subplots of the supporting cast mostly hold equal weight and feel well in tune with the overarching narrative. Zac Efron stars as Barnum’s partner Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who forms a forbidden romance with a black trapeze artist (Zendaya). Keala Settle brings soulful vocals and wholesome charm as Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. Even Rebecca Ferguson, who clearly borrows another voice for her character’s powerful vocals, entices as a famous Swedish singer who falls for Barnum.

But this is Matt Gracey’s first time directing a feature length film, and at times it is very noticeable. The film is often bogged down by rushed exposition and a few noticeable takes of poor editing. Sam Humphrey’s dwarf performer Charles Stratton seems to move awkwardly as if his legs are superimposed. His speaking voice also seems falsified, an unfortunate trend throughout the film. The music is certainly always splendid, but the obvious lip sync in a few scenes is somewhat cringeworthy to watch.

Despite the editing flaws and occasional narrative lulls, the interesting characters and brilliant music make the film easier to enjoy. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo behind La La Land, outdo themselves with this soundtrack. Here their musical style seamlessly molds a mix of genres like gospel and pop with a rich Broadway boldness that never manages to feel out of place in the 19th century setting. Coupled with fun choreography and some incredible visuals and set pieces, The Greatest Showman should be a delight to fans of the genre and absolutely avoidable for those that aren’t.

FINAL GRADE: B

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Spoiler-Free Review)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens. It was a fun and exciting revitalization of the Star Wars franchise that brought interesting new characters along with some solid nostalgia. But J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII did have one predominant flaw in that it was far too much like the original Star Wars film. But fear not die-hard and casual Star Wars fans, new director Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom) brings a follow up that is unique and full of some of the series’ biggest narrative risks.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediEpisode VIII: The Last Jedi picks up right where its predecessor left off. The resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and enemy defector Finn (John Boyega) continues in its struggle to overthrow the oppressive First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Leia’s own son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, newly force sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley) encounters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote planet in hopes that she can be trained as a Jedi knight and convince Skywalker to end his self appointed exile and aid the resistance.

As mentioned earlier, The Last Jedi succeeds in taking chances with the directions of its characters and presenting a narrative that is nothing like any Star Wars film before. The intense and emotional action keeps things constantly entertaining and provides several jaw dropping sequences sure to make fans of the genre giddy. The climax, which features gorgeous imagery and a few notable duels, is an absolute marvel. The movie also manages to answer most of the questions raised by The Force Awakens, making the non action heavy sequences feel just as suspenseful.

But alas, The Last Jedi isn’t without its flaws. Star Wars is already bursting with characters and yet the filmmakers felt the need to add several more. Many of the new characters, like Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico are superfluous, albeit interesting, additions, but others like Benicio Del Toro’s eccentric hacker, ‘DJ’, feel  almost completely unnecessary. The host of new faces often makes characters like Boyega’s Finn feel less important to the overarching plot. The movie also drags on a bit too long, clocking in at a very noticeable two and a half hours with a few scenes, particularly in the middle, feeling like they could’ve been drastically shortened or completely left out.

The special effects also feel like a bit of a downgrade with many of the practical effects gone with J.J. Abrams and replaced with heavy CGI. Not to say that the film doesn’t still have some grand sets and wonderful costumes, but many sequences reminded me of the clunky, intangible visuals of the prequels. Much of the humor in the film is also marginally successful with many gimmicks and quips feeling a bit out of place for a Star Wars movie.

But despite its nitpicks, The Last Jedi is one of the best Star Wars films to date, because there are simply too many things to love about it. The revealed secrets and character development of Rey and Kylo Ren are intensely captivating. The chemistry between Leia and Poe Dameron feels as genuine as a mother and son. And if The Force Awakens belonged to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, The Last Jedi absolutely belongs to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker making his brief appearance in the previous installment worth the wait. The iconic jedi’s bold arc is the bedrock of the film, and Hamill’s sensational performance lays the groundwork for this undeniably unforgettable sci-fi adventure.

FINAL GRADE: B

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist (Full Review)

If you’ve never seen Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room, then you should really treat yourself. It is a masterpiece of poor acting, terrible writing, inept editing, and lousy production value. Oddly enough, those same qualities are what make it one of the most rewatchable movies of all time and has helped it gain a cult following since its release. The Disaster Artist is the bizarre but heartfelt story of the making of the famous “best bad movie ever made”.

TheDisastorArtistTeaserPosterDave Franco plays struggling actor Greg Sestero, the man who also wrote the book that this film is based on. While attending acting classes in San Francisco, Sestero meets and befriends the eccentric Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who convinces him to move to Los Angeles so they can both pursue their acting dreams. When they continue to struggle to become major Hollywood stars, Wiseau decides to write, direct, and star in The Room despite not knowing the first thing about filmmaking. With Sestero uncomfortably along for the ride as his co-star, Wiseau sets out on a disastrous production path that threatens to damage his friendship with Sestero.

The film is bursting with charm thanks in large part to the two leads. It’s no surprise that James and Dave Franco have great chemistry (they are brothers after all), but the two actors fall beautifully into their roles. James Franco is easily the most notable, with a transcendent performance that  completely embodies both Wiseau’s odd mannerisms and personality.

Budding with marquee actors in supporting roles (Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer) and some hilarious cameos from a few A-listers like Zac Efron and Bryan Cranston, The Disaster Artist moves at a steady comedic pace that drives home the sense of uncanny humor and heart that both Wiseau and his terrible film possess. The end product is a hilarious tale of friendship that illustrates the beauty and danger of never giving up on a dream. And everyone involved, including the real life Tommy Wiseau, deserves a standing ovation.

FINAL GRADE: A

Murder on the Orient Express (Full Review)

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery? This genre can be just as suspenseful as any action movie and just as emotional as any drama. And when at their best, murder mysteries can give us some amazing twists and turns. First published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is one of the most iconic in the genre and makes for a compelling film adaptation.

Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_teaser_posterKenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella) directs this film and plays the lead role of Inspector Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective in 1934. After solving a case in Jerusalem, Poirot is invited by his train conductor friend (Tom Bateman) to take a vacation aboard the Orient Express. But his leisurely trip is cut short when a shady businessman (Johnny Depp) is murdered on the train. Among the suspects are the businessman’s secretary (Josh Gad), a rich divorcee (Michelle Pfeiffer), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a mysterious governess (Daisy Ridley), a stingy princess (Judi Dench) and her assistant (Olivia Colman), a deeply religious former nanny (Penelope Cruz), a racist German (Willem Dafoe), and a slew of other passengers with dirty secrets.

The film’s murder mystery aspect doesn’t disappoint. The clues are strategically relayed to the audience through the eyes of the wise and charismatic Poirot so that things never drag. Every so often, a new wrinkle is introduced to throw the audience off of the scent so that by the time the truth is revealed it feels genuinely surprising and exciting. Each cast member effectively does their part and their characters are each given enough flaws to make even the most likable a logical suspect.

Things aren’t all perfect. There is a ton of information thrown into the movie that at times make things difficult to follow. It also feels like there are a few too many suspects to keep up with. Some characters are underdeveloped and their arcs are tossed to the wayside making them feel wholly unnecessary except for a scene or two. The film’s narrative attempts to make some moral commentary that feels somewhat preachy by the climax, but overall it shouldn’t distract from a story that delivers on intrigue and suspense.

FINAL GRADE: B

 

 

Wonder (Full Review)

I just recently got married. And of course, this logically leads to that inevitable annoying question: “When are you having kids?”. Parenting can be both an exciting and terrifying journey. Wonder, adapted from R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel, is a nerve-racking, but beautiful illustration of just how nuanced that journey can be.

Wonder_(film)Wonder tells the story of a boy named Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) who was born facially disfigured. After years of spending time with his boisterous father (Owen Wilson) and being home schooled by his overprotective mother (Julia Roberts), Auggie is thrust into the fifth grade where he is forced to deal with the terrifying reality of making friends, bullying, and all that encompasses that of childhood social interaction. But it isn’t all about Auggie. His older sister (Izabela Vidovic) tries to deal with living without the full attention of her parents as well as the drifting away of her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell).

Wonder is the most heartwarming film of 2017. Tremblay is marvelously triumphant in the lead role and makes Auggie the kind and intelligent yet wholesome child every parent desires. The supporting cast also works wonders (pun intended). Julia Roberts gives heart and soul as Auggie’s mother and Owen Wilson brings his trademark exuberance and charm as Auggie’s dad. Their chemistry as a couple also gels without the slightest wrinkle. Younger actors can be hit or miss, but in Wonder, each supporting youngster (Bryce Gheisar, Noah Jupe, Elle McKinnon, Millie Davis) delivers each line with utter perfection.

Things can feel a bit too light and fluffy at times, but the drama that encompasses the story and the attention given to the supporting characters makes Wonder feel like something wholly realistic and true. Even characters you want to dislike are given depth that makes them relatable and their actions relatively understandable. It is a story perfect for people of all ages and if watching it doesn’t give you hope and a sense of love for the strength and capacity of the human spirit, then I don’t know what will.

FINAL GRADE: A