War Dogs (Full Review)

The Wolf of Wallstreet reminded us that a true story about shady hustlers can be both really compelling and hilarious regardless of whether audiences grasp the logistics of the actual scheme. Now Todd Phillips, Director of Old School, The Hangover and its lousy sequels I’ll try to forgive him for, handles a similar script with a pair of actors keen for this type of setting. Jonah Hill proved his worth with a stellar supporting performance in Wallstreet and Miles Teller was exceptional in 2014’s Whiplash so War Dogs has all of the ingredients for a solid comedic drama.

War_Dogs_2016_posterMiles Teller narrates the film as David Packouz, a former massage therapist with a beautiful wife (Ana de Armas) who is expecting their first child. Eager to get out of a financial rut, Teller abandons an unsuccessful venture selling bed sheets to nursing homes to join his childhood friend, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) in his business selling low end equipment to the U.S. military. Their hustling takes them from personally smuggling a truck full of ammunition through the hostile Afghan desert to personally doing business with a registered terrorist (Bradley Cooper) in hopes of winning a multi-million dollar deal in the midst of the War in Iraq. Eventually, Diveroli’s sleaziness and arrogance coupled with Packouz’s naivety lands their business in hot water with the U.S. government.

Like Wolf of Wallstreet, the movie is filled with dark humor that almost always hits its mark thanks to the charisma of the two lead actors. Teller and Hill form a perfect balance and help carry the movie through its more predictable arcs. Neither are as good as Leonardo Dicaprio was in Wallstreet, but the expectation isn’t for them to be. Where War Dogs falls short is in its relatively predictable drama. Packouz’s marriage suffers, their friendship crumbles, and of course it all ends with legal fallout. But even the film’s more zanier moments, like the aforementioned trek through hostile Afghan territory (which apparently didn’t actually happen) is undoubtedly entertaining and each major player falls into their role. So even if War Dogs feels like Diet-Wolf of Wallstreet it’s a film that feels like solid entertainment.

FINAL GRADE: B

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Jason Bourne (Full Review)

I’ve never really gotten into the Bourne movies. I’ve always found the series to be bland, with each movie in the franchise essentially working off the same plot. But I keep watching them, because I enjoy a good spy thriller. So even if Jason Bourne doesn’t quite feel as consistently intriguing as a James Bond flick or Mission: Impossible, I’ll sit through it just to see Matt Damon break a few faces.

Jason_Bourne_(film)Jason Bourne is the fifth film in the franchise and reunites lead actor, Matt Damon, with Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum). Damon again portrays the titular character, a former super soldier/assassin for the CIA who revolted against the ruthless program that created him. This time, he is roped back in when former CIA operative turned ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), threatens to expose another shady program under the direction of CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Academy Award Winner Alicia Vikander also stars as Heather Lee, a CIA expert on cyber threats who is caught in between her duty and her desire to recruit Bourne back into the agency.

If you loved all of the Bourne movies leading up to Jason Bourne then there is no reason not to like this one. The action sequences are swift and exhilarating and seeing Matt Damon return to the role feels right. Vincent Cassel also provides a worthy threat as a villainous, vengeful version of Bourne known only as The Asset. But, if you’re like me, and you’ve found this series generic and uninspiring… then guess what?

The story feels identical to each and every other movie in the franchise, even the one that didn’t even have Matt Damon in it. And yet, newcomers will undoubtedly be confused with the meager attempt to get audiences up to speed. Other annoying issues like the nauseating shaky camera are also only things purists to the series can enjoy.

I’d hoped that bringing Matt Damon back would signal a sense of revitalization. But it’s the same game with slightly different players. At this point, either come up with a different storyline other than “Bourne vs. the stiff, mustache twirling CIA”, or let the franchise die off. I’m not saying Jason Bourne isn’t entertaining, but it’s certainly isn’t worth the full price of admission when you can just watch something equally generic on Netflix or Redbox.

FINAL GRADE: C

Batman: The Killing Joke (Full Review)

There are hordes of people who love Michael Keaton’s Batman movies or Nolan and Bale’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but not as many are aware that some of the best Batman films (Mask of the Phantasm, Under the Red Hood) have been animated ones. I fancy myself a Batman connoisseur. And when it comes to animated films about the caped crusader, there are few I don’t own and even fewer I haven’t seen. So when I heard that Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke was being adapted for an animated film, I immediately prepared my blank check. The excitement only grew when it was announced that the film would be DC Comics’ first ‘R’ rated animated feature.

Batman-The_Killing_Joke_(film)The Killing Joke, is a controversial classic for numerous reasons, but mainly because of the “definitive” back story it gives to Batman’s sadistic arch nemesis, The Joker. This animated version reunites the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) who worked together for over a decade on the Emmy Award winning Batman: The Animated Series as well as the popular Arkham video games. Tara Strong also heads the cast as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.

The plot to this animated feature is split into two parts. The first (not included in the original graphic novel) follows Batgirl as she tries to prove herself to Batman and take down a mobster’s nephew  (Maury Sterling). The second half features the Joker as he injures Batgirl and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise). His twisted goal is to torture the Commissioner and prove to Batman that one tumultuous day can turn even the nicest people into maniacs like him.

All of the great philosophical questions about the sanity of both Batman and the Joker remain from the graphic novel and if you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, then it’s hard not to find some enjoyment in anything where those characters are done justice. That being said, it’ll be hard for casual fans and purists not to consider this Killing Joke film to be a bit of a disappointment. There are several reasons why.

The first, and most glaring, is its hardly relevant first half. A film about the Joker and named after the Joker should probably not go roughly half of its runtime without the character even being mentioned. And sure, the original graphic novel alone would hardly span the course of a feature length film, but instead of making the first half of the film a Batgirl mini-movie (that also makes the character seem juvenile), why not expand upon the flashbacks about the Joker’s supposed past? Limiting the actual Killing Joke portion of The Killing Joke to what was originally on the page just makes those elements feel rushed.

Then there’s the fact that this movie is supposed to be Rated ‘R’ and yet characters repeatedly say watered down swear words like “F’ing” instead of using actual profanity. This is especially unusual because other profane words that would be okay in a PG-13 movie are used several times. That might be a small gripe to some, but don’t promote something to be hardcore if it isn’t. Take away a few scenes with point blank gun shots to the head and one inference of rape and the movie could easily have been PG-13. In fact, if you’ve seen the PG-13 rated Batman: Assault on Arkham (a fun animated film about the Suicide Squad), you’ll notice that it is barely less extreme than Killing Joke.

The animation, while fine, only does Brian Bolland’s original artwork justice in spurts. The ending may also be anticlimactic and unsatisfying, but anyone who’s read the graphic novel knows what to expect. At the end of the day, I’ll add The Killing Joke to my collection and it’s certainly worth a watch for casual Bat fans. But if you were one of the people who paid more than the normal price of admission to try and catch the film on the big screen… sorry if it didn’t live up to the hype.

FINAL GRADE: C+

2016 Ghostbusters (Full Review)

The original Ghostbusters came out in 1984. Who knew it was such an “untouchable” classic? The internet has somehow been outraged since the idea was first announced as if this is the first time an old film series has been kick started for modern day. And if this new film, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy), being full of women in the leading roles is the only reason you’re against seeing it… then congratulations, you’re a sexist… because being a male was never given as a prerequisite in the original. Now that the film is finally out, it’s past time to judge this new Ghostbusters on its actual merit.

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterLike the original films, this one also follows three paranormal scientists and one regular, street savvy African American citizen as they band together to take out New York’s rising ghostly threats. Despite writing a book on the existence of ghosts, Physics professor, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is trying to put her ridiculed past behind her. That is until a real ghost appears and reunites her with childhood friend, co-author and fellow ghost scientist Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Together with Yates’ quirky engineer assistant, Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) they create ways to fight and trap the ghosts despite the New York City Mayor (Andy Garcia)’s attempts to keep the events private. With the help of MTA worker and eye witness Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), and with a not so intelligent secretary (Chris Hemsworth), they set up shot above a Chinese Restaurant as the Ghostbusters.

Even though the original film predates my existence, I grew up a fan of Ghostbusters and even had the toy play set as a kid. But I was admittedly skeptical about the film like many were as I was bombarded with goofy trailer after trailer and commercial after commercial. And in the first few minutes I almost felt like I was headed down a hokey path filled with sight gags and slime. But once all of the major players are introduced, this new Ghostbusters actually turns into hilarious summer fun. This is due, almost entirely, to the undeniable charisma and chemistry of the leading ladies.

Kristen Wiig’s socially awkward Gilbert comes off as endearing and her school girl crush on Hemsworth’s comically dumb Kevin works well. McCarthy is unsurprisingly solid in the leading role and her character’s reoccurring gag with the Chinese restaurant delivery boy (Deadpool’s Karan Soni) hits its mark every single time. Even Leslie Jones, despite being the weak link, manages to conjure up a few laugh out loud moments. But the queen of the film is Kate McKinnon. Whether it’s physical comedy or just snappy dialogue, the Holtzman character delivers every second she’s on screen and is enough to make even the surliest of movie goers chuckle.

Even the action sequence at the film’s too familiar climax manages to be exciting. Sprinkle in some hearty cameos from the original main cast and this movie does enough to make for hearty entertainment even if it is something we’ve seen before. The only glaringly bad thing about the movie is the awful remix of the original theme done by Fall Out Boy. It isn’t as good as the first Ghostbusters, but who said it had to be? This movie has enough in its cast to be enjoyed on its own without having to be compared side by side to a film that is over 20 years old. So if you’re a fan or a newcomer that’s willing to see a movie before you judge it and if you’re more interested in comedic timing rather than the actors’ chromosomes, then this new Ghostbusters should be time well spent.

FINAL GRADE: B

The Shallows (Full Review)

Remember Jaws? Well, if you were born after 1985 then probably not. Sure, you remember the general premise and the iconic theme music, but everything else is probably a blur to anyone in my generation. So it only makes sense to make a similar film with a relatively scaled back budget that has the same goal of making audiences afraid to go in the water.

the-shallows-435The Shallows stars Blake Lively as surfer and nursing school dropout, Nancy Adams. After her mother succumbs to cancer, Nancy ventures to a secret beach where her mother once vacationed. There she encounters beautiful scenery, perfect waves, a pair of friendly fellow surfers, and the smartest shark imaginable. After being bitten, she becomes stranded on a small rock, clinging to life as the shark waits for an opportunity to finish her off.

The simple nature of the film is one of the best things it has going for it. You can basically count the characters on one hand and the movie is over after an hour and a half. Essentially, you get what you come to see: Blake Lively vs. a man-eating shark. The suspense comes in solid enough doses to always keep you interested and Lively does a decent job making you care about her character, which is important considering she is rarely, if ever, not on screen.

But check your notions of common sense and realism at the door. The shark goes from vicious, instinctive predator to Jason Vorhees with fins pretty quickly. Then there’s the glaring plot hole early on in the movie that has Nancy being bitten by the shark in the leg, but managing to swim away. How did she swim away when no one else could? Don’t think about it. Better yet… how did the shark not bite her leg clean off when it chops a burly man in half later in the movie?

But The Shallows isn’t a documentary during Shark Week. It’s meant for 90 minutes of B movie suspense and a few cheap laughs just like any slasher film. If you turn your brain off and just watch, then the movie is effective. And no matter how nonsensical it gets at times, it’s hard to consider a movie this simple and straight forward disappointing.

FINAL GRADE: B-

The Legend of Tarzan (Full Review)

If you’re like me, the only big screen memory you have of Tarzan is the 1999 Disney animated film. So, unlike the majority of Hollywood’s remakes and reboots, it actually seems like the right time to make a live action film about the man raised by Apes in the jungles of Africa. With David Yates (Director of the last 4 Harry Potter films) at the helm and Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style technology at his disposal, the elements are there for Legend of Tarzan to at least be a viable summer adventure.

The_Legend_of_Tarzan_posterThe Legend of Tarzan begins with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) now going by his birth name, John Clayton, and living happily with Jane (Margot Robbie) in his late parents’ London estate. While there are flashbacks shown to give the character’s origins, this movie is not an origin story. It probably should’ve been though, because the plot is ridiculously too complex for its own good. And it’s noticeable pretty early on.

Sure, some are familiar with the Tarzan story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be retold or re-imagined. Instead of getting a simpler story that focuses more on the characters and Tarzan’s growth and inner struggle to find his identity, we get a bunch of flashbacks that often disrupt pacing. The actual plot involves Belgium’s occupation of the Congo and a corrupt Belgian captain (Christoph Waltz) attempting to trade Tarzan to a rival African tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for access to diamond mines. And none of it works. The drawn out set up makes the first half hour a bore and when the set up of a movie is dull, what reason is there to care about the rest of it?

It would be nice if the action were a saving grace. But the CGI is noticeably not as strong as anticipated and several of the battles make no physical sense. Sure, being raised by apes makes Tarzan strong and his reflexes elevated but no human being would be able to survive a vicious thrashing to the spine by a full grown gorilla let alone be able to stand and fight shortly after.

Samuel L. Jackson brings welcomed humor and fun to the film as George Washington Williams, a real life African American journalist who penned a letter to Belgian’s King regarding the inhumane treatment of the tribal natives. And for what it’s worth, none of the other performances are bad. But an overly complicated plot coupled with a poorly put together narrative and clunky action makes The Legend of Tarzan feel like one big, forgettable attempt at something that could’ve been really good.

FINAL GRADE: C-

The Purge: Election Year (Full Review)

Despite having a unique premise, the first Purge movie did little to establish itself as anything more than a more gruesome reboot of Panic Room. But 2014’s Purge: Anarchy made the necessary improvements to make the series standout, mainly by expanding the characters and scope while also hammering home the underlying political allegory. The Purge: Election Year seeks to continue that good fortune and keep this popular film franchise from falling back into the mediocre doldrums of most modern day films in the horror genre.

The_Purge_Election_YearYou don’t have to see the previous Purge movies to get what’s going on. In the near future, America has an annual twelve hour period known as the Purge, where all crime including murder is legal. The horrendous act is sanctioned by a government ran by elitists known as the New Founding Fathers. In Purge: Election Year a senator (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose family was murdered during the Purge when she was a teen, is threatening to win the upcoming Presidential election and end the violent practice. This obviously makes her the target of the New Founding Fathers, and they set out to eliminate her during the Purge. Her only protection is her bodyguard (Frank Grillo reprising his role from Anarchy), and a few everyday citizens.

There is plenty to like about this movie if you’re in to the action-horror genre. The action is intense and anything but boring and most of the characters involved are likeable even if they are relatively generic. There is no greater example of this than Mykelti Williamson’s performance as store clerk, Joe Dixon. The entire character’s arc follows a wholly predictable pattern, but the endearing performance makes every cliché line feel genuine and humorous more times than not. The likability of the characters is just barely enough to get through some of the more cartoony moments of the movie.

The biggest problem with The Purge: Election Year is that it just isn’t different enough from Anarchy. Once again, a skilled battle weary character has to navigate through violent streets with the aid of every day citizens. Even the ending feels too familiar to the previous film. The too often over-the-top moments make it feel a bit less authentic than the previous installments as well. But while the leap in quality doesn’t match the gap between Purge 1 & 2, there’s enough here to be entertained. And it’s also worth noting that the inevitable sequel has a half-decent set up.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Independence Day: Resurgence (Full Rant)

Finding Dory was a perfect example of how an unnecessary sequel can be a masterpiece. Independence Day: Resurgence is the complete and utter opposite. We should’ve seen this coming. Not the inevitable sequel to a classic, but said inevitable sequel being a dud when Will Smith (whose film career was partially launched by the first film) refused to be involved. And even that giant red flag isn’t enough to prepare you for this disaster.

Independence-Day-2-posterLike the previous film, IDR picks up twenty years after “The War of 1996” when Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) helped lead the charge to save humanity from a hostile invading alien army. In the aftermath, humanity banded together and used the alien technology to create a global defense system reaching all the way to the moon and even to Saturn. Will Smith’s character is now dead, and his boring adopted son (Jessie Usher) has taken up the mantle as a decorated pilot. President Whitmore is now senile due to his first hand contact with the aliens and his daughter (Maika Monroe) is now a former pilot and presidential aid. Thor’s little brother (Liam Hemsworth) plays the same role he plays in every movie: The good-looking boyfriend who is a rugged fighter.

There are a bunch of other lousy characters in the movie, but I’ll spare you because I don’t want this review to be as flimsy as the movie was. Oh yeah… Vivica Fox returns if you consider two scenes being a part of the movie. All of the wit and charm that Will brought to the 1996 film is gone; replaced by so much cliché dialogue, characters and action sequences, you’d think this movie was the one made in the 90’s. And the compost heap of characters is only one part of the problem.

The plot obviously centers on the return of the evil aliens. Only this time there is a new wrinkle added, that doesn’t work at all, in the form of a separate alien being that comes to help the human race. After shooting down the peaceful alien ship, despite David Levinson (you know, the one guy everyone should listen to)’s objections, the evil alien force arrives and rips through Earth’s upgraded defense like a banner at a high school football game with a ship literally one third the size of Earth.

From there, we get stupid decision after stupid decision such as sending in the entire fleet of pilots at the mother ship, even though we know the shield’s are impenetrable and the same strategy failed 20 years ago. Then there are giant plot holes. The aliens have CLEARLY upgraded all of their arsenal, and yet a bunch of humans can hijack their ships in a matter of seconds and fly them out of the mothership like it’s as easy as picking up an X-Box controller and playing Halo. And somehow the impenetrable, continent sized mothership’s goal of drilling into the Earth’s core, is halted seconds from completion because the alien leader is defeated.

I searched myself for over 24 hours for something enjoyable about this film. But even Bill Pullman’s “rousing” speech feels forced making absolutely nothing about this movie feel genuine. Make no mistake, Independence Day: Resurgence is a loud, clumsy and hollow sequel that taints the legacy of its predecessor. So please, if you are a fan of the 1996 film as I am, do yourself a favor and pretend like this movie doesn’t exist.

FINAL GRADE: F

Warcraft (Full Review)

The question will remain until it’s effectively answered: Is it possible to make a great movie adaptation of a video game? Sure there have been some pretty decent ones (I’m quite fond of the original Resident Evil), but there’s no denying that when it comes to adapting another medium for the big screen, the video game to film genre is lightyears behind books, TV shows, and comics. Now comes Warcraft, adapted from a popular online role playing game, this Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy is the latest game franchise to fail to leave a mark for movie going audiences.

Warcraft_Teaser_PosterWarcraft tells the story of a war between Orcs, large humanoid tusked creatures, and humans. After the Orc home world begins to die, an Orc wizard named Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) uses a dark magic force to create a portal to Azeroth, land of humans, dwarves and several other inconsequential species. There, they plan to conquer the humans and take Azeroth as their new home. Weary of the death and destruction is Orc chief and new father, Durotan (Toby Kebbell) who seeks to unite with the humans to stop Gul’Dan and protect his family. Leading the humans is their fiercest warrior, Lothar (Travis Fimmel), noble King Llane (Dominic Cooper), rogue wizard, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), fading sorcerer, Medivh (Ben Foster), and half human-half orc, Garona (Paula Patton).

The special effects are state of the art and the premise lends itself to an entertaining movie, but nearly everything about Warcraft is a bore. This is in large part due to stale performances by everyone not named Toby Kebbell. But I won’t blame the actors, a bland script and a plot void of any real surprises gives us a cast of generic characters that lack the charm or unique qualities to make them stand out as memorable. The result is a movie that struggles to make anyone care who, like me, never played the games.

The action in the film, though gruesome, is entertaining for anyone who is a fan of such things. And although the characters are generic and forgettable, the surviving pieces are at least left in scenarios that might garner a more interesting sequel. But none of that comes frequent enough to excuse a story that lacks conviction and characters that seem like something we’ve seen before. I’m not sure what the many fans of the game will think of Warcraft, but I’m almost certain newcomers won’t be captivated enough to want to stick around for anymore adventures.

FINAL GRADE: D+

 

Finding Dory (Full Review)

Pixar is the gold standard of animated family films. Among their many classics, few movies are as beloved as 2003’s Finding Nemo. The story about a father searching for his disabled son and learning not to be overprotective was highlighted by a cast of great characters. Ironically, the most unforgettable character was the one who couldn’t remember anything. And now, 13 years later, the Disney animation goliath brings us a much anticipated sequel that follows Dory on an all new adventure.

Finding_DoryPixar proved it can follow one of its classics with an equally fantastic film with the Toy Story trilogy. But before you go thinking Finding Dory is a lock to be a great follow up, I have two words for you… Cars 2. With Dory, the Pixar filmmakers had the challenge of making a movie with just as much heart, while maintaining a similar message about cherishing family and overcoming adversity that could easily feel repetitive. They manage to succeed, with flying colors.

Finding Dory picks up one year after Finding Nemo. Blue tang fish, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) continues to suffer from short term memory loss and now lives with her best clownfish buddy Marlon (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolance). One day, a series of familiar phrases triggers her memories of her long lost parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy) and Dory sets out on a mission to reunite with them. The journey may seem like a retread, but a fantastic set of characters make it feel like anything but.

Pixar’s ability to create memorable characters is often what sets their films apart. Well… that and flawless animation. Finding Dory is a magnificent follow up to a beloved classic mainly because of its large cast of new characters, each one hilarious and unique. There’s a near sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga whale that thinks it’s sick (Ty Burrell), and a pair of lazy and bossy sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West). But perhaps no character is as critical to the movies fun and charisma as Hank (Ed O’Neil), a temperamental octopus trying to prevent being released from a safe and secure Marine hospital.

Sure, Ellen DeGeneres is once again endearing as Dory and Marlon and Nemo provide several laughs and valuable lessons, but without the new faces, the movie would feel like a good, but relatively unnecessary sequel. But these new characters make this heartwarming story about Dory overcoming her shortcomings and finding her family feel fresh and the missing piece we didn’t even realize we needed. I’ve always said, every movie doesn’t need a sequel, but sometimes… when the right people are behind it…. some movies most certainly do. And in the case of Finding Dory, despite being a bit more over the top than the original, it’s the sequel adults and kids have been waiting for.

FINAL GRADE: A+