The Lego Ninjago Movie (Full Review)

Like most, I was skeptical when a movie franchise based off of LEGOs was announced. Then I saw the Lego Movie. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to be seen as something more than a soulless cash grab. Lego Batman came along in 2016 and set the bar even higher with a witty and fun film for all ages. Now comes Lego Ninjago, a big screen version of the popular line of toys that also happens to be a TV show.

The_Lego_Ninjago_MovieTaking place on the island of Ninjago, this story revolves around six “ninjas” who use giant robots called Mechs to defend the city from the Evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Under the tutelage of ninja master Woo (Jackie Chan), the team consists of macho earth ninja Kai (Michael Pena), humanoid ice wielding robot Zane (Zach Woods), panicky lightning ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), feisty water ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson) and her obnoxious fire ninja brother Cole (Fred Armison). Leading the team is Lloyd (Dave Franco), a teenage outcast who lives with his mother (Olivia Munn) and just happens to be the son of their arch nemesis.

In many ways, this movie is the epitome of my fears when I first heard about the LEGO movie franchise. Kids who play with LEGOs have a ton of imagination, but that imagination can concoct a ton of random, scatter brained adventures that just don’t translate to a cohesive story. The father/son dynamic between Garmadon and Lloyd that dominates most of the narrative is fine, but all of the sequences that surround them are noisily uncoordinated. From the goofy start, the action in the movie moves like it’s being made up as it goes along. And that may be fine for children, but it’s just annoying to anyone who stopped playing with LEGOs years ago.

There’s no point in most of the characters even being ninjas, as they’re more like members of Voltron or Captain Planet’s Planateers than Power Rangers. Many of the jokes are forced too, with the few comedic moments coming from the villain. By the end, if you haven’t gotten bored, you’ll just be hoping that the creators of this mess can scale it back a bit for the next installment.

FINAL GRADE: D

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Holiday Quick Reviews

trolls_film_logoTROLLS One of the most popular children’s toys of the 90’s becomes a kids movie, ‘cause why not? Anna Kendrick stars as Poppie, princess of the happy-go lucky singing trolls who must team up with surly troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) to rescue her friends from big goblins who believe that eating the trolls are the only way to be happy. The movie is filled with covers of popular songs and a message about true happiness being something that comes from within not from what you put into your body or what you materially gain.

Filled with bright colors and enough pep to make even the most whimsical person gag a little, Trolls can be a bit much to any viewer over the age of five. Most of it I found downright annoying (the Trolls literally hug every hour). The plot, which feels almost exactly like the Smurfs, doesn’t take very many risks and none of the supporting characters do anything of significance. So while it may be a movie to take your kids to, if you don’t have any little ones, you might want to pass. FINAL GRADE: C

allied_filmALLIED Brad Pitt stars as Max, a Canadian spy who infiltrates Casablanca with a French spy (Marian Cotillard) named Marianne on a mission to assassinate a Nazi general. While posing as husband and wife, the two fall in love and once their mission is over, they marry in London and give birth to a baby girl in the midst of World War II. A year later, Max’s superiors suspect that his wife is actually a German spy and give him orders to kill her if their suspicions turn out to be true.

The film is intriguing throughout and carries a mysterious tone that makes it a worthy thriller. The problems stem from the relationship between Pitt and Cotillard’s characters. The two are great actors with solid chemistry, but the romance never truly has time to develop. Everything seems rushed in the beginning so it takes Pitt’s amicably desperate performance to even make us care whether Marianne lives or dies. Things wrap up well in the climax, but a better conceived construction of the romance would’ve made the film stand out much more. FINAL GRADE: B

nocturnal_animals_posterNOCTURNAL ANIMALS This dark and gritty film stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who’s marriage to a wealthy businessman (Armie Hammer) is slowly fading. One day, Susan receives an early copy of her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. In the story within a story, a husband (Gyllenhaal) on a road trip encounters thugs (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who kidnap his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter, forcing him to get the help of a local sheriff (Michael Shannon) to find them. As Susan reads the violently grim story, she begins to notice the undertones that hearken to her past relationship.

There’s a way to be poignant and powerful without being overtly graphic. And here, director Tom Ford (yes the fashion designer) doesn’t seem to know whether he’s making a drama, a thriller, or a horror film. The overall narrative is void of subtlety and he seems hell bent on beating you over the head with blunt imagery that horrifies more than intrigues culminating in an equally depressing, albeit fitting, climax. The performances are strong, and sure, not all movie need to have a happy message, but watching a film should never feel as uncomfortable as it does here. FINAL GRADE: C-

office_christmas_partyOFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY It isn’t the holidays without a Rated-R holiday comedy. This year’s designated film in the genre unites an all-star cast  (Jenifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, and Courtney B. Vance) in an outrageous twist on a holiday tradition. In the film, a failing software company seeks to avoid the closing of their branch by wooing a high end client with a Project X style party in their New York office building.

But, this isn’t remotely as charismatic or fun as Project X. None of the characters seem to have chemistry and most of them aren’t effective in this style of comedy. The ones that are (specifically Miller and McKinnon) seem bogged down by a script that doesn’t know how to flesh out characters. Even the party scenes that are supposed to be hilarious, seem recycled or forced. Last year’s The Night Before was a goofy, but fun romp that gave each of it’s leads time to be funny in their own way, but Office Christmas Party seems to inefficiently operate with the idea that loud and outrageous always equals funny. It doesn’t. FINAL GRADE: D

X-Men: Apocalypse (Full Review)

The X-Men franchise has seen some lows (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but for the most part, some of the best films in the superhero genre have come from this 16 year film series about mutants with superpowers attempting to coexist with the humans who fear them. No director knows the heights of X-Men film success like Bryan Singer, Director of the first and second X-Men movies as well as 2014’s hit X-Men: Days of Future Past. Singer returns to direct the latest installment in the franchise, and has the unfortunate task of following Captain America: Civil War as well as trying to raise his own ridiculously high bar.

X-Men_-_ApocalypseX-Men: Apocalypse follows the trend of the recent X-Men films in picking up the story in a new decade. This time, the setting is the 1980’s where CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) has stumbled upon a cult that awakens the world’s first recorded mutant, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) aka Apocalypse, who was betrayed by his followers in ancient Egypt. Apocalypse has survived for centuries by transferring his consciousness into new mutant bodies, collecting new mutant powers along the way and upon his awakening he sets out recruiting strong mutants to be his Four Horseman followers. Joining him is weather manipulating Storm (Alexandra Shipp), psychic knife wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn), winged Angel (Ben Hardy), and former X-Men adversary, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

The only thing standing between Apocalypse and his mission to cleanse the world of non-mutants is peace loving telepath Professor, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his young X-Men: psychic Jean Gray (Sophie Turner), optic blasting Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Helping lead the team is Xavier’s furry, right hand man, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), shape-shifting anti-hero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and comedic speedster, Quicksilver (Evan Peters).

There are a ton of characters in this movie and it’s easy to get lost among them. The film admittedly doesn’t do as well as most in the franchise have done with juggling all of the different mutants. The Four Horseman, for example, are virtually flat, underdeveloped characters with the exception of Magneto. The film also has a few pacing issues. One scene in particular, involving returning villain William Striker (Josh Helman), seems shoe horned in only for fan service and to set up sequels (A problem no superhero film seems able to avoid these days).

But none of these problems take away from the overall splendor of X-Men: Apocalypse. The action sequences and set pieces are once again top notch. From the climactic battle to one scene involving Evan Peter’s Quicksilver that manages to one up his sequence from Days of Future Past, there is plenty to gawk at. Even the aforementioned unnecessary scene is still wildly entertaining. And as with any X-Men film, there are plenty of metaphors for real human issues to give the story purpose and context.

The titular villain is also a big plus. Despite being a generic God-like figure bent on world domination, Apocalypse is portrayed by Oscar Isaac with a charismatic wit and deeply imposing astuteness that makes him far more captivating than anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to pass off as an antagonist not named Loki. And he isn’t alone in his standout performance. All of the young mutants are solid and Michael Fassbender once again manages to conjure all of the deepest emotions with a few notable scenes. If there’s a performance that lacks, it’s actually Jennifer Lawrence, who seems as if she is being thrown into the forefront of these movies more and more, simply because she’s Jennifer Lawrence and not because the story or the character has a need for it.

Bryan Singer’s latest X-Men film is certainly not as grand as his last, or my all time favorite X2: X-Men United (2003). But X-Men Apocalypse is filled with a fine dose of eye popping action, charismatic humor, and a threatening villain that moves the story and makes the stakes worthy of a 144 minute film. Masterpieces are hard to come by in this era of constant superhero flicks (just ask DC Comics), but X-Men Apocalypse is at the very least an exciting entry that shouldn’t be a letdown to casual fans or diehards.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Ride Along 2 (Full Review)

Ride_Along_2_posterI didn’t like the first Ride Along. In fact, it was one of my least favorite films of 2014. The premise was funny enough, but the actual movie itself seemed to rely on the same gimmicks over and over again. So, needless to say, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of a sequel. But I decided to keep an open mind going into Ride Along 2, thinking “Hey, there’s nowhere to go, but up.”

The movie picks up with rookie cop Ben Barber’s (Kevin Hart) continuous efforts to gain the approval of his soon to be brother-in-law, Detective James Payton (Ice Cube). In another attempt to scare him out of law enforcement, Payton brings Ben on an undercover investigation in Miami. There they team up with Homicide Detective, Maya Cruz (Olivia Munn), and a hacker (Ken Jeong) to try and expose a wealthy crime lord (Benjamin Bratt).

The plot being generic shouldn’t be a big issue for comedies, because we aren’t watching the movie for an intricate story, we’re watching for laughs. The problem is, Ride Along 2 just isn’t funny and like its predecessor, relies on the same tricks to try and justify its existence. Kevin Hart does his physical comedy routine and it makes for a few snickers, but never anything above that. And he gets absolutely no help from his co-stars. Ice Cube just grimaces the entire film, while Olivia Munn seems to be hell bent on giving as dry a performance as possible. As for Ken Jeong, I honestly haven’t found him funny since the first Hangover movie, so his lousy presence isn’t anything surprising.

I’ve always found Kevin Hart’s stand-up to be hilarious, but the antics of his movie characters are getting old. If seeing a short, loud, man-child fall down or scream over and over again is worthy of an hour and a half of your time, then by all means enjoy Ride Along 2. But I can’t help but hold my comedies to a higher standard. Good comedies are the ones where you can still laugh about certain moments long after you’ve seen the movie. A year from now, if I ask someone to name a funny part from either Ride Along movie (that isn’t in the trailers), I’ll be surprised if they don’t draw a blank.

FINAL GRADE: D-