All Eyez on Me (Full Review)

Having great source material does not guarantee a great movie… especially when it comes to Biographical films. Some true stories may work best as mini-series’ or documentaries, but making a feature length film requires finding the right actors and fine-tuning all of the compelling facts into a cohesive under-three hour story. Tupac Shakur is already an interesting subject, even if you were never a fan, but making a film about his life needs more than that to live up to the hype of one of music’s most iconic figures.

AllEyez_posterNewcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. takes on the difficult role of playing rap legend Tupac Shakur, a man that went Platinum from prison and had 7 albums released after his death. Navigating through his rise to fame, problems with the law and untimely murder, the film highlights his relationships with his former Black Panther mother (Danai Gurira), friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), lover Kidada Jones (Annie Ilonzeh) and violent manager Suge Knight (Dominic Santana).

As I mentioned, when making a biopic, the most important elements are landing the right cast and creating a sound story. Straight Outta Compton nailed both. The James Brown biopic Get on Up had a great cast but lacked narrative structure.  All Eyez on Me doesn’t really secure either one. The cast has a few bright spots. Danai Gurira is clearly the best actor on screen as Pac’s mother. Kat Graham doesn’t look like Jada Pinkett, but she has the mannerisms down pat and Jamal Woolard, reprising his role from Notorious, is also once again great as Biggie Smalls. But this is a Tupac movie, and it helps if the guy at the forefront can consistently carry his weight.

Shipp Jr. isn’t terrible. He definitely gets better as the movie goes along, but aside from physically resembling Tupac, it never really feels like he embodies the artist. Tupac had a boyish charm to him that made him incessantly charismatic while also carrying a serene wisdom that transcended others in the industry. Aside from spouting some Shakespeare, that intelligence doesn’t really come through in Shipp’s performance and the charm only appears in doses.

As for its narrative structure, the movie takes nearly half of its two and a half hour runtime to find its footing. The first half works like a spark notes version of Pac’s life, fluttering between scenes without cohesive transition or focus while being filled with as many cliché monologues as possible. A prison interview is used as a framing device and then is completely dropped halfway through, making the much more compelling last half feel like it has a completely different director.

All Eyez on Me succeeds in being interesting, but never thoroughly entertaining. It’s hard not to compare it to Straight Outta Compton, but considering its subject matter, those comparisons are inevitable. Without a stellar lead, and without cohesion, the movie never truly becomes the homage it wants to be.

FINAL GRADE: C

 

All Eyez on Me (Full Review)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Full Review)

Few summer blockbusters have ever been as much fun as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie had thrills, humor, and charming characters. But the more movies they attempted to squeeze out of Johnny Depp’s iconic Jack Sparrow, the more the franchise began to lose its luster. Dead Man’s Chest was good, not great. At World’s End was far too long and overstuffed to truly enjoy. And… and… there was a fourth one, right? Something about Blackbeard? Anywho… this newest installment hopes to bring the Disney magic back to the eerie waters of the Pirates franchise.

Pirates_of_the_Caribbean,_Dead_Men_Tell_No_TalesThe aptly named Dead Men Tell No Tales once again finds an undead sea captain searching for the bumbling, alcoholic, but keenly clever scoundrel known as Jack Sparrow. This time, said sea captain is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spaniard who once hunted pirates but was tricked into defeat by a young Jack. To escape Salazar, Jack must team with a female astronomer (Kaya Scodelario) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Jack’s old ally Will (Orlando Bloom returning in a cameo role), to find a legendary trident that will grant them power over the sea.  Meanwhile, Jack’s old rival Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) seeks to save himself from Salazar and his henchmen of zombies who can’t step on land by helping in the hunt for Jack Sparrow.

Like most Pirates movies (even the good ones), the plot can get a bit caught up in itself as it lumbers on for over two hours. There are some characters, like a British Naval Captain (David Wenham), that take up too much screen time despite being both generic and unnecessary. The plot itself also carries its fair share of conveniences. But what is Pirates of the Caribbean if not an unbelievable tale hidden beneath massive set pieces and well crafted costumes?

For the most part, Dead Men Tell No Tales manages to recapture the swashbuckling fun that made the franchise so popular. Yes, the plot often seems filled with holes so big that previous films can even get sucked into them, but that doesn’t take away from the fun at all. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush effectively step back into their roles as if they never left. Newcomers Thwaites and Scodelario provide wholesome focal points as a boy fighting to reunite with his father and a woman trying to forge her own path in a world where a woman is deemed a witch if she reads a book. Javier Bardem even manages to succeed in being a wholly threatening adversary even though he’s essentially no different from the villains in the other Pirates films.

The movie is filled with some scenes so over the top or cheesy that your eyes might fall out of your head. But those moments are eclipsed by all of the genuine laughs and charm brought to the story. With stunning CGI effects and likable new characters, this entry feels much more like what audiences fell in love with. By reconnecting with the original trilogy (something the fourth film almost completely failed to do), this new Pirates manages to give us an adventure both nostalgic and compelling.

FINAL GRADE: B

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Full Review)

Alien: Covenant (Full Review)

Back in 2012, Ridley Scott attempted to revitalize his science fiction/horror Alien franchise with Prometheus. Despite having a star studded cast and a premise filled with intrigue, Prometheus left me (and tons of franchise purists) a bit dissatisfied. It was by no means a lousy movie, but it failed to answer many of its own questions and was also void of the horror elements that made the original films so suspenseful. Having heard all of the gripes back then, it’s only natural to expect Scott to right the wrongs of Prometheus with Alien: Covenant.

Alien_Covenant_Teaser_PosterTaking place 10 years after Prometheus, this film follows the voyage of a ship on its way to colonize a new planet. After an on-board malfunction causes them to lose their captain, the crew decides to answer a distress call on a nearby habitable planet rather than re-enter cryogenetic sleep to reach their original destination. Little do they know, there are deadly alien creatures waiting to rip them apart upon arrival.

For the most part the crew (or inevitable victims if you’re familiar with the franchise) is intrinsically likable. Katherine Waterston does an amicable job as Daniels, the Covenant Captain’s widow and the film’s lead. She is humble and does a solid job conveying all the necessary emotions, but it’s admittedly difficult to distinguish the character’s personality from the previous film’s lead (Noomi Rapace). Danny McBride brings surprising emotion and southern charm to his role as Tennessee, the ship’s pilot. Carmen Ejogo and Billy Crudup do their best as the husband and wife duo entrusted to lead the crew after their captain’s untimely demise. Michael Fassbender returns to the franchise as Walter, a humanoid robot built by the expedition’s founder Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce in a cameo role). Just like in Prometheus, Fassbender’s performance is hauntingly magnetic and the film’s driving force.

It’s hard to truly delve into the problems and successes of Alien: Covenant without revealing heavy spoilers. But it is important to note that the film is a direct sequel to Prometheus. This not only means familiarity with the previous film is a must to understand much of Alien: Covenant, but it also makes the movie associate more with its underwhelming prequel than to the beloved first two films in the franchise. Just like in Prometheus, the true villain isn’t a terrifying alien and although there are still tons of creepy horror moments, the movie is more stomach churningly gruesome than it is outright scary.

The movie does deserve credit for making its characters a touch smarter than the ones in Prometheus (but only a slight touch) and unlike the previous installment, Covenant actually manages to answer more questions than it leaves on the table. But it still doesn’t do much to make itself more memorable. While it certainly doesn’t hearken back to the 1979 or 1986 films in thrills or suspense, Covenant does manage to be an intriguing and fun, albeit generic entry worth a watch for fans of the genre but possibly dismissive for anyone else.

FINAL GRADE: B

Alien: Covenant (Full Review)

RedBox Reviews 10/5/16

If you’re not feeling a night of binge watching Luke Cage on Netflix and want to have a nice movie night, here are a couple of films that came out this past Summer that are worth checking out.

money_monster_posterMONEY MONSTER George Clooney and Julia Roberts star as Lee Gates and Patty Fenn, host and director of a live stock tip TV show called Money Monster. After a company recommended by Gates as a surefire investment loses $800 million seemingly due to a random computer glitch, a down on his luck New Yorker (Jack O’Connell) who had stock in the company, takes the show’s studio hostage demanding answers. Meanwhile, the company’s CEO (Dominic West) is nowhere to be found as the city’s Police Captain (Giancarlo Esposito) contemplates a rescue attempt.

The film probably wants to be as compelling as John Q, but the suspense never comes close to reaching those heights. The biggest issues come with the latter half of the film, which spends far too much of its time delving into a convoluted conspiracy that involves computer hackers and an African rebellion. Nevertheless, compelling performances from the lead actors, especially Jack O’ Connell’s Kyle Budwell, give the audience reason to care about all of the pieces involved despite the lack of viable twists or turns. FINAL GRADE: B-

 

the_nice_guys_posterNICE GUYS It doesn’t matter whether you’re plot is a plucky short guy trying to impress his brother-in-law, or two Private Investigators trying to solve a murder case in the 1970’s; you can’t have a good buddy cop movie without chemistry between your lead actors. Chemistry, along with the vibrant style of the 70’s, is what makes Nice Guys a must see.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star as the aforementioned private investigators  who are forced into a partnership in order to investigate the murder of a Pornstar. Gosling’s bumbling boyishness meshes perfectly with Crowe’s scruffy loner to form a movie that is wildly entertaining despite its murder mystery plot suffering from far too many conveniences. Newcomer Angourie Rice stars as Gosling’s daughter and her witty presence adds just enough endearment to make this movie one to enjoy at least once. FINAL GRADE: B+

 

 

RedBox Reviews 10/5/16

Bad Moms (Full Review)

Poor mothers. They live for us, would die for us, and yet we aren’t always as gratifying to them as we should be during our awkward adolescent years. So a movie where moms get to cut back and have some fun should be a welcomed concept for not just the moms out there, but for anyone who has ever had a mother figure. Add some raunchy ‘R’ rated flavor to the mix and we’ve got ourselves a surprisingly fun movie in Bad Moms.

bad_moms_posterMila Kunis, who stills looks the same age she did in That 70’s Show, plays lead mom, Amy; a mother of a brainy girl too concerned about college while still in junior high and a son who is too lazy to apply himself. Dealing with kids and a boss that don’t appreciate her (Clark Duke), and a deadbeat husband (David Walton), Amy finally decides that enough is enough. With the help of a negligent, promiscuous mother of one (Kathryn Hahn) and an uptight, overstressed stay at home mom (Kristen Bell), Amy decides to be a bad mom and do what she wants for once. Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Annie Mumolo co-star as a trio of snooty, sinister PTA moms hell bent on making Amy and her friends conform.

At times, the story falls dangerously close to being as over-the-top corny as The Boss. Moments like a destructive trip to the grocery store come off as more cartoonish than outright funny and some of the characters like Jay Hernandez’s overly perfect love interest to Amy are about as realistic as a talking sponge. Most of the movie’s laughs are when it isn’t trying to be gut bustingly funny. The banter between the women, usually when driven by Hahn’s hilarious character Carla, is usually what works the best.

Where Bad Moms really succeeds is in its endearing message. Our moms, the women who gave life to us and would do anything for us, deserve to have enough appreciation to where they don’t have to be negligent just to feel like they matter. And by the end of the movie, we feel genuinely happy at where the three mom’s are in their relationships with their families. A nice touch during the end credits, which has the actresses being interviewed with their real life moms, adds just enough to make Bad Moms a feel good movie that is the perfect date to treat mom to.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Bad Moms (Full Review)

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

War Dogs (Full Review)

Don’t Breathe (Full Review)

Execution is very important in filmmaking, and for a movie with a simple concept, it is everything. Good vision and execution by the right director can make an average movie good and a good movie great. Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake of Evil Dead fell a bit flat for my taste (then again I find most supernatural horror films to be bland). This time around, Alvarez has a fresh story and a chance to make his mark in the genre.

Don't_Breathe_(2016_film)Don’t Breathe follows the lives of a group of young thieves living in a poverty stricken area of Detroit. Jane Levy stars as Rocky, a single mother living in a trailer park where she dreams of taking her young daughter away from her own emotionally abusive mother. Along with Alex (Dylen Minnette), the son of a security company owner, and her sleazy boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), the group spends their time breaking into homes and stealing valuables. When Money gets a tip about a reclusive blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) housing $300,000, the group conspires to rob him. The only problem is the old man is anything but a helpless old man and his house is no ordinary home.

The concept isn’t mind blowing, but Don’t Breathe manages to click as fine entertainment because of its subtlety and focus on tone. We don’t have to wait long for things to get going and the movie isn’t cluttered with annoying characters that don’t serve a purpose.  Focusing more on its eerie, threatening situations and not so much on gore or random jump scares, allows the movie to feel less like a generic horror and more like a thriller. Being trapped in an old, rickety house with a murderous blind man with relatively acute senses is a terrifying scenario, so even if you don’t care about any of the pieces involved, you can certainly feel their fear.

The way Alvarez shoots the film really helps it feel more suspenseful. Shots are kept in relatively close quarters, making the film feel dark and claustrophobic. It allows us to focus on characters without actually knowing what might be lurking just around the corner. One particular scene, involving the intruders attempting to escape the old man in a pitch black basement, utilizes grayed night vision and silence for a voyeuristic style that effectively accentuates the nervous tension.

It isn’t all grand. The movie certainly succumbs to the common pitfalls of the genre, mainly dumb decision making. At one point, Rocky stops, turns and gives a quip at the old man when she thinks she’s gotten free instead of just hauling ass to safety. This, of course, backfires like it would in every horror movie. Stupid, lack of common sense, events happen throughout, but the amount of unexpected twists and the sheer claustrophobic nature of the movie are enough to make it a solid 90 minutes of entertainment.

FINAL GRADE: B

Don’t Breathe (Full Review)