Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' review

Note: This review will contain mild spoilers for The Force Awakens, including a general summary of the plot. If you haven't seen it yet and you're attempting to go in completely blind, just know that it's awesome and come back to the review once you've seen the movie.

No movie in history has been more anticipated than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fans waited 32 years to see the return of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia to the big screen and after sitting through the misguided prequels, a lot was riding on this one for the Star Wars community and for Disney. This was the make or break movie- if The Force Awakens failed, the entire Star Wars enterprise could have been in trouble. I was counting down the days until December 17, gobbling up every single bit of information that I could find about the film. I don't remember ever being as excited for a film as I've been for The Force Awakens over the last year. The trailers were perfect, the buzz was ecstatic and the filmmakers behind it were extremely talented. But could it ever possibly live up to the insane hype?

Thankfully, Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivers. Taking everything that was good about the original trilogy and putting a modern spin on it, The Force Awakens injects new life into a franchise that seemed like it was on its last legs a decade ago. J.J. Abrams has reinvigorated this iconic series and given us everything that we could have possibly hoped for with this movie. Mixing wonderfully developed new characters with a heavy dose of sweet nostalgia, The Force Awakens is beautiful, thrilling, emotionally bold and a pure blast of fun. In simpler terms, it's everything you could want from a Star Wars movie.

Picking up three decades after the redemption of Darth Vader and the triumph of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens follows a new group of heroes who team up with some classic icons to save the galaxy from a sinister new threat. As the movie begins, we learn that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has been looking for her brother for years, but with very little success. However, Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), an old ally of the Republic, has discovered a possible way to finding Luke. Realizing that this might be her best hope to finding the last of the Jedi, Leia sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to retrieve the clue on the desert planet of Jakku. Unfortunately, Leia and the Republic are not the only ones looking for the map. The mysterious new force user Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), under the command of the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is also in pursuit of the map with the hopes of vanquishing the last Jedi once and for all.

After a vicious attack on a Jakku village by the First Order, Poe puts the map inside BB-8, a new droid who happens to be Poe's loyal partner, and is captured, leaving the droid on Jakku. Meanwhile, a rogue Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) decides to desert the First Order and help Poe escape. The two new friends crash on Jakku and Finn ends up finding the BB unit, along with a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey simply wants to stay on Jakku and wait for her family, but circumstances force her to depart the desert planet. With targets on their back, Finn, Rey and BB-8 end up embarking on an adventure through the farthest reaches of the galaxy along with legendary smuggler and rebel fighter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his trusty co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Together, they will work to prevent the rise of the First Order and discover the force that they hold within.

There is a really big fear around the internet about spoilers for The Force Awakens, and even though I added the forewarning at the beginning, I tried to keep that synopsis as light on spoilers as I could (what I described is basically the first 30 minutes of the film). But you should know this- there's no way that you can spoil the film experience that is the newest Star Wars film. Watching the film with an audience gives you an indescribable feeling and even if you know the twists and turns, I guarantee that you will still be shocked at each one. I knew the general gist of the plot going in and I still had a blast. I maintain that it's not about what happens in a movie, but how it happens, why it happens and the emotional involvement that you have with the characters.

So with all that said, let's talk about this amazing film, shall we? But before I get too deep into what I love so much about this film, let's get this out of the way as well- yes, The Force Awakens is remarkably similar to A New Hope. That has been going around the internet for the last few weeks and it's undoubtedly true. But make no mistake- this is no mere copy of A New Hope. Director J.J. Abrams uses the template of George Lucas' iconic sci-fi masterpiece to tell a brand new story with some of the most well-written characters of the year. The beats are similar, but it's told in a fresh manner and it's told with energy and passion, with Abrams drawing on these archetypes to create instant icons like Rey and Kylo Ren. It's the equivalent of how every Bond film follows the same story. So to me, while it's noticeable, it is not an issue that detracts from the film.

The problems with George Lucas' prequel trilogy have been noted over time and I don't particularly care to go into detail over what made them not work. All you need to know is this- the prequels are a part of my childhood and they are pure Lucas filmmaking, but they fail to tell a good story and looking back on it, they're incredibly wooden and dull. But as I continue to look closer, I've come to realize that the prequels were a necessary evil of sorts. Without them, future filmmakers may not have realized what made Star Wars so special. Abrams takes all the wrongs from the prequels and fixes them in The Force Awakens, capturing the pure spirit of fun from the original trilogy. There are no trade embargoes, or flat characters or overly choreographed fights. Abrams has brought Star Wars back to its pulpy science fiction roots to create a blockbuster concoction that will be enjoyed for generations.

The biggest testament to the greatness of The Force Awakens is how it features so many great new characters. It would have been easy for The Force Awakens to be all fan service and tell the continuation of Luke Skywalker's story, and yet, J.J. Abrams knows that that story has ended. It's wonderful to see Han, Chewie and Leia again, but I had even more fun meeting this new batch of heroes and villains. Every new character is written expertly, blending the classic Joseph Campbell archetypes with a fresh spin on things. Daisy Ridley's Rey is the new face of this franchise and I don't think that Abrams and his team could have picked anybody better to fill this role. Ridley is a mostly untested actress, but she tackles the role with a toughness and an instant likability that will surely make Rey a feminist icon. But she's more than that- she's a hero that everyone can get behind. There's a level of mystery to Rey, but there's also a sincerity that makes her one of the most enjoyable new faces in this chapter.

John Boyega's Finn is a terrific addition to the cast as well and I truly feel that Finn is the emotional center of the movie. Rey very much follows the Luke Skywalker path to a T, but Finn is a bit of a different creation. He's a runaway Stormtrooper who refuses to continue to fight for the First Order after witnessing a brutal village massacre. Finn combines the wholesomeness of Luke and the rugged wit of Han Solo for one of the most enjoyable characters of the movie- the screenwriters know how to write dialogue for him and Boyega performs it to perfection. Finally, to round out our trio of heroes, we have Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. He's the best fighter pilot in the Resistance and one of my favorite characters in the movie. Dameron doesn't have as much to do as he should, but Isaac continues to show that he's one of the best young actors on the planet. I can't wait to see more Poe (and hopefully more of Finn and Poe paired together) in the sequels. Oh, and BB-8's awesome. He's the fourth part of our new group of heroes and he's an immediately influential character. I can't wait to see more of him.

On the villainous side of things, there are four new characters- Domnhall Gleeson's General Hux, Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. Gleeson is deliciously Hitler-esque as the First Order's leader, despite it being a rather small part. Christie and Serkis don't have a whole lot to do either, although we've been promised that the two characters will have expanded roles in the sequels. But from the first scene on, this is Adam Driver's show. Kylo Ren is the best villain of the year, a complex and interesting meditation on Darth Vader. He's by far the most compelling character in the movie and I loved everything that Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan did with Kylo. To say more would get into spoiler territory so I'll leave it there for now. Just know that we're going to be talking about this character for a very long time.

But there's probably one other question that is still on your mind- how does the original cast do in this new landscape? The answer is that they all do pretty fantastic. Harrison Ford has the most screentime of the original trio by a wide margin, and he's appropriately brilliant. There's a reason that Ford seemed excited to be involved with this project- Kasdan and Abrams have written a brilliant arc for him and the dialogue is so fantastic. Everything feels like something Han Solo would say. If Ford doesn't get an Oscar nomination, it'll be shocking to me. In addition to that, Carrie Fisher proves that she's still an actress. Even though she may be absolutely nuts (in a good way) off the set, she instantly transforms back into the iconic Princess (oh, excuse me, General) that we all know and love. Her scenes with Ford are tender and emotional, and the moment that she's introduced made me well up with tears. As for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.......well, I'll let you find that out for yourself.

The acting is great and it's only amplified by the wonderful screenplay by Abrams, Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. The story isn't anything revolutionary, but I absolutely love the way that it takes the events of the originals and gives them a mythic quality. In this universe, Luke, Leia and Han are mere legends. Some believe in the Force and the Jedi, but many others think of them in only mythical terms. Just like Creed and Jurassic World, The Force Awakens tells its tale from a legacy perspective and it tells it in a real, grounded way. It may have seemed like our heroes saved the day and that all was well at the end of Return of the Jedi, but that's just not the way the world works sometimes. Things happen and I love the true tragedy and sadness that lies at the heart of the original characters in this film- they've experienced so much in 30 years and they've grown. They're in similar, but different places and it allows for them to have their final arc of redemption. It's brilliant character screenwriting by the three men in charge.

But it's not all sadness and tragedy in The Force Awakens. No, this is certainly the most fun you'll have in a movie theater all year. People bash J.J. Abrams all the time for reasons that are valid (wrong, but valid), but I don't think that any other director could have made this film with the vigor and pizzazz that he brings to the table. The pacing in The Force Awakens is brisk and terrific, constantly moving the film along, stopping only rarely to dole out exposition. Just like Lucas did in A New Hope, Abrams gives you a sense that there's a lot that we've missed in between Episodes VI and VII. Our characters are in a different place and the galaxy has evolved immensely. In addition to that, Abrams is a terrific physical director and all of the action scenes are sheer awe-inspiring spectacle, blending the classic special effects of A New Hope with a new digital look. Gone are the blue-screen dominated days of the prequels- this is another film that has a tangible look to it and that's one of the best things about the movie.

The Force Awakens is a flawed film. There are problems. There are a few too many things left unexplained and some coincidences that are just plain silly. And yet, The Force Awakens is, without a doubt, a great film. It's great because of what it brings us back to. Star Wars feels like Star Wars again. Wonderfully drawn characters, edge-of-your-seat action, modern mythmaking- it's all there. The Force Awakens is spirited in a way that we haven't seen since 1980, filled with charm, humor and sadness. The Star Wars franchise was always about going on a roller-coaster ride of action, comedy, and emotion. It was a Saturday morning serial done on a big-budget. J.J. Abrams has resurrected that feeling, giving the proper role for an older generation and welcoming a new generation of instantly lovable characters. His task was huge and he did remarkably well.

The Force Awakens made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me cheer. It gave me hope for the future of Star Wars. That's all I ever wanted it to do. And it lived up to every expectation. J.J. Abrams has delivered a masterclass in modern blockbuster filmmaking, returning us to a galaxy that we can't wait to visit again and again. Filled with dynamic heroes, despicably fascinating villains, absolutely perfect music from John Williams and gorgeous setpieces, The Force Awakens honors the old by bringing in the new, and by doing so, sets the Star Wars franchise on a path to continued success in the future. The Force has awakened. And every Star Wars fan and moviegoer who witnesses this wonderful film will feel it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Joblo

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christopher Nolan to direct World War II flick 'Dunkirk' for Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is my favorite working director today. He constantly designs innovative movies and his collection of films contains a laundry list of classics- Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception and so on. He's one of the few directors that sells movies based on his name alone and there is always significant anticipation for his next project. After completing his sci-fi magnum opus Interstellar, there were a lot of questions about what genre Nolan would delve into next. Would he return to the superhero movies that he nearly perfected with his Dark Knight trilogy? Would he go back to the crime roots that began his career and create another film like Memento or Insomnia? Or would he simply stick with the heady sci-fi genre that had made him billions of dollars at the box office? After taking 2015 off to develop new projects, Nolan's next film received a date of July 21, 2017 a couple months ago. Now, we have official details on his next project and I think that it's something that nobody quite expected.

Warner Bros. officially announced earlier this week that Christopher Nolan will be directing Dunkirk, an action thriller set during World War II that tells the story of the legendary battle. Here's the press release:

"Warner Bros. Pictures announced today that Christopher Nolan will direct "Dunkirk" from his own original screenplay. An epic action thriller, "Dunkirk" is set during the legendary evacuation. The announcement was made by Greg Silverman, President, Creative Development and Worldwide Production.

The large scale film will be shot on a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large format film photography for maximum image quality and high impact immersion. Shooting will begin in May using many of the real locations of the true-life events, which form the background for the story.

The cast will be headed by yet-to-be-cast unknowns. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy are currently in talks to join the ensemble.

Nolan will also produce the film with his longtime producing partner Emma Thomas.

Silverman stated, "We are thrilled to be continuing our collaboration with Christopher Nolan, a singular filmmaker who has created some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films of all time. 'Dunkirk' is a gripping and powerful story and we are excited to see Chris, Emma and their cast realize it on the big screen."

Warner Bros. Pictures is distributing "Dunkirk" worldwide and has slated the film for a July 21, 2017 release. The film will be released theatrically on IMAX, 70mm, 35mm and all other screens."

I must admit, I never really thought of Christopher Nolan directing a war movie. But I have endless faith in Nolan's talents so I can definitely see this being in his wheelhouse. Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo have yet to receive good cinematic treatments, so I can see the temptation for Nolan to tell the defining story here like Spielberg did for D-Day with Saving Private Ryan. And with a cast led by Rylance, Hardy and Branagh, this definitely has a lot of promise on the acting front. I'll have to really get a good look at Nolan's film to understand what he's going for here, but all I know now is that I'm interested. Dunkirk debuts on July 21, 2017.

'The Big Short' review

As someone who grew up in the 2000s, I know that the housing bubble in 2008 and the subsequent near-apocalyptic collapse of the world economy was a big deal. It's one of those things that just constantly hung around the news for years and while living in the second biggest US banking city probably didn't help, there's no doubt that the 2008 crash was a defining event for the decade. And yet, before watching this film, I couldn't have told you what happened. And if you did try to tell me, what you were saying probably didn't make any sense unless you really over-simplified things. This is the magic of Adam McKay's superbly tragic film The Big Short. It doesn't dumb things down for the audience. This film is too smart for that. Instead, it doles out its information in a way that people can understand. It knows that people don't care about or comprehend CDOs or ISDAs or synthetic CDOs. So, it gives you Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you.

By taking something so mundane and making it so entertaining, comedic director Adam McKay has opened the floodgates to create one of the best movies of the year. Economics are not, nor have they ever been, an interesting subject. As Ryan Gosling's smug banker Jared Vennett says- "Wall Street likes to use complicated terms to make you think that only they can do what they do." Economics uses a wide array of acronyms, graphs and complicated mathematical equations to explain supply and demand, production possibilities and the overall trends of economics. It's endlessly confusing. Thanks to a killer script and the use of a variety of narrative techniques, Adam McKay has somehow made economics less mind-boggling. The material is very deep, but there's never a moment in this film where the audience doesn't know what's going on or what the characters are talking about.

The Big Short looks at the ineptitude of the banks with a slightly humorous eye, but ultimately, the message at the heart of this film is truly sad. Why didn't anybody stop the banks before it was too late, and most importantly, why didn't they listen to the guys who had it all figured out? McKay doesn't have an answer to this question, but in the process of trying to solve the puzzle of the housing collapse, he has created a movie that will make you laugh while simultaneously crushing you and shaking your faith in the system.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has found something very, very interesting. The socially awkward doctor-turned-hedge fund manager has discovered a bubble at the heart of the housing market. Everybody thinks that he's crazy. The chief investor of his hedge fund, his co-workers, the banks- to them, Burry is certifiably insane. Burry shorts over $1.3 billion on the housing market, placing all of his chips on the idea of the housing collapse in 2008. The banks accept his "free money" willingly, but the rest of the financial world brushes off his ideas. Except for Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The investor (who also serves as the narrator of the film) knows that there's opportunity in placing money on credit default swaps.

Thanks to a wrong phone number, Vennett's idea ends up in the hands of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the pissed-off hedge fund manager who is sick of the corruption and ignorance that dominates Wall Street. Baum and his small team of partners (Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong) are initially distrustful of Vennett. Because let's face it, Jared Vennett is kind of a shady character- he reminds me of a Jordan Belfort lite. But once Baum gets the chance to investigate the facts, he realizes that buying defaults is a brilliant move. In addition, word also gets to Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), two young and hungry businessmen trying to get to the big table on Wall Street. Through the help of retired  Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), the two will find their own unique way to make money off the crash. As the crash approaches, these individuals will soon learn of the total stupidity of everybody involved with the banking fiasco and the diseased center of the financial district that nearly destroyed the American economy.

The Big Short is drawing a lot of comparisons between itself and The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's 2013 epic. And those comparisons are understandable- both are very dynamic and energetic films that tell stories of financial greed. When I saw The Big Short for the first time (I've seen it twice now), I was expecting to see something incredibly similar to Scorsese's film, a sort of Wolf of Wall Street 2.0. I couldn't have been more wrong. The films are different in a distinct way. I maintain my stance that Scorsese's film is a generation-defining movie, a film that presents a terrible view of the American Dream gone insane (you wouldn't believe how many people signed up for my Economics class thinking it would be like Leonardo DiCaprio's Caligula-inspired opus). But I do think that Adam McKay had to do something much, much trickier with The Big Short.

The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas in the world of stock brokers.

The Big Short is a film that has to try to explain the complicated and endlessly convoluted economic collapse in a way that everyday audiences can understand.

The fact that The Big Short almost manages to be as wildly absorbing as that film is a testament to Adam McKay. Because without Adam McKay, there's a good chance that this movie is really, really boring. McKay has been a stalwart in the world of comedy for years. Before this film, every single movie that he had ever made had been with Will Ferrell- Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, both Anchorman movies and so on. McKay is an outsider in the world of Oscar voters and For Your Consideration ads and critics circles. Which is why he was the perfect one to direct The Big Short.

Any other director would have told it in a very straight way, detailing the triumph of the outsiders who took down the system. It would have been a traditional Oscar movie and it would have sucked. Some have complained about The Big Short playing "inside baseball" (a term for a movie that tells a story filled with info that only a few people can appreciate), but that's completely wrong. In the hands of any other director, The Big Short would be "inside baseball"- it would have been pretentious and inaccessible to most audience members. Adam McKay takes a difficult story and makes it easy for everybody to understand, trying a wide variety of techniques to convey difficult information. Whether it's cutaways to celebrities like Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDOs or Ryan Gosling's narration or the use of songs like Ludacris' "Money Maker," McKay's film is constantly innovating, keeping the audience on their toes. His script is fast and funny and his direction is both intimate and sweeping. He deserves every award that is coming his way.

Thankfully, McKay has help from a wonderful troupe of actors. If Spotlight hadn't already hit theaters this year, I would have said for sure that this was the best cast of the year (and it can probably hold its own against Spotlight). There's no real lead actor here- just like Tom McCarthy's instant classic journalism flick, this is a true ensemble piece. Christian Bale is probably the standout as Burry, the brilliant hedge fund manager with a glass eye. Bale is terrific and he masters all of the character's small tics, from small facial movements to the way that he moves and so on. He's simply one of the best actors on the planet. Steve Carell is also wonderful as Baum, who succeeds as the movie's emotional core. This is a much less showy role for Carell when put in comparison with his turn in last year's Foxcatcher, but it's an impressive one nonetheless- on a character level, Carell has the most to work with. Gosling succeeds in playing the sleazy investor role of Vennett and he brings so much swagger to the role. He continues to show that he's one of our most dynamic actors, able to play any character and do a fantastic job.

Brad Pitt is probably the only other superstar in the cast and he does solid work as the paranoid former Wall Street banker Ben Rickert. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro are mostly unknown actors, but they are remarkably good as the young guys eager to make a couple bucks off of the impending crisis. And to complete the cast, Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater all bring their own unique touch to create Mark Baum's motley band of investors. They mostly follow Mark around as he shudders in disbelief, and yet, they each do wonders with their characters. In addition, Melissa Leo has one great scene and Marisa Tomei is left with little to do.

The Big Short is a blast of fun. That's not debatable. It's a terrifically well-paced film that never lets up until the very end. And that moment where it finally lets up is McKay's final stroke of genius. He lifts the veil of entertainment to reveal something truly tragic and almost depressing. All of this happened and nobody got caught. And Wall Street and the bankers and the ratings agencies will probably just keep on doing the same old thing. On initial viewing, it feels like a total punch to the gut. You're simply astonished by what happens and you don't expect it at all. The second time around, a profound sadness sets in. McKay is great at staging the zippy humor of the film, but he's even better at creating the cataclysmic ending.

As an indictment of a system that failed us all, The Big Short is heartbreaking. And as a film and a piece of cinema, it's fascinating and constantly engaging. Simply put, it's everything that you could want in a movie. After years of working in the comedy genre, Adam McKay has broken out into his own unique flavor of storytelling and it works brilliantly. Improving upon multiple viewings and led by a consistently phenomenal cast, The Big Short is a true eye-opener and an unexpected burst of pure cinematic enjoyment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, Screen Rant, Joblo

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' leads massive Christmas frame with best second weekend of all time

The money train continued over the Christmas holiday weekend for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as it snagged the biggest second weekend in history. At this point, The Force Awakens is on a fast track to being the highest grossing film of all time- it will certainly top Avatar in the US, and there's a good chance that it'll beat James Cameron's film globally too. Over its second weekend, Star Wars grossed $149.2 million, enough to raise its total to $540 million. That's a 10 day record for the film and with that number, it's already the fifth highest grossing movie of all time, behind only Avatar, Titanic, Jurassic World, Avatar and The Avengers. In addition, The Force Awakens raised its global total to over $1 billion, reaching that number in a record 12 days. The Force Awakens' current worldwide gross stands at $1.16 billion, making it the tenth highest grossing film of all time.

On Monday, The Force Awakens pulled in another $31.3 million, putting its US total at a spectacular $571.4 million. Industry projections are showing that the seventh installment in the classic franchise will reach $700 million by the end of the New Year's frame, putting it only $60 million away from the all time record. There's even the distinct possibility at this point that Star Wars flies into the top ten highest grossing films of all time even when adjusted for inflation- $1 billion in the US alone is certainly not off the table. People are seeing this movie multiple times and believe it or not, a large number of people have been holding off. This movie will continue to be a blockbuster well through February and that's simply unheard of in the box office world. Believe the hype- this is an unprecedented event.

Most of the people who got sold out of The Force Awakens seemed to head down to the nearest auditorium that was playing Daddy's Home, the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg-starred family (that term is pretty loosely used, for a movie that contains a large amount of penis jokes) comedy. The film made $38.7 million, a very solid number proving that the idea of opening a PG-13 laughfest against The Force Awakens wasn't a bad idea. The film also received a "B+" Cinemascore, which indicates that this one will have decent legs going into the New Year. It's far from a sure thing, but there's a very good chance that this one hits $100 million or higher (it did do an additional $6.3 million on Monday- a strong number).

In third place was David O. Russell's Joy, the biopic of Miracle Mop founder Joy Mangano. The former Oscar favorite took in $17 million, a relatively steady number in the wake of such stiff competition. It fell just a bit shy of the $19 million that American Hustle made during its wide expansion two years ago, but the reviews for Russell's last film were much stronger, which makes an apples-to-apples comparison difficult. Nonetheless, I struggle to see any situation where Joy breaks out big. It'll finish with around $50 million- a respectable total for any adult-skewing drama.

Sisters and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, holdovers from last weekend, took fourth and fifth place and raised their respective totals. But the more interesting box office results happened further down the line. Adam McKay's terrific housing crisis dramedy The Big Short expanded into 1,585 theaters and made $10.53 million, which brings its cume to $16 million. However, the most interesting note about The Big Short was that even with its smaller theater count, it beat out Will Smith's Concussion, which opened in 2,841 theaters with $10.5 million. This really shows you the importance of having good reviews and Oscar buzz.

Point Break was the weekend's big flop, finishing in eighth place with $9.8 million off a budget that was reported to be upwards of $100 million. Just another flop in a long line of failures for Warner Bros. This has definitely not been their year. They've gotta be hoping that their 2016 slate turns things around, otherwise they might be in trouble. Finally, The Hateful Eight opened in 100 theaters, but still managed to snag a 10th place finish. The film took in $4.6 million in glorious 70mm film locations for a per-screen average of $46,107. Quentin Tarantino's latest masterpiece expands into thousands of digital theaters tomorrow, but if you can see the 70mm Roadshow edition, you should definitely do that. It's an experience that I won't soon forget.

This weekend sees the expansion of The Hateful Eight, but other than that, the studios are taking the first weekend of 2016 off. Here are my predictions:

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens- $86 million
2. The Hateful Eight- $26 million
3. Daddy's Home- $24.7 million
4. Joy- $12 million
5. Sisters- $10.4 million
6. The Big Short- $9.7 million
7. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip- $9 million
8. Concussion- $8.3 million
9. Point Break- $5.4 million
10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2- $4 million

Image Credits: Star Wars, Variety, Screen Rant, Joblo

'Joy' review

David O. Russell is unquestionably one of my favorite directors working today. I first saw some of his films at a time when I was beginning to expand my filmgoing horizons, and Silver Linings Playbook hit me hard. I loved that movie to death and I still connect with its characters and its wit and humor on many levels. Less than a year later, American Hustle debuted and also blew me away with its stylish setting, phenomenal performances and a masterful sense of pacing and tone. From that point on, I knew that Russell could line up any project and I would be down for it. So when I heard he was tackling the story of Joy Mangano, the creator of the Miracle Mop, I was intrigued. I wasn't completely sold on the concept, but with Russell writing and directing the film and a cast led by Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, I figured that there was no way that this one could go wrong.

Well, maybe I should have been a bit more cautious.

Joy is not even close to being a bad movie. Very far from it, actually. There's a lot to like here, with plenty of strong performances and some trademark Russell moments. But as many critics have noted over time, Russell's films always walk an incredibly fine line between order and chaos. After his hot streak over the last few years, Joy is his first film in a while to fall onto that chaotic side. Noticeably tamer than his previous efforts, Joy feels like an odd clash between dysfunctional family drama, Godfather-esque business epic and fairy tale, with no style overwhelming the other. What amounts is a solid and occasionally compelling drama that feels monumentally disappointing in the aftermath of Russell's last two instant classics. But man, Bradley Cooper is really good in it.

Following the story of a the titular character (Jennifer Lawrence) over several decades of her life, Joy is an epic tale of family, business and power. Joy starts her life with big ambitions- she's valedictorian of her high school class, and is promised by her grandmother (Diane Ladd) that she will go on to do and create great things in her life. Cut to several years later, and things aren't going quite as planned. Joy meets and marries an aspiring singer named Tony (Edgar Ramirez), but the marriage falls apart rather quickly and she divorces him without hesitation. However, the two remain close and Tony ends up living in her basement. In addition to that, she's also living with her children, her soap opera-obsessed mother (Virginia Madsen) and her grandmother, and to make matters worse, one day, her father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), is dropped back off on her doorstep. With a whole house full of dysfunctional, poor people, Joy needs a way out.

So she creates the Miracle Mop. The only mop you'll ever need. 300 feet of cotton put together by Joy herself. Self-ringing with the ability to put it in the washing machine when needed. This is Joy's pitch and after she receives a loan from Rudy's new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), Joy works tirelessly to sell her product and get out of debt. Her big break comes when she meets QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) who gives her the opportunity to sell her Miracle Mop live on TV. But just when it seems like things are going her way, Joy realizes that she has walked into a web of crime, deceit and treachery and that her next moves will determine her business fate forever.

Okay, let's get this one out there right off the bat- David O. Russell made the story of the Miracle Mop about as interesting as humanly possible. Because let's face it, the story of the woman who created a mop doesn't exactly scream out to you and make you say "Wow, that should be a movie someday!" And I have to give him a lot of credit for creating an interesting character story that is decently entertaining and says something about the undervalued and discredited contributions of strong women to society over time. Unfortunately, by straining so hard to make this story fit his traditional mold of storytelling, Russell's latest has lost quite a bit of the bite that made his other films remarkable.

First off, Joy is PG-13. Ratings shouldn't matter, but with Joy, it really changes everything. Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were far from hard-R's, but they were pretty liberal with the language and that freed Russell to take the characters in new and unique directions. Now, I'm not saying that profanity always makes film dialogue more effective, but in certain cases, it's essential. Imagine a Tarantino movie without a good amount of swearing. By making Joy with a PG-13 rating, Russell's film loses that acidity, that stinging intensity that Playbook and Hustle had in droves. Those two films have some verbal sparring matches for the ages. Joy has some moment where it feels like it's about to go down, but Russell holds back. This is some remarkably toned down stuff.

In addition to that, Russell really shot for the stars with this movie. Compared to his relatively small, intimate efforts in the past, Joy is stunningly ambitious. Attempting to tell the story of a character over several years is no small task and unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Russell was quite up to it. Joy bounces around time periods and doesn't really seem to know what part of the story it wants to tell- which is majorly problematic since all three stories have different arcs. Is this the story of a girl whose dreams were crushed by her ridiculous family? Is it about a woman who becomes a rags-to-riches icon overnight? Or is it a feminist story about a woman who gets tired of dealing with the system and becomes a Michael Corleone figure? Joy tries to do all three of those things and the result is less than desirable. If Russell had picked one and worked on it thoroughly, this could have been a mesmerizing film. But as of now, it gets pretty messy.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of things that Russell's latest get right with the performances almost saving the entire film. Jennifer Lawrence's turn as Joy isn't as sweetly unhinged as her performance in Playbook or as completely bonkers as American Hustle, but it highlights her growing maturity as an actress. She's able to give plenty of nuances to Joy, and despite the occasional screw-ups of the movie, you constantly root for Joy. I wouldn't say it's her best performance, but this is by far the most difficult task she's been given so far, and she does some very impressive work with it. Robert De Niro is also solid as Rudy, although as I look back at it, there's no truly raw emotional moment like the one he has with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. He's there, he's funny and he acts like Robert De Niro. It's nothing spectacular.

Edgar Ramirez has good chemistry with Lawrence and De Niro, Elisabeth Rohm succeeds in creating a despicable character and Virginia Madsen plays a crazy person very well, but nobody, and I mean nobody in this film is as good as Bradley Cooper. And I think a lot of that is due to the fact that Russell knows how to write dialogue for Cooper. He stages Cooper's Neil Walker as a laser-focused, purely determined businessman who will cut your throat the minute you disappoint him. Walker brings an intensity and a drive to the movie that it was previously missing. For a moment, I felt like I was witnessing a whole different movie. When Cooper shows up, the movie jolts to life, and once again, his chemistry with Lawrence is terrific. He seriously deserves some supporting Oscar attention for his performance in this film.

There are also moments where David O. Russell's screenplay achieves dizzying heights. Even though Joy is a significantly quieter film when put in comparison to Russell's other movies, his dialogue still has a crackerjack power to it that serves all of the characters really well. But this time around, Russell's script has one major failing- it's let down by a narrative that is truly incoherent at times. The film's jumpy, wild story just doesn't work and the ending is a major letdown. For a film like Joy, one that gains a lot of momentum in the second half and gets better as it goes along, having a terrific ending is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here.

If anything, Joy makes me appreciate the brilliance of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle more. I know that those films get a lot of hate, but they're able to do a very tricky, almost intangible thing that I struggle to put into words. It was a rare instance of a director making two films that just click perfectly, and the results were magical. Joy is Russell's latest attempt to recreate that magic, but sometimes, you just don't have it. Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro make for a formidable trio, but despite a smattering of engaging moments, Joy isn't the Great American Epic that Russell was hoping for (although I must give him props for trying something this bold). It's a fine small-scale drama that gets its priorities mixed up. If it had come from any other director, it might have received a better critical reception. But that's the burden of being an incredible director- when you hit so many home runs, sometimes a single feels like a strikeout.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Joblo

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Second 'Deadpool' trailer displays all kinds of red-band mayhem

In 2016, we will be completely inundated with superhero films. Batman and Superman are set to square off along with Wonder Woman in Dawn of Justice, Captain America and Iron Man will duel in Civil War, the X-Men are set to fight their greatest test yet in Apocalypse, the villains of the DC universe will arrive on the scene in Suicide Squad, and Marvel's sorcerer supreme will make his Hollywood debut in Doctor Strange. But for some longtime comic book fans, the 2016 superhero movie that tops their most anticipated list is none other than Fox's Deadpool. After the studio and director Gavin Hood royally screwed up the character in 2009's X-Men: Origins- Wolverine, Ryan Reynolds is back as the "Merc with a Mouth" and he's hoping to give us the version of Deadpool that fans know and love. The first trailer was a smash hit at San Diego Comic-Con back in July, and now, there's a second red-band trailer that puts the film's bloody mayhem on full blast. Check it out below:

There's one question that you have to ask yourself after watching that trailer.

Can I imagine watching two hours of that?

For me, as of right now, the answer is no. Deadpool is a fun character, but in doses. A two-and-a-half minute trailer does Deadpool justice because it gives you just the right amount of quips and a perfect amount of gratuitous violence. But over the course of a full length movie, I'm still concerned that this movie might not deliver the goods, or worse, get annoying very quickly. Tim Miller is a first-time director and that could end up being problematic as well. So with all that said, it's safe to say that I'm wary about Deadpool. And yet, this is another fantastic teaser, delivering everything that fans would want. Heads roll, f-bombs are dropped, sex jokes are made- it's all in the traditional Deadpool fashion. And if the filmmakers can strike a good mix between the story and the vulgarity, then we're in for a treat. But if that doesn't happen, we might be in for a long watch.

Deadpool stars Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, T.J. Miller, Stan Lee, Rachel Sheen and Taylor Hickson and will hit theaters on February 12.

Image Credits: Joblo

'Chi-Raq' review

Despite what his critics or haters might say, Spike Lee is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices in American cinema. His films might not always be up to par, but there's no questioning Lee's ability to tackle tough subjects with intensity and a satirical bite. In many ways, Lee's Chi-Raq is his most virulent and thought-provoking film since Do the Right Thing. Jumping into a controversial topic with a poetic bend, Chi-Raq is so thrillingly current and so strikingly urgent that it's almost overwhelming. And the critical response has been unsurprisingly fervent. Chi-Raq currently stands at 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been the topic of many think-pieces over the last few weeks. This film is a wonderful conversation starter, stunningly ambitious and filled with endless content to dissect, discuss and contemplate. That alone makes it hard not to recommend Chi-Raq. This is a film of the NOW. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. NOW. But as a story, does it work? No. It's a crazed mess of tones, styles and ideas that never fully comes together. But we'll get to that later. For now, all you need to know is that Chi-Raq feels like it was made yesterday. That is its blessing and its curse.

Chi-Raq opens with a map of the United States of America. But this is no ordinary map. It's created out of an assortment of guns. Nick Cannon's "Please Pray 4 My City" thunders through the background, launching us into the world of Spike Lee, as we learn that murders in the city of Chicago have exceeded those of US soldiers in the Middle East. And it's during these moments that Chi-Raq hits the hardest. Yes, it's preachy. This is a message movie. But it's a message movie that makes you think. That's what they're supposed to do, right? And on top of that, Chi-Raq is a message movie told with explosive energy.

From there, we move to the story of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), a woman living in the heart of the violence in Chicago. Her boyfriend is Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a semi-famous rapper and the leader of the Spartan gang, engaged in a war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) and the rival Trojans. In the aftermath of a gun battle, the murder of a child and a house fire, Lysistrata decides that action must be taken. She consults with Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), the wise old woman next door, and hatches a plan. The men won't put down the guns, so it's time to take the other thing they love- sex. Assembling an army of women determined to end the violence, Lysistrata begins a true movement that spreads across the globe and strikes fear in the heart of gangsters, politicians and regular Americans everywhere.

I don't think I've ever had stronger mixed feelings on a movie than I have with Chi-Raq. Spike Lee's reflection on our current societal landscape is so shocking and unique that I feel like it's a movie that you should see just because of how germane it is to our modern world. This is a rousing sermon with references to George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Darren Wilson, Sandra Bland, Dylan Roof and more- if there's anything going on in America right now that revolves around race or violence, this movie discusses it. While watching Chi-Raq, I was in awe with how much Lee managed to fit into the movie, and just how up-to-date it was. Heck, they even reference the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef and that happened in September. I don't know what the production schedule was for Chi-Raq, but this movie feels like it was made last week.

Chi-Raq also uses a very provocative way to tell its story. It's told almost exclusively in rhyme, echoing Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Lee's inspiration for this modern day tale of gang warfare. This is Lee's most valuable asset- his ability to take a tough and somewhat uncomfortable subject and inject it with vibrant power and a vitality unmatched by most filmmakers. Chi-Raq does everything it can to try to get you to listen, whether it's a hip-hop spirit, pop culture references, or obvious fourth-wall breaking done by Samuel L. Jackson's narrator Dolmedes. And at times, it works. Chi-Raq is most certainly a sermon, but it's a very entertaining one at that. The poetry, the narrative techniques, the performances- it all works.

What doesn't work is the story. And it was so disappointing to me, because I loved everything else that Lee had set up so much. Chi-Raq is so scatter-brained and unfocused that it becomes almost intolerable at times. At 127 minutes, this is quite a lengthy film and it never gives you a single character to latch onto or one fully cohesive plot thread to follow. Teyonah Parris is wonderful as Lysistrata, but she disappears for large chunks of the film, making it difficult to call this her story. Nick Cannon is great as Chi-Raq, and yet just like Lysistrata, his character comes and goes. Cannon's gangster rapper has the biggest and most satisfying arc over the course of the film, but it almost seems forced at times. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson delivers a standout turn as the narrator of the story, and yes, just like every other character in this story, Dolmedes pops in and out whenever Lee decides that it's necessary that they show up.

If Lee had gone for something truly abstract and fascinating with Chi-Raq, the lack of focus and the lack of a truly centered plot wouldn't have been a problem. But in its current state, Chi-Raq is obviously trying to tell a story. Unfortunately, that story never really goes anywhere. Lee wanders around from topic to topic, spewing out opinions and ideas at a pace that's hard to keep up with. It's actually very impressive in a way and I feel like a lot of people who hold positions of power need to see this movie and hear what Spike Lee has to say. His voice thunders throughout the entirety of Chi-Raq and you can feel his passion in every frame. If Lee had structured this film as a speech or as a TED talk, Chi-Raq might have been more compelling and easier to follow. But as a piece of cinema, Chi-Raq is severely lacking.

It's a necessary film, but not exactly a good one. That's the best way I can describe Chi-Raq. Its concept is endlessly fascinating and the material is so compelling, but the shell that it's contained within drops the ball. However, I really want to stress that I'm still impressed by what Spike Lee did with this film. He took a subject that nobody wanted to touch and made something daring and thoroughly vital. And even if Chi-Raq fails in many aspects, it's still a meaningful failure. I know that there's a great film buried within this mess of ideas and tangents. It just needed more time to come together properly.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.5/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Screen Rant, Indiewire

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' demolishes box office records with record opening weekend, rockets to $391 million in one week

We knew that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was going to be big. The only question going into last weekend was- how big? Well, we now have our answer. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken nearly every record in the book, plowing its way through history to become an unprecedented box office juggernaut. And the money train won't be stopping anytime soon- according to Deadline, Force Awakens could fly as high as $1 billion in the United States, which would handily top Avatar's $760.5 million and send Star Wars into the top ten highest grossing films of all time, even when adjusted for inflation. Worldwide numbers are a bit more iffy right now, but Disney has no reason to fret- The Force Awakens will undoubtedly be the highest grossing movie of the year, and by the time it's all over, will likely have toppled Titanic as well. Let's recap a phenomenal week of box office history before the Christmas movie explosion begins.

I saw The Force Awakens on Thursday, and in that immediate moment, I knew that we would be seeing complete mayhem at the box office. Lines to see the film wrapped around my theater and there were sold out auditoriums everywhere. To the surprise of nobody, Star Wars handily destroyed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2's Thursday late show/midnight record of $43.5 million with $57 million in Thursday grosses. While it's important to note that Potter didn't open until midnight whereas Force Awakens opened at 7 PM, this is an incredibly impressive record nonetheless. For many films, $57 million would be a solid opening weekend and J.J. Abrams' space saga destroyed that in one night. Pretty crazy.

Star Wars continued to be on a roll well into Friday, where it broke Potter's record for highest grossing single day of all time with $119.1 million. Now, that does throw in the $57 million in Thursday grosses, but a $62 million pure Friday is nothing to sneer at. The Force Awakens continued its insane run on Saturday with $68.2 million, which is, surprisingly, lower than both Jurassic World and The Avengers. Still, by the end of Saturday, TFA had $187 million in the bank and was set to destroy Jurassic's weekend record. On Sunday, Star Wars kept breaking records with a $60.5 million gross, a good $3 million higher than Jurassic World. By that point, the BIG record was broken- The Force Awakens had easily destroyed Universal's dino epic with a $247.9 million weekend, topping the biggest overall box office weekend of all time (which is a record that will be broken again this weekend). For a film released in December, that is very, very impressive. But it didn't stop there.

On Monday, the film took in $40.1 million, taking down Spider-Man 2's $27.6 million record with ease. Star Wars' total gross at that point was $288 million, and that's when a lot of people started to spread the word that this could end up being the biggest movie of all time. Those whispers died off a bit on Tuesday, when the film made another $37.3 million, enough to once again take the record and raise its total to $325.4 million. However, the film's Monday-to-Tuesday drop was bigger than that of Avatar's which suggested to some analysts that it was going to fall off a bit quicker.

Not to fear. The Force Awakens jumped back up on Wednesday, pulling in $38 million to raise its total to $363.4 million. And finally, TFA snagged another $27.5 million on Thursday, bringing it to a grand weekly total of $391 million. Pretty insane stuff. Along the way, The Force Awakens moved at a completely unprecedented pace, breaking the records for fastest to $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, etc. Its opening weekend per theater average of $59,982 was also a new record and a very impressive one considering that the film did not have the widest opening of all time. Considering all of this success, there's no way in my mind that this film doesn't end up continuing its record run and finishing as the #1 movie of all time. But of course, we'll cross that bridge when it comes. I'll be back with updates on Sunday, once Star Wars breaks more records.

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

Friday, December 25, 2015

'Sisters' review

No duo in the world of comedy is more beloved than Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The two-time Golden Globe hosts have been absolute dynamite on the awards circuit and in the world of TV, becoming the darlings of Hollywood along the way. From their individual shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, to their famed stint on Saturday Night Live, these two can do no wrong. Except when it comes to movies. Fey became the mastermind behind Mean Girls and Poehler voiced Joy in Pixar's smash hit Inside Out, but beyond that, their careers in the world of film haven't gone so well. Sisters, their long-awaited follow-up to the 2008 flop Baby Mama, hoped to change all that. Unfortunately, this just continues their cinematic cold streak. Funny in brief surges, Sisters is overlong, overstuffed and more than a bit tiresome, throwing everything into its raucous, wild concept before tossing a curveball into emotional sentimentality towards the end. There's some to like here in this Neighbors-for-40 somethings, but it needed to be more sharper and more concise. In its current state, Sisters is messy, clumsily structured and sometimes downright unlikable.

Back in high school, Kate and Maura Ellis (Fey and Poehler, respectively) were legends. Their famed Ellis Island parties became the defining events for their class, leading them to popularity and success. Years later, Kate is struggling. She can't hold down a job, her daughter wanders around from home to home, and she's nearly broke. Meanwhile, Maura has a good job and continues to be the responsible one in the family (she was deemed "Party Mom" in high school). The two sisters are brought together when they learn that their parents (played by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) are selling the childhood home. Kate and Maura are both angry and disappointed by this, but their parents insist that nothing will change the decision. They order the two sisters to clean out their room, which leads Kate to an idea- one final Ellis Island reunion party. Maura is initially hesitant, but she eventually comes around, leading to one big party that gets out of control fast. Through the debauchery and insanity, Kate and Maura will eventually learn to grow up and move on. Y'know, the plot that they've been using in every comedy movie lately.

I could write a whole essay on the evolution of the Judd Apatow style of comedy. It's honestly pretty fascinating. What started out as a genre for people in their 20s- young, irresponsible and fueled by drugs and alcohol- has now evolved into a set of movies about immature adults realizing to grow up. Former stoner movie superstar Seth Rogen did it first with Neighbors, which he later followed up with this year's The Night Before, and now, Fey and Poehler have tackled this idea with Sisters. The duo finds significantly less success with this storyline as the film is neither as heartwarming or as funny as the other films that have utilized this theme.

Sisters runs into one major problem right off the bat- clutter. At 118 minutes, this movie quickly becomes a mess of subplots, side stories and one-off jokes with no significance to the main idea of the film. Sisters needs to be a good 20 or 30 minutes shorter, which continues to be one of the biggest problems in studio comedies today, especially in the Apatow universe. Director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell seem to just not know when enough is enough and the film drags on much longer than it ever should. There's no real sense of pacing or flow to the film- the improv spirit of the worst of today's comedies seeps into this one, making it an insufferable journey at times.

The film doesn't even seem to really realize what it is or what it's about until late in the game, and by that point, we've already been forced to meet a variety of stock characters that we simply don't care about. There's Brinda (Maya Rudolph), the high school enemy. Alex (Bobby Moynihan), the crazed weirdo who just happens to do coke at the party. Dave (John Leguizamo), the liquor store owner who's constantly trying to hook up with Kate and Maura. James (Ike Barinholtz), the guy next door who Maura is in love with. Hae-Won (Greta Lee), an Asian nail salon employee. Liz and Rob, the couple from high school that still managed to stay together through the years. And of course, the family of Kate and Maura plays a big role in the film.

There's a difference between utilizing characters effectively and uselessly trying to give them a character arc. The makers of Sisters do not know that difference. All of those characters that I rattled off have some sort of story, and a lot of them end up just being extra fat on a movie that really didn't need extra fat. Jokes run long, subplots take the movie in random directions that don't make sense, and there's so much stuff thrown up on the screen that it just becomes tediously overwhelming, a kind of comedic overload. The real question here is this- why did Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two of the funniest and most likable comedians in Hollywood, decide that they needed all of this excessive craziness?

In my view, the amount of raunchiness and constant ridiculousness thrown up on the screen is to distract from the heart of the movie. Fey and Poehler are good in the film, but they're horribly miscast. Both actresses are pretty likable. I don't think I could ever see Fey or Poehler playing a truly villainous character. Unfortunately, both of their characters in Sisters are incredibly easy to hate. Maura is more likable by default, but she's controlling, always trying to help people who don't want her help, and she's a liar. Kate is a bad, irresponsible mother, prone to throwing temper tantrums even at the age of 45, and she does a number of questionable things over the course of the film. I guess the film is the story of the two sisters becoming more mature, but they're just not that fun to watch. The characters are grating and it takes forever for them to complete their arc. This leads to a whole different discussion about what makes a character likable in a movie, but I simply didn't enjoy Kate or Maura.

And in all honesty, this hits at a bigger problem that the movie runs into- it's just not that enjoyable. Sure, some of the jokes land. If you're going to this film looking for a pure laugh, you might have some fun. Every other gag is effective, and there are a few comedic setpieces that work pretty well (despite how outlandish it gets in the end). But when the whole basis of your movie is that two characters realize how dumb they are and change their ways, it's kinda hard to get emotionally involved with it. I simply didn't like any of the characters in this film. They're flat and uninteresting and even mildly despicable, despite the fact that the film might believe otherwise.

Sisters is an okay party movie and has some funny moments. That's pretty much all that it offers. Don't go into this looking for anything well staged or any good character pieces. This is basically a Saturday Night Live sketch with an inflated budget that goes on for an hour too long. Fey and Poehler manage to rejuvenate the film at times, but those instances are few and far between. I still have hope that these two can deliver a great Hollywood comedy someday, but Sisters is another step in the wrong direction.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.6/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Screen Rant, The Guardian, Joblo

Thursday, December 24, 2015

First trailer for 'Everybody Wants Some' previews Linklater's spiritual sequel to 'Dazed and Confused'

Summer is my time to catch up on movies that I've missed in the past, and this summer, one of the titles that I picked up and watched was Richard Linklater's high school classic Dazed and Confused. I knew that the movie starred several actors that would go on to be famous later, and I knew that people liked it (the film is a stalwart on any list of the best high school movies of all time), but I had no real clue of what to expect when I popped in the disc on a late summer night. What I witnessed was something honest and authentic, a grounded reflection of the aimlessness of high school. I don't necessarily have a lot in common with the characters in the film, but on a basic level, I connected with them. In addition to that, I loved the film's laid back style, and the way that it combined music and dialogue for a dreamlike experience. I was simply entranced by the film and it has since become a favorite of my mine. So when I heard that Linklater was making Everybody Wants Some, a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused and his 12-year epic Boyhood, I was in. This week, we saw the debut of the first trailer and poster. Check it out below.

This movie will be a classic in ten years. I can feel it. Richard Linklater has captured the atmosphere and the humor of Dazed and injected it into an 80s film. The characters, the music, the setting- it all feels so right. The use of "My Sharona" and "Everybody Wants Some" gives the trailer a wonderful backdrop, and I just love how I can already get a sense of the characters from just a brief slice of the film. In addition to that, if there's one criticism to be made about Dazed and Confused, it's that it can be emotionally shallow at times. Not to fear. Linklater seems to have injected some of Boyhood's emotional poignancy into this new film, which is even more reason to get excited. I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Consider this one of my most anticipated movies of 2016. Everybody Wants Some stars Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell, Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman, Dora Madison, Blake Jenner, Jonathan Breck, Will Brittain and Courtney Tailor and will hit theaters on April 15, 2016.

Image Credits: Joblo

'Krampus' review

We don't get a lot of holiday horror movies. It's an incredibly niche genre, and frankly, I think there's a general sense among Hollywood that audiences don't want to see anything dark or scary around Christmas. That's why Krampus is an abnormality- it's the most darkly funny and thrillingly despairing Christmas movie in recent memory. Not without its share of missteps, Krampus hits a lot of familiar beats in a new package. But man, that package is quite a bit of fun. Led by the pairing of Adam Scott and David Koechner, Krampus makes for a breezily enjoyable 98 minutes that works as a unique mix of Christmas Vacation, Gremlins and a monster movie. Never too scary or too goofy, Krampus strikes a good tone that will make for a pleasant escape for anyone looking for their holiday entertainment to have a tinge of viciousness to it.

It's the holiday season and the fun has just begun. As Krampus opens, Bing Crosby croons "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" as shoppers trample, bite, shove, punch, kick, attack, stomp and fight their way through the department stores looking for the perfect gift for their loved ones. This is a great way to open the movie. Director Michael Dougherty doesn't assume anything about the audience- he figures that they simply don't know what to expect from a movie about an evil demon who punishes bad families on Christmas. Krampus is full of surprises and the opening scene makes for a good early surprise. The music is instantly familiar, but the scene takes a turn quickly and gets crazy fast. The scene works as a metaphor for the entire movie. On the surface, Krampus seems tired and cliched, but it always takes you in bizarre directions.

For the rest of the film, we follow the Engel family as they embark on the worst Christmas ever. Tom (Adam Scott) is the regular workaholic, who has become slightly estranged from his wife, Sarah (Toni Collette), as he builds his career. They live in a posh house with Tom's mother (Krista Stadler) and their two children, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Chef's Emjay Anthony). The eternal optimist of the group, Max defends Santa Claus to the bitter end, and has occasionally become violent while protecting the image of the jolly old elf. Everything is going swimmingly until the family shows up. Similar to Randy Quaid's Uncle Eddie and his crew of crazies in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Fargo's Alison Tolman), along with their terrible children, arrive to create Christmas mayhem. All of the trouble makes Max give up on Santa- a mistake he will later come to regret. Thanks to the loss of Christmas spirit, Saint Nicholas' shadow, Krampus, is unleashed upon the Engel clan, creating a nonstop array of madness that will either consume the family or bring them closer together.

I should emphasize that I don't think Krampus deserves the label of horror film. This is not a horror film. There were very few moments in the film where I found myself scared, frightened or even remotely concerned for the safety of the characters. Instead, I would describe the film as deliciously depraved, almost relentlessly dark to the point where it's funny. It's almost as if Dougherty and the cast are toying around with your expectations, playing off what you think will happen and twisting it to create something fresh. Krampus isn't needlessly violent or intense- after all, this is a movie with a freakin' killer gingerbread man. But there's something hauntingly nefarious at its core, an exaggerated parable about the loss of Christmas spirit and innocence. It's a nonstop blast of fun, but there were quite a few moments where I said to myself "Wow, this is really dark."

Let's get this out of the way too- Krampus is not a great film, or maybe even a good film by any standard definition of the word. It moves in spurts, follows a few too many Christmas movie cliches and feels a tad bit lengthy even with its short runtime. There were moments during Krampus where I grew impatient and where I didn't feel like the movie was working. Thankfully, the film ends up coming together nicely with a phenomenal third act, mostly because of something truly intangible. The spirit of Christmas and of holiday cinema surrounds Krampus, and even with its imperfections, there's an instant likability to the film that makes it go down very smoothly. From the music to the visuals to the wintry landscape that is pervasive throughout, this is a film that made me feel the Christmas spirit, even though there were multiple murders by candy cane.

The cast certainly helps. Adam Scott has succeeded in playing a wide variety of likable and despicable characters in the past, and he adds a bit of both to Tom Engel (he's ultimately a good guy). Scott's performance has quite a few layers and I felt that his emotional arc was the core of the movie. David Koechner has some hysterical moments as the boorish Uncle Howard, but the character parallels some classic cinematic performances just a bit too closely. Collette and Tolman have little to do, but manage to be consistently solid, giving the film its needed amounts of gravitas. For me, Emjay Anthony steals this movie. He was great in last year's Chef, and he continues to grow as an actor here. Watch out for this kid. He's going to be a star someday.

And while I have emphasized the fact that this isn't a horror movie, there are some truly wonderful monster effects used by Dougherty and his crew in this film. I love how he shields Krampus from us until very late in the game, giving some true suspense to how the character is revealed. In addition, the mix of practical and digital effects gives the film a unique balance that works in its favor. There's so much atmosphere in this film and I love the way that Dougherty created the world that Krampus inhabits. His script with co-writer Todd Casey needs some work, but I cannot fault the directorial job that he did here. He strikes a near-perfect tone, and has created a film that is sweet, funny, charming, and more than a bit sinister.

That's Krampus for ya. It's not a masterpiece. If you're looking for one of those, hop down to the auditorium that's playing Spotlight or Creed or Star Wars. Krampus is a terrific B-movie, a well-acted, sumptuously designed and almost constantly enjoyable Christmas thriller that will satisfy anybody who has a vague idea of what they're getting into. The material is warped in the best way possible and magnified by the Christmas setting, which allows for Dougherty to create a new holiday favorite. I know that I'll be returning to it in future years. It's that much vile, silly fun.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: The Guardian, Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Joblo

Saturday, December 19, 2015

'Creed' review

Even after 39 years, the original Rocky is still one of the most rousing and spectacular sports dramas ever made. Grounded, gritty and unexpected in ways that you probably don't remember, Rocky is everything that a sports movie should be and it announced Sylvester Stallone as a major talent to watch. The series slipped into parody over the years with the arrival of Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago and the increasing absurdity of the prize fights, but for Stallone and some fans, the potential for another great Rocky movie was still there. That movie has arrived, and boy, is it something. I wouldn't exactly describe Creed as a Rocky reboot or direct sequel, although it doubles as both of those things. Instead, it's a fresh start for the franchise, relegating Sylvester Stallone's pugilist to the role of mentor and bringing in newly minted Hollywood superstar Michael B. Jordan to star as a young fighter. Simply one of the most purely cinematic experiences of 2015, Creed is a blast from start to finish, effectively building its characters and relationships before reaching a crescendo of epic proportions. It's one of the most dazzling films of the year and a reminder of what made this franchise resonate in the first place.

In Rocky IV, famous prizefighter Apollo Creed met his demise at the hands of Russian monster Ivan Drago. His friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone) was left devastated and so was his family, but one person was hurt in an unexpected way. When we meet Adonis Johnson (Jordan), he's in a juvenile detention facility, in trouble with the law for fighting with the other kids once again. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) comes to the Los Angeles prison and tells Johnson that he's the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Mary Anne takes Adonis in and raise him in a very nice environment, gets him a job and keeps him out of trouble. But Adonis knows that he's meant for more. He travels to Tijuana on the weekends to participate in back-alley boxing matches and is very successful. Despite overwhelming success at his new job, Adonis quits and moves to Philadelphia with the goal of becoming a professional boxer.

Adonis goes from having everything- a nice car, nice house, good job- to having absolutely nothing. He lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment in the city and trains at a local gym without much help. Adonis knows that he needs more and he seeks out the help of Rocky to train him for a real career. But once word gets out that Adonis is a Creed, the boxing world is thrown into total disarray, causing pressure to mount on the duo of Rocky and Adonis. While Rocky deals with the death of everybody that he has ever cared about, Adonis is forced to confront the legacy of his father and find a way to shine in his own way. In the process, a permanent bond between Rocky and Adonis will be forever formed, and then just like that, a new instant film classic is born.

Let's get this one out of the way first- yes, the plot of Creed is a carbon copy of Rocky. It follows pretty much every plot beat and doesn't change the formula at all. But then again- the Rocky franchise has never changed the formula. It's not about the story, it's about how the story is told, who's telling it, and the people that inhabit the story. That's why The Force Awakens is wonderful despite the fact that it doesn't change much from the basic story of A New Hope. That's why Jurassic World is fantastic despite having a similar story to the original. We've seen the story in Creed, but it has rarely been told with as much vitality, energy and intimacy.

Creed was not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Rocky had a head start because of just how instantly likable the character of Rocky is. He's the underdog, the small town boxer with everything to prove and nothing to lose. A genuinely good guy facing a formidable opponent, we root for Rocky and we care about Rocky because of both the circumstances and the fact that he's a good character. Adonis Creed doesn't get that head start. While Adonis does begin on the streets, he's rescued by Mary Anne and becomes a rich guy pretty quickly. Adonis is arrogant and immature, and he practically gives away everything to go to Philadelphia. He's not a character that I instantly fell in love with.

And that's why it was so critical to get someone like Ryan Coogler behind the helm. He broke onto the scene with Fruitvale Station back in 2013 (which also starred Michael B. Jordan), and was immediately touted as one of the best young directors in Hollywood. Coogler knows how to make a good character drama, and that's what Creed is. Adonis changes from one scene to the next. His relationship with Rocky changes. His relationship with Bianca changes. In short, he's a dynamic character. He understands that if we don't root for Adonis, and if we don't believe his relationship with Rocky, then the whole movie collapses in on itself.

In addition, Coogler has a fundamental understanding of the Rocky franchise. He's undoubtedly a Rocky fan, and he throws in all of the necessary elements. There are rousing fight scenes, exhilarating training montages and some truly essential, instant classic-type moments. But he brings back what we loved about the franchise in the first place- the heart. Creed is a gritty, intense film. Adonis may seem like something artificial on the surface, but deep down inside, he's struggling with his father's legacy. He may seem like he's a kid with nothing to prove and no reason to be in the game, but as the film goes on, we realize just how critical it is that Adonis prove himself. Coogler brings energy and excitement to his direction of the film and I cannot wait to see where he goes from here. I liked Fruitvale Station, but Creed confirms Coogler's talent- he's going to be making movies for a long time.

Michael B. Jordan has been on Hollywood's "must-watch" list since Chronicle, but like Adonis in the film, Jordan had struggled to prove himself as a true superstar. Frutivale Station gave him his indie cred, but Fantastic Four, his first attempt at a major Hollywood picture, failed miserably. Jordan has found his breakout film with Creed. He's truly magnificent here, giving his absolute all to the role of Adonis Creed. Jordan's performance is not only physically impressive, but also emotionally poignant and sweet. He has terrific chemistry with Stallone and Tessa Thompson and there's a fantastic emotional arc.

Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone steals the movie. The famed action star has taken on the role of Rocky Balboa six times before, but not since 1976 has he had such a wonderfully written, meaty, even tragic part. Rocky is pretty much alone when we meet him in Creed. Everybody who he ever loved has passed on. He's running a restaurant and has abandoned the boxing world. When Adonis reaches out to him, he resists it and just goes along with it for the ride. But through their time together, and through the way that Adonis bonds with him, the two of them become dependent on each other. "If I fight, you fight," says Adonis, when Rocky grows sick. Jordan and Stallone are great together and the relationship between the two produces some absolutely beautiful moments. I hope that both of these actors garner Oscar nominations because they truly deserve it.

But beyond being a spectacular character drama, Creed is an incredible piece of entertainment, engaging from beginning to end and filled with thrilling set-pieces. Taking on the legacy of the Rocky franchise while putting its own spin on things, the fights are vicious, the training is intense and the crowd-pleasing moments come often. There's a hip-hop edge to Creed that allows it to feel fresh and interesting, amidst the more tried-and-true elements. We get songs from Future and Meek Mill, but there's also a brilliant new theme from Ludwig Goransson with a beat that is slightly altered from the theme in the original. Most importantly, the whole film builds to the final training montage and the final fight and that slow build allows for an explosion of nostalgia, emotion and energy, including the awesome use of the classic theme song. This conclusion packs one hell of a wallop and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Creed is simply fantastic. There's no other way to put it. Expectations were low from a lot of people in Hollywood, but Coogler and Jordan delivered more than I ever thought was possible here, creating one of the rare movies that is both deliciously compelling and phenomenally entertaining. The Rocky franchise was on its last legs before, but thanks to the dynamic between Jordan and Stallone and Coogler's mix of the old and new, the series has been reinvigorated. Gritty and full of heart, this movie is everything you could want it to be. Believe the hype- Creed is the real deal.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Image Credits: USA Today, Variety, Forbes, Joblo