Sunday, July 31, 2016

DC takes Comic-Con by storm with exciting trailers for 'Justice League' and 'Wonder Woman'

Even though I enjoyed it (along with many other DC/superhero fans), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was, frankly, a disaster for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. Reviews were awful, audiences thought the film was a ho-hum disappointment, and the box office legs were pretty atrocious. As it became clear that the movie-going public wasn't taking kindly to Zack Snyder's grim and brutal vision of Batman and Superman, Warner Bros. immediately went into damage control mode. They invited several journalists to the set of Justice League in the hope of convincing film critics that things would be different this time around. However, even if they managed to get some of the media on their side, the studio still needed to convince the fans. Enter San Diego Comic-Con. Stakes are always big for studios at the convention, but for DC, they were simply monumental. 

Thankfully for them, I'd say that the panel was a major success. They premiered three new trailers (one for Suicide Squad, which I won't discuss here since the release is so close) and gave audiences around the world a first look at two of their most hotly anticipated films- Wonder Woman and Justice League. Check out the Comic-Con trailer for Wonder Woman below!

Coming from someone who was previously unconvinced that this film would work, this trailer is absolutely brilliant. Granted, I've been burned by DC trailers before, but good lord, Wonder Woman looks magnificent. Now, I wasn't a huge fan of Gal Gadot's performance as Diana Prince in Batman v Superman. I thought the character was shoe-horned in, and despite some okay action beats, I wasn't overly impressed by her film debut. In the course of a 3 minute trailer, Warner Bros. managed to totally convince me that this rendition of Wonder Woman could be epic and topical. I love the big period action beats, but most of all, I love the touches of humor and power in the dialogue. The line "What I do isn't up to you," is such an awesome feminist movement, and I can't wait to see how this story plays out on the big screen. When I heard that awesome Junkie XL score kick in, my face lit up like Christmas. This looks like it could be really be something special. 

Next up, Warner Bros. premiered the trailer for Justice League. Here it is!

There's still a long way to go. Justice League won't hit theaters until November 2017, and I don't believe they're even done filming yet. This was just a very early peek for the fans. Nothing more than that. I wasn't a huge fan of the footage that they revealed, but it is a decently trailer that highlights how they've changed things since Batman v Superman. Ezra Miller's Flash brings some touches of humor, and from that perspective, I like where they're going. Nonetheless, the color palette is incredibly muted and generic, and to be honest, this doesn't feel like a Snyder film at all. Maybe that'll end up being a good thing, but for now, I just can't tell. Hopefully we'll see more from Justice League in the near future. 

Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins, stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, and Danny Huston, and will hit theaters on June 2, 2017.

Justice League is directed by Zack Snyder, stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Amber Heard, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Willem Dafoe, and J.K. Simmons, and will hit theaters on November 17, 2017. 

Image Credit: Joblo

'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' review

Taika Waititi is going to be a superstar someday. After watching his latest film, the New Zealand-set comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I'm almost certain of this. Waititi is going on to make Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok next, but if he doesn't go too deep into the blockbuster realm, he could end up being mentioned in the same breath as Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. Because while he clearly takes cues from those two beloved directors, Waititi has a spectacular flair of his own. He's a quirky filmmaker with an enormous heart and a great eye for character, something that is all too rare in the current cinematic landscape. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a breathtakingly charming comedy, an engaging character study, and a thrilling adventure movie. Weird, lovable, and "majestical" in equal measure, this little gem finds a unique directorial voice firing on all cylinders.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "real bad egg." According to the controlling and slightly insane Child Services officer Paula (Rachel House), Ricky is prone to kicking stuff, spitting, stealing stuff, graffiti, and even more things that they don't know about. After several years in foster care, Ricky has nowhere left to go. Only one person wants him- Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a sweet old woman who sees a bit of herself in Ricky. Along with her curmudgeonly husband, Hec (Sam Neill), Bella takes Ricky in and raises him in their home. Despite Ricky's initial hesitation, he eventually warms to the old couple and they start to feel like real parents to him. He's never had a home like this and he loves it.

But as with seemingly all things, the good time in Ricky's life comes to an end. Tragedy strikes, which causes Child Services to pen a letter requesting that Ricky return to their custody. Not wanting to leave the place that he calls home, Ricky runs off into the wilderness of New Zealand, commonly known as "The Bush." After a couple of days spent alone, the young boy is starving, lost, and completely unprepared for his new life in the woods. But just as he starts to go delirious, Hec bumps into him. Turns out, they're both fugitives from the law, with Paula and the entire country on the lookout for the two of them (it's a suspected kidnapping case). After some persuading, Ricky and Hec go on an adventure together, learning to love each other every step of the way.

It's easy to imitate another filmmaker's style. It's not all that hard to make something that looks like a Tarantino or Spielberg movie. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult to take a definitive style and make it your own, which is what makes Waititi's achievement with Hunt for the Wilderpeople all the more remarkable. From the opening moments, it's clear that Waititi takes a certain level of inspiration from the films of Wes Anderson and even Tarantino. From the flashy zoom-ins, to the chapter set-up, to the deadpan humor, this film shares some DNA with classics like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And yet, while I was watching the film, I never felt like "Oh, this is just a Wes Anderson rip-off." With Wilderpeople, Waititi expands the Anderson style, bringing an extra layer of charm, warmth, and character that gives it a distinct feeling of its own. All of the great directors take inspiration from the best. It's that extra layer that separates the hacks from the artists.

Waititi's a smart, precise filmmaker, but there's no question that Julian Dennison and Sam Neill add another perfect element to Wilderpeople. Dennison, a relative newcomer, is a total revelation. He has a level of charisma unparalleled by most young actors, and most importantly, he seems to have a deep insight into his character. There's a funny touch to Dennison's performance, highlighted by his exceptional delivery of Waititi's dialogue. He's paired perfectly with Sam Neill, who does great work as the gruff and somewhat unpleasant father figure. Hec's arc over the course of the film is dynamic and sweet, and I loved where these two characters ended up at the end of the film. Neill delivers an incredible performance and he has strong chemistry with his breakout co-star.

Beyond even the top-notch performances and the filmmaking imagination, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a strong film across the board. Waititi's script is both perceptive and profound, uproariously funny while never discarding the emotional core of the story. The musical choices are clever and delightful, giving the film a poppy, likable beat of its own. The visual look is earthy and detailed, which brings the lush setting to vivid life. And most of all, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a reminder of how far a great story and great characters can take you. Despite all of the extra touches that elevate it to another level, the success of this film lies with its big heart.

In a summer riddled with less-than-savory blockbusters (with a few notable exceptions), salvation is once again found at the arthouse theater. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is sharp, lovable, and beautiful, with two characters that I'll certainly remember for a long time. Taika Waititi brings so much sincerity and humanity to this story, and the fact that it's often hilarious is only icing on the cake. As good as Wilderpeople is, this only feels like the beginning for Waititi. He's a refreshingly intelligent and inventive filmmaker, but most importantly, he's a storyteller. Hunt for the Wilderpeople feels like an old-fashioned folk tale, told with an energy and comedic gusto that makes it a rich and rewarding journey. And as good as the state of cinema is right now, we need more storytellers like Waititi in Hollywood.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.3/10)

Image Credits: IndiewireJoblo

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Second 'Doctor Strange' trailer delivers mind-blowing action

As the Warner Bros. panel progressed last week at San Diego Comic-Con, fans everywhere got the chance to take a first look at Wonder Woman, Kong: Skull Island, Justice League, and more. There were no clips or trailers that were exclusive to Hall H only, something that has changed over the years. After last year's leaks of footage from Deadpool and Suicide Squad, debate is still raging over how studios can please both fans at the convention and fans at home. WB and DC took the opportunity to kick off their worldwide marketing campaigns for multiple movies, and it was a move that was well-received by many on the internet. However, later that night, Marvel stuck to their guns and put on a show for the attendees who made the trek to the convention. Comic-Con got the chance to look at footage from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and as of today, they are the only ones to see those clips. Only one major trailer hit the internet after the Marvel panel- the second full trailer for Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange. Check it out below!

Doctor Strange looks about as close to a Christopher Nolan film as we'll ever see in the Marvel universe, and to me, that's a great thing. The visuals in this Doctor Strange trailer are utterly stunning, taking cues from Batman Begins, Inception and Interstellar while crafting a sun-baked look and feel of its own. If I have one complaint for Marvel's recent run, it's that too many of their films look too similar. That doesn't appear to be the case with this one. The action looks mind-blowing, the cast is stellar (Cumberbatch and Ejifor fighting baddies together? Count me in), and most of all, the tone hits the mark. It's a decidedly more epic and grandiose feel than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, but there's enough of a glimpse of the trademark Marvel humor to keep things from going into grimdark Snyder territory. Overall, Doctor Strange looks like another home run for Marvel and a great debut film for Benedict Cumberbatch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is directed by Scott Derrickson, stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mads Mikkelsen, and will hit theaters on November 4.

Image Credits: Screen Rant

'Lights Out' review

When I first saw the trailer for David F. Sandberg's Lights Out, I did a double take. "Wait, is that what I think it is?" I muttered to myself as I watch the preview, both surprised and delighted by what I was seeing on the screen. To understand why I had this reaction, we have to go back a few years. It was October, and in my sophomore year theatre class, our teacher had decided that we would incorporate some spooky stories and videos throughout the lesson plans for the month. When we walked in one day, he fired up "Lights Out," a little short film that was no more than three or four minutes in length. None of us really thought anything of it at first, but as it progressed, everybody in the room started to get more and more tense. We kept thinking that it would be a prank, and yet, that definitely never happened. The short film ended with a horrifying bang, causing several people to let out a shriek. I'm pretty sure I laughed with glee when it was over, but there was no question that the film was nothing short of terrifying.

So when I heard that Sandberg was turning his chilling short into a full-length motion picture, I was overjoyed. Sandberg did in three minutes what most horror filmmakers can't do in 90, so I could only imagine what he would be able to do with an extended runtime and a more developed concept. Every trailer for Lights Out played really well with audiences, and I was ready for Sandberg to deliver something really special. Well, it's safe to say that it didn't quite pan out like I had hoped. Even with a bigger budget, some very solid actors, and a cool concept, Sandberg's extended version of Lights Out is a flat-out disappointment. In fact, I would say that it's significantly less scary than the original short. Sandberg is great at generating scares, but in pretty much every other department, this breakout horror hit is a total letdown.

Maybe part of it has to do with fear of the unknown. The short film is completely wordless, relying only on visuals and sound cues to tell its story. The monster is never explained and the ending is left ambiguous. In the full-length version, Sandberg is naturally forced to tell a story where more things are explained. Lights Out centers around Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a twenty-something who lives above a tattoo parlor by herself. She's hesitant to commit with her boyfriend (Alexander DiPersia) and she maintains a contentious relationship with her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Rebecca is forced to step up when her younger step-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), begins to tell her about their mother's slightly insane actions.

She has severe mental issues, ignores her responsibilities, and most importantly, she's spending a lot of time with Diana. Who's Diana? Well, it turns out that she's a former friend who is now haunting her family. Diana and Sophie spent time in a mental institution together, and through her manipulative techniques, Diana managed to latch onto Sophie's soul and convince her that she was a friend. And now, she appears in the nightmares of Rebecca and Martin, while simultaneously popping up wherever there's darkness. She feeds off of the darkness, and is crippled by the light. With a malevolent spirit tearing their family apart, Rebecca and Martin will be forced to dig further into their mother's past in order to find a way to destroy Diana once and for all.

Everybody's afraid of the dark. That's just human nature. Whether you're 6 or 65, I think there's always a little bit of fear about what might be lingering around the corner. Part of the brilliance of Sandberg's concept is that it feeds off this universal phobia. If this film had been purely about what lingers in the pitch-black darkness, I feel like it would have been pretty scary. But with the full story in Lights Out, Sandberg has made something so specific and so well-explained that the sheer terror of the concept is slightly negated. So much of Lights Out is devoted to explaining a scenario that was already pretty terrifying to begin with. Knowing the background of Diana doesn't make her scary. Actually it's quite the opposite. As Lights Out delved further and further into character details and origin stories, I felt like the momentum was sucked out of the film.

As I watched the film progress, I started to wonder why Sandberg was insistent on spending so much time on building the character and motive of Diana, who is nothing more than a shadow that never speaks. I never found the answer, but it's a problem that runs throughout the entire film. Large chunks are devoid of scares completely, focused instead on developing the relationships between our principal players. For a film that runs only 81 minutes long, it's a baffling choice and a total miscalculation. Good characters are an important part of horror films, but here, the emotional moments feel forced and out-of-place. And honestly, it doesn't help that none of the characters are particularly compelling or smart. They all make really dumb, ridiculous choices, and that hurts the whole empathy thing that the film is definitely striving for. Performances are fine, but Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, and Gabriel Bateman are certainly hindered by the lackluster script.

So the script is over-complicated and mostly dull, the characters aren't that interesting, and the villain is diminished by over-explanation. With all that said, what does Lights Out offer horror viewers? Well, it is still decently scary, led by some expertly crafted scenes of tension that will certainly put audiences on edge. Sandberg has a good eye for how to stage a scary moment, and there are some scenes in this that reminded me of the skillful horror films of James Wan (who is a producer here). The film looks and sounds great, with brilliant cinematography from Marc Spicer and excellent sound design. And most of all, the conclusion is very well-done, pumping up the scare factor and delivering a crowd-pleasing sequence that will certainly play like gangbusters.

But after watching Lights Out, I couldn't get the taste of disappointment out of my mouth. It's an okay film, but frankly, the short was scarier. Sandberg's full-length version features lots of jolts, jumps, and creepy moments, but it never has that remarkable quality of fear to it that elevates a horror film to greatness. Sandberg seems intent on scaring audiences, and yet, he never leaves you with a sense of uneasiness. To put it in simpler terms, watching Lights Out won't make you go home and turn all the lights on. It won't keep you up at night, hoping that there's not a clear-eyed monster waiting by your bedside. It won't linger in your mind. This film would be a bummer even if I hadn't seen the short film. But with that three minute masterpiece in mind, Lights Out  it just stung a little bit more.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.1/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo

Friday, July 29, 2016

Toronto International Film Festival reveals stellar initial lineup for 2016

Believe it or not, summer movie season is almost done. Next week, Warner Bros.' Suicide Squad will be the last big blockbuster of the summer before the studios prepare for awards season. And with the fall season about to begin, we all know what that means- the big fall festivals are releasing their lineups. The Venice Film Festival debuted their slate of films yesterday, and it's an impressive lineup for sure. Films like Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, Pablo Larrain's Jackie, Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time, Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans, and of course, Damien Chazelle's festival opener La La Land. Venice will command the attention of Hollywood towards the end of August, but as Labor Day weekend fast approaches, all eyes will shift to Telluride, Colorado. The Telluride Film Festival won't release their lineup until mere days before the fest, but thanks to clues spread throughout various sites, we already have an idea of what might be headed up to the smaller, more intimate festival. But once Telluride wraps up its weekend, everybody in the film world will turn to the biggest of them all- the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The prestigious festival has become known as the official start of the Oscar season, and although Telluride has been competing for attention over the last few years, Toronto is still a major hotspot for Oscar winners. I've been following TIFF since I first got into writing about film, but this year, I'll be looking at the festival in a slightly different light. This year, one of my movie dreams is coming true- I'll be heading up to Toronto for the festival. I'm so excited to get this chance, and it should be a ton of fun. So as the TIFF programmers announced the initial lineup on Tuesday, I held my breath, hoping for some of my most anticipated films to show up at the festival. And I was not disappointed. Here is the list of Special Presentations and Gala Presentations for the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.


-The Age of Shadows, dir. Kim Jee Woon
-All I See is You, dir. Marc Forster
-American Honey, dir. Andrea Arnold
-American Pastoral, dir. Ewan McGregor
-Asura: The City of Madness, dir. Kim Sung-Soo
-Barakah Meets Barakah, dir. Mahmoud Sabbagh
-Barry, dir. Vikram Gandhi
-The Birth of a Nation, dir. Nate Parker
-Birth of the Dragon, dir. George Nolfi
-Bleed for This, dir. Ben Younger
-Blue Jay, dir. Alex Lehmann
-Brimstone, dir. Martin Koolhoven
-BrOTHERHOOD, dir. Noel Clarke
-Carrie Pilby, dir. Susan Johnson
-Catfight, dir. Onur Tukel
-City of Tiny Lights, dir. Pete Travis
-The Commune, dir. Thomas Vinterberg
-Daguerrotype, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
-A Death in the Gunj, dir. Konkong Sensharma
-Denial, dir. Mick Jackson
-Elle, dir. Paul Verhoeven
-Foreign Body, dir. Raja Amadi
-Frantz, dir. Francois Ozon
-The Handmaiden, dir. Park Chan-Wook
-Harmonium, dir. Koji Fukada
-I Am Not Madame Bovary, dir. Feng Xiagang
-The Journey, dir. Nick Hamm
-King of the Dancehall, dir. Nick Cannon
-La La Land, dir. Damien Chazelle
-The Limehouse Golem, dir. Juan Carlos Medina
-Manchester By The Sea, dir. Kenneth Lonergan
-Mascots, dir. Christopher Guest
-Maudie, dir. Aisling Walsh
-Neruda, dir. Pablo Larrain
-Nocturnal Animals, dir. Tom Ford
-The Oath, dir. Baltasar Kormakur
-Orphan, dir. Arnaud Des Pallieres
-Paris Can Wait, dir. Eleanor Coppola
-Paterson, dir. Jim Jarmusch
-The Salesman, dir. Asghar Farhadi
-Salt and Fire, dir. Werner Herzog
-Sing, dir. Garth Jennings
-Strange Weather, dir. Katherine Dieckmann
-Souvenir, dir. Bavo Defurne
-Things to Come, dir. Mia Hansen-Love
-Toni Erdmann, dir. Maren Ade
-Trespass Against Us, dir. Adam Smith
-Una, dir. Benedict Andrews
-Unless, dir. Alan Gilsenan
-The Wasted Times, dir. Cheng Er


-Arrival, dir. Denis Villeneuve
-Deepwater Horizon, dir. Peter Berg
-The Edge of Seventeen, dir. Kelly Fremon Craig (Closing Night Film)
-The Headhunter's Calling, dir. Mark Williams
-The Journey is the Destination, dir. Bronwen Hughes
-JT + The Tennessee Kids, dir. Jonathan Demme
-LBJ, dir. Rob Reiner
-Lion, dir. Garth Davis
-Loving, dir. Jeff Nichols
-The Magnificent Seven, dir. Antonie Fuqua (Opening Night Film)
-A Monster Calls, dir. J.A. Bayona
-Planeterium, dir. Rebecca Zlotowski
-Queen of Katwe, dir. Mira Nair
-The Rolling Stones Ole Ole Ole!: A Trip Across Latin America, dir. Paul Dugdale
-The Secret Scripture, dir. Jim Sheridan
-Snowden, dir. Oliver Stone
-Their Finest, dir. Lone Scherfig
-A United Kingdom, dir. Amma Asante

I'm only going to be in Toronto for four days at the most, and judging by this utterly stunning initial slate, I'm going to have some incredibly tough decisions to make. From top to bottom, this list is spectacular. And believe it or not, there's more on the way. The Midnight Madness lineup is still a few weeks away, a couple of the Venice titles seem to indicate a possible Toronto premiere, and even Gavin O'Connor's The Accountant is still in the discussion. But even if the films revealed on Tuesday were the only ones that were going to play at TIFF, I'd be perfectly content with that. There's just so much good stuff.

Let's start with the buzzy titles from other festivals. Sundance kicked off 2016 in style, and we'll be seeing Manchester by the Sea and The Birth of a Nation at TIFF, two movies that immediately generated Oscar buzz. Cannes alum are sprinkled throughout the lineup as well, with films like Loving, The Handmaiden, Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Elle, and American Honey making the trip to Toronto. I've been waiting to see many of these films since the first raves came in, and I'm excited to get the chance at TIFF.

In addition to those aforementioned critical darlings, Toronto will be the home of some big-ticket premieres for highly touted Oscar favorites. Of course, La La Land is one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I'm so happy that it's in the lineup. On top of that, I was really excited by the additions of Bleed for This and Nocturnal Animals, two films that will likely premiere at other fests, but still get a big play at TIFF. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival was pretty much a sure thing all along, but it's another film I can't wait for. Ewan McGregor's American Pastoral is a film with a lot of potential, A Monster Calls looks absolutely wonderful, the buzz on Lion is growing by the day, and I feel like I've been waiting for Oliver Stone's Snowden for years now.

However, the roster wasn't complete without a few blockbusters, and for their opening night selection, TIFF is bringing the firepower with Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven. Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon also has serious commercial and critical potential, so good buzz at TIFF could be hugely beneficial for the disaster pic. And finally, I was kinda surprised to see Garth Jennings' Sing in the lineup. It looks really cute, but I never expected a TIFF debut.

Beyond even the titles with instant name recognition, there are so many movies that just sound incredibly fascinating. Amma Asante's A United Kingdom has a great duo at the center, and it'll be interesting to see how it stacks up to Jeff Nichols' highly praised Loving. Una and Their Finest feature exceptional casts, and both have an engaging hook that could produce great results. City of Tiny Lights has the ever-consistent Riz Ahmed as its star, and I love the concept of a neon-soaked London crime drama. And I'll be shocked if Adam Smith's Trespass Against Us doesn't end up being a terrific film.

All in all, I can't wait to dig into this lineup. TIFF has put together something special this year, and after a somewhat disappointing blockbuster season, I'm ready for another fun awards season.

Image Credit: TIFF

Thursday, July 28, 2016

'Jason Bourne' review

Universal loves the Bourne franchise. And after all, why wouldn't they? The series was a cash cow for the studio throughout the 2000s with each sequel grossing more than its predecessor. 2002's The Bourne Identity was a decent hit with $121.6 million in the US and $214 million worldwide, but by the time that 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum rolled around, the franchise had grown exponentially. Ultimatum grossed $227.4 million in the US and $442.8 million worldwide, which is a remarkably good total for a film that only cost $110 million. Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass moved on after the third installment, leaving Universal in a strange predicament with one of its biggest franchises. They opted to do a spin-off of sorts with Jeremy Renner, but unfortunately, The Bourne Legacy was a relative misfire, proving once and for all that the appeal of the franchise was Matt Damon.

After 9 years, Damon and Greengrass are finally back with Jason Bourne, the fifth film in the acclaimed series. There's only one small problem- the story of Jason Bourne kinda ended with Ultimatum. Really, if you watch that film, there aren't many places left to go with the character. Bourne isn't like James Bond- you can't just shove him into any adventure. But money always talks, and it's hard to deny that the existence of this movie is primarily for financial purposes. And yet, it's still pretty good. In fact, compared to some of the other films that have hit theaters this summer, Jason Bourne is a damn masterpiece. It pales in comparison to its esteemed predecessors, but with high-octane setpieces, a propulsive, action-driven plot, and the expert direction of Greengrass, Jason Bourne is a highly entertaining trip to the theater.

Jason Bourne took down Treadstone, but what came next for the former assassin? His mind was still in shambles, his past a mystery. Well, it turns out that Bourne pretty much ended up wandering the Earth, engaging in street brawls for cash and living with no sense of direction. However, Bourne is brought back into action after a visit from old friend Nicky (Julia Stiles). Working with a hacker group, Nicky has discovered some of the CIA's darkest black ops secrets, including several pieces of Bourne's past. CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to take out Nicky and Bourne for good, considering that both are traitors in the eyes of the association. Bourne's out for revenge, the CIA is out to protect their assets (and for revenge), agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) is making her own power play, and things could crumble at any moment. Will Jason Bourne ever be able to escape the crazy world that he was brought into?

In a weird way, Jason Bourne feels like Paul Greengrass' attempt to make his own version of Mad Max: Fury Road. Before you call me crazy, hear me out for a second. No, Jason Bourne does not even come close to matching the glorious thrills of Miller's vision. But the similarities are there. The fifth entry in the Bourne franchise is light on plot details and blatantly expressed character development. The story moves and vibes completely through the bone-crunching action scenes that the filmmakers put together, and there aren't many moments where things calm down. For 123 minutes, Greengrass and his brilliant technical team deliver a hard-hitting movie that is both thrilling and punishing. Jason Bourne is Greengrass' experiment in 100% action-driven cinema.

On top of that, Jason Bourne feels like a slightly more existential examination of the famed action hero. When we meet Bourne, he's pretty much in hiding, doing nothing with his life after taking down the people behind Treadstone. As he continues to piece together his past in order to take revenge on those responsible, the franchise begins to beg the question- will Jason Bourne ever be able to escape the CIA? Will the rest of his life be one long chase? Is he a pawn in a bigger game? Believe it or not, Matt Damon's Bourne totally feels like a secondary character in this film. He's out for revenge and all that Bourne-y stuff, but throughout most of the film, he gets caught up in a bigger plot involving Jones and Vikander's characters, a vengeful assassin (Vincent Cassel), and a social media mogul (Riz Ahmed). Bourne is trapped in a universe that doesn't belong to him, and the whole film builds to him taking control of the situation. It's a unique and markedly different take compared to the previous films, where most of the secondary characters were at the mercy of a highly dangerous individual. That's not quite the cast this time.

But let's face the facts here- you're not going to Jason Bourne for an in-depth examination of a character that really wasn't all that complex in the first place. You're buying a ticket and spending your hard-earned money to see big action sequences where Matt Damon kicks ass. And I'm here to tell you that you won't be disappointed. Paul Greengrass is still one of the most proficient action directors on the planet, and he finds his groove with this film. His distinct shaky cam style is on display during every scene of this film, which begins as a bit of a distraction. Unlike some of Greengrass' other films, the camera work in Jason Bourne doesn't initially seem to flow with the action (an early setpiece in Greece feels especially choppy). There are early moments where it seems like a cheap camera trick, which never managed to happen in the previous Bourne films.

Thankfully, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd eventually hit the mark, melding their trademark style with the constantly moving plot of Jason Bourne. The action builds to a crescendo, culminating in a massive Las Vegas showdown that alternates between small-scale face-offs, and huge, car-smashing action. The Vegas car chase has been touted by the producers since Cinema Con in April, and it doesn't disappoint. It's big, loud, and grounded in a brutal realism that gives it a shocking impact. A fistfight between Damon and Vincent Cassel also plays really well, delivering the kind of graphic intensity that made the Bourne franchise famous. The action does feel like it's taking a few more cues from Fast and the Furious, but there's no question that the film delivers some of the best blockbuster moments of the summer.

The esteemed cast also brings their best to this thrill ride with Damon leading the charge. He doesn't have much dialogue and there's a bit too much conflict with his character arc, but Damon is stellar once again, bringing a weariness to the role that shines even during the totally unrealistic moments. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be having fun playing.....well, Tommy Lee Jones. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there isn't a whole lot to Dewey beyond the usual curmudgeonly snarls of Jones. Riz Ahmed's stock as an actor continues to rise, while Vincent Cassel proves to be a formidable opponent. And finally, Alicia Vikander pretty much steals the show. The Oscar-winning actress commands your attention, as Heather Lee manipulates, kills, and works her way to power and influence. I'm looking forward to the inevitable future showdowns between Bourne and Lee.

Judging by the ending of this installment in the Bourne franchise, a sixth entry isn't far behind. And with what they've set up, the potential for a revenge-seeking Bourne with a more structured plot could make for a great movie. But for now, I'm more than content with what Greengrass and Damon have delivered here. Jason Bourne is a fast-paced piece of Hollywood entertainment that constantly engages its audience. It doesn't sit on the screen passively or wait around for something to happen. From the opening scene, Jason Bourne is a jolt of adrenaline, delivering the kind of kinetic energy and momentum that has been missing from much of this summer. That sense of purpose and flow is enough to make this one of the better blockbusters of the summer, another solid entry in a consistently good franchise.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Indiewire, Joblo, Joblo

'Kong: Skull Island' trailer teases gorgeous, brutal vision

San Diego Comic-Con is always a hotspot for Hollywood studios to debut first looks at their new blockbusters, and this year was no different. Warner Bros. and DC headed down to sunny San Diego to debut the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League, while Marvel formally introduced Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, premiered the first full trailer for Doctor Strange, and showed Comic-Con exclusive clips of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and more to the Hall H crowd. The Warner Bros. panel mostly centered around the DC films, but there were a few other upcoming flicks that the studio showed off, including The LEGO Batman Movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Kong: Skull Island. It was an impressive array of clips and trailers, but out of all of those films, the latter intrigued me the most. Skull Island is a reboot of the classic King Kong franchise from indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, which will eventually give way to a Kong vs. Godzilla movie. And judging by the trailer, they may have hit this one out of the park. Check it out below!

Whoa. That's really all I had to say after watching the first trailer for what looks like a gorgeous, stunning update on King Kong. It's being billed by some as Apocalypse Now by way of a giant monster movie, and if that doesn't sound enormously exciting, I don't know what does. Jordan Vogt-Roberts is best known for directing the indie hit Kings of Summer, which I never saw. But if Kong is half as good as it looks, we may be seeing the arrival of a new directorial superstar. Every shot in this Skull Island trailer is inspired, brimming with beauty and tension. The color scheme is stunning, and I love the '70s style and epic cast. Watching this trailer reminded me of the trailer for Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, which premiered at the 2013 Comic-Con. That first look was haunting, harrowing, exciting, and brilliant, all adjectives I would use to describe this trailer. I can't wait to see more.

With a cast led by Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Will Brittain, John Ortiz, and Terry Notary, Kong: Skull Island will hit theaters on March 10, 2017.

Image Credit: Coming Soon

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Movie Guru's Top Fifteen Most Anticipated Movies for the Rest of 2016

Half of 2016 is in the books, and oddly enough, I've already seen plenty of the films that were my most anticipated at the start of the year. Out of the 35 films that made that list, I've seen 20 already, which begs the question- what's left for the second half of 2016? Well, judging by the looks of an impressive schedule, there's plenty left to get excited about. But before I dive into the films I'm looking forward to in the second half of the year, let's recap what I had on my original list back in January and take a look at how things turned out.

Honorable Mentions

Knight of Cups- N/A
Zootopia- A
The Witch- B+
The Jungle Book- B-
Eddie the Eagle- B
Top Secret Untitled Lonely Island Movie (aka Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping)- A-
Triple 9- B+

#23- Green Room- A
#22- The BFG- C+
#20- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice- B
#18- The Legend of Tarzan- C
#17- The Conjuring 2- A
#16- Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising- B
#15- Money Monster- B-
#14- Deadpool- A-
#11- X-Men: Apocalypse- C
#8- Midnight Special- B+
#6- Captain America: Civil War- A
#4- Everybody Wants Some!!- A+
#3- Hail, Caesar!- A
#1- The Nice Guys- A+

Honorable Mentions

*Ben Affleck's Live by Night is currently scheduled to hit theaters in January 2017. There is a good chance that the film plays an Oscar qualifying run. If that is the case, consider it one of my Top 5 Most Anticipated Movies for the rest of the year.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, and more star in this epic remake of the 1960 classic western, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. I'm not the biggest fan of director Antoine Fuqua, but the trailers have been quite promising. If any movie can breath some life into the western genre, it's this one. The Magnificent Seven will also be opening the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8. In theaters SEPTEMBER 23.

RULES DON'T APPLY- Warren Beatty hasn't been in Hollywood for quite some time now, but he's roaring back into action this year with Rules Don't Apply. For a while, the film was billed as a Howard Hughes biopic, but after watching the trailer, that doesn't appear to be the case. It looks more like a romantic comedy between Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins, and honestly, that's a very enticing proposition. Mix in a distinctly old Hollywood vibe, and I'm very intrigued by Beatty's return to filmmaking. NOVEMBER 23

BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK- This one could go either way. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk could be an intense, harrowing look at war, or it could be a sappy, overdone mess. So far, I'm leaning towards the first option. The trailer is phenomenal, and with Ang Lee behind the camera (plus a revolutionary 120 fps format), the sky is the limit for this Oscar favorite. NOVEMBER 11

PETE'S DRAGON- David Lowery's remake of the 1977 classic is getting great reviews thus far, and that doesn't quite come as a surprise to me. The trailers are dazzling, carrying a Spielbergian tone and a glorious visual style that simply looks marvelous. After a mostly dull summer, Pete's Dragon could emerge as one of the surprise hits. AUGUST 12

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN- It's Gone Girl: 2016 edition! At least, that's what the trailers for Tate Taylor's adaptation of the best-selling book have been selling. The Girl on the Train looks like a sexy and terrifying erotic thriller, and with that stellar cast (Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, and more), I can't wait to see what it has to offer. I was hoping for a premiere at TIFF, but it looks like NYFF might be the destination for this one. OCTOBER 7

Now, here are my 15 most anticipated films for the rest of the year.

15. SULLY- September 9

There was some hope that Clint Eastwood's biopic of heroic pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger would be finished in time for last year's awards season, but alas, the film just wasn't ready. Instead, Sully will be the first big-ticket release of the awards season, with possible festival appearances at Venice or Telluride. Tom Hanks is one of the most reliable actors on the planet, and I have a feeling that he will turn in a great performance as Sullenberger. Eastwood excels with this kind of material, and Sully looks like a thrilling, fascinating ride.

15. BLEED FOR THIS- November 4

Boxing movies are a dime a dozen these days. Last year saw the release of the excellent Creed and the not-so-excellent Southpaw, and later this year, Hands of Stone and Bleed for This will be hitting theaters. Both look good, but I'm much more excited for the latter, which stars Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ted Levine, and Ciaran Hinds. The trailer was exceptional, the buzz around it has been strong, and it's set for a prime spot on the fall festival circuit (it's playing TIFF, with Venice and Telluride looking like strong possibilities as well). Miles Teller is one of the best young actors today, and if Bleed for This is as good as it looks, Oscar glory could be headed his way.

13. AMERICAN HONEY- September 30

Andrea Arnold's American Honey was one of the biggest films to come out of the Cannes Film Festival this year, receiving almost universally positive reviews. It looks like a stunning road movie, and with an epic runtime that stretches nearly 3 hours, I'm hoping for a fun, insightful ride. The trailer was magnificent, and A24 has had a stellar track record with their films recently. Plus, Shia LaBeouf is always a net positive, right?

12. WAR DOGS- August 19

The August release date is a tad bit concerning, but I gotta say, War Dogs looks like a blast. Staged as a Wolf of Wall Street-style tale of American greed, Todd Phillips' first real foray into more dramatic territory sees Miles Teller and Jonah Hill taking on the big, bad world of arms dealing. Phillips is great at big, broad comedies, and if he can successfully blend that sense of humor with this outlandish material, War Dogs could end up being something really special. Or it could end up like Pain & Gain. That's the worst case scenario.

11. ALLIED- November 23

We don't know a whole lot about Allied. but the talent and basic plot alone sends this one right to the top of my most anticipated list. Robert Zemeckis is in the director's chair, Steven Knight penned the screenplay, and the cast includes Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Jared Harris, and Raffey Cassidy. It's the story of a French-Canadian spy who falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a Nazi spy during the middle of World War II. It sounds both epic and personal, and the basic premise has some surface-level similarities to Casablanca, my favorite film of all time. Hopefully we'll get a trailer soon, because I'm really excited to see what Zemeckis has cooked up this time around.

10. THE BIRTH OF A NATION- October 7

No indie film this year has been as buzzy as Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. The film took Sundance by storm, dominated the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, and immediately shot to the top of 2016 Oscar lists. Fox Searchlight scooped it up for a record asking price, staging it as a major release in the heart of awards season. The first trailer was haunting, and it looks like Parker has crafted an unforgettable piece of cinema with the tale of Nat Turner's famed rebellion, something both gorgeous and disturbing. I can't wait to see it for myself.

9. THE ACCOUNTANT- October 14

The Accountant just debuted its second trailer, and it looks like another winner for Ben Affleck and director Gavin O'Connor. The supporting cast is good too, with Anna Kendrick, Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, and Jeffrey Tambor in the cast. The film appears to be a fascinating mix of genre thrills and character work, two things that Affleck usually excels at. The premise is definitely interesting and there's a lot of potential for this one to be a really great film.

8. PASSENGERS- December 21

Passengers is being kept solidly under wraps by Sony, but it's definitely set to be one of the biggest films of the holiday season. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are both huge movie stars in their own right, probably the biggest on the planet right now. So what's gonna happen when they're both in the same movie? I think the Earth might implode. They're teaming up for a sci-fi film from director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), where the plot centers around two passengers who wake up just a few decades too early on their intergalactic journey. It sounds like the kind of cerebral sci-fi that is right up my alley, and I can't wait to get a glimpse at this highly-anticipated flick.

7. DOCTOR STRANGE- November 4

Doctor Strange looks like the coolest and most innovative Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, and that's saying something. The trailers have been breathtaking and mind-blowing, with fantastic visual images and some thrilling action. The Inception style feels like new territory for Marvel, and with Scott Derrickson at the helm, I really like where this film is going. Plus, I absolutely love the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejifor, and Mads Mikkelsen? Count me in.


I grew up on Harry Potter. I love the books, I love the movies, hell, I just love everything about that universe. Returning to it is a magical proposition. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn't a Potter sequel, but it is giving us the return to J.K. Rowling's fantastical universe that we've all been waiting for. Set in the 1920s, Fantastic Beasts looks like a stellar continuation of everything that director David Yates brought to this franchise. The period details look exceptional, and the idea that Warner Bros. is staging this as a trilogy is immensely exciting. The cast (Eddie Redmayne, Katharine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, and more) is great, and if I'm being honest, I almost cried during the trailer. That's really all you need to know.

5. SAUSAGE PARTY- August 12

If Sausage Party isn't the funniest movie of the year, I'll be shocked. I've been touting this R-rated animated comedy ever since I first heard about the concept, and with some truly spectacular reviews thus far, it looks like Seth Rogen has delivered. Every bit of marketing has been absolute dynamite, and everybody I know is buzzing about this one. Rogen continues to deliver outlandish, innovative projects, and even though Neighbors 2 was a bit of a disappointment, I'm placing all my chips on the raunchiest movie of the summer.

4. ARRIVAL- November 11

Denis Villeneuve wasn't on the map a few years ago, but the Canadian director has quickly emerged as one of the most revolutionary directors working today. The future Blade Runner director did magnificent work with Prisoners and Sicario, and Arrival has the potential to be his best film yet. It's the story of an expert linguist who has to determine whether or not a group of aliens are coming in peace or declaring war. It's a brilliant concept that sounds like a more thoughtful sci-fi film in the vein of Close Encounters, and with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Forest Whitaker leading the way, this festival-bound flick has the potential to be something special.

3. SUICIDE SQUAD- August 5

The first trailer for David Ayer's supervillain extravaganza debuted over a year ago, and after an agonizing wait, Suicide Squad is only a week away. And what's left to say? It looks like a lot of fun, it's tracking for an out-of-this-world box office debut, and it has the potential to save DC Films and right the ship for Warner Bros. Every piece of marketing has been on point, the cast seems excited, and most importantly, it feels like the action movie we've been waiting all summer for. Expect first reactions to come pouring in soon.

2. LA LA LAND- December 2

No list of the best films of the decade so far would be complete without Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, a punishing, utterly amazing music drama that rocked the cinematic world in 2014. After taking Hollywood by storm with his debut, Chazelle is back with La La Land, an ode to old Hollywood and classic musicals. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make for the most appealing on-screen duo of their year, and the idea of an old-fashioned big screen musical spectacle is infinitely exciting. And as the icing on the cake, the trailer was pure brilliance. Sing Street set a high bar for the musical genre this year. Can La La Land match it? I think it just might.


The Nice Guys topped my list at the start of the year, but at the halfway point, Rogue One is leading the charge. Lucasfilm and director Gareth Edwards have been selling this as a different kind of Star Wars movie, and after the familiar brilliance of J.J. Abrams' Force Awakens, Rogue One is exactly what we need right now. All of the trailers and clips have been enticing, the cast is perfect, and Edwards seems to have a clear and inventive vision for the Star Wars universe. All we can do at this point is cross our fingers.

That's it for my most anticipated list! Here's to a great rest of the year!

Image Credits: Open RoadComing Soon, Telegraph, Apple Trailers, Variety, Variety, Guardian, Coming Soon, YouTube, Forbes, YouTube,  YouTube, Slash Film, Star Wars Wikia

Monday, July 25, 2016

'The Infiltrator' review

The timing of The Infiltrator is honestly kind of hilarious. A decade ago, this would have seemed like an innovative concept. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a drug thriller about Pablo Escobar? Wow, we haven't seen anything like that before! But in 2016, the idea of an Escobar movie with Bryan Cranston just isn't all that enticing. Cranston already dominated the drug genre with his iconic performance in Breaking Bad, and last year, Netflix's Narcos and star Wagner Moura gave us the definitive portrayal of Escobar, the infamous Colombian cartel leader. At this point, The Infiltrator feels almost like an afterthought, and there's very little excitement out there for director Brad Furman's film. Nonetheless, I can never turn down a good crime thriller, so my hopes were high for this one. It's debuting amid a sea of blockbusters, and to me, it seemed like a great counter programming idea.

But even with a lot of promise, The Infiltrator is a rather unsatisfying experience. It's American Hustle without the humor or suspense, Narcos without the dual-sided approach or dynamic performances. There's not even much to say about the film- it just doesn't work, plain and simple. Cranston is clearly trying very hard, but he never finds the heart and soul of Bob Mazur, which is sure to leave audiences disappointed. The film is choppy and unfocused, bouncing between stories with no real regard for an engrossing narrative or character development. Ultimately, with little suspense, bland storytelling, and an undercooked setup, not even the flashy style of The Infiltrator can save it from mediocrity.

Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) is an expert at conducting sting operations. He's gone undercover in pretty much every possible scenario, and he's great at lying his way through tough situations. After a bust goes slightly awry, Mazur is faced with two possibilities- he can retire, or he can help his government track down Pablo Escobar. It's 1985 and the drug problem in America is worse than ever. Addicted to the thrill of his job, Mazur choose the latter option, posing as Bob Mussella to gain entrance into the treacherous world of Pablo Escobar. With help from his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), and his fake fiance, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Bob will have to fight his way through the constant danger of the Colombian cocaine scene and face down some of the most fearsome men on the planet. But if he succeeds, the US has a chance to destroy the entire cartel.

I love crime movies, which I've noted on this site many times over the years. I love being immersed in a world of danger and violence, where compelling characters drive the action and every turn is unpredictable. Whether it's a classic tale of the brutal gangs of the 1800s, an Italian mafia epic, or a deep dive into the world of drug dealing, I'm in. I practically devoured Narcos, and whenever there's a new season of Fargo, I gear up for a few days of binge-watching. The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Departed, and Scarface are some of my favorite films. Hell, I was even one of the few people who really enjoyed Scott Cooper's Black Mass. If I had a favorite genre, this would probably be it.

So when I say that The Infiltrator is one of the dullest crime thrillers I've ever seen, I mean it. Everything about it is bland and tedious, with the sole exception of the color and visual look of the film. Brad Furman (best known for The Lincoln Lawyer and Runner Runner) loves his bright, splashy colors, and The Infiltrator is practically drenched in a grainy, acidic 1980's sheen that clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Scarface. This film is lacking a lot of things, but there's visual imagination to spare. And yet, none of that means anything when you have a film that fails to ever engage its audience. Scenes happen, plot threads are set up, characters are established, and the movie goes absolutely nowhere.

The Infiltrator never has a sense of energy or narrative drive. There's nothing pushing this movie forward. Individual scenes prove to be fascinating, but they don't coalesce into anything. They just kinda sit there on the screen, almost like the filmmakers are waiting for the audience to put the pieces together and entertain themselves. The Infiltrator feels like it's trying to be a procedural at times, but if that was the goal of the director and screenwriter, they kinda forgot the procedure aspect of that genre. Nothing ever builds or escalates. The drama is heightened by a strange visual cue or a "shocking" line of dialogue, and then before anybody can feel any sense of danger, the suspense dissipates.

The characters and performances certainly don't help matters much. Bryan Cranston isn't bad in the film- he makes Mazur about as compelling as humanly possible. Unfortunately for him, Cranston is working with a half-baked character, a man with a conflicted, messed-up psyche that the film seems reluctant to delve into. Cranston is good at being slick and looking scared, but Mazur proves to be fairly uninteresting. The same can be said for Leguizamo's Emir Abreu, who seems to exist solely for comic relief. Diane Kruger's Kathy Ertz is also cripplingly under-developed, lacking any genuine character arc or any real reason to be in the film. Benjamin Bratt, Amy Ryan, and Jason Isaacs all make supporting appearances and also fail to be compelling, instead settling for one-note stock characters (Isaacs' role must have been severely cut in post).

The ultimate problem that The Infiltrator faces is that nobody seems to know what story they're telling, or more importantly, why they're telling it. There's an overarching goal of catching Escobar and his associates that drives Mazur, Abreu, and Ertz, but the film never has any inkling of an idea of how to get to that endpoint. At different points during the movie, Furman seems to stage the events of the film as either a heist movie, a gripping, realistic crime thriller, or an intense character drama about the impact of the undercover business. It's hard to get attached to any of this, and it's even harder to follow as Furman jumps from the main story to a jumbled mess of subplots and side stories. Individual moments and sequences work on their own (I liked how the finale works as an inversion of the classic wedding scene in The Godfather), but when put together, it makes for a choppy and flat experience.

The Infiltrator should be so much better. Usually that's an excuse for a dumb movie that should never have been made in the first place, but here, it's a legitimate point. There is a good story buried within the tedium of The Infiltrator, and in the hands of a better director and screenwriter, this would have been a great film. But in its current state, this messy drug thriller is hindered by a scattered plot, flat characters, and a severe lack of dramatic momentum. The second season of Narcos is only five weeks away. Rewatch season 1 if you need a Pablo Escobar fix, but just don't drop any cash on this sluggish drama.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (4.9/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, Variety, Indiewire, Joblo

'The Secret Life of Pets' review

What do toys do when the kids are away?

That simple question propelled Toy Story, the very first full-length computer animated film, to extraordinary success in 1995. The film kick-started one of the greatest film trilogies of all time and created a merchandising bonanza for Disney and Pixar. For their latest animated feature, the Universal-housed Illumination Entertainment has taken that same basic template and applied it to our lovable pets. And so far, it's been working out pretty good for them- after all, The Secret Life of Pets has grossed a staggering $260.9 million, bolstered by the sixth $100 million + opening of 2016. But with a great marketing campaign, a strong hook, and universal interest, this film was always going to be a massive hit. The real question is quality, and thankfully, Pets emerges as the strongest film from Illumination since 2010's Despicable Me.

Well, I do feel like this has to come with one reservation- The Secret Life of Pets pales in comparison to Toy Story. The two films don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, nor does Illumination come close to matching the consistency and quality of Pixar. Nonetheless, if you get those comparisons and expectations out of your mind right off the bat, this is a fast, funny, and endlessly clever animated movie that parents and kids alike will enjoy. It's definitely a riff on Toy Story, but it's exceptionally well done, colorfully designed and brilliantly animated, with an exceptional voice cast. In a summer riddled with letdowns, The Secret Life of Pets helps the animated genre continue its hot streak.

Set in a colorful, wacky version of New York City, The Secret Life of Pets focuses on the life of Max (Louis C.K.), a cute little dog who happily lives his life with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max's life is pretty much perfect until one day that changes everything. Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big, goofy stray who immediately becomes Max's rival. The two fight over territory and attention from Katie, and it's clear that they really dislike each other. After trying to trick each other into being lost in New York City, Max and Duke end up being stranded in the city on their own, with only the help of an underground ring of animals who are leading the fight against domestication.

On the other side of town, the other animals at Katie's apartment begin to notice that Max and Duke have suddenly disappeared. Led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a dog who is madly and obviously in love with Max, a team of animals (Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Chris Renaud, and more) will assemble to find their friend. Along the way, they'll have to face off against the crazy gang of rejected animals, led by the ferociously violent Snowball (Kevin Hart), survive a series of impossibly dangerous feats, dodge the insanity of New York City rush hour, and keep away from animal control. But along the way, Max, Duke, and their friends might just find out a little bit more about themselves as well.

The Secret Life of Pets comes in at a zippy 86 minutes, which is perfect for this film. It's light on story, but high on charm, breezing through its action with a zany sense of energy and a sly intelligence that keeps everyone entertained. Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney have a great sense of comedic timing, and they manage to keep the proceedings air-tight. Secret Life of Pets hits all the right beats over the course of its short runtime, which keeps the film from ever losing the easily-bored kids in the audience. It has the same feeling of carefully tuned insanity that was deeply felt in Pixar's Finding Dory, and that pairing of character work, high-concept hilarity, and a deft comedic touch continues to be a highly effective formula for animation studios. Wild animated action runs the risk of feeling like ADD sensory overload, but in the hands of clever filmmakers, it emerges as dazzling fun.

Renaud and Cheney have the benefit of an extremely talented voice cast, uniting a wide range of comedians and actors who all do great work. Louis C.K. brings the right amount of likability to Max, but there are hints of his traditional sourness, which can be exceptionally funny. Eric Stonestreet complements him well with a dopey, deeply sweet voice performance. There's a scene between C.K. and Stonestreet that feels like it was ripped right out of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and ultimately, Secret Life of Pets works well as an animated twist on that story. Jenny Slate is really terrific as Gidget, Dana Carvey and Albert Brooks seem to be having a lot of fun, and Kevin Hart pretty much steals the movie at times, generating the loudest and biggest laughs of the movie.

At its core, The Secret Life of Pets is a remarkably fun blend of heart, humor, and likable characters. That's usually what animated movies rely on, and in the case of this flick, it's simply really well done. Renaud and Cheney know that they have a spectacular concept on their hands (isn't it kind of ridiculous that nobody has made this movie before?), and they pretty much let the story flow from that idea. There are no big attempts to tell a complicated narrative, and the characters evolve and change naturally over the course of the film. The animation is bright and bubbly, the script is fast and endlessly witty, and although the "tug on the heartstrings" moments are a tad bit obvious, they still work really well.

Basically, The Secret Life of Pets is a rock solid animated film. It's pretty much everything that you could have ever asked this film to be- it's cute, it's funny, it'll please kids and adults, and it's short. With their first journey into true Pixar territory, Illumination has made their best film since Despicable Me, a delightful journey that reminded me of how much potential the studio still has. Illumination was a revelation in 2010. Now, they're finding their groove. If they can keep making films that are as fun as this, we might just have a three way race for the best animated studio in Hollywood. The Secret Life of Pets is obviously another entry in the win column at the box office for the studio, but this time out, they also have a pretty great film on their hands.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Guardian, NY Times, Joblo

'Nerve' review

Nerve is a dumb movie that seems to believe that it's very smart. There's really no other way to put it. This is a high-concept teen movie that seems to have the wrong goals in mind, and honestly, it continues a trend that reaches a crescendo with this strangely overdone thriller. After all, the recipe for these YA adaptations is pretty simple. Mix attractive co-stars, a healthy dose of angst, some sort of wacky dystopian scenario, and boom, you've got yourself a solid, reliable hit. Nerve has all of that in good measure, and for a decent chunk of the film, it actually works pretty well. The glossy, neon-soaked direction of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman provides some much-needed visual flair to an often drab genre, and I liked the chemistry between stars Emma Roberts and Dave Franco. Everything is going swimmingly- the story moves well, the action is occasionally thrilling, and there's a good deal of fun to be had. And then something happens. I can't even explain it. As the final act begins, Nerve just goes off the rails.

But before I take a deep dive into the most monumentally awful ending of the year, let's take a look at the basic plot of this thing. Nerve centers around Vee (Emma Roberts), a shy teenager who plays it safe all the time. She's smart, well-liked, and gets good grades, but she never takes any risks, and she doesn't even have the courage to stand up to her over-bearing mother (Juliette Lewis). While she's talking with friends one day, she's introduced to the latest internet phenomenon- a game called Nerve, which is basically a larger-scale version of truth or dare, just without the truth. Nerve has become hugely popular in New York city, and Vee's best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), is one of the top players. When faced with the decision to either be a watcher or a player, Vee suddenly signs up to play the risky game.

It's a drastic change of pace for the careful and meticulous high school senior, and almost immediately, Vee brings a sense of hesitance to the game. But after a series of dares unites her with the mysteriously charming Ian (Dave Franco), Vee finds herself immersed in the world of Nerve. After years in the shadows, she finally has the chance to be a star. Her stock in Nerve rises by the minute and she quickly becomes one of the most popular stars in the game. But as the danger factor of the dares grows and the anonymous community of watchers continues to threaten their safety, Vee and Ian will have to fight for their lives in a battle against the fearsome world of the internet.

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad concept. In the age of the Pokemon Go, the game world of Nerve doesn't feel far off. The potential is there for a massive abuse of anonymity and the escalating craziness of the film isn't far-fetched. However, if a filmmaker is going to tackle this subject, it requires a level of subtlety and satire that this film just doesn't bring to the table. For the first two acts, Nerve seems content to be another passably breezy teen movie, with the typical complicated relationships and mildly exciting action beats. But then at some point down the line, the filmmakers decided that they needed to make a big social statement.

Basically, the third act of Nerve demolishes everything that came before it. And it's not like the film just slowly falls apart. No, it practically explodes in a fiery ball of flames right in front of our eyes. The ending of this movie is "Wow, I can't believe this is happening" bad. It's everything that you wouldn't want to do with this story and this concept. Not only does the final act of Nerve do away with any sense of character and plot development, it settles for a hilariously overdone climax that waves its finger at the internet age. It's unintentionally hysterical, and not only is it a total cop-out, but it also completely destroys the audience's suspension of disbelief. I can't say much more because of spoilers, but I'm fairly certain you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.

Watching the finale of Nerve is soul-crushing. It's so brutally stupid, so totally ham-fisted, such a jarring tonal shift from the rest of the film. And on top of that, you'll probably be picking apart plot holes in this one for days. None of it makes sense on a story level, or a character level, or even on a thematic level. Nerve is an okay movie up until the point that it practically hits the self-destruct button. It goes from goofy and playful to deadly serious and shockingly over-the-top, a move that left me totally dumbfounded. Even some of the most seasoned veterans of the YA genre will probably laugh this one off, a endlessly slick movie that is simply too absurd and too moronic for its own good.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.3/10)

Image Credits: Lionsgate Films

Sunday, July 24, 2016

'Swiss Army Man' review

At some point this year, you've probably heard something about a movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. There has been quite a bit of buzz surrounding Swiss Army Man ever since it premiered at Sundance. After all, what a brilliant concept. It's Harry Potter! But he's dead and farting! Who doesn't want to see that? After seeing the film, I can confirm two things- Radcliffe is great, and yes, there are a lot of farts. However, a sad thing has happened with this film. The critical response for Swiss Army Man and its merits as a film have been drowned out by all of the farting noise. This is truly unfortunate, because the directorial debut of Daniels is a sweet, unique, and absolutely unforgettable journey. Look, some people will never be able to get beyond the strangeness of the concept, and I can understand. But if you look deeper, Swiss Army Man will reveal itself to you and become a truly astounding experience.

Let's be real here though- on the surface, there's no doubt that this is a deeply weird, strange, and unconventional film. Swiss Army Man won't cater to everyone's tastes, and I doubt that many people will find it as entirely engrossing as I did. The story centers around Hank, played with a desperate, charming vulnerability by Paul Dano. When we first meet our protagonist, he's standing on a rock with a noose around his neck, ready to give up on the world and meet his maker after several grueling months alone on a desert island. Hank is a man without hope. He has run away from his home and found himself in a no-win situation. But as he's standing there, inches away from his death, Hank sees something on the shore. Much to his surprise, it's a man, the first human being that he has seen in a long time. Hank runs over and discovers that unfortunately, the man is dead.

But something weirder is happening. The corpse is......farting. Hank prepares to die again, but instead, he hops on the dead body and rides the fart wave to the shore. I'm not kidding. This is a scene from a movie that played in 600 theaters. After the electrifying opening scene, Hank begins to treat the body as a companion in his journey to get back home. Soon enough, things manage to get even weirder. The dead man proves useful beyond his farting capabilities, and after a while, he starts talking. His name is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and he can do pretty much anything (hence the name Swiss Army Man). As Hank and Manny wander through the wilderness together, a lonely man will find his way back home and realize why the insanity of life is worth it after all.

For a film that involves farting, boners, and masturbation, it's kinda surprising that Swiss Army Man is so sweet. It sounds and looks like your typical quirky Sundance fare, but there's an accessibility to it that just works. It never feels too crude or too intellectual, settling for a middle ground that is both audience-friendly and smart. Swiss Army Man doesn't pander to its audience with fart gags or in-depth talks about masturbation- instead, it utilizes those normally taboo subjects as part of a fascinating narrative about what it means to be human. I figured that the strangeness of this flick would be right up my alley, but I never expected to fall in love with its big, beautiful heart quite like I did. It's a warm and inviting vision, one that is desperately needed in a world filled with cynicism.

None of this would be possible without the extraordinary, awards-worthy performances of Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, two actors who put their all into crafting this unique experience. Dano burst onto the scene in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, but each year, his stock as one of our finest actors rises even higher. Roles in Prisoners, 12 Years A Slave, and Love & Mercy have highlighted Dano's versatility, and in Swiss Army Man, the young actor may have found his best role yet. He's great at portraying profound vulnerability, but as Hank, Dano has to do something else entirely- he has to be incredibly likable. As the central core of the movie, the audience has to fall in love with the heartbroken, slightly obsessive, and deeply hopeless Hank, which is no small task. But of course, Dano pulls this off with ease, and it's beautiful to watch Hank's immense change over the course of the film.

On the other hand, Radcliffe has spent the last several years attempting to shed his Harry Potter image, which came to define him as an actor after a decade with the famed franchise. What If was a delightful little film, and Radcliffe was a delectably evil villain in the underrated Now You See Me 2, but there's little doubt in my mind that Swiss Army Man is his breakout film. In this film, Radcliffe is given an impossible role and pulls it off. He steals pretty much every scene that he's in, which is no small order when paired on screen with Dano. There's a physicality to Manny that is really impressive, but it pales in comparison to the deft touch that he brings to every line of dialogue. His performance is humorous, clever, and fully deserving of Oscar consideration. It might just be the best portrayal of a dead body in cinematic history.

Nonetheless, going into Swiss Army Man, I had already seen the greatness of Dano and Radcliffe displayed on screen many times. The true breakout stars here are Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the directorial duo known as Daniels. They're newbies to the whole feature film business, and I applaud them for tackling something so bold, fresh, and thrilling for their first full-length movie. Kwan and Scheinert are breathtakingly original, technically brilliant, and driven by a true sense of cinematic pizzazz, which runs like a pulse through every scene of Swiss Army Man. They have a clear voice, one that is broad and funny, philosophical and whip-smart. In addition, their use of music is mesmerizing, and even if you walk away disappointed, the enormous talent of these two young filmmakers is undeniable.

Swiss Army Man is a dazzling ode to the human race, the announcement of the most talented directorial team since Lord and Miller, a perfect companion piece to Anomalisa, a performance showcase for two of our best actors, a testament to the power of farting, a film that blindsided me in ways I didn't expect, and much, much more. Basically- come for the farting corpse, stay for the sweetest film of the year south of Sing Street (let's face it, nothing is touching that one). Swiss Army Man goes in some weird, fantastical directions that feel almost hallucinatory at times, but that's part of the appeal. The directorial debut of Daniels is an exploration of how the simple things can make us feel the most human and how we can find life in the most unexpected places. And in some very dark times, that's a message that needs to be heard.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, Variety, Indiewire, Joblo