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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
The Worst of Bryan Singer's X-MEN Movies
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is the worst film in the franchise since X-MEN: ORIGINS. I don't think any X-MEN movie will ever be as big a failure as ORIGINS, but believe me when I say I'd rather watch THE LAST STAND again before I ever revisit APOCALYPSE. That relative disappointment, while wreaking as much havoc with the source material as APOCALYPSE, was at least entertaining to sit through. I was so incredibly bored with this latest X- Men adventure that I could've fallen asleep in the theater. It's nearly two and a half hours long and I can count moments I actually enjoyed in this movie on one hand. My distaste for the movie is even more depressing because there has not been an X-Men comic storyline I've been more excited to see on the big screen than one featuring Apocalypse. This movie should've been a surefire success. It incorporates my favorite X-Men villain with promises then of seeing his Four Horsemen, and it has the chance to dramatically affect the future of the X-Men cinematic universe and perhaps take things in an exciting new direction. What we got instead was a lukewarm villain who never felt threatening in the least who's wasted in a dull globe-trotting "adventure" where we spend half the movie waiting for Apocalypse to recruit his Horsemen before returning to Egypt for a big messy final battle where Magneto, as the most powerful member of Apocalypse's posse, unleashes a CG debris storm visually identical to countless other summer blockbusters.
For an Apocalypse storyline to have been done any real justice, it would've needed to been released as a trilogy of films. The brief moment of excitement I experienced when it was revealed the 2016 movie would adapt Apocalypse for the big screen was short-lived when I realized they'd be cramming everything into a single movie. There was a lot of promise in introducing this major villain but it was squandered pretty painfully. As Fox often does, they've made modifications to characters to fit their movie universe but the basic premise of Apocalypse remains intact. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is the world's oldest mutant, dating back to ancient Egypt and beyond. He's a mutant of immense power who, as the movie opens, is having his essence transferred into a new host mutant which gives him a couple benefits: (1) a form of immortality and (2) access to his host mutant's abilities, adding them to Apocalypse's existing roster. He's betrayed in ancient times and left trapped under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid in stasis before he's uncovered in the early 1980's and reawakened. He takes a quick look around at the state of the world and despises that humans have risen to power over mutant-kind. Apocalypse, a firm believer in "survival of the fittest", decides to remind the world who's in charge. He recruits his "Four Horsemen", powerful mutants who serve as his lieutenants and protectors in his moments of weakness: in this case, he's collected Storm, Angel, Psylocke, and Magneto.
Now just because the movie is boring and squanders an awesome opportunity doesn't mean it's a total bust. There are a few small moments I appreciated. There's a quip as the latest batch of X-kids are exiting a movie theater after having watched RETURN OF THE JEDI and someone (I think it was Jean Grey) cracks a joke about the third movie in trilogy is always the weakest. I'm sure they'd intended it as a dig at Brett Ratner's THE LAST STAND but, sorry Bryan Singer, it just as readily applies to APOCALYPSE and that's honestly how I read it. Around the same time, we get the Quicksilver sequence. I'm sure most people can agree that Quicksilver's slow-motion escape sequence in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST was the most memorable moment so the studios, also recognizing that, give us yet another in APOCALYPSE as Quicksilver arrives at the X-Mansion just in time to evacuate everyone in super speeds to the beat of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". A rehash from a studio hoping to capitalize on the love for the original sequence? Sure, but it works. And finally, the only other moment in the entire film where I felt the briefest flash of hope for this surely never-ending film franchise was the very last minute in the movie when the new (old) team of X-Men are assembled in the Danger Room in costumes that more accurate to their comic counterparts than they've ever been before in these Fox movies.
APOCALYPSE was a real bummer of an X-MEN movie but I'm not going to let it ruin any anticipation of future movies. The series is now, what? 9 movies in? And we've had only a couple that disappointed me and one that was a total misfire. My problems with APOCALYPSE aren't enough to override the fun I've had in this series in so many of the other films. X-MEN movies aren't going anywhere anytime soon and my frustration with APOCALYPSE will eventually fade, and all we can do is hope that Singer gives us a better film when he returns with his new vision of the Dark Phoenix arc.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)
We Didn't Need a NEIGHBORS 2 but It's Got Some Laughs
NEIGHBORS was a fun movie. It told it's story about a couple of new parents who are struggling to accept adulthood battling a legion of college frat members as led by a young man who was rapidly approaching his own moment where he'd have to learn to become an adult as his graduation looms. It's all about both sides inability to let go of carefree youth and accept their responsibilities, focusing their energies on an escalating prank war against each other instead. It made its point. It was funny. It ended. That should have been it. For some reason, it was followed by NEIGHBORS 2 (originally with the subtitle SORORITY RISING, but that seems to have since been dropped). We check back in on Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Radner who are about to have their second child and they're preparing to sell the home they bought (and fought for) in NEIGHBORS to upgrade to a larger home. They've got an interested buyer and all they have to do is get through 30 days of escrow and the deal is done. Unfortunately for them, a group of outcasts from the local college have decided to rebel against college regulations that prevent sororities from throwing parties. These three girls, led by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), found their own sorority, Kappa Nu, in the house next door to the Radners and the battle starts all over again. It's round two of the battle of the young versus the not-quite-as-young (late 30's?).
Comedy sequels are a tricky business because you don't want it to come across as a cash grab. It's real easy for a studio to see a comedy do better than expected and immediately dump money into a sequel that rehashes all the jokes and plot devices from the first film. I'm looking at you, HANGOVER II. The second NEIGHBORS movie actually tries to add something new to the series. I appreciated how one of the first things director Nicholas Stoller addressed in the film's commentary (yes, I listened) was the fact that comedy sequels are generally a bad idea because comedies are premise-based and it makes additional movies tough since you're sort of stuck adhering to the premise that was so popular. So he was aware he'd have to keep the age gap prank war gimmick but he found a way to mix it up, making the adversary a sorority. I'm not saying "It's different because they're girls this time"; it's because the sorority is a bit more sympathetic. The battle isn't against cocky frat guys whose pride won't let them give the Radners peace. It's against a trio of girls who are a bit awkward and were having a rough go at college before they came together and were determined to buck the system and have the first sorority that can throw its own parties instead of forcing them to attend frat parties. They just want equal privileges, and they're not fighting for spite but for survival.
Does it make a huge difference? Big enough, I guess. NEIGHBORS 2 still retreads a lot of the same ground as the first film. The motivations have changed but the execution is the same. The movie even brings back the Radners' former nemesis Teddy (Zac Efron), originally as an adviser to the sorority seeking revenge for his frat before jumping ship to team with the Radners against this new threat. I said it for NEIGHBORS and I'll say it again: Zac Efron is a funny dude. He's one of the best parts of these NEIGHBORS movies. Rogen and Byrne are great in their own right but, just as with the first movie a bit, some of their lines (improv?) seemed forced and disingenuous. Efron's delivery and performance is more natural; I genuinely buy him as a muscle-bound halfwit who only knows a life of partying and sincerely wishes his life held some sort of value. The girls in the sorority do a pretty good job but I found it harder to believe their dip into utter villainy by the end (in part because they were so sympathetic). When Shelby and her friends start chucking tampons at the Radners' house, it feels too extreme for them because I don't think the movie established them as insane as the fraternity from the first film. Regardless, it all works well enough that NEIGHBORS 2 will entertain anyone who liked the first movie. It's pretty harmless. We didn't need it. We got it anyway, it's way better than it could've been, but it's not quite funny/different enough to have warranted its existence in the first place.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Heart-Warming and Indescribably Strange Tale of a Man and a Corpse
If ever there was a movie that's difficult to recommend, or even describe, to someone who hasn't seen it, it's SWISS ARMY MAN. It's a comedy of sorts. You could probably even call it a romantic comedy. Or maybe it's more "bromantic" comedy. It's never made entirely clear what the relationship is between Paul Dano's Hank and the corpse he befriends (Daniel Radcliffe) when stranded on a diminutive island. Hank discovers the dead man, named Manny, when he washes ashore on the island where Hank's been surviving since whatever shipwreck left him there. Manny saves Hank's life; Hank was about to hang himself when Manny came along with his rocket-propelling flatulence. Hank is able to ride Manny like a jet ski back to the mainland. Little by little, Hank discovers there's more to Manny than one might believe. Aside from rocket flatulence, he's capable of vomiting up an apparent limitless reservoir of fresh water, directing them home with his dowsing rod erection, and hyper-powered karate chop action. Manny has essentially returned to pseudo-life, but he's still a corpse and he has no memory of anything from life. Right down to the basics. As Hank and Manny traverse the wilderness from the shore to civilization, Hank passes the time by explaining life and living, going so far as to build elaborate props so Manny can experience life himself. So if the premise of a miserable soul finding personal connection with a dead man with explosive gas sounds appealing, there you are.
Obviously, SWISS ARMY MAN is a tough sell to the mainstream audience. The strange combination of the movie's juvenile humor with the heartfelt relationship at its core can be a rough watch for some. The movie kept bouncing between these two tones and I was generally annoyed with it. A sudden shift out of a touching moment of Manny rediscovering life with an erection joke cheapens the scene and lessens its impact (for me), and the reverse is just as aggravating because the stupid humor is the more entertaining part and I realize I would've been more content to watch an entire movie of Hank and Manny's adventures without, you know, the less interesting relationship element. The tonal shifts and the overly sappy life moments meant I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hope to. I was excited for this movie because an insane premise like that deserves a chance and, while I'd recommend anyone watch this movie and decide for themselves, it wouldn't be an enthusiastic recommendation. The performances give it a little extra something. Paul Dano is a great actor and kills it as the pathetic soul Hank as he finds someone who cares about him, even if that person is a corpse. Daniel Radcliffe must've been eager to reinforce that he'd moved on since Harry Potter because Manny is just about the strangest possible role he could've taken. And you know what? He's actually really, really good. Manny is the juicier role and he nails it.
Dano and Radcliffe have a great chemistry, which is good since they are 95% of the movie until the last 5-10 minutes or so. This movie is very much two men wandering through the wilderness as one teaches the other about life and existence through the use of props and setpieces made from scraps and garbage. If nothing else, I can say SWISS ARMY MAN is the most creative film I've seen this year. I know it wasn't really the focus of the film and all but I would've loved a bit more explanation on what exactly the deal with Manny was. I started the movie believing him to be a manifestation of Hank's starved/sun-baked mind but he's able to interact with his environment and even speaks to one other person by the end. So if he's a real talking corpse, why hide his powers from everyone but Hank? And where does a talking corpse come from? Is he the only one? Am I over-thinking it? Yes. Because I was more interested in what Manny's deal was than the personal journey of these characters. I might not be the best person to give a recommendation on whether to watch this or not because obviously I walked away from it with a complete different focus than what was intended by the filmmakers. Something tells me this movie is going to be polarizing though. My friend complained when I made him watch MOON; I can only imagine the crap I'd get for this one.
A Load of New TMNT Character Intros (Isn't Enough to Save This Movie)
Do you realize that, when the second installment in the freshly rebooted TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES franchise was released in 2016, we officially had almost as many big screen adventures for the amphibious ninja brothers as such characters as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? That's ridiculous and not because there are so many; people love the characters. What's ridiculous is we've come so far and only have one Ninja Turtle film that I would qualify as really good (the original from 1990) and one I am physically unable to hate, purely for nostalgia (the second from 1991). All of the others have been forgettable at best (the animated film from 2007) or outright painful to sit through at worst (that time travel abomination from 1993). The release of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES in 2014 from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes attempted to bring the turtles into a more modern world with the same visual style that made Bay's own TRANSFORMERS movies a success. The turtles, while retaining their teenage sensibilities, are now hulking monsters. Megan Fox was cast as April O'Neil and the character became a sex symbol for Michelangelo to bombard with pickup lines, and the Shredder suddenly relied less on his martial arts skills and more on his new mech armor that was capable of launching enormous blades and retracting them on chains. It was a strange misstep that, though it had elements of the spirit of the characters I grew up with, most of it just didn't feel right.
I'd had my fill of the new Turtles with that 2014 film and I was ready to write off the new one without a second glance until it was revealed that the production was going to start integrating more elements from the cartoon series I had obsessed over as a child. The same nostalgia that won't let me hate SECRET OF THE OOZE, despite the fact that the characters weren't even allowed to use their weapons in that movie, demanded that I watch OUT OF THE SHADOWS. We're talking the first big screen appearances for Rocksteady and Bebop, Baxter Stockman, and Krang with his Technodrome. So I had to convince myself that maybe, just maybe, the new NINJA TURTLES might be getting the series on track. So I watched it and I quickly remembered, "Oh yeah. These movies are for kids." Sure, the movie features a scene where Megan Fox's April O'Neil dons a school girl uniform to distract a target but this movie is for kids. Young kids. Everything I was excited to see in this movie was just dumb. Rocksteady and Bebop are no more threatening than the infantile Tokka and Rahzar from THE SECRET OF THE OOZE but they're more difficult to stomach as they're chowing down on ten-gallon drums of spaghetti or constantly stomach-bumping each other with a chant of "My man!" And before you ask, of course the spaghetti scene includes a moment where one of them interrupts a briefing to slurp an unwieldy noodle.
I understand that these movies are meant for younger crowds, and I'm cool with that, but do they have to be so dumb? Kids are smarter than studios give them credit for and I don't think it'd hurt to put a little more effort into these movies. I'm willing to forgive the occasional cheesy joke and glaring plot issue, but let's try a little harder to make something that actually entertains. Rocksteady and Bebop were far from geniuses in the show but they weren't obnoxious, and Splinter works better when he's isn't just a punchline. The Splinter I remember was stoic, intelligent, and most importantly the father figure for these teenaged ninja outcasts. Now he's just in the movies to help shill for whatever pizza chain is helping to foot the bill for the film's animation. One quick note on that matter, the Turtles shouldn't be eating Papa John's or Dominoes or whatever. Let them eat some genuine New York pizza. New York was always a character in the world of the Ninja Turtles and it breaks my heart to see them eating mass-produced chain food. What else? Well, the plot of the movie is pretty uninspired. The Turtles are racing against Shredder and his new mutant cohorts to acquire parts to an inter-dimensional portal that the baddies hope to use to bring Krang into our world. Also Krang looks less like a brain and more like a wad of chewed bubble gum, and Brad Garrett's voice acting doesn't work for me. Fred Armisen had originally been cast to voice Krang and I can't help but think of how much better it could've been. Stephen Amell, from TV's "Arrow", and Tyler Perry round out the cast as Casey Jones and Baxter Stockman, respectively. Amell brings nothing new to the table but I was charmed by Perry's neurotic enthusiasm as Stockman and hope, if we do end up with another one of these movies, he returns to live out his character's destiny with a mutation into an anthropomorphic fly.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS makes a lot of big promises but fails to make any of its new material very interesting. There has to be a way for these movies to be entertaining without neglecting their target audience. They should check out what the Nickelodeon Ninja Turtle series was doing; it proves these characters can work for all ages. For now though, the Platinum Dunes NINJA TURTLE franchise continues to disappoint and bore, and no amount of nostalgia for these characters will make me want to revisit this in the future.
It's Good for a Few Laughs but POPSTAR Hasn't Got a Lot of Substance
It was only a matter of time before the Lonely Island guys came out with a music mockumentary; I just expected it to be about Lonely Island. Nope. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer instead bring us into the world of fictional international pop icon Conner4real (Samberg). The movie is constructed as a behind-the-scenes/concert film for Conner as he prepares to release the follow-up album to his massive hit solo debut. Conner was originally a member of boy band/hip-hop trio the Style Boyz but broke off on his own when his ego became too much to handle for the trio's writer, Lawrence (Schaffer). Now Conner tours the world with the band's third member, Owen (Taccone), as his DJ while Lawrence has retired to a quiet life of farming and subpar wood carving. Conner's second album debuts with such controversial hits as "Equal Rights" and "Bin Laden" and becomes an instant flop. Unable to cope with failure and surrounded by useless sycophants, Conner life begins a downward spiral and Owen believes a Style Boyz reunion would be the best thing for everyone. Unfortunately, Conner and Lawrence didn't exactly part on the best of terms and getting the two of them in a room to talk, much less reunite for a performance, is going to be near impossible. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is an improv- laden mockumentary in the same vein of THIS IS SPINAL TAP but never achieves its level of awesomeness, but it has got its share of laughs.
I enjoyed POPSTAR for what it is but watching it has made me realize how much I miss normal scripted comedies. Improv films can be real hit-or-miss and this one is no different, but I'd say the scales tip in favor of the funnier bits. There aren't a whole lot of hilarious moments that'll be with you too long after the movie is over, but you're bound to get some chuckles from it if this is your type of comedy. Personally, my favorite gag comes about halfway through the movie when Conner's manager Harry (Tim Meadows, excellent as usual) is breaking some bad news to the singer over some breakfast mimosas and Conner has a rough moment, asking the documentarians to kill the cameras for a minute. The video cuts out but we keep the audio as their tender conversation quickly turns when a wandering bee becomes a nuisance and quickly escalates to a battle of life and death. That was probably the one time the movie got a solid laugh from me. The rest is a bit of a mixed bag but fans of Samberg and the Lonely Island material from "Saturday Night Live" shouldn't be disappointed. There are plenty of new songs created for the movie and Conner4real and some of them are pretty good, but there's nothing on the level of "J*zz in My Pants", "I'm on a Boat", or "Motherlover". This is why I was hoping it'd be a mockumentary about Lonely Island: great music catalog.
Since it's a "documentary", it's filled with cameos from music artists who've got a sense of humor and contributed interview snippets including RZA, Mariah Carey, and Ringo Starr. You can also expect the usual cavalcade of comedic talent filling out the rest of the case, such as the aforementioned Tim Meadows as Conner's manager and Sarah Silverman as his press agent. There is plenty of talent on display here; Samberg and company pulled out all the stops to surround him with high quality cast-mates. So even if the comedy isn't your style, you can spend the duration of the movie tracking the endless stream of cameos. Otherwise, it's exactly what you would expect for a Lonely Island mockumentary. If that's your thing, you'll probably find a reason to watch and I'm sure you'll enjoy it fine. If not, this movie isn't likely going to win you over. POPSTAR is what it is and to me it's a fun piece of throwaway entertainment that might've aspired to SPINAL TAP levels and fell short. The Apatow style of improv that's permeated comedies in the last ten years is good for a quick laugh but most of the movies of this sort are quickly forgotten and I'm sure POPSTAR, as amusing as it can be, will probably fall into that category.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
A Solid, Exciting Adaptation of Marvel's Civil War
Comic book superhero movies have been blowing up theaters for almost twenty years now. Marvel has been reigning champion for more than half that time, and DC has stepped up their game with their opening moves toward building a cinematic universe. What I'm saying is we've seen a lot of costumed heroes beating up on supervillains and foiling their plots at world domination/destruction/etc. at this point. To keep things fresh, the studios have to find ways to change it up and 2016 saw not one but two different films focused on superheroes turning their fists on their brethren (well, three if you include X-MEN: APOCALYPSE where Storm was temporarily on the villain's team). While Batman's battle with Superman failed to be the explosive intro to Warner's eventual JUSTICE LEAGUE they might've hoped it be (especially critically), the civil war in Marvel's cinematic universe went to show that you could put cram all of your existing superhero roster into a film, go so far as to introduce a few more new characters, give them all a reason to brawl, and still come out with box office gold. CAPTAIN America: CIVIL WAR is Marvel's most ambitious film to date and had every reason to fall apart, but the team behind the camera managed to put together one of the best entries in the studio's canon. It manages to avoid the increasingly cliché superhero storytelling tropes and also shakes up the inter-character dynamics amongst the dozen or so heroes we've come to know.
Civil War is the only run of comics I've made a point to read in its entirety. I read all of the core issues as well as all of the individual hero runs that went alongside it. Needless to say, I was beyond excited at the announcement that Marvel Studios would be tackling the story arc for the third film in the Captain America series, but I was also worried because there was just so much that happened in the comics that I feared a version boiled down to two or so hours wouldn't do it justice. In the end, having seen the finished product, I love it. It doesn't hold up as well under multiple viewings. On my first viewing, I thought it the best Captain America film and one of the top Marvel films period. Since then, I've come to accept that I was a bit blown away by the spectacle (that airport battle!) and I've adjusted my opinions and recognize that, while it's most certainly awesome, there are still better Marvel films. I have had some regrets with the film though. In the comics, it goes a little darker at the midpoint when the heroes on both sides realize the consequences of their actions (the movie pulls it's punches and there are no tragic long-term consequences of their in-fighting) and I still sort of wish they'd kept the original dramatic end from the comics (you know the one with Captain America) because of the impact it would've left.
I understand their reasons for the changes from comic to screen (can't shake up the status quo in this money machine too much) but I would've really appreciated the studio showing it was willing to make a drastic change for dramatic impact in service of the series. Instead, injuries will heal and, while there's still a rift in our Avengers by the end of the film, we know they'll reconcile when it comes time to fight Thanos in INFINITY WAR. So, in the long run, their squabbles don't mean much but they do make for a great movie. And we got to meet some new characters! CIVIL WAR introduces us to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Boseman gives a strong performance as T'Challa/Black Panther but isn't given a whole lot to do other than brood and chase vengeance; regardless, there's the seed of a great new hero for the cinematic universe and it's increased my interest for his upcoming standalone. Spider-Man, on the other hand, was the big draw for me. I know I wasn't alone in my excitement for his arrival in the MCU after the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN franchise fell to pieces. Tom Holland is pitch perfect as the web-slinger and the filmmakers have captured the spirit of the character better than both Sam Rami and Marc Webb ever managed. It's no surprise that Marvel themselves would be the ones to do the character justice, even if it's only for an extended cameo in the middle of the film.
Despite all the superhero-on-superhero violence and new hero introductions, this is still a Captain America film and the main through-line still focuses on Captain America and the Winter Soldier. It somewhat continues from WINTER SOLDIER in that Bucky Barnes is still a wanted international criminal, though he's recovered enough of his memories that he isn't a threat, and Steve Rogers still has his back. The Winter Soldier is accused of bombing a meeting of the United Nations and Captain America goes rogue to clear his name; meanwhile, a botched Avengers mission in Africa ends with civilian deaths and the United Nations moves to pass the Sokovia Accords, a program that would require government registration of all vigilante heroes. It's Rogers' willingness to disobey the Accords in an effort to clear Barnes' name that leads to the dispute between him and Tony Stark/Iron Man, whose guilty conscience leads him to give his full support to the Accords. So the spectacle and abundance of heroes are great, but this is still a Cap story at heart and CIVIL WAR is another home run from the Russo brothers, in what originally started as my least anticipated Marvel film franchise but has since become one of its strongest.
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
A Superior, Scarier Film than the Original CONJURING
I don't generally put a whole lot of faith into horror sequels. More often than not, they're just trying to recreate the success of what made the first film popular and fail to bring anything new to the table. So many of them are unapologetic cash-grabs that I often won't pay attention to news that sequels are in the pipeline, even when I enjoyed the first film. I thought INSIDIOUS was a creepy, fun little film but I never once cared about the second chapter and still haven't bothered to see it. Until just a moment ago, I was completely unaware that there has, in fact, been a third chapter and there's a fourth in production. Speaking of James Wan and Patrick Wilson, the first CONJURING was another decent horror. I think it was over-hyped and I might've gone in with my expectations a little high, but I enjoyed it. I had zero interest in the idea of a second film, believing they'd gone the route of every other successful horror with a seemingly never-ending explosion of sequels and spin-offs (for the record, I never saw ANNABELLE and have no desire to do so) but I was caught off-guard when THE CONJURING 2 started receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and in the end I'm glad I did because I'm actually of the opinion that THE CONJURING 2 is superior to the first film. So I suppose it's a rare exception to the rule.
THE CONJURING 2 revisits the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the most famous paranormal investigators. It opens with a glimpse into their involvement in the investigation of the Amityville house, where Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) conducts a séance and comes face-to-face with some sort of evil spirit in the form of an evil nun. Unlike the first film where their Annabelle investigation was just a cold open to introduce the pair in action, the nun becomes an integral part of THE CONJURING 2, tormenting Lorraine long after finishing at Amityville with visions of Ed's (Patrick Wilson) death. It's her confrontation with the nun and these spectral threats that lead her to swearing off hands-on investigations, and she and Ed decide to limit their activity to seminars and interviews. Meanwhile, in England, a new supernatural occurrence has taken up residence in the home of a single mother and her four children. It's set its sights on the youngest daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe), and it's not long before her over-stressed mother takes notice and affirms that this isn't a child's prank. Her family is being tortured nightly and Janet is suffering more and more as the entity breaks her spirit in hopes of possessing her body for its own purposes. The misery of a young child proves too much for Lorraine to turn away, and she and Ed jet off across the Atlantic to verify the poltergeist's existence and hopefully get the Catholic Church involved in exorcising the spirit.
The Enfield Poltergeist is apparently one of the more famous Warren investigations. I wasn't familiar with the details of it prior to this movie but I had seen the photographs of Janet's supposed levitations referenced before in my limited readings on the paranormal. Of course, the whole situation has been debunked as an attention-grabbing hoax but, for the purposes of this movie, it's all treated as gospel and it makes for a great movie. I remember the first film leaving me uneasy in a dark house when it ended but THE CONJURING 2 was way more effective at leaving me shaken. James Wan is a talented horror director and one of the few out there that can put together a strong ghost story without the reliance on shocking gore or over-used jump scare tactics. He uses camera lenses, lighting, film score, and the performances of his cast to build a sense of dread in a way that many other modern horror filmmakers wish they could. There's a little bit of questionable CG in the film when the spirit takes the form of a children's nursery rhyme named the Crooked Man but it's a minor misstep and I can forgive its cartoonish appearance because everything else works so well. The first CONJURING seems to have soaked all the hype but CONJURING 2 is the one that gets my respect. Fans of the first one won't be disappointed and, for once, I'm eager for a horror sequel and hope they continue digging through the Warrens' files with a CONJURING 3.
The Nice Guys (2016)
THE NICE GUYS Deserves a Lot More Love
The most overlooked, underrated movie from 2016 was, without a doubt, THE NICE GUYS. I saw it in theaters on the weekend after it opened in a small theater with no more than a dozen people total. The box office numbers for THE NICE GUYS were depressingly low, being siphoned away to the swarm of big budget blockbusters that, let's face it, weren't all that impressive that summer. I treated myself to a double feature that afternoon, starting with the latest X-MEN and closing out with THE NICE GUYS. Needless to say, Shane Black's retro detective buddy comedy was the far superior film and I just wish more people had given it the attention it deserved. We've got superhero movies hitting us from every direction; we've rebooting reboots; we're regurgitating old properties and turning toy brands into franchises. So when an amazing, original movie like THE NICE GUYS comes along we need to pay attention and give it the love it deserves. Why are we wasting theater space on yet another tired TRANSFORMERS installment but my chances of getting another round with March and Healy are low-to-none? I think the only, and I mean only, mistake this movie made was being released in May at the start of the summer movie season. If the studios have played it smart and released it in the winter when audiences aren't bombarded with two and a half hour CG explosions, this movie might've gotten the love it deserved. Because this movie is awesome.
It's set in the '70s Los Angeles in the midst of the national gas crisis. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a sleazy private detective who finds himself teaming with the more honorable hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) in getting to the bottom of a mystery revolving around a missing girl and a dead porn actress. THE NICE GUYS is equal parts action and comedy, with Gosling and Crowe giving what are probably my favorite performances from two actors I don't generally associate with comedy. March is an alcoholic who's still reeling from the death of his wife. He's raising his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) alone and makes a living pursuing the sort of cases that might involve ripping off old ladies for on-going payments. Healy is a loner, living above a club with only his aquarium for company, who'll put the hurting on troublemakers for the right amount of cash. The two cross paths when Healy is hired to "send a message" to March to stop trailing a frightened young girl named Amelia (she's a person of interest in March's case). Soon Amelia goes missing and a couple of thugs (including Keith David because, as I mentioned, this movie is awesome) come terrorizing Healy in search of her; Healy recognizes there's someone with more sinister intentions pursing this girl and he turns to March for help in locating her. March reluctantly agrees and we're off on one of the best buddy action/comedies in decades from the writer of LETHAL WEAPON.
The writing is sharp. The laughs are consistent. The action is brutal. THE NICE GUYS succeeds on every level. I would've never pegged Gosling or Crowe for these sort of semi-comedic roles but they nail it. I want to see a sequel with March and Healy on their first official case as a professional investigation duo, with Holly tagging along despite the mens' warnings in sort of a "Penny in Inspector Gadget" role. Holly is precocious for her age and acts as March's unofficial partner, meaning she's the sober one and keeps him on track. Angourie Rice keeps pace with the heavier hitters of the film and never falls into the pitfall of being "the annoying child actor" who ruins an otherwise fantastic movie. She's just as vital a team member. The conspiracy uncovered by the trio is complex without being convoluted and it makes for an interesting story built around the legitimate gas crisis the United States encountered in the era. It's a fun period piece from a fun period. We don't get enough period pieces from the '60s or '70s anymore so I love it when one comes along and, even better, when it's done well. THE NICE GUYS has everything you could want and I don't want to spoil much of anything so I'm trying to be sparse with the details, but I really encourage you to check this movie out if you haven't. By the end, I imagine you'll be aching for another go with the Nice Guys P.I.s as much as I am.
The Lobster (2015)
Surreal, Absurd, Endearing & Funny; THE LOBSTER is a Bizarre One I Highly Recommend
The latest film I can obsessively recommend to my friends, knowing they'll probably never watch it, is THE LOBSTER. I think I first took notice of it when Cracked mentioned it in an article on (then) upcoming insane movies that weren't getting enough attention and the plot synopsis demanded I track down this movie and watch it as soon as I could. In THE LOBSTER, Colin Farrell is a man who is recently single and must attend a program wherein he has 45 days to find a new mate or he will be turned into an animal. He chooses as his potential future animal a lobster because of their long life, blue blood, and lifetime of fertility. The film, from Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, is set in a dystopian world where relationships are government- regulated and loners, those who manage to escape their transformative fate, are outcasts that live in the forests. People attending the resort in search of a mate can extend their time through a hunting ritual where they're released into the woods with tranquilizer guns to hunt the loners, garnering additional days for every loner they bring in for transformation. The film chronicles the desperation of our main character David (Farrell) as he does whatever he can to find a new connection before accepting more drastic measures and going the route of a fugitive loner, where he happens to meet a lovely woman (Rachel Weisz) who might in fact be his ideal mate, assuming they get out alive.
THE LOBSTER is a surreal gem of a film that I can't seem to shake from my mind for a while after watching it. There's just so much here to break down and examine. I'm obsessed with the strange world that Lanthimos and co- writer Efthymis Filippou have created. We've got this bizarre world where the government mandates that everyone must have a mate to the point where, if authorities see you wandering a city alone, they can demand to see your papers verifying your relationship status. There's a strange recurring theme where you can only exist as either end of a spectrum with no gray area in between. For example, in addition to the outright relationship vs. loner existence, there's a moment at the beginning of the film where David is partaking in the resort's entrance exam and he's asked his sexual orientation. He claims as heterosexual but then admits he had engaged in some experimentation at a point earlier in life and wanted to know if he could be labeled bisexual but, no, this isn't allowed (there is some mention that this had caused some complications within the program at some point in the past). Each society exists by a strict set of rules that operate as polar opposites; masturbation at the resort will get your hand mauled whereas making out in the loner tribe will scar you with the "red kiss". It's all so strange and infinitely interesting with a hint of vague social commentary on relationships within.
I find it difficult to make a case for people to check out THE LOBSTER. If you're not as intrigued by the strange world Lanthimos and Filippou have created as I am, you might find the movie dull. It's got a very dry sense of humor and all of the dialogue is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact manner with little or no emotion with few exceptions. The characters are almost robotic in their behavior and the only ones who come across as near-human are David and Weisz's short-sighted woman. There's another strange element: Farrell's David is the only character in the entire movie with a name. Everyone else is defined by a trait. Weisz is short-sighted. John C. Reilly has a lisp. Ben Wishaw has a limp. The characters populating the world of THE LOBSTER define themselves by one outstanding trait and seek their mate based on that trait, to the point that some will even fake it just to avoid transformation; even when not trapped in the "civilized" world, David desperately seeks that shared trait with the short-sighted woman to feel secure in his affections for her. I find more to love about this quirky little film the more I mull it over in my mind and I'm sure there's an audience for this sort of oddity out there but I know it could very well be off-putting for a lot of people. It's surreal, absurd, funny, and endearing, and now I kind of want to watch it again.
Key & Peele Explode onto the Big Screen in KEANU
When "Key & Peele" was blowing up on Comedy Central, I didn't have cable and, when I did, I didn't use it much so I only ever caught episodes when it happened to be on at a friend's house where I happened to be hanging out. I've only seen a dozen or so full episodes but I always loved what I saw. It was easily Comedy Central's best stand-up/sketch show since "Chappelle's Show". If you were a fan of "Key & Peele", chances are you'll love KEANU. It's essentially a "Key & Peele" sketch expanded to feature length. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are Rell and his cousin Clarence, respectively. As we meet them, Rell is reeling from a particularly nasty break-up and Clarence is hoping to find a means of taking his mind off of it, but Rell's mood is quickly lifted by the surprise arrival of an adorable kitten (whom he names Keanu) at his doorstep. When a wrong address leads local gang members to wreck his apartment and cat-nap Keanu, Rell recruits Clarence to join him in confronting the leader of the Blips (a gang consisting of members who weren't good enough for the Bloods or Crips) and their leader Cheddar (Method Man) for his cat. Some miscommunication later, Cheddar believes them to be the notorious Allentown Bros, an assassin duo that had effortlessly obliterated a local rival drug ring, and agrees to hand over Keanu in exchange for a little assistance in his own drug operation.
The crux of the movie is how Rell and Clarence are the least tough, least street smart men to be getting involved in organized crime. It's your usual fish-of-out-water scenario where our heroes are a stoner and a married man with a passion for the music of George Michael. The plot is basic and, honestly, the biggest disappointment in the movie because you can predict everything that's going to happen. You know what story beats are coming and can generally figure out how everything will play out, though there are a few surprises in there. When Rell and Clarence accompany Cheddar's unit to deliver a package of his lethal new street drug Holy Sh*t to a local Hollywood starlet's house, it's a pretty cool moment with a fun cameo that would almost feel a little too long if it weren't constantly cutting away to Clarence in the van explaining to the gangbangers how George Michael's music deserves their respect. It's moments like that, and the fantastic chemistry of Key and Peele with their knack for playing the dorkiest suburbanites, that make KEANU so much fun in spite of the half-hearted script. If you were disappointed when "Key & Peele" completed its run, here is where you can get your fix until the guys find the time to put together another project together. Just keep expectations in check; I was so hyped by the positive buzz for this movie that I was a little disappointed the first time I watched it.
Like I said, the writing won't win any awards but the comedy, and even the action, is on point. There's some decent action here. I guarantee Key and Peele had a load of fun making this. They even have dual roles, portraying the movie's actual Allentown Bros with all their Matrix-esque acrobatics, gunplay, and cold-blooded murdering. I had to double-check the cast listing because they're covered in some Frankenstein-level makeup effects to hide it. The comedians may be the heroes (and villains, I guess) of the movie but the real star of KEANU is Keanu. I mean, come on, the kitten's adorable. Just look at him with his little do-rag on. You can't tell me a kitten clinging to the hood of a speeding car won't put you on the edge of your seat. He even gets his own hero moment *and* he's voiced by Keanu Reeves because of course he is. I should clarify, he only speaks once and it's during a drug-induced hallucination. This isn't a movie about a talking cat. But I'd watch that too if it feature Key and Peele. So yeah, KEANU is fun. It could've used some rewrites to punch up the actual plot but it's elevated by our three stars. Fans of their show will certainly find this to be a surefire hit and people who aren't familiar with the duo's show might be inspired to seek it out. Either way, I can't wait to see what these guys might put out next.