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5/10
The Worst of Bryan Singer's X-MEN Movies
12 September 2017
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.
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7/10
We Didn't Need a NEIGHBORS 2 but It's Got Some Laughs
11 September 2017
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.
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6/10
Heart-Warming and Indescribably Strange Tale of a Man and a Corpse
11 September 2017
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.
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5/10
A Load of New TMNT Character Intros (Isn't Enough to Save This Movie)
11 September 2017
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.
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7/10
It's Good for a Few Laughs but POPSTAR Hasn't Got a Lot of Substance
11 September 2017
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.
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8/10
A Solid, Exciting Adaptation of Marvel's Civil War
10 September 2017
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.
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8/10
A Superior, Scarier Film than the Original CONJURING
26 August 2017
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.
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The Nice Guys (2016)
9/10
THE NICE GUYS Deserves a Lot More Love
26 August 2017
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.
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The Lobster (2015)
8/10
Surreal, Absurd, Endearing & Funny; THE LOBSTER is a Bizarre One I Highly Recommend
21 August 2017
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.
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Keanu (2016)
7/10
Key & Peele Explode onto the Big Screen in KEANU
5 July 2017
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.
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6/10
An Interesting Experiment in First-Person POV w/ Little Substance Behind It
5 July 2017
Remember that first-person action scene from DOOM in 2006? For that matter, does anyone remember DOOM? Anyway, there was the big sequence in the final act where the mediocre sci-fi action film decided to pay homage to the video game on which it was supposed to have been based where the camera assumes a first-person perspective where the audience sees through the eyes of the hero for a short killing spree. If you ever watched that scene in DOOM and thought to yourself "Why not do the entire movie like that?" then HARDCORE HENRY might just be for you. It's shot through the eyes of our silent protagonist Henry as he slaughters his way through ninety minutes of action. After an admittedly cool series of opening credits, we enter the film as Henry awakens in a laboratory with a beautiful scientist, who claims to be his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett), reassembling him with bionic limbs and explaining that there's been some sort of incident but, cool news, he's a cyborg now. Before he can have his voice unit activated (conveniently to allow the viewer to imagine themselves in the role…just like a video game), the lab is attacked by the film's main villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a pale-skinned psychopath with the power of telekinesis. Akan wants Henry for his own personal army and takes Estelle as collateral until Henry submits; what follows is an extensive series of chases and beatdowns as Henry races to confront Akan and rescue his wife.

The whole gimmick of telling an entire film from the first-person perspective is a challenging prospect, though I'm honestly surprised the popularity of first-person shooter video games hadn't brought one on sooner. Because the film wants to put you in Henry's shoes, he has no dialogue of his own and all exposition and story elements are introduced by supporting characters who proceed to explain the situation to our amnesiac hero as the movie goes forward. To put it simply, we learn everything we need to know through the movie in the cut scenes between battles. Most of it comes from Sharlto Copley as a scientist who carries a grudge against Akan and hopes to use our super-soldier to achieve his own vengeance. Copley is, as he seems to be in pretty much any movie he's in, one of the highlights. His character, Jimmy, comes in many forms. Having been crippled by Akan as punishment during the development of the super-soldier program, Jimmy utilizes a collection of personal clones (of varying colorful personalities) to handle his work in the field. I admit I thought it went a little over the top when his clones burst out into a song and dance number about halfway through the film, but I'll forgive it because Copley is just so charismatic. But seeing as how our hero has no memory of anything before awakening in the lab, we're left to wonder if Jimmy, or anyone, can be trusted until the final act where all's revealed.

No spoilers but the big reveal and its accompanying explanation don't make a lot of sense to me. When Akan's big plan was revealed, I just sat bewildered wondering why he went through something so complex and wasteful that I'm sure could've been handled with a hundred or so less casualties. I thought it was pretty stupid but, then again, I'm pretty sure no one is watching HARDCORE HENRY for the plot. It's all about the brutal, bloody violence and the…I dunno…wish fulfillment that comes from witnessing it through the hero's eyes. Again, like a video game. I can't stress enough that watching HARDCORE HENRY is like watching a friend play a video game for 95 minutes. Right down to the mission assignments coming through over the phone ("Get to X and acquire the Y!") and the obligatory final boss battle. It's a real cool gimmick and the novelty didn't get old until about halfway through the movie when my attention started to wander. You can only get so much out of it. They ran the full gamut here: parkour, martial arts, loads of gunplay, vehicular combat, and graphic finishing moves. It's a fun movie to watch once, maybe twice if you want to introduce a friend to it. I have to imagine people with sensitive motion sickness might not take to it so well because the movie is nonstop shaky-cam, so keep that in mind. Otherwise, action nuts will find something to enjoy here and it's worth checking out for the unique style.
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6/10
If You're Going to Watch It, Go with the Ultimate Edition. It's Slightly Better.
4 July 2017
There is enough discussion to be had about BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE that it can't possibly be done…well…justice in the limited space here. I was eager to discuss this slow-motion train wreck after leaving the theater in the spring of '16 but my friends were less interested in blowing their cash on a movie that garnered a discouraging 27% on Rotten Tomatoes than I was. After Marvel Studios built a multi-billion enterprise with their comic properties, DC finally realized they were falling behind and there was a load of money yet to be made with their immense stable of characters. Until this point, the only DC characters to be gifted with decent blockbuster films had been Batman and Superman. I mean, this one is still basically just Batman and Superman, but this one is Batman and Superman on screen *at the same time*! It also serves as the jumping off point for DC's dive into their full-blown JUSTICE LEAGUE. Unfortunately, whereas Marvel had the sense to ease each of their less mainstream characters into the public consciousness with individual films for Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, etc. so people less familiar would have some footing before we were given THE AVENGERS, DC decided to catch up on lost time by jumping in head first with this confusing mess of a film where director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio & David Goyer had to accomplish a *lot* in a limited time.

DAWN OF JUSTICE had the complex mission of: (1) introducing a new Batman to audiences (Ben Affleck), (2) introducing a new Lex Luthor to audiences (Jesse Eisenberg), (3) establishing a reason general audiences would accept for Batman to even fight Superman, (4) shoehorning an introduction to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) into the film, and (5) setting up the creation of the Justice League This would be a lot for any filmmaker to tackle and, in this case, that director is Zack Snyder. He's a man known for his prioritizing of style over substance and, while I've enjoyed his other movies, I couldn't help but feel he was in a little over his head. There was so much jammed into this movie that, when it was cut down to a bloated 150 minutes for the theatrical release, it made almost no sense. Since then I've only ever watched the three hour extended director's cut and I recommend that anyone who hasn't seen the movie and might be curious do the same. It's still bloated and there's still pacing issues and there are still some character decisions that don't make the best of sense but at least the plot is all there and you aren't left with a dozen questions. The much-maligned plot device revolving around our heroes' mothers is still there and still lame…there's not avoiding that…but the rest of it works a little better. And because the extended edition is R-rated, you can watch Batman murder in even more brutal fashion.

Yeah, Batman murders a lot in this movie. That's just where we're at now. The Batman of DAWN OF JUSTICE is an old, grizzled, cynical Batman who seems tired of fighting crime and watching it have little to no effect, so now he's strapped an enormous machine gun to the front of the Batmobile and he has no qualms with snapping necks or sending criminals to prison with a Bat- branding that guarantees they'll be murdered inside. For that matter, why are so many other criminals in prison so eager to do Batman's dirty work? Aren't they operating on opposite teams? Anyway, Batman's a killer but the good news is Ben Affleck actually makes for a pretty cool Batman. All those years Kevin Smith said his buddy Affleck should be Batman, and he was right. I dig it and I really hope we get a solo Batman movie with Affleck sooner rather than later. Other new additions Eisenberg and Gadot don't fare as well. I love Jesse Eisenberg but I still have a hard time accepting his new eccentric, high- energy spastic Lex Luthor. He enters this movie with a pre-loaded hatred for Superman as if we're just supposed to understand he hates Superman because we, the audience, understand that these characters are enemies because that's what they've always been. How about a little background to explain Luthor's burning hatred for Superman? DAWN OF JUSTICE gives us some half-baked excuse of Luthor hating Superman's god-like status, but why wouldn't he have tried reaching out to Superman first to manipulate him into benefiting his own enterprises? Then maybe Superman turns him down and tells him his practices are less than virtuous and warn him to watch himself before he has to step in, and *then* Luthor feels the need to get him out of the way. Or something. I don't know. I wasn't paid millions of dollars to write this thing but I bet I couldn't done better than "Grrr, he's like a god and I hate that and I'm willing to destroy anyone and everyone to make him gone."

A quick note about Gal Gadot, our new Wonder Woman, before I run out of space (I could go one so much longer with this movie. I wasn't kidding). I was not a fan of Gadot's Wonder Woman in this movie. I had a hard time at first getting through her accent and her line delivery wasn't the strongest. But I've since seen the 2017 solo WONDER WOMAN movie and I couldn't imagine a better choice. When she has more than five lines of dialogue, it's much easier to acclimate to her accent and she can, in fact, act. So Wonder Woman's weak entry into the DC cinematic universe is probably another fault of Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer. She's good and, for the record, WONDER WOMAN is so much stronger than this movie. Running out of space…uh…Jimmy Olsen's meaningless existence…uh…nonsensical, overly complex conspiracy plot… um…geez… three hours, really?! Hmm…that final battle and…uh…uhm… Martha!
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Green Room (2015)
7/10
Brutal, Blood-Soaked Battle: Punk Rockers vs Neo-Nazis
15 June 2017
I was sold on GREEN ROOM the moment I found out Patrick Stewart is the villain. Not just any villain either, but the head of an organization of rural neo- Nazis. And, to keep the STAR TREK connections flowing, he and his skinheads are going up against a punk band in which the lead guitarist is played by Anton Yelchin who played the young Pavel Chekov in the 2009 reboot and onward. Then GREEN ROOM went on to earn a certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I was excited. I love a good genre film and GREEN ROOM is a horror/thriller that will effectively keep you on edge. The film focuses on a small-time punk band called the Ain't Rights as they're coming to the end of a cross-country tour. They're a handful of die-hards in it for the music and embracing the struggle, driving all hours and siphoning gas because these gigs aren't paying the greatest. As the movie begins, they find themselves in the Pacific northwest when a promised gig proves to be a bust. Just as they're about ready to call it done and start the long ride home, their local contact promises them a better venue and the chance for some decent cash. The only downside: they're playing to skinheads. Just keep it cool and don't play anything that'll set them off, and it'll be fine. The gig, at a private bar in the middle of the Oregon wilderness, goes well enough, but one wrong move on their way out ensures they won't be allowed to leave alive.

The band finds themselves trapped in the skinhead bar's green room with the owner (Stewart) at first trying to reassure them that everything will be fine, the police are on the way, and soon this whole ordeal will be sorted out. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis have a secret to protect on this property and that means these scrawny rockers can't be allowed to ruin their operation. What follows is a brutally violent battle of punks vs. Nazis where the Ain't Rights are going to have to force themselves out of their comfort zones and face death head-on if they plan on seeing their way out of there. The band consists of Yelchin with Alia Shawkat, and relative unknowns (to me) Joe Cole and Callum Turner. It's the band that sells it and makes this movie, at times, pretty painful to watch. They give the band a grounded realism as your average aimless youths with nothing more in mind than getting drunk and playing their music So when these stone-cold killers come at them armed with machetes and trained attack dogs, they react with a very real panic. These characters aren't action heroes. They're still practically kids and this is a very real danger for them. So, when they get the nerve to finally try and turn the tables on their enemies, it's sloppy and often ineffective, and when people start to die it provokes a gut reaction, unlike a lot of other slasher films out there where you're too detached to care about the heroes.

It's a treat to see Patrick Stewart as the villain, especially one as horrible as this. His character, Darcy, is the head of this operation and storms on to the scene once his lieutenants alert him to the problem of a pesky corpse and the police having been called to the scene. He operates with composure and he's got a plan to make sure all of this goes away before it can destroy everything he's worked to build. He's soft-spoken, though that may just be because Stewart's slight southern drawl barely conceals his underlying English accent, but the character's realize early on that he's not your average gentle old man. Adding to the sickly feeling of uneasiness in the film is the sharp cinematography of Sean Porter. The whole movie has a dim, overcast feel evocative of the rainy northwest (whether that was a decision or just a result of filming in Oregon, I don't know but it works) and, of course, the movie has a greenish hue due in part to the use of fluorescent lighting in the bar and the rich greens of the surrounding Oregon forest. It works in conjunction with the film's grimy characters and bloody violence to give GREEN ROOM the nightmarish quality it needs to put your in the minds of these innocent punks who've been dumped in the worst case scenario and might not live to see the sunrise.
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8/10
A Refreshing, Original Piece of Science Fiction
4 June 2017
I regret that I still haven't gotten around to see Jeff Nichols' TAKE SHELTER. The reviews from its run on the festival circuit made it sound intriguing but it had zero local presence here and no promotion when it arrived on home release. I'd completely forgotten about it until MIDNIGHT SPECIAL came out. I guess Nichols had gained some clout since 2011 because this one surprised me on the shelf in my local department store. So yeah, I finally got to see what the indie hype surrounding Nichols was all about. Well deserved hype, too. I thought MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was great. It's a science fiction thriller starring Michael Shannon as Roy Tomlin. We're introduced to Roy in the start of the film as he's hiding out with his son in a shady motel room with the windows covered and his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), helping keep watch. The way he keeps his son hidden from view of others and only travels at night you begin to suspect he's kidnapped the boy, and it's not far from the truth. He's stolen his son away from a religious cult that views him as some sort of holy figure due to strange episodes the boy suffers. This cult is the sort that stockpiles weapons and encourages a strong distrust of the outside world, so it can only be leading up to something dangerous. So Roy grabs his son and goes on the run with the government and members of the cult in pursuit.

We come to discover that Roy's son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), does in fact have some kind of supernatural powers. Roy was a former member of the cult who lost Alton when the boy's powers began to manifest when Pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the cult's leader, adopted the boy as his own for use as a tool in his pseudo-religious preaching. Alton has the strange ability to receive encoded satellite signals (among other things) and Roy has managed to decipher information, including coordinates and a date/time, from his son and they've made it their objective to bring him there at the proper time for… whatever is meant to happen. The government has taken special interest because a lot of the coded transmissions Alton has intercepted are from NSA signals and information from those signals had found their way into Pastor Meyer's sermons. So it's all one big race against time as Roy and Lucas try to bring Alton to the coordinates before government agents can abduct him to one of their secure facilities or Meyer's goons can steal him away back to the compound for whatever it is he has planned for the child. Along the way, Roy reconnects with Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and finds a potential ally in an NSA communications analyst (Adam Driver). It's a tense run from the heart of Texas to Florida capping with a breathtaking sequence as Alton's true origins and destiny are revealed. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is suspenseful, often emotional, and full of mystery.

I can't help but feel a little bit of an Amblin vibe from this movie. Not in the sense that it's aimed at children or families because I doubt most kids would stomach the slower pacing (and there are a few moments that might be a little too shocking or violent for the especially young). I mean MIDNIGHT SPECIAL feels almost like an E.T. for adults. People on the run with an individual they don't fully understand with the government on their heels and it culminates in a grand finish as the characters accomplish what they set out to do. I really enjoyed the concept of Alton and his background, once the movie started dishing out the details. It was a sharp use of an underutilized sci-fi trope that doesn't seem to get much play. I'll always have a soft spot for creative, unique science fiction tales so MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was bound to hit all the right buttons for me. In addition, it stars Michael Shannon who, as far as I can tell, has been awesome in every role he's done. It serves as a reminder here that I really, really need to check out TAKE SHELTER. I should also compliment the use of CG in the film. This movie was done on an $18 million budget, a fraction of some other movies, and the CG is incredible. It's used somewhat sparingly and, when it's used, it's used to great effect. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL won't appeal to those who need lasers or space battles in their sci-fi, but those of us who appreciate something a little more toned down (action- wise) that relies on its themes and performances, this one shouldn't disappoint.
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4/10
BROTHERS GRIMSBY Tries Too Hard to Shock; Fails to Write Much That's Actually Funny
4 June 2017
I haven't put a lot of thought into what might've been the worst movie I saw in 2016 but I'm pretty sure THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is a frontrunner. I really wasn't sure what to expect from it and I hadn't read much on it before watching, so it's pretty safe to say I was caught way, way off guard. It's a comedy about two brothers. One happens to be a spy with MI-6 and the other is a dimwitted soccer hooligan. It stars Mark Strong and Sascha Baron Cohen in the lead roles. I imagine you can figure out who's who. Now, I'm familiar with Cohen's work. I really liked BORAT and I didn't hate BRÜNO, but this wasn't one of his mock documentaries where he goes to insane lengths to mess with ordinary folk through a character. I don't know what I expected this to be any different; maybe it was the inclusion of Strong, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, and Isla Fisher in the cast. Not only is this movie on par with Cohen's other outrageous movies; it also gives full effort to become his grossest yet. I'm not adverse to this. I can enjoy gross-out humor when it's done right. I own all three of the JACKASS films and watch them again every few years for a good laugh. The problem with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is that it sacrifices everything else for the sake of its incessant gags, most of which are something going in/coming out of bodies.

I had to check out the writers on this film. I wanted to know who was responsible, and the answers surprised me a bit. Obviously Cohen was involved, and writer Peter Baynham has collaborated with him before on BORAT and BRÜNO so we know he's astute at shock humor. He's also had a hand in writing for "I'm Alan Partridge", one of Steve Coogan's TV series and a pretty consistently funny one too. So the man has some talent. The third screenwriter, Phil Johnston, was also one of two screenwriters on ZOOTOPIA. Freaking ZOOTOPIA. So there's actual talent here and, for whatever reason, it doesn't shine through. To be fair, there are some good gags in this movie. I don't know why I laughed as much as I did at the Daniel Radcliffe bit and then laughed harder at the callback at the end of the film. But the bad outweighs the good. For every joke that'll elicit a legitimate laugh from me, there's three that fall flat and they'll telegraph the gag coming from a mile away. For example, the film's biggest bit involves an elephant. Early in the film, Nobby (Cohen) and his family are watching a nature documentary where he quotes a fact he learned about the internal size of a female elephant's…well, you can use context clues to figure it out. It's sort of weird throwaway line; weird enough to flag that it'll obviously come into play later. And it does, to an absolutely insane degree.

Chances are good that the elephant gag is the one memory you'll walk away from this movie remembering. That and maybe the, ugh, caterpillar venom scene. That's because literally everything else about this movie is forgettable. The plot is simple and stupid. Nobby and Sebastian, orphans, have been separated since childhood. Nobby never gave up on his belief his brother would return (as explained in clunky exposition at the start of the film). We come to discover Sebastian has gone on to become an MI6 agent with the action hero skills of Craig-era James Bond or Jason Bourne. Nobby finds Sebastian in the middle of a mission, causes him to botch it, and Sebastian is framed as a renegade and finds himself the target of his own organization. Nobby and Sebastian go on the run to clear his name and complete the mission. Lazily-written antics ensue and the movie closes with Sebastian's acceptance of his blue-collar origins with fireworks in anuses. Again, most of the jokes in this movie revolve around something going in or coming out of a body. The movie is destined to be forgotten as one of Cohen's lesser works and Strong has hopefully learned to stick with KINGSMAN for his action fix. McShane, Cruz, and the rest should be fine, as I'd completely forgotten they were in this movie when I sat down to watch it a second time (I wanted to give it a fair chance and ensure it wasn't just a poor first impression).

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY isn't unforgivably bad. I'm sure it'll find some sort of audience and develop a minor fan base for the extreme levels they're willing to go in this film. I'm guilty of sharing with friends as with an insistence that "You have to see this movie. It's just bonkers." I'm sure most would agree it's in no sense a "good" movie, but it's primo material to entertain on a night when no one's sober and easy laughs are best.
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7/10
The Ultimate in "Feel Good" Movies; Overwhelmingly Optimistic and Inspiring
21 May 2017
EDDIE THE EAGLE is fine. The story is fine. The performances are fine. It's all fine. It's one of those movies that are so inoffensive, so moderate in every aspect, that you'll no doubt find it enjoyable enough without feeling blown away when it's done. It's a biographical film about the Olympic dreams of Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) from director Dexter Fletcher. The movie opens with young Edwards practicing anything and everything that might lead to his eventual acceptance into the games and, when he's eventually denied membership on Britain's downhill skiing team, he decides to become the nation's first Olympic ski jumper to have competed in the event since the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, Edwards just isn't very good at it. He's repeatedly reminded that most ski jumpers begin training at the age of six, so his impatient persistence is more likely to lead to his bone-shattering death on the slope than Olympic glory. Egerton shines as Edwards, a vast turn from his breakout role as suave super spy-in-training Eggsy in KINGSMEN. Edwards is the epitome of awkwardness. What he lacks in skill, coordination, and common sense, he makes up for in determination; he tackles any challenge head-on with an aloof smile. He quickly realizes he's going to need some help if he plans on making it to Calgary in '88, so it's a stroke of luck that the alcoholic who maintains the training grounds in Germany happens to be Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), former American ski jumping champion.

Peary isn't so keen on Edwards' chances. He does his best to warn him against what essentially amounts to suicide, but reluctantly agrees to train him when he realizes Edwards has no intention of walking away. Jackman is his usual charismatic self here. It's hard to hate the man, and his gruff alcoholic ski jumper is just a few claws and a blood lust away from being Wolverine from any Bryan Singer X-MEN film. Egerton and Jackman have great chemistry, so it makes it easier to swallow when the rest of the film settles for mediocrity. Here lies my biggest complaint with EDDIE THE EAGLE: it's nothing you haven't seen done before a hundred times in any generic biopic. An underdog aspires to greatness in whatever field; he finds a hesitant mentor who takes them under their wing; training montages galore; and it all leads up to the big game/match/competition when our hero finds glory and everyone goes home happy. This is EDDIE THE EAGLE in a nutshell. There is nothing here you won't see coming from a mile away, even if you're, as I was, totally unfamiliar with the real life source material. The director, Fletcher, doesn't really take any chances or try anything extraordinary with the material; he just lets the characters and ski jumping action speak for themselves. But it worked well enough to entertain me. As mentioned, Egerton and Jackman are a fun pairing, and the ski jumping scenes were more exciting than I had anticipated.

As I've found with previous movies on subjects I couldn't care less about (e.g. hockey in GOON, Formula-1 car racing in RUSH, etc.), I'm drawn deeper into the film from the glimpse into something I'd never cared to explore. Sure I've seen ski jumping on TV but I hadn't realized how brutal (or potentially life- ending) it can be. We're treated to a few spills, including one where a man lands so hard it's presumed he wouldn't walk again, so it builds the tension a bit before the movie's incorrigible peppiness erases any suspense with its super-saccharine vibe. This movie is just so…happy. I guess it's supposed to be a reflection of Edwards' own attitude toward the whole thing. No matter how bleak the future or how terrifying the potential consequences, the movie forces you to face it with a gleeful smile thanks to Edwards' never-ceasing optimism (and some help from the movie's perky, 80's synth soundtrack). You never doubt that Edwards will find his Olympic glory (otherwise I doubt there'd be much of a movie and, if there were, it wouldn't be so punishingly cheerful) but I'm glad in that it didn't come to pass as I'd expected. In what was the only instance in which the movie zigged when I expected it to zag, the finale in Calgary doesn't go as I expected. Again, probably because I had no idea who Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards was before sitting down for this film. Winter Olympics enthusiasts won't have that luxury, I suppose, as they know where it's going.

It's hard to dislike EDDIE THE EAGLE. It does its best to prevent you from it. It's infectious. There's nothing here that really stands out but it's an entertaining 100 minutes or so. I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way for it but if you're clicking through cable TV on a lazy afternoon and you happen to find it, I doubt it'll let you down.
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4/10
Mel Brooks' ROBIN HOOD Hasn't Aged Well (or My Tastes Have Dramatically Changed)
10 May 2017
It's disappointing to revisit a movie you loved in your younger years only to discover the movie is almost intolerable now. It's even more disappointing when that movie comes from comedy legend Mel Brooks. The movie in question is, obviously, ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS. I seriously loved this movie as a teenager; one of my friends had it on VHS and we would watch it all the time. Since then, I'd always been on the lookout for a good DVD or Blu-ray copy so I could bring it into my collection and remind myself how awesome it was. When I bought the Mel Brooks collection, this was the movie I was most excited to own because I hadn't seen it in probably more than twenty years. Then I sat down and watched it and, man, I don't think I laughed once. Not once. Even my daughter, who'd gotten a kick out of SPACEBALLS, couldn't be bothered to pay attention. I can't say this is Mel Brooks' worst film because I there are still two or three I haven't seen, but I can say with utmost certainty it's the worst one I've encountered. It really kills me to acknowledge it; I haven't been this let down by a movie I used to love since MORTAL KOMBAT. But you know what? I'd rather re-watch MORTAL KOMBAT than MEN IN TIGHTS because at least it doesn't make me cringe. Did it not age well, or was it never good to begin with?

No sense in recapping the plot: it's the classic tale of Robin Hood as told through the lens of Mel Brooks. It features Cary Elwes, a young Dave Chappelle, and Richard Lewis with minor roles for Brooks (as Rabbi Tuckman), Tracey Ullman, and even Patrick Stewart. This should have been a sure-fire win and, for many years, I believed it to be one. But, man, this was a rough one to sit through now. It hits you right off the bat with exposition in the form of a Sherwood Forest rap that's just…it's embarrassing to watch. From there we're taken to the Middle East where we're introduced to Robin of Loxley (Elwes) as he's tossed in a dungeon following his capture during the Crusades and we're given a taste of the style of humor we can expect: a dungeon maître d' named Falafel, a gag where Robin's tongue is stretched a foot out of his mouth while he goes cross-eyed, and Isaac Hayes making a "feat of strength"/"feet of strength" pun. None of it, and I mean none, was landing for me. It all came across as just incredibly dumb and at no point did it crawl its way out from that ditch. Recurring jokes, such as the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) and his stress-induced speech impediment, hit with a thud but keep coming back whether you found them amusing or not. I felt bad watching MEN IN TIGHTS. A movie shouldn't make me feel bad for not laughing.

I love Mel Brooks and I love his movies. He's had a few missteps but I can usually find enough about the movie to enjoy it to some extent. MEN IN TIGHTS tries its hardest to hide those positive notes under a pile of stale jokes, but they're there. Elwes doesn't actually cut it for me here. Sure, as he's proud to brag, he's "the only Robin Hood to speak with an English accent" but he's a freaking cartoon. He just mugs about for the entire movie. It's actually sort of annoying. Get your Elwes fix from THE PRINCESS BRIDE instead. Chappelle is great, even if he feels a little out of place in something so cheesy at times in the movie. His character is a man from Africa named "Ahchoo" so, you know, expect plenty of play from that gag. I also liked Mark Blankfield as Robin's loyal blind servant Blinkin. Sure there are plenty of easy gags to come from his blindness but he's adept at the physical comedy and it works. Let's see…there was a fun meta-gag late in the film that breaks the fourth wall. That's a fun Brooks trope and makes from one of the few honest laughs in the movie. Other than that, there's barely anything here worth a mention. This wasn't written by Brooks usual team. Instead, he's got J.D. Shapiro, the man behind…let's see…

Oh…

BATTLEFIELD EARTH and one episode of "Charles in Charge". Well I guess that explains a lot now.
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8/10
The "Blood Relative" to 2008's CLOVERFIELD is a Surprisingly Effective Thriller
10 May 2017
In a world of unnecessary sequels to movies that no one asked for, J.J. Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg snuck in under the radar to show us how to do it right. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE came out of nowhere and blew everyone away, scoring highly with critics and audiences. I have to imagine the fact that this movie was barely publicized until it was ready to drop really gave it a boost. I seriously doubt anyone was walking around prior to its release saying, "You know what movie really needs a sequel? That 'found footage' POV monster movie from 2008." I know I never would've considered it, and I was a fan of that movie. Meanwhile, forces behind the scenes were crafting a new installment that, really, isn't so much a sequel as perhaps instead another tale in some sort of CLOVERFIELD anthology series. Aside from the title (in this case, referring to an actual street in the film) and the usual reference to Slusho you find in any J.J. Abrams project, there is nothing to connect 10 CLOVERFIELD LAND to its predecessor. The fact that Abrams and Paramount didn't come out and announce production on a CLOVERFIELD film meant that there would be no hype machine to start placing potentially unreasonable expectations on the film that might lead to audience disappointment. They were able to create the film they wanted to create without the movie news media breathing down their backs for spoilers and drop it in our laps.

The love for 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is certainly warranted. Just as the first film told a science fiction story from an unusual perspective, this one dips its toe in that same format by placing the audience in the middle of some doomsday apocalyptic scenario from the cozy confines of an underground bunker. Or is it? That is the crux of the majority of the film that focuses on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring fashion designer who's just run out on her fiancé. As she's driving through Louisiana to put some distance between her and her ex, she's involved in a horrible car accident and awakens in the underground survival bunker of Howard (John Goodman). She's rightfully terrified at first of Howard's intentions but he proceeds to explain that there's been an attack on the United States. Some sort of biological weapon had been utilized that's made the surface unlivable and, gee, wasn't it just great luck on her part that Howard found her, brought her to the bunker, and nursed her back to health from her injuries? The only other survivor in the bunker with them is a man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who had helped Howard build the bunker, and he only knows what Howard's told him about the mysterious events that've led them here. It's a lot for Michelle take in and it's made a little harder to accept due to Howard's increasingly bizarre, menacing behavior. Was there really an attack? Or are these two prisoners?

About 80% of this movie plays out in the one location and that could mean disaster for some movies, but 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE makes it work with some top notch production design and cinematography to make the most of the limited space, and with fantastic performances from Winstead and Goodman. Winstead does a fantastic job as the film's hero but Goodman steals the show. His performance here is one of the best he's ever done. Howard is a complex character whose intentions we can only guess at for a while before they become crystal clear, and Goodman plays it so perfectly that, even having watched this movie twice now, I still can't stop being drawn in to his character. He comes across as an awkward, lonely man who is incredibly proud of himself for having been prepared for this scenario and, seeing as how he's saved the lives of these two young folk, expects them to live by his very strict rules. But there's always that nagging doubt that something isn't right with him and, just when you think you've got him pegged as a con artist, the movie reveals some nugget of truth behind what he's told them. It keeps you guessing as to whether something disastrous has really occurred on the surface and Howard is just a bit of a creep, or whether the "attack" is all a lie to keep Michelle and Emmett as willing prisoners to a dangerous psychopath in this man's isolated underground concrete prison.

All of that is amazing. Everything in the bunker is just great and I would've been fine if the movie ended when that was all resolved, but there's still another twenty minutes or so after that where everything goes a little nuts. For me, the story was all about Michelle and Howard and the science fiction stuff was just added spice to an excellent story. We didn't need a whole section with just the spice. You ever eat a spoonful of turmeric? It's unpleasant. And that heaping spoonful of sci-fi craziness at the end of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE sours it a bit. But don't let that concern you (assuming you're reading this before having watched it) because it's not enough to ruin the overall fun of this surprise unnecessary (but very welcome) "sequel".
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7/10
Brooks & Bancroft vs Nazis in WWII
25 March 2017
I'm pushing my way through a collection of Mel Brooks films. Along the way, I've revisited some classics, been introduced to others, and stumbled across the occasional odd title I've never even heard of before. One of those is TO BE OR NOT TO BE. From the title, I assumed it would be Brooks lampooning the works of William Shakespeare in the same fashion he's tackled Hitchcock, big budget sci-fi adventures, and westerns. I came to discover this wasn't a Mel Brooks movie in the traditional sense. For starters, he didn't write or direct it. It was directed by a man named Alan Johnson, whose film credits are primarily choreography and the only other film he directed was SOLARBABIES (a movie I'm only familiar with thanks to an episode of the "How Did This Get Made" podcast). TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a remake of a film of the same name from 1942; it tells the story of the world famous (in Poland, at least) theater duo Frederick and Anna Bronski, played by Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft. Their marriage is a rocky one, with Anna skirting the idea of a possible affair with the smitten Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson), but there's hardly time for any of that to come to pass as Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich have begun their invasion of Poland. Fate intervenes and the Bronskis will find their acting skills put to the ultimate test as they accidentally become involved in the Polish underground resistance.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a strange little anomaly in my experience with Brooks' films because this one plays out as a normal narrative. His spoof films are different in that the jokes always come first and the plot only really exists on which to hang the gags. Make no mistake though; this is still very much a Brooks' film. The comedic styling of the film is very much in line with what you would expect from the man. Seeing as how director Johnson made a living as a choreographer, I wouldn't be surprised to find that Brooks was a helping hand behind the scenes in crafting the film. The film is also interesting in that it gives Brooks a chance to dive into a more serious subject than we're accustomed to seeing from him: World War II. Or, more specifically, the Third Reich and the subjugation of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a comedy but it's got its serious moments, even if it manages to try and inject a little fun in them to keep the movie from becoming too heavy. One prime example is a scene in the film when the Nazis arrive at the Bronskis' theater to arrest their homosexual friend, Sascha (James Haake). It's a frightening moment (because we as an audience understand what his arrest would mean for him) that's made a little easier to swallow because it plays comedically during a music number on stage where Sascha tries to hide amongst the showgirls in the routine.

Brooks and Johnson manage to balance the humor and weight of the situation pretty well. It never really lets it get too heavy. They don't need to hit us upside the head with the real world horrors because we know all that; this is the tale of some nobodies (in the grand scheme of the war) and how they pulled the wool over the eyes of the foolish, bumbling Nazis. For a film with Holocaust themes looming, TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a lot of fun. The jokes are pretty consistent and the movie is loaded with a fantastic supporting cast including Christopher Lloyd in a small role as a beleaguered Nazi captain, Charles During as the Nazi S.S. colonel in charge, and the Bronski theater troupe including the talents of George Gaynes, George Wyner, and Jack Riley. All of this is topped off with the natural chemistry between stars Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, real life husband and wife, in the starring roles. For being one of Brooks' lesser-known films (I mean, I assume…I know I hadn't heard of it before), TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of his more solid. Let me put it this way: I was watching this and my nine-year-old daughter, who could only enjoy it at face-value with the jokes because she doesn't know anything about the war context at this point, couldn't take her eyes off the screen. This and SPACEBALLS are the two Mel Brooks movies we can enjoy together (she couldn't be bothered with MEN IN TIGHTS or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and she's too young for BLAZING SADDLES or HISTORY OF THE WORLD).

So, if you haven't seen TO BE OR NOT TO BE, I invite you to check it out. It's a hidden gem in his filmography that doesn't get much attention, and you generally can't go wrong with Brooks in the starring role. It may not rank up there with his greatest hits but it's a respectable, fun movie.
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)
8/10
HAIL, CAESAR! is One of the Funniest Movies of 2016
25 March 2017
The Coen brothers bring us back to the golden age of the Hollywood studio system with their 2016 comedy HAIL, CAESAR! On the scale of Coen comedies, I find this one is more entertaining than BURN AFTER READING but never reaches the heights of their (in my opinion) best, THE BIG LEBOWSKI. It's an easy watch with a relatively simple story that relies a bit on the viewer having either nostalgia for 1950s era Hollywood movies or an appreciation for the studio system of decades ago. I fall into the latter category, loving this frenetic voyage back to the 1950s where we're to tag along with studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to witness a day in his life as he juggles problem after problem. Mannix is an honorable man with boundless loyalty to the studio but the stress has taken its toll on him. As the film begins, he receives an order from the men above him to move famed musical cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to the studio's latest period drama, much to the classical director's extreme dismay. Meanwhile the studio's star synchronized swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has become pregnant out of wedlock, which could become a PR disaster, and the lead actor (George Clooney) from the studio's biblical epic, the titular HAIL, CAESAR!, has gone missing. Mannix races to solve these problems while fending off twin Hollywood reporters (Tilda Swinton in a dual role) eager to break a story that might damage the studio's delicate reputation.

I found this movie to be indescribably fun. It's got a manic pacing that races you through from start to finish and encourages further viewings to catch jokes you might've missed the first time. It's a bright, colorful adventure through the eyes of the over-worked Mannix who moves from issue to issue without missing a beat. It's full of fast-talkers and oddball characters. If I were to complain about anything, it would be that there's so many interesting scenarios playing out over the course of the movie that we didn't get enough time to thoroughly dig in. The Hobie Doyle issue, where a simple cowpoke finds himself tossed into the stiffest of dramas with an auteur director (played by Ralph Fiennes) who is equally panicked at having to somehow teach his new star how to show some class, has some of the funniest moments in the movie but it's relegated to a secondary plot. I could watch an entire movie on that situation alone. Give Ehrenreich and Fiennes a spin off film documenting the making of that movie-within-a-movie. The primary plot thread, obviously, is the abduction of the studio's biggest star Baird Whitlock from the set of HAIL, CAESAR! Clooney can play aloof with the best of them and he's got a comedic timing that isn't put on display nearly often enough. His Whitlock awakens from his abduction in a gorgeous seaside home surrounded by strange men and, not only rolls with it, he comes to believe in their mysterious cause.

Much of the film's fun comes from the madcap journey behind the scenes of the movie studio system of the 50s. Mannix's business takes him behind the scenes of a massive synchronized swimming sequence (a relic of decades past) and, more interestingly, a Hollywood musical. We get an entire song and dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum as the star of an old Navy musical where he and a team of sailors lament their future lack of dames on the high seas to an upbeat tune. I thought it was interesting to see what sort of stuff went into the choreography and camera blocking. It's fun. Everything about this movie is a blast and it's a shame to see it didn't receive a whole lot of love from audiences. I guess you need to have at least a passing interest in the subject matter to find the entertainment here, otherwise it must come across as a lot of fast-talking gibberish laid over a scatter-brained plot that can't seem to find its focus. I wholeheartedly disagree, as I've found HAIL, CAESAR! to be massively re-watchable and I've yet to find myself bored with it. It has a contagious positive vibe in this love letter to a Golden Age of film. Coen fans should find plenty to appreciate here and I hope more casual fans or less-informed mainstream audiences will give the film a chance and find something to enjoy as well, whether it be the performances, the production, or the sense of humor.
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7/10
I've Come to Appreciate Brooks' HISTORY a Lot More
25 March 2017
After poking fun at all manner of film genres, Mel Brooks turns his attention to the past with HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I. I've always considered this one of Brooks' second tier movies, never getting as much love as classics such as SPACEBALLS or BLAZING SADDLES. Watching it again for the first time in more than a decade, it's actually better than I remember. Maybe my tastes have evolved or maybe I just couldn't have cared less about jokes on the French aristocracy as a teenager, but I know I wasn't giving it enough credit. HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I is a collection of vignettes where Brooks satirizes different eras in human history including the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and more. It brings together most of your favorite Brooks' comedy collaborators (no Gene Wilder, unfortunately) and adds a few new faces to the mix. With narration from Orson Welles, watch as Moses (Brooks) presents the world with the Ten Commandments, experience the excitement of an ancient Roman "stand-up philosopher" (also Brooks) and an Ethiopian slave standing up against the lethargic Emperor Nero (Dom De Luise), and learn why it's "good to be the king" as Brooks pulls double-duty as King Louis XVI and his doppelganger Jacques, the man who holds the urine bucket. It's a lesson in world history from the twisted mind of one of cinema's greatest comedy filmmakers where you're bound to learn something, maybe. Don't. Don't watch this for education purposes.

I feel like HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I is sort of the black sheep of Mel Brooks' filmography. I'd put it in the top tier of his projects but it doesn't get as much vocal love as his classic hits. I hadn't even thought about this movie in years. It had completely fallen off my radar until I bought the Mel Brooks collection. It used to play on cable pretty regularly; I'm pretty sure I'd originally seen it on Comedy Central way back when. Not so much anymore, so this was a fresh start for me. I could remember bits and pieces and a general feeling of indifference toward the movie. I am so glad I got the chance to re-watch it because it's so much funnier than I remember. It's a collection of vignettes so, as with any sort of anthology film, some pieces will be better than others but I'm happy to report that the movie has more highs than lows. The film gets off to a slower start with a segment relating the struggles of early cavemen led by Sid Caesar. It's mostly cheesy slapstick that didn't appeal much to me, with the exception of the creation of the first art critic. After that, the movie is pretty solid. It droops a little again in the final stretch when we're covering the French Revolution because it doesn't appear Brooks could find a whole lot more to skewer than Louis' libido, but even that has memorable moments.

The highlights of HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I are definitely the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition. The Roman segment is my personal favorite and occupies the majority of the film's first hour. It contains some of the best gags and features Madeline Kahn, Dom De Luise, and Gregory Hines as supporting characters. The Spanish Inquisition, on the other hand, is a short segment where Brooks can indulge in his love for musical numbers. I was never keen on the Spanish Inquisition number as a kid but I've taken a shine to it now. It's a fun, Broadway-style extravaganza with synchronized swimmers and medieval torture. What's not to love? On a similar note, I should point out the fantastic production design on this film. This could almost count as Brooks' own parody of classic epic Hollywood films. Each of these segments (except for maybe the Moses bit, which is all set on a small, contained mountain side set) utilizes some impressive design and use of matte paintings that looks like parts out of BEN-HUR or something of that nature. HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I is a fun watch, even if it never rises to the top of the pile in Brooks' work. I could even see myself re-watching it again more often than BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN just because of its variety. I only regret that Brooks never intended on making a PART II because I've been waiting years to see the "Jews in Space" segment teased before the end credits expanded to its full glory.
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9/10
THE WITCH is One of the Best Horror Films in Recent Years
25 March 2017
I love THE WITCH. The film is a period horror film from writer/director Robert Eggers, a man I'd never heard of but whose work I will be looking out for in the future. THE WITCH is haunting, methodical, suspenseful, and obsessed with detail. Listening to Eggers' commentary for the film, it's obvious the man has a fascination with early American life and their supernatural superstitions. It's no surprise. THE WITCH must've been a passion project brewing in his mind for a good while because he put every ounce of attention into it. It's the tale of a Puritan family in 1630's Massachusetts who are exiled from their community for the father's overbearing religious preachings that don't quite mesh with their own local beliefs. And so William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) pack up their children and move out into the woods to start their own little farmstead. Flash forward to sometime later, the family has settled in and built a home, started a little farm, and have welcomed their fifth child. One afternoon, the infant Samuel disappears right out from under the nose of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). At the same time, the family crops are mysteriously dying and their animals aren't providing. The winter is approaching, their food is scarce, their youngest child is missing and presumed dead, and strange happenings lead to hushed accusations of witchcraft; there is something evil beyond the tree line and they start to fear a dark presence amongst them.

With little exception, everything in this movie works 100%. It really is one of the strongest horror films I've seen in years. I love that it doesn't have to rely on jump scares and gratuitous violence or gore. Don't get me wrong, it has those but it doesn't rely on them. When Samuel disappears mid-peek-a-boo, it's just as jarring as any jump scare and, while the family is ignorant of poor Samuel's ultimate fate, we the audience are privy to it and it'll make your skin crawl. Instead of slapping you across the face with horror clichés, THE WITCH builds a tension over the course of the movie. It starts with Samuel's disappearance. Then we see the family begin to buckle under the pressure. Poor Katherine is losing her mind in grief and the two youngest children, Jonas and Mercy, become increasingly more insufferable, teasing Thomasin that Black Peter (the family's black ram) speaks to them of her wickedness. Thomasin becomes a target for Katherine's angst and poor William, who hasn't had the greatest luck since moving his family to the middle of the woods to start a new life, is doing everything in his power to keep the peace. THE WITCH is just as much a psychological thriller as it is a traditional horror. These people are isolated from the rest of society and super religious; the idea that someone in their little family might be in league with Satan is something they're actually willing to consider. It's unnerving.

Of course, this is a horror film and the movie establishes that it isn't just paranoia from the very beginning. We, the audience, know of the witch in the woods. What we don't know is whether anyone in the family might be working in conjunction with it. Are the children telling the truth about whisperings from Black Peter? Or are the accusations lobbied against Thomasin based on truth? The very idea that one of the children might've dabbled in the dark arts is enough to tear the family apart in fear and suspicion. It's absolutely enthralling to watch. While everyone in this film delivers standout performances (well, except maybe Harvey Scrimshaw as middle child Caleb… some of his stuff didn't sit right with me), the real accolades belong to Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy. Ineson was perfectly cast in the role as the devout Puritan and loving father to the struggling family and elicits the most sympathy as a man just trying to keep it all together, but Taylor-Joy just knocks it out as Thomasin. From the start, she's a tormented girl. She seems absolutely miserable at the news that her family's been exiled and, despite trying her best to do her part, she keeps coming under fire from her grieving mother. There's no hesitation from her mother in blaming her when something goes wrong and the youngest children are just a royal pain. Her performance walks a line where you aren't sure if she's just good at bottling up her issues in the face of her family or if she's got something going on the side, like maybe some demonic-aided retribution against her tormentors.

And I haven't even raved about how much I love the production and costume design. Eggers really went for full immersion, with period-accurate dialogue and everything. He admits to taking a few creative licenses with some aspects to better suit the story but THE WITCH, with all the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, is one of the most authentic-feeling period pieces I've seen. This all adds immeasurably to the well-written story and amazing character performances. THE WITCH won't satisfy all horror fans, and the pacing may bore some others, but it's an enthusiastic recommend from me.
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High Anxiety (1977)
5/10
One of the Rare Brooks Misfires (and Even That Isn't Bad)
20 March 2017
HIGH ANXIETY is Mel Brooks' loving poke at the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, I'm not well-versed in the works of the legend. I know enough about his more prominent classics thanks to their lasting impact on film and pop culture but the only one of his films I've actually seen is ROPE. What I'm saying is, I am probably not the best person from whom you should consider an opinion when determining if HIGH ANXIETY is worth your viewing. I'm sure there are an abundance of little nods to Hitchcock's films that went completely over my head with only the more blatant ones (references to VERTIGO, PSYCHO, or THE BIRDS for example) landing for me. A lack of familiarity with the subject isn't enough to keep me from a Brooks' comedy though, so I was excited to watch HIGH ANXIETY for the first time when it was included with a boxed set. It tells the story of Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks), a prominent psychologist who has recently accepted a position at the head of the Psycho- Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous in Los Angeles. Upon arrival, he meets Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) and Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), a shady pair with an air of menace and the implication that they're up to something underhanded. Something is going on at the institute that has some staff members on edge and, when a visit to a psychiatric conference brings him into contact with a desperate woman (Madeline Kahn) seeking her father, Thorndyke realizes he may have stumbled onto something nefarious.

I haven't seen all of Brooks' films so I can't go so far as to say HIGH ANXIETY is his worst film, but I can say it's definitely not one of his best. Brooks is one the master comedic filmmakers and even his worst is bound to have some silver linings, but I didn't find a whole lot to laugh at in HIGH ANXIETY. For a large part of the movie, I was…and I hate to say it…bored. A lot of the gags just weren't cutting it for me. The laughs weren't anywhere near the level of BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. We're talking scenes like one of the institute patients, who happens to believe himself to be a cocker spaniel, humping Brooks' leg. In another scene, Brooks runs panicked through a park while being pelted with pigeon crap in the film's homage to THE BIRDS. Stuff like this is too cheap and easy and it feels like a downgrade after watching Brooks' other, superior comedies. Or maybe I just didn't take to the movie's jokes because I spent so much time waiting for something of interest to happen that I was that much more disappointed when a gag fell flat. Because HIGH ANXIETY is operating in the vein of Hitchcock's thrillers, it gives itself a slightly more…I don't want to say "serious" vibe but that's what it is. Brooks' other films always seem to have a self-awareness. The characters know they're in outrageous situations and it feels like they're in on the joke. In HIGH ANXIETY, not so much.

HIGH ANXIETY received some pretty positive reviews so I know I'm probably in the minority here, and that may have something to do with my lack of Hitchcock awareness. But this isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the film in any sense. There were some bits and pieces scattered throughout the movie that worked for me. The ever-talented Madeline Kahn arrives about halfway through the film as the desperate Victoria Brisbane who searches out Thorndyke in hopes he might be able to help her reach her wealthy father, a patient of Thorndyke's institute. Kahn is fantastic in anything and this is no different. Any scene with her rises above the rest. I also loved Rudy De Luca's character, Braces. Braces is a hired assassin utilized by Diesel and Montague to eliminate potential threats to their operation; he's a soft-spoken, tightly-wound spring of a man who sincerely appreciates any chance he's given to kill someone. Literally every line of dialogue he delivered garnered a laugh from me. Overall, the funniest bits in the movie are any time Brooks goes for a camera gag. I guess Hitchcock was keen on creative camera placement and movement, and Brooks sprinkles a few great visual jokes based on that with cameras bashing through a window or peering up through a glass coffee table while frantically trying to frame a shot as characters constantly shift objects over the lens.

What laughs the movie earns are easily erased by the tedium I feel as we wait for the next decent one to hit. I've watched this movie twice now since adding it to my collection and I realized, when I went to sit down for my second viewing, I couldn't remember a thing about it from the last time. Any other Brooks' film I've seen leaves some sort of lasting impression with me, a favorite line or joke or character, but HIGH ANXIETY draws a blank. I'm sure I'll forget about it again in another few months and I'll give it another shot then, and hopefully I'll discover more with each subsequent viewing to really appreciate it. For now though, I'll leave HIGH ANXIETY locked in the violent ward with the cocker spaniel.
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6/10
CITIZEN TOXIE is the Ultimate in Shock Humor
25 February 2017
My dive into the world of Troma Entertainment and their Toxic Avenger film series finally comes to a merciful close with the fourth and (as of now) final installment…CITIZEN TOXIE: THE TOXIC AVENGER PART IV. Just as the duo of PART II and PART III were vastly different in tone to the original, the fourth movie feels like a creature all its own in comparison to its predecessors. This was released a whopping eleven years after the third movie, so Troma and writer/director Lloyd Kaufman had plenty of time to figure out their new approach. The end result is a film that tones down the almost childish humor of PART II and PART III, ramps up the brutality in the violence, and goes for every possible opportunity to offend. CITIZEN TOXIE also stands proud as the only Toxic Avenger film that feels as if someone thought through the plot. The movie opens in Tromaville with the Diaper Mafia invading a classroom in the School for the Very Special on "Take a Mexican to Lunch Day." I didn't say the movie was any smarter; I just said it was written better. The Toxic Avenger (David Mattey) intervenes with his new sidekick (Troma regular Joe Fleishaker) and the resulting explosion from Toxie's failure in saving the school somehow knocks Toxie and two of the students (Michael Budinger and Lisa Terezakis) into a parallel dimension while his evil alternate, Noxie (also Mattey), is brought into Tromaville. Now Toxie and his friends must find a way home in time to end Noxie and his band of Nazis' reign of terror.

The Toxic Avenger movies have always been stupid. It's part of their charm. It's why, no matter how bad those middle films were, I can't hate them. In CITIZEN TOXIE, Kaufman and his three co-writers have shifted gears with the aim of offending as many people as possible. You'll find jokes aimed at the obese (which isn't new) and the mentally-handicapped. There are rape jokes, scat jokes, masturbation jokes, and an AIDS joke tossed in for good measure. And let's not forget the lynching scene and the whole abortion subplot that builds to a climactic battle between good and evil fetuses. I'm almost certain there's something I'm forgetting. The filmmakers tossed in anything and everything they could think of to get a reaction. I know the earlier films had their share of crude humor but CITIZEN TOXIE goes for the gold, and in the end it feels as if they're trying too hard. Don't force it, guys, or it comes off as desperate for attention. The film also features cameos from Ron Jeremy (as the religious Tromaville mayor), Corey Feldman (as an abortion doctor, credited as Kinky Finkelstein for some reason), and Hank the "Angry Drunken Dwarf", of Howard Stern show fame, as God. If nothing else, one thing is abundantly clear: CITIZEN TOXIE wants your attention. On a more low-key note, James Gunn makes a quick appearance and, as a fan of SUPER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, I thought that was cool. I have to say though, despite all its shameless "look at me" antics, this is still the most solid Toxic Avenger film.

The plot actually makes some sort of sense and has an actual narrative flow. This is a big deal, especially after the last two films. It makes the movie a lot easier to watch when you feel propelled from one scene to the next. Not only that, but some of the jokes actually land. I may not have gotten many laughs from the more extreme humor but there were actually a handful of funny bits. The writing wasn't atrocious and I suppose I'll have to credit that to Trent Haaga, Patrick Cassidy, and Gabriel Friedman. I loved how the movie sort of teased a Troma Avengers/Justice League sort of gag when the mayor of Tromaville calls in a team of super heroes to help defeat Noxie: the Vibrator, Dolphin Man, the Mad Cowboy, the Master-Bater (exactly what it sounds like), and their leader Sergeant Kabukiman, NYPD. I had high hopes that this would spin-off to larger adventures of these ridiculous superheroes or at least get me excited to possibly check out the Kabukiman movie. That wasn't to be the case, unfortunately. Their team is short-lived in the span of the movie and we never even really get to see them in action, and Kabukiman (at least in the case of CITIZEN TOXIE) comes across as a drunken rapist so I don't think I need to see that one-note joke through any further (although I did get at least one laugh out of him, in the very final moment of the film). The alternate dimension version of Kabukiman was pretty cool. I wouldn't mind a separate movie on that.

Now that I've watched all four of the Toxic Avenger films, am I interested in pursuing other Troma films? Not so much. I was almost tempted to check out the Nuke 'em High films but I think I've had my fill for now. How do I feel the Toxie films rank? The first TOXIC AVENGER is probably the best "film" but I found more enjoyment in the utter chaos of PART II. CITIZEN TOXIE could've been a strong contender as the best if it hadn't tried too hard to get under the audience's skin. Honestly, the best Toxic Avenger movie isn't a Toxie movie at all; it's APOCALYPSE SOON, the feature-length behind-the-scenes video of CITIZEN TOXIE that documents the miserable conditions these independent filmmakers suffered to bring this movie to life. I may not be the core audience for these movies but I'll always respect what they do. For that alone, it might be worth recommending these films so these peoples' pain and mental anguish wasn't all for nothing.
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Silent Movie (1976)
5/10
Mel Brooks' Love Letter to Early Silent Film is Good for a Chuckle
25 February 2017
Following he and Gene Wilder's cinematic love letter to James Whale's Frankenstein films, Mel Brooks wrote and directed a film hearkening back to an even earlier era with SILENT MOVIE. The film, for those who haven't seen it, is exactly what it claims to be: a silent comedy. Well, almost silent. There's a single spoken line in the entire movie and it's spoken by the one person whose delivery should guarantee a chuckle. The premise of SILENT MOVIE is, as I understand it, basically a comedic depiction of the trials and tribulations Brooks endured in trying to get the movie made in the first place. At the center of the film is our trio of filmmakers: Mel Funn (Brooks), Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), and Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman). Mel Funn is a former Hollywood director whose career tanked when he fell into alcoholism. He has dreams of reviving his career with the first silent film in decades and his friends Dom and Marty are coming along to help him see it through. The studio is, obviously, more than a little hesitant at first but they've got the evil east coast conglomerate Engulf & Devour breathing down their necks in hopes of acquiring the company. When Mel promises to fill his picture with the biggest stars, the studio chief (Sid Caesar) gives him a shot. SILENT MOVIE is then a race against time for Mel to collect some of the biggest names the mid-70s has to offer and save the studio.

SILENT MOVIE is slapstick fun in the vein of the classics like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I'm a fan of Chaplin (and need to make time to watch some Keaton) and dig the goofball comedies of early cinema, and Brooks pulls from his love for the era to fill this movie to the brim with classic gags. There's loads of fun to be had here but it starts to drag after a while. Those early Chaplin films run about fifteen to twenty minutes apiece and, while some of them do run longer, they work best in those smaller, easily digested doses. I think the longest Chaplin film I've seen was about 70 minutes and, even then, it lost some of its fun by the end. SILENT MOVIE is just under ninety minutes and, regardless of how much fun the bits are, it runs a little long for me. I'm not adverse to silent film. I loved THE ARTIST, which brought the genre back again in 2011 to great success. But that had better storytelling and didn't have to rely on pratfalls and funny faces to fill out a feature-length runtime. I was thoroughly enjoying SILENT MOVIE up until around the halfway mark when my attention began to wander. A large section of the movie follows Funn as he tracks down Hollywood stars to convince him to join his movie, and it doesn't switch things up until the last twenty- five minutes or so when we head into the final act.

Just as the characters in the film need to bolster interest in their silent film with the inclusion of big stars, so does SILENT MOVIE itself. Half of the movie is a string of cameos from the likes of Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, etc. If nothing else, it's fun to watch these big name stars get in on the cornier slapstick the movie brings to the table. I suppose my favorite cameo bit would be Caan's. It felt the most like a classic silent film comedy scenario with Caan inviting Funn and his buddies into his trailer for lunch to discuss their movie. Of course, the trailer has poor suspension so the four of them are teetering around inside as the trailer lurches from one side to the other with the slightest gesture. It was definitely one of the funnier scenes, as opposed to their courting of Liza Minnelli which involved arduous minutes of Funn and the gang toppling over each other in suits of medieval armor in the studio commissary. The bits are hit and miss, but I can at least say that most of them register on the positive end of the spectrum. At minimum, they'll elicit a smile. I can't be too harsh overall because I see what Brooks was aiming for and I appreciate the sentiment. Those early silent shorts get little to no attention anymore and Mel Brooks has done his part in shining the spotlight on them once again for newer generations.

SILENT MOVIE probably isn't going to have you laughing your head off but, if nothing else, it's ninety minutes of harmless fun. There's nothing overtly racy in the film so it's a nice piece anyone of any age can enjoy. It's comedy fluff that I can't imagine will find itself atop many top comedy lists, or even top Brooks comedy lists, but it's good for some chuckles and people who know more about that early era of Chaplin and Keaton than I will probably find even more to appreciate.
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