Friday, September 22, 2017

Friend Request

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    Review coming soon.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature ★

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    It breaks my heart to review films such as "The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature." No, really. For whatever reason, animated pictures have become more or less intolerable as of late, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but this diminution in quality doesn't seem to be a temporary trend. In truth, the genre has all but lost its allure and drawing power. (Although I'm playing ignorant, I do have a hunch as to why the art of animation has diminished in value here in the twenty-first century: No imagination, no novelty.) And we wonder why our youngsters are becoming dumber by the day.

    In so many words, "The Nut Job 2" is boring, bland and all around bovine, and it's the kind of movie that makes ninety minutes feel like an eternity. (It will also test the sobriety of anyone with half a brain.) A list of grievances: The forgettable characters, led by an overconfident and smug squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett), belch out lines of dialogue infused with the film's multiple themes (we're told that there are no shortcuts in life, and there's a lesson in teamwork and diligence), but before long, the narrative sheds its solemnity in favor of inane humor and clichéd storytelling. (I shouldn't have to tell you this, but the banter on display will only appeal to small children, and if you're lucky, a salvific slumber will save you from any further suffering.) Topping it all off, the computer-generated imagery is below par, and the paint-by-number plot threads hang looser than a "fille de joie" on a Friday night. (Unfortunately, I am compelled to provide a summary of the story in the ensuing paragraph, so consider this a fair warning.)

    The film opens with the rodents of Oakton living large in the basement of a local nut shop, and according to Andie (Katherine Heigl), the determined yet uncoordinated female lead, they've become lazy, fat, and have forgotten their survival instincts. (I would make an effort to examine this aspect of the plot in an allegorical light, but I fear the script could never muster up that manner of meaning in a million years.) By sheer accident, their new abode is destroyed, and they must once again turn to the neighboring park for shelter and sustenance. And if that wasn't uninspiring enough for you, we're subsequently introduced to Mayor Muldoon (Bobby Moynihan), a timeworn antagonist fueled by greed and, well, that's about it. You see, Muldoon aspires to eradicate Liberty Park so that he may open "Liberty Land," an amusement park fashioned out of used parts. Surly and Andie will have to rally the troops if they are to stop the mayor of Oakton from committing this avaricious act and reclaim their former dwelling.

    Parents: I'm really tired of ripping these movies—it's exhausting, and there are only so many ways one can condemn this perversion of children's entertainment. But I trudge on for two reasons: because it's my job, and I'm obligated to inform parental audiences of the asininity that has crept into every children's picture not being produced by Disney. (This surely doesn't mean that Disney and their sister company, Pixar, will avoid future castigation. It just means, very simply, that their films have a smidgen more soul to them.) I have been saying this for years; there's no harm, I guess, in beating a dead horse for the umpteenth time. If these production companies wish to restore the art of animation to its past glory, then it has to start with better writing and source material of a higher standard. In the case of "The Nut Job 2," just file it under insipid mediocrity.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Kidnap ★★

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    Halle Berry stars in "Kidnap," a movie that halfheartedly raises awareness for the missing person epidemic. I'm not saying that the film doesn't try. The problem is that it does, at least in one emotionally-driven scene, and it fails miserably. (For the sake of being fair, it's a thriller, an abduction thriller to be exact, and action unfailingly succeeds meaning in this subgenre.)

    Berry is Karla Dyson, a divorced, single mother with the cutest little boy imaginable. (We're shown enough home videos via the opening credits to where no other opinion can be formed.) Not surprisingly, the rest of the plot is pretty routine—mom takes son to the park, she loses sight of him, and (drum roll, please) he is kidnapped. Of course, moviegoers will have to ignore the cause of this complication (a mother's inattentiveness) if they are to enjoy this crapfest (we're supposed to feel sympathy for her plight), and if that doesn't tickle your funny bone, there's a laundry list of other cinematic "oopsies" to sneer at.

    I'm sure the intent was to craft a top-of-the-line suspense piece, but director Luis Prieto and screenwriter Knate Lee clearly bit off more than they could chew. How so? Well, the script is thin and seems unfinished, and the car chase scenes (which consist of Berry's character pursuing her son's captors for more than half the movie) are amateurishly done and chock-full of monotony. (If you want to be technical about it, the former suffers from a lack of logic and plot points; the latter relies solely on conventional shots of speedometers and passing asphalt in order to entertain.) To be candid, not even a brash, twenty-five-year-old filmmaking messiah could save this picture from complete mortification. (This is a reference to Steven Spielberg and his work on "Duel," which is the benchmark for highway thrillers. My advice to Prieto is this: If you have a template, use it.)

    How hard is it, I wonder, for Halle Berry to find a good screenplay in Hollywood? I mean, this is an Academy Award winner we're talking about, and here she is slumming around on the set of a movie that's one cheesy line of dialogue away from being a Lifetime premiere event. There is no denying that Berry's career has tailed off recently; nonetheless, it is her sincerity that saves "Kidnap" from reaching putrid status. (Berry has never looked better, and her execution in this film, especially on an emotional front, proves that she still has it.) While we're on the subject, there is another scene-stealer in attendance—that being, a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. I can hear the advertisement now: "It has off-road capabilities, can stop on a dime, and it can even take the beating of your wildest dreams and still run." In all seriousness, however, this vehicle of vengeance laps up about as much screen time as our resident star, and if you can somehow get past the haphazard direction, it's one helluva ride.

    "Kidnap" pales in comparison to movies like "Breakdown," an abduction thriller with a gift for showing off, and it's only slightly more engaging than Berry's last outing ("The Call"), which isn't saying much. (In sum, it's a serviceable depiction of a mother who will stop at nothing to retrieve her missing sonjust without that pesky thing called reason.) I'm no expert in human behavior (if I were, I'd be making a lot more money), but a handful of questionable decisions were made by our rogue protagonist. For instance, there's a scene early on where Dyson actually confronts the kidnappers, but instead of defusing the situation, she allows them to gain the upper hand. (Then again, plots of this capacity need incompetence to fill up the allotted time.) Here's hoping that Berry lands a role with some brains and soon.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Girls Trip ★

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    A note to the reader: I just want to make this crystal clearI am not a woman, nor am I a black woman. I know nothing about the intricacies of sisterhood and womanhood, and I will not pretend as if I have the faintest inkling on the subject. But I do know film, and this review is a straightforward, free-flowing statement describing, in as much detail as possible, my thoughts on this particular movie. This is purely the opinion of a beat writer with an extensive knowledge of the medium.

    With that being said, "Girls Trip," a film that is unapologetic in its vulgarity and rotten humor, does everything in its power to showcase the ups and downs of this sororal clique, yet it does little in the way of women's empowerment, and the entire production reeks of immaturity. (More to the point, it is a movie solely for the braindead and feebleminded, and it's an enormous waste of one's time.) The story is simple enough: Four women, separated by life's unpredictabilities, come together for one last shindig, which in this instance, takes place at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisianathe ideal setting for humor heavy on the lewd and crude. There's Sasha (Queen Latifah), a struggling journalist turned tabloid reporter; Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a recent divorcee and the "responsible" one; Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a risk-taker who, I guess, is the funny one; and Ryan (Regina Hall), a well-established author and television personality.

    At this juncture, I usually delve into the plot and begin to dissect any discernible themes, but what's the point? ("Girls Trip" is a long-winded raunchfest, and the movie's licentious material will have film fans feeling more disgusted than cheerful.) Is the script really that unpardonable? Well, let's see: There's an overuse of the F-word and N-word, talk of stuffing illegal drugs in one's "booty hole," a discussion on how to perform oral sex with a grapefruit, and several references to male genitalia which I dare not utter here. All told, this sinfully sordid affair should set back women's equality a decade at the very least. (Sober moments are in short supply, but even when they do surface, the movie cannot separate the sincere from the unsavory.)

    I mean, I get it. No one is going into "Girls Trip" expecting anything other than brainless comedy. The problem, though, is the film's scattered air and its weak attempts at empowerment. (A subplot involving infidelity is confronted head on by the movie's end, which, I suppose, is meant to give female audiences an inspiring take-home message, but the damage had already been done.) Would it have killed the writers to tone down the folly so that their message would be more viable? Apparently.

    I've never been a fan of these types of pictures; I hate to see such talent wasted on projects that have more slapstick than smarts. (Pinkett Smith is the only bright spot amidst the heap of incomprehensible trash, and I applaud her for her efforts.) Coupled with last month's "Rough Night," it seems that Hollywood is determined to depict women behaving badly (and enjoying themselves while doing so), but this reversal of formula is far from flattering, and I just can't stand behind it. I know what you're thinking: Why should men have all the fun? Admittedly, male conduct on the big screen has historically been less than honorable, but that is our nature. Allow me to put it this way"Girls Trip" isn't a good look for anybody.

Friday, June 16, 2017

47 Meters Down ★

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    Here is the plot of "47 Meters Down," this summer's annual shark-infested thriller, in a nutshell: Two siblings, Lisa and Kate, embark on a fun-filled trip to Mexico in order to overcome life's mundane tendencies and messy breakups. (In essence, one's a nervous Nellie, and one has trouble saying "No." I'll let you guess which is which.) After a drunken night out with a pair of potential suitors, our threadbare protagonists elect to take on shark cage diving, the latest craze among the thrill-seeking crowd. Once underwater, something goes awry—as the title implies, they become trapped "47 meters down"—and we're left with roughly 60 minutes of plodding suspense and pointless maneuvering. The uneventful score, composed by Thomas Hajdu and Andy Milburn (a Princeton duo widely known as "tomandandy"), is mechanical and useless, and the principal characters, portrayed by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, are nothing short of moronic. (Forgive me for being blunt, but I've seen enough dumbed-down female personas to last a lifetime. Case in point: While gearing up for their initial dive, one of the simple-minded sisters, it doesn't matter who, quickly progresses from a petrified state to one in which she asks the other, "Does my butt look cute in this?" These actresses deserve better, and so do we.) I promise you this—by the film's end, you'll be rooting for the sharks.

    It's pretty clear where this half-hearted production pinned all of its hopes: on the allure and pull of its two leading ladies. (I'm trying to remember the last time Moore starred in a live-action setting, and Holt, God bless her, couldn't muster a line of dialogue with any sort of conviction even if she wanted to.) Granted, they both should receive credit for enduring the physical demands required of the roles, yet muffled screams and incessant hyperventilating aren't exactly attributes of an Oscar-worthy performance. It comes with the territory, or in this instance, the subject matter. Moreover, director Johannes Roberts and underwater cinematographer Mark Silk frequently swap disheveled camera angles for substance, and this creates an ambiance completely devoid of terror and emotional intensity. Although close-ups abound—the majority of which focus on the panic-stricken eyes of our daring yet doltish heroines—the best shots simply went unused. (It would help to have an editor who understood the principles of continuity editing.) Sadly, we're never given a reason to fear these notorious predators, except, of course, for their reputations and past on-screen appearances. Spoiler alert: The ill-famed antagonists are rarely seen until the climax of the film, and their long-awaited arrival is upstaged by a script that is inherently misguided, and above all, it evinces inexperience. Evidently, the writers thought it would be wise to rob Moore's character of her defining moment for a plot twist that is about as foolish as it is gutsy, and this injudicious move only gives substance to the stance that risk-taking doesn't always pan out in cinema. (You know, it's one of those endings where a reverie is confused for reality in an effort to shock and startle audiences; I have to say that it wasn't very effective.)

    I can't believe Hollywood is still churning out these tacky, stale pictures. (As one would expect, revenue remains the chief incentive, yet there has to be a limit on these shark attack movies, which are bordering on unwatchable.) I mean, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" actually meant something, and "47 Meters Down" can be dubbed the fast-food variety of the genre. For reasons I cannot fathom, the viewing public continues to have an eternal fascination for these flaccid, watered-down productions—"Shark Week" will even hit theaters for a one-night event next month. I hate to be the bearer of bad news (on the contrary, I enjoy it immensely), but all this fear and trembling at the hands of these predaceous creatures is entirely ungrounded. As a matter of fact, here are a few nuggets I found while researching the film's misunderstood villains: 

    (1) As reported by The Washington Post, on average, 28 people were killed each year from 2001 to 2013 by man's best friend. How many died as a result of a shark attack? Well, if you round to the nearest whole number, sharks killed about one individual per year during this span. 

    (2) More importantly, however, according to the Shark Research Institute, 100 million sharks are slain every single year by humankind, and yet we're frightened to death of this predominantly fabricated evil. 

    Now, I understand the method behind the madness, but movies such as "47 Meters Down," regardless of content, aren't worthy of our attention—to sum it up with a few choice words, it's just not interesting writing. And so, in the opinion of this critic, save your precious time and avoid this piffle as if it were the plague. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ★★★

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    Call me crazy, but in an industry where sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise has long remained ahead of the field. (This is mostly due to its familiar storytelling and to a booze-hounding protagonist who's as personable as he is inebriated.) And to think that these films have preserved in the face of redundancy time and again only makes them that much more admirable. Indeed, there's a slew of shortcomings that tend to sabotage these productions: puzzling plotlines, wishy-washy acting, and hammy dialogue to name a few. And yet, there resides an indefinable charm, the kind that has moviegoers suspend their disbelief and empty their pockets. This fifth "Pirates" installment may not fit the bill as obsessive filmmaking, but it's a step above its predecessor, and—oh, I dunno—there's just something about the Caribbean that kindles ebullience.

    Here is a brief run-through of the plot: The film picks up as Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the newest hero to hit the high seas and son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), devises a plan to help his father rid himself of the terrible curse that entails a lasting commitment as captain to the Flying Dutchman. (To make a long story short, Henry must retrieve Poseidon's legendary trident if he is to break the anathema and reunite his loving family.)

    Concurrently, Captain Jack Sparrow (played by the always animated Johnny Depp) is down on his luck—the reward for his arrest has even plummeted. After an unsuccessful bank robbery attempt, the egocentric pirate captain finds himself in an often experienced position: that is, captured by the British army and set to be hanged. (Unbeknown to Jack, this is the least of his worries. For, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter, wants him punished for a previous dispute.) Enter Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a mysterious young woman who is also sent to the gallows albeit for a different reason—the practice of witchcraft. (You see, she's not really a witch but intelligent; her intellectual capacity provides the opportunity to rouse up a statement on gender, which I found to be quite misplaced.) Following an action-packed rescue from certain death, the trio made up of Jack, Henry, and Carina set off for Poseidon's tomb in what becomes yet another egoist tale where every character fends for themselves.

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    Let's face it, this is the type of movie where you know what you're getting going in. (One could view this flagrant repetition negatively, but I find that most audiences prefer pictures that they're accustomed to, which explains the popularity of genre films.) It's no surprise that every "Pirates" story is the same old schtick: there's exotic locations, outstanding art direction, themes with a touch of destiny, childish humor, and of course, who could forget Jack Sparrow's shenanigans, which the latter has become the central concern of the last several installments. (Not only does Depp take center stage in "Dead Men," but every scene is constructed in an effort to place Sparrow in a comical circumstance and nothing more—luckily for us, Depp is still amusing.) 

    I will say this: Despite a beat-around-the-bush plot, a recycled score, and a couple of underdeveloped supporting characters (namely the newcomers), Jeff Nathanson, a writer who's worked on a number of industry sequels, knows how to spin a good yarn. In fact, I would say that this is a fitting end to the "Pirates" universe; however, there's obviously more to come. (Make sure to stay for the post-credit scene that insinuates this unavoidable continuation.) 

    How could you not love Geoffrey Rush? The veteran actor once again steals the spotlight as Captain Hector Barbossa, and even though Depp's Sparrow may garner the most attention, I've never come across a more perfect portrayal of a pirate before. (Rush delivers an electric performance with such style and panache that I almost felt sorry for the other actors appearing on screen.) As for Depp, the Oscar-nominated journeyman continues to serve as a vital contributor to the series, regardless of age or decline in stardom. Depp's character of choice, apart from a growing likeness to Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, displays the same mannerisms and drunken demeanor, and my only complaint pertains to the actor's unwillingness to let this role pass on—as much as I have enjoyed the hijinks of Jack Sparrow over the last decade and a half, it's time for Depp to dabble in the art of drama anew. 

    Other notable mentions: Bardem, an actor who is no stranger to parts brimming with villainy, was clearly the right pick for the role of the ruthless and vindictive Salazar; Thwaites and Scodelario, two rising stars in Hollywood, certainly have their work cut out for them if they are to carry these films with the same magnetism as the original ensemble cast. 

    More so than anything else, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise is about fluid storytelling and cinematographic freedom, and first-time directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg hit the nail on the head with their execution. From bird's-eye views to sublime director interpretive shots (most notably in the gallows scene), these Norwegian filmmakers prove they have a knack for punctilious filmmaking. (More importantly, they bring a sense of continuity to a story that is undoubtedly at a crossroads.) Will I be reflecting on this movie a week from now? I doubt it. Nevertheless, there's more than enough substance here to warrant a positive review, but I have the feeling that I may not be as understanding next time around. Savvy? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monster Trucks ★1/2

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    Paramount's latest debacle entitled "Monster Trucks," a movie about a young man who befriends an unusual creature that is keenly adept in the art of truck driving, should serve as a reminder of how half-baked ideas seldom give way to box-office greatness. (It should also provide hope for every wannabe screenwriter in the greater Los Angeles area—if Paramount considers the plot of "Monster Trucks" to be worthy of development, then anything is possible.) This action comedy, which is painfully purposed for the youngest of viewing audiences, may have an appealing cast with genuine promise, yet I could never heap praise on a picture whose main attraction is a giant squid. (In truth, Creech, as the beast is called, is more of a cross between an octopus and a whale; nevertheless, there doesn't seem to be much room for marketability.) And I thought E.T. was repugnant.

    Tripp (Lucas Till) is an ambitious North Dakotan teen who desires to leave his hometown in search of bigger and better things. (The movie implies that it is the dullness of the surrounding countryside that fuels this inclination, and this is not only a slight to the residents of North Dakota, but it's a poor excuse for a motivating force.) Meanwhile, Terravex Energy, which is plainly a representation of Big Oil, hits trouble on a nearby fracking operation when it unleashes three subterranean creatures, one of them being the likable yet repulsive Creech. Eventually, Tripp and Creech happen upon each other, and from this point forward, the feature blossoms into a full-fledged chase film with enough meaningless drivel to make any contemporary of mine sick with boredom. (As for me, I'm afraid that I've become accustomed to these one-dimensional productions, which are slowly becoming the standard in Hollywood.) The only thing worse than the simplistic storyline is the manufactured villains, which, believe it or not, includes a Terravex bounty hunter by the name of Burke (Holt McCallany).

    "Monster Trucks" has all the makings of a Steven Spielberg adventure: there's the troubled teenager with parental issues, the presence of a human-unearthly bond, as well as a conflict stemming from a corrupt corporation, but nothing can subdue the elephant in the room—that being, the unattractiveness of the material. In fact, this is what I like to call a "step back" film, as all parties involved showed signs of regression in their particular filmmaking positions. (It also gives our screenwriter and director an opportunity to view their work objectively, which I'm sure will be a harrowing experience.) Filmmaker Chris Wedge, who's mostly known for his role in several animated successes, shows his competence behind the scenes in what becomes his live-action debut, yet sweeping camera movements and nifty boom shots cannot divert one's attention from the disastrous dialogue that propels the script. (Take away the subtheme concerned with environmentalism, and you have a screenplay that could have been written by any imaginative child or film school dropout.)

    I'm saddened to see budding actress Jane Levy and up-and-coming actor Lucas Till in such abysmal working conditions—quite honestly, they hardly stood a chance. (Levy is as charming and capable as they come; Till, if given the proper nutriment, could become the next Marvel Avenger.) Unfortunately for them, neither star looks or sounds the part—they play a pair of teenagers even though they're clearly much older—and their passionless performances can be chalked up to a bad case of casting fever. (Meaning, they were chosen for their popularity as opposed to their fitting the characters.) Young actors take heed: Sometimes, one must forgo a paycheck in favor of what's suitable, which the latter is more conducive to long-term success.

    Film criticism is a paradoxical profession—this has been the theme of much of my work—and pictures like "Monster Trucks" only prove this notion. On the one hand, the movie's climax is thoroughly engaging, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more jovial conclusion. And yet, where is the lasting value? Where's the significance? (These are rhetorical questions, mind you, but they still touch on the complications associated with film commentary—should we regard the medium strictly as escapism or evaluate it as an art form? There's also the question of whether or not a children's picture should be graded on a different scale (less stringent), but that is neither here nor there. The intent is key no matter the profundity.) Oftentimes, I must decide if I am to give a film, whose aim is that of amusement, a pass for its superficiality or condemn it for the same reasons. (Hence, the contradictory nature of the craft.) In many cases, subjectivity will inevitably rear its head; this is one of those instances. Needless to say, "Monster Trucks" just isn't very good.