WEEKEND REVIEW ROUNDUP: SEPTEMBER 18 – 20

Four movies, three based on real stories, two well worth seeing, all releasing on one weekend. Let’s do this.

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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It’s only been three years since The Hunger Games launched the genre into high gear but we’re already at the point of saturation with young adult novel adaptations. Instead of new and exciting series, most studios are content to regurgitate rote formula in a new, barely different package.

Enter The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trails, another in the line of unspectacular post-apocalyptic flicks for young-uns, this time with more running than you could ever ask for. Whereas the first Maze Runner was Lord of the Flies-light, Scorch Trials goes for a much different tone as an I Am Legend/The Walking Dead/Resident Evil imitation, with nothing innovative to show for.

With no story element that doesn’t come off as contrived and a cast verging on having no charisma, the only strength of the film comes in its chase scenes, which are passably exciting enough to make you forget how boring the rest of the film can be.

Like other films of its ilk, Scorch Trials ends on a set-up for the next film but judging by this film alone, there’s not much to get excited over.

4/10

 

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Black Mass

Johnny Depp hasn’t really acted in a while. Sure, he’s pretty regularly been in movies in the past few years, slathered in makeup with some silly voice or another, but it’s rarely measured up to many of his early performances. Not only is it great to say that Depp acts up a storm as Whitey Bulger, but also that Black Mass as a film is gloriously grim and fascinating.

Dramatizing the stranger than fiction story of how Bulger struck an unholy alliance with the FBI and rose through the ranks as a Boston crime kingpin, Black Mass is a testament to strong acting and dedicated tone. Director Scott Cooper takes a solid script about a villain’s reign of terror and brings dark and brutal excitement into the mix, all while giving the cast enough reign to consistently turn in great performances.

Depp has an intensity to him that I feel like he’s been saving for a role like this. He completely immerses himself in the character and sets the malicious and imposing mood for the rest of the film. So many exchanges between characters are charged that you as an audience member are almost giddy from the anticipation for bad things to happen.

It’s because of Black Mass‘ unconventional story that this approach works. Bulger is by no means a protagonist but he is the focus of the story, which allows for such a dark approach. This is not a story of good cop goes after bad criminal — more like bad cop helps really bad criminal — which just comes off as more interesting anyway.

Depp’s performance shouldn’t be counted out for special notice in the coming months but it would be a shame to go without recognizing Black Mass as one of the better, more sinister crime dramas of the era.

8/10

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Everest

I was not prepared for Everest. Having long-ago seen the IMAX documentary and recalling things did not necessarily end well, I knew the story was getting a dramatized retelling and that’s it.

What actually went down should really be described more as an experience.

Everest is not a movie chalk full of narrative depth or flashy writing. It’s an exhausting, yet harrowing account of the events of the 1996 disaster on Everest, told as true to the experience as possible (which can admittedly result in some pacing issues.) This movie is an exercise in feeling what the characters do. Frigid winds blow off the screen and work their way into your bones while each grueling step in a place with almost no air comes off like a marathon.

Director Baltasar Kormakur wanted to make a film that conveyed the feeling of being on Mt. Everest for the 99 percent of people who would never experience it. For better or worse, he succeeded. Our main character, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), says early in the film that Everest is mostly a lot of pain, and that’s really what the cast and filmmakers convey perfectly. Within the adversity the cast/characters face in the elements, and with the help of some beautiful cinematography and an award-worthy score by Dario Marianelli, a noticeably moving film about mankind against nature emerges — one that does not sugarcoat the truth behind how this event ended.

There’s something beautifully tragic about the end of this film that reveals it not as a pure product, but as an attempt for film to mimic life. It’s up to you how close you want to be to a story so stark.

Everest opens in limited special IMAX screenings Sept. 18 before hitting wide release on Sept. 25.

7/10

PAWN SACRIFICE

Pawn Sacrifice

The story of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time, is one of the relationship between brilliance and madness. The dynamic of watching Fischer battle against his own growing schizophrenia, while also climbing to the top of the ranks against the Soviets for the title of world champion should naturally be a winning concept.

Unfortunately, Pawn Sacrifice is an interesting story that isn’t told very interestingly. Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Schrieber all give good performances by any criteria. However, the movie seemingly can’t decide if it wants to be a character piece or a film about propping up unstable talent for symbolic reasons (because the two approaches certainly don’t mix), and meanders on for way too long in uncertain spaces. The best scenes in the film, while not really trying to make chess more accessible, are the showdowns between Maguire and Schrieber, but how we get there is a mixed bag.

Making the film even harder to swallow is the part about how Fischer really comes off as an asshole. His rants quickly go from amusing to insufferable and stay that way. Unlikable characters can be totally fascinating but characters you can’t sympathize with are a problem. Ultimately, in spite of the cast and chess sequences, Pawn Sacrifice can’t pull a win because of this.

5/10

2015 SUMMER REVIEW ROUND-UP PART II

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Terminator Genisys

First thing’s first: Terminator Genisys is not a great movie, especially when held up to the first two films in the series. The story is incoherent, there’s an over-reliance on visual effects and the John Connor twist they gave away in the trailers is only half baked. Like I said, not a great movie.

And yet, damn it, did I have more fun with this one than I anticipated. If you’re going to bastardize a beloved franchise known for its hard-edge dystopian grit and turn it into a fluffy, PG-13-friendly summer action franchise, there are worse ways to do it than Terminator Genisys. The stars are likable enough with what they’re given and the action sequences (of which there are many) are competently, often thrillingly, choreographed to actually comprehend what’s happening.

I can’t speak for anyone with a great affinity for the original movies but as someone with appropriately adjusted expectations, the film delivered enough to actually be fun. Like Jurassic World earlier this summer, Terminator Genisys is cinematic cotton candy: light on depth but fun while it lasts.

7/10

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The Gallows

The mere concept of The Gallows has enough promise to get excited over. School ghost stories have a certain mystique about them that hasn’t been tapped back into for far too long.

However, if you’re looking for a movie to do something unique or even moderately satisfying with the concept, steer very clear of The Gallows, as it is a film that makes horror fans hang their heads.

Another in the long line of cheaply made found footage horror flicks, Gallows starts off on a major wrong foot by having our main character be the most detestable high school asshole imaginable. After following this horrible human being for the better part of half an hour, we’re rewarded for our patience with cheap jump scares, frantic camera work to disguise an absence of suspense (and/or money), and a phenomenally bad twist ending.

The film’s saving grace is that it is mercifully short, likely representing all the budget could muster. In all honesty, movies like The Gallows are the death of good horror: micro-budget projects that studios shit out with no care or quality so they can claim exponential profits at the end of the day. It’s high time a noose was put around this wretched practice.

1/10

S_10749_R_CROP (l-r.) Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) flee with Young Damian (Ryan Reynolds) in Gramercy Pictures' provocative psychological science fiction thriller Self/less, directed by Tarsem Singh and written by Alex Pastor & David Pastor. Credit: Alan Markfield / Gramercy Pictures

Self/less

In the right hands, the concept of switching bodies can be made into any number of fascinating, thoughtful, and even exciting stories. With Self/less, the central idea is wasted on a film so bland it seems intent on putting itself to sleep after the audience has all but konked out.

Director Tarsem Singh, normally known for his elaborate visual style, guides Self/less with all the panache and flavor of a bowl of oatmeal. Every potentially interesting story beat is left hung out to dry by a creative team that seems genuinely apathetic towards the material, opting instead for repetitive chase scenes that play as equally uninterested.

Ryan Reynolds continues his streak as a fairly charismatic leading man who can’t catch the right break. His and Ben Kingsley’s presences are two of three things that win the movie points. The other is whatever story ideas you get to imagine for yourself that the film didn’t play upon.

3/10

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Trainwreck

This summer seems to have been especially empowering for women (well, as much as Hollywood can be). With Mad Max, we had a strong view of women as people, not things, embodied by a heroine who can hold her own with the male lead. Pitch Perfect 2 saw the second highest opening weekend by a female director at $69.2 million, with a vast majority of that number made up of female audiences. Spy completely subverted a mostly male-led genre and was all the funnier because of it.

And finally with Trainwreck, Amy Schumer showed us women can turn the tables and make female-led rom-coms that are just as familiar and uneven as the male-led ones.

Lest that last sentence sound too jaded, it’s important to note that 1) Judd Apatow actually directed this movie and 2) the film actually is quite funny in spite of that first point. The regular problems of Apatow films remain — the film is entirely too long, showing an inability to cut enough fat to make a concise comedy that pops, while also veering between comedy and drama not always successfully — but there’s still plenty of gold to mine from Trainwreck.

As with basically every comedy, the humor here can sometimes be uneven but Schumer is a charming lead and there are several instances of laughing so hard you need to catch your breath. A particular callback to The Exorcist took extra time to recover from. Sure, the whole story is completely familiar, with just a switch in perspectives, but I’ve always said familiar material can still be great if approached right. Trainwreck‘s approach is solid and the results, while varied, are worth marking as a win.

6.5/10

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Though the franchise started in the ’90s, I will continue to consider the Mission: Impossible films a hallmark of the last four years, due solely to the fact that that is when they became great.

Following the terrific Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation sees frequent Tom Cruise-collaborator Christopher McQuarrie take the reigns, resulting in an installment that continues some of the great things the previous few installments refined, while attempting to improve areas the previous films didn’t necessarily deliver on.

While Rogue Nation may not be the most boisterous or broad entry in the franchise, it’s most certainly a thrilling, well-crafted adventure that will keep our interest piqued. Cruise still makes these films pop as their lead, while the supporting cast continues to bring their individual strengths. The major stunts of the film (this time around consisting of hanging outside a plane, a high speed motorcycle chase, and an underwater heist) are awe-inspiring and masterfully crafted, though the highlight of the film may be an extended opera sequence that steals the show.

Tonally, the movie feels like a blend between the larger-than-life objectives of the latter films and the more restrained espionage aspects we saw in the first movie, giving Rogue Nation a particularly unique tone in the series. Helping the film to shine this time around is the presence of an interesting and fleshed out female lead in Rebecca Ferguson, and a solid villain in Sean Harris.

Only the end falters, feeling rushed and uncertain of how to conclude after a more personal outing. Luckily, it’s more abrupt than disappointing, leaving the door open for more exciting installments after this one.

7.5/10

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E

Every summer seems to have a dark horse movie that shows up, with little to no attention or anticipation before its release, and turns out to be a complete blast. Last year it was Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever they’re calling it these days). The year before, World War Z. This year, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes that prize.

Director Guy Ritchie has a reputation for being fairly style over substance, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. is no exception. Ritchie’s full intention was to create a film that threw back to the spy films of the ’60s, which included a fairly standard plot we’ve seen time and time again.

But that’s not what makes U.N.C.L.E. worth seeing. The plot gives way for Ritchie to create the summer’s slickest, coolest, funniest ride. Every single minute of this film has some infectiously fun aspect happening, whether it is the sublime banter between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, some excellently edited sequences or Daniel Pemberton’s amazing score (which, together with the songs of the film, easily claims bragging rights as the summer’s best soundtrack.)

Though it didn’t make a huge splash in theaters, I’m confident audiences will discover on home video that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of the summer’s most entertaining offerings.

8/10

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American Ultra

American Ultra was a film that I was genuinely curious about and totally willing to go along with its silly concept. Conversely, American Ultra is now a film I can barely keep from forgetting, almost being omitted from this piece for that very reason.

In a film about a stoner sleeper agent, who’d have thought the most interesting thing was the pairing of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart? The two have honest-to-Jeebus chemistry and are able to ever-so-slightly elevate material that is otherwise completely boring. For an action comedy, there’s very little to laugh at and almost nothing to be thrilled by. No one says stoner action comedies can’t be totally self-serious but this film is certainly an example of why no one should try it again.

Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing pleasing about the film either. Scattershot action with copious CGI blood against the backdrop of dreary West Virginia is hardly exciting.

There’s certainly a sweetness to the story between Eisenberg and Stewart and the two actors do all they can with it; unfortunately, it’s entirely in the wrong movie.

3/10

2015 SUMMER REVIEW ROUND-UP PART I

Two observations for you all: 1) it would appear that summer is, by most accounts, over, and 2) I have been very lazy. Doing things is hard and setting time aside to do things in a scheduled manner is even harder.

Since I’m apparently incapable of doing this lately, the next best thing is to get everything out there at once. Everything, in this case, is the movies I saw this summer and my thoughts on them (excluding the ones I’ve previously written about because duh).

There’s definitely some catching up to do, but with the magic of friendship and caffeine, I think we can succeed. Let’s begin.

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Pitch Perfect 2

The first Pitch Perfect was a mostly all right, uneven comedy that somehow became a pop culture hit. I’d be lying if I said its inexplicable, undeserved adoration didn’t sour me to the film at least a little bit, but that’s neither here nor there. What does seem to be the case is that the follow-up is surprisingly more tolerable and doesn’t inspire nearly as much contempt.

Pitch Perfect 2 is just that extra bit more approachable. The musical numbers are still slick and some of the jokes really land (Keegan-Michael Key’s bits as a music producer are gold) — aaaand some are teeth-gratingly bad (awful Latin stereotype humor).  Upon reflection, it probably also helps that the main character has mostly stopped being a snotty bitch this time around. Yes, I’ve heard tolerating, or even liking the protagonist can be a boon for any film (just wait until we get to another entry later in the summer).

Though unspectacular, the movie as a whole is much easier to accept and go along with. We know now that the songs will be the highlight, humor will be hit or miss, and the story itself is mostly irrelevant. It’s undemanding entertainment and gets the job done as just that.

5/10

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Tomorrowland

There’s a real sense of wonderment and optimism permeating Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland that never caught on with audiences, ironically making it the biggest bomb of the summer. In reality, bad marketing is certainly to blame for people missing out on this film, as opposed to some general demand for all of our movies to be grim and depressing, though that doesn’t excuse the fact that movie itself is still far from perfect.

As mentioned, Tomorrowland‘s real sticking point is its message of hope and looking at the bright side for a better future, which is bolstered by some crisp visual splendor throughout. Unfortunately, the story that carries that message is a big missed opportunity. The first half of the film concerns itself far too heavily in the mystery of what Tomorrowland actually is, for which the payoff is fairly standard. Points where the film actually takes off are often mired by slack pacing and a sometimes far-too-heavy touch when it comes to the themes.

If pressed, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing the latest from Bird (who still has The Incredibles and the best Mission: Impossible to his name), but will always preface it as a “I see what you were going for” movie, as opposed to a “I enjoy what you did there” one.

5/10 

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San Andreas

Some time in the past five years, the cosmos aligned, mountains trembled and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became box office magic. We’re seriously at a point where the man showing up equals cash-register dings for studio execs.

Not to generalize it too much, but that’s sort of the point of San Andreas. The Rock shows up to do Rock stuff against the backdrop of a massive earthquake and then MONEY!!!! Funny enough, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a certain cheesy, B-movie thrill to watching horrifying, over-the-top disaster chaos go down and then The Rock shows up to crack jokes and play out some rote familial drama because the script is just the worst. The fun of the film only goes so far — again, due to the script being compost — but then I’m guessing nuanced drama was never high on the creative team’s priorities for a disaster flick.

Will it stand the test of time? Probably not. But as a fun one-off, it’ll pass the time.

5/10

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Spy

People seem to like the pairing of Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig. Movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat are what has been described as “popular”, which indicates audiences seem to find them “funny”. I can’t say I’ve ever been in that camp but you can mark me down as being on the positive side for the duo’s latest offering, Spy.

Spy continues in the Feig tradition of relying on lewd tirades of insults as its main comedic hook. Whereas this still becomes tiresome in some spots, Spy is a much heartier movie than previous ones by these two. The movie finds a lot of success in spoofing the spy genre in a way that is not only frequently amusing but also genuinely empowering for women. Susan Cooper is not only an able spy, she’s more talented than her male cohorts — which the film hilariously points out through the rivalry between Cooper and arrogant, yet incompetent superspy Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The film is never too in-your-face about its subversive nature, but utilizes it to a point where it’s appropriately satisfying and funny.

That, along with some decently staged action/comedy set pieces, makes Spy a cut above the rest and a satisfyingly forward thinking comedy.

7/10

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Inside Out

Pixar films are almost always entertaining but have a reputation as often being something deeper and more universal. Now, they haven’t exactly lived up to that reputation for the past five years, so going into Inside Out seemed like a crapshoot on whether we’d return to the glory days of the studio.

Inside Out is not only among the studio’s finest work, it’s quite often feels like a transcendent step in family entertainment. Besides having crisp and flashy animation, beautiful voice work, a bubbly score, an infectious sense of humor, thrilling adventure sections, and consequences that feel genuine, Inside Out tells an amazingly human story about learning about life’s many emotions. We all experience joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust in our lives, some more than others, but this film reminds us that they are all natural and have their own place. We may not enjoy feeling sadness but the film never tries to make sadness an antagonistic force, instead showing how necessary all our emotions are and how they need to work together.

It’s this kind of humanistic storytelling that puts the film in the realm of not only being great fun, but also a heartwarming and introspective experience.

8/10

Stay tuned for July and August in Part II.