THE LEGEND OF TARZAN movie review

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Throughout The Legend of Tarzan®, Margot Robbie’s Jane Porter reminds us that Tarzan was first thought to be a dark spirit in the trees before coming to be known as the legendary ape man.

It’s a bit ironic, then, because were it not for this awkward voiceover reminder, there would be practically nothing in the latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tale that would identify this as being a Tarzan film.

While there may be a jungle setting and a man who sometimes swings from trees and interacts with apes, The Legend of Tarzan® holds no characteristics of its own outside of its ability to make otherwise extraordinary things dull and plain.

Director David Yates did some commendable work on the final half of the Harry Potter series so it’s sad to see him saddled with a project that, after being in the pipeline for a long time, seems to have reached the point of the studio just needing to get the thing shot and released.

This new Tarzan shakes things up a bit, in that it’s essentially a sequel to the story we know, and sees Tarzan in a “return to the jungle” scenario. However, it still bogs down the movie’s pace finds the time to tell the entire original story in flashback form.

And while credit is certainly due for the film’s willingness to touch on colonialism and the exploitation of Africa, it’s all lost on a screenplay so flat that the theme doesn’t progress beyond leading into another “white savior” trope.

If you take out the admittedly pretty backgrounds of the African savanna (easy, because the actors were all shot on a set in the U.K.) and the shoddy digital apes, the movie is essentially “generic action man does generic action things while being played by the next in line to be a generic action star.”

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Alexander Skargard, or anyone else in the cast for that matter, but the screenplay doesn’t flesh out any of the characters beyond the point of being cardboard cut-outs. They’re just kind of stuck doing what they need to in order to get on with it — and they don’t seem particularly enthused about it.

Not that Tarzan himself was ever an emotionally vivid character but that shouldn’t stop the lord of the apes from looking like he wants to actually be there.

But a Tarzan film doesn’t need to be dramatically complex, perfectly cohesive or thought-provoking. It, at the very least, just needs to be fun. Serve up some eye popping visuals and visceral escapism, yes?

Well, The Legend of Tarzan®* also drops the ball in this most basic of areas. Clouded in a thick layer of cinematic murk, the action of LOT® is stunted by some nauseating camera work, while the small amount of humor the film does have sets the bar as low as primate fellatio.

[*Seriously, the movie makes sure the copyright symbol is present in every appearance of the title.]

That is, however, when the movie finds time for its few adventure thrills in between all the intrusive flashbacks to an origin that we already know, that doesn’t add anything and leads to some serious bloat.

Tarzan may be more than 100 years old but it’s perfectly conceivable that audiences are ready and willing to embrace the iconic character once more.

However, we’re in an era where films like the new Planet of the Apes push the boundaries on digital human/animal performance, the live action Jungle Book brings the jungle to vibrant life, and Mad Max: Fury Road takes stoic characters and fleshes them out in a perfectly-paced thrill ride.

All of those films have one thing in common: they’re passion projects. That’s a concept that’s as foreign and mysterious to The Legend of Tarzan® as man is to beast.

4/10

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X-MEN: APOCALYPSE movie review

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It may have taken eight movies but the X-Men franchise finally reached its moment in the sun. Coming off its biggest creative and financial success with Days of Future Past, Fox’s longtime superhero series hit its stride after a string of near-hits and big misses.

X-Men finally showed it was ready to play with the big boys and that meant competing in the most densely populated year for superhero films, maybe ever. Deadpool differentiated itself through graphic, fourth wall-breaking irreverence; Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, both explored the world’s response to heroism, albeit in very different ways.

X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t have the grand, genre-bending aspirations those three films had. Instead, in a market that’s mostly trying to push boundaries, the latest X-Men film is content to be a simple, epic action film on a much larger scale than the series has gone before.

In going a straightforward route, the movie suffers from a lack of depth and more than a few integral characters being sidelined.

But once you get past the feeling of air being let out the expectations balloon, it doesn’t take long to recognize that X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun, by-the-numbers superhero flick with large-scale action, a showy villain and an expanding universe that’s closer to truly solidifying the X-Men universe for the better.

Rather than a deep, emotional conflict running under the action, Apocalypse is just focused on the superficial fight against Apocalypse and his horsemen. Barring a couple strong emotional moments, most of the film’s emotional catharsis comes from directly calling back via flashbacks to X-Men: First Class and the foundation that movie set up.

I get the idea of tying things back to the original in a third installment but this movie missteps be simply revisiting them instead of recalling and expanding upon them.

Thankfully, the film makes up for this deficiency with a number of dazzling action set-pieces, neat reintroductions of classic members, a bold new music score from a returning composer and a few surprise appearances.

Perhaps the deciding factor in chalking this one up as a win is that it actually feels like an X-Men movie. It may be a largely simple action plot but the aesthetic finally feels like it’s in the right place.

Having the main X-Men ensemble on screen doing X-Men stuff in a vibrant way is just exciting — pure and simple. And they did it without leaning on Wolverine again.

More than Hugh Jackman and flashy new powers each time around, the X-Men series found its biggest strength recently in James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Ever since X-Men: First Class, these two have been the glue that not only holds the new series together but also makes you look forward to revisiting these characters.

McAvoy’s Professor X is allowed to shine, displaying a new confidence since the last installment. McAvoy’s portrayal is charming and brings life to a character that can easily become too dry.

Fassbender’s Magneto, meanwhile, has a thankless role here. After getting some promising buildup and carrying the film’s most emotional moment that isn’t a callback, Fassbender is largely left to hang around until the plot needs him to hover in at the end.

As one half of this series’ Lennon and McCartney (though still not as evil as John Lennon), the character deserves to be put to better use.

But with Magneto mostly benched, Apocalypse steps in to serve as the main foil. Sure, his plan is pretty standard supervillain stuff but it doesn’t really matter that much because the filmmakers and Oscar Isaac admirably sell how frightful and all-powerful the character is. Every moment Apocalypse is on screen is made great by Isaac’s performance and some awesome, boisterous villain monologues.

In any case, he’s clearly having more fun in his role than Jennifer Lawrence, who looks ready to ride that paycheck off into the sunset and away from the series that helped establish her.

Sophie Turner makes for an interesting Jean Grey — who may get a more satisfying treatment going forward –, Evan Peters gets more time to shine as Quicksilver in another amazing speed sequence, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is an actual character and Kodi Smit-Mcphee as Nightcrawler is amusing.

They fare better than Angel, Psylock and Jubilee, the likes of whom are given nothing to do.

And let’s not even get into where we stand with the timeline. That is a flaming hornet’s nest, aka nothing you can or ever want to try to fix. Isn’t that right, 45-year-old Havok who looks like he’s the same age as his teenage brother?

There may be a number of things to rag on this movie for but, at the end of the day, the fact remains that there was certainly energy put into make X-Men: Apocalypse brazenly entertaining.

And honestly, after two films this year addressing the recent, buzzkill notion that we should feel guilty about large-scale superhero action, it is wholly refreshing to be given a film that goes back to basics.

7/10

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR movie review

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Captain America has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and not just within this film.

Captain America: Civil War is the 13th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sequel to the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the jumping point for the MCU’s much-hyped third phase, and is coming off the heels of both a disappointing Avengers sequel and the modestly successful Ant-Man and last summer’s creative shakeup at Marvel Studios.

Meanwhile,  the story is loosely adapted from a controversial seven-part comic series of the same name that saw the Marvel universe fractured nearly beyond repair over the introduction of a superhero registration act.

Clearly, there’s no pressure here.

With that in mind, Captain America: Civil War is one of Marvel’s most technically and emotionally solid films to date. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo show a thorough understanding of this universe’s characters and craft an effective, well-balanced film.

At the same time, oddly, Civil War is also one of Marvel’s more unfulfilling entries due to its complete unwillingness to take the universe to the next step. Even the Russos can’t sidestep common Marvel missteps here and the film feels like a big missed opportunity to be the game changer it really should be.

Before we get further into that matter though, there is one point that must be stressed going forward: this is a better Avengers movie than Age of Ultron and probably the original.

A plot that could have easily been fragmented is instead brought together very naturally here. The story wisely builds its core around the arcs of Cap, Bucky and Tony Stark and brings its many other characters into the fray in a pleasant, organic way. Side arcs like Wanda and Vision’s, as well as Zemo’s, are almost all given enough focus and content to be meaningful but not so much so that they drag the movie down or feel out of place (no magic spirit pool hokum here).

The filmmakers know that the real meat of the story is the conflict between Steve and Tony over the act, known here as the Sokovia Accords, and the added wrinkle of when Bucky reappears. The approach to the internal split is refreshingly open ended; no side is overtly right or wrong and it’s easy to sympathize with both.

Likewise, the villain of the piece is actually able to buck Marvel’s lackluster villain standard by doing something different: not being a supervillain. Zemo doesn’t have enhanced abilities or world-dominating plans but he does have fierce intelligence, relatable motivations and a very personal plan.

There’s no cliche where the villain is just a dark reflection of the hero here, just a very smart man out for vengeance. This comes off as more true and interesting than almost anything Marvel has done lately with their foils.

There are cool new characters, memorable gags and an epic airport battle (not to be confused with Marvel’s typical final aerial battle) — all good new things that keep the film feeling fresh.

But at the same time, Civil War, for how good it is, can’t escape some of the lesser aspects of the Marvel paradigm.

The film has what is probably the studio’s worst opening action sequence. The battle with Crossbones in Nigeria is artificially sped up to the point of being unaffecting. It’s a bad foot for the film to start on and unusually shoddy filmmaking from a duo that usually delivers.

More unforgivable is the handling of Crossbones. Once again, Marvel has the opportunity for a scenery-chewing recurring bad guy with Frank Grillo and, once again, they utterly waste it by killing him off.

Just like a bland, forgettable score, that’s just business as usual for Marvel and it’s not the only predictable decisions they make. The studio is still petrified of offing any of their main heroes and even with a story that was a perfect fit for such a dramatic act, they chose to play it safe.

Even though our heroes end up in separate places by the end of the film, it still feels like the status quo is kept and there’s nothing they can’t bounce back from.

It’s filmmaking without risk and thus not very rewarding.

In the ever-expanding balloon of Marvel, one door closes, while all current ones remain open and a handful are introduced.

And on that topic, we need to talk about Spider-Man. Whereas Black Panther is treated to a terrific entrance here, Spider-Man falls flat. There’s just no reason for him to be in this movie outside of the studio saying “look, we have the rights back now!”

I’m sure Tom Holland is perfectly capable and a refreshing choice for the role but they’re trying way too hard with the humor. Instead of skillful and natural comedic timing, the character just becomes annoying — within minutes of a generally short screen presence too.

We have yet to see how a different filmmaker will handle the character for Spider-Man: Homecoming but there’s notably less enthusiasm on this end after seeing a favorite character of mine be such a weak point of this film.

Don’t get me wrong, when weighing the scales, Captain America: Civil War is going to end up with much more good to its name than bad. Enough so to be considered one of Marvel’s best movies too. There are plenty of moments in this film to justify its place in the universe.

But the cracks are starting to show in the house that Marvel built. This movie was a chance to move this story and these characters forward and they largely squandered it. Marvel is still stuck in its ways and, as an audience member, that just makes fatigue set in even faster.

7.5/10

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE movie review

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — the jumping point for DC’s shared film universe — was mired in negativity from day one. From casting backlash to flat-out hatred for the director, “fans” and film writers never held back in sharing their gripes towards with film before its release, creating an atmosphere of vitriol and frustration from the start.

The critical lashing the film took, in addition to its swift drop in the box office roster, can certainly be attributed to some concentrated disdain beforehand, but what about the film on its own (he says after spending two paragraphs talking about peripheral aspects of the movie instead of the movie itself)?

In an effort to break away from the same approach Marvel took in adapting its shared universe, DC and Zack Snyder chose to forgo a handful of set-up films and instead get to the juicy part where the universe’s heroes meet and worlds expand.

The result is a film that both revels in the glory of seeing these classic heroes on screen together, and suffers from one of the headliners being shortchanged in a film that works better as world expansion than as a concise, even story.

It’s not rare for an action blockbuster to end up running well over two hours, but when your writer hands in a script that’s equivalent to a four-hour cut, it might be time to pump the brakes. Batman v Superman is jam-packed with material — not all of which jives — and ends up being a movie that’s more a sum of its parts.

While the visuals, score, mature themes, new characters and a certain gonzo performance all should be praised, the lynchpin of the movie is absolutely Ben Affleck’s Batman. Brutal, imposing and complex, Batfleck is the most rock steady aspect of the film. Owing much of the interpretation to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman v Superman delivers what may be the definitive live action Batman/Bruce Wayne performance — an aspect that gives not only hope, but excitement at the thought of his continued presence in this universe.

And the other guy? After this film he might be in need of a course correction. Superman’s depiction in Man of Steel was refreshing: a conflicted savior figure trying to find his place in this world. Here, he’s just kind of … there, while everyone reacts to his presence. This really is more of a Batman movie than anything.

While there’s certainly a notable event that happens to the character here, Batman v Superman feels like a missed opportunity for Superman to evolve into a richer character, whereas he instead seems intent here to out-gloom Batman.

Speaking of gloom, let’s talk tone. Batman v Superman is dark. Like “why are children in this theater?” dark. Manslaughter, destruction, suicide bombs, philosophical discussions on religion and power — it’s heavy stuff.

That’s legitimately a great thing.

Superhero movies are allowed to explore more weighty concepts and should be encouraged to do so. That doesn’t make the movie “no fun,” unless you’ve been conditioned by a constant stream of comic book movies that abandon dramatic heft.

What’s understandably more divisive is the handling of the material. Snyder is not one for subtlety and Batman v Superman approaches the story with aggressive bravado. But the movie’s immense scope and serious attitude aren’t unwarranted. These are two of our most iconic figures in culture meeting on screen; this is like a modern-day opera with all the high emotions and sound and fury that can be mustered.

What can actually be integrated in the universe’s approach going forward is the concept of “dark, not mean.” Snyder seems to revel a little too much in pushing heroes towards non-heroic acts (not to mention just general cruelty) in a way that doesn’t seem genuine to the world.

We see the characters here at low points — Batman growing more vicious in his crusade from loss and Superman embattled on all sides for trying to do what he feels is the right thing — but don’t get the sense that they’ve entirely set themselves on a more righteous track by the end.

Woman Woman, meanwhile, doesn’t need any adjustment because everything is great with her. The set-up for a solo film looks promising, even if her introduction is all part of the studio’s grand universe-building plan.

A little less clear is how Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor will factor moving forward, as the actor’s fresh take on the character was an odd, sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing change of pace from the darkness of the rest of the movie.

While the concept of moving forward in a franchise shouldn’t be the main thing to talk about for a film itself, that’s kind of the point with Batman v Superman.

Essentially a set-up for bigger things to come, Batman v Superman squanders some of its potential as a great stand-alone film but makes up for it with strong internal elements that are at least thought-provoking, and at most engaging that should continue to pay off.

After all, it’s a franchise world and we’re just living in it.

7/10

 

GOOSEBUMPS REVIEW

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As one character reminds us in the film, Goosebumps was not a book series you read to your kids to get them to sleep; rather, it was one to keep them awake from fright. The bestselling book series for kids, as well as the television series based on the books, burst onto the scene in the ’90s and introduced an entire new generation to the wonders of horror.

As someone who holds R.L. Stine’s series in a special, nostalgic place, the prospect of a Goosebumps film seemed interesting enough, though not without its obstacles and expectations.

The resulting film takes the interesting approach of ditching the anthology approach — something that worked great for the show but wouldn’t translate for cinema — and placing Stine as a character trying to fix the chaos after his creations are released and run amok. While the movie benefits from a game cast, a memorable monster or two, and more terrific music work from Danny Elfman, Goosebumps is also brought down by an abscess of atmosphere regarding its fright factor.

The movie may be self-aware about the series’ ability to haunt kids’ dreams, but the Goosebumps movie itself just isn’t that scary for any age. Instead of going for chills and fright, the team behind Goosebumps is more interested in making a light romp with its horror elements that can be easily digested for minimal fuss.

Maybe I’m just a woefully out of touch old coot (at least in relation to how old Goosebumps is) but I distinctly remember Goosebumps being… well, frightening. Spine-tingling. Hair-raising. Full of danger and sinister twists. Cheesy and dated as it may be, even the ’90s TV show had some striking imagery to get under kids skin. These are things the movie just isn’t.

It’s a totally fascinating social statement how this new Goosebumps caters to a new generation of kids, aiming more towards the zippy comedy and thrills made popular by brands like Marvel instead of the spookiness of old. But, to be fair, the movie seems completely poised to reel in a new age of fans. As a family adventure that just happens to be lightly tinged with terror, Goosebumps is a successful family flick that can competently entertain on a baseline level for unfamiliar audiences. And that’s a good thing, yes?

Jack Black, Jillian Bell, and the remaining cast seem to genuinely be having fun with the Jumanji treatment of Stine’s material. Director Rob Letterman is perfectly comfortable letting Black do his over-the-top mugging and the actor’s dedication to being an anti-social creep in the role actually works in the movie’s favor.

The other aspect of production that breathes real life into the film is Danny Elfman’s score. Either Danny Elfman was born to write for Goosebumps or, more accurately, Goosebumps is a ripe property for Elfman’s musical voice. Whichever you prefer. The renowned composer’s sound here harkens back to his early work with Tim Burton and fits this iteration like a glove covering an outstretched claw.

If the human cast and Elfman’s music are two instances of character in the film, the third has to be the presence of Slappy the Dummy. The most-well known Goosebumps villain, Slappy is really the only character from the books afforded any charisma or personality at all. Voiced also by Jack Black, the Dummy with a chip on his shoulder is practically a perfect translation from his smarmy literary self.

Beyond that, all the monsters we see in the movie — including lawn gnomes, ghouls, the abominable snowman of Pasadena and the werewolf of fever swamp — are all just bargain bin CGI placeholders that show up to wreak havoc [That giant praying mantis from “A Shocker on Shock Street” wasn’t messing around though. Man…].

This all goes back to the workmanlike approach to the film. The horror elements  get downplayed to make room for frantic chases, when a little more style in the filmmaking and charisma in the monsters could have meant all the difference.

Will kids like Goosebumps? In all likelihood and their parents probably won’t mind it either. Was this Goosebumps purist satisfied? Meh, in a few regards, but I wish there was more to like. Did I forget to mention the amazing end credits that pay homage to Tim Jacobus’ amazing artwork for the books? Clearly. Will there be a sequel? With how much it made on such little budget, most definitely, and hopefully it will make bigger strides to live up to the mantle of Goosebumps.

5/10

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

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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