THE FOUNDER

In The Founder, a severely watered-down The Social Network or There Will Be Blood paired with mass-produced fast food, Michael Keaton does a decent job in playing Ray Kroc, the ambitious man who ushered the McDonald’s brand into a world of blockbuster success, though at the end of the day his performance is nothing all that memorable and comes with a curious, oft-slurred accent that makes me wonder how anyone was ever able to understand what the real Kroc was saying at any given time.  The lack of chemistry he and the rest of the cast have with one another only further solidifies the film’s average quality-Laura Dern as Kroc’s wife Ethel brings little to the table, though Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch give their McDonald brother characters individually defining traits (Offerman eschews Ron Swanson-esque stoic-ness, while Lynch is slightly more playful in a vain attempt to try and claw his way back into prominent films).  Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini as husband-and-wife McDonald’s franchisees do what they can with the material they’re given, and B.  J.  Novak, returning to the Hancock camp following 2013’s drab Saving Mr.  Banks, tries to give his tiny role a bit of gee-whiz ‘50s energy but ultimately ends up coming off as Ryan Howard all over again.  Plus, let it be said that Nick Offerman without facial hair doesn’t work well at all.

One might expect more from director John Lee Hancock, although to be honest I have personally never truly loved any of his films, which also includes the supremely run-of-the-mill 2002 sports effort The Rookie and 2009’s overrated The Blind Side.  However, it is disappointing to know that Robert Siegel, the writer of 2008’s outstanding The Wrestler and who also directed 2010’s Big Fan, scripted The Founder-the man can, and has done, much better.  If anything, this film should serve to make one realize how terrible of a person Ray Kroc was, and may even dissuade future visits to any of the many restaurants he helped develop into the culinary mainstay they are today.

Overall, the quality in terms of Filmmaking 101 isn’t terrible, but that still doesn’t mean The Founder is a great movie.  See it if you will.  Much like a trip to a real McDonald’s, it’ll be out of your system soon.

WAR DOGS

Todd Phillips, several years removed from directorial duties on the third, exhaustive final entry in his Hangover trilogy, has brought about a film that tries to take a semi-serious stab at topical events with mixed results.  In something of a transition from comedy to drama-comedy that mirrors director Adam McKay’s work a year earlier on The Big Short, Phillips has created something that does attempt to distance itself from his previous work and, though it succeeds in some ways, can’t help but still feel awash in shades of the crude humor trademark of his filmography up to this point. 

But that’s only one issue.  There are many others.

The true story of two ambitious twentysomething arms dealers played by Miles Teller & Jonah Hill, War Dogs is a fairly straightforward look at their less-than-scrupulous business activities filled with enough two-man backstabbing, blackmailing and the like to make any fan of 2010’s similarly-themed The Social Network at least somewhat interested.  Unfortunately, though neither actor delivers particularly bad performances, neither actor seems to commit 100% to their respective roles as well, which is a disappointment considering their pedigree in recent Oscar nominated entries over the past few years (Hill in 2011’s Moneyball and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Teller with Whiplash).  Hill, in particular, gives his character an unusual laugh and seems to be adopting characteristics stolen from his Wolf of Wall Street lead Leonardo DiCaprio, as the drug-fueled head of the weapons company he and Teller establish.  The film even features scenes seemingly lifted directly from the DiCaprio masterpiece, such as a moment where Hill fires an innocent employee at his arms company in an explosive fit of rage.  He probably exists as the film’s antagonist, and at least in that regard he’s somewhat decent.  Teller largely phones in his portrayal, and a generic subplot involving dishonesty towards his family with regards to his profession seems both cliché and slightly out of place.  At least both actors know how to shoot angry looks towards one another, which Phillips uses to his advantage numerous times.  I suppose most of these shortcomings can be blamed on the dull screenplay, also co-written by Phillips himself, but even an invested cast member will know how to take a lackluster script and do their best.  It is here that talent is born, but ultimately Phillips seems content to let the two leads do what they wish before the cameras without so much as a suggestion of how to make their scenes even a bit more compelling.

On a more positive note, the soundtrack is quite good, if a bit scattershot at times in a pseudo-Suicide Squad sort of way.  Furthermore, Bradley Cooper, who also helped produce the film and returns to the Phillips camp following his star-making turn in the aforementioned Hangover saga, somehow manages to play a legendary dealer who assists our intrepid leads in their biggest deal yet quite effortlessly, once again putting that trademark Cooper charm on full display while giving his character enough of an edge to throw audiences off somewhat in terms of line delivery and the manner with which he carries his character in his interactions, usually involving Teller.  He’s smooth, terrifying, sympathetic and absolutely the most interesting character in the film.  Shots of various international locales look excellent and are infused with the right amount of hoo-rah patriotism, even if I highly doubt any of those scenes were filmed on location.  The movie even has an interesting ending, proving that War Dogs does get better as it goes along, but not by much.

Though I commend Todd Phillips for something of an about-face in the wake of The Hangover Part III, and though War Dogs is a step in the right direction, it is ultimately a small one.  However, I feel there’s still good work left in him-his focus should be not only on tighter writing going forward, but also a cast that genuinely seem to want to be on set, something which The Hangover trilogy surprisingly seemed to have in abundance.  I can recommend War Dogs for a one-time viewing or as something to watch if nothing else seems interesting, but even then one might be better off watching any number of documentaries on the actual figures portrayed in this film.  It is interesting to note that the real individual Teller plays has a cameo early in the film playing guitar and singing at a nursing home-oddly enough, he looks to be having a great time, and when you compare the joy in his brief appearance to the rest of the downtrodden cast, that’s just plain sad.

Sigh.

LIVE BY NIGHT

Right off the bat, full disclosure-I can’t begin to describe to you the premise of this film.  Obviously, this is not a good thing in any way.

It’s a shame, because on paper Ben Affleck’s mob epic Live By Night had all the ingredients that could have potentially produced an outstanding piece of art.  Mr.  Affleck, back behind the camera following successful directorial efforts including 2010’s The Town and 2012’s Oscar-winning Argo, also starred in and adapted the screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the man who, among other works, wrote the book upon which Argo was based.  Furthermore, on a personal level I’ll always appreciate a well-crafted mob film, from more recent classics like 1990’s outstanding Martin Scorsese masterpiece Goodfellas, 1997’s Donnie Brasco & even AMC's docuseries The Making of the Mob, while the 1920s/1930s-era Prohibition setting, also present in 1987’s incredible The Untouchables, just so happens to be one of my favorite historical eras.

So, where exactly did Live By Night go wrong?  Nearly every element of this film suffers greatly at one point or another, especially when it comes to the script, which truly can’t decide what type of movie this should be.  Gangsters, family issues, betrayal, revenge, bootleggers-all things that could have potentially come together successfully end up working instead on a level reserved for oil & water, burying one another along with components like a soundtrack I believe was present somewhere in the mix but doesn’t stand out in any way.  Twists in the "story" fail to pack the punch they should possess, largely due to an overall “story” that fails to build a crescendo as all great movies should.  It even has a surprisingly tearful, somewhat out-of-place Road to Perdition-esque ending, one which only adds to the overall confusion of this ridiculous film.

The cast, despite overflowing with promise, is another tremendous letdown, especially considering the talent involved-every individual may be given brief flashes of greatness from time to time, but those moments are fleeting and quickly return said individual to the bland, underwhelming soup they occupy for the reminder of the film.  Ben Affleck spends the majority of Live By Night wearing a sullen look on his heavily made up face while sauntering around in ill-fitting period suits, though Chris Messina as his sidekick fares a bit better by bringing some much-needed levity to his character’s lines.  Zoe Saldana & Sienna Miller sport less-than-convincing accents and a complete lack of chemistry as Affleck’s lovers, Chris Cooper phones in another gravelly performance as some sort of cop who assists Affleck in his criminal empire, and Elle Fanning as Cooper’s daughter goes from innocent to something reminiscent of Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, a strange portrayal that teeters somewhere between watchable & wildly overdramatic.  Luckily, her eventual transition into that of a broken woman, one that bookends her character’s arc, may very well be one of Live By Night’s better scenes.  Furthermore, though small roles are handled by Scott Eastwood, frequent Affleck collaborator Titus Welliver, Clark “It’s Very Difficult For Me To Play A Character That Isn’t Agent Coulson” Gregg & a forgettable appearance by Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s father, seeing ‘80s icons like Anthony Michael Hall & even Doogie Howser’s buddy Max Casella as an orange-eating greaseball bring about a vision of the casting director throwing darts at a list of has-beens with a maniacal cackle escaping his crusty lips.  He too is confused.

That all said, the movie isn’t a complete loss-gunfights are executed well, and the set work/cinematography is phenomenal, nailing the intended atmosphere in a similar manner as 2009’s also-disappointing Public Enemies was able to achieve.  However, even these technical components aren’t anywhere close to saving what should have been a home run for Ben Affleck, armed with more credibility, money and studio backing in the wake of the previous successes the man has helmed.

It’s been mentioned that Live By Night could mark the death of the mob film, and I have to wonder if that may be true.  As I left the AMC Mayfair on a chilly Monday night in January of 2017, I couldn’t help but immediately feel a complete lack of interest in future output from the genre, along with a sense of sorrow for Affleck following a rough year for the actor kicked off by the widely reviled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I have to hope that the remainder of 2017 treats him better, what with the presumably also-Affleck-heavy Justice League in the studio’s pipeline, but if that film suffers from the same script & cast issues as Live By Night, it will naturally be regarded in comparable fashion-forgettable and bad, though to truly use the word bad would be to describe a film I could, at the very least, understand enough to label as such.

In the case of Live By Night, I could not.

LA LA LAND

Upon reaching high school, I was excited to find myself heavily involved in theatre, an activity in which I had thought about engaging for years and one that would become a large focus of mine until graduation.  Though I considered returning to the stage in the time that followed, I never truly did follow through and eventually shifted my passion more towards music-nevertheless, my appreciation for the medium never faded, especially when it came to the art form that is the stage musical.

Growing up, the films of Walt Disney were staples of the Farvour household, during which time I developed an interest in the classic Disney songbook present in nearly every piece of their early-to-mid 20th century animated output.  As I aged into my teens, names like Andrew Lloyd Webber became familiar thanks to titles such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera & Cats (a family favorite), while Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story & the great Fiddler on The Roof not only captured my attention in their own right, but also served as the music my high school’s marching band used as part of our field shows my junior & sophomore years, respectively.  Meanwhile, the acclaimed duo that was Rodgers and Hammerstein began to latch onto that part of the brain one uses when appreciating theatre, especially during my senior year when I was cast in our production of Oklahoma!  and sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel at my senior year baccalaureate.  Even after high school I found more musicals I grew to love, such as Chicago, Moulin Rouge, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Once, Les Miserables and The Producers, among others.

With this appetite for musicals firmly embedded within my persona, I was excited to learn of a new, original entry into the genre known as La La Land that was to be released in late 2016 from Damien Chazelle, the director of the mighty Whiplash.  As a percussionist, I devoured Whiplash, appreciating it for its intensity, outstanding performances and stellar jazz soundtrack, and to learn that the man who helmed one of the best movies of the past few years would be bringing La La Land to screens only served to whet my appetite further.  A musical from the genius behind Whiplash, with songs written by Whiplash’s Justin Hurwitz, starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone in their third pairing following 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and 2013’s Gangster Squad?  I couldn’t wait. 

Pre-release buzz surrounding La La Land was nothing short of incredible, with many touting it as one of the best films in years and a potentially major contender during awards season.  Trailers presented a colorful, upbeat throwback to musicals of old, recalling the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and even non-musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with a taste of the appropriately retro-sounding soundtrack that gave a vintage feel to a story set in the present.  Now fully confident that this film could in no way disappoint, I eagerly entered the Marcus North Shore on the final day of 2016 to take in what I believed would be a masterpiece.

Did it live up to the hype, as well as my own lofty expectations?  Without a doubt, it did indeed.

The premise is simple, as timeless as the genre into which it fits, set in Los Angeles and revolving around Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, & Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz aficionado with the goal of one day owning a nightclub.  When a turn of events brings them together, sparks predictably fly and the plot progresses naturally into the romantic/following-your-dreams storyline that’s consistently been a hallmark of so many films throughout history, both musical and otherwise.  Both Stone & Gosling offer equally outstanding performances, whether they’re singing individually or onscreen as a duo, and the well-acted time in between musical numbers helps drive the movie forward while still providing plenty of opportunities for each actor to shine.  Stone’s natural charisma and powerful voice are a pleasure to behold, while Gosling channels the great leading men of old with a husky baritone best heard on songs like the low-key “City of Stars”.  The two play off each other extremely well, with each sickeningly cute moment thankfully knowing when to rein it in before drowning in a sea of annoyance, usually helped by a classic dance best seen during the adorable “A Lovely Night”.   Supporting roles are handled well, with Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sarcastic sister, Whiplash’s show-stealer J.  K.  Simmons in a brief near-cameo as the owner of a club who fires Sebastian early in the film, and, in a slightly disappointing appearance, Finn Wittrock occupying mere minutes of screen time as Mia’s boyfriend Greg, something that unfortunately wastes this fantastic actor’s talents following his unexpectedly great performance in last year’s The Big Short.  R&B singer John Legend even manages to hold his own as the frontman of a pop band intent on recruiting the traditionalist Sebastian, although his signature song, “Start A Fire, “ may be one of the more out-of-place, and thus weaker, moments of the film.

Yes, La La Land isn’t perfect, even if one were to overlook Legend’s contribution-the pacing does suffer from time to time, yet it always knows when to pick up speed again, due in no small part to the high-energy music that peppers the soundtrack.  The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” is a spirited one-take ensemble song-and-dance on a crowded L.  A.   freeway, with the following song, “Someone in the Crowd” following suit in similarly lively fashion.  A dreamy dance between Mia & Sebastian set at Griffith Park Observatory is surrealistic fun, and Gosling’s piano work throughout the film dances between animated and melancholy, the latter being particularly present in his recurring, “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” that frames the story.  Stone even gets her moment in the spotlight, with the powerful, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, and that ending…what an ending. 

La La Land can be seen as a film version of Gosling’s Sebastian-a movie that loves the past but must embrace the future in order to adapt and succeed.  It’s an affectionate tribute to the glory days of film, rich in wonderful performances, Chazelle’s direction and the beautiful music of Justin Hurwitz that help to trump any shortcomings in the story.  One can only wonder when La La Land will find its way to the stage like so many adapted film musicals that came before, as well as how many choir students will utilize one of Mia’s solos in their audition for the spring musical.  Until then, all we have is this film, a reminder that looking back isn’t such a bad thing, as I did while watching the events of La La Land unfold.  A perfect addition to the world of musicals, I’m happy to call it one of my favorites, and though I can’t say if I’ll ever take to the stage again, by watching this film, I felt like I just did.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

It should, in all likelihood, surprise absolutely no one that the very first Western I ever laid eyes on was, naturally, Back to the Future Part III.  A fanboy of the sci-fi trilogy since day one, I highly enjoyed the film, but also came to appreciate the style & photography of the Western setting which, when coupled with the brief Billy the Kid sequence in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, would serve as a foundation for future films I would later see set in The Old West.  Ignoring the obvious fact that both movies involved time travel, I immediately found myself a fan of the Western genre, even when it came in the form of an overlooked sequel to An American Tail.

Antoine Fuqua has enjoyed a career spanning nearly two decades as a director, with an arc that’s ranged from successful to underrated thanks to titles such as 2001’s outstanding Training Day, the irresistibly fun 2013 Die Hard clone Olympus Has Fallen, and last year’s gritty, emotional Southpaw.  One again paired with Denzel Washington, the man who received the Oscar for Best Actor thanks to his performance in Training Day, Fuqua has brought to screens a remake of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai.  The story of Rose Creek, a small town threatened by a ruthless prospector, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his minions, Fuqua’s remake follows Denzel Washington’s bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a mysterious lawman hired by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) to exact revenge on the aforementioned baddies who are both responsible for the cold blooded murder of her husband as well as the decimation of Rose Creek, a town that sits atop a vast deposit of gold.  To assist in his efforts, Chisolm sets about recruiting a team of n’er-do-wells who just might possess the gunslinging skills necessary to defend Rose Creek, one that includes, among others, gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), former fellow bounty hunter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), and tracker Jack Hume (Vincent D’Onofrio). 

Where The Magnificent Seven succeeds is in the look of the film, and the incredible soundtrack.  Every gunfight, especially the final climactic battle, builds nicely to a skillfully edited collection of shots, a scene where the titular Seven train the townspeople to defend themselves delivers some nice levity, and the breathtaking landscapes & dusty towns that would fit in nicely with any classic Western are accompanied by James Horner’s final score before his untimely death last year.  One of my favorite composers since youth, I was immensely saddened by his passing, but also pleased to learn that his final work would see the light of day posthumously-in this case, he wrote the music for Fuqua and presented it to the director as a gift not long before the plane crash that would take his life.  The soundtrack he provides for the film echoes much of his previous work-his trademark Field of Dreams-esque layered strings & The Rocketeer-esque horns are full of emotion, a faraway trumpet recalls Battle Beyond the Stars, a snare drum reminds us of Apollo 13 and the closing number is an incredibly fitting epitaph for a great man.  The original Magnificent Seven theme is present throughout the entire score as well, whether in the form of some thunderous percussion, as a quick motif layered on top of whatever music happens to be playing at the moment, or during the credits.

Where the film fails is, unfortunately, in nearly every other area.  The script and cast fail to complement one another, despite the talent involved-an opening scene at a church in Rose Creek is filled with unnecessarily shouted lines that would be more at home in a high school level performance of The Crucible than a high-profile Hollywood production.  Badly written dialogue clogs up the screenplay, the occasional stabs at humor are short-lived, and characters uttering expository lines find their way, sometimes via unintentionally hilarious means, into the background of certain scenes as well.  Speaking of hilarity, one is bound to find shades of funny in the exaggerated manner that numerous characters die, or simultaneously be confused by the hard-to-follow scenes where the team is assembled.  Furthermore, any moments of action are book-ended by endless stretches of boring, needlessly drawn-out plot development that comes off more as a time to use the restroom than a time to be paying attention.  The main characters themselves are all clichés we’ve seen many, many times over-the shadowy Man In Black (Washington), the sleazy rogue (Pratt), the slickster with a shady past (Hawke), and some of the character introductions are a bit botched as well, with D’Onofrio’s taking the gold medal in a bizarre scene that sees him lumbering towards the men who left him for dead, spouting off gibberish in a costume akin to Santa Claus following a visit to The Alamo.  Each character also gets a backstory, some of which are vague at best and others of which are held off being revealed until the last possible minute.  It all plays like an old-timey Suicide Squad, complete with scenes where the characters use self-deprecating verbiage to describe themselves while staring blankly at one another before walking menacingly in a straight line towards the camera.  All that’s missing is a beam of energy shooting up towards the heavens, though that could be metaphorically compared to the now-lost potential of this film, rising up from the streets of Rose Creek in an effort to escape this dreadful mess. 

Circling back to the cast, it’s a shame to see such outstanding actors waste their abilities on such a lackluster film, or it could simply be a lack of trying on their part-either way, the film reeks of disappointment in this regard, with Haley Bennett the standout as the broken, revenge-happy Emma Cullen in a role that’s reminiscent of Hailee Steinfeld’s in 2010’s True Grit.  Peter Sarsgaard, an actor I’ve appreciated since his underrated performance as Charles “Chuck” Lane in 2003’s Shattered Glass, plays the handlebar-mustachioed bad guy as full of the now-overused bland villainous formula as possible, one again proving that, despite the caliber of his abilities, this role along with his confusing take on Hector Hammond in 2011’s ridiculous Green Lantern, seemingly prove that he simply can’t play convincing enemies very well.  Plus, although Manuel Garcia-Rulfo attempts to hold his own as team member Vasquez, his efforts are negated by Ethan Hawke, essentially playing a pastiche of his role in 1998’s The Newton Boys, though it is nice to see him back alongside his Training Day co-star Washington.

It’s hard to recommend a movie with such cast and writing issues, but the cinematography, fight scenes and James Horner’s work do help.  I still wouldn’t suggest going out of one’s way to see The Magnificent Seven, and would absolutely point in the direction of iTunes to take in Horner’s score independent of the film itself.

Magnificent, it most certainly is not.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

As long as I live, I will never be able to fully understate the importance of the Star Wars franchise when it comes to filmdom as whole.  Even as a child, watching as my parents obtained a VHS copy of A New Hope from the video rental section of a suburban Pick ‘n Save, I knew I was in for something special, and found myself somehow already aware that my viewing of this epic later that evening would have an life-long impression on my impressionable soul.  However, this was not my first true exposure to the seminal sci-fi saga, as that came thanks to Return of the Jedi, which a relative had taped off HBO and thrown onto a videocassette that I would watch religiously as the years went by.  Nevertheless, my viewing of A New Hope that night helped to officially kick off my interest in the trilogy as a whole-now, the events of Jedi made a bit more sense.

As one would expect, to fill in the obvious story gaps I would eventually need to see the middle film, The Empire Strikes Back, which was also finally seen thanks to another recorded version taped off network television.  Strangely, this masterpiece didn’t make much of an impact on me at the time, and wouldn’t for a number of years.  Maybe it was the training scenes on Dagobah, maybe it was the political overtones present in places like Cloud City, maybe it was simply my love for the first and third films at the time-A New Hope always struck me as a perfect adventure, while Jedi comes off as the Die Hard of the original series, with an excellent opening sequence involving the superb Jabba the Hutt and later scenes set on Endor with the still-misunderstood Ewoks.  Simply put, these were two undeniably fun movies with just the right amount of mythology and relationship building that set them apart from similar franchises such as Star Trek-for a big budget trilogy of films, Star Wars always felt somewhat intimate, even as spacecraft flew pass the camera in the blink of an eye or when the mighty Death Star appeared onscreen.  At least Empire began with those legendary scenes on Hoth and ended with that emotional lightsaber duel between hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) & main villain Darth Vader, one that would be reprised in Jedi.  And no, the big reveal of Skywalker’s lineage wasn’t a surprise at all.  It had been spoiled countless times over by then.

Luckily, the release of the Special Editions in early 1997 not only gave me a chance to see all three original titles in theaters, but also helped me to truly appreciate the full scope of the trilogy, even with all the newly added scenes and upgraded special effects.  Unfortunately, the good vibes following my viewing of said Special Editions would be shattered two years later with the release of The Phantom Menace, the first of three prequels meant to explain the events leading up to A New Hope and give some backstory to Anakin Skywalker, the man who would become Darth Vader.  A CG-heavy effort with useless side characters (I’m looking squarely at you, Jar Jar), a dull primary cast and the few decent moments, like the pod race & final lightsaber duel with Darth Maul, far overshadowed by a murky plot set the tone for the second & third installments, 2002’s Attack of the Clones & 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.  Despite valiant efforts by Liam Neeson, Samuel L.  Jackson & Ewan McGregor-the latter portraying a perfectly respectable Obi-Wan Kenobi-and the overall tone becoming much darker as the series progressed, I can’t say I particularly cared much at all for the prequels, and haven’t taken the time to watch any again since first laying eyes upon them all those years ago.

As the years following Revenge of the Sith went by, I would often find myself wondering from time to time what, if anything, would happen to the franchise going forward.  Sure, television (and briefly theaters) saw the animated Clone Wars & Rebels series’ experience some kid-friendly success, but would theaters ever see a new live-action entry at some point?  I will admit to having my own idea for a sequel to the original trilogy, entitled The Balance of The Force, which had a terrible premise.  It’s best left untold.

In late 2012, when George Lucas, the man who created Star Wars and was now looked upon quite unpleasantly following the prequel misfires, let go of parent company Lucasfilm and turned the reins over to Disney, the announcement was made almost immediately that new live-action films would be entering production shortly, with J.  J.   Abrams handing directorial duties on the first such entry, eventually titled The Force Awakens.  For a man who rescued the aging Star Trek franchise with his 2009 reboot, Abrams seemed like the perfect choice to save Star Wars from the damage done by the ridiculous prequel trilogy.  Every trailer seemed to present a nostalgic film that combined the old with the new-cast members from the original trilogy matched wits with a group of fresh-faced newbies, while the overall look seemed to be relying more on practical effects and a story that echoed A New Hope.  Released in December of 2015, The Force Awakens was a critical & commercial smash, officially breathing new life into a series of films that badly needed it and reinvigorating interest overall in these beloved, but still somewhat forgotten characters.  Truly, this was a Star Wars film for all-a thrill ride for kids, a nostalgic trip for adults, a joy to behold.

Now, it was around the time that the second trailer was released for The Force Awakens that a brief, mysterious video was shown at the annual Star Wars Celebration in the spring of 2015.  A surprise reveal to the audience in attendance, the clip was set on an unknown planet, and after a few moments of the camera moving throughout a lush interstellar landscape with voiceover accompaniment by the late Sir Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan, panned up to reveal the Death Star on the horizon.  This would become the first true look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in a series of spin-off films set within the Star Wars universe and, in this case, meant to tell the tale of the rebels who stole the plans for the space station referenced in the opening crawl of A New Hope.  Following this tantalizing tease, little was known about Rogue One for some time, with the exception of casting announcements, the occasional publicity photo and the appointing of Gareth Edwards (2010’s Monsters, 2014’s dreadful Godzilla remake) as director.  Fortunately, not long after The Force Awakens’ success, a full trailer was finally released in the spring of 2016, one that, much like our early looks at The Force Awakens, showcased a film seemingly devoid of Lucas’ trademark CG-fests and emphasizing more grit than one might expect.  Further trailers continued to present the film as such, building excitement and teasing a possible return of a certain bad guy, however it was also revealed that Rogue One would, with only months until its release, undergo several weeks of reshoots following some allegedly disastrous early screenings.  As a result, additional screenwriters were enlisted to try their hand at fixing any errors, while score composer Alexandre Desplat withdrew from the project entirely due to his schedule being unable to accommodate the additional shooting.  Thankfully, Hollywood’s go-to soundtrack guy Michael Giacchino was quickly hired to replace Desplat, and now the only job left was to reassure fans that, despite the seemingly bad buzz, Rogue One would still turn out just fine.

Did it?

To answer that question, I do have something lengthy to say.

What I will respond with is that every so often, a movie comes along that serves to captivate in ways never thought possible.  Such films exist on a level beyond entertainment, and while they may not reach the level that causes oneself to think differently about the world around them, as was the case with a movie like Arrival, those same films still possess the power to inspire, as well as remind us why we love the medium in the first place.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of those films.

Everything about this movie is nearly perfect, from the flawless casting, to the exceptional effects, to the writing, which clearly was helped by the recent rewrites and is only bolstered by the easy-to-follow pacing, undoubtedly another outcome of the reshoot process.  While one might wonder what the original form of Rogue One might have looked like or if Desplat’s unreleased score benefited said version, those details hardly matter now, as this truly is a film for Star Wars purists as much as The Force Awakens.  Giacchino does an excellent job emulating John Williams’ iconic soundtrack-Rogue One sees him bringing in enough cues from the primary saga and reminding audiences why he’s such a talent at updating legendary film music, especially after his work on Star Trek and last year’s Jurassic World, in which he performed a similar feat in taking the musical wheel from Williams.  Forget his largely unmemorable work on last month’s Doctor Strange-this is absolutely his finest work of the year.

The cast is incredible, showcasing a diverse group of actors with a compelling female lead in Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a young woman charged with the task of finding her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a lead engineer in the construction of the Death Star and who may possess a way of stopping it.  As Erso, Jones exudes toughness, but along with Mikkelsen, in a role that thankfully redeems him following his bland villain in Doctor Strange, both know how to deliver emotion and a compelling father-daughter relationship.  The ragtag group of Rebels enlisted to assist Jyn is also finely cast as well, with the standouts being Diego Luna as Rebel officer Cassian Andor and Forest Whitaker in yet another performance this year that sees him sporting a bizarre accent, one that fortunately works better this time around.  Alan Tudyk provides the voice for K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid who delivers some excellent lines and is absolutely this film’s BB-8, while Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, an Imperial weapons director, portrays a baddie with some actual intimidation and the capability of producing genuine fear both onscreen as much as throughout a captive theater audience.  Finally, the much-anticipated return of Darth Vader is handled well, with the beloved James Earl Jones again giving Vader his welcome mechanical, breathy baritone, and several cameos only assist in driving the nostalgic flavor through the roof.

Stylistically, Rogue One looks excellent, in many ways far more akin to the original trilogy than The Force Awakens, the latter of which succeeded in many ways but never felt more like an extension of the good ol’ days than this one.  Practical effects are pushed to the forefront, while the CG is used appropriately, whether the action takes place on any number of interesting planets, in a space battle reminiscent of A New Hope, or even when gazing upon the Death Star itself, loving recreated down to the most minute detail for Rogue One.  Greig Fraser’s cinematography is top-notch, reflecting a world ravaged by the Empire, one that contains a slew of Easter Eggs fans will love tracking down.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a wonderful film, a perfect addition to the Star Wars theatrical universe and a true achievement in all aspects of casting, writing, visual effects & music.  It absolutely casts A New Hope in a slightly different, yet still exciting light, and never for a moment did I want the adventure to end.  Many times throughout the film I found myself with a smile that wouldn’t leave, and more than a few tears as well-to feel like a child again, watching those movies with eyes full of wonder, is a beautiful thing, one I was happy to experience again.  With further sequels and spin-offs on the horizon, it’s safe to say that the Star Wars story will continue for some time, and if the quality of future installments are anywhere close to Rogue One, I can remain comfortable in knowing that the feelings of childhood will remain forever close to my heart, in a place that can be found a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

ARRIVAL

When one sets aside the time to enjoy a film, be it at the theater or in the comfort of your own home, the end goal is, invariably, to be entertained.  Good or bad, exciting or not, a film is meant to serve as an escape from reality, a two-to-three hour journey that, upon the inevitable conclusion, allows one to easily transition back to the process of our daily lives as if the film had never existed.

When a film goes beyond that, venturing into the oft-risky landscape of the thinking filmgoer, a film transcends that of a mere escape and becomes something more-an experience, an adventure, a part of the filmgoer that shapes a moment in time and affects, even in the smallest of ways, how they think.  Directors such as Christopher Nolan have ventured into the realm of thoughtful sci-fi with films like 2014’s Interstellar, and while Arrival may on the outset be viewed as something of a spiritual cousin to said film, all comparisons end as Arrival begins.

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang called Story of Your Life, I knew little about Arrival in the time leading up to its late 2016 release outside of a few intriguing trailers and nearly unanimous praise from the fortunate few who had been lucky to see it as the year went on.  This, however, is probably the best possible way to go into Arrival-no other film exists as a better example of maintaining unbiased expectations than this one.  Arrival’s premise may seem somewhat basic when it comes to science fiction-when a number of alien spacecraft suddenly appear around the planet, it’s up to one of the world’s leading linguists (Amy Adams) along with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) to establish a means of communication so as to learn as much as possible about why these visitors have come so suddenly and their motives going forward.  Along the way, our leads must deal with the hot-and-cold cooperation of the military, the government, and other nations, all of whom are also attempting to kickoff first contact in the safest way possible.

Director Denis Villeneuve has been churning out mid-budget works of art over the past several years, most notably 2013’s phenomenal Prisoners and last year’s Sicario, but with Arrival his career hits a significant moment, with a well-written, well-directed film that flows along nicely and which compels the audience to pay attention in a way that never feels forced.  Johann Johannsson’s score is a character itself, dancing effortlessly between ethereal and eerie, while Bradford Young’s cinematography give the movie an atmospheric sensation appropriately benefiting the subject manner.  Plus, for a movie with minimal special effects, primarily reserved for the appearance of the spacecraft and aliens themselves, all look excellent, probably some of the finest depictions captured on film yet.

When it comes to the cast, Villeneuve has brought out captivating performances in all, with Adams leading the charge in a portrayal packed with feeling.  Renner holds his own alongside her perfectly, with Forest Whitaker as an Army Colonel who, despite possessing a slightly bizarre accent, makes the most of his character while knowing when to step back and turn the reins over to Adams and Renner.  Even Michael Stuhlbarg, in a role as an anxious government agent which could be considered the villain, appropriately plays the part, never allowing it to get out of control or go too far over the top.

This may be a somewhat shorter review, but let me assure you there is no better way to watch Arrival than with as little knowledge of what to expect as possible.  It’s a movie that succeeds in every way, one with some unexpected moments and a crescendo of emotion that brought about more than a few tears as the credits began to roll.

If ever there was a defining entry into the world of film, it truly has arrived.

DOCTOR STRANGE

Who exactly is this guy?

I’ll admit, it was initially difficult to muster the excitement even the most amateur of armchair Marvel fans should possess in the time leading up to the release of Doctor Strange, the latest offering from Marvel Studios and the umpteenth entry in the vast, interconnected Cinematic Universe kicked off by 2008’s Iron Man and, prior to Strange, most recently seen in blockbuster fashion thanks to this year’s Captain America: Civil War.  Sure, the trailers looked decent and the cast was promising, but much like the dud that was this year’s Suicide Squad, I went into Doctor Strange with hardly any pre-existing knowledge of the character’s backstory & a very neutral anticipation level of what I was about to see.

Was that a good thing?  I’m honestly not sure.  

The story pays tribute to the slew of superhero origin stories that precede it, with the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Stephen Strange, a cocky, egotistical, wealthy (sound familiar?) neurosurgeon who, following a car accident that renders him unable to continue in the practice of medicine, finds himself travelling the world in search of any cure for his ailment, eventually coming into contact with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and sidekick Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  Thanks to their tutelage, Strange not only learns the ways of the mystic arts, but finds himself in a battle with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an outcast bent on world domination through the unlocking of the Dark Dimension and relationship with the evil Dormammu…now I’m confusing myself.

Once again, Marvel has brought to life a fairly generic story wrapped in a bevy of beautiful special effects, one that deserves to be seen in 3-D (despite the fact that the oft-intense visuals during the fight scenes may honestly cause a bit of a headache).  The cast, especially Swinton and Ejiofor, perform well, followed somewhat by Cumberbatch, who seems to struggle with his American accent and can’t help but play a caricature of Robert Downey, Jr. ‘s Tony Stark for the most part.  Smaller roles are filled aptly by Benjamin Bratt & Benedict Wong, while Rachel McAdams as the obligatory love interest joins the pantheon of Great Actresses Cast In Dull Parts In Marvel Films and Mads Mikkelsen similarly rounds out the unfortunately lengthy list of Talented Actors Playing Disappointing Marvel Villains.  There’s no other way to say it-in the case of both individuals, a tremendous amount of talent is wasted, with McAdams having been given a generic role that wastes her Oscar nominated talent and Mikkelsen bringing to life yet another villain that has much in common with nearly every underwhelming baddie in the past almost-decade of Marvel films and never once reaches the levels of filmdom’s greatest foes, such as Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight or even Tom Hiddleston’s engaging Loki, arguably a bright spot on a roster of dismal rogues.  It doesn’t even match up to his turn as James Bonds’ nemesis Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale.  Oddly enough, one of the best characters ends up being the sentient cloak Strange dons during a battle with Kaecilius, which is both nerdishly fun and simultaneously disappointing with regards to the rest of the cast-when a CG piece of clothing out acts the man who played Hannibal Lecter, that’s a problem.

Nevertheless, director Scott Derrickson seems to be trying his best, and Michael Giacchino provides a score that deftly compliments the action despite being loaded with (un)intentional cues to his previous work.  The script unfortunately bogs itself down in loads of terminology specific to the comic, which is to be expected, and makes every effort to stand on its own two feet while connecting to the larger MCU as a whole-yes, they discuss Infinity Stones, and yes, I’m starting to not care about what are beginning to amount to nothing more than exaggerated MacGuffins.  Fortunately, future adventures are set up in two post credits scenes, the first of which may honestly be better than much of Doctor Strange.

Fans of the MCU should probably give the film a view, but even if the time isn’t set aside to watch Doctor Strange you’re not missing much.  See it for an acceptable cast, excellent special effects, a passable score and a film that’s technically sound overall.  Don’t see it for everything else.

Strange…that’s a good way to describe it.

SNOWDEN

There’s no question that Oliver Stone’s career as a director has found itself littered with debate thanks to the largely one-sided, politically-laced output seen in such films as 1991’s JFK, 2008’s W., and 1995’s Nixon.  While I’m not here to agree or disagree with the viewpoint(s) found throughout much of his filmography, I can say that Snowden fits in nicely with his overall body of work thus far.

The cast is fine, with such names as Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans and even wacky ol’ Nicolas Cage giving their all to some decent supporting roles.  As the title character, Joseph Gordon-Levitt again proves why he’s one of the industry’s paramount talents (even if the baritone timbre he gives his character’s voice sounds somewhat odd), and with Shailene Woodley alongside him as his girlfriend Lindsay, the two inhabit their parts with all the care and ease one would expect from Hollywood’s best.  The script, though oftentimes a bit too dogmatic & loaded with State Department jargon, moves along nicely, and Stone’s direction in general flows without much issue, though audience interest does tend to ebb & flow somewhat, especially when the script decides to attempt to sound overly intelligent, which doesn’t always work.  However, he does somehow manage to give this controversial film a strangely positive ending, which actually does work.

In summary, a satisfactory film, not without its flaws, one that’s boosted by an acceptable cast.  Much like our country’s relationship with the real Edward Snowden, I never need to see it again.

SULLY

Although I didn’t grow up a fan of Clint Eastwood (the first time I even heard his name was, honestly, as a joke in the latter two films of the Back to the Future trilogy), I was at the very least aware of his pedigree & stature amongst the acting world’s elite, and as I aged into adulthood I soon realized he encompassed far more than a gunslinger from the Dollars trilogy & The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as his gritty turn as Dirty Harry.  Upon discovering his accomplishments as a director, I found myself easing into a casual viewing of said efforts, quickly realizing that movies like 1992’s Unforgiven were highly uninteresting and 1997’s Absolute Power didn’t interest me at all.  Luckily, the dawn of the millennium brought films like 2003’s Mystic River & 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, both of which I enjoyed and served to establish a directing style that would remain present in his films from then on (more on that later).  Though I never could bring myself to watch 2008’s Changeling or Gran Torino, and 2010’s unusual Hereafter along with 2011’s terrible J.  Edgar failed to capture my attention, 2009’s Invictus injected some much-needed energy into the director’s output, while 2014 gave audiences the one-two punch of the (in my opinion) fantastic Jersey Boys & American Sniper.

Continuing his biopic trend is his latest work, Sully, a quick, 96-minute look at Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the now-infamous former pilot who, nearly eight years ago, successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River following a mid-air bird strike that decimated both engines shortly after takeoff.  Though his actions saved 155 lives & widely branded the man a hero, Sully presents that same man coping with the effects of PTSD, as well as an inquisitive NTSB attempting to determine if the intrepid captain was correct in his decision to ditch in the water without trying to land at any nearby airport.  If found to have demonstrated pilot error, both Sully’s reputation-and career-would effectively end.

Anyone who knows the full story will know that the NTSB angle presented in Sully isn’t entirely true, but rather exists as an attempt by Eastwood to create something of a villain for the film, extend the runtime and further flesh out the story from a conventional, Dateline NBC-esque tale of a dramatic emergency landing.  Speaking of dramatics, though the well-written script does contain sporadic moments that attempt to convey real emotion, such as a part when an overwhelmed hotel manager embraces Sully immediately following the incident, some (like the latter) come off as cheap, and though said script also tosses out some light humor so as to elevate the mood from time to time, it tends to fall a tad flat, including a scene when a makeup artist touching up Sully during a media interview gushes to him about the fact that her mother is single.  Cute, but ultimately unnecessary.

Furthermore, few of Eastwood’s films since, say, Mystic River, serve as excellent examples of his now-signature style more clearly than Sully-once again, what Sully presents the audience with is a washed out-looking movie that seemingly feels unfinished.  The grey color scheme is extremely pronounced, the score is almost nonexistent, and no amount of stellar acting can improve these elements.  For some reason, this is simply how Clint Eastwood likes his movies to appear.

Luckily, Eastwood picked a mostly-respectable cast for this average film, with the reliable Tom Hanks inhabiting the title role seamlessly, though one might wonder how many other qualified actors could have played the part just as well.  Aaron Eckhart again proves how easily he can fill out a supporting cast as Sully’s First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, while Laura Linney, as Sully’s beleaguered wife Lorraine, mainly exists to have tense conversations over the phone with our hero while pacing about her kitchen.  At least Michael Rapport’s here, briefly showing up as a bartender with a Fuggedaboutit accent no one could do better.

Overall, Sully manages to balance out the good and the bad-for every weak moment, there’s one that succeeds, and the plane crash sequence itself, which we see from two slightly different perspectives, is handled admirably, with realistic effects and an appropriate amount of tension.  Though the NTSB “bad guy” plot may come off as somewhat inaccurate and ultimately run-of-the-mill, I suppose I can forgive Eastwood for the sake of a slightly longer film and stronger story, even if that may come at the cost of some directorial integrity.  In many ways, Sully can be seen as a spiritual cousin to Robert Zemeckis’ 2012 Denzel Washington-helmed Flight, a highly underrated film with a highly similar premise.

Worth a viewing?  Sure, why not.  Make Sully proud.  Make Clint Eastwood happy.  Or just watch Flight.  At least it’s less grey.

DEEPWATER HORIZON

The genre of disaster movie is one that goes back decades, from ‘70s-era classics such as Airport (and its sequels), The Poseidon AdventureEarthquake & The Towering Inferno to mid-‘90s thrillers such as Daylight (a personal favorite), Dante’s PeakVolcanoDeep Impact & Armageddon to more recent efforts, like a lazily-named 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure called, simply, Poseidon.  It was pretty good.  Fergie was in it.

Though recent years haven’t seen many films of this ilk grace the silver screen, Deepwater Horizon gives the genre a much-needed boost, thanks to a variety of elements and a true story background that hasn’t been seen on this scale (for the most part) since the mighty Titanic decimated the box office nearly twenty years ago.  Deepwater Horizon tells the story of the titular oil rig that suffered a catastrophic explosion in 2010, one which resulted in a number of deaths and single-handedly kicked off the horrific BP oil spill which devastated the Gulf of Mexico, as well as most of the surrounding landmasses.  With an ensemble cast, a wealth of special effects and direction from Peter Berg (2013’s Lone Survivor, 2012’s BattleshipFriday Night Lights), this is a film that clearly did its homework, both on the event itself and the rules for how to craft a suspenseful disaster film.

The cast works well, with the reliable Mark Wahlberg playing real-life hero Mike Williams and once more bringing his Everyman persona to the role.  Kurt Russell equally shines as Jimmy “Mr.  Jimmy” Harrell, a supervisor on the rig who largely finds himself partnered with Williams following the disaster, and a fine supporting cast including Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee & Kate Hudson as Williams’ wife Felicia all perform marvelously.  Even John Malkovich & Brad Leland as the Big Bad BP Executives take roles which would normally be quite cliché-ridden, add a healthy amount of Classic Movie Villains, and ham it up in a way that actually benefits the film overall, assisting the growing (literal) tension & making the genre proud.  The only negative mark comes from the sheer abundance of characters at times-while all are based on real people, the film lacks enough of a runtime to devote enough development to each. 

From a technical standpoint, Deepwater Horizon is as good as it gets-the special effects, especially during the climactic eruption, look spectacular.  Make no mistake-if there was one film to see in a large-format theater, i.e. IMAX, this would be it.  When things start to go bad, the volume skyrockets, fully immersing oneself in the situation presented onscreen-needless to say, rarely do I feel like a movie has drawn me in the way this film easily accomplished.  Furthermore, when the cast arrives on the rig near the beginning of the film, Berg’s placement of the ever-present sounds of machinery in the background helps to draw the audience in as well, and nicely establishes a sinister crescendo to the big moment.  Unfortunately, these traits do bury Steve Jablonsky’s score somewhat, but in a way, it actually works-without a constant soundtrack at times, it only adds to the realism.

Peter Berg has recently mentioned how, going forward, he’d like to focus on adapting true stories to film, particularly following Lone Survivor and with the upcoming Patriots Day seemingly operating from the Deepwater Horizon playbook in terms of look, tone and overall feel.  That being said, his last two efforts clearly showcase the growth of his skills, and I eagerly anticipate his projects going forward.  Unlike the genre that encompasses it, Deepwater Horizon is far from a disaster.

I SAW THE LIGHT

Have you seen the acclaimed 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line

Ever thought what it might be like had the director of a movie about the inventor of the windshield wiper botched the formula used in Walk the Line in an attempt to document the career of late country music pioneer Hank Williams? 

Has it crossed your mind what Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen do when they’re not off making Marvel blockbusters? 

Are you able to sit through approximately a half hour of confusing, tedious, badly edited scenes before emitting an exhaustive sigh at the fact that an hour and a half still remain?

I suppose, then, if the answer to all these questions is yes, then I Saw The Light is for you.

Not for me.  End of review.

SUICIDE SQUAD

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Poor, poor DC.

As someone who’s always rooted for DC’s cinematic ventures since Tim Burton first introduced us to a new take on Batman in 1989’s Batman, even as Marvel continues to churn out hit after massive hit, I suppose I’m somewhat predisposed to root for every film they release, no matter what property it may be they’re trying to adapt.  It’s hard to completely look away from a company that brought us the mighty Dark Knight trilogy, and when it comes to my feelings regarding the polarizing 2013 actioner Man of Steel or this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’ll always tend to land on the positive end of the critical spectrum.  That’s just how I roll.

When I first heard several years ago that DC was taking the anti-hero team known as Suicide Squad and bringing them to the big screen under the direction of David Ayer (Fury, Sabotage, End of Watch), I was intrigued, but certainly nowhere near as excited as I had been for anything the studio had released previously.  Not only did I possess no prior knowledge of the history of these characters, but with a Justice League movie in the works at the time and two Avengers films already having dominated the box office, was yet another ensemble-based movie about superpowered humans, let alone villains, really necessary at this time?  Nevertheless, I continued to follow news about the film as time went by, especially as names like Will Smith and Margot Robbie were soon announced as cast members-arguably, however, the biggest news came from the casting of Jared Leto as legendary bad guy the Joker, the first actor to take up the mantle of such a provocative character on the silver screen since Heath Ledger’s brilliant, career-defining version in 2008’s The Dark Knight.  Despite some early photos which troublingly showed a Joker sporting a full mouth of silvery, shiny teeth, slicked-back green hair and a torso loaded with bizarre tattoos, a trailer which premiered at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2015 not only seemed to indicate that Leto’s Joker just might work, but that Suicide Squad would, overall, be a violent, appropriately dark movie befitting of the titular characters.

From there, things got interesting.  Further trailers began to adopt a lighter, comedic tone, usually set to some bombastic classic rock tune, which when coupled with rumors of reshoots meant to lighten the vibe of the film now gave the impression that, in the wake of many critics’ complaints about Batman v Superman’s dreary tone and disappointing box office returns, Suicide Squad would be a very different, hopefully saving grace for DC’s troubled motion picture division.  Much to the displeasure of many, the first wave of early reviews in the days leading up to release on August 5th, 2016 were overwhelmingly harsh, focusing on the quality of the characters, the story and the overall manner in which the film was directed.

Do I agree with these sentiments?  Is it truly as bad as everyone says?  Much like Mikey, here are my pros and cons.

Pros:

The cast.  Will Smith as sharpshooter Deadshot looks like he’s finally having fun again onscreen, with a character he effortlessly inhabits and in many ways brings about a persona highly reminiscent of a younger, vibrant Smith.  Margot Robbie as psychotic Joker squeeze Harley Quinn completely owns her character as well, and Jared Leto’s limited screen time (more on that later), luckily isn’t wasted thanks to a performance that pays tribute to all the fine actors that have adopted the mantle prior to him.  Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joel Kinnaman & even the usually-disappointing Jai Courtney all do what they can with El Diablo, Killer Croc, Rick Flag & Captain Boomerang, respectively, all occupying their roles with few flaws while still allowing for a great deal of natural charisma to shine through.  Even Karen Fukuhara as Katana makes the most of her part, despite a squeezed-in appearance at the last minute of the obligatory team introduction sequence.  Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, the woman in charge of assembling the titular Squad, does her best to bring a fair amount of intensity to the Squad’s ringleader, and a few side characters also work to the films benefit as well, with Ike Barinholtz producing some chuckles in his role as a prison security guard, Stranger Things’ David Harbour doing the most with his few lines & a couple cameos from some Justice League members that are just brief enough to tantalizingly tease us as to how next year’s full-length Justice League motion picture might play out.

Cons:

The editing & writing.  The aforementioned clashing between Ayer’s dark vision and Warner Bros.’ desire for something more lighthearted clearly had an impact on the look & feel of Suicide Squad, with the film overall possessing a feeling of two very different movies combined into one.  As a result, one scene might be drastically different from the one that follows it, and unfortunately helps Suicide Squad to not make much sense at various points, thus symbolically taking any semblance of any preexisting script & firmly tossing it out the production room window.  Furthermore, the expository dialogue that occupies the majority of Suicide Squad‘s dismal scenes feels awkward, forced and another example of a studio trying to turn a film with a very specific tone into something else.

The music.  Steven Price’s score isn’t too bad-nothing special, but nothing terrible, either.  It’s the soundtrack, however, that fails on many levels, thanks to literally dozens of musical cues scattered throughout the film-in the first few minutes of the film, for example, every character is introduced with a different song, and while the songs themselves aren’t the problem, it’s the frequency, the overuse and the slipshod manner in which Suicide Squad’s sound editor squeezed each piece into the film that ruins what could have been a pretty decently-used collection of excellent tunes.

Certain cast members.  Most of Suicide Squad‘s cast works well-hence, why they’re the film’s only true saving grace-but a few members unfortunately stand out as completely rotten apples on a tree of otherwise decent performances.  Cara Delevingne, for example, falls flat on her face as Dr.  June Moone, an archaeologist possessed by the spirit of the sinister Enchantress and, in doing so, cementing her status as quite possibly the worst villain in DC film history.  Amateurish line delivery, a lack of an intimidating presence onscreen and apparent confusion on how to play her part to even the slightest degree of quality all make for a rather disastrous portrayal.  Conversely, her brother Incubus looks much better and is a far more threatening/interesting villain overall.  That, however, isn’t saying much.

The cinematography.  It’s funny, but for a film that the studio attempted to retool into a brighter product dissimilar from its predecessors, Suicide Squad still looks pretty dark, with characters broodily walking from place to place and that DC tendency to place all the action in the rain at night.  Oh, and about those all-too-brief moments of action?  They’re honestly pretty boring.  Toss in some average special effects (why does every big-budget film lately need to revolve around a giant beam of energy as a key plot device?) and it’s safe to say that Suicide Squad looks indistinguishable from every other overhyped blockbuster you’ve seen this summer.

The Joker.  Look, Leto’s fine.  Just fine.  However, his limited amount of screen time is hardly deserving of giving him top billing on the cast list, and makes one wonder if the film needed him at all.  Yes, I’ve heard the rumors about the copious amount of Joker footage cut from the film, but until said footage makes its way to us film buffs, I’ll just have to wait and see.

As one can see, the bad far outweighs the good and stands as an example of how too many cooks can ruin the stew.  I would, however, be very eager to see Ayer’s original version of the film-time will tell if a director’s cut will eventually see the light of day.  If so, one can only hope that this cut will help to smooth out the jagged gouges in a film with such potential, which I believe to be more than possible as the majority of Suicide Squad’s problems were far more on the technical side-simply even out the scenes, establish some consistency, scale back the soundtrack and let the actors shine.  With any luck, this will also fix the film’s ending, which sends Suicide Squad out with a whimper as opposed to a bang. 

And if none of these things happen, no big deal.  For the rest of us, life goes on, but for DC, the troubled studio may now officially be on life support.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

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If one were to take a look at the enduring, perennial category of lackluster, second-rate summer movies that inhabits roughly every summer in some capacity since the dawn of the medium, it would be easy to place most of this summer’s offerings into this group, with a slew of disappointing high-profile sequels, reboots & an ill-advised Tarzan adaptation clogging up theaters and eating up the hard earned dollar of many a weary audience member.  Films like Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows not only kicked off the season with an brazen wave of unpleasant cinema, but served as a dreadful indicator of what the next several months had in store.

Unfortunately, yet another addition to this list is the lazily-named, three-years-too-late Now You See Me 2.  A follow-up to 2013’s Now You See Me, a film I actually really enjoyed (despite a somewhat sloppy ending), the premise of this theatrical misfire grabs many familiar elements from the original so as to try and create a worthy successor, with our intrepid team of illusionists known as The Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo and new addition Lizzy Caplan, replacing Isla Fisher) trying to navigate their way through their lives as fugitives following the events of Now You See Me while attempting to figure out their next move as new members of the cryptic secret society The Eye.  When the group is forced on the lam once again following a surprise public performance gone wrong, they soon find themselves charged with the task of utilizing their sleight-of-hand skills to steal a powerful computer chip for a wealthy technology magnate (Daniel Radcliffe).  Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are back as the devious men the Horsemen helped expose for all their transgressions in the original, and Harrelson even takes a crack at his best Parent Trap impression by playing his own character’s twin brother as well.

However, it’s from this point in the plot that things get tremendously confusing, with each scene worse than the last and eventually leading to a conclusion that fails to end the film with the satisfaction one should receive following the end of the downright exhaustive experience that is Now You See Me 2.  It’s really just a big mess, one that even I can’t quite describe and certainly not one that ends up entertaining in ways that many bad movies tend to be.  Average director Jon M. Chu, best known for a few Step Up entries and a Justin Bieber concert film, takes the reins from Louis Leterrier, while hit-or-miss producers Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci are back to try and make sense of the disaster that encapsulates Now You See Me 2’s overlong 129 minute runtime.  Daniel Radcliffe is actually the best part of the cast, sporting some decidedly non-Harry Potter facial hair & an appropriately two-faced persona as the film’s villain that again shows his excellent range & potential for even better work outside of films about renegade magicians.  Although I’ll always have a soft spot for the promising Dave Franco, his performance is as bland as his fellow Horsemen, with Lizzy Caplan trying desperately-and failing-to be some sort of comedic standout, and Mark Ruffalo seemingly killing time between last year’s Oscar-winning Spotlight and next year’s Thor: Ragnarok.  Woody Harrelson’s irritating dual performance complete fails mainly due to his utilization of a ridiculous wig, gigantic white teeth and an eccentricity in his twin that tries to be silly but ends up grating, while Morgan Freeman continues to solidify his late-career success as Morgan Freeman Delivering Mysterious Lines In A Morgan Freeman Voice.

But it’s that premise that truly compliments the poor acting in ways that would make legendary B-movie schlockmeister Roger Corman proud.  For a movie about magic, there’s very little of it to be seen, with most of the film instead relying on the heist our Horsemen are recruited into and enough twisty double-crossing to turn the film into a red-headed stepchild of Ocean’s Eleven.  An opening sequence that attempts to give Ruffalo’s character some backstory is honestly quite bad, largely due to the overacting child actor who plays young Ruffalo, and a recurring plot involving Ruffalo’s deceased magician father & the still-baffling Eye society comes off as puzzling, unnecessary &, with all the garbage on top of it, hard to follow.  At least the rousing score, again crafted by returning composer Brian Tyler, keeps things moving along, though even that’s not saying much when Now You See Me 2 is the filmic equivalent of someone stumbling around in the dark looking for a switch labeled, “Quality Filmmaking”.

Oh, and when asked about the budding romance between Franco and Caplan's characters, don't be surprised.  I didn't pick up on it, either.

Unfortunately, due to decent box office returns, it’s to be expected that a third, presumably final, entry will eventually materialize to complete a needless trilogy and remind us why Now You See Me never needed sequels in the first place.  Both films do leave a variety of questions unanswered, and any time a film does that it’s always a risky endeavor, as it’s ensuring that further films will soon follow to answer said questions-never a good thing (I’m looking at you, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Instead of trying to stand on its own feet as a decent film, Now You See Me 2 attempts to rehash much of what made the original a damn fun time, while also moving the story forward and setting up future adventures all at once.  In other sequels, this usually works, even if only slightly, but thanks to bad acting, a terrible screenplay and an assembly line-esque directing style, Now You See Me 2 is one movie that lacks the magic any great sequel, let alone movie, should have, and by the wave of a real magician’s hand, should truly just disappear.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

The Secret Life of Pets is the latest release from Illumination, the film studio that unleashed the incomprehensible plague known as Minions upon society via two Despicable Me entries in 2010 and 2013, along with their own eponymous one-joke spinoff last summer.  While plenty of moments in Despicable Me & its sequel brought an honest smile to my weathered jowls, the spinoff was an irritating mess, one that didn’t even appeal to the kid in me and, yet, managed to become one of the highest grossing films of all time.  Illumination, clearly recognizing the value of their crown jewel, has once again enlisted Chris Renaud, director of all three films, along with writers Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, for The Secret Life of Pets, a strange movie that, not surprisingly, places the yellow creatures in unnecessary cameos throughout the film and, in many ways, can be seen as a spiritual follow-up to Minions.  However, The Secret Life of Pets owes a substantial amount of credit to Disney animated classics such as Toy Story & comedic legends like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as much as Illumination’s prior efforts-that being said, does this make for an entertaining, well-written, watchable and, simply put, good film?

The truth is, I don’t think so.  If you’ve seen the trailer that first introduced us to The Secret Life of Pets almost a year ago, you’ll find that this hilarious clip constitutes only a few minutes of the film-in said trailer, we’re subjected to brief scenes of what pets do when their owners leave for the day, clearly catering to the, “secret life” angle referred to in the title.  Indeed, this promising trailer is reminiscent of some of Zootopia’s early marketing-one may recall the still-funny, “Sloth” trailer that kicked off that film’s promotional blitz and in no way served as an accurate representation of what Zootopia was actually about.  To a lesser extent, that same phenomenon has occurred here-all further trailers went on to showcase The Secret Life of Pets’ actual premise, which sees Max, a terrier voiced by Louis C.K., who’s been enjoying a happy existence living in New York City with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until the unwelcome Duke (Eric Stonestreet), another orphaned dog, enters their lives.  Thus, an Odd Couple-esque scenario quickly materializes, one that eventually sees Max & Duke separated from their fellow animal friends (featuring, among others, Lake Bell as an overweight cat named Chloe and Parks and Recreation’s Jenny Slate as a Pomeranian named Gidget), captured by Animal Control, encountering an underground society of lost pets led by the deranged rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) and, in the tradition of every great after-school special from days gone by, learning a little something about themselves in the process.

Yes, the premise is as by-the-numbers as animated films get, with a deceiving title to make one wonder why it wasn’t referred to instead as Max & Duke: Lost In New York, Max & Duke’s Day Out or A Variety Of Housepets On Some Sort Of Adventure.  As a result, what could have been a potentially sidesplitting film about what our animal companions actually do behind closed doors becomes something we’ve seen in probably every animated film up to this point, a film where the jokes, sadly, are scattershot and the moments of action are nothing special.  Luckily, the animation, while run-of-the-mill for the most part, is acceptable, and the voice acting is quite decent-Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart do their best watered-down versions of themselves in portraying Max & Snowball, respectively, while Jenny Slate provides Gidget with a good amount of pep and the beloved Dana Carvey imports some of his standup background to give his character Pops, an elderly basset hound, some of the best lines in the entire movie.  Oh, and Albert Brooks, fresh off Finding Dory, voices a hawk named Tiberius, and whomever played the guinea pig is now my new favorite person.  Nice job.

Unfortunately, many of the scenes that connect the fine voice work together are not only cliché, but sometimes a bit confusing-a sequence where Max & Duke find themselves in a sausage factory, whereupon consumption of said items results in bizarre hallucinations, comes off as a perplexingly out-of-place scene, while Duke has moments that touch upon his background and still somehow raise a great deal of unanswered questions than one might expect.  There’s even a few parts that seem to oddly borrow liberally from, once again, Finding Dory…keep your eyes open for the bus scene.  I’m serious.

I would say that the writing moves the film along, and indeed there are a few jokes that work well-aside from Dana Carvey, Kevin Hart produces a few giggles thanks to a minor plot involving a fallen friend-but these brief moments along with the talented cast are vastly overshadowed by uninteresting parts that either seem lifted from animation history or feel out-of-place altogether.  It’s not a bad movie, it’s just nothing special-in hindsight, it’s probably pretty harmless, with the exception of all the parts involving animals talking about killing humans...yeah…there’s that.

Maybe this movie is worth a viewing, maybe not.  There’s clearly an audience for The Secret Life of Pets, as the film has met with enough critical and commercial success to warrant a sequel, and I just may be in the minority, much like Zootopia.  While the cast keeps the momentum moving right along, too many missed opportunities for consistent humor, too many boring scenes, shoddy writing overall and the realization that the characters could easily be replaced by Minions make for yet another forgettable entry in the space between Pixar’s most recent offering and the latest Ice Age sequel.  I didn’t care for it, and that’s no secret.

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

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Ghostbusters.

Is it possible for a film from one’s childhood to be ruined?

In the unneeded opinion of this scruffy critic, the short answer would be probably.  Following a film’s release, it’s a natural tendency of us humans to poke holes as time goes by in such areas as plot structure, character dynamics and cinematography, and when a film one grew up with receives a sequel or remake, it can either be viewed as an exciting continuation of a beloved story or a half-hearted cash grab no one wanted.  I, for example, happily spent my early years a die-hard fan of the first three Indiana Jones films, however the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May of 2008 unfortunately did cause me to now look back on the original trilogy with a bit of disappointment.  After all these years, we got THIS?

To encapsulate my thoughts about the Ghostbusters franchise, and the film that started it all, is a series of blog postings in and of themselves, postings that may never truly come to fruition thanks to the potentially long-winded, drawn-out, rambling length that would no doubt surface.  To summarize as best I can, Ghostbusters helped define my childhood and still remains an important film to me, a perfect mix of comedy and science fiction in which I still find new things to chuckle at as time goes by.  The 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters 2, is an underrated classic, while the Real Ghostbusters animated series (and subsequent Kenner line of toys) gave me something to do after school and something to look forward to on birthdays & Christmas.  Few moments compare to the sensation of unwrapping the Fire House Headquarters or the Ecto-1, and to learn that these toys now command obscene prices on eBay only serves to make me a little more upset that I didn’t hide these toys away in some proprietary hermetic vault like the nostalgic scoundrel I am.

A third Ghostbusters film has been in the works since the early 1990s, one that always seemed to carry a premise revolving around the original four Ghostbusters handing the reins over to a newer, younger team of recruits.  A list of actors including Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and even Emma Stone were all rumored at various points to fill out the roster of new ‘Busters, with the main villain once written as a demonic, Donald Trump-like character (how fitting that would be nowadays), a setting that took place in a hellish version of New York City and all sorts of nifty gadgets our heroes could use & eventually turn into toys for which we’d actively go out of our way to obtain.  Unfortunately, said third film has always tended to alternate between, “actively in pre-production” and the dreaded, “development hell”, with writers such as Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg (veterans of The Office) and Etan Cohen all taking a crack at the screenplay from time to time with little to no results.  Although Ivan Reitman remained committed to directing a Ghostbusters 3, and Ghostbusters stars/scribes Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis continued to soldier on with help from outside screenwriters as well as their own ideas for the film’s story, a variety of problems continued to present themselves as truly standing in the way of a proper sequel.

The problems were usually viewed as emanating from Bill Murray, who seemed both unwilling and uninterested in playing the legendary Peter Venkman once more.  Stories would surface about how he would destroy a new draft of the script as soon as he received it, and this alleged behavior coupled with his lackadaisical attitude when asked about his involvement in a third entry seemed to solidify that, should this film move forward, it would be without the franchise’s most memorable character.  While I can’t blame Murray for feeling this way-he certainly isn’t obligated to appear in another sequel, plus his work with Wes Anderson and career-defining role in 2003’s Lost in Translation has only proven he’s a man with an undeniable gift for quirky comedy-it’s hard to imagine Ghostbusters 3 without Venkman.

Nevertheless, Murray was an active member of the cast of 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which brought the entire original cast together-with a few exceptions, such as Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully-and was viewed by many as an unofficial third film, in many ways.  However, the death of Harold Ramis in 2014 seemed to place the final nail in the filmmaking coffin and seemingly cease any and all movement on a proper theatrical sequel-despite talk of Channing Tatum wanting to enlist himself and Chris Pratt as new Ghostbusters recruits for another proposed third film, word spreading about potential new directors at the helm and up-and-coming screenwriters publicly sharing their own ideas for the film’s premise, it would seem that our beloved Men In Grey wouldn’t be embarking on another paranormal adventure.

(I’d like to take a moment to personally thank my mid-to-late ‘90s scrutiny of ancient movie sites like Corona’s Coming Attractions and Dark Horizons for laying the foundation for my Ghostbusters 3 research.  Countless hours of my life spent on my family’s Compaq Presario with a Luxo Jr.-esque desk lamp illuminating my studies has not gone to waste.)

It was in 2014 that Paul Feig entered the picture.  Feig, fresh off directing a string of hits including 2011’s Bridesmaids, 2013’s The Heat and last summer’s Spy, not only seemed to know his way around nostalgic franchises-he had helped produce last fall’s The Peanuts Movie and was the mastermind behind cult classic TV series Freaks and Geeks-but also knew how to bring out excellent comedic performances in women, especially in the aforementioned films.  Bridesmaids, for example, starred Saturday Night Live veteran Kristen Wiig & helped make a bonafide star out of Melissa McCarthy, both of whom delivered hilariously in the 2011 comedy and, while women have been funny in film since the dawn of the medium, Feig’s tendency to consistently place women in his leading comedic roles seemed to serve as a reminder to most that the concept of a hilarious performer who happens to be female was possible.

The idea of a Ghostbusters remake was nothing new-in fact, Reitman had once posed the idea during an interview indicating that it might be a decent option going forward.  Furthermore, it came as no surprise when, upon the announcement that Feig would be directing a new Ghostbusters remake/reboot/sequel, the internet buzzed with incessant chatter about how Feig would more than likely fill the main cast with women, with Wiig and McCarthy at the top of the list.  This was eventually proven to be true, as Feig announced in late 2014 that Wiig and McCarthy would be joined by Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, two other Saturday Night Live cast members, echoing the original’s cast which also contained a number of SNL vets such as Murray and Aykroyd.

As mentioned in my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, rebooting or remaking a franchise is nothing new, and I’m sure many people feel the same way about, say, Robocop-another film that was subject to a recent reboot/remake-as I do about Ghostbusters.  I suppose no film, or film series, is completely off-limits to today’s crop of ambitious directors, but when one of your favorites finally enters this process, one can’t help but feel wary, especially when the director chosen to helm this film makes such a drastic casting change right off the bat.  Mind you, it wasn’t the gender of the main cast that bothered me, but rather Feig’s actions-I’m sure I would have felt the same way if he had announced that the new Ghostbusters were, say, happily riding penny-farthing bicycles instead of a modified ambulance, and that the Ghostbusters themselves were actually aliens.  Feig now struck me as a whiny, temper-tantrum throwing brat jumping around yelling about how, “Women are funny, and this must be emphasized with each film I make”.  It just seemed more and more as though he made this casting choice simply for the sake of making it, which now made me question his motivations, as well as his idea for how this new Ghostbusters would play out.  Feig had now been given control of one of the greatest sci-fi comedy series in history, and in my opinion, he’d better have an outstanding story to back up his cast.

HOWEVER, as the film began production and details began to emerge from the set, it soon became apparent that this might actually be a film worth watching, with Aykroyd himself mentioning how the remake might even be better than the original, and with all original cast members-including Bill Murray-signing on for cameos (with the exception of Moranis, again).  These positive vibes and the reminder of how funny Wiig and McCarthy were together in Bridesmaids caused this GB fanatic to take pause and consider the possibility that this had potential to be a great film…that is, until the release of the new Ghostbusters’ first trailer in the spring of 2016.

Wow, was that dreadful.

With a slew of bad jokes, special effects that looked stolen from any early 2000s-era video game and nothing to suggest that the story would be any different from the 1984 original, these were among the many reasons this trailer became the most disliked trailer in YouTube history, much more so than the fact that there just so happened to be four women were leading the film.  Unfortunately, many online commenters believed the latter was in fact the real reason for the backlash, to the point that Feig once again entered the debate, labelling the fanbase misogynists, with this mentality continuing as the cast hit the press circuit in the months that followed.  To say it was messy is an understatement.  To say it was controversial isn’t even close. 

Things weren’t exactly looking so hot for Paul Feig’s little project-even upon its release in July of 2016, reviews were decidedly mixed, though usually tending to lean in a positive direction.  I knew I’d see this film eventually, despite my own objections, and on July 21, 2016, I did just that.

Much to my surprise, I had a damn good time.

Not surprisingly, the premise is nearly identical to the 1984 original-three washed-up scientists team up with a streetwise New Yorker to rid the city of paranormal activity while investigating a larger, possibly related menace, on the horizon.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy both elicit a few chuckles from time to time (even if McCarthy can't help but pronounce Ghostbuster terminology like, "P. K. E.  Meter" awkwardly at best), but are largely saddled with roles as straightwomen, leaving Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones to pick up the slack in that regard.  I must disagree with the majority of reviews and largely agree with Mike’s that McKinnon’s shtick gets old immediately, and borders on irritating from time to time.  Jones, however, effortlessly garners laughs and plays her part with ease, as does Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters’ dim-witted receptionist Kevin.  And yes, all cameos from the original cast are handled well, some better than others, and keep your eyes open for a quick moment for the late Harold Ramis.  Even an appearance by Andy Garcia as New York City’s mayor along with a few seconds of Ozzy Osbourne at the Ghostbusters’ first big battle are both amusing in their own ways.  While I don’t believe character actor Ed Begley, Jr. or Zach Woods (The Office) brought anything to the film whatsoever, the small parts both play at the beginning are sufficiently performed so as to ensure continued work for both in equally small roles going forward.  Carry on, you wonderfully underappreciated knights of cinema.

McKinnon isn’t the only low point in Ghostbusters’ cast, as Neil Casey, another Saturday Night Live writer, plays the film’s villain, a long-suffering man named Rowan obsessed with the supernatural who’s bent on world domination, not at all unlike Zuul, Gozer or Vigo the Carpathian.  It’s absolutely cliché, and his motivations are fuzzy at best, although Casey himself is acceptable in the role. 

Fans of the original films will be pleased with the amount of Easter Eggs present from start to finish, from the first few ghosts our intrepid team encounters, to the Fire House, to our cherished green ghost Slimer, even if the latter could have benefited more from the practical method in which the beloved character was brought to life back in 1984.  That being said, the special effects overall are actually not too bad-yes, CG is overused, but it could have been worse.  Plus, the scenes of the team firing up their gear and jumping into action are honest-to-God exciting, even if one wonders where exactly the ‘Busters found the time to construct so many different types of Proton Pack or other ghost-catching variants.

Finally, the score is actually pretty rousing-Theodore Shapiro has done a fine job of taking what Elmer Bernstein gave us 32 years ago and creating something all his own, while still including enough throwbacks to the original soundtrack to pleasantly remind us of the music we all grew up with.  Be prepared, however, to hear the Ghostbusters theme song many, many times, in many variations-fortunately, I still love it, so I’m not complaining.

The new Ghostbusters is decent enough, one that takes some time to pick up speed but never slows down once it does.  The jokes are plentiful, the effects look fine, the music appropriately fits the film and any shortcomings in casting or writing are buoyed by another well-placed throwback to the original.  I never thought I’d say this, but I believe it’s worth a purchase once it hits store shelves, and while I don’t believe it to be necessary, I await any potential sequel with far more optimism and-dare I say-excitement than I had for the remake.

My childhood is safe.

STAR TREK BEYOND

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Growing up, I was never a fan of Star Trek. Whether it was the countless films or endless amounts of small-screen programming, Star Trek was never a franchise that grabbed me, nor did I ever once view it in a high regard at all. My sci-fi preferences always leaned in different directions, always away from Star Trek, and although over time I did absorb enough information about the stories, characters & various settings to have a vague understanding of was going on, I never once believed anything would come along to convert me into a die-hard fan.

However, that mentality did eventually change upon the release of 2009’s Star Trek, a reboot of the entire franchise following the underwhelming Next Generation film Nemesis in 2002 and television series Enterprise around that same time as well. As I aged into adulthood, my moviegoing horizons had broadened dramatically, and I was now far more willing to subject myself to films of this ilk more so than the old me of days gone by. Directed by J. J. Abrams, Star Trek started back at the beginning, changing the trajectory of how the Enterprise crew came together and thus giving Abrams the freedom to take the story in whatever direction he pleased-a true reboot, to be sure. With an excellent cast including Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scott, John Cho as Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov and an equally outstanding supporting cast that featured Bruce Greenwood as Kirk’s mentor Captain Pike, Eric Bana as the villainous Romulan Nero, a baby-faced Chris Hemsworth in a brief appearance as Kirk’s father George, enough lens flares to qualify as a supporting character & even Leonard Nimoy reprising his role as the original Spock, Star Trek was a massive hit, and a film I enjoyed thoroughly. Following his success with Lost and Mission: Impossible 3, Abrams provided Star Trek with a hefty amount of action & flawless special effects, while screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman kept the dialogue both snappy & nostalgic and Michael Giacchino composed a thrilling soundtrack that even integrated the original Star Trek theme at one point as well.

It would be another four years before the crew of the Enterprise would take on the Final Frontier once again, and upon the sequel’s release in 2013, Star Trek Into Darkness featured toned-down lens flares & divided audiences, with many seeing it as a ham-fisted remake of 1982’s The Wrath of Khan despite the return of nearly the entire cast and crew from its 2009 predecessor along with Alice Eve, Peter Weller & Benedict Cumberbatch as the film’s bad guy now along for the ride as well. With additional screenwriting help from Abrams collaborator Damon Lindelof, Into Darkness did indeed utilize a number of elements from Wrath of Khan, and although the film wasn’t widely viewed as a worthy follow-up, I still enjoyed it, to the point where I didn’t once believe that another film was necessary.

Predictably, talk soon began to surface regarding yet another entry, this one now rumored to be helmed by Roberto Orci with writing assistance from star Simon Pegg. Although Orci would eventually withdraw from directorial consideration, Pegg continued to script the as-yet-untitled film and Justin Lin, a veteran of four Fast and the Furious films, was now brought in to direct. This announcement, coupled with the release of the disappointing first trailer in late 2015 gave the impression that this new film would essentially be nothing more than a loud, dumb thrill ride with Lin’s arsenal of Fast and the Furious car chase sequences now replaced by spacecraft whizzing by at breakneck speed. I can safely say I also believed the film would turn out this way, and didn’t exactly start counting down the days to its release.

Luckily, early reviews of the now-entitled Star Trek Beyond were highly positive, and I’m happy to report I agree with all of them. This, absolutely, is a movie worth seeing, a film loaded with alien battles, philosophical discussions about mortality, discoveries of ancient Starfleet artifacts and a lot of things flying around onscreen, usually exploding. The film has only tiny elements to connect it with Into Darkness, therefore ensuring that Beyond overall has the feel of just another weekly episode of the original series.

And those are just a few of the reasons why Star Trek Beyond works so well. Along with writing partner Doug Jung, Simon Pegg has written a film that’s as faithful to Star Trek as science fiction as a whole, with enough Simon Pegg-esque comedy that gives the dialogue a great deal of levity while still preserving the serious moments that help make Star Trek the happily complex franchise that it is. While the entire cast again does a fine job, it’s Chris Pine who again gives Kirk all the cockiness and smarm that would make William Shatner proud, while Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as McCoy find themselves paired up throughout much of the film, an unlikely team that actually works extremely well-again, a testament to the writing team of Pegg & Jung, along with outstanding acting by Quinto & Urban. Simon Pegg, naturally, gives himself a healthy amount of funny, though he wisely knows how to balance things out and provide the entire cast with their moments to shine. Furthermore, Sofia Boutella, who last year stole much of the show as Samuel L. Jackson’s deadly henchwoman in Kingman: The Secret Service, does a fine job yet again as Jaylah, an unlikely ally of the Enterprise crew who lost her family at the hands of a maniacal alien named Krall (Idris Elba).

Speaking of Idris Elba, an actor I normally enjoy, he does do an satisfactory job as Krall, but while it’s not a bad performance, I’m not going to be losing any sleep while visions of the dreaded Krall keep me awake. In terms of interchangeable bad guys in sci-fi, Beyond’s villain is as textbook as it gets, with a run-of-the-mill-bent-on-destruction backstory and a vocal delivery that sees him over-enunciating key phrases, usually while shouting, to make them sound more terrifying. Even his appearance looks a bit rubbery, reminding me of Thor: The Dark World’s big bad or a clearance-sale mask from Bartz’s. Overall, not bad, but not great.

Then again, it’s hard to care about things like an average villain when the rest of Star Trek Beyond is as enjoyable a cinematic experience as it gets. Director Justin Lin clearly has an eye for action, and when those moments arrive, they keep going just long enough while at the same time acting as a showcase for a director who knows when to hold back, giving the dramatic moments the weight they deserve. The special effects are as high quality as the last two films, and Michael Giacchino again recycles much of his soundtrack material from those films as well, which is not something to complain about. The theme Giacchino has created for this new Star Trek cinematic universe is rousing, exciting and a worthy successor to the memorable works of James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith, arguably the two most prolific composers in the franchise’s history.

Star Trek Beyond works on many levels, and is another excellent entry as the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary. With three solid films under his belt, J. J. Abrams (his Bad Robot production studio also brought Beyond to screens) has reinvented Star Trek in a manner I never would have thought possible, making it accessible to modern-day filmgoers while still preserving enough components to remind old school fans of what makes this series the science fiction cornerstone that it is. If nothing else, it made a fan out of me, and for that I’m thankful-I already look forward to the next film, the next television series, and beyond, as I continue to boldly go where my moviegoing palate had never gone before.

SING STREET

In 2007, a director named John Carney, former bassist for Irish rock outfit The Frames, brought the world a low-budget indie film called Once.  As I previously elaborated on my old blog MusicBlogFunPartyTime, Once told the story of a budding relationship between two Dublin-based musicians, presented in a pseudo-musical style in which characters would periodically break into song.  These sequences were held together by Once’s almost-romance premise, itself having been filmed in a low-key cinema verite method that felt somewhat like a documentary at times.  With a stunning soundtrack and excellent, natural performances by stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once was a triumph for all involved, a success that eventually garnered Hansard & Irglova an Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song (the hit, “Falling Slowly”), as well as a Grammy nomination that same year for the soundtrack as a whole.

Year later, Carney would again tap into his musical roots for Begin Again, which now saw him armed with a bigger budget, an A-list cast including Mark Ruffalo, Kiera Knightley, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and a setting in New York City.  The story of Gretta (Knightley), a brokenhearted musician, and Dan, the washed up record label head (Ruffalo) who sees success in her, Begin Again owed much to Once, which sees Dan assisting Gretta as she records an album on the streets of NYC whilst learning a few things about himself, as well as his relationship with his estranged wife (Keener) & daughter (Steinfeld).  Begin Again, while nowhere near as memorable as Once, still had a lot to offer, and would frequently redeem any lackluster scenes (usually involving James Corden, playing a just-as-irritating version of himself) with a killer musical performance and/or some great dialogue between Ruffalo & Knightley.  Even Mos Def, as Ruffalo’s record label partner Saul, does a decent job, and much like Once, Begin Again also received an Academy Award nomination in 2015 for Best Original Song (for the Levine penned, “Lost Stars”).  Plus, the score was written by Gregg Alexander-remember him?  He was this guy.

With Sing Street, Carney has returned in many ways to the formula which made Once the outstanding gem that it is, by shifting the setting back to Ireland and again surrounding the love story at its heart with great music.  Set in the 1980s, Sing Street’s premise is simple-in an effort to garner the affections of an orphaned model, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a schoolboy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) decides to assemble a band, Sing Street, so as to have her appear in the group’s debut music video.  In the process, Conor, sporting the nickname, “Cosmo”, discovers a genuine knack for music, an escape from the dissolving marriage of his parents and a release following his aversion to the underwhelming environment of his new school & dictator-like reign of his principal (Don Wycherley). 

With no apparent big names rounding out the cast, Sing Street has only its list of unknown actors & actresses, along with its soundtrack, to drive the film forward, which it accomplishes  in phenomenal fashion.  Although the cinematography and camera work overall is far more polished than that seen in Once, carried over to an extent from Begin Again, the acting once more feels just as natural, even as one attempts to decipher the thick accents present through the film.  Boynton and Walsh-Peelo bring an innocence and earnestness to their performances, while Jack Reynor as Conor’s older, burnout brother Brendan steals every scene he’s in.  I eagerly await any film Reynor appears in next, while Boynton is already rumored to play Iris West in the upcoming film adaptation of DC’s The Flash

The music of Sing Street also appropriately fits the era depicted on screen, a feat accomplished in and of itself by never overwhelming the audience with pop culture references (other than a few welcome mentions of Back to the Future) and thus giving the film a timeless feel.  With a few tastes of Duran Duran, Joe Jackson and Hall & Oates largely kept in the background, the outstanding original tracks are highlighted marvelously, such as the period-perfect, “The Riddle of the Model” and, “Drive It Like You Stole It”, arguably the best song on a soundtrack full of top-notch tunes.

Ultimately, there’s not much more to say about Sing Street-what you’ve read above largely encompasses the film, one that hits many of the same beats as earlier entries in Carney’s filmography.  This, however, is not a bad thing, as Carney has proven himself to have a true talent and a passion for music that influences his films in the best way possible.  By tweaking certain elements, a story that might seem similar to those who have seen Once, Begin Again and now Sing Street feels fresh each time, especially when paired with consistently great soundtracks that both assist their films while standing on their own as great music in their own right.  I’m certain Carney has more brilliant stories to tell, and if they’re anything like what we’ve seen so far, I’ll be there, ready to be captivated once more.

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING

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Once upon a time, a blog briefly made an appearance on the ol’ Information Superhighway© that tried its best to focus on all things music, or to be more exact, the music I specifically enjoyed. That’s right, my first foray into the world of online writing came in the form of MusicBlogFunPartyTime, a WordPress site I attempted to keep afloat through occasional articles about random songs, albums and even films with a music-based premise such as Once, Almost Famous, That Thing You Do! & the mighty This Is Spinal Tap.

At the time, I considered the failed-band-centric Spinal Tap the funniest movie I had ever seen, a distinction it still holds to this day. Done in the “mockumentary” style of filmmaking seen only rarely before in efforts like All You Need Is Cash but which Spinal Tap star Christopher Guest would later use to great effect in later works including Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show & A Mighty Wind, This Is Spinal Tap truly brought the genre to the mainstream and served as a blueprint for countless films that would follow.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is yet another addition to the list, but unlike the lackluster output we’ve seen lately in films such as 2009’s Bruno, Popstar is a well-made jokefest that relies on the entire cast’s natural abilities along with a well-written script and a catchy, hysterical soundtrack. The brainchild of comedy troupe The Lonely Island, who last spearheaded the underrated 2007 comedy Hot Rod, Popstar follows music icon Conner Friel (Andy Samberg, Saturday Night Live veteran and one-third of The Lonely Island, doing his best Justin Bieber), known professionally as Conner4Real, as he attempts to keep his wildly successful career and excessive lifestyle going in the wake of a recently released disastrous album. Simultaneously, his DJ, Owen (Jorma Taccone, another third of The Lonely Island), must also wrestle with his underused talents while trying to orchestrate a reunion between Conner and estranged friend Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer, the final third of The Lonely Island), all of whom being prior members of legendary boy band The Style Boyz.

The Lonely Island cut their teeth creating a series of now-classic digital shorts for Saturday Night Live, and their chemistry again shines in Popstar thanks to the group’s history and effortless writing that makes the 86 minute runtime fly by far quicker than one might like. Rounding out the cast are the stalwart Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager Harry, a less-irritating Sarah Silverman as Conner’s publicist Paula, and a seemingly-endless supply of real-life musician in cameo mode including Seal, various members of The Roots and Arcade Fire, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg, T.I., Usher, 50 Cent, Pink, Pharrell Williams and Nas. They even got Ringo Starr, and see if you’ll be able to spot “Weird Al” Yankovic. He’s there, believe me.

But the roster doesn’t end there, with Emma Stone & Martin Sheen making quick appearances and character actress extraordinaire Joan Cusack as Conner’s mom. Chelsea Peretti, Mike Birbiglia & Will Arnett (who also appeared in Hot Rod) pop up from time to time as spot-on parodies of TMZ paparazzi, Bill Hader (again, also from Hot Rod and SNL) has some all-too-brief funny moments as Conner’s roadie, additional SNL alums Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, the great Kevin Nealon & Jimmy “Of Course He’s In This” Fallon all provide their own humorous tangents and, naturally, the movie wouldn’t feel complete without SNL Digital Short veterans Michael Bolton & Justin Timberlake, the latter of whom obviously exists in Conner as part of his on-screen persona.

There’s not much more to say about Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and the likelihood is that you’ll be able to easily predict the various plot turns as the movie goes by.  That being said, every actor fully commits to their role with unabashed zest, bringing an already-funny screenplay to new life.  It’s a well-made film, one that stands out from the recent crop of disappointing comedies and, while it may not reach the lofty level of This Is Spinal Tap, it strives to get there, and at times nails it, much like Conner’s fictional quest to stay in the spotlight.  Truly, I never wanted Popstar to stop.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

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Sigh.

As was referenced in my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past had a daunting task at hand.  Not only did it need to serve as a suitable sequel to 2011’s excellent X-Men: First Class, it also had to successfully adapt the legendary Days of Future Past comic book story arc and somehow remove from the X-Men movie timeline the actions seen in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, arguably the worst of the series and an uninspiring superhero film overall.  With Bryan Singer now back in the director’s chair after turning the reins over to Brett Ratner for Last Stand & Matthew Vaughn for First Class, Days of Future Past hit theaters in May of 2014 and immediately met with waves of critical acclaim & box office glory, heralded as a triumphant return for Singer to the series that defined him and the format of the modern superhero movie via his fantastic X-Men (2000) & X2 (2003), as well as a great lead-in to X-Men: Apocalypse, the already-in-production follow-up.

Unfortunately, early reviews for Apocalypse were less than stellar, especially considering the bar set by the preceding film, and following this reviewer’s viewing of said film in June of 2016, I unfortunately must agree with the masses.  This is not a very good movie.

Picking up in the period of time following the events of Days of Future Past, the 1980s-set X-Men: Apocalypse revolves around the titular character, an ancient Egyptian mutant (portrayed by Oscar Isaac) feared by some and revered by many, who awakens following a centuries-long slumber bent on, predictably, world domination.  Naturally, it’s up to our friendly neighborhood X-Men to put a stop to him and his followers, a group which includes Olivia Munn as the sword-wielding Psylocke and Alexandra Shipp as a young Storm.  Michael Fassbender is back as the ever-conflicted Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, and in addition to returning X-Men such as James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier/Professor X, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven Darkholme/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver and Lucas Till’s Alex Summers/Havok, Tye Sheridan makes his Marvel debut as Scott Summers/Cyclops along with Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler.

The premise is as rudimentary as they come, with every moment even more foreseeable than the last so as to make one wonder if Jean Grey’s advanced telepathic abilities have somehow transferred to the audience.  The visual & makeup effects always orbit the average zone, with nothing exemplary to speak of and a few scenes, like when entire cities are being destroyed (and, in some instances, rebuilt) and Apocalypse’s overall appearance, looking simply bad.  The screenplay treats the audience to more lazy, sometimes confusing exposition than one might believe was possible, and Singer’s tendency in Apocalypse to present dramatic tension by showing various characters blankly staring into the camera doesn’t make the unnecessarily long 144 runtime go by any quicker.  Truly, this is a rare superhero film I wished would end sooner rather than later.  At least one scene makes good use of Beethoven’s Symphony 7, Opus 91, Movement 2, Allegretto, which gave the end of 2009’s underrated Knowing a nice, ominous tone.

Acting-wise, it’s a mixed, mostly disappointing bag.  Jennifer Lawrence, once again thrust center stage, is decent in a very run-of-the-mill way, as are Lucas Till and Tye Sheridan as the mutant Summers brothers, with Till somewhat better than his on-screen sibling.  Smit-McPhee’s shaky German accent dances around quicker than Nightcrawler’s teleportation skills, as does Alexandra Shipp, who overall portrays Storm in a manner that did not capture my attention at all.  Olivia Munn as the once-promising Psylocke similarly disappoints, with line delivery and fight scenes that teeter towards unremarkable and ensure that Munn’s desire for a Psylocke spin-off will never come to fruition.  Sophie Turner, on the other hand, is actually a respectable Jean Grey, but Singer’s attempts to shoehorn what will likely become the Dark Phoenix saga into Turner’s portrayal comes off as highly unneeded.  Rose Byrne has also returned as the non-mutant/ally Moira MacTaggert, with useless scenes that could have easily found their way into the trash. 

Oh, and there’s a cameo which I won’t spoil, but did succeed in one again putting a black mark on an otherwise excellent character.

However, it’s Oscar Isaac as the eponymous villain Apocalypse who, coming off a string of excellent parts in the recent Inside Llewyn Davis and last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, provides cinema with one of the cheesiest, least-threatening, unintentionally hilarious big bads I’ve ever witnessed.  The ridiculous costume and makeup aside, Isaac is unable to transcend that physical appearance and lumbers around with a baffling voice a child might use when playing with their secondhand X-Men figurines. 

Luckily, as if the audience has now strapped into Professor X’s mutant-finder Cerebro in search of good performances, one can turn to the always-reliable Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, both of whom add just the right amount of weight and emotion to two of comicdom’s most famous characters that easily rivals Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.  Sure, they may induce a few eye rolls here and there, but overall both do a fine job.  Plus, Evan Peters as Quicksilver again is gifted with one of the best scenes in the film, even if his acting ability may still need some work.

As one looks back on the now-sixteen-year old, nine-film strong X-Men franchise, one of the longest-running theatrical superhero chronicles in existence, it’s interesting to see how, despite its missteps (the aforementioned Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the series always manages to find a way to correct its course and come out stronger than before.  By using almost the entire original cast at various points over the duration of its run, X-Men has remained remarkably consistent, and by going back into the past with First Class to see how it all began, seamlessly opened a new door that served as a pseudo-reboot and took things in a new, interesting direction.  Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse stops the positive growth dead in its tracks, doing little to move the series forward, and I must agree with Mike’s assessment wholeheartedly that it’s time Bryan Singer stepped aside-with his announcement that he’ll more than likely be doing just that, one can’t help but look at Apocalypse, despite its many faults, and feel a sense of having come full circle, a feeling that will more than likely continue with the release of a third and final solo Wolverine sequel next year, which will bring Hugh Jackman’s involvement in the X-Men Cinematic Universe to an end.  One might look to the future and wonder where the series might go next, with terms like remake/sequel/prequel as the buzzwords of the moment, but I don’t see any of those as necessary.  I’m increasingly finding myself content with stories coming to a close, and although Deadpool will likely continue operating as its own entity within the timeline, I believe that, with the conclusion of Apocalypse and Wolverine 3, we can safely say goodbye to this world of mutant films, but we know that won’t happen.  It’s a shame, because in the case of this film, X most definitely does not mark the spot.