Saturday, March 31, 2018

[Review] Sherlock Gnomes

I'm not sure if audiences were truly clamoring for a follow-up to 2011's Gnomeo & Juliet, but you know how this thing goes...

After getting moved to a new backyard, garden gnomes Gnomeo & Juliet (voiced by James McAvoy & Emily Blunt) are named leaders of their new digs. But when their fellow garden gnomes suddenly go missing, they're forced to call upon a renowned detective named, yes -- Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp). From there, they embark on an investigation to track down the missing gnomes.

This film isn't so much appallingly bad as it is aggressively banal. It stiffly runs through the motions of a stock rescue mission template -- you could plug in Trolls or Smurfs and it would essentially be the same exact movie. The script is littered with outdated humor that was never really funny in the first place, and the plot is so by-the-numbers that it frankly becomes boring -- to the point where it's just difficult to care about anything that's transpiring on screen. Even the voice performers sound unenthused here, making this faded-paint sequel a forgotten trinket before it even ends.

Sherlock Gnomes? More like Sherlock Gno-thanks!

( 4/10 )

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

[Review] Pacific Rim Uprising

A Pacific Rim sequel? With no Guillermo del Toro as director? This film was destined to be a blockbuster bummer before it even smashed into theaters. But if I'm being generous, Pacific Rim Uprising at least provides a decent amount of goofy popcorn entertainment, even if it profoundly lacks the electric spark and awesome spectacle of its predecessor. The film is like haphazardly prepared leftovers that just aren't as tasty and crispy the second time around. That said, it's still easier to digest than recent counterparts like the Power Rangers reboot and Transformers: The Last Knight.

I'll keep things simple: John Boyega (Star Wars) leads the way here, playing the son of Idris Elba's character, who sacrificed himself at the end of Pacific Rim (in case your memory is foggy). Anyway, he teams up with a crew of trained/training Jaeger pilots, including the likes of Scott Eastwood and Cailee Spaeny to, yes -- beat the living crap out of some colossal monsters... eventually.

A lot of shenanigans and build-up take place before anyone actually pounds a metal fist into a monster, but at least those shenanigans are fairly watchable, especially with eccentric characters like Burn Gorman and Charlie Day on board. The crucial element here is the sense humor. This film never takes itself too seriously, and even with all the big objects and creatures stomping around, the tone is pretty light on its feet, which is a good call for a movie about mind-controlled robots fighting Kaiju that look like a mix between super dinosaurs and mutant cockroaches. There's a ridiculous sequence where John Boyega's Jaeger takes a dive-bomb from the stratosphere, and you just have to go with it.

But even with its bright spots, Pacific Rim Uprising can't help but feel like an unnecessary sequel in the shadow of Guillermo del Toro's gleeful rock'em-sock'em extravaganza. But hey, it's only about an hour and 40 minutes long, so it doesn't feel like a HUGE waste of time... And of course there's a bit of robot fatigue here, but the filmmakers seem to get it. At one point, Charlie Day's character goes "Giant robots? Real original, guys!"

( 5/10 )

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

[Review] A Wrinkle in Time

Based on a book of the same name, Disney and director Ava DuVernay have taken A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen in all its sweeping, ticking, fractured glory. And despite a few weak links that are difficult to get past, the film offers up a fair share of magic and a universal message.

The story revolves around Meg (Storm Reid), a young girl who embarks on a time-traveling, dimension-hopping journey to find her missing scientist father (played by Chris Pine), who's stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Along the way, she receives some help from three mystical beings -- Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah).

This film transports us to some surreal interplanetary settings of exquisite seas, skies, and land -- filled with whimsical features -- from gossipy flowers to floating stone bridges. The majestic musical score, which often soars with a chorus of voices, beautifully backs the fantastical scenery. As for the stumbles, the narrative can come off as glaringly clumsy and forced, and sometimes the CGI leaves more to be desired. For significant stretches, the film is a bit too breezy for its own good. But just when things are going too smooth and when the stakes don't feel very high, there are just enough dangers, obstacles, and evil energy thrown into the mix to keep things relatively interesting. Unfortunately, for a film involving time, space, and the mind, it isn't the most memorable of the genre.

But even though the emotional payoff in A Wrinkle in Time might not be as powerful as we want it to be, at the heart of the film is the perspective of a young child attempting to make sense of this complicated world through imagination. It's about not giving up, and it's about standing strong for what you believe in.

( 6/10 )

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Monday, March 26, 2018

[Review] Love, Simon

In the spirit of great modern teen movies like The Perks of Being A Wildflower and The Edge of Seventeen, the new high school dramedy Love, Simon is a triumphant and inclusive-minded coming-of-age gem for the meme and .gif generation that's fully worth embracing.

Simon (Nick Robinson) is a fairly content senior in high school, counting down the days until graduation. He has a tight-knit group of friends, a wholesome family, and a nice house in the suburbs. But he has one huge secret: He's gay. The story follows Simon as he deals with the struggles, pressures, and worries of coming out at such a pivotal time in his life. And along the way, he sparks up an internet relationship -- You've Got Mail style -- with an anonymous penpal who's dealing with the same stuff... and who also goes to the same school.

Love, Simon is an immensely likable film. It's warm, charming, hilarious, heartfelt, thoughtful, and seat-squirmingly awkward, and it somehow manages to stray away from ever getting too cheesy or melodramatic. The fantastic, commendably well-rounded script brings a surprisingly consistent amount of laughs -- the breezy dialogue is stuffed with funny one-liners and slick referential humor (the "Game of Thrones" bit is a hoot). And while most of the film fits the essential "feel-good" mold, there are definitely some affecting downs. Like Simon's predicament, there's always a sense of uneasiness, especially in the second half as the drama ramps up and things really hit the fan. There's even an intriguing thread of mystery to it all, as we're constantly trying to figure out who Simon's anonymous penpal is -- we basically don't know any more than he does.

The film is also chalked with memorable, spunky, and sympathetic characters. Nick Robinson, who came off as frustratingly bland in 2015's Jurassic World, returns to his Kings of Summer potential here with a very good lead performance. But the supporting cast of friends leave even more of an impression, including Katherine Langford ("13 Reasons Why"), Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Alexandra Shipp (Tragedy Girls). Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel solidly play Simon's parents, and Duhamel, in particular, gives an impressive turn (between this and the Taco Bell Nacho Fries commercial, he's really been killing it lately). Tony Hale ("Arrested Development", "Veep") even drops in with an amusing role as the school's harmlessly try-hard, wannabe cool principal. But all in all, the adults ultimately take a backseat to the kids in this movie.

With all of the mishaps, miscommunications, misdirections, and mix-ups in Love, Simon's whirlwind of a plot -- one clear and important message never gets lost in translation: We're all human and we deserve to be ourselves.

* 8.5/10 *

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Friday, March 23, 2018

[Review] Tomb Raider

It's been 15 years since Angelina Jolie's last destination in the Tomb Raider series. Now, reboot-happy Hollywood has decided to dig up the franchise for another go -- not exactly a surprise, is it? This time the ever-impressive Alicia Vikander takes on the role of butt-kicking explorer Lara Croft, and despite her tough and gritty performance, the film itself falls into a pit by functioning as one long setup.

After solving a nifty puzzle that was left behind to her, the fierce and ambitious Lara Croft, along with an experienced sailor (played by Daniel Wu, who unfortunately disappears for most of the film), embark on a mission to the sprawling Pacific island where her father (Dominic West) disappeared. Along the way, she encounters countless dangers, shifty traps, and a hostile beef with a group of nasty expeditioners (led by Walton Groggins) as she attempts to uncover an ancient mystery.

For a film that touts adventure, there's a lot more talking than action. It's one of those running-in-place that just never seems to kick into gear. There's a lot of preparation and exposition involved, and half of the duration seems to pass before Croft actually arrives on the island. The pacing only gets rockier from there -- it's rushed at times, and lulled at others. The lack of solid momentum becomes frustrating, and the story doesn't actually grip hold until the final stretch, which contains the film's most engaging setpieces, by far. On the bright side, Vikander makes for a really good lead here, which is why it's disappointing that the rest of the film doesn't share the same energy.

The other positive thing I can say about 2018's Tomb Raider is that it isn't nearly as bad as last year's Mummy reincarnation, but both probably should've remained buried.

( 5.5/10 )

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

[Review] The Hurricane Heist

There's been movies about hurricanes. There's been movies about heists. But what about hurricanes AND heists? Welp, that's what The Hurricane Heist goes for, and it fails miserably.

The plot sees a super hurricane heading towards the Gulf Coast, and while most citizens are busy evacuating, a squad of crazy folks have chosen to infiltrate and rob the town's treasury. A meteorologist (played by Toby Kebbell) and a treasury agent (Maggie Grace) decide to stay behind and attempt to protect the vault. And well, the whole thing just gets dumber and dumber as it goes, blowing through like a cold and rainy slap to the face.

This thing is flooded with incoherent truck chases and shootouts in the wind and rain. Like the storm itself, it all just kind of blurs together into a big, loud, wet, metal-mashing mess. The editing is so frantic and the camerawork is so dizzying and the action sequences are so poorly rendered that the movie feels like the cinematic version of a swirly. The dialogue is horrendous too, especially this exchange: "You're gonna ruin someone's tobacco crop." / "There will be a little less cancer in the world." And then there's the guy shouting "Hell of a day!", which comes off like a half-assed ode to Mad Max: Fury Road. All the are actors resoundingly stiff and they deliver their lines with the conviction of a soggy sock. It's as if they're never sure what volume they should be yelling.

All that said, The Hurricane Heist's biggest crime is that it's boring. Time to dry off.

( 4/10 )

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

[Review] Thoroughbreds

Directed by newcomer Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds is a deliriously off-kilter psychological drama with a pitch-black sense of humor and a tinge of bizarro horror.

Set in suburban Connecticut, the story revolves around two (very) upper-class teens that are essentially forced to hang out together. One is the uptight and academic Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch and Split), and the other is the anti-social Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl) who claims to not feel any emotions. It's safe to say that they don't really hit it off. But over time, they eventually form a strange bond -- it's less of a friendship, and more of a complementary way of using each other. Anyway, it's not long before the two are plotting an idea to have Lily's high-strung and emotionally abusive stepfather (coldly played by Paul Sparks) murdered!

Considering the potently inhospitable tone, the dark subject matter, and the bemused sense of humor, it wouldn't be off-base to compare Thoroughbreds to last year's divisive Yorgos Lanthimos film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, except this is much more straightforward and economical. Each scene brims with a thick, awkward tension that you could slice through with a butcher knife, and you get the impression that it's all going to build to something really nasty (and it does). The uneasy musical score squeals, clicks, taps, stomps, and pummels with the rhythm of a frantic horse.

This is a film that is as cunning and unhinged as its characters. Taylor-Joy and Cooke both give perfectly callous and memorably deranged performances, casting a twisted spell on the audience as the film progresses. And in his final on-screen role, the late Anton Yelchin gloriously rolls in as a smarmy scuzzball with a minor yet impactful role, reminding us of the great talent that we've lost.

In the end -- despite the film's sharp and stabby nature -- there isn't really a major point to any of it. It's just a well-crafted exercise in luxurious ugliness and shattered characters getting pushed to the edge. The biggest message all might be: Don't practice row-boating in the house.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

[Review] Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow, an icy but empty espionage thriller that never really takes flight. Let's just say it's definitely no Atomic Blonde.

Dominika (Lawrence) is a prestigious ballet dancer (Red Sparrow or Black Swan?) living in Russia. But after suffering a career-ending injury and getting mixed up in some CIA business, she's recruited to start a brand new life at Sparrow School, where she becomes a secretive operative trained to manipulate minds and seduce targets.

We witness much of the training process (Charlotte Rampling plays the merciless Headmistress), and it's offputtingly cruel and sadistic (and oddly rapey). The class sessions themselves are a complete snoozefest -- it feels like we as an audience are being dragged into a course we didn't sign up for. Yeah, not fun. Once Dominika graduates, or whatever, the film takes an even deeper dive into sloggy territory. The pacing is glacial, the narrative is choppy and convoluted, and the tone is stilted and soulless. This thing just never ratchets up enough tension or intrigue to make us care, which is essential for a film like this. And even if you forgive the sketchy Russian accent, Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the most underwhelming performances in her eclectic catalog, and part of that is because this character is more of a walking mannequin than a human being.

Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Jeremy Irons round out the supporting cast, but they don't really have much to do either. And I'm not suggesting that every spy thriller needs big action sequences, but this one really needed some big action sequences. Of course, the events escalate during the last 20 minutes or so, but by that time -- it's too late.

( 5/10 )

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

[Review] Mute

Duncan Jones made waves with the indie sci-fi hit Moon and then followed it with the serviceable, time-altering thriller Source Code. I won't talk about 2016's Warcraft movie, but anyway, the director has returned with a passion project called Mute, which recently premiered on Netflix. It's an ambitious but unfortunately sloggy sci-fi noir that never amounts to anything worth investing in.

Set in a futuristic world (let's just say there are a lot of sex robots, and everything is delivered by drone), we meet Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a reserved fellow of habit who's been left mute from a boating accident as a child. When his blue-haired girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) suddenly goes missing, he's tasked with putting together the puzzle pieces in order to track her down.

Prepare for a whole lot of nothing. Seriously, over 30 minutes go by without anything of significance happening. And it moves frustratingly slow. It's as if the film were developing at the pace of a soon-to-be-canceled series pilot instead of a succinct two-hour composition. And once any semblance of a narrative does kick in, it's insanely dull and derivative, like a Blade Runner-lite. Like, super lite. The entire thing has a streak of muddled ugliness, and it's riddled with odd choices.

As for the good, the film is decently shot, glowing with extravagant detail, techno style visuals, and that always appealing use of neon lighting. But the cyberpunk backdrop never really informs the story as much as it should -- it's just kind of there. The highlights of it all are the film's scuzzy suspects, played by Paul Rudd in full sleaze mode and Justin Theroux ("The Leftovers"). They're the only performers that add any sense of energy or personality to this thing. But in an awkward move, they rarely actually connect to the plot's main thread, and the film comes off like two separate stories running alongside each other. And that's really indicative of the Mute itself -- nothing ever really gels together. In fact, Paul Rudd's mustache is the most amusing thing about the whole movie.

Along the way, I kept asking myself what the point of any of it was. And by the end, well, there really isn't one.

( 3.5/10 )

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Friday, March 2, 2018

[Review] Game Night

Coming from the directing duo of John Francis Daley and and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night is an insanely rowdy romp that rolls in as one of the funniest and most expectation-defying films of the early year.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a married couple that have one huge trait in common: They're obsessive game enthusiasts -- from bar trivia to charades to Monopoly -- so much so that they hold a weekly game night with their friends. Their routine is thrown out of whack when Bateman's envied older brother (played by Kyle Chandler) comes into town to host his own game night. Always one to upstage his younger brother, he sets up an elaborate Murder Mystery party, but the proceedings are so real that the crew cannot decipher what's part of the game and what isn't. And well, things get beyond CRAZY.

Much of the film's success is owed to Mark Perez's extremely entertaining and consistently hilarious screenplay. Between the story's sheer unpredictability and piles of twists, as well as the onslaught of gut-busting jokes, Game Night thrives simultaneously as both a grippingly wild thriller and an absolutely uproarious comedy. I was dropping my jaw and belly-laughing in my seat the whole way through. There's a particularly hysterical scene where McAdams attempts to remove a bullet from Bateman's arm, and pretty much everything that can go wrong - does. In addition, the commendably clever dialogue is full of referential humor and quippy exchanges that are stacked like a Jenga tower.

The great supporting cast is fully game too, including Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Kylie Bunbury, and Lamorne Morris. In an unexpected turn, it's Billy Magnussen that is the frequent scene-stealer, as he plays a bonehead doof of a character who delivers some of the film's best lines with astonishing comic timing. But the star of the show truly is Jesse Plemons, who taps in as Bateman and McAdam's painfully awkward and sensitive neighbor (he doesn't like being left out of game night). The guy seriously deserves Oscar consideration for this role, and I'm not even kidding.

As all the cards are flipped, the mysteries are revealed, and blood is spilled, Game Night remains engaging and surprising until the very end. And I mean the very end. Over.

( 8/10 )

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