The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterIt’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?

Nate’s Grade: C

Sicario (2015)

imagesThe word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.

Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.

Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.

lead_960Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.

Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.

With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.

Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused for doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up his character, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.


There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.

It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Gift (2015)

the-gift-poster-3Reminiscent of adult thrillers that dominated the 1990s, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is a slick and fiendishly enjoyable movie that unravels methodically and is comfortable dealing with moral ambiguity. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are transitioning to a new city and a new job when they meet an old high school acquaintance, Gordon (Edgerton). It seems at first like “Gordo” is going to be a scary stalker with boundary issues, but Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, keeps pushing his familiar narrative further, adding different shades to the trio of characters and allowing them to be flawed humans revealing their secrets. It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go dark and dwell in the unknown, especially with a note-perfect morally murky ending that leaves the viewer in the same wonderfully cruel sense of uncertainty and gnawing curiosity. Bateman pays against type as a rather strident character who definitely has issues with sticking to the full truth. Hall is more than a damsel in distress. She’s overcoming serious problems that she may or may not bear some culpability for, which makes her performance that much more interesting. Edgerton doesn’t overplay any off-kilter tics; his Gordo is a bit off, and always comes across like he’s holding back saying more, but his impression is a lot more wounded animal than psychopath. The screenplay is a model of efficiency and the secrets and reveals are evenly doled out. The Gift is an entertaining thriller with dark turns, deliberate pacing and structure, morally grey characters, comfort in ambiguity, and a healthy respect for its mature audience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

DIARY-OF-A-TEENAGE-GIRL-posterIn 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.

Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.

diary-of-a-teenage-girlIts bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.

Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.

15263-1-1100Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Visit (2015)

MV5BMTg3OTM2OTc5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjMxNDM0NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_For the past ten years, M. Night Shyamalan has been a figure of piñata-whacking derision, and yet the man has consistently been at work on films big and small. You would think a decade of duds would lead to Shyamalan being unable to direct more than a junior high theater production, and yet people like Will Smith were specifically seeking him out to direct inevitably terrible movies like After Earth (oh is that one bad). The association has been burned into our minds: Shyamalan and bad movies. Is it even possible for a man whose name has become a punchline to turn his career around? A low-budget lark like The Visit allows Shyamalan the freedom of risk. If he fails, he’s only made one more bad found footage horror movie in a near infinite sea of them, and the budget number isn’t one that will bankrupt his generous producers. Perhaps it’s through the benefit of low expectations cultivated over ten grievous years of filmmaking, but The Visit is a modest little thriller that has enough suspense and campy humor that it works, mostly. I walked out of the theater generally satisfied and entertained, which are two attributes that haven’t been associated with Shyamalan films since… Signs? Goodness, that was back when Mel Gibson was a box-office titan.

15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are visiting their grandparents for the first time. Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker and brings her camera along to make a movie about the five-day visit. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) live deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania (the local police force consists of one guy). Everything is warm and cozy until it’s nighttime and Pop Pop insists that, for their safety, the kids stay in their rooms after nine o’clock. The strict rules and forbidden areas of the home encourage the kids to go exploring. Their grandparents may just be more than weird and old.

635774871491660320-visit-2The premise is deceptively simple and yet perfectly relatable and dripping with potential. I heartily enjoyed the fact that for a solid two acts, The Visit is a horror film where the horror elements are old people. Nana and Pop Pop both display fraying mental states, and Nana has an unusual trance-like state that kicks in once the sun goes down. I was expecting something supernatural or vaguely related to fairy tales to emerge to explain the overall weirdness and creepy affectations, but it never does. For most of the movie, the ravages of aging provide the scary business, and I think that’s great. Telling the story from the perspective of Becca and her camera also reinforces the cross-generational peculiarities, where the elderly and their older system of rules and way of life seem even more alien and alarming. Shyamalan, to his credit, does a fine job of coming up with suspense sequences built around his premise. Watching Becca and Tyler debate opening their bedroom door at night, especially after a series of unsettling scratching noises, is a well developed moment that revs up the audience imagination. Of course they shouldn’t open that door but boy do we want them to and discover what is going on. The performances from Dunagan and McRobbie hint at something menacing lurking below the surface but in a casual way. Nana asking Becca to literally crawl inside the oven to clean it is the kind of memorable what-the-hell moment that makes a horror thriller.

The offhand comments from the grandparents and their occasional erratic behavior are also played for laughs thanks to the camp factor of the actors. There is a clear absurdity to the scares and tension, and Shyamalan smartly embraces this. The Visit encourages you to laugh. Apparently, Shyamalan delivered three different edits of the movie: one pure comedy, one pure horror, and one a mixture of the two. The horror/comedy edit was the one released to theaters, and the film is better because of the inclusion of its offbeat humor. Without it, the movie would risk being too serious. To be fair, the movie isn’t making fun of dementia or ridiculing the elderly just because they’re out of touch. When the kids first see signs of Nana and Pop Pop getting confused, they behave very compassionately, like when Pop Pop dresses for a costume party he doesn’t know anything else about. Strangely enough, my theater was mostly populated with people over the age of 50, which made me wonder if they were duped into what kind of movie they were seeing or relished the chance to be seen as the scary boogeyman to teenagers.

91bba6ddd3cacb06690e4f584ad18266ed25d57fWhich leads me to the point of the review where I discuss the parts of The Visit that don’t work quite as well. I don’t think Shyamalan knows how to write for teenagers because Becca is far too precocious for her age (using terms like “elixir” and “mise-en-scene” as everyday vocabulary) and Tyler is just downright annoying. There are three separate incidents of Tyler free-style rapping and it’s about as successful as you would expect, though it provides me amusement thinking about Shyamalan writing free-style raps for a thirteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs. My engagement with The Visit was more tethered to a general sense of morbid curiosity than a concern for the teen characters. I would have been perfectly fine if the teens didn’t make it out alive. I knew that was never going to happen because of the PG-13 rating, which does put some limitations on just how far out there Shyamalan can go. Though it doesn’t limit a scant shot of elderly nudity used for comic purposes. There is a great reveal that leads into the third act that ups the stakes, but it also shifts the movie into a more definitive slasher territory, and a PG-13 rating is going to further limit that territory. There are plot holes (a disabled laptop Webcam; the fact that they don’t have cell phone service but can Skype with their mom) and several mysteries are short-lived and anticlimactic (What’s in the shed? Oh, it’s just soiled adult diapers – incontinence!). Like many found footage movies, the movie fails to justify or incorporate this forced narrative device. Becca is a teen with two cameras and yet she stages them so counter-intuitively. For her first meeting with her grandparents, she sets down the camera and then runs into the distance to hug them. Would it not make more sense to get a closer shot of this first meeting? The found footage structure also provides a coda that frustratingly undercuts the climax of tension and replaces it with a sentimental monologue. It makes sense as a movie-within-a-movie but it’s a poor choice to end a horror/comedy that just hit its peak with an unnecessary and tonally-unwarranted resolution meant to warm the heart.

Shyamalan has a long road ahead to atone for his cinematic sins, and while I wouldn’t call The Visit an outright success, the movie succeeds more often than it fails. I think more could have been done to subvert and push the premise further, but the limitations of the rating and the found footage structure keep the movie from getting too crazy. There are some well-drawn suspense sequences and the use of campy humor is a strong asset that allows the shortcomings to be more forgivable. It’s the best Shyamalan movie in over a decade, which is really saying everything you need to know. Who knows? Maybe the comeback starts here with a tiny horror movie with rapping kids and dirty Depends. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Last Five Years (2015)

last5bigIt’s a musical about the beginning and end of a five-year relationship, and each partner is starting at a different point and meeting in the middle. If that sounds confusing, The Last Five Years will do little to better orient you, the audience, on its criss-crossing narrative-leaping timeline. Anna Kendrick is Cathy, who is traveling from the breakup of her marriage to the moment she met her eventual husband. Jeremy Jordan is Jamie, who is traveling the more linear path of infatuation to marriage to his divorce from Cathy. Neither character is particularly that involving though their eventual conflicts that lead to their parting of ways are more relatable than I was expecting since Jamie becomes a publishing phenom. I was looking for parallels with the song pairings, since we switch from a Cathy song to Jamie song, but the more I listened the more the narrative structure felt like an unjustified gimmick. Director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures) feels like he was rushed to complete this film because much of the camerawork feels lacking, losing track of the characters in their long takes. Could he afford to do more than one take? There isn’t so much a sense of style or expanding into the medium of film. It feels like LaGravense was grabbing what he could. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that for an entirely sung musical (there may be like two lines of spoken dialogue) none of the songs are particularly memorable. Even minutes after finishing the film, I could not for the life of me hum one tune. To be fair the music isn’t offensive to the ears, but it falls within this vanilla middle ground that plays like it should be background noise rather than featured music. Kendrick and Jordan do a serviceable job singing these bland songs, but when your movie is wall-to-wall with music that doesn’t engage or register, it’s the equivalent of a comedy being unfunny. The Last Five Years is a movie musical that is decidedly pleasant and deadly bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

sM6KRdyGuy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.

Nate’s Grade: B

Little Boy (2015)

little_boyI was expecting to bury Little Boy in an avalanche of negativity once I found out a late plot point that made my jaw drop. This inspirational Christian independent film is set during World War II and features a pint-sized moppet, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whose only real friend is his father (Michael Rapaport), who is now serving in the fight in the Pacific. He’s told that through the power of belief he can accomplish great things, and well, he really wants his dad to come home. So through the power of belief he causes… the dropping of the atomic bomb (WWII aficionados will recognize the nickname of the bomb). I was waiting for the moment and amping my sense of dread and moral outrage. A funny thing happened on the way to a nuclear bomb detonation, and that is that Little Boy is a fairly agreeable and effective family film that conveys a message with a welcomed degree of ambiguity and complexity and tolerance. This is a Christian-themed film about the power of belief but at no point does it make explicit whether it’s coincidence or the power of Pepper channeling God. Part of Pepper’s list of good deeds given to him by a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is to befriend a Japanese neighbor who returned home from an internment camp. The movie shows how casual these small-town folk indulge in racism and bullying. The Japanese man is also an atheist and I was legitimately astonished that the movie never makes a judgment about this. He’s treated as a complex man with his own system of thinking, and he’s not viewed as lesser or wayward because of his lack of belief in a higher power. Little Boy is no God’s Not Dead. The melodrama is well paced, the acting is solid if a bit heavy on long bouts of weeping, and the movie undercuts what normally would be the inspirational apexes with harsher reality. The bomb is dropped, and Pepper is initially celebrating until he discovers the total horror of Hiroshima. His “wish” may have even backfired with his father getting further punishment in a POW camp. While I still find the development tacky, I have to reluctantly credit the filmmakers for refusing to pander in a style that removes the complexity and ambiguity of real life. It’s still a movie and it still has a rather predictable albeit emotionally earned ending, but Little Boy might just be one of the biggest surprises of this year for me at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Fantastic Four (2015)

Few movies have had such a prominent stink of negativity attached to them as Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, a movie that is already being considered amongst the worst superhero movies of all time. Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was given the freedom to go darker, emphasize more science fiction, and select a cast of respected actors rather than bankable names. Then came rumors of aloof and secluded behavior on set from Trank. Then came rumors that Fox and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) effectively shuttered Trank from his own movie, reshooting 40-minutes of a 90-minute film to salvage the wayward production (get ready for plenty of stuff in trailers not to be in the finished film). Not quite the room-clearing disaster of rampant speculation, the new Fantastic Four is a superhero movie that never really gets started and has constant battles with tone, characterization, and plot. It seems like the real villains of the movie are the Fox executives who signed off on the “gritty, gloomy” rendition and then interfered when they got too scared, managing to undercut the original vision, muddy an already messy film, and make things even worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is easily more interesting than anything that happens in this movie.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a science genius recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Reed invented a makeshift teleporting device as a young child with the help of his friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). At Dr. Storm’s lab, Reed works with Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a morose computer programmer, Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell). The group transports to another dimension but is attacked by a strange green energy cloud. Victor is left behind. The surviving foursome exhibits unique abilities. Reed can stretch his body. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can fly and set his body on fire. Poor Ben is a hulking rock monster. Reed promises to find a way to reverse what happened to them, but the re-emergence of Dr. Doom puts the fate of the entire world at risk.

The-Fantastic-Four-2015-The-Thing-Jamie-BellIt should be of little surprise that Fantastic Four feels like two different movies awkwardly and inarticulately smashed together. For the first hour, the movie follows the path of our heroes and their contraction of their powers. Rather than the gee-whiz fun of getting superpowers, the characters view themselves as freaks, their bodies turned against them, and their colleagues deeply afraid of them. It’s a far moodier antidote to the vicarious thrills of gaining special abilities. There are some effective sequences that channel David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Scanners, and it’s these brief moments where you feel Trank’s vision connect the most. Doom walking down a hallway and making heads explode, in a PG-13 way, is horrifying and cool. The problem for Trank, and the movie as a whole, is that this first hour still isn’t a very good movie. It takes far too long for these characters to get blasted by green space goo and become supers. The setup is so protracted and needless. Did we need to see how these characters came together? Did we need to see their childhoods? It’s not essential to see the team come together when we can already start from that point. In a sense, it reminded me of how needless I felt Pixar’s Monsters University was; did we need to see how these colleagues became friends? Despite this action-free opening half, the screenplay could have fleshed out the four main characters to justify the added time, but it’s hard for the movie to justify much.

These are some of the most boring and underdeveloped characters in recent comic book lore. If these versions of the Fantastic Four existed in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have made it to issue number two. Reed is smart. Sue is smart too but also standoffish (and adopted). Johnny likes fast cars. Ben is tough and loyal. Victor is a pessimist who called dibs on flirting with Sue. That is really about it, folks. Ben disappears for most of the film, called in to make the trans-dimensional jump because Reed feels like Ben deserves to be there since he helped create an early prototype with Reed. Actually, let’s talk about that scene. It’s a high school science fair yet the only other displays we see are clearly for much younger children, and yet Dr. Storm is visiting an all-ages school science fair to groom talent? That seems weird. Why does Dr. Storm not make the same offer to Ben, who helped Reed design and build his early teleporting machine? Regardless, Reed leaves his childhood pal behind with Ben’s abusive family. That’s because he’s a good friend. Then, once the horrible transformations occur and Ben gets the worst of it, Reed runs out on him again. Sure it’s in the pursuit of finding a cure, but who’s to say he couldn’t do that in the already constructed government super science lab? Sue doesn’t even go on the first trans-dimensional voyage; it’s just a boy’s club. Sue spends more time in this movie staring at computer screens and looking intently than any action. It’s probably for the best, though, because the scenes of her flying around in a bubble made me think of Glinda the Good Witch. I’m not a Kate Mara fan. I’ve found the majority of her performances to be stilted, but even I can admit she’s given nothing to do here but move her eyes from the left to the right and inform Miles Teller about Portishead, a band that’s only 20-plus years old. It’s sad but the most interesting part of Johnny is that a black actor, a point that caused certain more irritable fans to foam at the mouth at the adaptation, is playing him. If these super heroes aren’t going to be super until halfway through the movie, they better be interesting characters. They are not even close.

Fantastic-Four-2015-Reboot-Early-ReviewsIt’s with the return of Dr. Doom that the Fantastic Four makes its inept transition into the second movie, the one reshot by the producers and the studio. In an implausibly fast amount of time we’re given our villain of the movie and he sets off to open a black hole to destroy Earth because… we’re self-destructive? So humanity is self-destructive so Doom is going to destroy humanity? I would also like to know exactly how Doom survived for over a year in the alternate dimension when it clearly looks like there is nothing of substance for miles, unless green goop is edible. Did he just lose the need to go to the bathroom? Doom’s powers are rather nebulous, which makes it even less interesting when the Fantastic Four decides to, get this, work together to beat the bad guy. For a movie that hasn’t had one action sequence until its final act, now our characters must band together to stop Doom and his giant flashing blue light black hole thingy. The special effects are pretty undistinguished and hard to read at times. I’d also like to remark how hideously this other dimension looks. It’s all rocky crags and dark clouds; it’s like a less successful timeshare for the residents of Mordor. It doesn’t quite look like the paradise that Doom describes it as (the brochure lied to us!). This jumbled conclusion feels so ham-fisted and rushed, a villain and a typical world-destroying fate that must be thwarted at the last minute. Things just sort of happen rather than storylines finding payoffs, and then it’s all sort of over and the resolution echoes the very end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even with the credits cutting off the vocal iteration of the title heroes. It’s so transparently different in tone, sloppy in development and execution, and so quickly introduced and resolved, that the whole conclusion comes across as forcibly laughable.

At the end of watching the dire Fantastic Four reboot, I felt more sympathy for Josh Trank. He still deserves blame for helping to conceive and develop such a misshapen story and squander his actors. After three duds and whatever you want to call the 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, it feels like maybe this franchise is just cursed. Maybe these characters are too dated and their powers are too silly. Then again we know that these characters can work in the format of a movie because a good Fantastic Four movie already exists, and it’s called The Incredibles. It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to come away completely clean from this misfire and financial flop, especially now that Trank and executives are engaging in a P.R. blame game. Fox was hoping for a rekindled franchise. Now they may be hoping to work out a deal for Marvel to buy back the rights to the characters. I would have been interested to see the full vision of what Trank was going for, especially since the one scene that feels most adamant is the best sequence in an admittedly mediocre superhero film. At least the movie would feel cohesive. It probably wouldn’t be good but at least it would be committed to trying something different. Instead, the movie tries to be different from the superhero blockbusters populating the landscape and then, at the last minute, tries to follow their lead and become one of them, becoming its own misshapen and poorly developed blob. It’s not the worst superhero movie in history (that honor still has to belong to the atomic bomb of taste, Batman & Robin), but even achieving sustained mediocrity is too much to expect.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Entourage (2015)

entourage-movie-posterWhen Entourage first aired on HBO in 2004, it felt like a fun peak behind the glamorous world of Hollywood. A group of four friends were doing their best to navigate the land of dreams while staying true to themselves. For the first four seasons, Entourage felt fresh, fun, and engaging. And then it kept going for another four seasons, overstaying its welcome and proving to have worn out all credible story material several seasons before it went off the air in 2011. Creator Doug Ellin just didn’t want to leave the party, enough so that four years after finally leaving he’s back with his boys, co-writing and directing an Entourage feature film, answering all of the burning questions left unanswered. Does Ellin justify the move to the big screen, especially when you realize that the TV show already had gratuitous nudity and celebrity cameos?

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is nine days removed from his honeymoon where he and his wife decided they really weren’t meant to be, so they amicably split but not before having awesome sex one last time (oh yeah!). Back on the scene, Vinnie is hungry to direct and his debut is a $100 million adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde starring Vinnie and his older brother/desperate actor, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). The problem is that Vinnie feels he needs more money to finish his masterpiece before he can show it to the studio. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), formerly Vinnie’s agent and now the head of the studio, has a lot on the line if this movie is a hit or a flop. He checks in with a financier for more money but the Texan moneyman insists his son Travis (Haley Joel Osment) go along to Hollywood and act as go-between. It’s not long before Travis is demanding drastic changes to Vince’s movie (oh no!). Here to help is Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who works a business and a romantic angle with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and Eric (Kevin Connolly, who is weeks away from becoming a father with longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chirqui). Can Vinni save his movie? Can Ari save his job? Can Turtle seal the deal with Ms. Rousey? Can these bros get any bro-ier (oh yeah)?

The plot of the movie is almost insulting with how little conflict there is and when there is any how easily it all wraps up into lazy wish fulfillment. The main conflict of the film is that Vinnie wants more money for his directorial debut, even after blowing through $100 million. He needs just a pinch more for his movie to be able to be complete. Rather than having a disaster on their hands, which would be far more interesting and provide a wealth of conflicts with how to salvage what is there, the biggest perceived problem with Vinnie’s debut is whether it will be a box-office blockbuster and earn awards. Everyone sings the movie’s praises, though the concept sounds ridiculous and the little footage we see looks ridiculous as well. A Jekyll/Hyde DJ who fights “the system” and spreads his magic elixir at his club concerts… does that sound like the formula for Oscars? If Entourage were still functioning as an industry satire, there might be added commentary on how something so flatly terrible would be hailed as an awards darling, but entourage stopped being a satire midway through its television run. It’s just a consistent reward system for characters that stumble from one good thing to another. Even though Vinnie has never directed before everyone can’t help themselves but talk about what a superstar he is and how great the movie will be. Will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have sex with an attractive woman, or will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have to wait to have sex with another attractive woman? What a pressing conflict for a feature film. With that established, it’s no wonder then that Travis makes such an ineffectual antagonist. I was actually enjoying his hostility toward Vince and his dumb movie. Eric might have wanted to punch him in the face but I wanted to pat him on the back.

Another significant problem is that these guys are just too old to be going through these same tired arrested development routines. I think it says everything about Entourage the TV show that after eight seasons the characters were basically the same people except each had become more successful. Their shtick was already getting tiresome on TV. Flash forward four years, though the movie takes place months after the end of the TV show, so that means we’re in 2012 I think. Anyway, these guys should have accumulated some sort of personal growth as characters and they just haven’t. Except for Turtle’s weight loss, which becomes a running joke, it feels like they’re all the same. This is also featured in the Eric/Sloan relationship, which was an exhaustive subject on the TV show. As the series ended, they were together and having a baby, and as we pick up with the movie they’re, shocker, apart again just so they can get back together. The inevitability of this storyline offers a glimpse at what Ellin felt he had to squeeze in for Eric, which amounts to sleeping with two hot women and having a crazy mix-up. When it appears like there will be actual conflict here and Eric will be held accountable for his behavior, the movie instantly shrinks away and lets him off the hook. Every character’s interaction with women is regrettable, as women are served up as easy comforts. Ronda Rousey at least takes a stand but then retreats yet again under the supposed charm of these dolts.

The humor is low-grade and often missing, substituting references and celebrity cameos for well-developed comedic scenarios. There’s some humor in how self-deluded these guys are, especially the increasingly unhinged antics of Johnny, but they’re far too bland to generate consistent laughs. Except for Johnny, the other guys aren’t even given opportunities for comedy, which makes their storylines all the more painful. Do we really need to see Turtle’s courtship of Rousey, and what does she see in this guy? None of the cameo appearances are even used beyond just a ten-second-reference point with no greater impact than on the ten seconds of that very scene. Take for instance the cameo of Mark Wahlberg and his hometown buddies. He’s an executive producer on Entourage the TV show, based upon his own experiences coming to Hollywood. He’s shilling his own reality TV show he produces in the move based upon his old HBO show. That’s like product placement/plug inception. The problem is that Ellin has confused cameos as punch lines, which was also an issue with the original show. Just because I see someone famous doesn’t mean there’s a joke attached. Oh look, it’s Pharell and he’s wearing that big hat. Thanks for showing up, Pharell. Now go cash that check, you won’t be required for any other work on this set. Scene to scene, it feels like some sort of party that the filmmakers expect you to be grateful for attending. It’s not even a fun party.

ronda-rouseyThe most entertaining person is the movie is still Ari Gold and Jeremy Piven has always played him to the hilt, winning multiple Emmys in the process. I desperately wish this was more Ari’s movie, or told more from his studio perspective, because he’s the infinitely more interesting and entertaining character than the super relaxed and super boring Vince. Even though Ari’s vulgar outbursts have grown tiresome, he’s still the most exciting character because he’s transparent about his passion but also, more than any other character in this expanded TV universe, he works for his goals. Ari doesn’t just sit by and let good stuff fall into his lap, he’s working all angles to get the desired outcome, and that’s always more interesting than watching the life of a vacant actor go from great to even better. The subplot with Ari’s former assistant Lloyd getting married feels like setup for a comic set-piece that never materializes. It does, however, provide a cameo for George Takei to officiate the wedding. Hooray, more cameos.

If you were a fan through all eight bro-tastic seasons of the TV show, chances are you’ll probably find the movie easy-going and enjoyable. If you’re like me and grew tired of their boorish antics, the repetitive humor and plotting, and the casual misogyny, then a big-screen version where the boys get to continue their ways and get more rewards, where everything works out for everyone, will be highly fatiguing. Entourage the movie doesn’t aspire for much but its stunted ambitions and minor conflicts never allow the movie to be anything other than a particularly meandering and dull extended episode. Much like the main characters, it has confused mediocrity with success and being amiable with being interesting. Ellin said in interviews that he hoped this would be the start of an Entourage trilogy of movies. Thanks to the low box-office returns, at least I can credit America with stopping that plan. If this is indeed the last ride for Vince and the boys from Queens, well they went out pretty much like they did four years ago, and isn’t it great to still be a rich white guy in Hollywood? Oh yeeeeeah. Oh yeeeeeeah.

Nate’s Grade: C


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers

%d bloggers like this: