31 (**1/2) – It’s Hostel on the road

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31 – 2016

Written and Directed by Rob Zombie
Starring  Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster, Richard Brake, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr, E.G. Daily, Lew Temple

When I found out that Rob Zombie was making a new movie, my interest was piqued. His track record following the Tarantino formula with an emphasis on horror has been delivering diminishing returns since his high-water mark of The Devil’s Rejects. Still, it hadn’t diminished all that much until now.

Discovering that Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs brought a smile, inasmuch as no one can think back on his character Washington on Welcome Back Kotter. Who on that show doesn’t bring back a smile? Okay, yeah, I don’t like Horshack either and then to have his doppelganger Michael Weiner bulge onto the Twitter scene over the last 5 years hasn’t helped either. But I digress…It’s Washington, man!  Rob Zombie remembers the same guys we remember…and makes them victims (or survivors) of his films, just like his more successful auteur counterpart.

My hopes for this film started to drain the moment I heard Hilton-Jacobs faux Jamaican accent. Why oh why do they ever let that accent into any movie that doesn’t take place in the Caribbean? Hell, I even hated it in the third Johnny Depp opus. It’s something that should be discouraged at all points. No one likes the approximation of someone who calls pot ganja less than this reviewer. So much for that reunion with the past. How soon till they kill him off?

In essence, this story is a combination of Hostel and  House of 1000 Corpses. A caravan of minstrel carnies travelling through middle-America get kidnapped on October 31. Some of them wake up tied in the middle of some large, forgotten factory turned into a murder house. They are eloquently explained the rules of their plight, called 31, by a 3 white-wigged Brits. They have to survive 12 hours of pursuit by one (or two) psycho after another. They are told the odds of their survival before they begin. Why this game is being run by snobby sounding Brits in the middle of the U.S. is never explained. Come on, though, who do we hate more than snobby Brits? Especially if one of them (MacDowell) endured A Clockwork Orange.

Who survives should be obvious if you see the pressers for the movie. What we are here for is inventiveness. That inventiveness is not up to Zombie’s standards. We see bats with nails in them, axes, knives, chainsaws and plenty of Nazi references. It’s all underwhelming compared to where we’ve been with Rob Zombie in the past.

The cast, including Foster, Daniel Phillips, Jackson and especially wife Sheri Moon Zombie are all game for what’s in store. I have come to expect a lot out of  Moon Zombie through these films. What she lacks in range she more than makes up for with intensity. Richard Brake is the Bill Moseley of this film, with all of the foul words, grossness and evil intensity. He’s alright, but he really doesn’t do much more than spout Zombie’s attempts at cleverly sadistic dialogue. In the end, someone being murderously pursued just can’t care about long-winded diatribes at the end of a knife.

So, yeah, Zombie’s off a bit with this one. By the end, we’re more annoyed than scared about what happened. We’re given an ambiguous final shot that inspires nothing more than a sigh. He can do better, and he’ll no doubt have a few more chances.

(**1/2 out of *****)

 

 

Sing Street (****) You can go anywhere

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Sing Street – 2016

Written and Directed by John Carney
Starring Lucy Boynton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aidan Gillen, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton,
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Mark McKenna

A friend of mine – WeMissE –  who posts his Oscar picks on this site each year turned me onto the video for the song Drive It Like You Stole It Thursday night. By the time I listened to it for the third time, I had bought the movie, even though I had never bothered seeing either of Carney’s first two films. By Saturday night, the first time I watched it, I had no regrets. WeMissE has this as his leading contender so far for film of the year. For me, it’s definitely in the running.

The story begins in 1985 with 15 year old Conor Lalor (Walsh-Peelo), whose family is going through some challenges enough to transfer him from his relatively respected Jesuit school to a free-state school called Synge Street which is a bit tougher. His older brother Brendan (Reynor) – moored to the family even though he graduated – gives Conor a glib reading on his present prospects. Brendan and Conor have a genuine connection, and his older brother’s musing helps Conor soldier through this rather drastic change.

Soon after starting his new school, he notices the beautiful Raphina (Boynton) across the way at a home for orphaned girls. He walks over to her and strikes up a conversation. After discovering that she wants to be a model, he tells her he needs a model for a video that he and his band are making.

Problem is, he’s not a musician. He doesn’t have a band. Fortunately he’s got a friend that helps him in his quest. In a short time he acquires some new mates to be in his band and gets some much needed inspiration from Brendan. He takes the ideas and works with multi-instrumentalist Eamon (McKenna) to create an ever-evolving group of songs that show his development as a band leader and as a person.

What’s remarkable about the film is seeing how Conor and the group’s tastes adjust based on who they are influenced by. This is something with which most people who ever tried imitation of their musical heroes can identify. The sequence of seeing some delightful pop hits of the 80’s transforming into new original music by that Carney, Guy Clark and his other writers is a gift for anyone who enjoyed the era.

What he does with this creative direction is fun to watch as any film I have seen this year. The performances are remarkable, both in acting and in music. The script equal parts funny, poignant and hopeful. If no one in this film had a lick of musical talent, the film would still be fun. That we get to see both feels like we’re getting away with something.

The film loses a bit of steam in the last act, when the romantic portion of the story takes a couple of abrupt turns and ends up in a strangely fake looking boat ride. I would have thought the story could have ended perfectly with more ambiguity, perhaps closer to the dream sequence represented on the aforementioned song. You can see it a little here:

If you like coming of age movies, you will like this film. If you like movies featuring music that aren’t “musicals” where characters spontaneously break into song for no damn reason, you will like this film. If you still have hope in humanity, you will like this film. If you like any combination of the above, your feelings will come closer to what Conor feels for Raphina.

(**** out of *****)

The Shallows (**1/2) doesn’t wade too far

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The Shallows – 2016

Director Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay Anthony Jaswinski
Starring Blake Lively

One would think Blake Lively in a movie called The Shallows is an asshole reviewers’ dream match. In truth, we can’t make this movie into more than it is: a scary movie with a shark. There is no way a shark that big could be in shallow water, right?  There’s no way she’d go out surfing on her own as the sun began to go down, right? There’s no way those two guys would leave her out there by herself, right?

I’m ahead of myself, though. First we have to figure out how Lively’s Nancy got the name Nancy (my daughter’s question) and why she is out in this hidden cove, surfing by herself. A few hints: mother’s legacy, thinking about quitting medical school, friend’s “Irish flu” and some “me time.” The how and the why really writes itself. The important thing is we get Lively out there in a bikini, making surfing look like the journey and the destination.

After some nice cinematography with waves, nature and the setting sun, we get a hint of trouble. A rather large whale carcass has floated into the area and for some reason Nancy has to move almost on top of it before she realizes it is there. Even more mysterious, she didn’t smell it hours before.

Oh well, too late now. Something is munching on the whale’s body and soon enough, she is brought into the feast. Before you can say gangrene, she’s washed onto a rock that will only be there as long as the tide is low. One has to say hypothermia a few times though before others will arrive to the scene to witness and become part of the distress.

She has a friend that joins her on her rock in the form of a gull named Steven Seagal. It’s a strange aside that actually fits in the framework of her softly sympathetic character. Much of the screenplay is very clunky and almost impossible for any actor to pull off in monologue form. Indeed, the film might have worked better had they sliced 2/3 of the dialogue out for the film.

The direction is competent enough. There are some very pretty shots along the way without seeming gratuitos. The only major failing is late in the film with the glowing, stinging jelly fish. The visuals and execution are hilariously bad and yank the viewer completely out of the mood that had been established. And they never get it back. Even a young teenager like my daughter Em knows that a shark can’t bite through a metal dingy.

It’s too bad. Lively had the right idea being in a film like this. Collet-Serra has built a pretty solid career out of Liam Neeson action films. This could have worked if they had shown a little restraint.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Em’s rating

(* out of *****)

Free State of Jones (****) – The rebellion to the rebellion

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Free State of Jones – 2016

Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali,
Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Brad Carter

Who knew that there was a rebellion to the rebellion? There are several passages in Free State of Jones where it feels like one is being educated without sacrificing too much in the entertainment department. We get the feeling of a movement from the ground up in watching Matthew McConaughey move further away from stardom and closer towards investment in the character of Newton Knight, a southern Civil War deserter turned man for all people in Jones County, Mississippi.

His quest begins early enough, when he sees a young man from his town (Lofland) who is conscripted into fodder for the South. Knight does what he can to protect the boy, but, come on, what are his chances? He takes the boy back home to his family and knowing his desertion puts him in peril, decides to stay with his wife and child anyway. While there, he discovers that local forces have been confiscating from the poor and leaving the rich to continue profiteering.

He begins to go Robin Hood on these forces and it leaves him wounded and wanted and into the good graces of a band of runaway slaves. He quickly becomes one with the group, leading them to resist from the protection of the swamp.

The Siege of Vicksburg leads a large swath of the Southern army to desert and Knight’s group is there to welcome them. As the group grows, they begin to become more successful in their efforts to procure their county as a land free of the tyranny of the slaveholders who own the land and give pittance to everyone else.

Gary Ross treats the material respectfully. It’s filled with plenty of moments that every story contains, but there are also nuggets here and there revealing things about the Southern U.S. before and since the war that are borne of the horrible legacy of the Democrats that took hold of the region. This includes the strange dynamic of the Knight clan that is a direct result of the circumstances.

The story is interspersed with a court case regarding Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1950’s and one of Knight’s descendants. This, along with the last 30 minutes of the movie goes some way to detract from the hopefulness exhibited earlier. The overall effect is muting, but feels authentic. This includes an genuine representation of the way Democrats of the South eliminated the rights expressed in the 15th Amendment until Republicans in the U.S. Congress helped to finally secure justice to all people 100 years after its passage.

This is the kind of film that will be hard for the Hank Williams, Jr. set to comprehend. The South that perpetrated the Civil War were predominantly plantation owners who convinced the poor in their towns to side with their cause. In showing a group of real outsiders as being the most American in spirit, it goes a fair distance in educating.

THE FREE STATE OF JONES
The journey starts here

The key role in the film outside of its main protagonist is Ali’s Moses. Through Moses, we see the absolutely integral story of the Free State of Jones. When we first see him, he has an inhumane contraption stuck around his neck. Through the removal of this sign of oppression, we see Moses grow into one that fights for his own rights through combat. Eventually as the war ends, his fight becomes more figurative, but no less worthy and definitely still lethal. Ali’s performance is something that will resonate.

McConaughey is certainly uninterested in presenting himself as a movie star. His performance stands in direct contrast to, say, DiCaprio’s overly desperate attempts and dramatization in The Revenant. Whereas that film goes out of its way to change history in order to make its protagonist the only sympathetic figure in the story, we get more from …Jones by showing Knight as an overly well meaning, slightly charismatic but also a flawed individual who has a loose understanding of marital fidelity. There are no attempts at swaying the material to make it look like he has no choice. In fact, we see that he quite clearly has options.

This reviewer will take McConaughey’s complicated and somewhat creepy Knight over the good guy with no flaws any day.

(**** out of *****)

Jason Bourne (**1/2): It all ends tonight…until the next movie

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Jason Bourne – 2016

Director Paul Greengrass
Screenplay not Tony Gilroy… instead Greengrass and Christopher Rouse
Starring Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed

Well, they lost it. What they had in the first three films is definitely gone. Not even the somewhat maligned but still great 4th entry, The Bourne Legacy can be touched with this one. At this point the Bourne franchise is treading water, and not even like a pro. More like doggy paddling.

So they brought back Greengrass and Damon. They did not consider Gilroy or Renner. The evolution to the Bourne premise introduced could have made an interesting twist. Not interested in that, they chose to instead re-write a greatest hits of the original trilogy, replete with the “assets,” the suits they work for, a female agent who is making up her mind and the continually swift moving but minimalist approach by an actor capable of expanding this character much more by now.

Bourne (Damon) is working the Philo Beddoe circuit, sans Clyde the Orangutan. His fights are quick, because that looks better in the commercials. It takes a bit longer to beat the guy when he is contacted by  his former Treadstone co-agent Nicky Parsons. She tells him that he thinks he knows everything but…there’s another layer. This layer included his dad, who had been killed many years ago. This allows Bourne to stare blankly into the distance and recall stuff about his dad while in between fights and gathering up more intel.

The activity of Parsons gathering the data triggers an alarm that piques the interest of two more agents (Vikander and Jones). There is more monitoring from far distances, then they call in the “Asset” (Cassel) who has a past with Bourne. Even when we discover the connection, it’s inexplicable for the rage that the asset has for Bourne.

Jones is at his least effective here. His bad guy is so lacking in nuance, he could have been played by DeNiro and no one would have known or cared. He’s there to end up in a hotel room, telling Bourne stuff about his duty while Bourne stares blankly trying to figure out if he’s right. You know, like Brian Cox and Albert Finney did.

Greengrass changed out his director of cinematography from the original trilogy’s Oliver Wood and instead gave us Barry Ackroyd. Wood’s skill is excellently suited to the material and frenetic pace Greengrass enjoyed with his previous two Bourne films. Ackroyd did great work for Greengrass in United 93 and also helped with Captain Phillips. He is unable to match Wood’s abilities for Bourne and the result is messy and a burden to watch. There was a horrible decision by someone to release the film in 3D in China (where the format is at about an 80% rate of all films released) and it forced many filmgoers heading for the aisle sick. It almost does that in only 2 dimensions.

Damon hardly registers this time through. His desire to avoid using guns is this round matched by a  reluctance to use words. Eventually we will see Damon in a room knocking people over with his eyebrows. It may be boring when it comes to a plot, but at least it will sell in foreign markets.

I loathe to question the motives of an actor / director combination that has made two of the better action films in the last 2 decades. But hey, these two also made The Green Zone. This film is not good, even if one tries to ascribe to it some relevance for including stuff about CIA invasion of privacy. The message has been done better in the past, and will be done better in the next few months, if Oliver Stone’s Snowden accomplishes what advanced word of mouth says it has.

This is not like Bond. We aren’t just changing locales, women and suits here. It’s not as gadgetty or as funny as the Mission:Impossible films became after the 2nd one, either. While those film franchises used the intensity of the Bourne franchise to catapult into something better, Damon and Greengrass took the reputation well earned by the earlier films and traded it for some quick cash as a mid-range summer blockbuster.

Sure, they wasted Vikander coming off her Oscar win. Even worse, they wasted Riz Ahmed. If you don’t know why that is worse, you probably enjoyed this film.

(**1/2 out of *****)

The Lobster (***1/2) is precisely as pathetic as it’s supposed to be

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The Lobster – 2016

Director Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay Efthymis Filippou & Lanthimos
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw

I get it. There is a contingent out there who will love this film and it’s screenplay drolled to perfection by a cast that is as bewildered and browbeaten by conformity as we are at times. The Lobster has won a bunch of prizes and is destined to win even more. It’s the kind of film that is perfect for those who like to isolate themselves by liking a movie. There may be no better script presented this year, to be sure. The direction doesn’t miss a beat, either. Every scene, every angle: it all means something and much of it has a dark, grey beauty. That said, I can tell you without a doubt I will never watch this film again.

Starting off with the seemingly senseless death by handgun of a donkey in a field somewhere at the hands of an obviously spurned woman,  we soon understand the premise and rules presented in this jarred version of the future. In this time, people are discouraged from being single. It’s illegal, in fact. When they find themselves in that way, they need to report to a hotel. While checking in, we discover that the guests have 45 days to find a mate or they will be transformed into “the animal of their choice.”

There are a series of rules in the hotel, some that stab away at loneliness, some that encourage conformity and one particularly bizarre hunting ritual that allow the hunters to extend their time by bagging a certain type of game. When we discover where this game comes from later, that solved mystery gives way to myriad new ones that seem designed to be rules for rules’ sake.

To call this dystopian is a misnomer, because it takes itself so seriously and follows its rules so intricately. There are no kids yearning to be free, either. It’s beyond absurd, and if it is funny, it’s also too cutting to produce more than a sympathetic smile from this viewer. I spent enough years being single to understand the agony and pressure inherent from a table for one.

There is a deliberate choice in the film to present every line with a different accent, but absolutely not one shred of emotion. Every character spends their time trying to calculate what to say in the effort to avoid detection of who and what they are, because we know there are consequences to being genuine.

Still, it bothers our protagonist David (Farrell) to the extent that when someone beats the game, he has to go out of his way to point it out. Then he discovers that in this world, just like their own, most are content with their own version of events. They don’t need to know the truth. They just need to know they beat the clock and can continue their sad clinging to delusion. It beats the alternative, even if that option is thought through.

The overall effect to me is somewhere between amused and nails on a chalkboard. This film has appeal to people I admire, and I cannot fault them their feelings. It’s a little too close to “Sprockets” for my taste. When I watch a movie or read a book, I am in for a different type of entertainment. I don’t need to touch anyone’s monkey but my own.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Divergent Series: Allegiant (***) gets worse than it gives

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Divergent Series – Allegiant (2016)

Director Robert Schwentke
Screenplay Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Coper, Noah Oppenheim based on the book by Veronica Roth
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Octavia Spencer, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgård, Naomi Watts

This will be thought of as the film that ushered forth the end of Hollywood’s necrophiliac habit of making multiple films out of books that don’t warrant them. It’s a fate that should have fallen on a worse film, to be sure, but it had to happen sometime. It’s not a great film. It’s better than Insurgent. Having the cast it does, it should be approaching great, instead of treading through good.

That none of these films share even one author might have something to do with the increasing disconnect with audiences. In total, 9 writers claim credit from the first film until this one. At least the last two had Robert Schwentke, even if in the end it really didn’t help. He was off the docket if there had been a 4th cinematic venture. R.E.D. seems so far away now.

In it’s wake, we have a decent effort by Woodley and James, leading a revolution against an ever evolving foe. The mark has changed from film to film as the world of our heroes expands from myopia to dystopia. Moving from the formidable Kate Winslett to the frayed Naomi Watts to the deceptively smooth Jeff Daniels, the game is still the same: divide, conquer and use for testing.

That my daughter and I enjoyed this film more than the previous probably has more to do with changing venues than anything. We discover a few unsurprising things about the Earth and we’re supposed to root for these fresh-faced kids as they decide that teenage wasteland is not a fun place, because all of the adults are jerks.

As nice as this all is, it’s the kind of film that will be hard to remember in two weeks. To be fair, I waited two weeks before writing this review and my theory proved correct. I need to refer to notes more often than should.

If they’d finished, the series, it likely would not have been improved much. The same can be said for every film set that tried the same gimmick outside of the last Harry Potter film. In that case, the first one was the let down. Still, there are worse ways to pass a rainy Sunday. The Hunger Games series, for instance. Too bad the bottom didn’t fall out on that series first.

(*** out of *****)

 

 

 

Suicide Squad (***1/2) shall remain standing

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Suicide Squad – 2016

Writer and Director David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnamen, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Alain Chanoine, Jared Leto

This movie barely got out of the gates before being slaughtered by reviews. Normally I don’t make a practice of mentioning other gasbags, because Lord knows I value my own gasbagging so much more. In the end, it all doesn’t matter too much. This time, I have to say, something dumb is afoot, and the stupidity is not on the screen.

Suicide Squad, for better or worse, is a latter day DC comic book film. The outlook is dark and more than a little hopeless. The characters are disposable, except for a few. The bad guys are an afterthought and a little too CGI heavy. The things that make one uncomfortable about portrayals in the largely sexist and violent, especially regarding The Joker (Leto) will find those same things here.

If you rule this film out because the word is that it is somehow equally miserable as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you aren’t trying hard enough to enjoy life. In all fairness, those who did not take to that math problem of a film or it’s measurably better Director’s cut, there is a reason to approach cautiously any film in this Universe that they’ve put in Zack Snyder’s hands, as producer or otherwise.

That alone is not reason enough to avoid giving David Ayers a chance. The artist responsible for Training Day, End of Watch and Fury deserves your time. Suicide Squad would have been a worthless pile in many other hands.

The story starts in the wake of events that culminate with Superman’s death. We get a series of introductions as we get to see Federal Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller (Davis) reveal her plans. Some characters get two intross, one’s first meeting is strangely absent until they are on the tarmac. When we see what happens to this sinister agent, it becomes apparent why they did not invest too much time.

Waller’s plan is the formation of a team of “metahumans” who are the baddest of bad criminals that shall be used to accomplish missions for the government. In essence, her rationale is that they need people of extraordinary ability who can take out “the next Superman,” if that one turns out to be bad. If it seems a little thin, well, so did the comic book’s premise. Who’s counting though?

These agents of misfortune are given an offer they cannot refuse in any way, then they are pushed out into their first mission. Will things work out for this crew? When it does, will they get what they are promised? Well, yes to the first question. Of course. It’s the first of a kind of film franchise that they would love to continue. As for the second question, the amount everyone gets is directly proportional to how well this film does and whether refrained from signing a multi-picture deal.

The characters are numerous and differently talented. Some of these talents are useful, some are not as much. Most importantly, are they entertaining? In large part, they are. Robbie absolutely steals the film from her catbird seat. It’s a glorious thing that we get to see Harley Quinn in all of her glory, before she’s is relegated to second banana in a later film tied to The Joker’s insane and often wearying shenanigans. There are zero moments that her mad doctor graces the screen where she is not the character most worthy of our attention.

The only one close to Robbie’s magnetism is Will Smith, who gives his career a necessary jolt with his truly identifiable Deadshot. That he’s given multiple dimensions is not a surprise. He has the chops to pull off the anti-hero that we all can rally behind. He even overcomes a tired subplot of faux-tension with an overly antagonistic Flag (Kinnamen) with charisma beyond the contrivance.

Viola Davis is convincingly charmless and ruthless as Waller. Her acting ability is better than her type of character normally gets or deserves. There is a gravity prevalent that gives the viewer confidence that Waller has the intelligence to survive, so it makes up for the film’s lack of a compelling main villain.

There are drawbacks, to be sure, that keep this film closer to average than classic. First and foremost, Leto’s Joker barely registers. It’s not that this is a bad thing for this reviewer, as the more one heard about the Dallas’ Buyers Club Oscar Winner “method acting” for this role, the more troubled the production appeared. He has a handful of scenes that are pushed to the forefront. The biggest bouts of sexism occur when we look back on his history with Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Even if you know that’s their particular kink, it is not easy to process. There is even a scene with Common that makes absolutely no sense, which – one could suppose – is the point.

This seems to be the summer of villains who don’t do shit. We’ve had some horrible antagonists with Apocalypse,  Krall and now Enchantress (Delevigne). Their job, essentially is to make big plans with the thinnest of motivations. If that seems too much, they also need to wait long enough to for the plot to bring the good guys in the vicinity where, you know, the magic happens. The effects, and especially the dialogue for Delevigne’s Enchantress approaches comically bad. This is deadening to the momentum of each film. It makes one wonder if this is what is what is forcing Marvel’s hand in their re-evaluation of the Avengers Infinity Wars. Two movies of a charmless nemesis Thanos waiting for the inevitable just seems agonizing.

Fortunately this is countered by some excellent work by the less developed characters like El Diablo, Killer Croc and Boomerang (Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All three provide the film with some real entertainment during points in which the story battles inertia. Courtney is a big surprise. It’s rare that he finds a role that allows him to show any amount of charm. Hernandez’ work is especially fulfilling. The marriage of character and story for El Diablo is resonant enough that it gives yet another example of Ayer’s instinct for portraying Hispanic characters with a remarkable depth and clarity. He’s caucasian, just like this reviewer. With only my experiences to draw upon, his Hispanic male characters always resonate for me.

Other things to enjoy are the cameos. I will not go into detail, other than to let you know there are more than one and they do add dimension to the film. Hang on after the credits too past the incredibly apt Twenty-One Pilots song Heathens  and a wonderful collage.

Add up the positives, subtract the negatives and it’s an easy win for Suicide Squad. This movie, especially for Robbie and Smith’s performances, will be watchable for years. If you want to find stuff to hate about the story and film, you will have no problem doing so. If one is honest, the film is definitely likable, even if it does not approach classic overall.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Star Trek Beyond (****) feels like films before

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Star Trek Beyond – 2016

Director Justin Lin
Screenplay Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Starring  John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Lydia Wilson

There is a scene it Star Trek First Contact when, for the second film in a row, they are on the verge of destroying the Enterprise.

Crusher: So much for the Enterprise E.
Picard: We barely knew her.
Crusher: You think they’ll build another one?
Picard: Plenty of letters left in the alphabet.

Including all television series, there have now been 6 times in which the Starship Enterprise has been destroyed. Some of these have been undone by time travel, but still, the bell has been rung enough to train Pavlov’s dog by now. Like those mutts, we keep coming back, thinking we’ll get another morsel or two. Those morsels can sustain us through some lean times (Star Trek V and more recently, Into Darkness) and they also have become an easy dramatic ploy that takes the wind out of the sails of what could be better stories (Generations and Star Trek III) if they had tried a little harder.

This time, the Enterprise is sacrificed to do a little of both. The story is a weak one: a nondescript bad guy (Elba in a wasted role) wants revenge. How the story is told is a good, sustaining nugget that reminds us why we go back to the well over and over.

The story starts out with a turn of Kirk the diplomat. His efforts to offer a piece of an ancient indeterminate space weapon fall into a chaotic fight. This is drawn for laughs, but it falls a little flat when they try to mess with visual perspectives.

We see that the ship has fallen into a routine on the 3rd year of its 5 year mission. This routine works for many, but Kirk and Spock are both looking over the fence, metaphorically speaking. The ship docks at the new starbase Yorktown. Seperately, Kirk and Spock seek out other options unaware of each other’s plans.

While here we also see Sulu, his mate and their child. This is a passing glance, but it made a big news splash when announced in the press tour. That Sulu is gay was a bone of contention for some, including the man (Takei) who originally played him in the series. Everyone who knows Takei understands the irony of his position. Pegg defended the decision, but honestly it’s hard to cite the source (Gene Roddenberry) for his opinion. For me, it seemed obvious by Sulu’s sense of fashion in Star Trek III if nothing else. Really though, where else but Star Trek?

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An escape pod arrives with a tragic tale being told by its survivor (Wilson). The Enterprise is sent out on a rescue mission. What it sees when it gets there has been shown through perhaps the worst ad-campaign for a good movie in years. Why they show you the destruction of the Enterprise and at the same time play Sabotage in the movie’s first (Super Bowl) ad, I will never understand. They could have shown many other things and the movie would have been much better anticipated and received.

Why and how Krall goes about his quest for vengeance is so inventive, it makes one wonder why he didn’t just do it years and years ago. Then, I suppose, he wouldn’t have been able to meet up with Kirk and company. Krall himself is not all that interesting as a bad guy. He’s kind of a combination of Insurrections Ahdar Ru’afo and Nemesis’ Shinzon. This translates to: not memorable and redundant. He has one agent working for him that is effective, however, in the ability to act as a chameleon.

Faring better this time is the tried and true method of breaking up the team into smaller segments and letting those smaller teams bond and coalesce into examples of forward thinking. This process worked well for many of the best Star Trek films in the past (IV and First Contact in particular) as it allows screen time and genuine moments to occur.

Pegg and Jung flesh out better performances by members of the cast short shrifted by the last film (especially Urban’s McCoy) and Lin keeps the action frenetic while allowing the natural wit of the cast acting out Pegg’s script to shine. My heart hurts seeing Yelchin shine as Chekov. His exuberance is engaging and it is sad to know this is the last time we’ll see him in uniform. Live Long and Prosper, Anton.

For everything but the lack of a compelling and properly motivated malevolent force, we have a good movie. Star Trek is not all of the way back, though. All movies except for Star Trek The Motion Picture and IV: The Voyage Home have relied far too heavily on having bad guys seeking vengeance. If they really want a challenge, they should try doing something more esoteric. It didn’t work with the first picture, but it wasn’t because of the plot. It was instead, the concentration of long, silent space scenes in a failed attempt to capture some sort of Kubrickian wonder.

There is an old ship, that lay dormant for years that is discovered in the midst of the chaotic pace. That ship has a story that is only touched upon for purposes of pushing forward with the action at hand. How and why that ship was there for so long is what I wonder about as the last act of the film takes place. What happened to its survivors?  They tell you what they want you to know. It would be more interesting to find out more about their story.

If you want to go where most Star Trek helmers have gone before, Lin is a great choice. His kinetic energy ramps up Abrams action 10-fold. Everything is a pleasure to look at, and he does not waste a single shot. The space fight in the last act is a pleasure both visually and sonically. It would have been even better if they hadn’t let that first trailer out. Only the start of the motorcycle ride looks out of place.

Star Trek in the movies is not a place of wonder and exploration anymore. It’s a jarring, violently paced existence. Do you ever wonder why Quinto’s Spock is not as curious as he is furious? It would take Paramount studios a tremendous amount of courage to go with a story that explores instead of pillages. This reviewer is ready for that type of film.

Even so, this one will suffice for now.

(**** out of *****)

Lights Out (**1/2) but no dance

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Lights Out – 2016

Director David F. Sandberg
Screenplay Eric Heisserer
Starring Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alexander DiPersia, Lotta Losten

First thing’s first. My teenage years took place in the ’80’s, so every time I ever hear the phrase “Light’s Out,” Peter Wolfe’s first solo success comes to mind:

I was kind of hoping this film would supplant that image in my mind. It did not.

Many people experienced Sandberg’s first version of the concept of this story in a 2013. He said that the excellent, if brief, story changed his life for the better. As well it should have:

Since then, he was contracted to make this full length version of the concept and upon seeing that, producer James Wan hired him to make Annabelle 2, which is currently in production.

Lights Out as a full length feature has the challenge of being more than one shot. In this, it fails to exceed the length of it’s PG-13 grasp. It has some real nice moments…some that defy convention even.

We begin at a mannequin warehouse factory. Father and factory owner Paul (Burke) sends his last worker (Losten) home after she is spooked by a shadow in the dark. Soon enough, that shadow overtakes him and we find him disposed of in a brutal manner.

Cut scene to months later when we see Rebecca (Palmer) drawn back into the life of her step-brother Martin (who is the son of Paul). Their mother Sophie (Bello) has been off the meds for a while, and it’s starting to have an effect on the youngster. It’s not just that the mother is acting strange, it’s that she’s talking to the thing that runs around in the dark that we saw in the warehouse earlier. It’s also something that Rebecca finds most familiar.

Rebecca has a boyfriend, Bret (DiPersia) who just looks like one of those guys who is really going to get it from the malevolent force. In fact, we kind of want him to, at first. Stick around though.

There is some back and forth with Martin for a while, as Rebecca and Sophie battle over who’s going to keep him. Rebecca does the obligatory digging. Sooner than one can say neon lights, she finds the obvious stash of incriminating evidence indicating what the history is between Sophie and this force that lives in the shadows.

From here, it’s just following numbers. If it’s obvious what is going on to us, it’s a painful slow burn for the characters. They have to be at certain places during certain times, so the lights can go out, and bad stuff can happen.

The performances are exactly what one would expect from a movie like this. Everyone keeps you in the mood, except for Bello, who seems to be channeling Dee Wallace circa The Frighteners here.

There are a few scary moments in Lights Out (hint: they don’t include Bello), but overall, the film is like a first date movie. The kind you take a girl to when you aren’t sure where she is with the concept of a scary movie, but you wouldn’t mind having her jump into your arms at least once. That might happen, but no more than that.

No one outside of Bello embarrasses themselves in the process. If the movie lacks for drama after the last shot is fired, at least one genuine surprise made me smile. That’s not usually the goal for a scary movie, but I think it works here.

As the credits roll, though, Peter Wolfe immediately came to mind.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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