Movie Review: Free Fire

“Free Fire” is the idea that hits someone 12 hours deep into a Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie movie marathon. “You know what would be cool? It’s like paintball, but with real guns.” And to be fair, that is an interesting framing device, but when everything that follows has been done several times before, the device loses its charm rather quickly. This would explain why the film felt like the longest 85-minute film ever made. It’s interesting, but maddening, thanks in large part to a threadbare story structure, underwritten dialogue, and next to no character development.

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Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

As sweet and lovely as Disney’s 1991 animated film “Beauty and the Beast” is, the story has some, um, inconsistencies. Belle somehow manages to get an injured, beaten Beast up on a horse to bring back to the castle. There is a painting of an adult Prince that could not possibly have been painted. How is it that the local village has no knowledge of an enchanted castle just a short ride away? All of these issues, thankfully, are addressed in the live-action remake of the film, and the emotional stakes are raised quite a bit in the finale (though not in the manner that you might think). The production design is gorgeous, Belle’s yellow dress is as stunning as Cinderella’s blue dress in the 2015 remake of that film, and Emma Watson is an inspired choice to play Belle, and is quite the singer as well.

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Movie Review: T2 Trainspotting

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that “T2 Trainspotting” is one of the most unnecessary sequels the world has ever seen. Instead, let’s discuss my pitch for what that sequel would look like:

Sick Boy and Begbie find Renton, and spend the entire film beating him to death. Roll credits.

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Movie Review: Fist Fight

The first two-thirds of “Fist Fight” play like a Ben Stiller movie from the early 2000s. Our hero is kind but doesn’t assert himself, and is perceived to be a loser by everyone around him, including the ones he loves (and supposedly love him). This part of the movie is less fun, because from a filmmaking standpoint (and in life), picking on the 98-pound weakling doesn’t take any courage or risks. When our hero finally sticks up for himself, the movie feeds off of his adrenaline and begins to soar, culminating in a rather spectacular finish. The path to the ending is littered with dick jokes, but “Fist Fight” makes the early hardships worthwhile. Just barely, though.

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Movie Review: Iron Man 3

When it was announced that Jon Favreau would not return as director of the third “Iron Man” film, the producers surely fielded offers from every name director in town. So how did Shane Black land this gig, again? The guy hasn’t written or directed a feature film since 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and yet here he is, doing that Shane Black thing once again, only this time with superheroes, while trying his best to streamline his R-rated ways for a PG-13 audience. As it turns out, “Iron Man 3” works, but just barely, and it’s more in spite of Black’s influence than because of it. At the beginning of the second act, Black begins to get in his own way, and for anyone familiar with his work, it’s not long before a strong case of deja vu sets in. He even set the movie during the holiday season, just like “Lethal Weapon.” And “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”

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Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World

The opening scene in “Thor: The Dark World” is very revealing, but not in the ways that the filmmakers intended. It tells an exposition-laden tale of a battle bought ages ago between Asgardians (Thor’s people) and the dark elves, who planned to use this mystical force called the Aether (pronounced ‘ether’) to distinguish all light. The scene is meant to shed some light on a plot that they must have deemed too difficult to follow, only it’s not. It’s a straightforward revenge story, and the audience would have figured out the rest in time. That they insisted on spoon feeding the audience shows a lack of confidence, and while “Thor: The Dark World” is not as consistent as its predecessor, the film has some truly great moments, including a spectacular climax. To see them acting so desperate is both unbecoming and unnecessary.

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Movie Review: Despicable Me

Universal has balls of steel for naming their first foray into the world of computer animation “Despicable Me.” In truth, it’s not the best title from a marketing perspective, since it doesn’t tell you anything about the movie, certainly not in comparison to, say, “Toy Story,” “The Princess and the Frog” or “Finding Nemo.” Yet “Despicable Me” is the perfect title for this delightfully silly movie, because it sends a clear message up front that this is not your typical animated adventure. Sure, it has the traditional, sweet moral (being there for your kids is more important than anything you’ll ever do at work), but it also derives laughs out of dream sequences where a grown man joyfully abandons three small children.

Gru (Steve Carell), a Russian criminal mastermind, has hit a bit of bad luck. He hasn’t pulled off a truly diabolical crime in a while, and the bank that funds his work is threatening to cut him off. He has a plan to steal the moon, but for it to work, he needs a top-secret shrink ray. When the ray is stolen by a younger villain named Vector (Jason Segel), Gru devises a plan to use three orphan girls selling Girl Scout cookies to enter Vector’s house and inadvertently assist him in procuring the device. But in order to use the girls, he needs to adopt them, even though he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to take care of or even talk to children. As he spends more time with them, he loses sight of his evil scheme, much to the dismay of both the bank and his staff scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

In basic form, the movie is a bit like “Shrek,” in that the lead is an anti-social grouch who’s ultimately healed by love. The similarities end there, though, as “Despicable Me” draws inspiration from Tex Avery cartoons and the “Spy vs. Spy” series from “Mad Magazine,” right down to Gru’s long, pointy nose. And with “Spy vs. Spy” comes a healthy dose of mean, though the movie is smart to keep things mean but not mean-spirited. Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Despicable Me” is the decision to have the voice actors playing characters, rather than themselves. Brand’s Dr. Nefario has an English accent, yes, but it’s not Brand’s accent, and Vector sounds very little like Segel’s normal speaking voice. Carell, as we mentioned, is Russian, and Kristen Wiig, who plays the heartless director of the orphanage, uses a southern drawl. It’s a little thing, but it makes a big difference.

If there is one thing that disrupts the movie, it’s the way in which it rushes towards the inevitable conflict between Gru and the girls in Act III. It’s not at all natural, and one gets the sense that the directors – both of whom are French, which might explain the movie’s unconventional approach – would have preferred to flesh out the bonding stage of the story, but a studio-mandated run time (and a front end-loaded plot) forced them to make some unpleasant decisions in the storyboarding process. The movie is also one giant You Must Suspend Disbelief moment, as Gru and Vector do all sorts of things that should arouse the suspicion of the authorities, yet no one suspects them of any wrongdoing. And yet, it’s never an issue, and that’s the way it should be. When Gru gets even with a crooked carny at an amusement park, it’s hard to argue with his methods.

If “Despicable Me” is any indication of what’s to come from Universal and Illumination Entertainment, they could be in a position to challenge Pixar before too long. They are clearly not afraid to think big, and their willingness to throw caution to the wind actually gives them a leg up on Pixar in some regards. (Pixar is brilliant, yes, but not what one would call wacky.) Better yet, they’ve delivered the best 3D of any movie not named “Avatar” since this silly 3D trend began. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

(3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Descent

Let me guess: you think you already saw this movie last year, when it was called “The Cave,” right? To that, I have two things to say: guess again, and why on earth did you see “The Cave”? That movie was terrible, but I digress. “The Descent” is one of the creepiest movies you’re going to see this year or any other, a suspenseful, claustrophobic horror flick that is like a hellish melding of “Aliens” with “The Hills Have Eyes.” Indeed, “The Descent” is everything I was hoping the recent remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” would be, and then some.

The story begins with Sarah (Shauna McDonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) wrapping up a whitewater rafting trip, after which Sarah is involved in a horrific car accident that claims the lives of her husband and daughter. Flash forward one year, where Juno gets the gang back together, along with three other thrillseeker friends, for a climbing expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. Sarah, understandably, is still a little skittish, and her nerves are not calmed when they enter the dead-drop set of caves that Juno has found. Not only are the caves dark, narrow and barely navigable, Sarah gets the sense that something else is in the caves with them. Juno tries to convince Sarah that she is suffering post-traumatic stress, but that might be because Juno has a secret of her own with regard to these caves, and doesn’t want to acknowledge that entering the caves may have been a big mistake. Soon enough, however, the entire group receives overwhelming evidence that they are in fact not alone, and their new friends are very, very hungry.

There are two simple things about “The Descent” that I found deeply refreshing. For starters, the six women in this movie are not your typical horror movie screamers. These girls are tough, dammit, and they make quite a few of their predators pay gruesomely for their trespasses. The other refreshing aspect of the movie is the straightforward nature of the dialogue. There are no snappy Whedonesque one-liners or drawn out soliloquies, not that there’s anything wrong whatsoever with the brilliant, brilliant dialogue that Joss Whedon comes up with for his “Buffy”/”Angel”/”Firefly” characters. It’s just that it doesn’t work in this kind of environment, so thankfully we get real talk by real people (Holly, the Irish girl, of course says ‘fuck’ a lot). Oh, I thought of a third simple thing: there’s no nudity. A lesser movie would have had at least one of these girls stripping to their skivvies (think Saffron Burrows in “Deep Blue Sea”), but writer/director Neil Marshall, wisely, plays it straight.

And by straight, I mean unbelievably gory. This movie is a gorehound’s wet dream, between the eating and the stabbing and the gouging and the skull-meets-rock encounters, not to mention one scene that made everyone in attendance groan in sympathy for the victim in question (despite the fact that it doesn’t kill her). Marshall shoots the action in a way that’s disorienting, but not incoherent, and the actresses are game for whatever comes their way. Sure, it has its cliché moments, like the pose-for-the-timed-camera shot early on, which will no doubt be the world’s last evidence of all six women alive at the same time. And there’s also the very last shot of the movie, which in this reviewer’s mind isn’t remotely possible. Still, we go along with the ride because the women, despite playing certain personality types, are not stereotypes, and there’s a big difference between the two. I’ve read on other sites that the movie is an allegory of the battle of the sexes, but screw that. It’s a freaky deaky horror movie, not a grad school thesis.

“The Descent” is one of those rare horror movies that doesn’t try to reinvent a genre – let’s face it, everything’s pretty much been done already – but tries to improve on one, and succeeds beyond its wildest dreams. For anyone who felt as though the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” did not live up to its expectations, do I have a movie for you. But no matter your status as a gorehound, I would recommend seeing “The Descent” in the daytime, because the feeling of the sun on your flesh as you walk out of the theater will cheer you up in ways that you had heretofore never imagined. Seriously.

(4 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Descendants

You’d be hard pressed to find a modern-day American filmmaker who brings out the very best and very worst in his characters, while preserving their likability, the way that Alexander Payne does (though Quentin Tarantino, believe it or not, is not far behind). He has no interest in stacking the odds against someone, and it is that even-handedness that makes his movies so compelling. Case in point: the protagonist in his great, great 1999 comedy “Election” cheats on his wife and conspires to rig a student council election against a girl who, in his eyes, needs to be taken down a peg. A teacher picking on a teenage girl…and you’re rooting for him the entire time. That, right there, takes skill.

All of Payne’s signature trademarks are on display in his latest film “The Descendants,” but for the first time in a decade, there is an emotional detachment that keeps the viewer at arm’s length, which is all the more surprising considering that this is the most harrowing story Payne has adapted yet. One might argue that this was Payne’s goal, to show the family who suffers through the insufferable while maintaining their dignity. If so, those are admirable intentions – families go through this sort of thing all the time, after all – but the movie suffers as a result.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) has lived his whole life in Hawaii, but as he says himself in a voiceover, he is a long way from paradise. His estranged wife Elizabeth suffered a head injury in a boating accident, and is in an irreversible coma. His eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is doing everything she can to get kicked out of private school, and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) needs a strong authority figure in the absence of her mother, something that the workaholic Matt is not used to providing. Meanwhile, the rest of Matt’s extended family is leaning on him to sign paperwork that would unload his family’s last parcel of land and make them all rich. If all of this weren’t enough, Matt learns some shocking secrets about his wife’s activity before the accident, which leads Matt to take the girls, plus Alexandra’s surfer dude friend Sid (Nick Krause), on a road trip to Kauai to do a little fact-finding.

Matt spends more time under Payne’s microscope than anyone else here, so it stands to reason that the movie’s most emotionally gratifying scene comes when Matt is trying to placate his inconsolable father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster), despite the fact that everything Scott thinks he knows about his daughter is wrong. This is not to say that Payne lets anyone else off the hook, but rather that he seems more singularly focused than in his previous films. You have to think that rising real estate star Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) has a story to tell, as does Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), but we do not get their perspective – just a glimpse at the impulses driving them at that moment. It feels like a cheat by comparison to Payne’s other work.

This is not to say that the actors don’t do their part to make the movie as watchable as possible. Clooney is pitch-perfect as Matt, handling Scott’s misdirected insults and the unwanted extra baggage of Sid (think Keanu Reeves crossed with Chris Klein) with far more grace than any of us will ever know. Shailene Woodley is getting the Oscar buzz for her turn as the rebellious Alexandra, and she’s quite good, but the best female performance here belongs to Judy Greer, who plays Brian Speer’s wife. She sounds defeated even when she’s calling out to her kids at the beach, as if to suggest that she had no say in what their (super-trendy) names would be. Her best moment, though, comes later, when she delivers a heartbreaking scene in the finale.

Payne has the mindset of a documentarian at times in his films, but “The Descendants” could have used a more forceful hand. Matt’s situation is difficult, but his choices are easy; when the movie ends – and the final scene is flawless – Matt hasn’t challenged our notions of right and wrong the way Payne’s other protagonists have. It’s smart and beautifully made, but Payne had the opportunity to punch the audience in the chest, and didn’t take the shot. Pity.

(3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Delivery Man

It’s easy to see why Touchstone wanted to make “Delivery Man.” It has a ton of heart, and it honors the bonds and the importance of family. The catch is that it is an indie script through and through – though a flawed one at that – and the big-budget touches they add to it, namely Vaughn doing that ‘look Ma no hands’ thing that he does, do not serve the material. Despite the outrageousness of the plot, it’s an intimate movie. A smaller scale would have worked wonders, but only to a point.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a terminable screw-up. He delivers meat for the butcher shop his father runs, and he is always late, always racking up parking tickets, and completely unreliable. (Also, he owes a loan shark $80,000, as if he weren’t already in enough trouble.) In the span of 24 hours, he discovers that his policewoman girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) is pregnant, and that as a result of nearly 700 donations to a sperm bank when he was in his 20s, he is the father of 533 children. One hundred forty-two of these children want to meet him, and have filed a class action suit against the sperm bank to reveal his identity (he signed all of the documents under the name Starbuck). His lawyer friend Brett (Chris Pratt) takes the case, and gives David an envelope containing profiles of the 142 plaintiffs. Against Brett’s advice, David visits some of his kids anonymously, and tries to help them any way he can. When he sees the good fortune that his kindness provides, David’s life has purpose for the first time, but remaining anonymous quickly proves to be difficult.

Don’t let the trailers fool you: this is not some broad, wacky comedy, even if it’s based on a premise involving a sperm bank. David is essentially coming face to face with people who possess exaggerated amounts of his best and worst qualities (one’s a professional basketball player, one’s a junkie), and learning a hell of a lot about himself in the process. There are moments of levity here and there, but this is much more of a drama than it is a comedy, and it should be. To make too many jokes about this premise would be missing the point.

And what, then, of the parents who raised these kids? They are not spoken of once, and while including them as characters would admittedly bog down the plot, a simple line of dialogue acknowledging their existence and sacrifice would have been nice. There is also the matter of Ryan, the severely disabled participant in the lawsuit. The boy can’t speak, never mind write. How, then, did he give his consent to participate in the lawsuit? That may sound like splitting hairs, but it doesn’t make any sense from a logical standpoint. He’s basically there to manipulate the audience, and while it works, it’s a cheat.

You can see why they wanted Vaughn to play David. He’s a very likable guy, and David is equally as likable. Had they kept Vaughn properly restrained, he may have delivered exactly what the role required. As it is, they gave him too much rope, and the movie suffers because of it. Vaughn is an inherently funny guy, but there is nothing inherently funny about the plot. I’m going to chalk this up to director Ken Scott, who wrote and directed the 2011 film “Starbuck” upon which this film is based, not feeling as though he had the clout to tell Vince Vaughn to take it down a notch. Or worse, he was getting notes from the studio execs to let Vince run wild. Either way, it wasn’t the right call. Also, Smulders is wasted as the girlfriend. She’s the most important person in his life, and she’s treated as an afterthought.

“Delivery Man” has its good points and bad points, but the one thing I kept asking myself when it ended was, who is the audience for this movie? Vince Vaughn fans will most likely be disappointed because it’s not as unleashed as his other work, and indie film fans who would otherwise flock to see this movie will instead skip it because it was made by a major and it stars Vince Vaughn. Neither group is right and neither group is wrong, but both sides shed light on why this version of “Delivery Man” doesn’t work, but that the material has the potential to be something much, much greater.

(2.5 / 5)
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