“The Great Wall”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I know you won’t believe it, but “The Great Wall” is actually quite enjoyable. Most people, including me, really wanted to hate on this movie — but I simply can’t because it’s really, really good looking (and a whole lot of fun). I’ve seen thousands of movies over the years and it’s amazing when one can surprise, entertain and excite me like this one did, especially when I went in with zero expectations. This is a visually stunning period fantasy / action film done right, and it’s directed in the most spectacular fashion by Yimou Zhang.

Matt Damon is horribly miscast as a European mercenary in China who finds himself at the center of a defensive battle to protect the Great Wall from a vicious army of mythological dragon-like creatures. The film is not particularly well written but the action is crazy inventive and creative, and I appreciate that the story is quickly paced and gets right to the point. There’s not too much backstory at all, and the spectacular battle sequences start quickly and swiftly.

The sheer scale of the pageantry on display here is an impressive, dazzling spectacle, from the truly first-class special effects to the exciting, action-packed staging of the gorgeously executed battle scenes. The inventive action scenes manage to remain loyal (and make total sense) to the historical time period in which the film is based. The imaginative costumes are strikingly beautiful and the drum-heavy native original score is terrifically memorable. The film is rumored to have had an astronomically high three-figure budget, and it shows.

This movie is a ton of fun and I can’t believe I am saying this, but make sure you shell out the extra bucks to see it in 3D. It’s more than worth it for the thrills from watching flaming arrows and fanged killer lizards practically leaping off the screen and into your lap.

I dreaded having to review this film, but I loved it.

“Rock Dog”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Rock Dog” is an animated film that’s perfect for older kids (ages 8 – 12), especially those who are musically inclined or play an instrument. While this sweet natured movie isn’t going to change the world or even be remembered years later, it is better than it should be on all accounts.

The film is set high in the snowy mountains of Tibet, where Mastiff pup Bodi (Luke Wilson) lives with his father Khampa (J.K. Simmons). The dogs are responsible for protecting the sheep residents of the village from a pack of big, bad wolves. When Bodi develops a love for guitar playing, he dreams of going to the big city to pursue his music. Once Bodi gets to the city, he crosses paths with famous reclusive British rock star Angus Scattergood (a really, really funny voice performance by Eddie Izzard). You can probably guess what eventually happens with the story because it’s as predictable as they come, and while the film suffers greatly from its stupid ending, the rest of the movie is pretty enjoyable.

Bodi’s wide-eyed, youthful optimism creates a fantastic yin-and-yang quality by playing off of Angus’s grizzled cynicism, and I enjoyed their time together onscreen. At the film’s center is a great “follow your dreams” message about living your life in a way that makes you happy because it’s the only one you’ve got. There’s a catchy original song but it’s surprising that a movie about a guitar playing, rocking dog doesn’t feature a lot of actual rock music.

I expected this movie to be lazily packed with pop culture references (like the terrible “Lego Batman Movie”) but it’s not, and I applaud the filmmakers for refusing to use that as a crutch. There’s just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to make it engaging for adults too, despite its mostly uninspired story. The whole project reminds me of a strange mash-up of “Zootopia,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It’s a different kind of adventure, yet it features the most basic of plots.

While the voice talent is nothing more than competent, the mediocre animation is good enough and the funny characters are likeable enough that it’s not a total loss.

If We Picked the Oscars

Oscar statuettes

If we were Academy voters, here’s a peek at what our 2017 ballots would look like (based on what was nominated). This isn’t what we think will win (so don’t base your Oscar pool picks on this list) but it’s what we personally would vote for in each nominated category. Enjoy the Oscars!

BEST PICTURE

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Louisa
    Isabelle Huppert, Elle

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

BEST DIRECTOR

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

BEST FILM EDITING

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

BEST MUSIC: ORIGINAL SCORE

BEST MUSIC: ORIGINAL SONG

  • Louisa
    “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
    Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
  • Matt
    “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
    Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Louisa
    David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land
  • Matt
    Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena, Passengers

BEST SOUND EDITING

BEST SOUND MIXING

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Louisa
    Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould, Doctor Strange
  • Matt
    Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould, Doctor Strange

“Forushande (The Salesman)”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you’re seeking a feel-good movie, this isn’t it.

In “Forushande (The Salesman),” writer / director Asghar Farhadi has created a dreary, depressing, and at times brilliant dissection of suffering, revenge, morality and mortality. Farhadi delicately and cleverly plays with gender conventions by setting this film in his home country of Iran while using a stage production of “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s classic play about the American Dream, in an orchestrated unison.

At the heart of the story is schoolteacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), two part-time actors who have a love for the craft and spend their free time performing in a theater troupe. By acting in this fantasy world, they are each given the ability to become a new person by hiding behind the mask that’s created by costumes and makeup. When Rana carelessly leaves her front door ajar (in anticipation of her husband coming right up) after a rehearsal, little does she know that her life is about to change. When she mindlessly hops in the shower to wash her hair, a stranger (Babak Karimi) seizes the opportunity to enter the apartment and attacks her in the bathroom.

Much of the film is spent dealing with the aftermath of the attack. Rana either cannot or does not want to recall many details about what happened, and all that’s left behind is the assailant’s truck, a few bloody footprints, and a whole lot of emotional anguish. Her relationship with Emad gradually becomes poisoned by the mystery, and that evolves into mental torture for both of them: she is debilitated by shame, he is infatuated with vengeance.

These are richly developed (and incredibly well acted) characters who are trapped in the ideals of their gender roles within the Iranian culture. There’s a clear societal mandate as to how men and women are expected to behave, even if they feel conflicted about it inside.

Rana solely blames herself for the incident and doesn’t want to face the public scorn and humiliation that reporting the attack to the police or her neighbors would bring. She refuses to speak about the incident out of fear of disgracing her husband, yet he wants to take matters into his own hands in an attempt to get justice on the perpetrator. Her insistence on keeping quiet is the cruelest torment for both of them, and their crumbling marriage is set against the backdrop of the stage production and its rigid acts. There’s a fantastic scene where Rana cries out to Emad for help after breaking down on stage in the middle of a performance. It’s a crushing display of sorrow and suffering, a moment so distressing and painful that you can feel her agony and taste her tears.

Eventually the person responsible is found and confronted, and this is when the film really hits its stride. Envelopes are pushed, albeit gently, and morals are tested. The mystery reveals an unlikely assailant (there are several clues to keep you guessing along the way, at times making it unclear if Rana is making it all up), and the story touches on an individual’s resistance or ease at stepping over the line and into the gray area when it comes to personal integrity and ethical behavior.

Farhadi frames the action in cramped, confined, and crumbling spaces, which elevates the tension tenfold and makes every movement, glare and spoken word feel more devastating than the next. He creates such an intimate portrait that at times you’ll feel like you need to look away because it’s too emotionally painful to watch. He’s also a little heavy handed with the symbolism, like when the couple’s apartment literally starts to fall apart around them (an early shot of Emad staring out of a window that slowly begins to crack is the visual equivalent of a smack on the head). The ending rings a bit false and the closing shot is a little clichéd, as the characters spend the entire film being forced to hide behind and suppress their true thoughts. But when you are so skilled at writing and storytelling (and your actors are so phenomenally understated), even a simple idea reaches a certain level of gravitas.

This isn’t a thrilling, bloody revenge tale (if that’s what you’re after, go see “John Wick: Chapter 2”), but rather a film that’s filled with quiet intensity and hushed fury that’s fueled by heartache and the roles we are forced to play in life.

“The Space Between Us”

LOUISA: 1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Firmly securing a slot on the list of movies that completely waste a compelling, original premise, “The Space Between Us” amounts to nothing more than a tween angst soap opera whose gaping plot holes consume itself like a massive black hole. The thought-provoking idea of a child born during a space mission, raised on Mars, and finally lands the chance to travel to Earth is unconditionally squandered in this forgettable film. It’s a sci-fi movie without any sci-fi, a road trip movie that’s stuck in neutral, and a romance that is far from romantic. It’s also an all around failure.

Weird astro-boy Gardner (Asa Butterfield) has spent his entire life on a space colony on the red planet. He fills his days chatting online with sassy teen Earthling girl Tulsa (Britt Robertson) but he struggles to keep his true life story a top secret mystery. When the head honchos finally decide to bring Gardner to Earth, it turns out the young man’s body can’t acclimate to gravity and he begins to die. It’s an imaginative idea that’s poorly written and directed, and it sadly devolves into a wishy-washy chase movie as the pair try to outrun “the adults” from NASA (Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino). The committed, strong performance from Oldman is at least a welcome surprise here.

There are plenty of predictable platitudes about living the best life you can, loving hard and following your dreams, but the characters and the love story are so sanitized that it flounders on every possible level. This it not a realistic teen love story that’s been done so much better in other young adult films (see “The Fault in Our Stars”). The movie lacks the self confidence to be honest with its characters and its storyline, flat out refusing to push its characters too far into the uncomfortable, slightly dark zone. This would have been a far better movie if everything wasn’t so sanitized and squeaky clean.

The ridiculous and optimistic conclusion is preceded by a steady, antiseptic diet of indifference. It’s hard to care about these characters when they are such one-note shells of real people. The Martian boy is bland and his equally dull romantic interest feels far too forced and fake. Case in point: she’s a foster kid who wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle! What a rebel! He’s a wide-eyed fish out of water who jumps when he first encounters rain and is startled by a horse. How wacky!

This is a very interesting, very ambitious premise that is ruined with rampant cornball, cheesy dialogue and sitcom-like situations. In short, it’s a disappointing waste of what could’ve been an engaging story.

“Fifty Shades Darker”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

While this sequel to 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t as god-awful as the original, it is still difficult to watch and review because of the film’s insistence on attempting to normalize and idealize a toxic, mentally unhealthy relationship. If you don’t know the plot of these BDSM books (from the novels by E.L. James) and films, you’ve obviously been living under a rock. I’m far from being a prude, but the underlying message of this wannabe fairytale film is far too disturbing for me to ignore.

Mousy Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is back with her on-again / off-again tormented billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and they have lots of steamy yet unappealing bondage and punishment-driven sex that we get to watch onscreen every 15 minutes. Spoiler Alert: want to save yourself the price of a ticket? Here’s the entire film in a nutshell: take a couple of lines of laughable, obvious dialogue + a melancholy pop music interlude + a bondage tinged sex scene = a lousy movie. Repeat, repeat and repeat again.

As for the abundance of sex scenes, I must point out that this is the most unsexy movie about sex ever. Is this really supposed to be titillating or enjoyable? The film tries far too hard to convince you that its racy boudoir scenes are seductive and sensual when in reality, they come across as manipulative, abusive and quite unpleasant. Newsflash: this type of bedroom behavior isn’t what women want. Not by a long shot.

Instead of a mindless and fun escape, the film is far too disturbing to look the other way. There’s plenty of the distressing normalization of rape culture and women being the subservient victim. I’m all for consenting adults doing whatever floats their boat, but not at the expense of their self respect. How any woman who truly has even one ounce of dignity can think the manner in which BDSM is presented in these stories is okay simply floors me.

The film tries so desperately to paint Anastasia as an independent feminist, a woman who is in control and can’t be owned. But in contrast, she’s always powerless over her erotic desires and she repeatedly succumbs to the whims of Christian. Mixed messages like these are not only offensive, they’re dangerous.

One scene in particular has continued to haunt me. It’s one in which Christian instantly commands a woman, one of his former “submissives,” to drop to the floor like a begging dog. She does so readily and eagerly, as she’s been properly trained — and it made me feel physically ill. Both women and men should not condone this type of behavior. I know it’s “just a movie,” but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting.

Aside from the disconcerting content, the film is poorly written with confusing and abrupt shifts in tone and the emotionless acting is subpar. The cardboard characters (and subsequent acting) is so terrible that this one could be the final nail in the career coffin of all involved. On the plus side, there is a fantastic, unintentionally hilarious boat driving scene that could easily become a cult classic of awful cinema performances. Seriously. It’s right up there with the french fry moment in “Showgirls” and the “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa” scene in “The Room.”

I honestly cannot tell if any of the cast actually wanted to be in this movie because of the way they walk through the motions with lifeless eyes and expressions — reminding me much of the dead-eyed look I had when I left the theater after watching this movie.

“Fist Fight”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Fist Fight” is one of those movies that’s not exactly great, not exactly awful, but settles comfortably in the “just good enough” category like a straight “C” student. It’s a little lazy in its storytelling and bouts of crude sexual comedy, but the movie tries really hard — making it good for more than a few hearty laughs from the comedic strengths of its two remarkably charismatic leads.

When tough history teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) accuses mousy English teacher Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day) of getting him fired on the last day of school, he challenges the man to an old fashioned fist fight in the parking lot after school. It’s “Three O’Clock High” but with teachers and a Millennial social media sensibility (#teacherfight).

There are some really funny moments leading up to the big brawl, courtesy of a menagerie of eccentric colleagues. There’s an oddball coach (Tracy Morgan), stressed out principal (Dean Norris), indifferent security guard (Kumail Nanjiani), unhinged French teacher (Christina Hendricks), and a wayward and wildly inappropriate guidance counselor (the scene-stealing Jillian Bell with her dry, deadpan style on full, glorious display here).

Teachers in particular will probably get a real kick out of this one because there are loads of educator jokes that are universally funny but will take on an extra special meaning to those in the profession. Yes, we do eventually get to see the final showdown but with all its talk of violence and promises of bloodshed, the film has a sweet (and pro-education) ending.

No doubt this film could’ve been funnier, especially with such a simple yet amusing premise, but its high points are entertaining and amusing enough for a mild recommendation.

“The LEGO Batman Movie”

LOUISA: HALF STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

In “The LEGO Batman Movie,” everything is decidedly not awesome. Not by a long shot. This sequel to the 2014 runway hit “The LEGO Movie” is repetitive, annoying, stale, and will most certainly make my shortlist as one of the very worst films of 2017.

Everybody wants to see gags at the expense of infallible superheroes, but the movie misses just about every opportunity to poke fun at Batman, his cohorts, and his enemies. The film is not amusing, the jokes not funny enough to warrant more than a few polite chuckles, and the satire not biting nor irreverent enough to make any meaningful impact.

There are too many pop culture references masquerading as jokes and the shallow plot (Batman must rise to the occasion and save the city from a group of super villains) makes for a dull evening at the movies. The film tries but sputters, and never quite gets off the ground.

Not helping matters is the animation. I really hate the way this movie looks, with its ugly, chunky and clunky animation. I understand that the animators are trying to capture the look and feel of the popular LEGO brand building toys, but the unpleasant-featured facial expressions come across as shoddy and junky looking. The movie is crowded with repetitive, rapid cut action scenes, and animated action scenes rarely work on a film of this scale (or any, for that matter). Here they are overdone to the point where they feel junky and obnoxious, nothing more than extended scene fillers that stink of desperation.

The voice talent is surprisingly uninspired, especially Rosario Dawson‘s irritating Commissioner Gordon and Michael Cera as the wide-eyed orphan boy who will soon be Robin, Dick Grayson. Will Arnett‘s raspy-voiced, arrogant Batman, while very amusing — briefly — in the original “The LEGO Movie,” just gets too irksome far too rapidly here. It’s a laborious gimmick that’s quickly tiring to the point of no return.

Kids won’t like this movie and adults won’t like this movie. Just like the lead hero’s voice, this one is one big, long, boring monotone.

“Gold”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Inspired by true events in the 1980s, “Gold” tells the story of down-on-his-luck Nevada prospector Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) and his partnership with fellow miner Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez) who strike gold in Indonesia. The men hit a huge payday and must fight against a Wall Street takeover. This is undoubtedly a great idea for a movie, but comparisons to far better films “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short” are inevitable.

This classic rags to riches story is unnecessarily complicated. It’s as if director Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic,” “Syriana”) and writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman were too afraid to leave out even the most insignificant detail of Wells’ life, even though he is a fictional character. Yes, there is no real life Kenny Wells, he’s just a composite of a bunch of real men, hence the “inspired by” disclaimer.

We are forced to watch as Kenny drinks a lot of booze, his failed attempts at making up with his devoted gal (Bryce Dallas Howard), and repeated trips to the jungles of Indonesia to just look around. The real story is in the film’s final twenty minutes when we finally get to the compelling part of the plot, but the slow pace leading up to the big “gotcha” is mostly a chore to suffer through. The movie is overly long and feels much longer than it actually is, which is never a good sign.

Sure, everybody loves money and even more so the dream of an easy payday. What’s a real shame is that there’s no audience hook; nothing to make us care. Even worse is the story’s lack of structure and bland, pedestrian direction. This movie left me longing for what could have been if only this story had fallen into the hands of a more capable screenwriter and director.

McConaughey is good but he’s always good, so nothing in particular stands out about this performance except that it’s wicked fun to stare at his portly pot belly (the actor gained 40 pounds for the role), his balding head and weirdly off-putting snaggletooth (all makeup). Howard is out of her league yet again, unfairly paired with one of the greatest actors of our time. Her lack of talent is amplified when next to McConaughey and quickly becomes even more distracting than usual.

I appreciate McConaughey’s commitment to the material, but even he cannot save this sinking ship.

“Split”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I can see why M. Night Shyamalan‘s tepid suspense / horror thriller “Split” is a runway hit with average audiences. It’s entertaining, well acted and suspenseful enough, but there’s not much to it aside from the gimmick. As with most of Shyamalan’s movies, this one is a chaotic mess — but it’s less disastrous than some of his previous works that are better left forgotten (“After Earth,” “The Village”).

James McAvoy obviously has a lot of fun showing his range by playing the lead character Kevin, a mentally ill man with a dissociative identity disorder (re: multiple personalities). When his trusted psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) learns that Kevin can physically change the state of his body with each split personality, things start to get a little concerning when her patient starts to talk about “The Beast” being unleashed. Kevin abducts three teenage girls so the mythical beast can feed, and the film presents a nice blend of suspense and horror as we watch them attempt to mentally outsmart their captor and escape.

McAvoy is quite talented and chews the scenery with delight, but indie “it girl” Anya Taylor-Joy does little but showcase tears welling in her eyes complimented by her signature pout. The other young women (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) basically sit around in various states of undress, breathing heavily. There’s a surprisingly dark subplot involving one of the girls that’s well done but no less disturbing, but of course it’s the showy lead who steals the spotlight.

The story is creative and good enough, but it’s not great because it’s so contrived. Clever isn’t quite the right word for this, but I will say the film is more clever than man-eating plants that inspire suicide (“The Happening”) or a mermaid who lives in a motel pool (“Lady in the Water”). There’s no real twist ending yet the story is crammed with dead-end plot twists. It’s an unpleasant story and movie and it’s not really scary nor really a feel good movie experience, so calling it enjoyable is also not exactly accurate.

The movie’s potential is mostly wasted, but it’s fun to watch McAvoy go full-on camp as a dude suffering from two dozen personalities.