“Green Room”

LOUISA:  2.5 STARS    MATT:   4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I love violent movies, revenge movies and thrillers, but “Green Room” just didn’t work for me. The strong premise (a punk rock band is held captive in a backroads club by a group of neo-Nazi white power hillbillies) is squandered in a painfully slow to start film. Once things finally get rolling, the movie becomes hyper violent and repetitive (how many close-up scenes of blood-splattered pit bulls ripping out people’s throats do we really need?), filled with cut after cut after cut of extreme brutality that’s intended to startle and shock rather than serve any constructive purpose.

The hillbilly bloodbath that dominates the third act feels too much like reheated leftovers from director Jeremy Saulnier‘s much better work, “Blue Ruin.” As the main characters were picked off one by one, my emotional detachment grew and I found it harder to care, quickly becoming bored with it all. Saulnier is a talent to watch, but his finesse for tension building is wasted on poor character development and a laborious script.

Even the laughably bad dialogue couldn’t take my mind off of the glaring miscasting of Patrick Stewart as a white supremacist club owner or the inauthentic, pedestrian performances from the talented cast (including Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Mark Webber, Macon Blair and Joe Cole).

The movie is technically well constructed and beautifully crafted, but the story is so tainted with one-note characters, elementary dialogue, and copious amounts of repulsive violence that it briskly sinks under its own enthusiasm.Sadly , this one is no better than any run-of-the-mill direct to video movie you could pick up in a Redbox on a Friday night.

MATT SAYS:

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his festival favorite (and entry in my 2014 top ten list) “Blue Ruin” with this gory and suspense-filled tale of ordinary people coping with extraordinary situations.

The story is simple: a struggling punk/metal band gets a gig playing a neo-Nazi skinhead club in rural Oregon. One of the members sees something he wasn’t supposed to, and quickly the band becomes trapped in the titular green room.

A completely fresh take on the siege movie, the characters in “Green Room” aren’t combat vets. They aren’t experienced with weapons. They know little about strategy. Instead, they are forced to rely on their imperfect wits to deal with ever-changing circumstances in a fight for their lives as the body count continues to rise. Allegiances shift and hidden motives become revealed as the movie continues to surprise. We’ve never seen a siege movie quite like this one.

Tautly constructed with relatable performances (including a memorable turn from Patrick Stewart), the story movies quickly and the suspense remains gripping throughout.

Oddly enough, Louisa completely disagreed with me on this movie and didn’t find it compelling at all. That rarely happens. I would love for more people to see this one and let us know which one of us you agree with.

 

“Keanu”

LOUISA:   3.5 STARS   MATT:   4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you’ve seen the trailer for “Keanu,” then you’ve already seen 75% of the best bits of the movie. Thankfully there are slightly more hits than misses, but there are still a lot of misses.

Contemporary comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play Clarence and Rell, two suburban Los Angeles cousins who find themselves posing as ruthless, murdering drug dealers in order to rescue Rell’s stolen cat (a feline who himself escaped a terrible bloodbath at a major illegal drug operation). It doesn’t take long for these straight-laced dudes to find themselves out of their element. When they attempt to infiltrate the 17th Street Blips gang at a seedy strip club, Rell chides Clarence and tells him that he sounds “like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy.” This leads to an amusing bit of improvised gangsta speech that sticks to the tried and true social humor that made Key and Peele famous in the first place.

The absurd story works because it’s played with sincerity. The film might not be consistently hilarious but it sure is a lot of fun. The fuzzy kitten co-star is so damn adorable that whenever he appeared on screen there were dozens of audible “awwwwws” coming from the audience. I did love the theme of undying devotion to your animal companion — Rel and Clarence will do just about anything to get the feline back — and everyone instantly falls head-over-heels in love with the irresistible Keanu as soon as he crosses their path. All this cuteness is offset with a handful of inspired jokes, lots of blood, violence and splashy action sequences; there’s far more action than actual comedy. If you are a fan of shootouts, this will be right up your alley. The film reminded me of “Pineapple Express” with two black dudes and a kitten.

This could be the crazy cat lady side of me talking, but “Keanu” suffers from a major problem: Not. Enough. Cat. The titular feline sadly doesn’t get much screen time and when he does, he steals the show. For those of you who live with cats like I do, you’ll probably get the feeling that not many people involved with the film have actually spent much time around cats. I counted several missed opportunities for jokes about cat behavior (but at least there are two really funny bits involving kitty scratching).

I don’t want to give away the few jokes that work but I will say there are a couple of insider references thrown in that are sure to delight my fellow longtime fans of their now-defunct Comedy Central sketch series, “Key & Peele.” Even if you’ve never heard of these guys you’ll soon find yourself charmed by their undeniable charisma. Given their comedic pedigree is providing the backbone for the film, I was surprised that most of “Keanu” doesn’t work. The movie’s weird emphasis on George Michael was funny at first but quickly overstays its welcome. A drug-induced dream sequence was a premise that was thoroughly wasted (the set-up was there but the execution flopped). More friendly stunt casting (along the lines of Will Forte as a wannabe hip-hop / expert drug dealer and the always amusing Rob Huebel as a potential wife-stealing “friend”) would’ve been welcomed. Anna Faris shows up in a wacky cameo as a coked-up, samurai sword wielding version of herself, and Method Man gives a fun performance as drug dealer Cheddar. There’s one other cameo that I won’t dare spoil for you!

I was a loyal fan of Key and Peele’s television show so I know how funny these guys can be. “Keanu” ultimately let me down because the pair deserve better. It’s not a stinker but it’s what I would only call “a good effort.”

MATT SAYS:

Over the past several years, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have established themselves as comedic forces to be reckoned with. While they have ended their long-running show “Key & Peele” on Comedy Central, “Keanu” gives fans of the duo (like me) hope that the movie announces a new phase in their career and that we can look forward to more features like this one.

“Keanu” has a beautifully simple story: recently-dumped Rell (Peele) is lifted from his depression when a kitten shows up at his door. He and the cat — who he names Keanu — quickly bond, much to the delight of Rell’s best friend Clarence (Key). But then, Keanu is kidnapped by a gang and Clarence and Rell go on a rescue mission — but find themselves in over their heads with the criminal group. Fans of “Key & Peele” are rewarded with some awesome Easter eggs sprinkled throughout.

Key and Peele exhibit the easy chemistry that comes from having worked together for so many years; it’s fun to watch them taking on these roles that, like so many sketches on “Key & Peele,” play with masculine and racial identity in a fun and funny way. They’ve surrounded themselves with a talented supported cast, led by Method Man (playing gang leader Cheddar), Will Forte, and the delightful Tiffany Haddish who plays sometime gang member slash love interest for Rell. The core group works well together, and there is a healthy sprinkling of some delightful cameos that I won’t spoil for you.

The movie fires on all cylinders for the first 30 minutes or so, when the laughs come quickly and naturally. Still, like most comedies the movie can’t sustain the momentum it created in the first act, and is somewhat weighed down by its attempts at character development, which to me seemed a little unnecessary. But it picks up again in the third act where we get treated to a fun action set piece in perfect “Key & Peele” tradition. The conclusion is both appropriate and satisfying, and a very brief Marvel-inspired post-credits sequence is worth sticking around for.

While it’s not as great a movie as I was hoping for, I was thoroughly entertained and had plenty of laughs. If you like the writing and comedy of these guys, you will like this movie, too.

“Miles Ahead”

LOUISA:  3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Miles Ahead” is nothing if not ambitious. This Miles Davis biopic is obviously a passion project for Don Cheadle (who not only plays the lead but also co-wrote, produced and directed the film), but the unconventional style and tone simply doesn’t work as a whole. I’m not saying that Cheadle isn’t a skilled director, I just think he needs more on-the-job training to get better at it. This is his directorial debut and his confused style simply needs a bit more focus — and that’s something you gain from experience.

The movie is visually frustrating and mixes far too many filmmaking styles to the point where it quickly becomes an exasperating mess. I tried to internally argue that maybe Cheadle was attempting to capture the visual feel of jazz, the music genre associated with liberating riffs and the freedom to drastically shift moods and tempos without limitation. I still have been unable to convince myself that this is the case and instead I have to face the facts: this film stumbles and never fully recovers.

The story is mostly fictional fantasy, so don’t go in expecting to learn anything significant or meaningful about Davis’ life. The film neglects to portray much of the creative inspiration or background of the troubled and talented artist. Even the few random true bits are tackled with great poetic license, making the film feel like everyone involved was trying way too hard to prove they could make an unconventional biopic.

“Miles Ahead” takes place over the span of a few days in the late 1970s and focuses on a strained crime caper plot where Miles (in an effortlessly cool performance from Cheadle) and shaggy-haired Rolling Stone reporter Dave (the ever charming Ewan McGregor) set out to reclaim a secret session recording that has been stolen by slimy agent Harper Hamilton (played in an over-the-top caricature style by Michael Stuhlbarg).

The fictional aspect of the story is unnecessary and feels more like a slap in the face than what should have been a thoughtful tribute to the musical legend and cultural icon. You won’t learn anything about the famous trumpeter’s life or career as the film chooses to focus instead on ridiculous shootouts, car chases, cocaine-fueled parties and boxing matches. At least we get a few glimpses into the personal background of the man, mostly about his estranged wife Frances (the lovely Emayatzy Corinealdi), told in way too brief flashbacks. Sadly, the set pieces are more enjoyable than the story. The real star should’ve been Davis’ music, and there’s not enough of it.

For its sheer ambition, “Miles Ahead” earns an extra half star. The film is worth seeing if you are a fan of Miles Davis, but it’s not as good as I wanted it to be. In a word: disappointing.   


Matt was unavailable for review.

“Everybody Wants Some!!”

LOUISA:   1 STAR   MATT:  1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

I am one of those rare film nerds who isn’t a fan of director Richard Linklater‘s 1993 opus to disco-era slackerdom “Dazed and Confused.” I’ve seen it several times (most recently last year) and it still doesn’t speak to me. “Everybody Wants Some!!” is pretty much the same lame idea of taking a trip down nostalgia lane except instead of a 1970s high school the setting is now a 1980s college. And even I think “Dazed and Confused” is the far better movie of the two.

There’s not much to like about “Everybody Wants Some!!” It feels incredibly stale, nothing more than a tedious exercise in inferior mumblecore that rambles aimlessly all over the place. The film never finds anything important nor even mildly amusing to say. It’s as if Linklater, so desperately wanting to recapture some of his college nostalgia, simply turned on his camera and let his dull actors unskillfully riff on vapid 80s references. There’s a particularly painful early scene (masquerading as effective content) of a group of guys singing along to Rapper’s Delight on the radio. It goes on for such a long time that I started uncomfortably squirming. In retrospect that was the first clear-cut clue that this movie was going to suck.

I hated almost everything about this movie. Is it because I’m not a guy and I don’t “get” the bro humor? Must I understand the comaraderie of sports teammates to find these guys likeable? No, it’s because it’s not funny, the characters are pointless, and there’s no direction in the script (or on screen). The movie often confuses taking a wistful look at the past with compelling content. Sorry, but simply blasting a classic rock soundtrack while laughing at the old school video games and short shorts does not a good movie make. Yeah, it may bring back pleasant memories, but that’s all it does.

Even the film’s premise has no direction! The movie starts with good guy freshman and All-American baseball player Jake (Blake Jenner, the biggest failure in the cast, is woefully inept at carrying a movie) moving into the Texas college team’s testosterone fueled house. There’s lots of sex, lots of profound marijuana fueled conversations, lots of record spinning, lots of fighting, and even some ping pong matches thrown into the mix. Think it sounds fun to hang out with these guys for a couple of hours? It’s not.

The formulaic caricatures start with a by-the-book checklist of cookie cutter characters. There’s a deep-thinker stoner (Wyatt Russell), the angry and slightly deranged loser (Juston Street), the token black guy (J. Quinton Johnson), and two obnoxious alpha male team ringleaders (Ryan Guzman and the admittedly charismatic Wooderson rip-off performance from Glenn Powell). Adding to the tedious story is a stupid romantic subplot about fine arts major Beverly (an irritating performance by Zoey Deutch) and a mildly mean-spirited one revolving around the bullying of a sissy hillbilly teammate (Will Brittain).

I can’t even begin to describe how truly god-awful this movie is. It’s a complete waste of time, it becomes increasingly more of a chore to sit through as it rambles on, and I regret not walking out before it was over. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

MATT SAYS:

“Everybody Wants Some!!” bills itself as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Director Richard Linklater‘s earlier film, “Dazed and Confused” (spiritual because the two movies feature none of the same actors or characters). But while the two share some similarities, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is not even close to being as good as its so-called predecessor.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” follows Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman baseball player and several of his teammates during the weekend immediately before his first day of classes at a university in Texas. He hangs out with some of his housemates, they go to parties and bars, meet girls . . . and that’s pretty much it. The guys and girls play baseball, ping pong, pool, and Space Invaders and have some intellectual and quasi-philosophical conversations. But nothing really “happens” in this movie.

Yes, the same could be said for “Dazed and Confused.” But in that movie, we follow a number of different teenagers from different cliques and from different backgrounds; we don’t stay only with one group for the whole movie, which is the case in “Everybody Wants Some!!” In “Dazed,” there is at least one character with whom each of us can identify, and we can remember fondly having either lived through some of the same things as the high schoolers in that film — or at the very least, having known people who did. “Everybody” lacks the same kind of universal appeal. By staying on the same characters for the entire film, Linklater has put all of his eggs in one very flimsy basket. The guys in this movie just aren’t very interesting and (as all-American athletes) are difficult for most of us to relate to.

Whereas “Dazed” featured a stellar cast with incredibly memorable characters, there are no standouts in “Everybody.” There’s no Wooderson, no Slater, no “Pink” Floyd here. Hell, there’s not even an O’Bannion. Not one of the stars of “Everybody” is particularly memorable, and there were no conversations here that are worth quoting. It’s almost as though “Everybody” was made in the style of a mumblecore movie (with a minimal script and a ton of improvisation) but with actors who lacked the skill and experience to make it interesting.

If not for its pedigree, this film wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone. It’s simply not worth your time.

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”

LOUISA:   3.5 STARS    MATT:   4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a much better movie than it should be. In this sequel (and prequel) to 2012’s also enjoyable “Snow White and the Huntsman,” the classic fairy tale is given a modern storytelling spin. It’s like a grown up, real life version of Disney’s animated “Frozen.”

Emily Blunt plays Freya the ice queen and Charlize Theron is back as her sister, the wicked evil queen Ravenna. There’s a rivalry between the two but thank goodness Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) returns to save the day and sets off to track down the famed mirror mirror on the wall. The hunky huntsman isn’t alone in his heroic quest this time around: allied with him is fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain) and a quartet of sarcastically witty dwarves (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach). There’s no Kristen Stewart as Snow White this time, but I really didn’t miss her too much.

Before you dismiss this as another ‘damsel in distress’ film, let me assure you it’s not. This is an ass-kicking feminist fantasy action / adventure film, and it works. The cast has great chemistry across the board. The lively fight sequences are well choreographed. There’s just the right mix of slightly suggestive humor (and it’s where the film mostly earns its PG-13 rating). Yes, there’s a love story (and it’s a good one too, sure to appeal to those who love sappy romantic films), but the female-centric fable drives the plot and action. The convoluted and ridiculous plot isn’t the star of the film, but instead this movie is all about the larger-than-life performances, splashy costumes, lavish makeup and dazzling visual effects.

I am not a fan of films that rely heavily on computer generated animation, but only if that animation isn’t competently executed. The effects here are flawless, impressive and extremely well done. Icy walls, black tar daggers, shattered golden mirrors, wisecracking dwarves and more totally immersed me in the imagined world. (Okay, the CGI goblins were a bit of a turnoff but one stinker out of thousands of visuals isn’t too bad).

Fans of costumes will no doubt take great delight in the wardrobing. I found myself gasping at some of the outfits,  especially Ravenna’s ensembles and makeup (her crown, her hair, her accessories, the gold feathered eye makeup…WOW!!!). The show-stopping costumes coupled with the accomplished animated effects make the film a visual feast.

If you want to escape to a fantasy world for a couple of hours and enjoy talented actors, beautiful costumes, a few laughs and some of the best visual effects in recent memory, go see this movie.

MATT SAYS:

This sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” is surprisingly good and an entertaining watch.

The story is part-sequel, part-prequel, starting with the origin story of Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), who were trained to fight in the army of Queen Freya (Emily Blunt). After a gap of several years (during which the events of the previous movie took place), the movie finds Eric living in Snow White’s kingdom. After the magic mirror that belonged to evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) goes missing, Eric is sent by Snow White to seek out and retrieve the mirror along with his dwarf sidekicks, Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon).

One of the problems with going to the movies all of the time is that by the time I see a movie in the theater, I’ve almost always seen the trailer for the movie several times (in the case of “Captain America: Civil War,” I’ve probably seen that trailer 20 plus times). As I’m watching the film, I frequently say to myself — “oh, this must be the scene from the trailer where X happens.” Add that together with the fact that most big-budget pictures are almost always intensely predictable, and I find that it’s only in rare instances where I really don’t know exactly where the story is going.

In “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” I found myself pleasantly surprised, particularly during the critical second act when Hemsworth and Chastain carry the story. Hemsworth is intensely likeable and sympathetic as Eric, and he has an easy chemistry with Chastain that provides a solid foundation for the story. Add in the dependable Blunt and Theron as the two sister queens, and you have a better-than-average big budget movie.

Key negatives are that the battle scenes are filled with the all-too-familiar fast cutting that makes it difficult to follow the action (and is particularly effective at masking lazy fight choreography), and that the resolution of the fight at the film’s climax is a foregone conclusion that lacks dramatic tension. We know what’s going to happen, and watching the characters get there as the final minutes unfold isn’t particularly exciting.

The Hollywood prognosticators have been quick to condemn “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” as the first big flop of 2016. And financially it may be that, but a lack of box office success doesn’t indicate a lack of quality. This movie is good. If you like these actors, it’s worth watching.

“Demolition”

LOUISA:   5 STARS   MATT:   5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Demolition” is an offbeat movie that delves deep in its exploration of grief and human relationships. It’s a decidedly adult drama about self-discovery, at times considerably emotional and slightly subversive. This is complex filmmaking at its finest, and this movie spoke to me. There’s a lot going on here; so much that I can’t wait to watch the movie again. I’m sure it will get even richer with subsequent viewings.

After his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is tragically killed in a car crash where he’s in the passenger seat, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to fall apart. His father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) watches as Davis’ life unravels (and weighty secrets are gradually unearthed). A handwritten complaint letter to a vending machine company over a $1.25 refund for a pack of peanut M&Ms leads to Davis’ path crossing with pothead Karen (Naomi Watts) and her sexually confused son (Judah Lewis). Soon after, a strange friendship ensues and Davis literally begins to tear apart his former life. He becomes obsessed with dismantling everything in site, from espresso machines, bathroom doors, clocks, and ultimately his own memories.

This film is completely self-aware yet not cliched. (Believe me, I was ready to start rolling my eyes when Davis drives past an uprooted tree, but then we hear his voice-over blurt out that “everything has become a metaphor”). This is just one of the many perceptive aspects of the movie that thoroughly worked for me. I found it easy to relate to the story and there was something in each of the characters that rang true in my own personal experiences. Nothing feels forced — even the overt symbolism — because it’s presented in a way that elicits empathy and is wholly engaging. The authenticity keeps the story from sinking into a commonplace melodrama.

The main reason I loved this film is due to the brilliant screenplay. It’s wordy, insightful, intelligent and hands-down gets my vote for my favorite (and best written) screenplay so far this year. (I can’t believe it was written by Bryan Sipe, the same writer who adapted the Nicholas Sparks novel “The Choice” for the screen).

There are so many things that worked in this film: the killer soundtrack, the all-around solid performances from the cast (Gyllenhaal continues his streak as the new master of the edgy performance), the style of the poignant vignettes of pleasant memories of the lead character’s former life, and especially the story exposition through letter writing. When Davis begins unloading his grief and life story in his letters, the truth begins to emerge. When he writes “I don’t think I really knew who she was” about his dead wife, you get a real glimpse of honesty about his marriage and his character. I loved, loved, LOVED the storytelling device of letter writing.

Hat’s off to director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”); he’s created a fantastic work of art. Memorable scenes are everywhere, from a cathartic solo dancing bit on a bustling New York City street to the actual bulldozing of a window-heavy house to a very moving (and funny) scene about gender identity in a hardware store. One of my favorite scenes is when Davis, numb with grief, volunteers to do some work with a demolition crew. While working he steps on a nail. At first Davis howls in pain but his screams quickly turn to gleeful laughter as he realizes that yes, he still can feel pain. There are so many affecting scenes just like this, many filled with gratifying emotional surprises. It’s painfully beautiful.

“Demolition” excels in telling its narrative of loneliness, self-destruction, shock, grief and emptiness in a tender and realistic way (and even adds a bit of dark humor to the mix). The movie feels raw, gut-wrenching, believable and authentic.

As I finished writing this review, I actually just said aloud: “damn, I really loved this movie.”

MATT SAYS:

“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, just examine everything, and then you can put it all back together.”

This advice – given to Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhall) by his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) – is the engine that drives “Demolition,” the newest film from director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club“). Davis is a successful investment banker working for Phil’s company who seemingly has it all: the Porsche, the flashy modern house in the suburbs, the beautiful wife, the designer clothes, and an impressive office perched high up in a gleaming skyscraper. In an instant, a car accident takes the life of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), and suddenly, Davis doesn’t know how to act. As a human being, Davis knows that he should be grieving for his loss, but in truth he can’t feel anything. His co-workers, parents, and in-laws all expect him to be overcome with sadness, but he isn’t. He’s numb, and he admits to himself and to his doctor that he’s felt that way for a long time. Davis wants to feel something about Julia’s death, and he feels like he’s broken because he doesn’t.

Part of Davis’s problem is that he realizes that he never really knew Julia. He married her because – in his mind – that’s what society expected of him and it was the easiest thing to do. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t miss her but he’s trying to. So he takes Phil’s advice quite literally and begins “taking apart his marriage” by disassembling or destroying the shiny things he and Julia accumulated during their marriage. Along the way, he strikes up a unique friendship with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who is drawn to Davis and his soul-searching honesty. It is through his new relationship with Karen and her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) that we see Davis begin to find again what he feels that he lost.

“Demolition” is an expertly-crafted reflection on the nature of marriage and the value we give to our lives and our loved ones. Who is this person we’ve chosen to live our life with? Are we appreciating our spouse for who she or he is, or do we see that person as another thing we’ve collected; a status symbol, a way to signify to ourselves and others that we’ve made it and that we matter? And even if we married for the “right” reasons – for love – what will happen to us if we don’t take care of that love? It is these very human questions that “Demolition” explores and attempts to answer, and I adored every minute of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t just cast well as Davis. He OWNS this role. I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off as well as he did: Davis’s mien may be inscrutable, but he’s not; he may appear cold-hearted, but he’s not; he may seem unaffected by his wife’s death, but he’s not. He’s struggling with his humanity in a world where he’s learned to place far too much value on facades and the trappings of success without learning what it means to live richly. Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance perfectly captures the dichotomy between how the world views him and how he views the world. This is expressed not only through what’s been left on the screen for us to see, but also through his inner monologue, which we hear expressed as a series of letters written by Davis to a customer service department for a vending machine company. This technique for expressing voice-over narration may sound gimmicky on paper, but in execution it works beautifully.

As Karen and Phil, Watts and Cooper are also excellent as usual. But apart from Gyllenhaal, the other standout in this movie is Judah Lewis. As Chris – a young adult confused about his own life, sexuality, and place in the world — Lewis serves as Davis’s mentee and partner-in-crime. Take it from me: this young man is an actor to watch.

In its contemplation of big ideas about marriage, society, love, and the ways in which we seek to define ourselves to others, “Demolition” acquits itself admirably. It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s very, very human.

 

“Elvis & Nixon”

LOUISA:   4 STARS   MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

In December of 1970, Elvis Presley showed up unannounced at the front gates of the White House to request a personal meeting with President Nixon. The story of Presley’s fascination with the FBI and his insistence on being given an honorary special agent badge so he could go undercover to help America has always fascinated me. Who hasn’t looked at that famous photo of Nixon and Elvis shaking hands and wondered what the heck went on in the Oval Office that day? This movie tells the (imagined) story of the what, why and how of that now legendary meeting.

Fans of Elvis will especially get a kick out of this movie. I’ve visited Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee several times over the years and I remember one of the main exhibits that housed Elvis’ many official law enforcement badges from police departments across the country. The badges filled an entire wall. If you have a basic background knowledge of Elvis and his many quirks, you’ll find an enhanced richness to the story. It helps if you know a bit about Nixon too, so read up a bit on your history before going to see it. Even if you aren’t very familiar with either man’s backstory, there’s still plenty to enjoy.

“Elvis & Nixon” is charming, witty and quite funny. Michael Shannon abandons his signature over-the-top acting style and dials it down a bit to play Elvis. His subdued approach fits the role well, allowing him to capture the legend through his well-mimicked speech patterns all the way down to his swagger. Kevin Spacey is lively as Nixon, obviously having a ball chewing on his role. (I’m glad my fear that he’d be channeling too much Frank Underwood was completely unfounded). Colin Hanks (Egil “Bud” Krogh) and Johnny Knoxville (Sonny) turn in two very affable and amusing supporting performances too, and Alex Pettyfer is likeable as Elvis’ right hand man, Jerry Schilling. It is obvious everyone involved in this film had a ton of fun making it, and their real-life bromances leap off the screen.

The period set pieces are fun and the soundtrack is great (no Elvis songs, though). The pacing is just right and for once, here’s a film with a reasonable 86 minute run time (it left me wanting more). This film is not something that’s going to change the face of cinema, but it’s a lively little gem of an indie movie.

Side note for parents: this film is unfortunately rated R solely because some characters utter the “f word” several times, but there’s nothing else objectionable about the content. It’s completely appropriate for mature pre-teens who are interested in history (or Elvis).

Overall I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very fun movie and is a must-see for history lovers and fans of the King.

MATT SAYS:

“Elvis & Nixon” is a good bit of goofy fun.

Inspired by the meeting in 1970 between The King and the leader of the free world, “Elvis & Nixon” is about the collision of two larger-than-life self-made men that seemingly connected with one another over a shared set of values. This legendary meeting preceded Nixon’s wiring up the Oval Office and as a result, we don’t know exactly what happened or what was said when Elvis met the President. These gaps in the historical record leaves the screenwriters with plenty of room to use their imagination — and they do a great job of it.

Instead of tired mimicry, Michael Shannon (as Elvis) and Kevin Spacey (as Nixon) breathe new life into these legendary characters by allowing us a peek into their private lives. Going into the film, I confess I was sort of hoping that Shannon would go over the top a la “Take Shelter” or “Man of Steel“, but he didn’t. Surprisingly, his version of Elvis was much more nuanced than most and captured Elvis’s essential humanity. But at the same time, both Shannon are Spacey are clearly having fun with these roles. Neither actor takes their part — or himself — too seriously.

“Elvis & Nixon” takes some time to build its momentum. While it doesn’t necessarily drag, everything that precedes the encounter between the two pales in comparison to the actual White House visit. The movie really comes into its own during that meeting, and it’s there that the screenwriters have the most fun. Their imagining of what happened that day is both credibly incredible and wildly hilarious, and the two lead actors attack those scenes with great zeal.

Rarely do you see a film like this one where you get the sense that everyone who made it was enjoying themselves. The movie pulses with this exuberant energy, and it’s infectious. The cast and crew clearly had a good time making it, and I had a good time watching it.

 

“The Adderall Diaries”

LOUISA:   4 STARS   MATT:  2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

James Franco is the new generation’s Nicolas Cage. Even if a movie isn’t great, you can bet it will at least be interesting if Franco is attached. “The Adderall Diaries,” based on the bestselling memoir by author Stephen Elliott, isn’t just interesting — it’s also really good.

I’ve never read any of Elliott’s books so I don’t know how the film will play to an audience of his readers and fans, but you obviously don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy this movie. I knew nothing of the man going into the theater but I loved it. The story revolves one man’s struggle with his past (and current) demons, featuring everything from a bizarre love story to an obsession with a real-life murder trial. It goes without saying that James Franco is perfect for the role. He is one of the few young actors that can pull off a scraggly, damaged literary badass with daddy issues with an air of ultimate believability. Even in his sex scenes (some of which are approaching masochistic levels), Franco looks totally at ease and at home. Nothing feels false in his performance, and that’s an impressive achievement.

The story of a drug addicted troubled writer is one I’ve seen many, many times, but what could’ve (or perhaps should’ve) been another mundane and laborious exploration of creative struggles was given an upgrade largely due to the convincing and talented supporting cast (Cynthia Nixon, Amber Heard, Christian Slater, Ed Harris and Jim Parrack) and the provocative visual style of director Pamela Romanowsky. Everything about the film’s look and feel worked for me (the film’s tone reminded me of one of my all-time favorite Franco vehicles, which ranked at #3 on my Top 10 Best list in 2013, “Spring Breakers“).

Romanowsky has a clear, original artistic vision which materializes through unexpected camera angles, dreamy flashbacks, cool graphics that incorporate Elliott’s written words, and limited use of a musical score. She excels in presenting the author’s muddled memories about childhood loss, parental abuse, homelessness and drug addiction — memories that, over the course of the film, become even more twisted within his own fiction. This is some truly inspired and complex direction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

“The Adderall Diaries” isn’t for everybody but if you are a fan of independent film, enjoy contemporary visual styles or are simply a casual moviegoer who loves a challenge, check it out.

MATT SAYS:

“The Adderall Diaries” is a difficult movie to love. It’s partially a semi-autobiographical piece about acclaimed author Stephen Elliott; it’s partially a drug-fueled stupor; it’s partially a true-crime drama; and it’s partially a meditation on the nature of family, love, forgiveness, and memory. Although none of these parts are necessarily bad, they do make up a somewhat disjointed whole that will have trouble connecting with audiences.

The always-enjoyable James Franco plays Stephen Elliott, who is suffering from severe writer’s block and sees his life beginning to unravel after a very public James Frey-esque confrontation about the veracity of the “facts” he presents in a novel. Burdened by ghosts from his past and memories that diverge significantly from those of others who shared the same experiences, Stephen begins to withdraw from his friends, girlfriend, editor, and life aided by Adderall and other chemicals.

Stephen is a hard man to like. His S&M-laden sexual fetishes, proclivity for substance abuse, and extreme cases of selfishness and self-pity make him difficult to relate to, which is a serious problem given that the movie is about him. Stephen has to pull himself out of this pity pit, and only a reconciliation with his estranged father will get him there. It is the strong performances of James Franco, Amber Heard (who plays Stephen’s sometime girlfriend, Lana) and Jim Parrack as Stephen’s best friend Roger, that together save the film from being completely forgettable. Heard and Parrack act as the voices of reason and reality for Stephen, and it is their presence and influence on Stephen that help bring the audience along for the journey.

I generally struggle with movies that rely too heavily upon the drug-induced stupor as a significant story element (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “I Melt With You” come readily to mind), but those scenes are, fortunately, limited in screen time. There are some good story elements here and the film has some interesting things to say — particularly about the nature of memory and how we all fall victim to fooling ourselves through our own false memories — but there are also too many story shifts and poor editing choices to make this film one coherent whole. Too many times I found myself comparing this movie to “The End of the Tour,” the 2015 movie about another well-known author that was much better than this one.

I didn’t hate “The Adderall Diaries,” but I didn’t really like it, either. Which means that I can’t recommend it.

“Barbershop: The Next Cut”

LOUISA:   3 STARS   MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If anything, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is full of surprises. I went in expecting a fun comedy but instead got a very ambitious (and commendable) message movie about gang violence, involved parenting, respecting women and personal accountability. The serious stuff works; the gags played for laughs don’t.

There are some rough attempts at jokes early on, but the comedy just isn’t my type of funny (admittedly, some of the wisecracks and references I just didn’t “get”). There are countless riffs on pop culture, what women want, soul food and more. The down-home dialogue makes you feel like you’ve been hanging out in a local barbershop all day and the actors speak just like normal folks. The cast has a natural, believable chemistry — you want to be around these people. Ice Cube is back as barbershop proprietor Calvin; he along with Cedric the Entertainer (Eddie),  Common (Rashad), and a thoroughly entertaining Nicki Minaj (Draya) are standouts. Rounding out the likeable cast are Regina Hall, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Anthony Anderson and J.B. Smoove.

Although the comedy doesn’t land a perfect 10, the dramatic elements are across-the-board compelling (even if they do get a little too preachy at times). This movie feels like a passion project for all involved and dishes out some serious themes about gang violence in a predominantly minority South Side Chicago neighborhood. The movie does a good job at shedding a light on what it must feel like to live in a community in crisis (something that most outsiders will never understand). While I am a white suburban female, I could sympathize and empathize with the characters and their day-to-day struggles. Relevant and real present-day issues are explored with sincerity. This movie is fun but its not lighthearted; it tackles racially charged political issues head on and doesn’t shy away from inviting distressing, complex and controversial questions.

I loved the film’s eventual uplifting and admirable message of empowerment, encouraging locals to take back the neighborhood and reminding us that change begins with a small first step.

MATT SAYS:

My expectations for “Barbershop: The Next Cut” were a little off. I was expecting a straight-up comedy, and while there is plenty of humor, there is a serious message to this movie that gives it emotional weight that is well-earned.

I don’t remember much about the previous two “Barbershop” movies, but the Internet Movie Database tells me there were two of them. Like its predecessors, “The Next Cut” is about the titular shop on the south side of Chicago named for its owner, Calvin (Ice Cube). Most of the actors from the other two movies appear in this one, too, with the notable addition of Common, who plays Calvin’s best friend Rashad.

There are some genuinely funny moments, but “TNC’s” primary goal is to try to deal with some of the issues that we are currently grappling with in the country in a way that feels authentic. Calvin, Rashad, and the rest of the crew at the barbershop are longtime south side residents, but their beloved neighborhood is slipping away as brutal gang violence has become a way of life. Calvin and Rashad struggle as the fathers of teenage boys who see the flash and feel the allure of the gangsta lifestyle, and in the shop have to deal with the very real possibility of gun violence on a daily basis. The crew at the shop decides to stop waiting on the government to find a solution to fix these problems, and instead devises a plan to bring the warring sides together in a positive way. The issues the film grapples with are clearly important to Cube (who produced the movie) and the rest of the cast.

Although it’s dealing with weighty subject matter, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” does so with a light touch. There is a genuine chemistry between the characters, and there are plenty of fun and funny moments to keep the film from being emotionally draining.

All of that said, the film had a number of elements (particularly early on) that dragged it down. It gets off to a slow start, and much of the first 20 minutes or so left me feeling vaguely confused as the movie seemed to struggle with finding its tone. There were a number of jokes that fell flat because they were tonally confusing. Calvin and Eddie’s (Cedric the Entertainer) reaction to an early threat of potential violence being the most notable. Once it got going, however, it did pick up considerable momentum and built towards a satisfying finish.

“Criminal”

LOUISA:   1.5 STARS    MATT:   1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

Once in a while a movie comes along that’s so bad it’s good. “Criminal” is so bad that it’s just plain bad. There is only one thing remotely redeeming about this hopelessly awful excuse for a movie, and that laurel rests on Gary Oldman’s ridiculously cheeseball performance. Oldman’s character should be called ‘Captain Obvious’ because his dialogue consists of nothing more than rehashing whatever is going on in the plot at the time. I am not kidding. It is so funny that ultimately, finding myself no longer able to stifle my laughter, I let out a hearty belly laugh that didn’t subside for at least three minutes.

The moronic plot deals with the early onscreen death of CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, the only actor smart enough to limit his screen time in this crap) whose memory is transplanted — I know, I know, you are laughing already — into hardened criminal Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Doctor Franks (Tommy Lee Jones, whose acting abilities have been diminished to nothing more than cantankerously shuffling around and scowling like he can’t find his way to the Country Kitchen Buffet for his early bird dinner) leads this miraculous transplant at the command of CIA bureau chief Wells (Gary Oldman, in one of the most unintentionally silly performances in recent cinema). As per usual, when the memories start to kick in, Jericho starts to have some lovey-dovey feelings towards Pope’s wife and kid (Gal Gadot and Laura Decaro).

There are some kooky plot points about an anarchist hacker and wormholes and misplaced flash drives (the audience thankfully isn’t left in the dark thanks to Oldman consistently shouting “don’t give him that flash drive!“).

“Criminal” is overly bloody and overburdened with fiery explosions and car crashes that dominate the film’s finale. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout much of the film’s ridiculous conclusion. Could “Criminal” have staked its claim as one of the ‘so-silly-it’s-awesome’ action films like “London Has Fallen,” “Bad Boys II” or “White House Down?” Maybe. But the entire cast and director Ariel Vromen seem to be earnestly playing it straight, which makes the film more worthy of audience pity rather than cult status praise.

MATT SAYS:

This movie is terrible with a capital “T.”

First, if the preview has you believing that “Criminal” stars Ryan Reynolds, let me disabuse you of that notion. Yes, Mr. Reynolds, the master of the body-switch movie (see also: “Self/less“, “R.I.P.D.“, and “The Change-Up“) is in the movie, but only briefly. Reynolds plays Bill Pope, a CIA agent whose memories get transplanted into serial killer and prison lifer Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Pope’s CIA handlers (including boss Gary Oldman) hope to use Jericho to find out information that only Pope knew, but predictably things go awry. Jericho quickly escapes from CIA custody, and finds himself hunted down both by the CIA and by a nefarious terrorist network. Reynolds is the best thing about this film, and his part is concluded after the first 10 minutes or so. For the rest of the movie, it becomes the Costner and Oldman show, with a dash of Tommy Lee Jones thrown in for good measure.

“But wait!” You might say. “I like Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones. How could a movie with all three of them suck?” Take my word for it: it doesn’t just suck, it sucks hard. Costner’s performance is a one-note series of grunts and growls indistinguishable from those we got from Christian Bale’s Batman. Oldman, as the chief CIA agent in charge, may as well have been called “Mr. Shouty,” because that’s pretty much all he did. Jones was a little more understated — and therefore the best of the three — but his character and the lines assigned to him were so inane that he was unable to elevate this material.

“Criminal” is full of logical plot holes that quickly pile up, one on top of the other, and the fall under their own weight. Look, I can suspend my disbelief as well as the next guy. But this film doesn’t just ask you to suspend disbelief: it asks you to check your brain at the door. It’s simply impossible to accept this low-rent and dumbed-down world of spycraft when there are so many better options out there.

At some point, this dim-witted movie got so absurd that it actually became funny (so there’s a positive, I suppose). Just for fun, here’s a partial list of some of its many problems:

  • The CIA is so inept at its tradecraft that “The Agency” becomes indistinguishable from the Keystone Cops.
  • The head bad guy is a direct rip off of Javier Bardem’s character from “Skyfall,” except unlike the “Skyfall” baddie, he has zero personality and an unexplained array of hacking abilities beyond that ever seen in any movie, anywhere.
  • There is a Russian female assassin reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who serves no apparent purpose other than to check a box on some focus-grouped list.
  • The key MacGuffin in the picture is some kind of super hacking tool that allows anyone to command all U.S. military assets, including nuclear missiles. Despite the possible world-ending value of this item, the CIA can apparently only afford to task 10, maybe 15, people to find and obtain / destroy it.
  • More on that point: this movie takes place entirely in the U.K., and despite the bad guy using weapons that pose an immediate threat to the country’s most populous city of London, we see zero involvement of the British government.
  • Tommy Lee Jones plays a doctor who talks like he is just making s*** up as he goes along, but everyone believes every single word he says.

Okay, I have to stop at some point so this is as good as any. Don’t go see “Criminal” in the theater, skip it in Redbox, and delete it from your Netflix Queue.