“Grow House”




I truly expected “Grow House” to be another junk movie destined for a lifetime on the clearance DVD shelf at Walmart. Somehow it managed to get a limited theatrical release, which usually means there’s a little special something about the film. While it ticks off everything on the typical stoner comedy checklist, this celebration of devoted friendship and copious weed smoking is also quite entertaining overall.

The plot in this “Friday” meets “Up in Smoke” homage may be predictable, but it’s ripe with comedy potential that’s almost always fully realized. Pat (DeRay Davis) and Darius (Lil’ Duval) are low on cash and weed, so they decide to apply for a medical grow license as a business opportunity to solve both problems. Once they acquire their cards and become legal, the guys temporarily move into a foreclosed mansion in Bel Air to use as their grow house. They need to find an investor to front some “seed money” (get it?) who would agree to be paid back in product, so Darius Tweets to Snoop Dogg (playing himself), and the famous rapper agrees. It’s a funny premise that makes for a funny movie.

The two leads are naturally funny and have a great chemistry together. Their natural riffs feel comfortable and they’re guys you’d like to hang out with. Snoop brings a chill vibe and delivers his jokes with his innate coolness, but hey: this is Snoop we’re talking about here. Martin Starr shows up as hydroponics expert and resident weirdo Conspiracy Chris, there’s a silly bit with Charlamagne Tha God as Black Jesus, Faizon Love plays a disabled neighborhood bully, Lin Shaye provides some laughs as the drunk and horny neighbor Mrs. Gilliam, and there is a truly inspired and uproarious brief turn from Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Doobie. The acting isn’t going to win any awards, but does that really matter? If this film had been cast with some big Hollywood names, I think it could’ve done quite well at the box office.

What I like about this movie is that it pays attention to the details. There are several background sight gags that will reward viewers who are paying attention (make sure you look at the office decor in Dr. Doobie’s office). Writer and director DJ Pooh does nothing new here, but his style is straightforward, uncomplicated, and appropriate for the material. Get ready for lots of glamour shots of marijuana plants.

The story starts to wear thin as the film goes on, but it never gets boring because there are a couple of surprises along the way. This movie may offend those who are sensitive about the medical and recreational marijuana movement, and it’s filled with adult language and jokes that take aim at sexism, racism, and the handicapped. Some of the wisecracks push the envelope of good taste (like when Darius “takes one for the team” by being forced to sleep with Mrs. Gilliam in order to keep her from ratting them out to the cops), and others may be a bit too slapstick to make any lasting impact.

“Grow House” isn’t a game changer for the genre, nor is it one of the better stoner classics (“Pineapple Express,” “How High,” “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), but it earns a respectable place among other late night pothead films (and it’s way better than “Half Baked” or “Smiley Face”). If you’re a fan of these movies, you’ll probably dig this one: and this review’s for you. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

“Born in China”



“Born in China,” the newest documentary from DisneyNature, lands squarely in the middle of the series. While it’s much better than “Bears” and “Wings of Life,” it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Oceans” or “African Cats.” The Disney-fied story pushes the importance of family and the academic information is brief and spread a bit thin, but it’s still a wonderful educational tool for kids and adults alike.

John Krasinski does a great job as the narrator this go ’round, expressing an adept mix of empathy, humor, and authority. The storytelling format is the same as some of the past films in the series (telling the story in chapters bookmarked by the four seasons) and focuses on three different animal families, all given human-like personas and names so you’ll instantly become attached. This time it’s overprotective panda bear Ya Ya and her new baby Mei Mei, a group of golden snub-nosed monkeys and the outcast Tao Tao, and tenacious mama snow leopard Dawa and her two cubs. Along the way, there are glimpses of chiru (Tibetan antelope), red pandas, and yaks.

To make the film more exciting, there are some obviously clever editing choices that are pieced together in a way to create tension or action sequences (if you can call a hawk nearly picking off an infant monkey for dinner an action piece). Otherwise, it’s a brilliant cinema verite look at the vast, unspoiled terrain and fascinating animals of China. This film is worth seeing for the incredible footage of the snow leopards alone.

The film starts and ends with a harmonious spiritual tone, with majestic slow motion photography of red-crowned cranes taking flight. According to Chinese folklore, natives believe that whenever a crane takes to the sky it carries the soul of a deceased animal on its wings, thereby completing the circle of life. After this somber intro, suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for one of the families; it’s a moving scene of such tragic beauty that I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. But that’s nature, right?

Parents should be aware that there are some substantial themes at play here and while the film is rated G, it still may be unsettling to some youngsters. You may find it prudent to talk to your kids about symbiosis, general biology, and the food chain before taking them to the theater. This is an absolutely wonderful tool for teaching the younger generation about respect for the environment and the animals that inhabit our planet, and I do not want to discourage anyone from taking a family trip to the movies to see it.

As with all DisneyNature documentaries, “Born in China” has astonishing, impressive camerawork that will at times leave you breathless and in tears from the chills of the sheer beauty of it all. The original score by Barnaby Taylor is as elegant, memorable, and breathtaking as the photography. Be sure to stay through the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. I’m sure you’ll also be super jealous of the folks whose job it is to shoot these movies.

“Free Fire”



The disappointing “Free Fire” feels like one of those movies that was conceptualized over a 3 a.m. cup of coffee in a booth at a late night diner. “Let’s make a 70s era throwback movie that ends in an hour-long bloody shootout set to a classic John Denver song!” It’s a five minute idea that’s stretched into a 90 minute “Reservoir Dogs” rip off. The overly simplistic screenplay and clunky direction from Ben Wheatley make this film quite the yawner.

The film is set in the 1970s for no reason whatsoever, and the period costumes and hairstyles are second rate at best. The loose story centers around a gun deal gone horribly wrong. The film begins with a fun introduction to the group of characters (including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Reynor), but the background setups are all too brief and pointless, as the film quickly becomes nothing more than a loud, bloodstained, and overly long shootout in a decrepit warehouse. There are a few early glimmers of greatness from Hammer and Riley, but Larson and Reynor are completely wasted. There’s a lot of shooting and yelling and a lot of bloody injuries, but all of it lacks substance to the point where after a while, it’s not even enjoyable anymore.

The story starts off kind of great, but it quickly becomes clear that the film lacks any kind of depth. All of the action takes place in one warehouse, and if you’re going to have the balls to set a movie in a limited, confined setting, you’d better be ready to — pardon the pun — bring the big guns. Wheatley does bring some heavy ammunition, but his film fails to measure up as either an action tour de force, genre thriller, or a commentary on gun culture.

“T2 Trainspotting”



It’s the sequel that from the outset sounded like the most terrible idea, a crime against film fans everywhere. It’s the film that had to face questions of “why mess with a cult classic” from the get-go. Fans of the original 1996 film “Trainspotting” will find it impossible to have a middle of the road opinion about “T2,” and I guarantee audiences will either enthusiastically love it or vigorously hate it. Regardless of which spectrum you fall into, I have to say that nobody but Danny Boyle can direct material like this.

The story, based on Irvine Welsh’s follow-up book “Porno,” picks up twenty years after the original film. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) has returned home to Edinburgh as an older (if only slightly wiser) man. He’s off the smack and while in town, looks up his former mates — who have never really forgiven him for walking off with that bag full of money (as shown in the open-ended finale of the first film). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is the happiest to see him, but “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) reacts with anger. Of course as the guys hang out and share many trips down memory lane, their bromance is quickly rekindled.

Just like its main characters, the film has a cynical and much more mature tone and as a result, doesn’t feel nearly as provocative or disturbing as the first installment. It’s dark but far from mellow, and the characters are still fun even two decades later as the actors remain true to their rowdy younger selves (and all excel at showing the effects of time and hardcore heroin addiction). These are damaged men who are still paying the price for their reckless youthful indiscretions.

Hardcore fans of “Trainspotting” will find much to savor here, especially in terms of throwback references to the first film and the parade of favorite characters, including love interest Diane (Kelly Macdonald) and hot-tempered Begbie (Robert Carlyle).

Boyle employs some clever directorial choices by incorporating several well positioned bits of old footage into the new narrative — a tactic that could’ve backfired but instead feels fresh and new. The frequent throwbacks include a brilliant update to Renton’s classic “choose life” speech, this time updated and delivered with a heartfelt punch from a former junkie turned world weary man living with regret. It takes on a completely different meaning, and it’s by far one of the best scenes in the film.

Boyle makes fantastic use of his trademark snappy, breathless storytelling and dizzying visual style, including hallucinatory flashes and a blaring, killer soundtrack (this absolutely is the greatest movie soundtrack since last year’s American Honey).

This sometimes aimless movie isn’t for everybody as it is packed with profanity, graphic nudity, violence, drug use and (of course) one of the grossest onscreen vomit scenes in recent memory (but hey, at least there’s not a head first dive into a diarrhea filled toilet this go around). Folks new to the party will probably be offended or confused and some may find it downright incomprehensible, in terms of both storyline and dialogue (some scenes have quirky subtitles to help puzzled audiences figure out what the hell some of these guys are saying).

“T2” is the perfect companion to its predecessor, providing a meaningful epilogue and closing chapter to the original film. While it may not provide the same cult obsession potential, view into the counterculture, or the wallop of a thrill ride as “Trainspotting” did, it’s a worthy sequel that still manages to feel raw, fresh and subversive.

“The Last Word”



The cool and natural chemistry between leads Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried is the main reason to see “The Last Word,” a female-centric buddy dramedy about creating your own meaningful legacy late in life. The two actors make a fantastic onscreen duo and they keep the contrived story enjoyable (or at least interesting).

MacLaine is Harriet, an overbearing, controlling, and generally unlikable woman facing the end of her life. When she realizes that she hasn’t exactly created a proud or newsworthy legacy, she enlists the help of young obituary writer Anne (Seyfried) to pen hers prematurely. In an attempt to make her own last-minute story relevant before she kicks the bucket, Harriet starts by finding a young “at risk” youth (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) to mentor.

Maclaine is fantastic as Harriet, and she sells the role with perfect, scowl-faced believability. Seyfried holds her own with another strong performance as a young woman who needs a good kick in the pants to awaken the ambition to live up to her full potential.

This feel-good indie movie is packed with genuine laughs, tear-jerking sentimentality, and bouts of mushy melodrama. While the story overall may be quite forced in its conventionality (you’ll see everything coming from a mile away), it doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Of course the nasty old hag finds her inner humanity by the end of the story, of course she touches and changes everyone’s lives for the better, and of course everything is wrapped up in an overly sentimental little bow, but no matter. Although the movie doesn’t exactly have much of an original voice, it still has a very big heart.


“I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”



Strong dialogue, an intriguing screenplay, and smart direction are the strengths of “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” and oddball (but in a good way) directorial debut from writer and actor Macon Blair. Blair obviously learned a thing or two on the set from director Jeremy Saulnier (after acting in his gritty and violent “Green Room” and “Blue Ruin”). This film pays homage to the tone set in those two films, but has a twisted, dark humor twist that sets it apart.

Melanie Lynskey takes the lead role as the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Ruth, a woman who is fed up with basic human indecency that she witnesses on a daily basis. When her home is burglarized and her laptop and grandma’s silver stolen, she teams up with her slightly off-kilter misfit neighbor Tony (a seriously cool and kooky performance from Elijah Wood) to track down the perpetrator and exact revenge. This dark and sarcastic look at society has plenty black humor to counterbalance the bloody violence and somber undertones.

The story follows a basic crime thriller outline but it has a decidedly indie voice and an original, engaging story. It’s chock full of weirdness at every turn but luckily, all of its quirkiness doesn’t feel forced. The abrupt (and at times downright startling) shifts in tone can be a shock, but there are plenty of twists and turns that will keep you guessing. There’s a natural flow to the strange turn of events, and the credible performances keep the film humming along towards its very bizarre and offbeat conclusion.

“Smurfs: The Lost Village”



In one of the most simplistic animated films that’s come along in a great while, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” knows its audience and plays directly to it. This kid-friendly film seems to be geared towards toddlers and is very reminiscent of the old “Teletubbies” television show (I think its PG rating is a bit too harsh, even with the mild rude humor and action pieces). The scenes are so rapidly paced and elementary plotted that this movie will manage to hold the attention of those with even the shortest of attention spans, all while boring the adults silly.

Smurfette (Demi Lovato) is given the starring role this time around as she leads a group of her friends through the Forbidden Forest to find a lost village of Smurfs. Of course the menacing wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) is still trying to capture the little blue creatures for himself. The voice actors are lame too, which really hurts the movie (the worst of the bunch are the irritating Jack McBrayer as Clumsy Smurf and Joe Manganiello overplaying it as Hefty Smurf). There are some mild lessons about dismissing gender conventions and educating yourself by exploring different cultures, but most of these themes will likely sail right over the heads of your little ones.

Parents and other grown ups, be warned that there’s not much here for you to enjoy: this is an animated movie that’s unapologetically 100% geared towards and made explicitly for the kiddos. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but bucking the trend of tongue-in-cheek adult jokes and pop culture references that dominate animated films these days is more than a little unexpected.

Also unexpected is the quality of the animation. It’s much better than it needs to be, cheerfully bright and colorful with a tactile, dreamlike appearance that’s quite irresistible. What a shame that the film itself is not. It’s predictable and wholly mediocre, an overall flat exercise that’s better suited for Saturday morning t.v.

“Personal Shopper”



“Personal Shopper” is an unnerving thriller, a troubling mystery, and a very disturbing haunted tale that nearly defies classification. This is a dark film that explores human solitude and the unspoken, deep desires that simmer inside us and create a tormented inner turmoil. It’s a strange yet effective twist on the classic ghost story, a genuinely creepy and impressive film that’s guaranteed to be unforgettable.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) spends her days doing a job she hates: picking out expensive designer outfits and extravagant jewelry for her famous supermodel boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). She is trapped in the superficial, shallow world of fame and fashion yet longs for spirituality inside herself — and from the beyond. Her twin brother Lewis was a medium and before his death, the two made a pact to come back as a ghost and attempt to make contact from the afterlife. For three months Maureen has been trying to seek out signs from her brother but has yet to receive any clear signal. Desperate for closure, she refuses to leave Paris until she communicates with him. Maureen is much like a ghost herself, trapped in a life limbo and obsessed with her steadfast commitment to communicating with her dead twin.

Eventually Maureen starts to experience some strange things, from mysterious running water in her brother’s abandoned house to flickering lights and slamming doors. Things turn even more sinister and increasingly aggressive when she starts to find scratches on the walls and progressively threatening text messages from an unknown person. Is this simply Maureen’s grief taking its toll by playing tricks with her mind? Is it a cruel hoax from a malicious acquaintance? Is Lewis really trying to contact her from the other side? (Or even worse, has she mistakenly stirred up an evil spirit that’s not her brother)? The film leaves you guessing the answers to the creepy mystery in a way that’s extraordinarily ominous and intensely suspenseful. This movie scared the bejeezus out of me, especially when Maureen’s own natural curiosity eventually turns to sheer terror.

This film marks another truly incredible turn from Stewart, who gives a performance full of deep sadness and furious intensity. She keeps up her track record as one of the greatest actors working today. This is her second collaboration with French director Olivier Assayas (the first being “Clouds of Sils Maria” in 2014), and they are proving to be a wonderful pair.

Assayas’ direction is purposefully gradual and deliberate, with a slowly unfolding setup that lends a chilling atmospheric creepiness. He manages to turn simple things like a flashing light, a text message, and an empty elevator into the most suspenseful, terror-filled things ever.

The film can be jarring in both its shifting tone and unconventional style, a strange mix of several genres that’s packed with some truly bizarre directorial choices. For instance: there are awkward fadeouts which at first annoyed me but then I could clearly see they were the perfect visual effect for the detached story.

The ending is a whopper and is one that you’ll absolutely want to discuss with anyone who has seen the film. It’s open to interpretation in a way that gives great meaning to the story, no matter what you make of it. This is a memorable work of art that’s genuinely scary, boldly original, daring, and smart. I really loved it, and it’s not a movie I’ll forget (or shake) anytime soon.




I didn’t expect much from “Gifted,” a small little movie with a minimal ad campaign (you’ve probably never heard of it either) which appeared out of thin air. I also didn’t expect how quickly the film managed to gain my attention and earn my respect. This smaller scale story from director Marc Webb has such an intensely personal vibe that if in the hands of another filmmaker, it could’ve (and probably would’ve) gone horribly wrong. The reason why this astute heartstring-tugger succeeds is because it rings genuine and true.

Chris Evans gives a quietly understated, emotional, and effective performance as Frank, a single man raising sassy child prodigy mathematician Mary (Mckenna Grace). When Mary’s first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) takes action to ensure the child gets every opportunity to excel, a legal custody battle between Frank and his overbearing mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) ensues. That’s putting the plot in the most simple of terms, but the script here is smart, clever, and isn’t dumbed down in any way. It keeps you guessing yet also entertained with an unexpected revelation at the end and some really funny, breezy one-liners for laughs.

There’s not a slacker in the bunch when it comes to the dependable ensemble cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer in her trademark role as a strong, proud woman who cries a lot). Slate is terrific as a caring first grade teacher, and Duncan offers up plenty of harsh verbal cruelty with a sharp bite. The real star of the show is the extremely talented Grace, who reminds me very much of a young Dakota Fanning. You’ll love her character as soon as you meet her. She’s a child actor to watch.

While it’s predictable in premise, the film manages several surprise twists. Tom Flynn has written an intelligent, honest and wise screenplay that feels real and authentic, reminding me much of the insight laid out in Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” yet without the unspeakable woe. This isn’t a tragic story by any means, but it has the potential to make some folks sob (so bring your tissues). Educators will likely respond to the undertones of how society should deal with its super smart kids, feminists will admire the heavy-hitting elements of true “girl power,” and animal lovers will be fond of the positive attitude portrayed toward shelter pets.

This family-friendly drama is sweet, smart, funny, and charming, the cinematic equivalent of a snuggly, cozy sweater. It’s an emotional manipulator for sure, but I delighted in being manipulated every step of the way.

“The Fate of the Furious”



As a car lover and a huge fan girl of the entire franchise, I set the bar almost unfairly high for “The Fate of the Furious.” As started with “Furious 7,” the films have been slowly evolving towards more of an action-packed cyber thriller than a classic parade of drool-worthy dream cars and engine-revving stunt driving.

So what does that mean for you? Well, it means newbies should have no trouble following along with the story or figuring out who’s who, but longtime fans aren’t ignored either. While there aren’t quite as many car-centric scenes as I’d like, the film remains true to its characters in the familial fashion for which the series is known. There are also plenty of fun throwback references to the old films and surprise cameos for die-hards too (you’ll know when they turn up based on the audience cheers and applause).

Initially I was very disappointed in the direction this film takes, fantasizing about how I wanted to grab director F. Gary Gray by the shoulders and shake him while hollering “less tech plot, more cars!” But as the story progressed, I realized something: if you just let go and embrace this movie as more of an action blockbuster than a gearhead race picture, all will be right with the world. If you are expecting heart-stopping stunt driving and racing throughout, you’ll find this installment to be a bit of a letdown. There are nearly as many bullets flying as there is rubber burning.

And that’s where the majority of the criticism I have for this film lies: it NEEDS MORE CARS. If you’re going to make a Fast and Furious movie, you need to have it packed with flashy driving scenes that employ actual stunt drivers. For example: one of the most creative and exciting scenes involves zombie cars that are obviously animated with CGI, which is a far cry from “Furious 7” where the production crew dropped actual vehicles from the cargo bay of a plane — but I’ll let it slide this time because the idea behind it is So. Freaking. COOL!

The car scenes unfortunately feel more like bookends than a fundamental core of the movie. It starts out with a spectacularly boisterous nitrous-fueled drag race through the streets of Havana and ends with a not-long-enough car chase across a frozen lake involving a hijacked Russian nuclear submarine, a million dollar neon orange Lamborghini Murcielago, and heat seeking missiles. Both scenes had me sitting up in my seat and whooping with glee, making me forget all of the plot filler that is stuffed in the middle. There are several truly amusing sequences sprinkled throughout though, from an entertaining as hell (yet oddly bloodless) prison riot to a baby-juggling fistfight on an airplane. What is truly incredible is that while it’s undeniably over the top, none of this feels THAT ridiculous.

The acting is mildly hammy but fun (with Michelle Rodriguez once again delivering the standout performance as Letty). The majority of the dialogue consists of musclehead rivals Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) hurling insults at each other while Tej (Ludacris) and everyone’s favorite alpha-male Roman (Tyrese Gibson) exchange their trademark barbs for comic relief. Dom (Vin Diesel) doesn’t have all that much to do in this installment and for the first half it’s the Statham and Johnson show. Charlize Theron is a welcome addition as cyberterrorist Cipher, and both Kurt Russell and Nathalie Emmanuel reprise their roles as government agent Mr. Nobody and hacker Ramsey. One new casting choice that rubbed me the wrong way was the addition of Scott Eastwood as agent Little Nobody who (obviously) is also an expert driver. He is likable enough, but it really, really felt like he was brought in as an attempt to replace Brian (Paul Walker). I just wish the series would address that Brian is gone for good and retire his character in an honest and respectful way. I know it hurts (I was crying like a blubbering baby after Walker’s untimely death), but Brian needs to be killed off.

The plot has a few trademark surprise revelations (which I won’t spoil here), including a twist that creates an opening for a beloved character come back in future installments (fingers crossed)! But don’t stick around after the movie ends, as there’s no post-credit sequence.

What anchors this franchise is the exceptional chemistry from its cast, who have an overwhelming sincerity and loyalty to their onscreen personas as well as to each other in real life. The fact that these guys all truly love each other (with the exception of Johnson and Diesel, who famously had a big fight on set) leaps off the screen. The films are thrilling but they are also all about family, and you can’t help but smile, buckle in, and hang on for the next ride.