“The Wall”



There is sure to be much talk and swirling accusations about “The Wall” being anti-American or anti-military, but I think this is much ado about nothing. The story of two soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper doesn’t exactly portray the pair of Marines as glorified heroes, but how many human beings wouldn’t be terrified into making mistakes if they were trapped in a life-or-death situation like this?

Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) are two Marines sent to keep an eye out for any enemy fire after a mass shooting scene in the desert. When one of the men leaves his post to investigate, the two become critically wounded by an infamous terrorist (Laith Nakli) hiding nearby. Both are trapped by a decaying wall that used to be part of a schoolhouse before the war started and soon after taking sniper fire, Isaac begins to hear a voice on his military radio. It’s the sniper, and he’s taking great delight in toying with the American soldier.

The film’s small scale is all the more intense because of the limited focus and three main characters, including a truly frightening man that we never see. Isaac is trapped behind a few feet of crumbling stones in the unforgiving Iraqi desert sun with a bleeding, gaping gunshot wound, without water, and without radio capabilities to call for help. As he sits in an increasingly large pool of his own blood, desperately trying to pin the enemy’s location as time is running out, his spirit is slowly being broken by the relentless verbal taunting and the realization that there is zero hope that this scenario is going to end well for him.

There’s a powerful sense of paranoia and fear that carries over through director Doug Liman‘s close-ups and smooth tracking shots (this film made me remember what a great director Liman truly is). The audience becomes part of the action as the camera is always right there in the dusty, sand-encrusted faces of these soldiers. The performances are strong and forceful, and Taylor-Johnson deserves to be a huge star based on moving performances like this. He seamlessly transforms from fearless courage to heightened despair to naive hope from moment to moment, and he’s truly fantastic in the role.

This isn’t a shoot ’em up nonstop action war movie, it’s more of an intense psychological thriller and slow burning talky about the horrors of war. It’s interesting and distinct in both its limited, cramped setting and its exceedingly pessimistic tone. The harsh ending could’ve used some rewrites because it feels like more of a “gotcha” gimmick than something meaningful, but it altogether fits with the increasingly distressing tone of the film.

This narrow, effective, and cynical war movie proves that filmmakers don’t always need a huge budget or pricey movie stars to make something substantial and worthwhile.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”



Disney fans and pirate lovers, lend me your ears! There’s not an awful lot of new stuff in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” but what is present is a whole lot of boisterous fun. If you’ve been looking forward to this movie, you won’t be disappointed. (Disney fans in particular will be pleased, as there are a few little Easter eggs and hidden references for diehard fans of the theme parks).

In this fifth installment of the popular swashbuckling series, Johnny Depp reprises his bumbling, stumbling, iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow, the rum loving, speech slurring, down-on-his-luck scoundrel. It seems everyone is out to get him (again) this time around, from fan favorite baddies Salazar (Javier Bardem) to Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and his army of ghost men. There’s a slightly hokey plot about finding Poseidon’s trident to break a curse, and there’s the inevitable replacement casting with the “new” Will and Elizabeth in the form of Carina (Kaya Scodelario) and Henry (Brenton Thwaites). The supporting cast is all playing second fiddle to Depp, but they know it — and so do audiences.

The film’s story may be a little bit dull, but there are two things that make this reliable blockbuster work. First, it’s actually quite funny. This is probably the funniest “Pirates” movie of the bunch, and it had me laughing throughout with its cheeky wordplay and Depp’s amusing line delivery. Second, the visual effects are flawless in a way that almost reach outright perfection. The CGI is by far the strong suit of the movie, including a truly great looking sequence with reanimated corpse sharks. I kept hearing the inner voice in my head say “wow” throughout this one.

The movie pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, so parents may want to take caution with little ones. Most of the double entendres will sail over their heads, but there are a few dark and unsettling scenes of stabbings, drownings, and general creepiness that may cause some sensitive kiddos to freak.

It’s also easy for adults to get a little over stimulated from all the onscreen hoopla. The film gets a bit too rambunctious towards the end, with rapid-fire action scenes that start to resemble a cartoon more than a live action movie. But at least it’s a great looking cartoon.





Please don’t think I’m a weirdo, but I actually had high hopes for the dreadfully unfunny “Baywatch,” the big screen version of the popular ’90s California lifeguard television series. Oh, how I wanted the film to take the campy road, loaded with silly sight gags and over-the-top acting. Sadly, this movie plays it completely straight and is completely awful.

In what feels like a completely unfunny, half-baked straight to video mystery, hulking lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) butts heads with a prettyboy new recruit Brody (Zac Efron). The rest of the lifeguard team, including spunky Summer (Alexandra Daddario), sexy CJ (Kelly Rohrbach), and I’m just here to be the butt of everyone’s lame wisecracks chunky nerd Ronnie (Jon Bass) must set out to uncover a dastardly criminal drug empire that threatens to overdevelop the bay. (Yeah, that’s the actual plot of this drek).

The story is mediocre and, in an attempt to make the most of its R-rating, the film goes a bit overboard with unnecessary nudity and language. Not that this is offensive: the most offensive thing about this project is the total waste of Johnson. Even in the worst of films Johnson is still a charismatic, lovable guy. He plays it straight and has a great sense of comedic timing, but even he can’t save this disaster.

As expected, “Baywatch” is a dumbed down recipe of mean-spirited, gross-out humor and lame action sequences. It’s so god-awful that I wish I had walked out. What a waste.

“Alien: Covenant”



Everything old is new again in “Alien: Covenant,” a deep space terror thriller that is blessed to have “Aliens” director Ridley Scott at the helm. Scott has a certain visual je ne sais quoi that is pitch-perfect when it comes to directing high brow (yet also kick ass) R-rated science fiction stories.

In this prequel to “Alien” and sequel to “Prometheus,” a crew of astronauts (led by Katherine Waterston, Demián Bichir, and Billy Crudup) onboard the colony ship Covenant discover a planet similar to Earth and decide to pop in and check it out. Of course this doesn’t go well for the crew, and things go from bad to worse once they cross paths with Prometheus survivor android David (Michael Fassbender).

The first half of the movie rates a solid 4.5 stars, with an interesting set up of the story line and characters (and several surprisingly effective performances from Crudup and Danny McBride). Of course the characters make frequent very, very poor decisions (why do these people always insist on going off into dark spaces alone when there’s a hideous killer monster on the loose?), but here’s yet another film that’s unafraid of killing off its characters in an extra-terrestrial bloodbath. You know they’re gonna die but you don’t when or how. It’s too bad that the film eventually veers off into slightly goofball territory with the de rigueur “gotchas” thrown at the audience. Still, there are plenty of admirable special effects, exciting action sequences, and nail-biting suspense along the way.

Scott drops in a few references to creation and faith, but the alien-induced splatter rules the day. The film doesn’t rely on lazy jump scares and is stuffed with dazzling visuals. It’s a lively mix of 80s horror gore and intelligent science fiction, delivering slick genre thrills in a satisfying (if not totally original) way.

Overall, this is what a big summer blockbuster should be: action packed and utterly entertaining. Forget the haters. This is a fun movie.




“Lowriders” is as clichéd as movies come, but it offers a rare window into a world that most know nothing about. Set in East Los Angeles, the film uses Hispanic car culture as the backdrop to tell the story of wayward street artist Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), who is consistently disappointing his old school mechanic dad Miguel (Demián Bichir), a recovering alcoholic remarried to the feisty and strong Gloria (Eva Longoria). Danny’s troubled brother Francisco “The Ghost” (Theo Rossi) gets released from prison and causes even more discord within the family. There are conflicting values that cause a whole lot of melodrama, but thankfully the film never gets too bogged down in landslides sermon-like moralizing.

The film is gloriously low-budget in both its look and feel, giving director Ricardo de Montreuil a challenging lens through which to shoot the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a new and fresh look at the city, punched up with shots of bouncing, thundering, rousing, hydraulic-fueled lowrider cars. Auto fiends take note: there are some pretty rad looking vehicles throughout his movie! The cars become their own characters here, extensions of their owners’ personalities that are worn like badges of honor and machismo. The film is adept at conveying Mexican-American cultural pride without ever becoming stereotypical or losing even one sliver of authenticity.

Although this is a predictable story with all the usual familial strife, the script is balanced by earnest performances and an engaging look into a culture that’s grossly underrepresented onscreen.




There’s a bittersweet component that dominates “Obit,” a documentary about the talented journalists working the Obituary desk at The New York Times; a group of writers who themselves are employed by a dying industry. They are all saddled with the stigma of writing about death when in fact, they are writing about a celebration of life.

If you’ve ever read any of the obituaries in The New York Times, then you’re most likely a fan of their always eloquent and oftentimes entertaining send-offs of a notable figure’s legacy. There are those who quickly turn to that section of the paper, diving head first into the 500 to 800 word write-ups just to see who has recently died. Some of your friends and relatives will find you most peculiar, taken aback by your seemingly macabre fascinating with reading the often scorned section of any newspaper. But those in the know will understand how a well crafted and compassionate obituary can leave a respectful, lasting tribute to a person’s legacy. That’s what makes these writers so special.

The story of these unsung journalists is told through a combination of file footage, photographs, and interviews, looking back at some of the most influential people to warrant their own coverage in the paper, from superstar Michael Jackson to Pope John Paul II to little known influencers of history like William P. Wilson (the television consultant who prepped John F. Kennedy for the game changing 1960 debate with Nixon). The stories about the deceased are often just as interesting as the writers themselves, and the concern of balancing facts with an entertaining composition is one with which the writers constantly struggle.

Most Times readers will gleefully enjoy putting the names with the faces of the bylines they see each week, as veteran obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, and William Grimes are interviewed at length. The subjects are both authoritative and strange, each brimming with a certain idiosyncrasy that it takes to be assigned to the obit desk. The unexpected star of the film is keeper of the “morgue” (aka the paper’s massive photo and news clippings archive) Jeff Roth. This guy needs his own documentary, as the most entertaining scenes in this movie are of Roth simply thumbing through stuffed drawers and giving a no-nonsense (yet fascinating) tour of cabinet after cabinet of historical treasures, including yellowed photographs and now-antique documents.

As a writer by profession myself, I would’ve liked to see more of the writing processes showed instead of just brief glimpses into a typical day in the life of a Times obituary writer. (It did make me chuckle to see some of the same methods are employed by writers of all pedigrees, from zoning out with a headphone concert to procrastinating coffee runs to hours just staring at words on a computer screen until your brain can conjure that perfect sentence). The documentary also could benefit from a deeper exploration of the challenges surrounding the evolution from the ink and paper news industry to the gotta-have-it-now internet-based immediacy. It’s the rare occasion when there’s a pile of stress or a pressing deadline due to a sudden, surprise death, but it does happen. (The fact that the paper keeps hundreds of advance, pre-written obits on hand is also compelling — if also a little grim).

Eventually the film falls into the common trap that derails most documentaries and becomes a lengthy parade of talking heads. The story lacks a polished flow and the ending is a little too abrupt, but director Vanessa Gould successfully conveys the story of a group of obit writers in a creative and slightly unexpected way. As each writer attests onscreen, their jobs aren’t really that sad or depressing but coming to work every day sure does make them think about mortality a lot. Weber himself takes to reminding the audience that “there’s nothing you can do about dying, by the way.”

As far as newsroom docs go, this isn’t as intriguing as “Page One” but it still manages a lovely exploration of the true craft of writing and is a film that all journalism junkies should seek out.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”



There’s a big elephant in the room in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and it’s one that the movie can never overcome: the recasting decisions. It’s true that the original group of actors has aged out of the story, but I really wish the studio had pushed for a lead with a bit more acting ability (I hate to be seen as picking on child actors, but the acting is this one is atrocious). Now, not one member of the Heffley family is even likeable, and that’s a huge barrier that the latest film simply cannot conquer.

Adults will find “The Long Haul” the perfect descriptor for what’s in store: never has 90 minutes felt so long. So very, very long. It’s packed with just enough PG-rated rude humor to keep the older kids engaged, and it’s balanced out with frequent poop gags for the slapstick-loving kiddos. The jokes will make you laugh out loud, but mostly because they’re relatable to adults and kids alike, not because they are particularly original or funny at face value.

It’s a “Vacation” rip-off for the middle school set, a family road trip where every little thing that can go wrong, does. Greg (Jason Drucker) is dealing with his dorky dad (Tom Everett Scott), sweet and well-meaning mom (Alicia Silverstone), doofus teenage brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright), and kid brother Manny (Dylan Walters). When the gang sets off on a 42 hour drive to Grandma’s house for her 90th birthday, everything starts to feel all too familiar.

Although there’s a certain tender sweetness to the ending, I found this movie to be very disappointing on all fronts. Even if your kids are begging to go see it, save your money.

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”



There’s something a little pitiful about a big-budget, high expectation movie that fails big time, especially when it has an ending that is clearly set up for a series of multi-million dollar sequels. “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a true mess of a movie from director Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker I used to respect and fangirl over until he started making a string of colossal misses. His latest effort continues that tradition.

The movie takes the classic story and turns it into an obnoxious, flashy, quick cutting, overly long music video that will bore both older and younger audiences, albeit for different reasons. Ritchie remains true to his frentic signature style, but remaining stagnant over the years means it now seems cliché and tiresome instead of lively in its innovation.

His actors don’t do the film any favors either. There are some truly horrible performances here, including a laughable display of over dramatization from Jude Law, wooden line delivery from Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and a turn from Djimon Hounsou that’s so stiff I’d swear at times the man was an android filling in for the actor. Charlie Hunnam plays King Arthur and he’s sort of charismatic (I guess).

And there’s the real problem about this one: its indifference. The movie is mostly just a lot of noise and a lot of style over substance, resulting in a whole lot of bored audiences.

It’s not all abysmal, as the costumes are pretty fantastic, a creative meeting of Medieval royalty and modern sass (think ostentatious fur wraps along with hipster skinny jeans), and the original score by Daniel Pemberton is well suited to the material and unbelievably good. The special effects are also satisfying enough to keep the mystical mumbo-jumbo believable.

This is really just a mediocre fantasy movie. But at least it’s not completely a steaming pile of garbage.

“The Case for Christ”



“The Case for Christ” is based on the true story of Chicago Tribune investigative journalist Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), a man who claimed to be an atheist but set out to prove the claims of Christianity in an attempt to debunk them. The film is based on Strobel’s bestselling book of the same title, which lists bullet point after bullet point that supposedly “prove” that Christians got it right. While the material isn’t presented in the most compelling of ways, on the surface it’s not a terrible movie.

When a devout nurse saves their daughter from choking, Lee’s wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) joins the crazy train for Jesus. In times of crisis it’s human nature to seek meaning, and she finds great comfort in religion, church and the Bible. It’s interesting to watch how a brand new Christian deals with a partner who has yet to “come to know god.” There is scene after scene of Leslie praying for Lee to see the light, and the strains of living with the daily stress of being unable to come out as a Christian to her husband.

I can see how this could very well be emotionally relevant and moving to Christians. As a nonbeliever myself, I find that extremely hard to relate to — but I do know if the situation was reversed and my husband suddenly jumped off the deep end for Jesus, I’d absolutely act like Lee. I wouldn’t go so far as to attempt to prove or disprove Christianity, but I can attest that those scenes are portrayed with quite the realistic honesty.

It comes as no surprise that this film clearly knows its audience and plays directly to them. For the odd atheist who mistakenly wanders in or buys a ticket out of sheer curiosity, let me assure you this isn’t going to convince nor change the mind of any nonbelievers.

The film feels more intellectually dishonest than offensive (the text of the Bible itself is offered up time and again as irrefutable “proof”), and there are plenty of pious characters repeatedly asking “when is enough evidence enough?” There are a lot of irrelevant, unreliable written eyewitness accounts and deceptively tricky “facts” from questionable “experts” and “scholars,” including a doctor, an archaeologist, several members of the clergy, and a psychiatrist. It’s a faith-based movie that’s at least trying to be smart and thoughtful rather than cheesy and drowning in sappy sentimentality.

I won’t delve in and start debunking Strobel’s mostly ridiculous claims and his outlying of the supposed clear “proof,” but ultimately he fills in the huge gaps in logic and reason with that old Christian adage that always seems to be their go-to when they want to end an unwinnable debate: “ya gotta have faith.

There’s not a lot of humor but I did laugh out loud at an extended research montage set to the classic rock anthem “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas. The acting is competent for the most part but sometimes veers into B-movie territory: the film’s second unintentionally funny scene involves Lee stumbling around his house in a drunken stupor until he knocks over a potted plant! Oh the horror!

This being a Pure Flix production means there are plenty of jabs at agnostics and “nones,” tidy plot points that try to excuse and explain away Lee’s skepticism, and the popular (yet grossly untrue) notion that folks are atheists just because they don’t know how to talk to god or that they are angry at god make their obligatory appearance. The party line that free thinkers just don’t want to see a god in their lives is a little offensive, but we’re used to it.

At least atheists aren’t completely demonized or portrayed as mustache twirling villains in this one, but they still have a slightly smug, self-satisfied edge, which is sure to appeal to the Christian base at which this well produced project is aimed.




Once in a while a film comes along that perfectly captures the spirit of what indie cinema should be. “Sleight” is a bold work of vibrant creativity, a solidly crafted film with a primal grittiness and an intimate, small scale story that’s also as clever as hell. The film is extraordinarily creative and resourceful, both in terms of the inventive story as well as the crafty use of a limited budget. Writer / Director J.D. Dillard brings his fully realized personal vision to this tale of a young urban magician turned drug dealer, a compelling fable of personal redemption through magic.

Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a gifted high school graduate who gives up a science scholarship in order to take care of his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) after their mother dies. The teen has always loved magic, so he pays the bills by doing tricks on the street during the day and by selling drugs for local dealer Angelo (Dulé Hill) at night. As Bo reluctantly gets deeper and deeper into trouble with Angelo’s gang, he finds himself having to resort to magic tricks (and a bit of smart thinking) in order to save the day and escape to greener pastures with Tina and his new girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel).

The film’s plot is a sure-fire hook, and lucky for audiences that the movie looks as visually interesting as its literal storyline. The film features a unique blend of cinematic storytelling styles (including romance, fantasy, and thriller) and unconventional camera angels and eccentric framing choices. The talented cast of young unknowns is charming overall and they each have a warm sincerity that can’t be faked (even if there is a lot of overacting at times).

A caveat for little gems like this is that mainstream audiences can sometimes be unfair in terms of evaluating them, often making the inequitable comparison to whatever is topping the box office chart that week. This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster so you must lower your expectations for the acting and special effects. Don’t go to the theater expecting expensive CGI or Oscar-winning performances.

“Sleight” is what low-budget, exciting indie cinema is all about. It’s inventive, raw, refreshing and ticking with a magical, otherworldly quality that will make film literate audiences sit up and pay attention. Dillard is an exciting new voice for the medium, and I’m excited to see what he does with his next project.