“Fifty Shades Darker”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fist Fight”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

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

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

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

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

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

“The LEGO Batman Movie”

LOUISA: HALF STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gold”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Split”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

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

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

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

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

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

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The violent and entertaining “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is a welcome return to Raccoon City for everyone’s favorite justice fighter, Alice (Milla Jovovich). This go around, the resilient Alice is once again battling the evil Umbrella Corporation and hordes of hungry zombies in order to save the human race. Classic cinema it ain’t, but this is still a lively and exciting post-apocalyptic display of mindless movie fun.

Jovovich proves she can still play a dull eyed, ass-kicking heroine with a terrific harmony of athleticism and compassion. She’s a fantastic (if unlikely) action star. Since she originated and has grown with this role over the years, nobody else can touch her in terms of complete credibility. As you’d expect, the majority of the acting is laughable and the plot even more ridiculous and preposterous (several dead characters are conveniently brought back from the grave with outrageous explanations), but does logic really matter with a movie like this?

As is often a major annoyance with movies based on video games or comic books, director Paul W.S. Anderson has made the careless decision to take the lazy way out and feature vigorous editing at breakneck speeds to try to make the film feel more exciting. As a result, all the visual commotion renders many of the action scenes incomprehensible — not a positive feature when most of the audience just wants to see some savage apocalyptic action. The film doesn’t need to take the lazy way out because the visual effects and the fight choreography is great. Such a shame the film doesn’t allow us to see it uninterrupted. (For the record, I think this film is worth seeing in 3D, but don’t sit too close)!

In the end, the film offers some satisfying answers to the previous films’ puzzling elements, wrapping many of them up in a bloody little bow. This is a big, loud and dumb movie, but it provides a thrilling ride (and supposed conclusion of the series) for fans of the franchise.

“Jackie”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Jackie” is a film that is intended to be an intimate portrait of the iconic, fashionable and strong willed Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), offering a twist on the story by setting it during the days following her husband’s assassination. The idea behind the screenplay is a good one, but the movie is damaged by a vague cloud of selective history and is at times uncomfortably overacted by Portman.

All in all it’s a good turn for the Oscar winner (for 2010’s “Black Swan”), but it feels like she is trying so hard to win as many awards as possible with this role that it sharply turns into something that’s more campy than eloquent. My measuring stick is that it’s not truly great acting if it doesn’t look effortless, and Portman’s performance seems strained and labored, the actress trapped inside the real-life quirks of her character. There’s plenty of crying and grief-yelling and chain smoking, if you catch my drift.

Little about Pablo Larraín‘s direction worked for me, with lots of lingering close-ups and so many slowly zooming shots that it promptly became too noticeable and irritating. The film rambles a bit too much and plays with its own nonlinear timeline, drifting between scenes that offer a truly compelling look at what it must’ve been like to live as the First Lady when your husband is murdered right in your arms and pure overindulgent filler. (Jackie trying on beautiful outfits while listening to the “Camelot” soundtrack tried my patience almost more than any other scene in any other film in recent memory).

Even worse is composer Mika Levi’s original score. It is so god-awful that you have to hear it to believe it. The score changes dramatically, starting with a perplexing “woooomp” of a somber trombone, but then morphing into an inappropriate cheerfulness when Jackie has to break the tragic news to her kids that their dad is dead.

The reenactments of the horrific historical moments will leave a lump in your throat, but for every touching memoir there’s five times the amount of bloated filler in the script. While I enjoyed seeing Jackie interacting with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), their scenes together are so frequently repeated that the emotional impact is lessened. There’s also bit too much emphasis placed on the gimmicky religious discussion that Jackie has with a priest (John Hurt). It’s unnecessary and slows the film’s momentum, as do the constant flashbacks into the past as well as back to present day.

This bottled up biopic of restrained grief, trauma and faith isn’t an awful movie, but its failures lie in what it could’ve been. I would mildly recommend it to American history buffs.

DVD Roundup: February

Want to know which movies we recommend and which movies you should skip? Check out our newest feature, the DVD Roundup. Each month we’ll be posting a handy review recap of movies that will be released for home viewing. Simply click on the film’s title to read our original reviews and to see the star rating for each movie. Movies that we split on will have the star ratings averaged to find the appropriate category. All films below have scheduled DVD release dates from February 1 – February 28, 2017.

Highly Recommended

Worthy Rentals

You Can Do Better

Skip It

 

“xXx: Return of Xander Cage”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

You have to love a balls-to-the-wall action flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is outrageous, mindless fun. This is an insane adrenaline fest fueled by massive shootouts, fiery explosions, and extreme skateboarding. It’s packed with cartoonish stunts and playful humor, all adding to its irresistibly rambunctious spirit.

The presumed dead secret agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is back to save the world like an intense, badass, tattooed James Bond. This time he has to recruit his own team of slightly insane buddies (including Rory McCann and Deepika Padukone) to help him fight the bad guys and reclaim a secret weapon known as Pandora’s Box.

The plot is basic and no new ground is covered as far as Hollywood big budget action movies go, but it’s the film’s tongue-in-cheek style that is so deliciously amusing. Case in point: each character is introduced with a sarcastic title card that gives their personal stats, including things like their “favorite movie” and their “go-to karaoke song.”

There are a couple of familiar faces that show up (including regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube), along with fresh newcomers Nina Dobrev (who is very, very funny as a mousy CIA agent who is easily impressed by sizable muscles) and Toni Collette (wickedly hamming it up as the government lady in charge). There’s some astonishingly polished stunt choreography from martial artist Donnie Yen as well as several delightful, whimsically staged scenes like a table full of firebrands playing hot potato with a trio of live grenades and a raucous brawl that breaks out onboard a free falling cargo plane in a nosedive.

This film may be loud and ridiculous, but it’s also tons of fun. I had a smile on my face throughout, and many of the creative and thrilling action pieces had me cheering out loud. This is the perfect display of mindless, escapist action cinema, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” proves there’s lots of life left in the franchise. I can’t wait to watch this movie again.

Sundance Review: “Raw”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

A lot of fuss is being made about “Raw,” a twisted and dark French horror film about shy vegetarian teen Justine (Garance Marillier) who, after a bizarre rabbit kidney eating hazing ritual at a veterinary school, finds herself with an uncontrollable craving for meat. It’s an amusing premise for a movie, but I wouldn’t really classify this as a true horror film. Yes, the movie features graphic cannibalism and unforgiving close-ups of gross-out flesh chewing, but it’s more horrifically funny than truly suspenseful and terrifying. Think of it as more arty exploitation than true horror.

Marillier is perfectly cast in the lead role, bringing the perfect mix of innocent and crazy. In fact, she’s pretty damn fantastic and carries the film with a fearless feminist spirit. The same goes for Ella Rumpf (as her sister Alexia). The two are completely believable as sisters with a relationship that will become, over the course of the film, a bit more…complicated.

There’s a refreshingly unique female perspective to the film, with deeper themes that explore the agony and ecstasy of becoming a woman and the complications that sometimes arise between sisters and familial relationships. Writer / director Julia Ducournau handles the material with a confident ease, not an easy task when you’re at the helm of a disturbing coming of age tale where your heroine discovers her budding sexuality in what can only be described as a carnal as well as a carnivorous awakening.

Setting the film in a veterinary school seems pointless and wasted for the most part. Justine’s rabid desires may play well off the setting, but there are far too many odd directorial choices that go nowhere, like a slow motion scene of a horse running on a treadmill. It’s visually stunning, but serves no purpose to the story — not even as a relevant metaphor. There are so many animalistic qualities that aren’t fully realized or explored (except for a brilliant scene where Alexia takes Justine to teach her to hunt like a predator schooling her young, where drivers on a nearby highway make for easy prey).

The setting also makes this movie not such a great choice for animal lovers, as I had to shut my eyes in many scenes. While I couldn’t watch the nauseatingly detailed dog autopsies and horse surgery, I had no problem with the gruesome human cannibalism scenes — and I’m not sure what this disturbing fact says about my psyche. This also is not a film for the squeamish. Trust me on this.

Justine’s introduction to cannibalism — her cannibal origin story, if you will — is pretty funny and is scored with some killer (ha!) original music. There are lots of cringe-worthy and macabre scenes, including an unforgettable sequence with an at-home Brazilian wax gone wrong. Very wrong.

To stretch the film’s runtime, the director adds in a few too many party scenes that feel much like pointless filler. Ducournau has a great artistic eye and a clear vision, but some of the pieces don’t quite work as they should (like a slow motion early morning walk of shame across the school’s campus). The idea had to look great on paper but it doesn’t translate well to film.

“Raw” very much reminds me of Yorgos Lathimos’ films, especially “Dogtooth,” in tone and style. It’s the kind of disgustingly funny movie where you will be unsure if you should laugh or vomit.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.