“A Street Cat Named Bob”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The healing power of an animal’s unconditional love is given its due in “A Street Cat Named Bob,” a film based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by James Bowen. Bowen (played here by Luke Treadaway) is a former heroin addict who had his life turned around when he met a stray cat that he named Bob. Bowen decided to take in and care for the kitty and his true, tender and heartwarming story is hard not to like and admire.

This true tale starts out with a harrowing drug overdose that lands Bowen in the emergency room, near death. He’s trying desperately to get off drugs but has been unable to find the strength to shake his demons. The young man has been disowned by his family, living on the streets of London and playing his guitar for pocket change just to survive. When it seems he has hit rock bottom, a four legged savior named Bob purrs his way into his life. The boisterous, ginger feline gives Bowen the strength and determination to become a better man.

There are some very heavy themes at play here (the screenplay touches briefly on some serious social issues including homelessness and the plight of drug addiction), but the film isn’t too dark or serious and mostly feels like it’s designed to tug at your heartstrings. What elevates from your usual Hallmark movie of the week is that the story of inseparable friendship is truly touching and doesn’t ring false. Even if you never cry at movies, I dare you not to get teary eyed when viewing this one. Get the hankies ready when Bowen foregoes eating himself just so he can use the last of his money to buy Bob a can of cat food.

Treadaway is compelling and gives a heartfelt, earnest performance as Bowen, but it’s the cat who steals the show. Even better is the fact that the real Bob the cat plays himself, and he’s a true character.

This is a feel good movie that will surely touch the hearts of animal lovers everywhere. Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to share their life with a cat needs to see this one.

“Beauty and the Beast”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I understand that it’s next to impossible to avoid letting your nostalgia for the original 1991 animated Disney film “Beauty and the Beast” fool you into thinking this live action remake is fantastic. I get it. It is arguably one of the greatest animated films of all time with iconic characters, scenes and songs. So iconic, in fact, that I wish the Disney machine would’ve just left it well enough alone. This nearly shot-by-shot retelling may have its moments, but they are few and far between. The film amounts to little more than a mediocre cash grab that putters along, fueled by the good will from its audience.

The film is surprisingly poorly directed by Bill Condon. The big CGI animated scenes that should be true show stoppers (like the classic “Be Our Guest” dinner performance) are choppily edited and packed with so much visual noise that they are ugly and at times ungainly. The entire project reeks of desperation as everything in the movie looks and feels overdressed and hollow, from the choreography to the mediocre costumes. The animated Beast (Dan Stevens) looks fake and terrible in the way he talks and moves, and don’t get me started on the ghastly singing all around.

The cast is so perfect (I’ve been excited for months after the accomplished list of actors was announced) and I can’t believe they actually blew it. Something feels completely “off” about many of the performances here, especially from Kevin Kline (Maurice), Josh Gad (Lefou), and at times, Emma Watson (Belle). They look uncomfortable and confused, awkwardly delivering lines and sometimes even changing acting styles throughout the film. Watson and Stevens lack even an ounce of chemistry, which sorely hurts the entire project.

There’s the typical overacting from voice talent Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), and a really bad vocal turn from Ewan McGregor as everyone’s favorite candelabra, Lumiere. It’s not all rotten, thanks to Ian McKellen as Cogsworth the clock (he turns in an inspired voice performance) and a very funny, boisterous, and cartoonish Luke Evans who gives Gaston his due.

The film exhibits such loyalty to the source material that it often reeks of desperation in its blind insistence to mimic the original. Scenes are set up shot-by-shot and reenacted, and the love story now feels a bit dated for today’s sensibilities. With the new Disney trend of writing tough, I-don’t-need-a-man strong female characters (“Frozen,” “Moana“), this movie feels like someone is rewinding the time clock back to the early 90s, regressing to what now feels like an old-timey attitude towards men (those filthy beasts!) and women (if I stay long enough, maybe I’ll learn to love him!).

The runtime is over two hours and there is just far too much going on in this overstuffed, bloated, and disappointing film. It may remain true to the source material, but that alone doesn’t make it a good movie.

“Before I Fall”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s “Mean Girls” meets “Groundhog Day” in “Before I Fall,” a surprisingly thoughtful young adult drama based on the novel by Lauren Oliver. The story gives a fresh perspective on the familiar themes of self discovery, living your life to the fullest, and the potential of one single gesture to make a powerful difference in the world.

Samantha (Zoey Deutch) is a high school senior with a seemingly perfect life and bright future. She hangs with a popular pack of pretty girls (Halston Sage, Medalion Rahimi, and Cynthy Wu) who take pleasure in bullying reclusive weirdo Juliette (Elena Kampouris) because of the strange way she dresses and acts. On the way home from a party one night, she and her best friends get in a horrible car accident. The next morning, Samantha wakes up with a serious case of deja vu.

Sam soon realizes that she has become stuck in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day over and over until she finally gets it right. It’s unclear if she is dead or alive, but every single night the day reboots and she’s back in her bed, waiting to start again. No matter what she does the day always ends and restarts the same way. It’s a good concept that’s been done to death, but luckily this version of the stuck-in-Purgatory theme seems fresh and new.

So why is that the case? I give great credit to Deutch and her natural, organic, and effortless performance. Even though she hangs with some not so nice gal pals, you can’t help but instantly like her and feel a real connection. Another reason this film works is the surprisingly mature and strong screenplay (by Maria Maggenti). The characters are written with an honest sincerity, as we all knew kids just like this when we were in high school. They speak like real teens and they act like real teens, with the most superficial things taking center stage in their lives.

This would be a good film to watch with your tweens and teens as there is a lot of material that should encourage interesting discussions, from the damaging effects of cruel bullying to the responsibilities of being a young woman to dealing with peer pressure and semi-toxic friendships. I love that the movie respects its characters and its audience, which makes it rise above the rest.

That’s not to say that it’s flawless, however. There’s a little too much filler, with repetitive scenes of teen girls singing along to the radio, putting on makeup and hanging out. The film could stand to lose at least fifteen minutes of superfluous padding, which was unnecessary in the first place because the story is so compelling and the script is so well written.

Still, there are quite a few refreshing revelations and twists to the story and a great (if startling) ending that’s not a letdown (even though the lesson is probably one that you’ll see coming from a mile away).

“Before I Fall” is a reminder that high school is torture and being a teenager really, really sucks. I am surprised at how good this movie is.

“Logan”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

With its narrow and unflinching scope, “Logan” forces the audience to face a world-weary man’s past demons up close and personally. While this poignant farewell chapter may be a swan song for Wolverine, this dark, violent and brutal film is so much more. It’s a somber, slow burn fueled with a painful introspective of a tormented man’s reflection on morality, mortality, and regret. It’s a superhero movie that has nothing to do with being a superhero, and it’s easily one of the best movies of the year.

Hugh Jackman elevates his final outing as the popular X-Men character with a melancholy performance in this exceptionally and unexpectedly thoughtful movie. The year is 2029 and most mutants are now extinct. Logan’s adamantium metal skeleton is slowly killing him, and he’s living his life in physical and psychological agony. It’s hard to see him like this, and it’s even harder to see his old friend and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) losing his mind and the control of his own powers. The two are hiding out in a remote area of Mexico where Logan drives a limo for cash and finds it necessary to drug Charles in order to keep him sedated (and to prevent him from hurting himself — and others). When a frantic woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) begs Logan for help moving young mute girl Laura (Dafne Keen) across the border to safety from an evil government organization (led by Boyd Holbrook), he learns about the existence of a new generation of mutants and does everything in his power to help grant them safe passage.

Newcomer Keen seamlessly integrates her way into the story with the perfect blend of sympathetic and lethal, her character paving the way for a new generation to continue the X-Men legacy. She gives a strong performance, especially for such a young actor, and I’m quite excited to see more of her in future installments.

The genuine and skillful acting throughout elevates this film from being nothing more than a lurid, cheap exercise in hyper violence. There’s a certain sincerity in the mutual respect between Charles and Logan, a tumultuous yet appreciative relationship between two men with a dynamic chemistry (Jackman and Stewart remain loyal and respectful to their characters, oftentimes with agonizing sorrow when you suddenly realize that this could be the final, mournful end to their bond).

There’s an underlying anguish to Wolverine’s rage, a painful ache that simmers under the stunning action sequences. This isn’t your typical Marvel blockbuster: get ready for gory dismemberings, close-ups of claws piercing skulls, razor sharp instruments popping through eyeballs, and ferocious blows that will make heads roll — literally. (In case you haven’t figured it out, this decidedly adult oriented film is not appropriate for the youngsters. Please leave ’em home for this one).

As a long time fan of the “X-Men” film series, I have to admit that it was a little disconcerting and quite alarming to see Wolverine actually draw blood from his victims. Showing the aftermath and reality of his viciousness through brutal violence was startling and disturbing, especially after all those years of watching the superhero bloodlessly slash and stab his way through countless bad guys. His rage has at last been unleashed, and fans will surely agree that it’s true to the character (and how great is it to finally hear the man continuously dropping the “f” word in the most natural, organic way)?

“Logan” makes the most of its R rating and is sure to unsettle and disturb those seeking a traditional Marvel superhero movie. This isn’t an action packed fluff piece: it’s a deliberate, dark, and thoughtful introspective tale of a downtrodden man who has lost his will to live.

The movie isn’t without its mild flaws, from the beat-you-over-the-head parallels to the classic western “Shane” to an astonishingly choreographed old Wolverine vs. young clone Wolverine fight that is freaking fantastic — until it’s repeated later on. But these are only minor criticisms of a film that’s a bold, daring, and sad-yet-satisfying finale to the saga of Logan.

MATT SAYS:

Violence has consequences. And in “Logan,” horrific violence has horrific consequences, even if you’re one of the “good” guys.

“Logan” finds the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in the not-too-distant future, working as a chauffeur to make ends meet and trying hard to forget his past. When he’s not working, he’s caring for the ailing nonagenarian Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in a world where mutants are no longer being born and the X-Men are all but extinct. Now an aging has-been, Logan is but a shadow of his former self: hardly the cocky, self-obsessed man he once was, this broken-down man is haunted by the memories of the people he has killed and those he has left behind. When a mysterious girl with powers like his lands on Logan’s doorstep, he is forced to live up to his legend and fight to protect her from forces that want to destroy her.

In “Logan,” we finally get a superhero movie that doesn’t feel like a comic book. The story is a small one, where the there is no larger-than-life megalomaniac wielding a giant destructo-beam with aspirations to rule the world. Instead, this movie is satisfied with the central goal of keeping the girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) safe. In this mission Logan finds purpose, and it is enough.

Those who were hoping for an X-Men movie will be disappointed in “Logan.” While there are multiple well-choreographed fight sequences (without fast-cut editing), in this film the violence is nothing like we normally see in superhero cinema. In this movie, when someone is sliced by the Wolverine’s sharp claws, there is blood. There is gore. Death isn’t bloodless or pretty, and the camera doesn’t flinch as we are shown the violence inflicted by Logan and others. This is, by far, the bloodiest movie based on a comic-book character I think I’ve ever seen. But it’s not gore for gore’s sake; there is a purpose for it.

At its heart, “Logan” is a character study about a man that has done terrible things and now has to live with them; worse, he has to live with himself. Much like James Gunn’s excellent 2010 movie “Super,” there are no white hats here: just real killing with real consequences.

Built upon fully-realized characters with understandable motivations, “Logan” never feels like it’s manipulating us. The drama is earned, as are the laughs and cheers. This kind of character-driven drama is not something most audiences are used to, but it’s a significant step forward for the superhero genre.

“Kong: Skull Island”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Even if you aren’t a fanboy of the monster movie genre, you’ll have a good time at “Kong: Skull Island,” an eye popping popcorn movie that offers up some good old fashioned cinematic escapism. The film has a serious-yet-satirical attitude that gives it an elevated B-movie vibe, and it’s a ton of fun.

Setting the film in the 1970s was a brilliant move and it serves the story well. Conspiracy theorist Bill (John Goodman) convinces the government to give him a military escort to chart a mysterious island. Accompanying him are tough and combative career military man Lt. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, British tracker James (Tom Hiddleston), anti-war photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and several other random company suits and scientists. After arriving on the island the group encounters wildly strange hermit Hank (the scene stealing John C. Reilly), a presumed dead WWII military pilot who crash landed and has been stuck on the island since the 1940s. King Kong is a hero ape in this version, keeping the local tribespeople safe from the Skull Crawlers (which are admittedly lame and fake looking dino lizard things).

The plot is thin, the dialogue is at times clunky, and there’s little character development. But that’s not really why audiences flock to movies like this, is it? We’re here to see a giant monkey wreak havoc, and the film delivers. (In fact, Kong shows up within the film’s first few minutes, providing an instant satisfaction by giving us an early and grandiose glimpse of the beast).

This is one great looking movie that’s extraordinarily visually focused (if not so much story-wise). It’s an expensive spectacle with a huge budget (rumored to be in the $190 million range), and you sure as heck can see where the money was spent onscreen. It’s not in the talented, credible actors that helm the cast: it’s in the absolutely flawless — and I mean FLAWLESS — visual effects. The CGI eye candy is breathtaking and the classic movie monster is brought to life on an epic scale by the animation geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic (with visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum working at the top of his game here). Kong looks and feels like an actual ape and is given a real humanity through the topnotch animation.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed the intimate film “Kings of Summer” (which clocked in at #4 on my list of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2013), makes an enormous and impressive creative leap from spearheading a low budget indie to an extravagant blockbuster with enviable ease. Vogt-Roberts has a skilled, artistic eye for visual beauty and stages some epic set pieces here. You’ll get big monsters and even bigger explosions with a pulsating retro rock soundtrack throughout.

All of this dazzling spectacle serves as a flashy distraction from the thin story and flat acting, but this is a wildly entertaining movie that breathes life into the Kong franchise.

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“The Belko Experiment”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Oh, what a great movie this could have been.

In what’s been described with mild accuracy as “Office Space” meets “Battle Royale,” “The Belko Experiment” is a bloody, gruesome and hyper violent exercise in indie cinema with an abundance of missed potential. Instead of striving for a masterpiece of comedy or a clever critique on workplace hierarchy and office politics, director Greg McLean and writer James Gunn instead opt for a disappointing, unimaginative bloodbath. It’s a cruelly savage tale of massacre and slaughter with no heft or meaning, just lots of blood.

What a letdown.

The plot is straightforward and unoriginal, and the film relies on its white collar world setting as the only mark of creativity. In a sick and twisted social experiment, an office full of 80 American employees are trapped inside their corporate high rise headquarters in Bogotá, Colombia. They must commit a certain number of murders per hour at the behest of an unknown voice broadcasting over the loudspeaker in the building. An all-out war soon ensues as the office becomes a splatter-filled playground of carnage in a contest for the survival of the fittest.

Movie like this are always a bit fun to watch (“The Hunger Games,” “The Condemned,” “The Running Man”) and I understand that nonstop violence can sometimes be a fun escape, but this movie misses the mark in a big way. For films like this to be truly compelling, the characters have to be sympathetic, driven and relatable in their will to survive and their eagerness to become murderers. It’s not the fault of the actors either, as there are some decent performances from John Gallagher Jr., Melonie Diaz and Adria Arjona, with Tony Goldwyn and John C. McGinley adding the best turns as two bosses gone rogue. Here we just get to watch as shallow, thinly scripted office workers are shot, stabbed, impaled, torn apart by hatchets, kicked to death, burned alive, and have their necks broken, all in a frantic assembly line fashion.

There are a couple of inspired ways that some of the associates meet the demise, including one guy who has his brains bashed in by a tape dispenser and several others getting the ultimate surprise of having their heads explode all over the break room. This is more of a straight up horror gore fest rather than a thoughtful or fun movie, and I left extremely disappointed in this colossal waste of potential.

“The Belko Experiment” is little more than dumbed down carnage that’s being marketed to educated genre fans and as a result, the project fails.

“American Pastoral”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I appreciate Ewan McGregor‘s assured confidence in tackling the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “American Pastoral,” but he never should have chosen Philip Roth‘s difficult material to make his directorial debut. McGregor is capable enough as a director but his talents lie onscreen, not behind the camera. He treats this material with a pedestrian, humdrum lens and turns it into a flaccid family melodrama rather than a provocative American tragedy, which is a bit of a shame.

The subject matter, with its ‘America in turmoil’ theme and emotions boiling over with disenchantment towards the government establishment, could have been made into a timely and relevant commentary on today’s society. Instead we get a by-the-book film with little to no artistic interpretation, and the end result feels as shallow as it is hollow.

“American Pastoral” tells the story of former legendary high school athlete Swede Levov (McGregor) and his former beauty queen wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). The classic hardworking family finds their lives turned upside down when their rebellious teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes a political terrorist during the Vietnam War.

The 1960s-era film has a few good looking scenes but everything about it feels far too staged, from the camera angles to the set design to the performances (the acting is skilled across the board, but it’s hard to truly enjoy anyone’s performance when the film itself is so bland).

This movie tries to cover far too much ground and sadly drowns in the provocative source material.

 

“A Cure for Wellness”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s rare that a film leaves me as puzzled as “A Cure for Wellness” managed to do. This bizarre exercise from director Gore Verbinski it not an easy movie to watch, proving quite challenging even for a seasoned viewer like me. This film is destined to inspire dozens of walkouts not only as a result of the overall uncomfortably menacing tone but the actual graphic onscreen depictions of incest, rape, animal cruelty, infants preserved in jars of formaldehyde, and one of the most horrific dental drilling torture scene since “Marathon Man.”

There’s plenty of violence, plenty of distressing deplorable behavior, and plenty of metaphorical eels. Lots and lots of eels.

When the CEO of an important New York financial firm refuses to return from a secluded, mysterious wellness center in the Swiss Alps, young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to bring him back. He soon finds himself trapped, being forced into the spa’s miracle water treatments by creepy Doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Of course things aren’t always what they seem, and the terrifying secrets and revelations surrounding an eerie young woman (Mia Goth) soon start to make Lockhart question his own sanity.

Verbinski has a wonderful artistic eye, and this film is visually stunning and distinctly elegant in its unsettling disturbing-ness. The first half hour is absolutely drop dead gorgeous, both visually poetic as well as gracefully written. You’ll be hooked on the mystery early on; it’s the eventual reveal that’s such a major letdown.

This overly long (146 minutes) film is right past the tipping point for all but the most tolerant of viewers, a psychological thriller that is stuffed with so much surrealism and dreamy, grotesque fetish horror that it’s not a freak show you’ll soon forget. This movie is so stylish and so disturbing that it will haunt me for years. It defies classification (but the best descriptor I can muster is that it’s a mash-up of “Shutter Island” and “The Neon Demon”).

It’s an arty freak show in the grandest of the schlock tradition, a horrific horror film that’s also elegantly horrific.

“The Founder”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The story of the real McDonald’s brothers and how door-to-door salesman Ray Kroc creatively swindled them out of their rightful share of the McDonald’s franchise fortune is the focus of “The Founder,” a fascinating true tale about the building of an American fast food empire. What starts off as a retro-looking commercial celebrating McDonald’s later takes a darker turn with the realization that Ray Croc (Michael Keaton), while a savvy businessman, wasn’t a very nice person. In fact, he was a first class jerk.

Kroc was a nasty yet shrewd hustler, a man with a “me first” business sense that helped him steal and build a worldwide brand. It’s not that Kroc was particularly smart, but he was a savvy, cutthroat, persistent opportunist who paid attention to those around him and had no qualms about stepping on the little guy if it could work in his best interest. He’s the man you love to hate, but can you really blame him for recognizing an easy opportunity and seizing on it?  If nothing else, this film serves as a warning of what not to do when you’re making business deals. Kroc cheated the McDonald’s brothers (enjoyable performances from both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) out of their “handshake deal” to give them 1% of all sales (in what would amount to $100 million per year). As tasty as those crispy fries are, knowing the background story leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

And that’s where this movie really fails — in its contradictions. At first it’s a love fest for the fast food restaurant but then morphs into something different: “Yay, McDonald’s!” turns to “Boo, McDonald’s!” At first it left me craving a burger but by the end, it made me feel like boycotting the restaurant forever. It’s not exactly a comedy but it’s not exactly a drama either.

The McDonald’s franchise story is interesting and one that is extremely important to the history of American business, but the movie overall comes across as far too bland and pedestrian. As is a problem with most biopics, the actors are laser focused on getting the mannerisms of their real-life counterparts so perfect that they become trapped within their roles, becoming a restrained impersonator rather than a gusty performer. Keaton sleepwalks through the role to the point where it feels like he’s doing a cheap imitation of Croc rather than something new and interesting.

While I didn’t love the film, it’s well crafted, well photographed, and well written in a clear, concise and straightforward way. But with such a compelling story, I just wish it had been so much more.

“Rings”

MATT: 2 STARS


MATT SAYS:

It’s been more than ten years since we’ve seen Samara (Bonnie Morgan), the creepy girl that will kill anyone who watches the videotape that she inhabits. We’ve moved into the world of YouTube and social media, when a video can be copied and shared worldwide in a matter of moments. What kind of destruction would Samara cause if she was unleashed in the modern world of instant shares?

An interesting and timely question, to be sure. Unfortunately, it’s barely even touched upon in “Rings,” the newest sequel to a movie no one really cared very much about in the first place.

“Rings” finds us on a college campus in Washington, where charismatic professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) happens upon a copy of the Samara video and uses it to inspire a legion of student-followers to academically explore the nature of life after death. Holt (Alex Roe) is a new student who has been swept up in the Samara study and, as a result, is marked for death. He unwittingly drags in his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz), who watches the video and herself becomes targeted by Samara. But strangely, Julia’s version of the Samara video is different from everyone else’s, and Julia becomes obsessed with unlocking the reason why. She and Holt take a road trip to the small town where Samara lived and died in an attempt to lift the curse and break the cycle.

There’s an interesting story in “Rings,” but before we get there we have to sit through a full hour of poorly-acted melodrama. Sure, we see a couple of effects-driven sequences where Samara kills her victims, but nothing worth watching actually happens until Julia and Holt arrive in Samara’s home town. There, the couple meets mysterious blind man Burke (Vincent D’Onofrio) and several other townspeople who clearly want to keep Samara’s memory in the past and have something to hide. That’s where the meat of the movie lies, when we learn more about Samara’s tragic past and what drives her spirit.

When you have to suffer through a full hour of movie before it starts to actually get compelling it’s a failure in my book. But still, it’s not a complete disaster.


Louisa was unavailable for review.