Category Archives: 2017 Film Reviews

“Blade Runner 2049”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I’m totally geeking out over “Blade Runner 2049,” one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ science fiction films. I love art, I love movies, and I consider films an important form of aesthetic visual expression, and this one features the most disturbingly gorgeous, darkly lush, effective dystopian cinematography since 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s filled with an unparalleled artistry and is among one of the best looking movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

The story takes place thirty years after the events of the first film, with new blade runner and LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) hunting rogue replicants. Eventually he unearths a secret that leads him on a quest to find Deckard (Harrison Ford), in what becomes a gradual meditation on the loss of our humanity. The film’s nearly three hour run time is undeniably long for most audiences but it never feels sluggish or bloated. The story takes its time and does what a good sequel should: it builds upon the original story. This marks a satisfying return for fans of Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film, yet the new plot will not alienate newcomers.

Before I get into the visuals (which indisputably form the film’s overall strength), it’s important to recognize the hallucinatory and airy electronic-tinged original score from collaborators Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, the flawless special effects and costumes, the steady and confident hand of uber talented director Denis Villeneuve, and the awards-worthy performances from both Ford and Gosling (which are among the very best of each man’s career). Gosling in particular is at the top of his game, bringing a painful nuance to a tortured, brooding, and lonely soul. He’s been served well by portraying quietly brutalized characters like this (see “Drive” and “Only God Forgives”), and his performance here is a true knockout.

Although the film hits a couple of speed bumps towards the end by relying on some clichéd film crutches like a seemingly endless fist fight and a classic “damsel in distress” scenario with a man handcuffed in dangerously fast rising water, the eye-popping visual splendor will take your breath away. I actually had to stop myself from audibly gasping at this complex, fully realized vision of the future.

First, if cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner don’t sweep this year’s awards season for their magnificent work on this film, then there is no justice in Hollywood. The duo orchestrate scene after scene of haunting, dazzling images that are instantly iconic, from a neon wasteland to a dystopian future filled with rainy, murky skies. It’s first-rate intellectual and artistic sci-fi noir and even if you know nothing about the craft of cinematography, you’ll no doubt appreciate the handsome lighting, ingenious framing, and impeccable effects. ‘Astonishing’ is the most appropriate descriptor that immediately comes to mind.

This is high art, pure and simple, from an accomplished group of artists who are working at the top of their game. This one’s a real beauty and should be required viewing for everyone who has a passion for the language of cinema.

“Marshall”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The story of Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall’s early career is the focus of “Marshall,” a conventional biopic that’s mixed with a straightforward court procedural about a 1941 rape trial. The sensational case pitted Connecticut socialite Ellie Strubing (Kate Hudson) against her black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown).

The driver was represented by Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), a young NAACP attorney who later became a monumental figure in the civil rights era. During the trial, Marshall partnered with inexperienced Jewish lawyer Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad) and the pair faced bigotry from their opposing counsel (Dan Stevens) as well as disgust from the general public.

Boseman and Gad are a likeable enough pair, playing off each other like a cinematic odd couple, yet their ultimately forgettable performances rival Reginald Hudlin‘s uninspired direction. This is a traditional, by-the-numbers story that feels more like a stage play than a film; a movie that seems slightly undeserving of a theatrical release.

Not much about this project is exciting or compelling, but the best parts come when a couple of strong scenes convey what a naturally talented lawyer Marshall was, including an effective jury selection bit where the young lawyer’s ability to read people comes as a second nature. Although based on a true legal case, it doesn’t provide the most compelling introduction to Marshall (and the abrupt, cheerful conclusion is off-putting). The story only glosses over the surface of this man’s amazing life and his legal contributions to our country, which is briefly summed up in an all too tidy, tacked-on ending.

The elephant in the room here is the wildly inappropriate music choices and original score. It’s so out of place that it continuously detracts from the story. It starts with the odd opening with period swing music accompanying grim themes, and it goes downhill from there with repeatedly cheerful tunes or upbeat harmonies paired with heavy subject matter like scenes of rape and bigotry. The musical cues tell the audience to feel the exact opposite way of how they should, and I see no artistic reason for it. Thankfully the music makes much more sense in the second half of the film, where we get a deliberate piano score.

Comparisons to our current political climate regarding race relations are inevitable, and the film touches on how African-Americans have been disenfranchised by our legal system for decades. Still, it’s a bit of a joy to see a black history movie that’s not about the horrors of slavery and one where the stereotypical “white savior” doesn’t swoop in to save the day. Heck, it’s enjoyable if solely for the chance to see the legal system not fail a black man. Instead, the film is empowering and positive, with beautiful quotes like “the only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” I didn’t love the movie, but I certainly respect that message.

“Brad’s Status”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

A father (Ben Stiller) who feels like a failure takes his son (Austin Abrams) on a tour of colleges in “Brad’s Status,” a sad sack, mopey, first person narrative film that wallows in self pity and doubt. If you think this doesn’t sound like a fun night at the movies, you’d be correct. This whiny, unpleasant film has writer / director Mike White written all over it, and this project serves as a mirror of his persona.

You can’t feel much else other than contempt for Stiller’s unpleasant, wholly unlikable character, Brad. He ignores his optimistic, cheerfully devoted wife (Jenna Fischer), and feels grossly inadequate with his nice house and nice car and his comfortable middle class lifestyle.

Instead of enjoying and living life, Brad constantly compares himself to his more successful college friends, including a retired tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), a powerful political pundit (Michael Sheen), a Hollywood big shot (White), and a hedge fund manager (Luke Wilson). As Brad imagines their glamorous lives, he fails to appreciate his own. This comes off as some privileged white guy whining about not having supermodel girlfriends and a mountain of money. He still doesn’t have enough and longs for more: more money, more women, more success.

Brad’s insecurity manifests as a mid-life pity party that begins when his son starts looking at colleges and making plans for his bright future. Brad whines — a lot — about the loss of promise, ambition, and limitless expectations that are a by-product of having your entire life ahead of you. He gripes about how meaningless his life is and how awful the world has become. Cynicism and resentment control his life.

White’s direction is straightforward and boring, and the screenplay relies on the overuse of voiceover as a crutch. Brad’s internal monologue is lazily conveyed through narration that gets insufferably irritating about five minutes in.

There’s nothing bittersweet about this story, it’s not funny, and it’s one of those films that makes you feel bad when you exit the theater.

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“American Made”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It may be exasperating to repeatedly see 55 year old Tom Cruise trying to pass himself off as a thirty something man, but there’s something that’s undeniable about “American Made”: Cruise is the very definition of a movie star. His charisma elevates the material and is what makes this one worth watching.

The film is an exaggerated retelling of the incredible true story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA in the late 1970s to provide reconnaissance in Central America. Things go from crazy to even crazier as Seal finds himself in charge of one of the largest covert government operations in history, eventually becoming a drug runner for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, a DEA informant, and an illegal arms dealer for the United States. Over the years, he and his handler Schafer (a fantastic Domhnall Gleeson), become deeply imbedded in the Iran-Contra scandal.

There’s an intoxicating energy to this unbelievable story, as director Doug Liman plays fast and loose with the actual facts and events. There’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of story or craft, but Liman takes a complex story and makes it easy to understand as well as totally entertaining. This is a rapid paced, brisk retelling that’s not quite as skillfully directed as other American pop history films like “Argo,” but it’s still an engaging thrill ride.

Cruise has the right personality match for a cocky, carefree character, and his cavalier performance makes everything about it fun. You won’t get a complex history lesson about one of the wildest, most certifiably insane true stores in America’s history, but the facts are glossed over in a breezy, charming fashion that gives this one a fun edge thanks to Cruise’s movie star charisma.

“Flatliners”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I was a huge fan of the 1990s film “Flatliners” so of course I was skeptical about this reboot. The new version isn’t completely awful and stays relatively true to the source material, but it has some of the worst acting and most basic dialogue I’ve seen in a Hollywood thriller in years. At times the writing gets so laughable that it reaches near “Showgirls” proportions, making it a performance train wreck that is full of campy goodness.

Even worse is the amount of missed potential at play, with countless opportunities to improve on the original completely squandered. The story is the same and the premise is a good one, but nothing ever clicks. Five promising medical students attempt to solve the mystery of what happens to humans after death by killing and then reviving themselves. As each one visits the afterlife and creates their own near-death experience, the sins of their past manifest themselves as terrifying visions that begin to drive the young doctors crazy.

The film could’ve taken this premise and made a horrific thriller, but this is a tame PG-13 wannabe horror flick, It’s not going to terrify anyone save for a few startling jump scares.

Unintentionally funny is the phrase that immediately comes to mind, especially in relation to the performances (in particular the turns from Nina Dobrev and Kiersey Clemons). I laughed out loud when I watched the characters administer CPR — there was zero attempt to even try to make their movements look real and instead they just stood there moving their bodies with the silliest shakes. If George Clooney could do it on “E.R.,” then actors in a big budget movie should be able to make it look real.

Ellen Page and James Norton are better in their roles than they need to be, but nearly everything about this movie feels superficial and indifferent. It’s as if the movie is bored with itself.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

From the moment I first saw “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” I knew it was something truly special. It topped my Top 10 Best Movies of 2015 list in the coveted number one slot and after multiple viewings, cemented itself among my favorite movies of all time. To say my expectations for “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” were high is something of an understatement. The original film was a rare one that begged for a sequel and I’m glad we’ve been handed one, but I really wish it was better than it turned out to be.

I want to be clear that while this film is disappointing and mostly lacking in intelligence, charm and wit, it still has its moments and the glorious, hyper violent end action sequence is a ton of fun. But it’s impossible to overlook what amounts to a relentless dumbing down of the entire “Kingsman” franchise in a lame attempt of desperation to outdo its predecessor.

When the Kingsman HQ is blown up by missiles launched by the drug peddling super villain Poppy (a delightfully psycho, hammy performance from Julianne Moore), our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton), back-from-the-dead Harry (Colin Firth), and loyal sidekick Merlin (Mark Strong) join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman. Champ (Jeff Bridges) runs the secret organization and heads the team, including Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and Ginger (Halle Berry). With their exaggerated Southern accents, ten gallon cowboy hats, and bloated swagger, the filmmakers seem to have mistaken Kentucky with Texas. The Statesman crew is enjoyable (although Tatum is completely wasted), but Pascale becomes the scene stealer with his 1970s macho Burt Reynolds bravado.

The film confuses a string of stunt casting with meaningful humor, and overall the project lacks creativity and the pulsing mean streak that made the first movie feel so original. Instead of another smart and snarky send-up of James Bond movies, audiences are forced into two and a half hours of aggressively tiresome repetition (we see characters dumped into a meat grinder twice and an extended, distracting celebrity cameo that quickly wears out its welcome as it balloons into a supporting role) and callbacks to the first film that serve as reminders of the sequel’s role as a pale imitator. Worst of all, the film is missing its clever, subversive humor. The smart satire is tossed out the window in favor of more slam-bang action sequences and animated spy weapons like an electric lasso. It’s violent fun, but it’s missing that spark that made the original film so beloved by film nerds.

Most disappointing is the film’s opening car chase scene, an awkward, CGI mess through London’s streets. I’m so disappointed that real stunt drivers and practical effects weren’t used, making this the second most frustrating animated car sequence this year since “The Fate of the Furious” and the awful looking parking garage bit. Perhaps I should refer to my disappointment as the “Baby Driver” effect: if you’re going to have cars in your movie, then put actual cars in the frame and talented drivers behind the wheel.

Once the plot delves into a truly irrelevant and weird message about the stigma of drug use, it skids off the rails in a spectacular fashion. Instead of steering itself back on track with a trademark crackerjack smugness, director Matthew Vaughn visually says “screw it” and goes full blown overkill, making the film feel like he was hell bent on trying to outdo himself rather than making a quality film. This sequel tries too hard and the film suffers for it. This doesn’t necessarily make “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” a total dud, but it is very disappointing to those of us who are super fans of the original.

“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

LOUISA: HALF STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

Come and get it folks! Come and get your nice, steaming pile of the latest Hollywood slop. This time it’s in the form of the inexcusably apathetic and offensively lazy latest movie in the already tired Lego franchise, “The Lego Ninjago Movie.” This animated kid flick is the very definition of throwaway entertainment (and that’s using the word “entertainment” very, very loosely).

I sat through this whole movie and I can’t tell you what happened — that’s how disengaged I was and how half-hearted the film’s plot and message are. The whole project feels unenergetic and cheap, with ugly animation, unamusing jokes, and flat voice acting (by talented people who should’ve known better and could’ve done better, like Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen and especially you, Dave Franco). This year will be a first: I can guarantee not one but two films in one franchise will appear on my Worst Movies of 2017 list (the other is “The Lego Batman Movie“).

Everything is unfunny, exhausting, and repetitive; a weak, uninspired, and utterly pointless movie that’s devoid of any and all fun. It’s so bad that there’s no point in writing a review. After 90 minutes of this exasperating stupidity, why bother?

“Leap!”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The untapped young female audience is the driving force behind “Leap,” a lively animated version of “Flashdance” that’s aimed at the very specific target audience of tween girls who are wannabe ballerinas. It’s a formulaic underdog story that, while mostly tiresome and bland, could prove to inspire some of the budding dreamers who watch it.

Elle Fanning voices Félicie, a dance-loving orphan who escapes to Paris with her wannabe inventor best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) to pursue their dreams. The film is set in France in the 1800s, but why? Only two of the characters speak with an accent and the setting, save for a partially constructed Eiffel Tower and the absence of cell phones, do nothing to serve the story.

Félicie befriends a hobbling former dancer (Carly Rae Jepsen) who now scrubs floors for the wicked Régine (Kate McKinnon) and her equally nasty daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler). When presented with the opportunity to pull one over on her bullying nemesis, our young heroine pretends to be from the rich family in order to secure a spot at the prestigious ballet academy.

You can probably guess what happens next. I will admit that it’s a little refreshing to see a female protagonist who shows that with hard work and determination, you can change your life and live your dream (even if she comes about it in a dishonest way). The plot may be uninspired and predictable, but at least it never sinks into the dreaded brainless, dopey territory that derails so many kid movies (that is, until the big chase scene finale where the filmmakers throw in a dated MC Hammer reference. Really). The blandness of the story is overshadowed only by its all-too-tidy, perfectly wrapped in a big, pink bow fairytale ending — because it would just be far too irresponsible of us as adults to deliver kids in the audience with a hard dose of reality, right?

Thanks to the technological advances in computer animation, the film at least looks marginally polished and professional, but combined with the lackluster vocal talent (including Mel Brooks as the orphanage’s caretaker) and the stiff visual design (giant heads on tiny bodies), the characters leave a muted, lifeless impression. The film’s strength comes from its nicely choreographed animated dance sequences (set to out of place modern pop music) that may motivate the middle school set to twirl their way out of the theater.

Although this movie smacks you in the face with its low-budget feel, it’s just good enough to warrant a theatrical release instead of being handed a direct to video sentence, destined for a lifetime of half-hearted viewing by your fidgety kids in the backseat of the minivan.

“Good Time”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The sleazy, bleak, and primal low budget crime thriller “Good Time” feels like a cinematic punch in the face. The more I think about this film through my figurative black eye, the more I like it. It’s rare to find a movie so confident and wholly committed to its bleak tone, bursting onto the screen in its opening scene with a disarming, bold swagger. This one is reminiscent of Scorsese’s early works but it never once feels like a cheap rip-off of the auteur.

A nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson (kudos to him for taking on challenging and unglamorous roles like this) is incredible as scumbag Connie, a low level criminal who has industrious and ambitious ideas but is far from smart. After persuading his developmentally challenged brother Nick (a fabulously understated Benny Safdie) to serve as his wing man in a bank robbery, everything goes wrong and his brother is captured and arrested while Connie runs free. The next hour is spent riding shotgun with this despicable man as he tries to free Nick from police custody.

Connie traverses the city streets throughout a sleepless night and grows increasingly trapped in this nightmare. As the evening progresses, he becomes even more desperate and begins mentally or physically harming everyone who crosses his path, from an amusement park security guard (Barkhad Abdi), a teenage girl (Taliah Webster) and her immigrant grandmother, and a newly paroled drug dealer (Buddy Duress) with a soda bottle full of LSD.

Connie isn’t a nice guy. He exploits his brother as a criminal pawn, he verbally abuses his unstable girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he has harsh racist tendencies that subtly manifest in different ways, and he takes advantage of nearly everyone who crosses his path. He’s not really nice to anybody except his brother and a dog, but Pattinson is so incredibly amazing in the role that I actually became disgusted with myself as I inexplicably began rooting for this amoral, predatory man to get away from the cops. This is one of those defining moments for an actor, and Pattinson is unforgettable. Comparisons to a young Al Pacino are inevitable.

This film oozes indie spirit throughout and feels intimately personal, which isn’t a surprise because bothers Benny and Josh Safdie had a hand in just about every aspect of the movie, from writing and directing to editing, sound design, and acting. The film’s phenomenal sound is particularly effective, with a harsh, pressure cooker of an original score to the ear-splitting sound effects that serve as a mirror to the overall discomfort and discord of the script. The story is simple yet filled with so many abrupt narrative jolts that it shocked and surprised me more than a few times.

The only criticism I have for the entire film (besides its irritatingly ironic title) is the epilogue, which I won’t spoil in this review. It has a pronounced tacked-on vibe, an unnecessary piece that the directors should’ve cut but just couldn’t let it go. Yeah, I get what they’re trying to say here, but there’s no sense in beating audiences over the head with it. We’re much smarter than that.

This movie accurately echoes the desperation in last year’s bleak “Hell or High Water,” telling a similarly mesmerizing story of an American man who has nothing to lose and will therefore take anything he can. The grimy urban landscape of New York City manifests itself through intense, textural, dreamlike visuals that feel more like a nightmare. Every scene is alive with a squalid vibrancy and a pulsating tension, yet it’s beautifully done and never showy.

“Good Time” may have a morally repugnant protagonist, an unpleasant narrative, and an unsettling vibe, but it’s also one of the best movies of the year.

“Tulip Fever”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I have learned more about the tulip craze in 17th Century Amsterdam than I ever care to hear about ever again thanks to “Tulip Fever,” a lifeless, insipid mess of a movie. Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz may headline this ill-advised project and while they are proficient, their performances aren’t enough to recommend suffering through this mess.

The film is based on the novel by Deborah Moggach and as is usually the case with intricate books turned into movies, there are just far too many storylines competing for attention within the entrapments of a 90 minute run time. It’s such a convoluted jumble of confusion that at times the plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and it doesn’t help that almost all of the characters feel paper thin.

Vikander is adept as Sophia, an orphaned girl who is forced into an arranged marriage to a wealthy merchant (Waltz). Unhappy in her emotional prison and unable to conceive an heir for her husband, she finds a confidant in her housemaid Maria (Holliday Grainger). When the lady of the house starts to have a passionate affair with a portrait painter (Dane DeHaan), all hell breaks loose.

There are way too many subplots that throw far too much information at the viewer, from an inept attempt to explain the underground tulip bulb market that ran rampant in the early 1600s, an unconvincing romance storyline with the local fishmonger (Jack O’Connell), scenes of a humorless nun (Judi Dench) tending to her flower garden, a drunk screw-up (Zach Galifianakis) ruining an epic plan after he intervenes to stop someone from beating a donkey, and a slightly pervy underground wannabe gynecologist.

Perhaps if this film had been crafted as a screwball comedy it would’ve been more effective.

The truly unsexy sex scenes notwithstanding, the filmmaking is at least skilled, and plot-wise there’s just enough to keep audiences barely hanging on to discover where the story ultimately goes. “Tulip Fever” is thankfully interspersed with some gorgeous shots of the most lovely flowers and the lavish costume design is an additional feast for the eyes. The movie isn’t bad to look at it, it’s just dull, hollow and ultimately confusing.