“Demolition”

LOUISA:   5 STARS   MATT:   5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Demolition” is an offbeat movie that delves deep in its exploration of grief and human relationships. It’s a decidedly adult drama about self-discovery, at times considerably emotional and slightly subversive. This is complex filmmaking at its finest, and this movie spoke to me. There’s a lot going on here; so much that I can’t wait to watch the movie again. I’m sure it will get even richer with subsequent viewings.

After his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is tragically killed in a car crash where he’s in the passenger seat, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to fall apart. His father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) watches as Davis’ life unravels (and weighty secrets are gradually unearthed). A handwritten complaint letter to a vending machine company over a $1.25 refund for a pack of peanut M&Ms leads to Davis’ path crossing with pothead Karen (Naomi Watts) and her sexually confused son (Judah Lewis). Soon after, a strange friendship ensues and Davis literally begins to tear apart his former life. He becomes obsessed with dismantling everything in site, from espresso machines, bathroom doors, clocks, and ultimately his own memories.

This film is completely self-aware yet not cliched. (Believe me, I was ready to start rolling my eyes when Davis drives past an uprooted tree, but then we hear his voice-over blurt out that “everything has become a metaphor”). This is just one of the many perceptive aspects of the movie that thoroughly worked for me. I found it easy to relate to the story and there was something in each of the characters that rang true in my own personal experiences. Nothing feels forced — even the overt symbolism — because it’s presented in a way that elicits empathy and is wholly engaging. The authenticity keeps the story from sinking into a commonplace melodrama.

The main reason I loved this film is due to the brilliant screenplay. It’s wordy, insightful, intelligent and hands-down gets my vote for my favorite (and best written) screenplay so far this year. (I can’t believe it was written by Bryan Sipe, the same writer who adapted the Nicholas Sparks novel “The Choice” for the screen).

There are so many things that worked in this film: the killer soundtrack, the all-around solid performances from the cast (Gyllenhaal continues his streak as the new master of the edgy performance), the style of the poignant vignettes of pleasant memories of the lead character’s former life, and especially the story exposition through letter writing. When Davis begins unloading his grief and life story in his letters, the truth begins to emerge. When he writes “I don’t think I really knew who she was” about his dead wife, you get a real glimpse of honesty about his marriage and his character. I loved, loved, LOVED the storytelling device of letter writing.

Hat’s off to director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”); he’s created a fantastic work of art. Memorable scenes are everywhere, from a cathartic solo dancing bit on a bustling New York City street to the actual bulldozing of a window-heavy house to a very moving (and funny) scene about gender identity in a hardware store. One of my favorite scenes is when Davis, numb with grief, volunteers to do some work with a demolition crew. While working he steps on a nail. At first Davis howls in pain but his screams quickly turn to gleeful laughter as he realizes that yes, he still can feel pain. There are so many affecting scenes just like this, many filled with gratifying emotional surprises. It’s painfully beautiful.

“Demolition” excels in telling its narrative of loneliness, self-destruction, shock, grief and emptiness in a tender and realistic way (and even adds a bit of dark humor to the mix). The movie feels raw, gut-wrenching, believable and authentic.

As I finished writing this review, I actually just said aloud: “damn, I really loved this movie.”

MATT SAYS:

“Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart, just examine everything, and then you can put it all back together.”

This advice – given to Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhall) by his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) – is the engine that drives “Demolition,” the newest film from director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club“). Davis is a successful investment banker working for Phil’s company who seemingly has it all: the Porsche, the flashy modern house in the suburbs, the beautiful wife, the designer clothes, and an impressive office perched high up in a gleaming skyscraper. In an instant, a car accident takes the life of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), and suddenly, Davis doesn’t know how to act. As a human being, Davis knows that he should be grieving for his loss, but in truth he can’t feel anything. His co-workers, parents, and in-laws all expect him to be overcome with sadness, but he isn’t. He’s numb, and he admits to himself and to his doctor that he’s felt that way for a long time. Davis wants to feel something about Julia’s death, and he feels like he’s broken because he doesn’t.

Part of Davis’s problem is that he realizes that he never really knew Julia. He married her because – in his mind – that’s what society expected of him and it was the easiest thing to do. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t miss her but he’s trying to. So he takes Phil’s advice quite literally and begins “taking apart his marriage” by disassembling or destroying the shiny things he and Julia accumulated during their marriage. Along the way, he strikes up a unique friendship with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who is drawn to Davis and his soul-searching honesty. It is through his new relationship with Karen and her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) that we see Davis begin to find again what he feels that he lost.

“Demolition” is an expertly-crafted reflection on the nature of marriage and the value we give to our lives and our loved ones. Who is this person we’ve chosen to live our life with? Are we appreciating our spouse for who she or he is, or do we see that person as another thing we’ve collected; a status symbol, a way to signify to ourselves and others that we’ve made it and that we matter? And even if we married for the “right” reasons – for love – what will happen to us if we don’t take care of that love? It is these very human questions that “Demolition” explores and attempts to answer, and I adored every minute of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t just cast well as Davis. He OWNS this role. I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled it off as well as he did: Davis’s mien may be inscrutable, but he’s not; he may appear cold-hearted, but he’s not; he may seem unaffected by his wife’s death, but he’s not. He’s struggling with his humanity in a world where he’s learned to place far too much value on facades and the trappings of success without learning what it means to live richly. Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance perfectly captures the dichotomy between how the world views him and how he views the world. This is expressed not only through what’s been left on the screen for us to see, but also through his inner monologue, which we hear expressed as a series of letters written by Davis to a customer service department for a vending machine company. This technique for expressing voice-over narration may sound gimmicky on paper, but in execution it works beautifully.

As Karen and Phil, Watts and Cooper are also excellent as usual. But apart from Gyllenhaal, the other standout in this movie is Judah Lewis. As Chris – a young adult confused about his own life, sexuality, and place in the world — Lewis serves as Davis’s mentee and partner-in-crime. Take it from me: this young man is an actor to watch.

In its contemplation of big ideas about marriage, society, love, and the ways in which we seek to define ourselves to others, “Demolition” acquits itself admirably. It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s very, very human.

 

“Elvis & Nixon”

LOUISA:   4 STARS   MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

In December of 1970, Elvis Presley showed up unannounced at the front gates of the White House to request a personal meeting with President Nixon. The story of Presley’s fascination with the FBI and his insistence on being given an honorary special agent badge so he could go undercover to help America has always fascinated me. Who hasn’t looked at that famous photo of Nixon and Elvis shaking hands and wondered what the heck went on in the Oval Office that day? This movie tells the (imagined) story of the what, why and how of that now legendary meeting.

Fans of Elvis will especially get a kick out of this movie. I’ve visited Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee several times over the years and I remember one of the main exhibits that housed Elvis’ many official law enforcement badges from police departments across the country. The badges filled an entire wall. If you have a basic background knowledge of Elvis and his many quirks, you’ll find an enhanced richness to the story. It helps if you know a bit about Nixon too, so read up a bit on your history before going to see it. Even if you aren’t very familiar with either man’s backstory, there’s still plenty to enjoy.

“Elvis & Nixon” is charming, witty and quite funny. Michael Shannon abandons his signature over-the-top acting style and dials it down a bit to play Elvis. His subdued approach fits the role well, allowing him to capture the legend through his well-mimicked speech patterns all the way down to his swagger. Kevin Spacey is lively as Nixon, obviously having a ball chewing on his role. (I’m glad my fear that he’d be channeling too much Frank Underwood was completely unfounded). Colin Hanks (Egil “Bud” Krogh) and Johnny Knoxville (Sonny) turn in two very affable and amusing supporting performances too, and Alex Pettyfer is likeable as Elvis’ right hand man, Jerry Schilling. It is obvious everyone involved in this film had a ton of fun making it, and their real-life bromances leap off the screen.

The period set pieces are fun and the soundtrack is great (no Elvis songs, though). The pacing is just right and for once, here’s a film with a reasonable 86 minute run time (it left me wanting more). This film is not something that’s going to change the face of cinema, but it’s a lively little gem of an indie movie.

Side note for parents: this film is unfortunately rated R solely because some characters utter the “f word” several times, but there’s nothing else objectionable about the content. It’s completely appropriate for mature pre-teens who are interested in history (or Elvis).

Overall I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very fun movie and is a must-see for history lovers and fans of the King.

MATT SAYS:

“Elvis & Nixon” is a good bit of goofy fun.

Inspired by the meeting in 1970 between The King and the leader of the free world, “Elvis & Nixon” is about the collision of two larger-than-life self-made men that seemingly connected with one another over a shared set of values. This legendary meeting preceded Nixon’s wiring up the Oval Office and as a result, we don’t know exactly what happened or what was said when Elvis met the President. These gaps in the historical record leaves the screenwriters with plenty of room to use their imagination — and they do a great job of it.

Instead of tired mimicry, Michael Shannon (as Elvis) and Kevin Spacey (as Nixon) breathe new life into these legendary characters by allowing us a peek into their private lives. Going into the film, I confess I was sort of hoping that Shannon would go over the top a la “Take Shelter” or “Man of Steel“, but he didn’t. Surprisingly, his version of Elvis was much more nuanced than most and captured Elvis’s essential humanity. But at the same time, both Shannon are Spacey are clearly having fun with these roles. Neither actor takes their part — or himself — too seriously.

“Elvis & Nixon” takes some time to build its momentum. While it doesn’t necessarily drag, everything that precedes the encounter between the two pales in comparison to the actual White House visit. The movie really comes into its own during that meeting, and it’s there that the screenwriters have the most fun. Their imagining of what happened that day is both credibly incredible and wildly hilarious, and the two lead actors attack those scenes with great zeal.

Rarely do you see a film like this one where you get the sense that everyone who made it was enjoying themselves. The movie pulses with this exuberant energy, and it’s infectious. The cast and crew clearly had a good time making it, and I had a good time watching it.

 

“The Adderall Diaries”

LOUISA:   4 STARS   MATT:  2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

James Franco is the new generation’s Nicolas Cage. Even if a movie isn’t great, you can bet it will at least be interesting if Franco is attached. “The Adderall Diaries,” based on the bestselling memoir by author Stephen Elliott, isn’t just interesting — it’s also really good.

I’ve never read any of Elliott’s books so I don’t know how the film will play to an audience of his readers and fans, but you obviously don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy this movie. I knew nothing of the man going into the theater but I loved it. The story revolves one man’s struggle with his past (and current) demons, featuring everything from a bizarre love story to an obsession with a real-life murder trial. It goes without saying that James Franco is perfect for the role. He is one of the few young actors that can pull off a scraggly, damaged literary badass with daddy issues with an air of ultimate believability. Even in his sex scenes (some of which are approaching masochistic levels), Franco looks totally at ease and at home. Nothing feels false in his performance, and that’s an impressive achievement.

The story of a drug addicted troubled writer is one I’ve seen many, many times, but what could’ve (or perhaps should’ve) been another mundane and laborious exploration of creative struggles was given an upgrade largely due to the convincing and talented supporting cast (Cynthia Nixon, Amber Heard, Christian Slater, Ed Harris and Jim Parrack) and the provocative visual style of director Pamela Romanowsky. Everything about the film’s look and feel worked for me (the film’s tone reminded me of one of my all-time favorite Franco vehicles, which ranked at #3 on my Top 10 Best list in 2013, “Spring Breakers“).

Romanowsky has a clear, original artistic vision which materializes through unexpected camera angles, dreamy flashbacks, cool graphics that incorporate Elliott’s written words, and limited use of a musical score. She excels in presenting the author’s muddled memories about childhood loss, parental abuse, homelessness and drug addiction — memories that, over the course of the film, become even more twisted within his own fiction. This is some truly inspired and complex direction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

“The Adderall Diaries” isn’t for everybody but if you are a fan of independent film, enjoy contemporary visual styles or are simply a casual moviegoer who loves a challenge, check it out.

MATT SAYS:

“The Adderall Diaries” is a difficult movie to love. It’s partially a semi-autobiographical piece about acclaimed author Stephen Elliott; it’s partially a drug-fueled stupor; it’s partially a true-crime drama; and it’s partially a meditation on the nature of family, love, forgiveness, and memory. Although none of these parts are necessarily bad, they do make up a somewhat disjointed whole that will have trouble connecting with audiences.

The always-enjoyable James Franco plays Stephen Elliott, who is suffering from severe writer’s block and sees his life beginning to unravel after a very public James Frey-esque confrontation about the veracity of the “facts” he presents in a novel. Burdened by ghosts from his past and memories that diverge significantly from those of others who shared the same experiences, Stephen begins to withdraw from his friends, girlfriend, editor, and life aided by Adderall and other chemicals.

Stephen is a hard man to like. His S&M-laden sexual fetishes, proclivity for substance abuse, and extreme cases of selfishness and self-pity make him difficult to relate to, which is a serious problem given that the movie is about him. Stephen has to pull himself out of this pity pit, and only a reconciliation with his estranged father will get him there. It is the strong performances of James Franco, Amber Heard (who plays Stephen’s sometime girlfriend, Lana) and Jim Parrack as Stephen’s best friend Roger, that together save the film from being completely forgettable. Heard and Parrack act as the voices of reason and reality for Stephen, and it is their presence and influence on Stephen that help bring the audience along for the journey.

I generally struggle with movies that rely too heavily upon the drug-induced stupor as a significant story element (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “I Melt With You” come readily to mind), but those scenes are, fortunately, limited in screen time. There are some good story elements here and the film has some interesting things to say — particularly about the nature of memory and how we all fall victim to fooling ourselves through our own false memories — but there are also too many story shifts and poor editing choices to make this film one coherent whole. Too many times I found myself comparing this movie to “The End of the Tour,” the 2015 movie about another well-known author that was much better than this one.

I didn’t hate “The Adderall Diaries,” but I didn’t really like it, either. Which means that I can’t recommend it.

“Barbershop: The Next Cut”

LOUISA:   3 STARS   MATT:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If anything, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is full of surprises. I went in expecting a fun comedy but instead got a very ambitious (and commendable) message movie about gang violence, involved parenting, respecting women and personal accountability. The serious stuff works; the gags played for laughs don’t.

There are some rough attempts at jokes early on, but the comedy just isn’t my type of funny (admittedly, some of the wisecracks and references I just didn’t “get”). There are countless riffs on pop culture, what women want, soul food and more. The down-home dialogue makes you feel like you’ve been hanging out in a local barbershop all day and the actors speak just like normal folks. The cast has a natural, believable chemistry — you want to be around these people. Ice Cube is back as barbershop proprietor Calvin; he along with Cedric the Entertainer (Eddie),  Common (Rashad), and a thoroughly entertaining Nicki Minaj (Draya) are standouts. Rounding out the likeable cast are Regina Hall, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Anthony Anderson and J.B. Smoove.

Although the comedy doesn’t land a perfect 10, the dramatic elements are across-the-board compelling (even if they do get a little too preachy at times). This movie feels like a passion project for all involved and dishes out some serious themes about gang violence in a predominantly minority South Side Chicago neighborhood. The movie does a good job at shedding a light on what it must feel like to live in a community in crisis (something that most outsiders will never understand). While I am a white suburban female, I could sympathize and empathize with the characters and their day-to-day struggles. Relevant and real present-day issues are explored with sincerity. This movie is fun but its not lighthearted; it tackles racially charged political issues head on and doesn’t shy away from inviting distressing, complex and controversial questions.

I loved the film’s eventual uplifting and admirable message of empowerment, encouraging locals to take back the neighborhood and reminding us that change begins with a small first step.

MATT SAYS:

My expectations for “Barbershop: The Next Cut” were a little off. I was expecting a straight-up comedy, and while there is plenty of humor, there is a serious message to this movie that gives it emotional weight that is well-earned.

I don’t remember much about the previous two “Barbershop” movies, but the Internet Movie Database tells me there were two of them. Like its predecessors, “The Next Cut” is about the titular shop on the south side of Chicago named for its owner, Calvin (Ice Cube). Most of the actors from the other two movies appear in this one, too, with the notable addition of Common, who plays Calvin’s best friend Rashad.

There are some genuinely funny moments, but “TNC’s” primary goal is to try to deal with some of the issues that we are currently grappling with in the country in a way that feels authentic. Calvin, Rashad, and the rest of the crew at the barbershop are longtime south side residents, but their beloved neighborhood is slipping away as brutal gang violence has become a way of life. Calvin and Rashad struggle as the fathers of teenage boys who see the flash and feel the allure of the gangsta lifestyle, and in the shop have to deal with the very real possibility of gun violence on a daily basis. The crew at the shop decides to stop waiting on the government to find a solution to fix these problems, and instead devises a plan to bring the warring sides together in a positive way. The issues the film grapples with are clearly important to Cube (who produced the movie) and the rest of the cast.

Although it’s dealing with weighty subject matter, “Barbershop: The Next Cut” does so with a light touch. There is a genuine chemistry between the characters, and there are plenty of fun and funny moments to keep the film from being emotionally draining.

All of that said, the film had a number of elements (particularly early on) that dragged it down. It gets off to a slow start, and much of the first 20 minutes or so left me feeling vaguely confused as the movie seemed to struggle with finding its tone. There were a number of jokes that fell flat because they were tonally confusing. Calvin and Eddie’s (Cedric the Entertainer) reaction to an early threat of potential violence being the most notable. Once it got going, however, it did pick up considerable momentum and built towards a satisfying finish.

“Criminal”

LOUISA:   1.5 STARS    MATT:   1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

Once in a while a movie comes along that’s so bad it’s good. “Criminal” is so bad that it’s just plain bad. There is only one thing remotely redeeming about this hopelessly awful excuse for a movie, and that laurel rests on Gary Oldman’s ridiculously cheeseball performance. Oldman’s character should be called ‘Captain Obvious’ because his dialogue consists of nothing more than rehashing whatever is going on in the plot at the time. I am not kidding. It is so funny that ultimately, finding myself no longer able to stifle my laughter, I let out a hearty belly laugh that didn’t subside for at least three minutes.

The moronic plot deals with the early onscreen death of CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, the only actor smart enough to limit his screen time in this crap) whose memory is transplanted — I know, I know, you are laughing already — into hardened criminal Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Doctor Franks (Tommy Lee Jones, whose acting abilities have been diminished to nothing more than cantankerously shuffling around and scowling like he can’t find his way to the Country Kitchen Buffet for his early bird dinner) leads this miraculous transplant at the command of CIA bureau chief Wells (Gary Oldman, in one of the most unintentionally silly performances in recent cinema). As per usual, when the memories start to kick in, Jericho starts to have some lovey-dovey feelings towards Pope’s wife and kid (Gal Gadot and Laura Decaro).

There are some kooky plot points about an anarchist hacker and wormholes and misplaced flash drives (the audience thankfully isn’t left in the dark thanks to Oldman consistently shouting “don’t give him that flash drive!“).

“Criminal” is overly bloody and overburdened with fiery explosions and car crashes that dominate the film’s finale. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout much of the film’s ridiculous conclusion. Could “Criminal” have staked its claim as one of the ‘so-silly-it’s-awesome’ action films like “London Has Fallen,” “Bad Boys II” or “White House Down?” Maybe. But the entire cast and director Ariel Vromen seem to be earnestly playing it straight, which makes the film more worthy of audience pity rather than cult status praise.

MATT SAYS:

This movie is terrible with a capital “T.”

First, if the preview has you believing that “Criminal” stars Ryan Reynolds, let me disabuse you of that notion. Yes, Mr. Reynolds, the master of the body-switch movie (see also: “Self/less“, “R.I.P.D.“, and “The Change-Up“) is in the movie, but only briefly. Reynolds plays Bill Pope, a CIA agent whose memories get transplanted into serial killer and prison lifer Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner). Pope’s CIA handlers (including boss Gary Oldman) hope to use Jericho to find out information that only Pope knew, but predictably things go awry. Jericho quickly escapes from CIA custody, and finds himself hunted down both by the CIA and by a nefarious terrorist network. Reynolds is the best thing about this film, and his part is concluded after the first 10 minutes or so. For the rest of the movie, it becomes the Costner and Oldman show, with a dash of Tommy Lee Jones thrown in for good measure.

“But wait!” You might say. “I like Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones. How could a movie with all three of them suck?” Take my word for it: it doesn’t just suck, it sucks hard. Costner’s performance is a one-note series of grunts and growls indistinguishable from those we got from Christian Bale’s Batman. Oldman, as the chief CIA agent in charge, may as well have been called “Mr. Shouty,” because that’s pretty much all he did. Jones was a little more understated — and therefore the best of the three — but his character and the lines assigned to him were so inane that he was unable to elevate this material.

“Criminal” is full of logical plot holes that quickly pile up, one on top of the other, and the fall under their own weight. Look, I can suspend my disbelief as well as the next guy. But this film doesn’t just ask you to suspend disbelief: it asks you to check your brain at the door. It’s simply impossible to accept this low-rent and dumbed-down world of spycraft when there are so many better options out there.

At some point, this dim-witted movie got so absurd that it actually became funny (so there’s a positive, I suppose). Just for fun, here’s a partial list of some of its many problems:

  • The CIA is so inept at its tradecraft that “The Agency” becomes indistinguishable from the Keystone Cops.
  • The head bad guy is a direct rip off of Javier Bardem’s character from “Skyfall,” except unlike the “Skyfall” baddie, he has zero personality and an unexplained array of hacking abilities beyond that ever seen in any movie, anywhere.
  • There is a Russian female assassin reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who serves no apparent purpose other than to check a box on some focus-grouped list.
  • The key MacGuffin in the picture is some kind of super hacking tool that allows anyone to command all U.S. military assets, including nuclear missiles. Despite the possible world-ending value of this item, the CIA can apparently only afford to task 10, maybe 15, people to find and obtain / destroy it.
  • More on that point: this movie takes place entirely in the U.K., and despite the bad guy using weapons that pose an immediate threat to the country’s most populous city of London, we see zero involvement of the British government.
  • Tommy Lee Jones plays a doctor who talks like he is just making s*** up as he goes along, but everyone believes every single word he says.

Okay, I have to stop at some point so this is as good as any. Don’t go see “Criminal” in the theater, skip it in Redbox, and delete it from your Netflix Queue.

“I Saw the Light”

LOUISA:    3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

All musical biopics are roughly the same: they attempt to paint a portrait of a tortured genius who either has problems with past demons, alcohol, drugs, women, violence (or a deadly combination of all of the above), which leads to a tragic, untimely demise. Even those unfamiliar with musician Hank Williams will probably know what to expect in “I Saw the Light,” a very simplistic and sparse retelling of the life of the country crooner. The main problem with the film is that main subject’s life was, well, pretty boring.

Unexpectedly strong performances from the stellar cast (including Tom Hiddleston as Williams, Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife Audrey, Bradley Whitford as the legendary Fred Rose, Cherry Jones as his protective yet overbearing mother Lillie, and an all too short cameo from David Krumholtz as a newspaper reporter), keep the film afloat. Who knew Hiddleston could sing and play guitar? He more than simply pulls it off here: he is completely believable in all respects, right down to the cowboy strut and the flawless Southern accent (he even pronounces ‘pecan’ in the correct way)!

Not only is this film well acted, I thought it was incredibly well directed by Marc Abraham. The film looks and feels gorgeous, full of creative shots and staging. Abraham successfully constructs a style that never becomes tiresome or stale (how many other biopics can you say that about)? The scenes are creatively staged in a way to make the audience feel like they are right there in the heart of the action, watching music history being made. It’s one of the best directed biopics I’ve ever seen, which makes it even more of a shame that no big awards are likely in this film’s future.

As someone who loves all genres of music (yes, even classic country), I was hoping for more from this film. It’s good but it could’ve been so much better. Instead of briefly presenting numerous snapshot moments in Hank’s life, I would’ve rather seen a more focused storyline. This overly long movie meanders all over the place, with scene after scene of hard drinkin’, heartache cryin’, hollerin’ and fightin’, and let’s not forget the holy grail in the life of a country music icon: lots and lots of cheatin’.

Thankfully there are musical interludes thrown in for good measure (once Williams gets to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, the movie picks up steam — only to quickly lose all the momentum it gained). The final moments of Williams’ life are beautifully handled, as is the reaction to his tragic death at the age of 29.

The film gets you into the heart of the characters, but the characters are just too dull to make any lasting impact.


Matt was unavailable for review.

“The Boss”

LOUISA:    3 STARS     MATT:    3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Melissa McCarthy is one funny lady, so it’s really hard to straight-up hate on this movie. Let me be clear: “The Boss” is not a great comedy. On the McCarthy comedy barometer, it’s far better than the abysmal “Identity Thief,” it’s miles ahead of the awful “Tammy,” but it’s not quite as good as “Bridesmaids” or “Spy.” There’s some genuinely funny stuff in the middle of the movie, but the film’s really unamusing start put me in a negative mindset from the get-go. Some of the supposed comedic situations are far from funny, especially in the movie’s first 15 minutes. The first quarter of the movie feels like it’s full of excessive lame gags, all desperate attempts to elicit laughs (yeah, it’s BAD).

The humor isn’t mean spirited or gross, it’s just not funny (Peter Dinklage gives a real head scratcher of a performance as a business rival who thinks he’s a ninja). Many jokes land with the loudest thuds you’ve ever seen. Thankfully McCarthy doesn’t resort to the most odious ‘fatty fall down’ antics as she has in the past (perhaps she and her director husband Ben Falcone are finally realizing that she’s far better than that). Yes, there are silly pratfalls and lots of jokes fall completely flat, but there’s a pinch of heart and some genuine laughs sprinkled throughout.

When super wealthy Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) gets busted for insider trading, she winds up in jail. When finally released 5 months later, she finds all of her possessions are repossessed, her business closed, her house foreclosed upon, and her formerly loyal employees have jumped ship. With nowhere to go, she heads to former assistant Claire’s (Kristen Bell) tiny apartment and moves in. Just when you think the story is going to turn into the same-old same-old fish out of water story, the movie surprises with a fun plot about Michelle starting her own brownie business with the help of a local cookie selling Dandelion Girls troop. Things swiftly pick up as soon as the ruthless Michelle is released from jail, much to the credit of the great comedic chemistry between the two lead actresses.

This movie didn’t disappoint me because I went in with the lowest of low expectations. I exited the theater pleasantly surprised. I found myself enjoying this movie much more than I expected to when it started, and eventually it won me over. I can’t completely forgive the awfulness of the first act, but any movie that can redeem itself after falling so far behind is one that I can feel comfortable (mildly) recommending.

MATT SAYS:

“The Boss” is a decent Friday night movie: the type of movie that you can confidently pick up from Redbox and watch while you’re eating pizza and drinking a nice glass of wine. It delivers some solid laughs with some jokes that are both intelligent and inspired that will go great with the pie and juice, but you’ll forget them before the pizza box even makes it into the trash bin.

There just isn’t much meat on these bones. The story is enjoyable enough but far from being inspired; the characters likeable enough but not the kind you care about ever seeing again. While it’s nice to see a female-driven comedy with strong women that’s not about the girl getting the guy, that fact alone doesn’t make the story a compelling one. That said, when I did laugh I laughed hard and I laughed well — which is sometimes all that we care about or ask for. And as she did in 2015’s “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy carries the movie quite well.

Ever since seeing her in the 2014 movie “St. Vincent,” I have been a Melissa McCarthy fan — at least in the movies when she isn’t relegated to playing roles based on her body type. She is a talented actress, but that talent has been hard to notice when she’s relegated to movies like “Tammy” and “Identity Thief.” This movie isn’t like those latter movies, though. While there is some (unfunny) physical comedy in “The Boss,” it’s relatively fleeting and not mean-spirited.

So go ahead — pick this one up from the Redbox on the way home, and pop it in while you enjoy your greasy delivery dinner. You’ll be perfectly satisfied. But if you’re looking for a good movie to watch during a night out at the theater, “The Boss” shouldn’t be at the top of your list.

 

“Sing Street”

LOUISA:   5 STARS      MATT:    5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I can’t fault director John Carney for sticking with his trademark formula; he is, after all, batting 1,000 with “Once” and “Begin Again.” “Sing Street” adds to his holy trinity of exemplary music themed tales.

This musical coming of age film is set in Ireland in the 1980s. Our hero is 15 year old schoolboy Conor / Cosmo (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who, trying to escape an unhappy home environment and coping with being the new kid at his private Catholic school, forms a rag-tag rock band to attempt to impress a wayward wannabe model (Lucy Boynton). The ridiculously talented young cast (including Mark McKenna, Ben Carolan, and a standout star-making performance from Jack Reynor as the wise older brother) is immensely likeable, and the catchy original songs will leave you tapping your feet long after you leave the theater.

Underscored with themes of friendship and brotherly love, the movie’s main focus is on the pure, unrivaled joy of creating art. If you are a musician or a fan of music, this is an absolute must-see (this movie is a genuine pleasure for creative types and will undoubtedly be savored even by those who aren’t). As the boys scribble lyrics in pencil and write their own songs (or film their own hilarious new wave music videos), it reminds us to always follow our dreams and continuously forge ahead with our personal artistic expression, even in the face of failure.

As with all of writer/director Carney’s best films, “Sing Street” not only celebrates music (accompanied by a tremendous original and classic 1980s era soundtrack) but shows a very deep understanding of the importance of music in ordinary people’s lives. Music can serve as the best type of therapy to help us through sadness and tough times, liberating us from the worst the world has to offer. Music brings us love and wonder and happiness and allows us to escape (there’s a phenomenal fantasy sequence in the film that I didn’t want to see end)! Most of all, this movie is a love letter to youthful creative exuberance, artistic expression and indestructible imagination.

I loved this movie so much and I hope you’ll seek it out. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s wistful, and it’s fantastic.

MATT SAYS:

Having fallen in love with “Begin Again” (number one on my Top 10 list for 2014), I was excited to see Director John Carney‘s follow-up movie, “Sing Street.” I was not disappointed.

“Sing Street” is about Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager growing up in a recession-stricken Dublin during the eighties. The love for music he shares with his older brother provides an escape for both of them from parents (Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) who constantly fight, and a way for him to deal with his own problems at school (bullies and a strict and overbearing Catholic school headmaster). Heavily influenced by new wave bands like Duran Duran and The Cure and movies like “Back to the Future,” Conor puts together a band of his schoolmates and starts shooting music videos starring Raphina (Lucy Boynton), the aspiring model who lives across the street. His band gives him purpose. It is his music, not his problems, that define Conor.

No filmmaker better understands the power of music to uplift, attract, inspire, or redeem better than Carney. No director has been better able to communicate that power through film. Even people like me (I am not huge music fan) get it after watching a John Carney movie. In “Sing Street,” the characters once again find purpose in themselves and in each other through their art. Music provides the driving force for their lives, their attraction to and love for one another. And at its core, “Sing Street” is about that love – romantic love, brotherly love, and love between friends – that forms the beating heart and soul of the movie. It’s both joyous and profoundly touching.

“Sing Street” is a worthy successor to “Begin Again” and features songs that are even catchier than those in its predecessor (I still can’t get “Drive it Like You Stole It” out of my head, and it’s been almost three months since I saw the movie). While all of the actors do fine jobs, Jack Reynor is an absolute standout as Conor’s brother, Brendan. You read it here first: this guy is going to be one of our next big breakout stars.

I enthusiastically recommend you see “Sing Street” as soon as you can. If you have a pulse, you’ll love it.

 

“Eye in the Sky”

LOUISA:  1.5 STARS    MATT:   3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I’m sure there were noble intentions behind the new war film “Eye in the Sky.” An exploration of the rules of engagement, wartime ethics and moral dilemmas when dealing with drones should have been compelling, but this film isn’t engrossing, is far from disturbing, and is neither intelligent nor thrilling. Even if you discount the absolute worst parts of the film, including the comically mediocre computer generated drones (some shaped like birds and beetles!) and the pitifully irrelevant attempts at exciting action sequences, this film is still a tremendous failure.

Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren give performances that are up to their usual high standards but even they are pretty boring. And Aaron Paul, who has squandered all of the goodwill he earned as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad,” proves once again that he’s the sole overlord and master of teary eyed close ups (which is a good thing because that’s all he is given to do in films nowadays).

The entire plot of the movie revolves around drone pilots in the U.S. waiting for instruction from the British government and military to launch a drone strike on a house filled with several high level terrorist targets. If they bomb the house there will be some collateral damage, including a cute little innocent African girl who loves to hula hoop and is selling bread on the corner. Instead of a nail biting, moral wringing, thoughtful thriller about the true cost of war, the film turns into an absolutely silly “will they or won’t they” exercise about how quickly this kid can sell her 8 loaves of bread. I am not joking. Get ready for dialogue gems like “he’s buying a loaf of bread, now there are only 6 loaves left!” The entire audience (including me) eventually started laughing at this, and I’m fairly certain that’s not what the filmmakers intended.

No doubt the increase in drone warfare is a touchy and tricky subject, but this throwaway film does nothing to raise any important questions and instead relies on scene after scene of competent actors repeatedly asking “can we bomb them yet?

MATT SAYS:

“Eye in the Sky” is a thriller about the new reality of conflict — one where terrorism is fought by powerful countries with drones and other long-range weapons that take the humanity out of killing — but, contrary to what its trailer tells you, the movie is far from being an updated modern version of “Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Like the 2015 movie “Good Kill,” the warriors fighting against terrorism in “Eye in the Sky” are not on the ground, but housed far away in bunkers, war rooms, and combat centers in the United Kingdom and in the U.S. where they are able to observe real-time events and act on them through their drones. But is killing via drone really impersonal, or are our drone pilots and those who command them still forced to deal with sticky issues of morality, weighing the murder of a few against saving many lives?

These are interesting questions, but after having seen two movies on the subject, I’m not so sure that cinema is the right place to explore them. In modern drone warfare, it is no longer kill-or-be-killed, but instead decisions are driven by the security and safety interests of state writ large. Thorny issues of morality are hard to resolve in these situations. “Eye in the Sky” effectively conveys the difficulty of making these large decisions — and that there are actual human beings making them — but in the process it becomes a bit paint-by-numbers. It may not be the fault of the filmmakers; it’s probably very difficult to make a movie exciting when the most tense scene involves someone selling loaves of bread.

Supported by strong performances with a stellar cast (Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul), this movie is better than your average Redbox / Netflix thriller that you might rent on a night when you are running low on entertainment options, but not by much.

 

 

“God’s Not Dead 2”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:   2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Watch out Christians, the big bad boogie man atheists are out to get you! Yes, the far from subtle “God’s Not Dead 2,” the sequel to 2014’s successful “God’s Not Dead” has arrived. Like its predecessor, this sequel is surprisingly well made and decently acted; unlike the original, it’s not very entertaining.

The plot is decent enough, but the film quickly sinks under the weight of its one-sided, overtly religious message. Melissa Joan Hart plays high school teacher Grace (get it?) who (gasp!) mentions Jesus and the Bible in response to a student’s (Hayley Orrantia) question during history class. (For the record, the teacher’s response in a public classroom setting was not out of line at all and would never be something that would land her in court in the first place). Soon all hell breaks loose and Grace soon finds herself defending her beliefs in a court battle over the separation of church and state. Grace’s appointed lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) laughably figures the only way to win this thing is to — wait for it — prove in court that Christ was real.

The courtroom scenes are absurd but at least they are entertaining. Before the trial begins we see a juror contested by the civil rights lawyer because his favorite t.v. show is “Duck Dynasty” and another because he “looks like a U.S. Marine.” One (David A.R. White) is chosen only because he’s a pastor. Another is shown to side with Grace simply because she has a tattoo of a cross (never mind that the film portrays as Christians as lacking the ability to remain impartial and follow the law rather than their personal beliefs — if you are religious, this alone should insult you). Things pick up a bit during the trial, mostly due to Ernie Hudson and his unintentionally funny, over-the-top portrayal of a judge.

The most outrageous scenes involve the endless parade of real life religious “experts” that are brought in to prove that Jesus was a real man (which, despite what the film wants you to believe, does not prove that “God’s not dead”). Authors Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ) and James Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) play themselves and present some ridiculous arguments (all masquerading as “proof”) in an attempt to trick the audience into accepting that okay, maybe Jesus was a real man, so therefore God is real too! Note to Christians: do not cite these less-than-credible examples to attempt to prove that “God” is real while debating an atheist unless you want to embarrass yourself.

The movie grandstands by name-dropping several other actual researchers who’ve offered their own “proof” of Jesus’ existence (again wrongly implying that Jesus is real therefore God is real), making a huge point in playing up the fact that many of them are former atheists who now are proud one-way ticket holders on the crazy train for Jesus — as if their reversal of faith gives them more credibility.

Fans of the first “God’s Not Dead” will delight as characters from the original are pointlessly paraded out one by one in what amounts to nothing more than some good ol’ fashioned stunt casting. Their presence is dutifully written into the plot in a mostly meaningless way. Amy (Trisha LaFache), Martin (Paul Kwo) and Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango) are back, as is the popular Christian rock group The Newsboys (who finish out the film with a rousing closing theme song).

Now let’s get down to the truly offensive elements of the movie: most distasteful is the way atheists and nonbelievers are portrayed. When a wealthy, smart, successful atheist shows up, you can bet their presence is accompanied by sinister music with plenty of smirking and sneers. Seriously, all that’s missing is a mustache twirl! As in most faith-based films, atheists are always portrayed as complete and utter assholes. It’s a clear, simple formula: Christian = shiny, happy, energetic balls of bright light; Non-believers = miserable, vicious, religion-hating villain.

There are several references to a “war” between atheists and Christians, a notion that should terrify all of us regardless of our faith (or lack thereof). Jabs are also made towards Muslims, the ACLU, Ivy league colleges and political correctness in general. I know I’m not in the target audience for this film, but when will Christians stop claiming that they are an oppressed minority and rid themselves of the notion that it’s always “us against them?” It’s not helping bridge the gap between the freethinkers and the faithful.

“God’s Not Dead 2” does more of a disservice to the Christian cause, doing nothing to promote any sort of understanding nor exhibiting any real intention to start a useful, pragmatic dialogue between freethinkers and the faithful. The film instead comes across as nothing more than a whiny, crybaby “poor me” pity party that showcases the fallacy of “Christian persecution.” Of course there’s an agenda here (I would expect nothing less from Pure Flix faith-based entertainment), and the filmmakers don’t even remotely attempt to hide it. This film does much more harm than good, but it’s not a bad movie.

MATT SAYS:

“God’s Not Dead: The Strawman Strikes Back!”

“God’s Not Dead 2” focuses on a public high school history teacher, the subtlely-named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), who finds herself in hot water after mentioning Jesus in the classroom. This in response to a student’s question about Jesus and his teachings as compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In her answer, Grace doesn’t cite her personal belief, pray, or urge the students to join in prayer with her; instead, she quotes words attributed to Jesus that respond to the student’s question, citing the Bible as the source for the quote.

Grace’s mere mention of Jesus and scripture in the classroom leads to a massive legal battle, with the charge led by the ACLU. The ACLU, you see, hates Christianity, sees it as a disease, and wants to eradicate it. Not just remove it from the classroom — completely eradicate it. This is not subtext: the fancy-shmancy ACLU lawyer (Ray Wise, channeling Leland Palmer) in his expensive suit actually says that while sneering with eyebrows upturned. Why the filmmakers didn’t give him a black hat and a mustache to twirl is beyond me: if you’re gonna create a caricature for your bad guy, why not go all in?

Of course, the central conceit of GND2 relies not only on a tortured reading of the law, but also a misrepresentation of the argument for separation of church and state. Grace was talking about words attributed to a historical figure in a history class in answer to a direct question. She wasn’t leading prayer in school or preaching to her class. But from the movie’s viewpoint, the ACLU (and therefore, the secular opposition) doesn’t see or understand the distinction. Having carefully constructed this fallacious strawman-version of the argument against religion in school, GND2 proceeds to knock it down. This intellectual sleight-of-hand may fool some of the audience, but it’s not going to bring the two sides any closer to understanding one another. That said, this movie isn’t interested in promoting understanding; it’s peddling a culture war.

Selling the culture war is the business of the “God’s Not Dead” movies. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.

In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” Christians are a silent minority who are unable to express their views in any public place without fear of persecution. Teenagers rebel against their godless parents by reading the Bible and learning about Christianity. Secularists are hate-filled and angry protestors, while Christians are quiet, respectful, and practice passive resistance. Major television news networks openly promote secularism and criticize the faithful. Public institutions seek to stamp out religious expression of any type, and the judicial system quietly supports those efforts. This is a false world masquerading as our own, recasting the vocal majority in the role of the oppressed.

In this world, Christians are convicted and face prison sentences for simply expressing their beliefs (again, this isn’t subtext, this movie actually says that). Although the film never has the guts to say it outright, one can only imagine that they are alluding to Kim Davis, discriminatory bake shops, and the conviction that believing in what you want means being able to freely discriminate against others.

While the movie’s intellectual dishonesty about the opposing viewpoint is frustrating, its portrayal of atheists is downright disrespectful. You see, the student who sparked the firestorm by asking Grace about Jesus in class — Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) — has atheist parents. Six months ago, Brooke’s brother died in an accident. Understandably, Brooke hasn’t gotten over the tragedy and still misses her brother. Her parents, however, are completely over the death of their son and callously tell Brooke to “forget about” her brother and move on. Apparently, not only do atheists not believe in any gods, but they are also incapable of feeling and human emotion. The only sympathetic atheists are those who are quick to abandon their worldview and turn to religion for comfort when tragedy strikes (spoiler alert: they always choose Christianity).

It’s this lack of respect that is most troubling about these movies and the community they represent. It’s hard to see the conversation about faith and its place in society moving forward if we can’t honor the basic humanity of people who see the world differently than we do.

So yeah, it’s safe to say that I had some problems with the message of “God’s Not Dead 2” and what it is selling. But as a piece of entertainment, it isn’t terrible. It stretches on a little too long and spends a little too much time revisiting characters from the first movie, but overall it isn’t too draggy. The acting is mostly passable, save for Melissa Joan Hart, whose range (if you can call it that) is limited to either nervous/fearful or happy. As a piece of propaganda, it’s fairly effective at doing what it set out to do.

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