The Equalizer Review

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At this point, Denzel Washington could be in a movie as Barney the Dinosaur and I would be excited. The man is one of the last true movie stars out there, not just because of his endless charisma and wide range, but because of his ability to sell a movie just based on his presence alone. The only connection I have to the original Equalizer TV show is a brief joke in The Wolf of Wall Street, and on paper the concept seemed pretty generic. However, with Washington and his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua behind it, the potential is certainly there. Did they delver? Well that’s why you’re here isn’t it!

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The Equalizer centers on mysterious former intelligence operative and current hardware store worker Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) who possesses deeply tactical, borderline obsessive compulsive combat skills, and a keen sense of empathy for those being oppressed. As we start things off, his gaze is set on Teri (Chloe Moretz), a seventeen year old who has unfortunately found herself in the middle of an abusive Russian prostitution ring. When Robert violently intervenes, it sparks a turf war between the various factions within the cell. The Russians send in the sociopathic Teddy (Morton Csokas) who despite his goofy name makes for a formidable adversary for Robert.

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Even though it does not fully succeed, I must applaud The Equalizer right off the bat for attempting to have a little more depth then your average action fare.We don’t get nearly any needless exposition establishing Robert’s past, we’re just thrown into his world and expected as an audience to gather the pieces. Before the action even kicks off, the film spends a solid thirty minutes or so establishing Robert’s personality, and his relationships, specifically with Teri.  This really gives the actors a chance to breathe, and actually make us care about the barrage of action we’re about to see. Washington and Moretz both really shine here, the former creating a character who dispenses harsh justice, while still displaying a refreshing amount of kindness, and the later breaking our hearts with what seems to be a pretty futile circumstance to be in.

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Once things get going, the momentum is nicely held together by some genuine tension and what grows into a fascinating relationship between Robert and Teddy. When Csokas first shows up, it might be easy to dismiss him as the generic Russian villain who just postures at the camera, but as the film goes on, Csokas really effectively sells just how far gone this man is on a base phycological level. We get the impression that this isn’t just a job to him, but it’s the only thing he knows how to do considering that he sees humanity as mere packs of meat. The two don’t just fight, but actually sit down and have a conversation or two. All very nice changes of pace for this type of film.

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As for the action itself, it’s rock solid. I really enjoyed the stark, brutal sensibility Antoine Fuqua has brought to films like Training Day, and Olympus Has Fallen (yeah, I know the later is a pretty silly flick, but damn is it fun), and that continues in spades here. All of the violence here is beautifully photographed, and graphic without being over the top, while employing some very nice practical blood effects in the process (or if it was CG, hats off, because it looked great). Especially worth mentioning is the film’s climax in the hardware store, in which Washington picks off six Russian troops one at a time by stalking them and then using the various tools as mutilation devices. It’s really effective, seeming more out of a horror film then a shoot ‘em up. The only misstep in this department is the slightly heavy handed use of slow motion, particularly to highlight Robert’s deductive skills. It’s a neat technique at first, but it quickly gets tiresome and slows things down.

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Speaking of slow, if I had one major complaint about this film, it would be the length. While I appreciated the deliberate style in the first act, the story definitely takes more detours than needed, with Robert foiling a few random injustices that just seem like an excuse to make Washington look cool. There’s no reason this relatively simple story needed to drag on for two hours and fifteen minutes. Also, the story has a couple elements that are extremely derivative of Washington’s own Man On Fire, and while this is definitely a much better film (sorry Tony Scott fans), it’s hard not to notice it.

I have great respect for this film, even if it isn’t fantastic. It’s an action film that really takes it’s time to establish a character who isn’t simply just an extension of it’s star (although Washington’s sheer presence certainly does not hurt) and delivers violence that feels rough and full of consequence. I’m certainly intrigued by Robert McCall and his world, and I certainly hope the rumors of Fuqua and Washington returning for a sequel come to fruition, because I think that next time, they could really knock this thing out of the park. For now though, this solid action flick is just about all you can expect in the dungeons of September. Go for it.

Rating: B+

The Maze Runner Review

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I won’t hide it, I read a few of these young adult books from time to time. I like seeing what hype is about, as well as finding new guilty pleasures. So I feel fairly confident in saying that of all of these YA series, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner was one of the most original and well written books, perhaps only second to the original Hunger Games book. As such, I was pretty damn excited to see this one come to the screen, and although it’s taken a little longer than I would have liked, I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait.

We start the movie in darkness. Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) is traveling up an elevator shaft without any knowledge of where or who he is. When the doors open, he finds himself in a primitive society of boys who live in a large enclosure called the glade boarded off by a massive maze. Every night, the maze closes and shifts, making the boys’ escape from this hellhole all the more difficult, and trapping those left inside with vicious creatures called Grievers. Much to the dismay of Gally (Will Poulter), one of the main influences in the society, Thomas starts to make some headway in the maze, eventually becoming a ‘runner’ which is the group’s term for those who explore the maze by day. Things start to complicate when a girl who knows Thomas named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) comes into the glade, with a message that she will be the last person ever delivered.

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I was very impressed with how well this material was handled, especially considering that Wes Ball (who has a background in visual effects) is a first time director. I say that because this movie is clearly assembled by someone who understands exactly how a blockbuster should be constructed, balancing a very fun premise with solid character development and some good looking action to boot.  It feels like the work of someone deep into their career throwing it back to their roots, and doing it better this time.

All of the characters here are likable and very well preformed. Considering his ‘Teen Wolf’ roots and his fangirl factor, I was dubious of Dylan O’Brian at first, initially finding him as a bland vessel for the rest of the characters. However, as the movie started to give him more depth, O’Brain really steps up to the challenge, and delivers us a character we can rally behind. He’s not a passive little piece of gunk like Percy Jackson, but a driven and tenacious guy who genuinely starts to care for his fellow captives. Also surprisingly good here is Will Poulter, who’s over-the-top goofy performance in We’re The Millers really brought the proceedings down. Here, he’s intense, full of rage, and arrogant, and he sells every second of it. Also solid here are Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones fame, and Kaya Scodelario, who both nicely bring things back down to earth.

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The story very nicely sidesteps many of the typical tropes we see in these things. There’s no goofy love triangle, broad social commentary, or silly Mcguffin to track down. It’s all very streamlined and goal oriented, which works wonders for the pacing. As far as adapting the novel goes, they made all of the right cuts, capturing the spirit of the story to an almost exact tee, without painstakingly including every detail (including completely omitting the most cumbersome plot element in the novel). There is not a wasted second here, the urgency of the story palpable throughout.

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Aesthetically speaking, this film is nearly flawless. Ball must’ve scoured the book for every visual detail he could uncover, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adaptation that so rigorously aligned with what I pictured in the book. In fact, the set design almost perfectly aligns with what little art there is in the book. Beyond that, the action sequences are tense, well photographed, and have real consequences. The Grievers make for worthy adversaries, both well designed and very creepy. There are several times where things feel more like a horror film, with the boys getting picked off one at a time, and although most of the gore is offscreen, Ball makes you feel the impact of every single death.

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One nitpick, I thought the ending could have been handled better. The last five minutes of this movie are basically the trailer for the sequel, and because the filmmakers felt the need to shove that in, we were robbed of what I thought could have been a very chilling note to end on. It’s not anything crippling, but it certainly knocks the wind out of what is actually a pretty tragic ending.

The Maze Runner isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s a well oiled machine of a movie that delivers everything it promises. As far as I’m concerned, Wes Ball is now a major player, because if he can deliver such a confident, exciting film on his first go around, I can only imagine what he can do once he acquires some more experience through the other two installments of this series. It’s the best possible adaptation of this material that could have been made.

Rating: A

 

Tusk Review

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While I have never been a massive fan of Kevin Smith’s films, I have immense respect for him as a person. His candor and insight into his creative process is absolutely beyond reproach, and I genuinely believe that he is completely invested into every film he makes (besides Cop Out of course, but that lead to some great stories.) In fact, it was especially fascinating that this film was born out of one of Smith’s podcasts. So going into Tusk, I was definitely optimistic. After all, I really enjoyed Smith’s previous foray into horror, ‘Red State,’ which was a biting and brutal satire of the pain religious organizations can cause, and…well how can you not be intrigued by a film with this premise?

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We center on a podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who with his co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) make a living out of brutalizing idiots on the internet. When Wallace goes up to Canada to interview a teenage boy who cut his leg off with a sword, he is dismayed to find that the boy committed suicide before he could get the interview. Now stuck in the great white north, he comes across an add in the bathroom that promises a place to stay, and many interesting stories. Desperate, Wallace travels up to the house of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair bound man who claims to have been on a ship with Earnest Hemingway, and later on lost at sea, his only companion being a Walrus. Right around the end of that story, Long notices the sleeping toxin in his tea, and passes out. You see, Howe has a bit of a lightbulb going on. In order to recreate his blubbery friend, he will sow Wallace into a homemade Walrus suit.

 

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For it’s first two acts, Tusk really works. For one thing, the cheap look of Red State is gone. This is a beautiful, atmospheric looking film. It contorts the friendly, welcoming hills of Canada into a savage deathtrap, with Howe’s massive leviathan of a house as the centerpiece, eerie and omnipresent. Beyond that, the writing and the characters are just fantastic. Justin Long gives his best performance in a very long time here, tapping into Wallace’s unfiltered immaturity (which is very much a reflection of Smith himself) and sheer horror at his situation with equal ease. Parks is even better, relishing in the lunacy of this madman. As he delivers several extended monologues chronicling his life, we start to understand (as much as possible) what lead him to this, and although he truly is insane, there is a method to his madness. Before Long is drugged, there is an extended sequence that is just the two of them talking, and honestly, I could have watched that for the rest of the run time. Smith’s screenwriting here is as sharp as I’ve ever seen it, with beautifully punchy and poetic dialogue carrying us through.

 

Then…we get to the payoff.

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The moment Long actually finds himself contorted in the Walrus suit, the movie completely falls apart. What was once a twisted fable with comedy organically thrown in to highlight character flaws, ultimately turns into a straight out goofy comedy, and the transition gave me whiplash. Firstly, while it’s certainly a creative design, the Walrus suit becomes silly really quickly, so it’s hard to really invest in Wallace’s de-humanization for laughs or scares. It pretty much turns into Michael Parks playing with a big rubber blob. Also, every so often we cut back to Haley Joel Osment, and Genesis Rodriguez (as Wallace’s girlfriend) as they look for him, and they enlist the help…of good old Johnny Depp. Now, when Depp was cast in this movie, I was really excited to see him perhaps play a more down to earth role (in the context of this insane story), because frankly, I’m tired of his insistence on playing exclusively goofy characters.

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The moment I laid eyes on this character, I knew I would hate it.

Johnny Depp plays a long haired, cross eyes, French (I think) detective who has been tracking Howe for years, and it’s the most annoying character he’s ever played (which is quite an achievement). His first scene, which includes an embarrassing flashback where Depp and Parks (who is playing stupid) try to out mug each other for what feels like about an hour and a half,  goes on for a blisteringly long time, and it’s just a comedy skit. The entire vibe of the film is just yanked out like a bad wire, and it never finds it’s footing ever again, even when the walrus stuff is working.

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There’s certainly some stuff to like in Tusk. In fact, I would argue that the set up for everything is pretty damn brilliant. However, Kevin Smith can’t seem to restrain himself, and despite making a great looking movie, can’t keep a hold on the tone. It’s so frustrating, because he really almost had it here, and I think with one or two more passes at the script, this could have turned out to be his magnum opus. As it stands though, Tusk is an interesting experiment, just don’t expect anything to be scared besides your grasp on what you’re doing with your life.

Rating: C+

A Walk Among The Tombstones Review

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At one point in A Walk Among The Tombstones, we find Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) on the phone with the kidnapper of a young girl, threateningly and condescendingly informing him that his plans will not work. You might say we’ve seen him in a similar situation before. Oh wait…we’ve seen him in the exact same situation before. However, as I watched this sequence, the thought hardly crossed my mind. That’s a testament to how incredible of an action star Neeson has become over the past few years. No matter how generic the film, we completely invest in him, and know that whoever is on the other end of that phone is about to be on the receiving end of some hardcore justice.

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The story takes place in 1999 and centers on the aforementioned Matt Scudder, a former beat cop who after a horrible accident resides as an off the books private eye. Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a wealthy drug trafficker (he doesn’t like the other word), enlists Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife, even after he gave them the ransom they demanded. As Scudder investigates, he befriends a young boy (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) who is down on his luck without a home or family, and ultimately uncovers the sadistic culprits of a series of female kidnappings, all while dealing with his own personal demons.

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It’s all pretty standard issue detective movie stuff, and unfortunately, writer/director Scott Frank dosen’t quite have enough flair to make things feel truly stylistic. Don’t get me wrong, the film certainly isn’t badly directed, in fact, the whole thing has a very palpable sense of grit that makes everything have quite a bit more impact. However, it just never really sets in. While some scenes in this movie are just fantastic, achieving exactly what we want to see in this type of movie, others are pretty damn sterile. The sheer amount of montages of Liam Neeson intently walking down the street in this film are off the charts.

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What makes it connect are  the performances by Liam Neeson, and his very sound supporting cast. Neeson has proven time and time again to be an absolute force of nature in these kinds of roles, and here, where his character is given a little more depth than normal, he especially shines. Being a world class actor, he brings the gravity necessary so that we instantly buy into his anguish, and believe that he is one hundred percent capable of anything. When other action stars threaten their enemies, it’s almost giggle worthy for me, but when Neeson does it, I don’t just fear for the other character, but I’m worried he’s actually going to kill the actor in the middle of the fight. As for the supporting cast, Dan Stevens is cold and callused as a man who has just lost everything, but has to hold it all in due to his position in life, David Harbour is fantastically creepy and just over the top enough as the more vocal of the two kidnappers, and in a surprisingly good turn, Brian Bradley (a child rapper…don’t get me started) actually has some great scenes with Neeson where he actually holds his own. It’s one of the more effective man/kid relationships I’ve seen in a film of this type.

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I must caution you, do not go into this film expecting endless amounts of action. While it is there, and for the most part, it’s extremely brutal and impactful (with some awesomely effective sound design on the guns), the sequences are very few and far between. This is a detective film, through and though, meaning that most of it is interrogation and investigation. While it’s certainly a nice change of pace, it can definitely get slow from time to time.

Overall, this is a completely serviceable neo-nior film. The pacing is anemic, often times making the whole film feel a touch aimless, but when it’s good. it’s very good, with solid action moments and a palpable sense of menace. If you’re a fan of Neeson, definitely check it out, as this is one of the best performances he’s ever given in one of his action roles, just don’t expect Non-Stop. Keep ‘em coming Liam.

Rating: B-

Deadpool is Officially Slated For 2016!

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File this one under the about god damn time category. 20th Century Fox has announced this afternoon that the Merc With The Mouth will at long last make his proper big screen debut on February 12th, 2016.  An interesting, and potentially very lucrative non summer date indeed. This comes after many years of development hell under the gaze of director Tim Miller (who has a background in CG animation), following a god awful portrayal of the character in X Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s being speculated that the overwhelmingly positive reception of the leaked test footage in July has lead to this decision, particularly after these comments by the film’s star, Ryan Reynolds

“The movie has been in a state of limbo for a while. There was such an overpowering reaction to the footage, you sort of feel like, ‘Oh, so we weren’t crazy for our reasons for loving this character, for loving this role.’ It’s interesting to see the power of the Internet. It’s awe-inspiring, actually,” and it’s neat that Twitter and Facebook and Instagram can move mountains when used in the right way.”

I personally have been advocating a Deadpool film for many years. Not only do I think that on his own, he’s just a fantastic and hysterical character, but I think his self referential, 4th wall breaking humor is needed at this point in the superhero genre’s popularity. The market is getting saturated, and it’s time to bust the fold wide open, especially considering that in 2016, we’re getting Batman V Superman, X Men: Apocalypse, Doctor Strange, Captain America 3, and Sinister Six. Renyolds is absolutely pitch perfect for the role, and after viewing this test footage, I’m confident that Miller will do justice to the stylings of the comic book series.

Also, just a fun throwback, here’s a video a much higher pitched version of me made back in 2009 about the possibilities of a Deadpool flick.

I’M SO EXCITED

The Jennifer Lawrence Trailer Hour: The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 and Serena

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Jennifer Lawrence is everywhere, and deservedly so. In just a few short years, the oscar winner has proven time and time again to be one of the most versatile, likable, and soulful thespians working today. As such, trailers for two of her upcoming films have arrived at around the same time, and since I’m a lazy ass and have opted to talk about both of these late, I’ve decided to lump them, so without further ado, here we go. Let’s start with the one everyone knows.

I have been complaining about the marketing for this movie since it started. The posters have been lazy, and the first trailer was rushed, and haphazard. However, I have not been mad out of malice, quite the opposite in fact. I have enjoyed both of the Hunger Games films very much, especially Catching Fire ( a remarkable feat considering that I hated that book), and have been stoked to see what returning director Francis Lawrence is bringing us this time around, and now we finally get to see it. As expected, it looks very impressive. What stands out most so far is the sheer scale. Lawrence did a fantastic job of replicating  and improving the formula of the first film last time around, but here, in a story that gives him more room to play, he really seems to be shining. The action is beautifully photographed (particularly the last shot where Katniss sinks that arrow into the hovercraft) and the production design is top notch. Beyond that, this looks to be a very emotionally fueled film, with fantastic performances from not only Lawrence, but also all of her fine compatriots including Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and series newcomer Julianne Moore. This series shows just how great young adult fiction can be, and I can’t wait to see this one on November 21st.

Moving on…

Silver Linings Playbook is my second favorite film of all time. As such, any reunion between Lawrence and her co-star Bradley Cooper has some pretty lofty expectations to get over as far as I’m concerned. With that said, this certainly seems interesting. It takes place in North Carolina in the early 20th century. George Pimberton (Cooper) is the head of a timber empire with his wife Serena (Lawrence) helping him call the shots. When it is revealed that she cannot have children, their marriage, and their lives as a whole start to come into question. While some of the acting certainly seems a bit stagey, the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is still off the charts, and the themes of the story certainly stand a chance of evolving into a great film. It is slightly worrying that the film (which has been in production since 2012) has not yet picked up an American distributor even with two major stars, but hopefully when the film premiers in London next month, that won’t be an issue anymore.

Tom Hiddleston Takes a Trip to ‘Skull Island’ with Jordan Vought-Roberts

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Progress on Legendary Pictures’ new version of King Kong, entitled Skull Island has been fairly quiet since it’s announcement at comic con. ‘Attack the Block’ writer director Joe Cornish was apparently courted, but those talks seemed to have devolved, as it has now been officially announced that Jordan Vought-Roberts, who headed up the fairly successful indie ‘The Kings of Summer  in 2013 will direct, and Tom Hiddleston, best known for his role as Loki in the Marvel Universe will star.

I’ve always been excited at the prospect of this project. Personally, I think that Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong could have been a whole lot better, and this, which seems to be a different take centering mostly on the creatures King Kong interacts with could definitely work. Roberts certainly is an interesting  choice to direct, and is certainly indicative of the direction that Universal and Legendary have been going in lately, hiring filmmakers known for smaller work, mainly  Gareth Evans (Monsters) and Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) for Godzilla and Jurassic World respectively. It seems to have worked out well in both cases, and certainly must be exiting for Roberts.

This could also be a great vehicle for Hiddleston. While he has certainly evolved into a household name because of Loki, he seems to have had some trouble finding memorable roles outside of that. Perhaps he’ll play the Carl Denham esque role, arrogantly leading his counterparts into the hellish island. Personally, I was hoping that this film would have little to no human element, as the extraneous sequences needed to develop the film crew really bogged down the 2005 version (an hour on the boat, really?). However, with Hiddleston’s endless charm, he will definitely keep things watchable.  Hell, as long as Aaron Taylor Johnson isn’t the lead this time, I’m all good.

Lopez Sinks Even Lower in The ‘Boy Next Door’ Trailer

With No Good Deed opening up this friday, It’s time to switch out the obligatory trailer for a generic domestic thriller that plays at every single movie, and man do we have a lame one in the pipeline with ‘The Boy Next Door’. The story centers on Jennifer Lopez (who seems to be intentionally staring in terrible movies at this point) who plays a heartbroken suburban mother and teacher who’s husband recently cheated on her. She comes across a young man named Noah living next door, and strikes up an affair with him. After coming to her senses and rejecting any further doing of the nasty, the boy (who also just so happens to be in her class) goes insane and tires to destroy her life. You might say that he’s a little ‘Obsessed’ with this ‘Fatal Attraction’

There isn’t a moment of this trailer that isn’t unintentionally hilarious, derailing right off the bat with Kristin Chenoweth’s obnoxious voice supposedly setting the ominous mood over shots of J Lo running in stressed panic. Seriously, has Chenoweth even seen an R rated movie before? Why is she here? Anyway, it only gets more and more cheesy as it goes on, with Noah making weirdly obvious sexual innuendoes in front of Lopez’s whole family, particularly one moment when Lopez’s husband and son describe how dry it was at the lake they were vacationing at, and Noah looks at J Lo and says “well it got pretty wet here!” heh..heh…get it…because, like, her vagina ;). It dosen’t look scary, intense, or even a little sexy. It’s just a typical plastic, generic film that is destined to play on Cinemax at one in the morning until the day we all die. I suppose it’s a pretty typical film for crap master Rob Cohen (Alex Cross, Stealth) though. Hopefully I don’t have to see this trailer too many times before this thing gets dumped in January where it belongs.

The Boy Next Door Opens January 23rd

Sean Harris Might Be Our Mission Impossible 5 Villain

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With Mission Impossible 5 now well into filming, it seems crazy that they hadn’t cast their primary antagonist yet. In fact, most information about ‘Jack Reacher’ director Christopher McQuarrie’s addition to the franchise has been kept pretty close to the chest. However, it seems as though that curtain might be starting to lift ever so slightly, as it seems that Sean Harris, previously seen in ‘Prometheus’,  and ‘The Borgias’ will be stepping into the role of the main baddie.

Initially, I was not thrilled with this pick. At first, all I recognized him from was ‘Prometheus’, in which he played a fairly generic, and pretty damn stupid character. However, I was very surpassed to learn that he was in fact the same actor who portrayed Santino, the primary antagonist in the heavily underrated ‘Deliver Us from Evil’. Harris was genuinely scary, and utterly believable in the role of a man who’s possession breaks down his entire body and mind, his turn being one of the better ‘infected by a demon’ ones I’ve seen in quite some time. Personally, I hope this character carries into a more sinister, grounded tone that MaQuarrie has certainly been proven capable of before.  He certainly has enough intensity to make this role work, and his relative unknown status may make him blend into the universe more. That may change soon though, as he’s becoming fairly prolific, with roles in the upcoming Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence period drama ‘Serena’, and the Michael Fassbender lead version of Macbeth on the horizon. We’ll see.

Mission Impossible 5 opens on December 25th 2015.

Second Horrible Bosses 2 Trailer Fills All The Comedy Qualifications

I absolutely loved the first Horrible Bosses. Sure, they definitely mined The Hangover template a little with it’s group of three dysfunctional leads, but it also had an infectious charm, and sharp wit thanks mostly to it’s incredibly talented cast. Now, we have the sequel, and while most comedy franchises definitely falter the second time out, ‘Horrible Bosses 2′ actually looks like it just might top the original.

This time around, our three lovable sociopaths played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis take up kidnapping after an investment with two potential partners played by Chris Pine, and Christoph Waltz (as father and son…you figure that one out) screw them over. Not only is this premise enough of a departure from the original to keep things fun, but the chemistry between all of the actors has not even remotely step out of line. Just in this trailer alone, there are 2-3 fact paced interactions of hyper-speed banter that are just uproarious. I can’t say for certain yet if it’ll be good, but now I’m certainly not worried.

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