The Walk Review


With The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis does not merely have a film in store for us. Like his subject, he is a circus performer with a dazzling trick up his sleeve that he hopes will send chills up the collective spines of all who sit and watch. Sure, he might not be stepping onto a wire himself, but with his camera, he hopes to make millions feel like we are defying gravity ourselves. It’s a filmmaking challenge as monumental as the Twin Towers that set it’s stage. If it were to fail, it would be as humiliating disaster as a collapse from a death defying height. Fortunately, Zemeckis sets his camera in motion, and one of the most incredible true stories ever brought to screen is set before our eyes.


We pick up the story in the early 1970s. French wire walker Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer of the highest caliber. Not content to scale the walls of circuses and juggle on street corners, he dreams of hanging a high wire between the newly constructed Twin Towers in New York City. Obviously, there’s a great deal of mental, physical, and practical preparation that must be done before such an insane stunt is attempted. As Philippe begins to plan what he describes as “the coup” he assembles a team of confidants and finds love in fellow street performer Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon). A heist of sorts ensues, as our makeshift circus crew stops at nothing to make sure that Philippe gets to hang his wire.

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From the moment it starts The Walk is an absolutely delightful ball of charisma and energy.  Zemeckis is absolutely electric behind the camera here, crafting his most well paced and playful film in years. The story simply never takes a moment to lag. There is an incredible sense of urgency that comes from Philippe’s un-ending drive to get on top of those buildings, that it drives us to be just as thrill-hungry ourselves. Just when one style of story-telling gets stale, Zemeckis moves us to another. This is most notable when the film shifts into a full on heist film, as Philippe and company make their dangerous and thrilling ascent up the towers. It’s story-telling at it’s most delightfully free spirited and focussed.


Grounding all of this bravado is Gordon-Levitt’s performance, which is among the very best of his sterling career. In fact, this is the very first time that he’s ever truly disappeared into the persona of another person, losing all traces of his eminently recognizable persona. His Philippe is borderline insane in his drive and a little arrogant as a result, but he never loses this un-deniable puppy dog sweetness that makes us root for him every step of the way. His sheer joy as every step of his plan comes together is completely infectious. Ben Kingsley also has a nice supporting turn as Papa Rudy, the man who teaches Philippe the skills he needs to pull this stunt off. However, he like the rest of the supporting cast gets a bit short changed as far as development goes. This is Philippe’s story, and the film never pretends to care about the other characters.


Ultimately what seals the deal here is just how incredible the visuals are. Zemeckis plays with every inch of these buildings, and we can practically hear him cackling behind the camera as he joyfully scales these heights. I’m not normally one to comment on 3D, but the sheer richness of any image in the air here provides such a depth that it really feels like we are up there with Philippe. While the film has many thrilling moments of nail-biting danger involving the heights, the final stunt is ultimately one of the most peacefully beautiful effects sequences ever put on film. It’s a film that demands to be seen in the theater by it’s sheer beauty alone.


Most of the time, a film as beautiful looking as The Walk would merely coast off of that and forget to tell a story. Fortunately for us, Zemeckis has never been one to let his effects overwhelm a good yarn, and he crafts one of his most optimistic and beautiful works to date here. While it may ultimately be a little simplistic, that doesn’t matter. It’s a movie about a simple minded man with a dream after all, and when it comes to achieving it’s own dreams, it succeeds with the grace of the finest performer in the world.

Rating: A

The Martian Review


To be perfectly honest, I was really not sure if I was ready to invite Ridley Scott back to dinner so soon. In fact, last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was so biblically awful that it made me question if the master filmmaker had lost his touch entirely. In an attempt to return to form after that disaster, Scott goes back to the Sci Fi genre where he is arguably most at home. Although The Martian is a yet another massive production, he significantly scales the back the focus to create a much less all-encompassing and more accessible work. Much like the film’s protagonist Mark Watney, Scott is a man stranded by the failings of his own curiosity, and it was perhaps exactly what he needed to tell a story of someone he could relate to.


We find ourselves strung along with the crew of the Ares III mission to Mars as they begin to lay the groundwork for their research on Mars. Things seem to be going smoothly, until a freak storm forces them to evacuate the planet. In their escape attempt, all but one manage to make it back onto the ship. The straggler, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself with a decent amount of resources left behind, but not nearly enough time at his disposal to survive on the desolate planet. As such, while he waits for help he is going to have to, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this.” Meanwhile, officials at NASA lead by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempt to figure out a way to get Mark home while the crew of the Ares forms plans of their own.


Although The Martian does represent a radical improvement for Scott, it ultimately would be absolutely sunk without a capable leading man at the helm. Fortunately, it has one of the best in the business in Damon, and he excels here. It certainly helps that Watney is just an absolute pleasure, proactive and adorably snarky where other leading men in these types of stories would be morose and glum. Even so, Damon injects his natural every-man charm to make each of Watney’s charming seconds on screen pop. In fact, the film is really only at a detriment when it leaves Watney behind to go back to Earth or space. It’s certainly not the fault of the absolutely loaded cast, but none of the supporting roles are particularly interesting. It may help that Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, or Jessica Chastain (to name only a few) are there to inject what humanity they can, but these segments just don’t have the tension and urgency that the Mars ones do.


Bringing the scalding desert that is the surface of Mars to vivid life, Scott crafts one of his most beautiful looking films in years here. It never feels like the planet is just being shown off for the sake of obnoxious visual effects. Every spec of dirt or gust of wind feels organic, serving the story instead of existing as the main set-piece. In fact, Scott films a lot of scenes here in a very documentary-like style, making the foreign world fit even more into the background of what is ultimately more of a survival film than an effects piece.


Scott should also be commended for crafting a science fiction story that remains as hopeful as it’s delightful protagonist. Although the movie has it’s fair share of dark turns, it never feels grim. Every problem has a solution, it just needs to be figured out, and that problem solving spirit is infectious on the audience. Every character here is so motivated that it makes us want to see what they come up with, and even when they get discouraged, it’s just a momentary glitch and not fodder for the rains of cynicism. The punchy, human moments keep on coming in Drew Goddard’s fantastic script, and although the film falls into a bit of shaky pacing in it’s second act, it never ceases to be at least a little interesting because of how inherently human the whole affair is.


The Martian may not be a masterpiece on par with Ridley Scott’s best work, but it certainly is a solid return to form for a creative force who perhaps just needed some solid material. It takes the conventions of the classic “stranded man” story, and turns them on their ear to give us something that’s not only fun to watch, but vaguely inspiring. It’s a sign that blockbuster filmmaking does not need to be bombastic and loud in order to get people clapping, and if Scott keeps to the spirit of this film, he may have another classic in him yet.

Rating: B+

Sicario Review


Sicario is not the kind of movie to make pretenses about what it is. As it opens with one of the most intense, and brutal drug raid sequences ever put on film, it establishes that this is going to be a story that shows the gritty realities these people on both sides of the law have to live. Coming from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, this striking brutality shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a hauntingly beautiful first sequence that sets the tone for what should be a movie on the level of the all time great crime films. However, the problem with having such a gripping opening is keeping up that momentum throughout the rest of it’s two hours. How are these filmmakers going to keep us from cowering from these blood soaked deserts of Juarez and El Paso?


The film centers on FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is traumatized when the aforementioned raid results in the savage deaths of a few of her fellow agents. She finds herself mixed in with the slightly overzealous Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the leader of a task force assigned to bring down Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino), the crime lord at the head of the organization responsible for those deaths. Almost immediately, Kate feels like she’s being kept out of the loop on the operation. Matt seems to be much more in league with Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a former cartel mercenary turned agent who’s loyalties and motivations seem murky.

This is one of the most beautiful looking, and spectacularly directed movies of the year so far. Villeneuve established himself as a master of establishing atmosphere with Prisoners and builds on that here. There are long sequences that are nothing but just our characters taking in the horrific sights of wherever they are. With the sheer craft that he and master cinematographer Roger Deakins move their camera, we are just as terrified as the characters. The film is often times more of a graphic mood piece than anything, and these are it’s strongest moments. Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan also do a fantastic job of putting us in Kate’s position. The story is crafted in such a way that just as she is having information withheld from her, we the audience are too, and it’s just as frustrating for us as it is for her.


Unfortunately, it is in Kate that the film is also most flawed. Emily Blunt is as game as always, giving a heartfelt and authentic performance, but the character really isn’t given a satisfying arc. She spends the whole movie getting pushed aside, beaten up, and generally humiliated like a little girl on the playground when the boys are playing freeze tag. Never does she get that moment of defiance that would make all of that worth it, she just sort of cowers in the corner. All of the really satisfying character work is reserved for Del Toro, who excels in the skin of the calculating and threatening Alejandro. Meanwhile, Brolin is certainly serviceable in his role, but never gets much depth beyond being the gung-ho team leader. This  story feels like an entire narrative about the one female FBI agent or army-woman that is always forced to the background in other action movies. While that’s certainly an interesting approach, it simply never pays off in a way that makes it fully satisfying.


The best moments here are the action sequences, which are incredibly tense and beautifully set up. Villeneuve relishes in playing with the moment before the big shootout breaks out. Those tense stare downs and confined spaces that start to make people nervous. All of the violence here feels scary and every gunshot has a massive impact. Even for those who are adverse to a slower pace of action will feel satisfied by the last twenty minutes, when Del Toro gets his absolutely sensational time to shine. This is a movie that will leave you with at least a couple chilling images running around the brain.


Sicario is a very good movie that feels like it’s just chomping at the bit to be great. It certainly has all of the aesthetic elements of a masterpiece, and ratchets up it’s tension to a wrenching conclusion. However, some fairly unsatisfying character work despite great performances ultimately holds it back from being as much of a home run as it could have been. Even so, its fascinating story choices and sheer power in certain moments certainly make it worth seeing, but I suspect there’s an even better thriller hiding behind the curtain that will appear before the year is done.

Rating: B

Maze Runner: Scorch Trials Review


It seems that the real runners here are director Wes Ball and crew. In a couple of months the queen bee of all young adult franchises ‘The Hunger Games’, reaches its end. As such, we find all of it’s sibling franchises sprinting to do the same. As such, we have a second Maze Runner movie almost exactly one year after the debut of the surprisingly strong first one. Even with a talented team behind it, it’s almost always a mistake to rush a film to the finish line as hastily as this one. Even if the existing source material does half the story crafting work for the filmmakers, there would ideally be extra time to ensure that this is as tight and focussed a story as the original. With that said, this is a series about running after all, so perhaps our creative forces are used to working under pressure.


We pick up almost immediately after the end of the first film. Having just escaped the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his company of Gladers find themselves taken in by a mysterious faction that claims to be on their side. It seems a little too easy to trust the leader of this group, Janson (Aidan Gillen), who provides them with shelter and the first full meal some of these guys have had in years. Unfortunately, that suspicion is well founded when Thomas discovers that Janson is in fact an agent of WCKD (the cooperation that created the maze) who performs deadly experiments on his refugees. Thomas and the group escape, and decide to take their chances out in “the scorch”, a dense desert filled with zombie-like creatures called “Cranks” who spread their disease by contact.

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The most shining element of the first film was it’s claustrophobic and dynamic setting and electric pacing. The maze focussed our characters around solving a puzzle, and we bonded with them over the sheer grander of their predicament. This time around, the story that has a lot more world building and question answering to do. The movement of the film suffers a great deal as a result, as we now have to spend a great deal more time stopping to explain the latest thing our young travelers have come across. The film eventually settles into a fairly predicable rhythm of action sequence, followed by long break, and that ultimately wears a bit thin as the film soars over the two hour mark.


Now that our characters find themselves in a more open ended trap, they buckle  under the lack of focus. Although this film is a solid twenty minutes longer than the first, a great deal of that extra time has been given to exposition as opposed to development. As such, we have a group of young actors without a whole lot to do besides run, look scared, and ask questions. It would help if there was a little more camaraderie between them, but the movie is ultimately a bit too grim for all that. O’Brien’s Thomas in particular takes a massive hit here, becoming more of a blank eyed cypher for the audience than the tenacious problem solver we met last time. However, there is a pretty colorful cast of supporting characters to balance things out. Gillen applies his naturally smug charm to a slightly underwritten villain role, but the real standout here is Giancarlo Esposito. His Jorge is essentially a more moralistic and unhinged version of Gus Fring, and is by far the most charismatic and fully realized character in the film. It’s a shame that all the characters aren’t granted the same amount of humor and heart that he is.


The greatest victory of Scorch Trails is the absolutely spot on action direction by Wes Ball. This is a guy who’s skills behind the camera suggest that he’s far above the material he’s been given here. The constant chase sequences here are absolutely thrilling, with Ball having the perfect sense of when the stakes need to be escalated. In sequences with a great deal of hectic motion, he moves his camera, but he lets us see everything when there’s some more extravagant platforming going on. Beyond that, the violence here is as brutal as a young adult story can be, giving every death a sense of consequence. While the story does have many sci-fi elements, the world feels tangible because of these sequences, along with the fantastic production design that blends practical and CGI effects perfectly.

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Scorch Trials is essentially the middle part of a chess game. All the pieces are being moved into place for the climax, but nothing particularly crafty is happening yet. While it certainly manages to be entertaining through it’s near immaculate action and solid supporting cast, it feels weighed down by a rush to get to the next film. Here’s hoping that ‘The Death Cure’ provides a worthy payoff to a series with plenty of potential to escape the maze of adaption successfully, but seems to be getting a little lost along the way.

Rating: B-

Black Mass Review


As soon as Scott Cooper’s gangster saga Black Mass begins, something feels a little off. It is not quite so easy to detect exactly what the misstep is right off the bat, as all the pieces for a great film seem to be in place. We’ve got a scenery chewing Johnny Depp, an all-star supporting cast, and a gritty Boston set 70s aesthetic that jives perfectly with the ever popular gangster genre. Even so, one can practically see Cooper’s little baby arms trying to fit into the suit sleeves of Uncle Scorsese and Grandpa Coppola. It wants desperately to be as delectable as the classics of the idolized crime genre as it waits for us to become consumed by it’s group of tough guy anti-heros and conflicted so called good guys. Unfortunately, it’s two hour quest to make an impression ultimately fizzles. It comes off more as a small scale drive-by than the opera of crime and death that it so desperately wants to be.


We begin in the early eighties inside an FBI interrogation room, with Boston criminal Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) seemingly eager to give up information on the activities of his boss, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). Over the course of the past decade, Bulger has terrorized South Boston with almost no consequence, despite performing most of his crimes right out in the open. You see, Bulger isn’t just a kingpin, but a connected kingpin. His younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator, and lifelong friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) has made a deal with the criminal that promises him immunity as long as he agrees to inform against the rival mobs in Boston who are arguably even more dangerous.


In it’s marketing, Black Mass has made one definitive promise. This is the comeback of the wavering Johnny Depp. After a series of borderline humiliating roles in films such as The Lone Ranger and Mordecai, Depp depends completely into Bulger’s pulsating darkness and violence. He is almost snakelike with both his body and tongue, with every look and word cascading menace. However, it does still feel like Depp cannot escape his more eccentric tendencies. His insistence on once again caking himself in mounds of make-up does throw the realism of his performance a bit out of proportion at times, making him seem more like a cartoon villain than a genuine man who lived and breathed in real life. Even so, it’s by far some of his best work in years. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film does not even come close to meeting his efforts.

In this image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Joel Edgerton portrays John Connolly, left, and Johnny Depp portrays Whitey Bulger in the Boston-set film, "Black Mass." (Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Ultimately, it’s the subpar screenplay that fails Black Mass. There is simply nothing that makes it unique from every other rise/fall gangster movie out there. It’s as if the troupes are being relentlessly shot out of a tommy gun. Sometimes this can be saved by crackling dialogue, but no such luck here. So much of the film is simply spent directly explaining exactly what deals and deaths need to be gotten to next, that we never really get to know these people as anything beyond props in the plot. Sure we get a few scary villain monologues from Bulger that slightly rise above the rest, but even those just feel like audition sides. Even through Bulger is on screen for the majority of the film, we really learn nothing about him beyond his basic demeanor, leaving it entirely on Depp’s persona to carry the dramatic heft.


Meanwhile, there’s an eclectic group of A-Listers struggling with this shoddy material. Edgerton, coming off perhaps the best performance of his career in The Gift, gives us perhaps his weakest turn yet as the criminally underwritten Connolly. Despite the fact that this character is on screen nearly as much as Depp, he never escapes being a thin stereotype. Essentially, he’s only there to drive home the exposition, and to give about seven thousand long winded speeches about how he and Bulger grew up together. Cumberbatch does what he can with a fairly minimal role, but his hysterically bad Boston accent ultimately detracts from any notion of taking him seriously. The relationship between criminal and senator brothers could have been fascinating, but the film spends so little time on it that the audience may wind up forgetting the relation entirely. The parade of tinier roles fare a little better, with Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, and Corey Stoll in particular shining in their limited screen-time.


Black Mass’ mediocrity certainly isn’t the product of a lack of effort. Depp very clearly is giving this everything he has, and Scott Cooper does occasionally show a flourish of the film the was ultimately going for. However, the narrative is weighed down by far too much plodding exposition and style-less action which ultimately make sitting through it a bit of a chore. Perhaps with a bit more humanity and heart, Black Mass could have joined the ranks of some of the great gangster films. As it stands, it feels more like an elaborate celebrity costume party that is only really a good time for those invited.

Rating: C

The Visit Review


I don’t hate M. Night Shyamalan. I know that might seem like an impossibility in an age where he might as well be hung like a Christmas ornament outside every movie theater in America, but it’s true. I would attribute that to my typical excuse of off kilter taste, but the fact is, I’ve only for the most part seen the well regarded films of his. Sure Signs and The Last Airbender lived up to their dubious reputations, but I found a great deal to admire and appreciate in Unbreakable and especially The Sixth Sense. Needless to say, I went into The Visit much like one would a vacation to see distant relatives. It could veer off into the awkwardly awful, or turn into a pleasant surprise that creates new loved ones.


We center on Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two teenage siblings who are sent by their mother (Kathryn Hahn) to see their long lost grandparents. Tyler isn’t particularly excited about having no cell reception in the middle of nowhere, but Becca sees this as an opportunity to put together a documentary about her elders, hoping to resolve a long standing conflict between them and her mother. Upon arrival, they slowly discover and document the strange tendencies of their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). Despite seeming well adjusted and friendly by day, their erratic nighttime behavior clearly illuminates something more sinister at hand.


The experience of watching The Visit is like getting a beer with an old high school friend after twenty years. Reveling in the good times, joking about the bad, and daydreaming about hypothetical ways to get everything right if there was a chance to live life over again. From the very first frame Shyamalan seems to have found new life behind the camera, telling his story in a more creative and playful way than he’s been able to muster in years. Finally, the dour self seriousness that has plagued his recent work has been augmented with a wicked sense of humor. There is something just so naturally funny about the concept of these terrifying grandparents. This story like a sick fantasy of a child on their grandma’s porch eating hot cookies while waiting for something more exciting to happen, and that self awareness is what draws the laughs out. Even though the situation these kids are in is exaggerated, it is drawn from something so incredibly relatable to it’s audience.


The performances don’t miss a beat. Shyamalan wisely employs virtually unknown character actors here, and they all rise to the challenge of this absurd little fable. It would have been very easy to make our two leads into the typical bickering brother/sister duo who devolve into endless bouts of stupidity. However, Becca and Tyler are both extremely well-drawn and performed characters, with our two young actors growing an authentic chemistry that makes us root for them. DeJonge gives Becca the perfect amount of mid-teen film geek awkwardness and judgmentally. In fact, her character’s determination and passion completely validate the fairly trite use of found footage, and gives the format it’s most organic and character driven home in years. Oxenbould is a charismatic riot as the showy younger brother for a penchant for writing raps. Dunagan and McRobbie are also a riot as the grandparents, the former in particular hurling herself into one of the most demanding roles someone of her age has ever had in a horror film. They’re the perfect mix of sweet and scary, leaving the audience caught right in between laughing and shrieking.


As far as the frights go, Shyamalan innovates and excites with his constantly moving camera. He’s like a conductor showing his orchestral audience exactly what terrifying piece of scenery to yell out to next. Each of the horror set-pieces here are not only masterfully executed on a visceral level, but never forget to keep the humor completely injected into the experience. In fact, the only thing that really throws off the groove of the film off is its eventual twist. It’s certainly nothing horrible, and is very easy to shrug off, but it just doesn’t land in quite the way it seems to hope to. Even then, the film is smart enough to poke a little fun at Shyamalan’s penchant for more ridiculous twists, and the climax more than makes up for it. At the end of the day, this is a movie that will create some of the loudest crowds of the year, and at least half of those sounds will be clapping.


The Visit would be a wonderful movie coming from any filmmaker, but there’s an extra hint of satisfaction in it being such a return to form for Shyamalan. In fact, the movie feels more like a work of Sam Rami or the late Wes Craven, and those influences come off like a nice new outfit that just looks great on the Sixth Sense director. No matter how it’s found, it’ll prove entertaining, but it’s best seen on opening weekend with a big crowd late at night. It’s a film, haunted house, and roller coaster ride thrown into one. Bake some cookies, knit yourself a sweater, and strap in, because the prince of horror has finally made his grand return.

Rating: A

No Escape Review

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There have been plenty of movies about characters trapped in a horrific situation in which it seems they will not return alive. The realism and severity of these situations often varies, but we as an audience generally try to feel their fear along with them. We want to feel trapped also, but what happens when a movie instils that feeling for all the wrong reasons? When it’s not the opposing force on screen that makes us feel confined, but the very doors that welcomed us into the theater to begin with, that now feel bolted down by an iron bar, and won’t open until the movie we’re watching finally ends. Well my friends, No Escape finally gives us that experience and frankly I wish I had stayed home and waited for real life terrorists to come after me.


We center on the WonderBread family, who has just re-located to an unnamed country somewhere in Asia. Jack (Owen Wilson) is hoping to give his family a new start after his own business venture went belly up. His wife Annie (Lake Bell) and two kids certainly could be taking it better though, the language barrier being especially annoying to them. However, everybody’s priorities take a big hit when a deadly political uprising starts in the town with the locals killing anyone who stands in their way, with an especially specific appetite for white meat. Jack now has to navigate has family out of the mayhem with the help of Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), a former British intelligence agent who has befriended them.


No Escape is a bad movie that cuts on two different levels, so let’s start with the lesser of the two. I’m fairly certain that director John Erick Dowdle is more terrified behind the camera than his characters in front of it. This is a film that should be about managing mayhem on a grand scale. However, instead of reveling in that chaos, Dowdle chooses to lean on the classic classic crutches of bad modern direction until they cave in and knock him flat onto his behind. If there is any form of motion going on in a shot, the camera nauseatingly jolts with it. It’s as if the production team had absolutely no way of sweeping over the chaos, so they just had the extras carry small cameras and toss them to one another. Every once and a while, an actual image will peak through, but those are butchered by goofy looking slow motion that removes any sense of brutality from the violence. There are a couple moments of effective tension, particularly in the more contained environments, but the movie will all too often opt for sequences that it simply isn’t well produced enough to portray.


More infuriating than the lackluster presentation is the film’s borderline nauseating xenophobia.  Try as it might to be, No Escape is not a Friday The 13th movie. There is no super-natural force creating destruction, but a very realistic and potentially terrifying wave of violence by human beings. However, that horror would be rooted in humanity,  and in giving both sides a realistic motive for wanting to do this to one another. Instead, the movie opts for the more lazy, cartoonish approach and essentially turns the enemy forces into Cobra from GI Joe. Faceless, nameless goons who just exist to glower at the camera, shoot people, and be scary foreign people. As such, the movie only works if it’s audience chooses to accept that these people are just plain bad, an insulting and dubious proposition.

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The only thing holding this thing together is the competent cast who do what they can with thin characters. Wilson makes for a surprisingly empathetic dramatic lead, fusing his every-man charm with an authentic protective streak. He doesn’t feel like an action hero, but a normal guy who just wants his family safe. He shares some subtle if believable chemistry with Bell, who fills her equally authentic role just as well. Brosnan is the only one who feels out of place, essentially porting over his goofy James Bond persona into a story that certainly does not need any more silliness weighing it down.

As much as No Escape would like its audience to believe that it’s “villains” are shallow monsters, it turns out that the film itself is the one to be resented. This is an ugly, shallowly produced affair that squanders what could have been a riveting and socially relevant premise into mush. Fortunately for the audience, there is a way to escape through those beautiful red exit doors.

Rating: D-

American Ultra Review


American Ultra is the kind of movie that makes you re-consider going back to the theater at all, or at least for a little while. A ludicrous and insulting misfire that inspires wonder of how people of any talent level at all could become involved with it to begin with. It’s not that encountering this kind of film is particularly surprising in the dull-drums of mid August and early September, where studios will often dump their lamest material in an attempt to stall until Oscar season. The surprising part is exactly how cringe inducingly unpleasant this stoner “comedy” turned out to be.  Perhaps it’s my fault for even trying to see a movie right now at all. I should know better.


We open inside a sleepy little town with young stoner couple Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) lovingly wasting their lives away. Mike, who suffers from anxiety so extreme that he cannot even leave town, is struggling to find the right moment to propose to Phoebe before she wises up and leaves him. However, those plans find themselves in need of further hold when Mike finds himself in grave danger. After hearing a mysterious group of code words from a mysterious woman named Victoria (Connie Britton) at the convenience store he works at, Mike finds himself being hunted by assassins, and to his utter shock, he is able to fight back to brutally fatal effect. It turns out that the young low-life is actually a government asset of some sort. Yuppie CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) will stop at nothing to eliminate Mike, while Victoria will do the same to protect him.


This is a movie that wants to be a bunch different things over the course of its brief ninety minutes. Thrown into this rusty old blender we have stoner adventure, romantic comedy, spy thriller,  and mental illness drama. That’s right. For as much as the marketing behind American Ultra would like to fool people into thinking that it’s just a slightly more hot and heavy version of Pineapple Express,  the movie reveals itself to be a fairly depressing portrait of just how insane anxiety can drive a person. There aren’t even many attempts at jokes for the first twenty minutes or so. It’s just a simple and sad story about a guy who has his girlfriend trapped in a rut as she tries to accept it. While one might think this strange tone would make the spy elements seem welcome when they do arrive, it’s actually quite the opposite. All of the action/comedy elements here are so absurd and cartoonish, it seems like they warped in from a different movie entirely. What Chronicle scribe Max Landis’ screenplay ultimately becomes is an exercise akin to having two completely different films on at the exact same time, with the loud action movie constantly screeching over the quiet drama.


The movie’s one shining asset is Jesse Eisenberg. Fresh off of one of his very best performances in The End Of The Tour, our new Lex Luthor swerves into yet another gear to show us further depths to his talent. While he’s certainly portrayed anxious characters before, it’s never gone as far as it has here, and Eisenberg makes each word out of his mouth seem more painful for Mike to utter than the last. In fact, one of the reasons the film is so constantly depressing is because Eisenberg sells it so well, making his great performance something of a double edged sword. Meanwhile, the other performers simply aren’t up to snuff. While Stewart has certainly enjoyed some lovably off kilter chemistry with Eisenberg in Adventureland, their previous collaboration, it seems a bit more forced here. It’s certainly not completely gone, but just never fully materializes. Certainly not helping matters is a second act twist involving her character that is so insulting that it’s nearly ‘walk out’ worthy, which she does not sell at all. Manning the CIA, Grace makes for a generic and rather annoying villain with next to nothing written to fuel him other than pure snobbery, and Britton’s character is so generic she sometimes seems completely invisible on screen.


I wouldn’t exactly peg the director of Project X as a future action director, and it turns out that Nima Nourizadeh has in fact found himself greatly out of his depth. What we have here is a Scott Pilgrim esque senario, with an actor who cannot do his own action sequences needing to partake in some fairly exaggerated and brutal fight scenes. While someone of Edgar Wright’s talent can certainly make that work, Nourizadeh falls completely apart. So much of the combat here is just shaky cam silliness, with a few drops of blood to remind us just how brutal what we’re watching is. It feels so fake, that they might as well just pause the action to let Eisenberg’s stunt double walk into position. Even when the direction improves a tad in the film’s final battle in a hardware store, the sequence is so derivative of last year’s ‘The Equalizer’ that it remains just as laughable.


For every second of it’s run-time, American Ultra is simply hard to watch. A hodgepodge of different elements that could have perhaps worked with a bit of style, but are instead brought to the screen as limply as possible. While Eisenberg’s performance does provide the slightest hook to latch onto, by the time the credits roll that hook will have snapped off the wall.  I wager the only reason that this is even in theaters at all is because of the talent involved, and the need to have something to dump into this horrible time to be a film fan. Don’t find yourself burning at the end of this dud blunt.

Rating: D-

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Review


From the moment Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964 espionage television show opens, it’s determined to let the audience know that they’re in for a movie soaked in ‘cool’. It’s got vintage production design that sends it’s target era popping off the screen, actors giving distinctly mannered performances, and an opening car chase that would not be out of place in a Warner Bros cartoon. Normally, a movie such as this can go one or two ways. It could embrace the natural momentum of it’s style and craft an engaging story around it, or it can lean on said energy like a crutch, leaving it’s audience with nothing to care about or remember. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. really needs to be the former, as it’s the umpteenth spy movie this year and not even the first of those to be ripped from the circuits of classic TV.


Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is about as All-American an operative as they come. Hired by the CIA out of prison for his abilities as a master thief, Solo finds himself assigned a mission that could leave the fate of all of the world’s countries in his hands. A builder of nuclear warheads has been kidnapped by wealthy industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It is up to Napoleon to enlist his daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) into re-connecting with her long lost father and reporting back to him. However, Gaby needs a fake fiance. To remedy this, the American government parlays with that of the Russians, and teams Solo up with loose-cannon KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who is naturally at odds with the American agent’s personality and methods.


The success of Man From U.N.C.L.E. begins in the perfectly hammy performances from it’s finely tuned cast. Ritchie perfectly guides all of these actors into giving us characters who may be extreme types, but don’t feel like simple caricatures. In his first Post-Superman leading role Henry Cavill proves with distinction that he can carry a movie like this. Affecting a deliciously campy New-England accent and conducting himself with the utmost manner that he can, Cavill endears us to Solo’s blend of snark and sophistication. It only gets better once he gets to play off Hammer. While I’ve found the Lone Ranger star to be a fairly stiff screen presence in the past, here his stiffness is used to perfect effect as a simmering time-bomb who can go off at any moment. Hammer doesn’t just play Illya as a brute though, getting more than a few moments to convey that the Russian might have a few soft spots buried deep down. The strongest moments of the film are when these two get to work together and banter. The movie never tries to convince us that these two become best friends on this mission, only that they grow to tolerate and respect one another, and that’s why it works. Meanwhile, the stunning Alicia Vikander shows us that her fantastic turn in Ex Machina was no fluke, giving us a confident and punchy foil for Hammer in particular.


This is a deeply old-fashioned story that could have easily felt trite and cheesy in less skilled hands. However, Ritchie has evolved into something of a stylistic master, especially in the wake of his wildly inventive take on Sherlock Holmes. He immerses every inch of this film in the suave sensibility that made the early James Bond films such a delight, while still providing room for his more darkly comedic sensibilities to flourish. While there’s plenty of punchy banter for the cast to chew on, this sense of humor most notably comes out in the action sequences. While some of them might appear a bit generic by description, Ritchie infuses them with just enough eccentricity for them to stand out from the crowd while still feeling classy. They feel ripped straight out of a spy comic-book, especially in the moments where the quirkiness of the characters finds it’s way into the sequence. There are a couple moments in particular where humor and background action is juggled to such perfect effect, that they may end up among the best sequences of the year.


The only point where Ritchie really misses a step is in his villain. While Elizabeth Debicki certainly throws herself into the sensual, loopy character, she just comes across a bit generic. There’s never a scene where she’s really allowed to shine, most of the time coming in after the main action of the sequence in question has already occurred. She’s just nowhere near as fun or interesting as the rest of the film, and as such represents the one arm of the movie that is a bit of a slog.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a well done steak dinner with a nice glass of wine. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it tastes delicious and feels really classy while it’s going down. All of it’s zaniness is expertly distributed by Ritchie, and his charismatic cast is more than up to helping him bring it to life. It might not be the very best spy movie of the year, but as far as capturing the essence of what made the genre so great to begin with goes, Agent Cavill takes the cake.

Rating: A-

Straight Outta Compton Review


Bear one thing in mind as I bust out my thoughts on this movie. While I certainly enjoy my fair share of rap music (N.W.A very much included), I don’t claim to be any expert or authority on it. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, it’s just fun to blast out of some open car windows. I bring this up because there are a whole lot of aspects of F. Gary Grey’s sprawling biopic of one of the most influential rap groups in history that I don’t like, but I understand that most of them are more personal taste reasons than objective ones. Perhaps these rhymes just weren’t meant for me to begin with.

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Beginning in 1989, we find a group of young men in Compton California trying to find themselves. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) is a poet at the tail end of high school who isn’t sure exactly what direction to head in. Andre Young (Corey Hawkins) is a dedicated producer who is willing to live in poverty for a while if it means achieving his dreams. Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a bit more of a wild-card, descending into criminal activity every once and a while, but even so having a lot of talent under the surface. When Dre gets a local studio to himself, he has the spontaneous idea to have Eric perform the song they’re working on, and it becomes the mega-hit ‘Boyz N The Hood.’ When money hungry manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) becomes infatuated with the group, he promises endless fame and fortune for Eric if he signs with them. Eric decides to take the other boys with him, and with their two friends, Lorenzo Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Antione Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.) form the group N.W.A. Their music chronicles the hardships and violence of their life in Compton, along with a few choice words for the police.

Straight Outta Compton

For all the chinks in it’s armor, Straight Outta Compton has a whole lot to praise, and it starts with the young actors who carry it. These are iconic figures in music history, and it would have been easy for any of these guys to create simple caricatures out of them, costing on the name, but they all rise to the occasion. The strongest of which is most definitely Hawkins as Dr. Dre, not only by far the most empathetic character in the film, but the one who gets the widest range of emotions to run though. Hawkins completely sells just how dedicated this man is to his craft, and how it’s only when people get in the way of his creativity that he loses his temper. Mitchell also has several great moments as Easy E, who for a lot of the film is painted as the golden boy with a huge dark side. We see why the other guys would have issues with him, and why they would rally behind him, and when it comes time to document the ultimate tragedy of that character, Mitchell gets some fantastically authentic moments. As for Jackson Jr, it would be really easy to chalk his casting up to simple nepotism, especially considering how creepily he resembles his father, but he really does capture Ice Cube’s ferocious personality. He might not have as much range as his co-stars, but considering his character doesn’t go through quite as much, it about evens out. Giamatti also shines, bringing a bit more depth than average to the sniveling manager role.

Straight Outta Compton

F. Gary Grey does some of his strongest work to date in the directors chair here. He soaks the film in a gritty authenticity that not only captures the brutality (particularly by the police) these men had to go through, but also the moments in which these guys were less than model citizens themselves. Each scene feels like real people talking and creating, and the strongest moments of the film are where we see how these guys channeled their anger into that creativity. However, Grey does make a fatal error here, and that is sheer excess. The film clocks in at an astonishing two hours and thirty minutes, and there’s a solid forty of those that could be trimmed, especially as we move out of the N.W.A days. It devolves from a very focused, intense story, to a parade of cameos from popular nineties rappers and ‘Behind The Music’ esque corporate moves and group switches that become beyond repetitive. After a while, I just wished that these guys could just get along, or just stop working all together so that I could go home. It’s essentially a Peter Jackson movie set in the hood.

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This movie also threw me off and made me a bit uncomfortable with some, and I stress some of what it very un-ironically glorifies. While it is certainly an asset to document some of the bad things these guys did, it’s never put-together in a way that even remotely feels like anything other than a romp, which makes it hard to sympathize with these guys when they start complaining that they’ve been harassed by the law, even when in those situations it was wrongfully. These men are completely corrupted by fame, and by the time they’re pulling out assault rifles on people in hotels, they lose a great deal of their humanity, even if what occurs on screen is authentic.


Straight Outta Compton is most certainly a very well put together biopic that really shines in it’s best moments. However, it feels as though Grey was worried that he’d be slapped over the head by Cube and Dr. Dre, who produced the film, if he even slightly criticized these men for their actions or forgot to put one exhausting detail of their lives into the story. As such, it became hard for me to care very much after the most compelling part of the story was over, and there was still a hour plus to go. However, to audience members that this music means a great deal more to, something tells me my problems will be hardly existent to them. To them I say, fire it up, because it most certainly has something to say.

Rating: B-