American Ultra Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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-

The Gift Review

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One genre that has not seen a great deal of innovation in a while is the domestic thriller. We’re certainly a long way from the sexy, intriguing days of ‘Fatal Attraction’, which such dreck as ‘Obsessed’ and ‘The Boy Next Door’ quietly walking out of the same back-door they came in through. In fact, it seems that whenever the plot of a film revolves around a stalker invading a marriage, we as movie fans should just look the other way. Or should we? Long-time character actor Joel Edgerton certainly hopes to change the tide with his low budget directorial debut, ‘The Gift’. It certainly has the potential to bring some freshness to the table, and that would be a very welcome present indeed.

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We begin with Simon Callen (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) moving into the cozy suburban neighborhood around where Simon grew up. They’re hoping to get a fresh start here, as they’ve had a bit of trauma in their marriage already. Unfortunately, fate has other plans as Gordo Moseley (Joel Edgerton), a socially-awkward man Simon knew in high school approaches them in a store, and begins to take an extreme interest in the couple. As Simon becomes distinctly uncomfortable with Gordo’s afternoon gift-leaving visits, he somewhat aggressively cuts ties with the strange man. However, that isn’t nearly enough for Gordo, who as it turns out has a rather traumatic past that involves Simon directly, leaving Robyn to wonder who the man she married actually is.

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The Gift establishes itself as a different breed of thriller than what audiences have grown used to in recent years. While there’s a great deal of unnerving stuff going on here, none of it is presented in a conventional way. As a director, Edgerton rarely pushes the film into violence, instead letting the suspense and rich character work drive the scares. Although this is only his very first feature, the actor shows rich skill behind the camera here. He relies heavily on visual cues and subtle hints to tell his story, never letting his screenplay feel over-written. We get a sense of who these people are simply by watching them be, and for these characters, that is all that we need.

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The performances here are much richer than what we might normally find in this kind of movie. Jason Bateman has always for the most part been a comedic performer who only occasionally gets to shine in something dramatic, but he relishes the opportunity here. Bateman employs all of his traditional mannerisms that are normally used to make him likable, and skews them in a slightly different manner to make us suspect him of something darker. He’s a guy with a great deal of cruelty under the surface, and he convincingly shows us that rage when it’s time. Hall ultimately ends up as the character with the most screen-time as she finds herself in deep turmoil over the actions of her husband, pitch perfectly portraying the internal conflicts she finds herself in. However, it is Edgerton himself who shines the most as the shy and creepily wounded Gordo. While he’s not on screen a great deal, he creates perhaps the most genuine character in the whole story. He’s not a two dymensional villain looking for revenge, but simply a hurt man who seems to genuinely want to reach resolution over the past to no avail. He’s a character who leaves a huge impression, particularly in how his psychological mind games ultimately play out.

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There really is a whole lot of substance to The Gift, but some might be a little restless in the early going. Edgerton very deliberately paces his story, slowly doling out clues that will be paid off later, but as a result some of that carefulness may come across as a bit slow before things really get going. There’s nothing to worry about, as things really do go to a deeply interesting place, but it may take a bit more patience than the average horror movie to get there. It’s certainly worth it though, as the back half and climax have some of the most twisted storytelling beats seen in a movie in a while, and the film will certainly leave you re-examining it for hours after it finishes.

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While The Gift never truly ascends into fantastic territory, it is certainly one of the better thrillers to come about in quite some time. It’s not only a well performed and competently told story, but one that does not rely on the typical devices that so many movies of this type use to get a cheep reaction out of it’s audience. Edgerton opts to mess with your head over your heart, and if you’re willing to go through a bit of wrapping paper to get to what he has in store, you certainly won’t be returning it to him any time soon, In fact, consider this review my thank you note.

Rating: B+

Fantastic Four Review

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I cannot wait until later in the review to just come out with it, Fantastic Four is absolutely terrible, and the sad truth is, this should have been so easy. 20th Century Fox’s previous attempt at a franchise based on Marvel’s first family was given a lukewarm reception at best. Most felt as though it degraded the characters to juvenile humor and an over-arching cartoon-like sensibility that made it impossible to take seriously on any level. Now,10 years later after these trainwrecks of a “franchise” released, another genius at the studio thought, “Let’s try what worked so well for Spider-Man and make these happy go lucky characters a little deeper and darker!” Much like the wallcrawler’s re-tooled franchise, they even brought in a fresh film-making voice in Josh Trank, who had previously only been at the helm of one movie, which just so happened to be the wonderful anti super-hero story ‘Chronicle’. Seemed like a great idea at the time. However, unlike the series of this film’s inspiration which decided to sputter out of control in it’s second run, this one delivers an unconscionable mess to it’s audience from the get-go.

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We start off with the story of two boys, and their teleportation machine. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is something of a prodigy who believes that he can create a portal to another dimension with the device, while auto mechanic Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) provides the spare parts and physical back up. After the guys cause an embarrassing but somewhat encouraging incident at a science fair, researcher Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) decides to take their invention on by providing a lab to perfect the machine. To aid Reed, Dr. Storm brings his adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), troublemaker son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and antagonistic genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) on board as well. When the machine is finally finished, Richards and his crew stage a rouge mission to the parallel dimension that goes horribly wrong. Everyone besides Doom return, but with horrific abilities that will forever change the course of their lives.

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While this film is certainly a disaster of cobbled together storytelling among a great deal of other sins, perhaps it’s greatest failure is it’s complete inability to make it’s central team of characters intriguing in any way. These characters certainly have great potential, as all of the young actors here have done wonderful work in the past, but the lackluster material and Trank’s flat direction utterly fail them. Teller’s Richards is something of a mimic of the awkwardly intelligent persona of Andrew Garfield’s interpretation of Peter Parker, but without the quirk and charm that made that performance work so well. We’re supposed to above all else want to follow Reed due to his tenacity and sheer power of mind, but the character we’re given is a cowardly wuss who comes into his own only because the script demands him to. While Teller certainly sells Reed’s intellect, there is simply no power in anything he says, no matter how many forced, un-funny quips the normally razor sharp Teller is forced to deliver. It certainly does not help that his sparing partners are somehow even lamer, particularly Mara’s Sue Storm, who’s greatest personality trait is that she enjoys listening to music to focus. That’s right, this girl can turn invisible and create force fields, and yet her most memorable contribution is wearing a pair of headphones and listening to non-descript music.

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Meanwhile, Jamie Bell’s Grimm turns into a badly designed waste of space who not only isn’t given any time to establish this supposedly close relationship he has with Reed, but turns the ‘Thing’ persona into little more than a growling heavy who punches things, and Kebbell is laughable as the criminally underdeveloped Dr. Doom. The sinister “Dr. Doom”, one of the greatest Marvel villains ever, is reduced to an unshaven grunter who spends his days living in a warehouse and playing Assassins Creed. This is seriously our introduction to the character. The only person who comes out of this with a little dignity is Michael B. Jordan, who exerts every bit of his natural likability to try and pull some personality out of Johnny Storm, but even he is only given a few lame quips and a contrived daddy-issues story-line that goes nowhere. However, it’s hard to blame these performers for these turns. They all went down together, and it’s all because of the sheer ineptitude of one Josh Trank.

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Yes, I am keenly aware that Trank had his original vision of this film savaged by Fox through this entire production. However, with that in mind, perhaps there is good reason the studio found him unprepared to take on a project of this size. Fantastic Four is a movie that has no idea what it wants to be, and over the course of it’s cobbled together one hundred minutes, never decides. Initially it’s something of a coming of age sci-fi adventure, which is clearly the territory that Trank is most comfortable in. While these segments certainly don’t offer anything terribly unique, it at the very least has a semblance of a story driving it. Granted, Trank guides basic human interaction with all the energy of a tired hospital worker trying to keep dying burn victims from just giving up, but at least they’re interacting at all. As soon as the powers are dolled out, the film descends into an odd, depressing ten minute tribute to body-horror movies as the characters are transformed, before taking a year-long time jump that essentially removes the entire second act of the story. That’s right, we don’t get to see these guys get used to their powers and bond as a team, they just go ahead and do it behind our backs. Then, when it’s time to for the rushed climax that throws a half-baked attempt at Dr. Doom in our faces, we get no sense of camaraderie among the team. They’re just four acquaintances who are mildly inconvenienced by this apocalyptic terror.

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It certainly does not help that whatever limited action does finally appear is sewn together with practically no creativity. All of the energy and invention that Trank brought to these types of sequences in Chronicle has vanished, replaced by simply doing the bare-minimum of what the Fantastic Four characters are capable of visually. Although the movie goes a colossal ninety percent of it’s running length without any action to speak of, within five minutes of it beginning, you’ll be begging for it to be over. Fortunately, the movie hears you, and mercifully stops almost instantly after even the slightest momentum has been built.

I have no doubt that there is fault on both sides of this catastrophe. Trank may have had some solid ideas that Fox truncated and destroyed, but that does not excuse just how lifelessly brought to the screen the moments that do remain are. This is a movie that not only disgraces the super-hero genre, but seems un-aware that there is a genre to begin with. It makes all of the critical mistakes that have made the worst of these films so awful, while doing such an equally terrible job at telling a relatively simple and certainly “lore-free” story that it’s a wonder this cut of the movie was even allowed to release at all. It’s a jumbled, lazily assembled mess, and what would really be fantastic is if we never heard from this sad attempt at a Fantastic Four franchise again.

Rating: D-

The End Of The Tour Review

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There are a couple of great discoveries one can make in a biopic. The first, is a historical figure that previously was just a name in a hurricane of other names of apparently important people who proves to be far more interesting than expected. The second, is an actor who seems to be backed in a corner of generic roles finally given a chance to expand and melt into a deeper character, proving themselves completely. In watching The End Of The Tour, not only did I make both, but I got the privilege of seeing what is by far the year’s most heartfelt and moving film thus far.

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David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a journalist for Rolling Stone looking for a worthwhile story that expands beyond fluff pieces on boy bands. When he stumbles upon David Foster Wallace’s (Jason Segal) one thousand page epic ‘Infinite Jest’, a great fascination with the man grows, and David lobbies for an interview with the author. He ends up finding himself on the last leg of Wallace’s book tour, and in his subject finds a man who not only serves as an inspiration for his own writing, but a chess partner for some of the deepest and darkest conversations he’s ever had.

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The End Of The Tour is essentially a film about two very intelligent and deeply scared people talking, and that play-like structure can very easily feel nauseating and pretentious in lesser hands. Fortunately, we have two fantastic performers who bare their souls here. Jason Segal has spent that majority of his career coasting on his lovably schlubby persona, but here, he uses exactly that to disarm us through a man who while deeply intelligent, is absolutely terrified by social interaction. Sure he’s kind, funny, and deeply insightful, but there is a layer of self-doubt churning through every word out of his mouth. Segal so honestly portrays this type of personality, I started to reflect on people in my own life who are similar to this character, and the way I’ve often cynically approached them to a fault, which brings me to Eisenberg, who does his richest work since ‘The Social Network’ here. Although Lipsky greatly admires Wallace, he also suspects that some of his anxiety and self doubt might be a little phony given the sheer confidence it takes to release a thousand page book, and Eisenberg juggles these conflicting emotions with his signature humor and punchy delivery. He doesn’t get to show off quite as much range as Segal, but we do get to see a great deal of gears turning as he tries to get a read on this strangely smaller than life figure.

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James Ponsoldt’s direction and Donald Margulies’ screenplay work perfectly in-tandem to create a conversational and emotional atmosphere. The writing manages to never feel like the points of view of the writer being reflected through characters. The conversations are always completely organic to who these people are, and that honesty keeps the film from feeling like it’s just talking at the audience for it’s two hours. Meanwhile, a lot of directors would be tempted to fill a story like this with visual metaphors and other flourishes to make the movie as literary as it’s subject, but Ponsoldt is very keen on keeping things as rotted in humanity as possible. While there a great many scenes in the film, they are mostly focused on these two guys talking, and by not cramping the space with obnoxious choices, both actors get to breathe, perform, and resonate like crazy.

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It’s difficult to review The End Of The Tour simply because what makes it so fantastic are not the major flourishes that would hold it accountable to said review. The beauty here is in just how amazing these performers are, and the sadness and complexity within what they have to say to each other. Segal in particular gives the richest portrayal of loneliness even in company that I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, and this performance absolutely must garner him some attention come awards season. It’s a brutally honest piece of film-making that may even make it’s audience reflect on it’s own insecurities. Under the right circumstances, this film may even save a life by making somebody with similar demons feel less alone, and if that isn’t film-making worthy of the highest recommendation, nothing is.

Rating: A+

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation Review

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What is a spy to do without the element of surprise? It would be terribly easy for the Mission: Impossible franchise to sputter out right off of it’s massive comeback. After all, once all eyes and hype levels are on a particular film, that is very often the one that falls short in the end. Going for a different feel by again opting to change directors from Brad Bird to Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) is already a gamble, as it would be very easy to just re-hash what worked like gang-busters back in 2011. However, judging off how well this mission was pulled off, we may very well be saying the very same things about whatever the next ‘Mission’ ends up being.

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Following the mayhem of ‘Ghost Protocol’, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has spent the year in between hunting a shadowy group of operatives called The Syndicate, made up of former black ops soldiers previously presumed dead who act as a counter IMF. Just as his trail starts to come up hot through his discovery of The Syndicate’s leader Lane (Sean Harris), the IMF is disbanded by a testimony by bureaucrat Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Now a fugitive looking to take down an entire agency, Hunt must rely only on his friends, Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther (Ving Rhames), as he finds himself in deep mistrust of his closest link to The Syndicate, a British agent named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) who seems to be constantly switching sides to suit her own needs.

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Rogue Nation distinguishes itself by returning to the more suspense oriented tone of the original, while still cranking up the massive action sequences that have made the sequels more beloved. This is the first time that a Mission film has had a writer/director, and it shows. Christopher McQuarrie spins a masterful web of espionage here, and then brings it to life with some of the most spectacular craftsmanship seen in a blockbuster film in quite some time. He potently captures a sense of paranoia that kicks in from the moment the movie starts. Anybody can be a friend or a foe, and there is always a new complication around every corner. For the first time in a while, it feels like Ethan Hunt is genuinely in danger, and that vulnerability only adds to just how amazing the film is once it blows up into action.

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Cruise jumps at the chance to make Hunt a more human hero again, and the screenplay backs up his near-perfect performance by never taking him out of character. There is no forced love affair between he and Ferguson (who is a revelation here), or silly decisions made for the sake of action. We want Ethan to survive because while he is a human being, he is also a fiercely intelligent tactician who refuses to give up, and McQuarrie understands this better than any other MI filmmaker has to date. Harris also shines as one of the most chilling adversaries Hunt has gone against to date, who always seems to be one step ahead of the game with an icy cool that makes it look easy. Where some of this rich characterization begins to suffer just a little is in the supporting team members. Pegg’s Benji might get a great deal to do, including his most emotional moments he’s shared with Hunt to date, but Renner and Rhames are unfortunately sidelined a bit. This is especially a shame for Renner, who adds such a sobering sense of humor to these movies, and in yet another franchise finds himself sidelined as a third banana. The movie may not make the mistake of becoming ‘The Tom Cruise Show’ again, but we don’t quite get that team camaraderie that made Ghost Protocol such a delight.

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Not only is the pace here relentless, with constant action, but those combat sequences are a consistent delight. McQuarrie firmly establishes himself as one of the strongest directors of mayhem in the business here, weaving his camera in the perfect positions to make sure every one of these beautifully practical stunts get to be shown off in all their glory. There’s weight and brutality to every single hit here, and McQuarrie will often opt to draw out the tension to the point that there won’t be a single breath in the entire audience. Most people will naturally draw their attention to the much publicized plane stunt that opens the film, and while that’s an amazing sequence, the one I would highlight is a fifteen minute dance of death in an opera house that might be the best single scene in the entire franchise.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation might not be quite as much fun as it’s predecessor, but it makes up for that by being perhaps the most impeccably written/directed film in the franchise thus far. It’s a masterful concoction of blockbuster mayhem, that will catch you by the lungs, run your heart on overdrive, and not forget to make you laugh every once and a while. If this franchise can keep on chugging at this quality level, we may be seeing Cruise hanging off a mountain in a wheelchair in twenty years, and not question it one bit.

Rating: A

Southpaw Review

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Although they are often classified under one umbrella, sports movies often divide themselves into their own sub-genres with their own particular rhythm. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the boxing genre, which despite being based in an only occasionally popular game, is perhaps the most popular of all the sports movies. Why is that? Is it because we like our movies to essentially be one on one conflicts where two titans come to punch each other in the face, or could it be because we’re fascinated by those who do something that most people wouldn’t dream of. What kind of personal hell drives somebody to enter that ring and take all of that punishment? This is the main question that Southpaw attempts to answer.

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Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is currently on top of the light heavyweight devision. Sure, his reckless ‘get hit until I get angry’ style puts his body through hell, but he’s still undefeated. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is starting to worry though, after all, she wants more than anything for Billy to be a father to his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). All of that takes a sudden turn for the dark when a rival of Billy’s causes a brawl that results in a gun-shot being fired, murdering Maureen and devastating Billy. Turning to drugs and alcohol, he is found unfit to take care of Leila and she is taken away from him. Desperate to get her back, he enlists the help of trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), to aid him in getting his anger, and boxing problems under control so that he can compete again.

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If there’s one reason to see Southpaw, it’s for the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. Playing almost the exact inverse of his cruel, calculating character in last year’s excellent Nightcrawler, the actor not only puts on a staggering amount of muscle, but completely embodies the often sweet but sometimes terrifying persona of this guy.  While essentially a soft-spoken man, Billy is a time bomb waiting to explode at any moment, and when he does, Gyllenhaal infuses him with incredibly authentic rage. Even so, we never loose track of the fact that this is a family man who loves his daughter more than anything,  and his sequences with Laurence are beautifully potent. He’s a sweet guy at the end of the day, and a great deal of screen-time is spent begging him to not fly over the edge. While it likely won’t be the performance to get him his long overdue Oscar nomination, it is certainly further proof that the Donnie Darko star is becoming one of the most versatile and fascinating actors working today.  Meanwhile, the rest of the cast gives solid, if more generic performances. Whitaker adapts to the mentor role well, sharing some really nice moments with Gyllenhaal as their relationship grows, while revealing some pain of his own. Meanwhile, McAdams isn’t in the movie as much but does a lot with her time, making the audience grieve for the loss of her strong, charismatic mother as much as Billy does.

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Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) does a decent if not particularly energetic job behind the camera here. While I admire the typically action focussed filmmaker for trying to do something a little more character driven, he seems a little bored of his choice. There’s nothing in the appearance of this film that separates it from any other gritty boxing movie in the last thirty years. He only really comes alive in the boxing sequences themselves, which incorporate some intense point of view shots that throw us directly into the action and make each punch felt. It’s not badly directed by any means, simply a bit generic.

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Generic is the word I would use to describe much of this film. While Gyllenhaal’s performance anchors it, there simply isn’t much of a story behind him. The screenplay feels copy pasted from every other, better boxing movie ever made, without any particularly unique element to really drive itself away from the pack. Sure the tragic elements that kick-start the story are a bit unconventional, but eventually, that starts to not matter very much once we get to the wise old mentor, training montage, and final fight. This becomes a particular problem later on in the film, when we’re forced to hate our main antagonist because he’s cocky and indirectly contributed to Maureen’s death, not because he’s a well drawn villain. Often times, this contrivance makes Southpaw a pretty boring watch, even with the incredible performances.

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Southpaw feels like a movie begrudgingly adapting to the troupes of it’s genre, instead of adapting the genre to fit the story it wants to tell. It all feels very generic, and while Gyllenhaal is a revelation, he can only hold things together for so long. If you’re simply looking for an underdog to root for without being particularly challenged by anything new, Southpaw might be forever. However, if I were you, I’d save your pay per view money for the much better looking ‘Creed’ later this year.

Rating: C+

Vacation Review

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It’s hard to really attach a great deal of animosity or excitement a remake of a franchise that I never had much attachment to in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I threw on Christmas Vacation one holiday season, and even watched Vegas Vacation when it was on, but I can’t say I have very extreme memories of either one way or the other. Perhaps it all stems from having never seen the 1983 Harold Ramis original for no other reason than un-aligning circumstances. Yet, here we are, with the critically savaged Ed Helms remake standing at my feet. However, nostalgia can often be the greatest fuel for movie murder, so with none of that in my heart, was I able to enjoy this little family road romp for what it was?

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Presumably taking place around thirty years after the original, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is now a pilot for a budget airline. His wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) seems a bit bored with her domestic life-style, with two feuding sons. James (Skyler Gisondo) is a sensitive, awkward boy who finds himself constantly tormented by his younger wrestler brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Looking to shake things up from the boring cabin they always go to in the summer, Rusty has the idea to follow in his father’s footsteps and take his family to Walley World, which involves a cross country road trip. Renting a strange European car, and throwing his not so enthusiastic family in, Rusty hopes for the best as one thing after another goes wrong due to a series of strange encounters.

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Vacation most certainly does not try to shake up the road movie formula in any real way. Sure, it’s a little raunchier than average, but as far as the story goes, it’s standard stuff. This feeling of familiarity comes mostly from our cast of characters. While Helms certainly throws himself into Rusty’s optimistic spirit, he’s not doing anything particularly special in the role. The movie can never quite decide if he’s a completely clueless guy just doing his best, or just a hurt father who wants to keep his family together. As such, there’s not a whole lot of motivation to attach to Rusty, and even less so with the rest of the family. Applegate, a really competent comedienne in her own right, is wasted here in the fairly standard wife role. She has a couple scenes to cut loose, but for the most part, she’s given the exact same set of problems every wife in a movie like this is. Meanwhile, the two kids are borderline insufferable. While both actors do what they can with the roles, they’re quite simply thin and annoying characters. James is so dweeby and borderline creepy that you almost can’t blame his little brother for picking on him, if said little brother wasn’t a near-psychopath who will likely find himself in jail in the near future. As such, when the movie is just centering on the Griswolds, the comedy is often at least a bit flat, since none of them are really terribly likable.

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Fortunately, Writer/Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein almost seem self aware of this, and litter the movie with fantastic guest stars who do bring the funny big-time. Appearances by Charlie Day and Michael Pena are side splitting for sure, but the one who really saves the day is Chris Hemsworth. Given about fifteen minutes of screen-time, the ‘Thor’ star owns absolutely every second of it, tossing his voice into a thick Texan accent to play Rusty’s highly successful weather-man brother-in-law who likes to, assert himself. He’s hysterical, charismatic, and as soon as he’s gone you’ll want him back. Hell, if the movie had ended up being all about his character, I would not have complained one bit.

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Daley and Goldstein clearly have a great deal of reverence for this franchise, and are trying to do their best to re-capture the spirit of it, and that much is admirable. This go beyond the constant nods and cameos too, with each scene we  can almost feeling straining to make things funny, and that’s just the problem. Hardly anything here is just naturally funny, needing a situation or some other pretense to make it so. There’s only so much that a comedy can succeed under these circumstances, and this unlikeable lead cast makes sure we never get out of the ‘kind of funny’ realm here.

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Vacation is far from a bad movie. There are a few bright spots of comedy here and there, and every so often there will even be something sweet that works. However, it is simply too hard to attach yourself to these people, which makes their vacation start to feel like a business trip. Check it out on home video for the Hemsworth stuff and a couple of the other fairly funny sequences, but for the most part, this is one Vacation where it might be best to stay in the hotel room.

Rating: C

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Review

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In 2011, the Tom Cruise controversy had certainly calmed down, but he was by no means back on top. His last movie was a goofy little flop called Knight and Day, and the conventional wisdom was that he was on his way out as a movie star. Enter ‘Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’ director Brad Bird, who made the decision to take the five years dormant Mission: Impossible franchise and give it a kick in the balls for both the sake of the brand, and Cruise. He planned to incorporate more classical spy elements with a sense of fun that had been missing in some of the other installments. It takes such a visionary to save a franchise, and that is exactly what Bird did.

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Ghost Protocol opens with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being freed from prison in order to carry out a new mission. He, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) must stop an insane terrorist by the name of Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from attacking the Kremlin. The mission fails, and the sacred building is destroyed, sparking tension between America and Russia. After the IMF is disavowed, our agents along with analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) must operate only with sparse resources in order to keep Hendricks from striking again and starting nuclear war.

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The strongest aspect of Ghost Protocol is it’s pitch perfect cast of characters. While MI3 finally made sure a team was heavily incorporated into the story, this is the one where each and every one of them not only have great camaraderie but become fully three dymensional characters. Cruise is as stalwart and controlled as ever as Hunt, but isn’t devoid of emotion either. A twist midway through that ties up some plot elements from MI3 requires him to convey a great deal of subtle pain, which he does with ease and gravitas. Meanwhile, each of the new additions pull their weight. Renner in particular shines, acting as both an audience avatar in the movie’s more ridiculous moments, while folding into a very interesting character with a solid emotional arc in his own right. Patton and Pegg both play a bit more in the beat-seat as far as the main story to go, but the former has a solid emotional back-story to fuel things, and the latter injects a great deal of humor because Simon Pegg simply cannot resist being funny. There’s a reason that MI:5 is mostly bringing back characters from this one, they’re by far the best ones in the series so far, with the exception of Ving Rhames’ Luther, who only makes a brief appearance.

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From the moment Pegg’s Benji frees hunt from the prison to the tune of ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’, Ghost Protocol reveals itself as both the most fantastical and humorous installment of the franchise yet. Bird, making his live-action debut here, directs as if he’s a seasoned blockbuster veteran here, with a perfect penchant for controlled chaos. While the action sequences are absolutely bananas, they fit perfectly within the loose, 70s spy flick tone Bird is going for, unlike a certain other director who just made it crazy to show off just how well Cruise can move around on a bike. With that said, Cruise gets to do his most impressive stunt-work to date here, the now infamous Burj Khalifa sequence just as thrilling now in it’s dizzying height and sheer scale as it was for the very first time in the IMAX theater. Bird is simply a master of not only camera placement in these action sequences, but the placing of the audience inside of them. The car chases rush by, the midway trek though a sandstorm is blinding, and when a character falls down or gets hit, we feel the impact. Beyond that, the added wrinkle of limit gadgets that don’t always work properly make the mission feel all the more insurmountable, making the team’s victories all the sweeter.

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There is however one gaping flaw here that keeps this from being a perfect film, Hendricks. While Michael Nyqvist certainly is a fine actor and does what he can with the very limited amount he’s given, he is given nearly nothing at all. We know nothing about him beyond that he’s a former professor who went crazy and now wants war, and as such he never feels like anything more than a mcguffin. While too much screen-time for him certainly could have thrown off the pacing a bit, Bird would have been wise to just sprinkle in a little more just to make us care about stopping him more. With that said, his character has what is by far the best showdown with Hunt in the series so far, so at the end of the day, all is forgiven.

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is not only a stunning tribute to an older, looser kind of spy thriller, but simply a masterwork of fun in it’s own right. Brad Bird asserts himself as a major player here (until Tomorrowland came around a sullied that for the moment), and Cruise gets back the mojo that lead to a string of moderate hits like Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. Oh, and speaking of Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie, it’s director, is the one taking us on our next impossible mission. Let’s see how that turns out…shall we?

Rating: A