Magic Mike XXL Review

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Back in 2012, the meteoric rise of Channing Tatum from disrespected pretty-boy to legitimate movie star was cemented with a pulpy little stripper film by the name of Magic Mike. Based on Tatum’s own experiences as a male stripper, the film proved to be an alluring choice for many who find themselves swooning under the gleam of the star’s incredible physique. While I personally found the movie a bit empty and plot-less, it seemed as though many critics were impressed, praising director Steven Soderbergh’s sensitive take on the material. Now, three years later, the boys are back with a brand new batch of routines, and although Soderbergh has now taken a backseat to his longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs, the hope is to recapture the very same magic that drew people in before.

The story picks up three years after the first one. Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) is struggling to run his own contracting company, hoping to get his own retail space sooner than later. However, when he receives a call from his old stripper buddies, saying that Dallas (formally played by Matthew McConaughey, who sits this one out) has passed away, Mike heads to the wake. Fortunately, it turns out that Dallas isn’t dead after all, and the boys just needed an excuse to bring Mike back for one last run, as Dallas has ditched them right before a big stripper convention in Florida. Begrudgingly eager to pick up where he left off, Mike joins the guys on their adventure, and a whole lot of the old sexy dancing and debauchery ensue.

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Perhaps the biggest weakness of the original Magic Mike was that despite the film’s attempt to develop Mike as a three dimensional character, it completely forgot about the other members of the group. This made it hard to get particularly attached to these guys, and in turn care about their demons. Fortunately, Magic Mike XXL makes up for this in spades, finally giving Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer, and Adam Rodriguez some personality and chemistry. A great deal of this movie is spent just watching these guys talk, and their conversations are often very funny and always authentic. Meanwhile, Tatum continues his streak of solid performances here, with the perfect amount of understated charm needed to give Mike that leading man spark. Meanwhile, there are  plenty of new supporting players here to make up for the lack of McConaughey. Jada Pinkett Smith has a whole lot of fun as the icy and sexy woman the guys find to be their new MC, Amber Heard is a great deal more believable in the love interest role than the cardboard cutout that was Cody Horn, and Donald Glover has a couple truly shining moments as a guy who is more of a nude serenader than a stripper.

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As soon as I saw Tatum welding to the tune of ‘Pony’, it became clear that this was going to be lighter and more absurd in tone than the original, which works really well. While there certainly are some well played emotional beats, it seems as though everyone involved has realized that at heart, a movie about a bunch of male strippers should be as nimble and light on its feet as the dancers themselves.  There is constantly something funny happening here, even if it’s just an enjoyable conversation, keeping things from getting bogged down in extended scenes of nothing, a huge problem before. In fact, there are several scenes where things just go full out weird, to perfect effect. While there certainly is a lull here and there, more often than not it will quickly be wiggled out of on the way to something entertaining.

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As for the dancing itself, it’s an absolute treat even if it doesn’t exactly tingle your loins. Tatum is a master at movement, and watching him and the other guys at work is nothing short of astonishing. While there might not be as much of it throughout as one might expect, the final dance sequence, which goes on for about twenty minutes, is one of non-stop creativity and choreography, and since these guys are now easy to care about, it makes those moves all the more sweet.

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While Magic Mike XXL certainly isn’t a perfect movie, it improves heavily on the original in almost every way. It’s a much more accessible, and enjoyable movie, that finally gives each and every one of it’s charismatic cast members something to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a screaming Tatum fan-girl, a guy who’s been dragged by his girlfriend, or something in between, you’re likely to find something to enjoy in this surprisingly delicious piece of beefcake.

Rating: B+

Terminator Genisys Review

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There are certain franchises in Hollywood that are taken care of like gorgeous old cars. They’re taken out rarely, and when they are, they run just as well as ever and are driven with with carefulness and pride. Well, unfortunately the Terminator series is more like a really expensive ride that at one time was the best running machine in town until the owner’s son slammed it into a wall. Since then, it finds itself sold to some easily swayed dope who takes it out for a spin, and slams it into yet another wall, or maybe a ravine, so they can say they’re being creative. Yes, for over a decade now we’ve been treated to diminishing returns from James Cameron’s once fantastically original science fiction franchise. In what seems like a last ditch effort to salvage things, the creators of Terminator Genisys have opted to go back to the franchise’s roots in order to give it a fresh start. It’s a novel idea, but unfortunately, some novels should just remain on the shelf.

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We open once again in the near future, as a human resistance lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) fights against the last pockets of the all powerful artificial intelligence called Skynet. In the final battle of this years long war, the humans find themselves victorious, but with a bit of a catch. Skynet has sent a terminator back in time to kill John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), and in order to stop it, John sends back Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to protect her, and outside of Kyle’s knowledge, father him. However, as he travels back in time, an unforeseen ripple creates a new timeline, and instead of the scared waitress Kyle is told he will find, he comes across a battle ready Sarah who already has full knowledge of what she has to do thanks to a guardian Terminator called Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has raised her since her parents were murdered when she was nine.

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Terminator Genisys tries to have it’s cake and eat it too by re-hashing the plot of the original Terminator, while creating this alternate timeline to allegedly play in. All of that is well in good in theory, however it seems as though nobody involved with the writing of the film actually knew what the word “play” means. If this movie were to make more nods to the original films, it would break it’s neck. Despite having every opportunity to do something different with the mythology of this world, we get the same “mean metal guys chase the good people and their friendly robot” movie that has already been done a few times times before, without the flair that made the first two films in the franchise so great. Even the supposed twists (which have almost entirely been spoiled by the trailers) feel milk-tossed, acting more as lazy attempts by the filmmakers to blind the audience to the fact that they are still telling the exact same story. Themes that were once so powerful, particularly those involving the flexibility of the future depending on the will of those in the present, now seem more like set-ups for further sequels than anything else, since we know that is exactly what is being planned.

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Meanwhile, every single actor suffers under the weight of a plodding script and borderline non-existent direction from Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World). Starting off with the worst, Courtney is absolute poison as Kyle Reese, unable to sell either the dramatic heft nor the supposed comedic side of his character. See, the script would really like us to think that this guy has charisma, as he keeps making jokes, but none of them are funny. Every line out of his mouth sounds so much like cardboard that he might as well spit packing peanuts. Jason Clarke isn’t given much of a chance to characterize John Connor beyond a couple of generic “oo rah” speeches before his character takes the aforementioned brutally spoiled villainous turn. Although he certainly seems to be having fun, he just never quite clicks with it, and is never particularly threatening. On the slightly more positive end, Emilia Clarke makes for a solid Sarah Connor, with both heart and brawn to spare. However, even she struggles with making some of this dialogue sound good, especially when she is forced to attempt chemistry with Courtney. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger is as loveable a ham as ever, but his character lacks the presence that he had before, almost feeling like a non-entity. His relationship with Sarah is the only slightly interesting thing about him, and that is not explored nearly enough to make an impact.

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If there’s anything all of the Terminator movies have excelled at, it’s been the crafting of spectacular action. Well, Genisys certainly distinguishes itself here, with what are by far the worst combat sequences the series have seen. Not only are the same robotic effects and fighting styles recycled from previous entries, but they’re brought to life with the flair of a tumbleweed. It just feels like hallow CGI objects hitting and shooting at each other, especially considering that the visual effects are some of the worst that have been in a big budget movie in quite some time. If this thing were to air on Sci Fy, it would not be out of place, some of the bigger set-pieces resembling Playstation 2 games from 2004 more than anything we’re used to in this day and age.

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It’s one thing for a movie like this to be bad, but Terminator Genisys stretches beyond that into borderline insulting territory. The sheer laziness of just about every aspect of this story is simply astounding, the filmmakers seemingly thinking that if one or two tiny spots are freshly washed on an old windshield, we will just happily drive off none the wiser. We won’t. Perhaps next time, a T-1000 should take the form of a dead horse, just so when Arnold goes to fight it, at least those involved will show some honesty.

Rating: D-

Ted 2 Review

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For someone who had previously built their empire on cartoons with fat men fighting chickens and sexually ambiguous aliens, Seth MacFarlane really could not have asked for a better live action debut than Ted. A perfect meshing of his absurd humor with a story that had some nice, deeply relatable themes of arrested development and friendship, it was a hit with both critics and audiences alike. Then, like many artists who storm out of the gate swinging, he face-planted with the flat A Million Ways To Die in the West. Seemingly taking that failure in stride, MacFarlane has decided to go back to his tale of a slacker and his bear, for better or worse.

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Ted 2 picks up several months after the original ended, with our titular stuffed bear (Seth MacFarlane) getting married to his girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). While Ted might be dancing his night away in a Vaudevillian state of bliss, his best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) is lamenting his divorce from Mila Kunis’ Lori six months prior. However, John finds himself having to put all that aside when Ted and Tami-Lynn find themselves unable to adopt a child, as Ted is not recognized by the state as a human being. Determined to sue the government for Ted’s rights, they find themselves turning to lawyer Samantha Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) who to their delight turns out to be much more free spirited then your average attorney.

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While he does not always succeed in his attempt, MacFarlane deserves heavy praise for making a genuine effort to craft a story for Ted and John that isn’t just a re-tread of what came before, while still retaining the spirit of what made that movie work. While the first one was mainly John’s story, with Ted resigned to being an entertaining obstacle for most of the story, this one really goes out of it’s way to humanize Ted through this court case device, which makes his chemistry with John all the stronger. These two genuinely feel like two best friends who have hung out with each other all their lives, and the movie is at it’s funniest when it simply allows them to play off each other with banter that would be funny even if one of them wasn’t a talking bear. While the screenplay does have to regress John back a bit from the mature point he got to at the end of Ted, MacFarlane doesn’t simply throw it away either. The explanation ultimately given for how things are now not only makes sense, but gains points for even being there in the first place. Also, while Mila Kunis certainly served her purpose very well in Ted, she dosen’t exactly make for the best third stooge, making Seyfried a very welcome presence. Her easy going demeanor meshes well with that of her peers, and her character’s willingness to throw herself into the boy’s shenanigans makes for some very entertaining moments. Even Tami-Lynn, who was such a flat bore last time around gets something to do here, proving herself fairly likable herself as the film goes on.

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The humor is looser and more absurd than in the original, which serves as both a strength and a weakness. There are plenty of moments here that are hilariously loopy stoner movie bliss, with cameos, politically incorrect jobs and references galore, vintage MacFarlane at his most well structured and biting. However, there are still plenty of scenes that just fall flat, carrying out one joke for far too long before moving to something new. The movie never truly looses momentum, but it’ll often alternate between something hysterical, and something lame, unlike its constantly funny predecessor. I suppose that’s just the curse of being a talent who mostly writes short jokes for television. There’s plenty of great material spewing out, but no real filter to buffer out the stuff that just isn’t working.

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Falling particularly flat is the third act, which betrays the braveness of the rest of the story by needlessly bringing back Giovanni Ribisi’s Donnie, Ted’s stalker. Just like in the first one, there’s a big chase action sequence involving this character and although MacFarlane does have a decent knack for managing chaos, it feels completely forced in just to repeat something from the original. This segment even goes as far as to essentially have the exact same two or three concluding scenes as the first film, and although this repetition is brought up and made fun of, that doesn’t really excuse it. Sorry Seth, but leave the deprecating humor and repetition to the Jump Street guys.

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Even if it is as not as fully developed a story as it’s predecessor, Ted 2 does ultimately get the job done in the end. It delivers plenty of the raunchy humor that is expected, while balancing it out with characters that easy to care about, even going the extra mile to give a little depth to those who were underdeveloped before. However, it eventually does fall into the standard comedy sequel tropes to droning effect, loosing some of the goodwill that it stuffs into it’s furry, funny little body. Even so, it’s a perfectly huggable summer diversion that certainly could have worn it’s premise a whole lot thinner than it does. Now let’s see a good one without the bear MacFarlane.

Rating: B

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Review

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Are you tired of movies about young adults discovering who they are through quirky interactions with people they didn’t know? How about ones about said young adults with an illness, who learn powerful life lessons while watching each other die? Well, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl certainly thinks you are, and is determined to deliver something new within the tropes of a genre that for many is starting to wear a little thin. Yes, it’s time for the cynical rebel to swoop in and save us from the more earnest entries in this genre, or at least, that’s the hope. After all, you never know what’s going to happen on this job.

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The aforementioned ‘Me’ is named Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s an antisocial high school senior who’s determined to get through his last year of school by continuing to be causal acquaintances with every social group, without actually committing to any serious friendships. The closest thing Greg has to true companionship is with his “coworker” Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes low budget parodies of the classic films they both love. However, Greg’s delicate house of cards is blown over when his mother and father (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) force him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow student who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. While initially reluctant, Greg finds some solace in hanging out with Rachel, and takes it upon himself after a little pushing to make a movie for her before her time is done.

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The greatest joy of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is how self-aware it is of what we’re seeing. Through narration, Greg constantly re-assures us that we are not getting yet another sappy romantic story like the ones we’ve seen a million times before. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s playful direction constantly toys with our expectations, tricking us into thinking we’re seeing something contrived only to pull the rug out and take a left turn instead of a right. This inventive style keeps the film consistently engaging, as it respects that we the audience have become just as cynical and detached to these kind of stories as Greg has. This is where most of the movie’s best humor comes in, as the film often opts for a satirical jab rather then a sappy barb at the heart strings.

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Speaking of Greg, Thomas Mann is an absolute revelation here. A lot of the time when actors portray socially anxious characters, especially in the case of teenagers, they’ll push it to such an extreme degree that it can’t help but come across as a stereotype. Mann beautifully avoids this by blending Greg’s detachment with his biting sense of humor. He’s not necessarily somebody who cannot interact with people, he simply hates it so much that it drives him to the point of extreme bluntness. He’s a bit of an uppity ass at times, but Mann ensures that he’s also completely human, never loosing likability. All of the other performers, especially Cooke, are equally strong. Mining familiar ground from her also terminally ill character on Bates Motel, Cooke gradually breaks down Rachel’s spunky spirit into somebody who breaks the optimistic ideals that she tries to impose on Greg. It’s a heart breaker of a turn that will surely garner her greater attention. Cyler is given a more thinly drawn character in Earl, who basically stands as comic relief, but he milks that for all it’s worth. Meanwhile, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal and Molly Shannon populate the world with supporting characters that are either perfectly weird, or completely earnest.

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Even with all of these really strong pieces, there are some moments in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that ultimately betray the potential of what they’re going for. By the end of the movie, the sharp bite from before takes a back-seat to some more conventional heart string tugging that feels a little bit out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie. Also, while the film making aspect of the story is one of the most fun tricks in the hat, the creative process of making Rachel’s movie should have been focused on a little more. There could have been some really interesting moments as Greg and Earl try to figure out how to extract some emotion that doesn’t feel forced out of this project (much like the filmmakers themselves are trying to do) but ultimately it just gets glossed over leading to a disappointing final product that has nearly zero explanation as to why Greg decided to choose the images that he did.

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While it ultimately undercuts itself a bit in the final stretch, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a spectacularly entertaining movie up until then. It understands that it’s audience has grown weary of the story it’s trying to tell, and as such makes it’s own story feel that much more authentic by comparison. Mann, Cooke, Cyler and Gomez-Rejon certainly have bright futures ahead of them, and something tells me even this isn’t the absolute best they are capable of, even if it is pretty damn good. All I can say is, Paper Towns, you’d better bring it.

Rating: A-

Dope Review

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In every decade, there are certain movies that act as time capsules. They reflect exactly where we are in that day and age, warts and all. Later on, we look back on these films with the same admiration we had for them before but with a side of shame as we wonder just what the hell we were thinking. Dope not only seems aware that it could very well be one of these films in the future, but also seems intent on reflecting on exactly what it means to be nostalgic towards another time in the first place, and how new generations mold their identity more and more based on what the previous ones achieved. However, none of that would ultimately matter very much if Dope was not a good movie, and fortunately, it’s a pretty great one.

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Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a teenage boy who feels utterly out of place in the world he lives in. A geek obsessed with 90s rap culture living in a harsh Los Angeles town where he can’t even enter school without walking through a metal detector, Malcolm has his mind focussed on the future, wanting more than anything to be a man of Harvard. That being said, he certainly isn’t getting out of here in the near future, so he along with his two buddies in punk rock Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) pass the time goofing around, hopefully avoiding getting beat up. That is until Dom (ASAP Rocky), a local gangster, pulls the three of them into a party that results with Malcolm getting stuck with a backpack full of drugs that everybody seems to want, forcing our three heroes to grow a spine at long last to get themselves out of their predicament.

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If there’s any name that needs to be learned by the end of this review, it is that of writer/director Rick Famuyiwa. In both a comedic and dramatic vein, he proves himself a master storyteller with this film. From the first frame, every little bit of motion is injected with kinetic energy. Taking a hint from such directors as Edgar Wright, and Phil Lord/Chris Miller, Famuyiwa masterfully incorporates visual and editing cues to sell jokes and scenarios. Everything is perfectly larger than life, making the story feel fable-like without ever going over the top. However, he also knows when to pull back a little and let a scene breathe, and in the film’s few dramatic moments, he lets what the characters have to say be the star, and man, do these characters have a lot to say.

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Famuyiwa makes a point in ensuring that whether a character is one of the leads, or just an ancillary piece of the scene, they always have something funny or interesting to say. These people feel like they live in our world, constantly making pop culture references to fuel their points, or occasionally going off on hilarious tangents even in moments of high tension. They hit a perfect balance between natural and heightened that is only aided further by wonderful performances by the entire cast. Shameik Moore in particular is a stand-out, never Malcolm into a stereotype of any form, melding a quiet charm with a confidence that makes us root for him. He also has fantastic chemistry with Clemons and Revolori, some of the movie’s strongest moments being when the three of them are firing off at each other. There are moments where certain characters feel a little too broad, bringing the comedy down a bit, but normally the film is on to something else by the time one would process that.

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For all of it’s eccentricity, Dope does loose a bit of fuel as it goes on. There’s a shift in the narrative in the second half that starts to drain a bit of the comedic power that the first half has. It certainly still manages to have plenty of great moments, but all of a sudden, a story that felt like it was moving a million miles an hour starts to stall to about a hundred thousand. There are one or two scenes that are certainly well directed, but feel a bit out of place with what the rest of the film seems to do or say, and by the time we reach the home stretch, Famuyiwa misses a couple opportunities to walk off stage on a powerful note, instead opting for a more conventional ending that feels the need to tie up every loose end.

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Perhaps the greatest achievement of Dope is that there is nothing quite like it. Famuyiwa incorporates elements of broad, satirical comedy with that of the type of racially/culturally charged tale that normally finds itself with a place on oscar night to create something completely original. It’s not a parody, simply a new perspective on these stories that we haven’t gotten yet, and considering how well the final product has come together, I cannot wait to see what Famuyiwa will take on next.

Rating: A-

Inside Out Review

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It’s hard to imagine that we live in a time where Pixar, once thought of as the most unstoppable force of quality working in the movies, has a lot to prove. Known for bold originality and deeply touching storytelling, they tapped into the creative minds of a young and hungry new generation. However, all streaks of greatness eventually have to come to an end, and with Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University all disappointing audiences, it seemed as though the great cartoonists had perhaps drawn their final masterpiece. “Not so!” cries Pixar, determined to re-capture the magic they once harnessed so effortlessly with Inside Out, which inspired optimism right off the bat with the most fun Pixar premise in quite some time.

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That premise takes place both inside and outside the mind of 12 year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who unfortunately has to leave her cute, sleepy little town in Minnesota for San Francisco when her father (Kyle MacLachlan) has to take a new job. Meanwhile, Riley’s five emotions (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), all man a control console inside of her mind that determines every action she takes. Naturally, Joy tries to take an optimistic lead to this new change, but when Sadness accidentally tampers with Riley’s core memories, it sends her entire mental state out of balance, and results in her and Joy being cast out onto the islands that make up Riley’s personality. While her more negative emotions try to keep up a front to damaging effect, it becomes up to Joy and Sadness to get back to the control room before Riley’s entire life completely unravels.

Inside Out does a wonderful job of building the world inside Riley’s brain, deftly blending hefty physiological concepts with sharp comedy. There’s something inventive and new around every turn, and each realm of the brain from the abstract to the subconscious is beautifully designed and animated, projecting Riley’s childlike innocence through colorful, extremely detailed realms. These places not only lead to great comedy (especially involving the little people who do tiny odd jobs within the brain) but as Riley’s innocence starts to break down piece by piece, it makes the emotional impact all the more potent, as the loss of our own colorful little worlds in favor of something more cynical is a concept that will touch each audience member in a different way.

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Even though our characters are by default relegated to one emotion, both the script and actors do a fantastic job of making each of them easy to care about. It never seems like they are just flat characters made to feel one way and one way only. Each of them care deeply about Riley, and express that care in different ways. Poehler’s Joy is the obvious stand out. The comedianne channels the warm persona that made Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation so lovable, while giving Joy enough depth beyond her optimistic persona to make us want to follow her. Smith, who gets to spend the majority of the film playing off Poehler as her literal polar opposite, also scores here with a sweet turn that makes us empathize with Sadness even if she is a bit of a klutz. Hader, Black, and Kaling are mostly there to provide laughs, and completely deliver. Even though these are all very recognizable comedic voices, it’s never distracting. They embody these characters completely, and sell every single gag.

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In fact, the stuff going on inside Riley’s head is often so strong that what’s going on outside suffers a little by comparison. While I can certainly empathize with the emotional plight of moving away from home (having done it myself at around the same age), it would not have hurt to have some slightly higher stakes to elicit such a drastic reaction in Riley’s brain. While it can certainly be argued that a child’s brain takes things harder than an adult’s, one more sucker punch would have sealed the deal just a little bit more. With that said, although the movie’s general trajectory is fairly predictable, it rarely feels contrived, as it’s often too busy making it’s audience laugh or chocking them up.

Inside Out is not only the kind of kids movie that gives the genre a good name, but it is by far Pixar’s strongest effort in many years. Smart, hilarious, and at times deeply touching, it tackles some really complicated themes in a way that is universally understandable. Unlike a certain other movie involving small yellow things that makes loud noises, it treats it’s target audience like human beings, and knows in it’s heart that they will follow along with a good story. It doesn’t matter what age somebody is, they will find something to relate to in this film, if they just let the little people inside of their own mind sit back and absorb it.

Rating: B+

Jurassic World Review

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The original Jurassic Park is the type of blockbuster that every generation only gets a few of. An iconic, groundbreaking roller coaster ride that used technology in new ways that inspired wonder in all who saw it. A lofty legacy to be sure, and certainly one that the previous two sequels, The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3 were not able to fully deliver on. Well, we’re now fourteen years on from the last attempt, and indie darling and genre film lover Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has taken it upon himself to to buck that trend, and give us the true sequel that a masterpiece such as the original deserves. It’s a lofty goal for any filmmaker, especially for one so fresh in his career, and as such it is easy to go into this film hoping for the best, but bracing for disappointment.

…as long as you don’t mind having Trevorrow laugh in your face afterwards

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The story, which is certainly the most inventive of the Jurassic sequels, fully realizes John Hammond’s dream of a completely operational theme park where genetically revived dinosaurs wow thousands of visitors every day. Or at least, they used to. It seems as though the park has been up and running for too long, with people reacting like they’re at any other Sea World type affair. This deeply dismays Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), an operations manager determined to increase attendance by any means necessary, even if it means creating a horrifying new species called the Indominus Rex through lab experimentation. Meanwhile, Raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) warns against this experimentation, and is proven right when the Indominus Rex gets loose, and starts creating murderous mayhem in the densely populated theme park. 

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Jurassic World impresses almost immediately with its thoughtful and multi-faceted story. Trevorrow knows all too well that we’ve now seen CGI creatures in what seems like a million and ten other blockbusters, and brilliantly has the world of the film reflect this. The park goers indifference to these majestic creatures is our indifference, creating an undercurrent of satire that sometimes bites harder than the creatures themselves. As a side dish, we even have some deeply intriguing conversations about the militarization of these creatures, courtesy of Vincent D’Onofrio’s gung-ho security head, that in turn bleed into the film’s theme of animal cruelty. Even when the movie wobbles a bit, which certainly does happen from time to time, it will often make up for it with just how fascinating some of the ideas presented are.

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The characters are also nicely developed and portrayed for the most part. Anyone thinking that Chris Pratt needs to rely on his lovably goofy persona of Parks and Recreation or Guardians of the Galaxy is in for a very pleasant surprise here. Owen takes his role as Raptor trainer very seriously, and Pratt pulls us in by giving his empathy for these creatures total authenticity. Everything from the cadence he speaks in, to his vibrant hand gestures when taking, along with his sheer presence in the action sequences completely sell us this guy as a hero we can get behind, without constantly having his previous work run through the back of our minds. If there was any doubt that this guy could be Indiana Jones, that’ll stop here. Dallas Howard is given a bit more of a shrill stereotype to play, and as such has to fight to give her moments of spontaneity and humor, but she manages get some good moments in even if perhaps she does not have the chemistry with Pratt that the film wants us to think she does. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson adding a nice touch of humanity as Claire’s two nephews who are trapped in the park, Jake Johnson giving us some laughs, and D’Onofrio playing the commanding villain that he could probably give us in his sleep by now.

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Although there is a great deal of character and story development here, don’t think for a second that this film skimps on the action. In fact, Trevorrow orchestrates several of the year’s most thrilling set-pieces here. This is a monster movie through and through, and that will not be forgotten once the action gets going. The dinosaurs are portrayed not as video game obstacles, but vicious, relentless creatures who mangle their victims to awesomely brutal effect. The violence here is not only showy, but it’s visceral. No matter how minor the person dying is, we feel the impact of each chomp on their spine. It truly does feel like a thrill ride, constantly escalating to a climax that is simply beyond words. It’s over the top genre movie cheese, but because we care about this story and the people in it, it becomes awesome over the top genre cheese.

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The whole experience is so much fun that it’s genuinely hard to really find issues within it. Mostly, they lie in small things that perhaps could have been better, but ultimately don’t hurt very much at all. The first twenty minutes or so have a couple of clunky scenes that feel like a dumping ground for all of the exposition so we won’t have to bother with it later. It’s nothing horrible, just a bit sloppy. This is where the weakness in Howard’s character is felt the most as well, making it hard to empathize with her quite as much as the rest of the cast (which the film is even smart enough to acknowledge. Also, the design of the Indominus Rex is slightly disappointing, and for all the mayhem it causes, some more invention in that creature would be welcome to make it truly memorable.

Slight nitpicks aside, Jurassic World emerges as the most entertaining blockbuster of the summer so far, and an absolute slam dunk for Trevorrow. The perfect mix of brains and brawn, it proves to be a more than worthy successor to its iconic grandaddy. It’s the first movie in a long time that gave me the feeling of being on a roller coaster, reminding me of why I love huge summer movies so much, in a season where I could really use a reminder. My recommendation, buy an annual pass to this park, because you’re going to want to come back a couple of times.

Rating: A-

Spy Review

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If there’s any type of comedy that to me is completely played out, it’s the spy spoof. I mean, how many times can one possibly send up the troupes of Bond and Mission:Impossible by having a goofy protagonist bumble through a routine version of those stories. Enter Melissa McCarthy, who is perhaps Hollywood’s most popular bumbler at the moment, and director Paul Feig, who previously helmed the abysmal Bridesmaids (yeah, I said it) and you could say this was a recipe for disaster from square one.

…which makes how good this movie is all the more fascinating.

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We start off with Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a mild mannered tech assistant at an espionage agency, crushing on Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the sexy and arrogant top spy. The two make a good team, but he’s also got her deep in the friend zone. However, when Bradley goes missing at the hands of evil billionaire Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who has collected the identities of all of the top agents, it is up to Susan to find him. Despite the fact that she excelled in her combat training, her appearance draws the skepticism of the whole agency, particularly Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who is trying to solve the case on his own despite being compromised.

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What makes Spy work so shockingly well is how it manages to side-step all of the pitfalls that normally makes this genre so painful. Most admirably, Feig makes McCarthy’s Susan a competent, if inexperienced hero. Sure, there are a fair amount of pratfalls, but they come from awkwardness stemming from finally being in the field, not from flat out stupidity. The film finds it’s humor through it’s characters, and quirky action sequences, rarely opting for an easy laugh. McCarthy does a wonderful job here, giving us a sweet hero we can easily identify with and root for, while also selling her more kick-ass persona later on. For my money, it’s her best on-screen performance yet, and hopefully she will learn from this to create less obnoxious characters in the future.

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The supporting players are also uniformly hysterical. Statham in particular is an absolute riot, stealing every scene he’s in as a brilliantly measured send up of his own no nonsense persona. Watching somebody who is normally so controlled be so silly is one of the great joys of this film, and he’s in the movie just enough for that novelty to not wear off. Meanwhile, Byrne makes for a beautifully condescending, icy vixen, who rings big laughs out of her own arrogance, while Law plays the big-headed jock with great bravado. All of these actors play this completely straight, and that’s why it works. In it’s own absurd way, they feel like pieces of a real spy story.

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Feig also does a surprisingly good job at crafting creative action sequences. He infuses each one with not only humor, but genuine invention and choreography, the R-Rating even allowing him to give some weight to the violence. I never thought I would find myself saying that Melissa McCarthy would be involved in one of the best hand to hand combat sequences of the year, or an airplane confrontation that rivals Air Force One, but those are just a couple of the wonderful surprises this movie has in the action department. The only sequence that is a little generic is the climax, which is not only cliched, but pulls majorly from a much better executed sequence from last year’s 22 Jump Street.

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Feig also just can’t himself from exposing his greatest flaw as a director in certain sequences, extended improv sequences that go on for far too long. These moments of extended riffing without any judicious editing is what killed Bridesmaids, and it’s what seriously hurts a couple moments here. Even when the joke being extended is funny, it will often go on for so long with these actors saying different forms of the same thing that it’ll start to deflate the laughs right before your eyes. I really hope that Feig seriously works on this before he takes on Ghostbusters, as that film is going to require quicker, more nimble timing.

Spy is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. McCarthy is finally given a role that suits her without turning her into an obnoxious bore, and the spy genre is finally sent up in a way that is both inventive and funny. Sure, Feig will get in his own way from time to time, but he also pulls off some wonderful summer blockbuster moments. It’s certainly his strongest effort so far, and a film that is worth checking out. Like it’s protagonist, it dosen’t look up to the task, but proves the opposite in spades.

Rating: B+

Aloha Review

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If there were ever a king of Hollywood sentimentality, it would be Jerry Maguire/Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe. Sure, his movies are cornier than an Oklahoma garden, but they generally are full of compelling characters that make us want to take a bite out of his delicious cheese. Here, he perhaps has one of his best opportunities in recent years, not only employing the beautiful sea-side setting of Hawaii, but also one of the strongest casts to find themselves in a romantic comedy in quite some time. With all that said, it becomes even more of a puzzle when wondering exactly what the hell happened in creating this mess.

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Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor with a reputation for failure who arrives in Hawaii to negotiate a land deal with a group of locals, so that billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray) has the proper space to launch a weapons heavy satellite into space. Escorting him is Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a gung-ho captain with a spunky spirit and a genuine love for her people, who both clashes and bonds with Brain’s cynical demeanor. Meanwhile, Brain encounters his ex girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who is having trouble communicating with her mostly silent military husband Woody (John Krasinski).

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At one point in the film after a sharp exchange, Allison looks at Brian and says the cringeworthy line “thank you for the camaraderie sir.” This highlights the most glaring problem with Aloha, the script, written by Crowe, is so overwritten that it sounds more like a romantic comedy cartoon than anything else. There are so many attempts at witty banter here that sound completely forced, with characters blatantly stating exactly how they feel, and exactly how they are. It dosen’t feel like smart people batting back and forth, but a writer trying to channel his different points of view into different characters. Meanwhile, the movie does such a poor job of explaining exactly what it is that Brian does, and why exactly he’s there that it is very easy to just tune out anything but the human stuff, which becomes a problem later on when the two start to merge. This is especially odd, since Crowe has done such a wonderful job of taking viewers into unconventional jobs in the past. It feels like a vague mush of what it’s supposed to be, almost as if this is the first and only draft of the script that was written.

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Fortunately, despite an awful script, we do have great leads who make the best of stock characters. Cooper’s Brian is cynical and smarmy to the point of irritation, but he’s so charismatic that he turns some of Brain’s worst moments into victories through his comedic delivery. It’s not that Brian is a horrible person, he just seems like a slightly toned down version of Cooper’s own Pat from Silver Linings Playbook, but that character had a mental disorder to excuse his odd bluntness. It does help that he has electric chemistry with Stone, who is really the highlight of the film as the adorable Ng. This is the one character who really works (even despite the line mentioned earlier), coming across as genuinely optimistic without seeming overly sugary. The movie is at it’s strongest when it puts Cooper and Stone in a room, and lets them go. At the very least they can power through the bad dialogue. The same cannot exactly be said for McAdams, who is simply given too bland of a character to really do anything with, which mostly goes for the rest of the cast too, especially Murray, who could have been replaced with a stick as far as I’m concerned. ngglasses

Crowe is a bit of a disaster behind the camera here. Not only does he not really take advantage of his lush setting, mostly having characters pay lip service to the mythology of Hawaii without visually complementing it, but the whole film just looks bland. There’s no flair to the cinematography here, and as such, it might as well have taken place in a metropolitan city for all the difference it makes. As a matter of fact, the only shot that tries to do something different, is a nauseating handheld long-take at the beginning of the film that winds through the heads, shoulders, knees, and toes of the characters as they meet. It’s a real shame, as this could have at the very least been his most beautiful looking piece to date. Aloha is like a beautiful seven day vacation that unexpectedly gets cancelled after one day, leading it’s takers to rush through what they were planning on doing in an attempt to see everything. It’s a rather terribly written film that only manages to be sweet or funny when it’s charismatic leads have the floor. My recommendation, just go to Hawaii yourself if you can, I hear it’s nice this time of year.

Rating: D+

Poltergeist (2015) Review

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If there’s anything that seems to be universally agreed on by critics and fans alike, it’s the vitriol towards remakes. This hatred seems to particularly goes toward re-toolings of horror films, with only a few receiving any sort of praise. I on the other hand find myself looking forward to remakes more often than not. Sure, lots of them simply re-hash what we’ve seen before, but every so often one will come along that manages to stand right along side the original as a nice companion piece. Sam Rami’s Ghost House productions certainly achieved this with their fabulously grisly new version of evil dead, and now they hope to work the same magic on perhaps the most popular family horror film, 1982’s Poltergeist.

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This version opens with the Bowen family heading for a new start. Eric (Sam Rockwell) has just gotten laid off and is looking for work, while his wife Amy (Rosemarie Dewitt) works on a book and attends to their three children. It might be hard, but things are starting to look up a little, with the exception for the angry spirits who start haunting them. These guys start out as “imaginary friends” to Madison (Kennedi Clements), the youngest child, and ultimately end up taking her into their world, causing the rest of the family to desperately turn to paranormal investigators, lead by TV personality Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) to get her back.

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One challenge that a modern day Poltergeist faces is how to differentiate itself from not only the original, but the Insidious series, which is basically it’s current equivalent. Fortunately, Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) finds the answer through a great deal of humanity and humor. From the moment this movie starts, this family feels completely authentic, not weighed down by the contrived problems that many horror movie families have. Sure, they fight, but they also apologize and work together just as much, and that makes all the difference. Rockwell and Dewitt anchor these interactions beautifully, interacting with their children in a sardonic and fun manner while still very much conveying how much these two care about the people they love most.

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Since we like these people so much, it provides ample opportunity for some wickedly funny moments. It ranges from the family interactions, to slight moments of levity within the suspense, but it gives the proceedings a much more natural feeling than they would otherwise. Harris is also a hoot here, giving us a perfect balance between a cocky ratings jockey, and a headstrong leader who genuinely cares about getting Madison back.

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Where the film starts to weaken a bit is in the actual horror itself. While there’s certainly a solid dose of atmosphere, often times it is done a disservice by hokey looking visual effects that seem straight out of a cartoon. The Bowens never seem to be threatened by anything Danny Phantom couldn’t handle and as such, the fear never really connects. It dosen’t help that Griffin (Kyle Catlett) has an extreme fear of just about everything in the world, and his constant cattle wailing just isn’t supported by enough creepiness to feel earned. Fortunately, the film is constantly so much fun, that it’s hard to get mad at the fact that it isn’t quite as scary as it perhaps thinks it is.

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Poltergeist does not possess the chops that made the original such a delightfully creepy slice of vintage horror. However, it does serve as a nice counterpart to that film by injecting a little more humor and naturalism into the story, which in itself creates a nice new take on the story. It may not rattle horror buffs, but if there is a child out there who finally wants to check out his first horror film in the theater, they could do a hell of a lot worse than this.

Rating: B