It Follows Review

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Horror films have always seemed to want to do nasty things to those folks who like to do the nasty. The teen couple who have sex in the woods are the first to get butchered, and if you do get yourself far enough to find a baby in your belly, it’s likely to be the antichrist. Since this trope is so ubiquitous, it’s shocking that it’s taken until It Follows for a horror film to truly delve into it. Sure, it dosen’t have a ghost in it, so it can’t be released wide in this climate, but quite honestly this film dosen’t seem to really care, yearning to bring back the style and tone of a vintage John Carpenter , or Tobe Hooper classic with a modern twist.

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We kick things off with Jay (Maika Monroe) about to go on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a fairly mysterious man who she’s just met. All seems fine and dandy between them, but Jay notices some strange behavior when Hugh seems to see people that she dosen’t. Unsure what to make of it, she goes ahead and has sex with him anyway, sealing her doom. You see, Hugh is infected with something of an STD (Sexually Transmitted Demon, if you will) that can take the form of any person, and will follow him and now Jay wherever they go. The only solution is to pass it along to somebody else, and even that will prove ineffective if the monster ends up catching and killing them.

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It Follows seeps into its audience’s sense of paranoia, and slowly spreads until it consumes the mind completely. From the moment Jay is infected, there is always someone lurking towards her, slowly but surely, ready to destroy her. It’s not a matter of these creatures making scary faces, or jumping out at random points, but the fact that they’re simply always there. Director David Robert Mitchell clearly has a great liking for a more classical, slow burn horror, and every single one of his scare set ups are all the more effective because of it. He unsettles by making no location safe, giving even the calmer scenes an added element of creepiness. I found myself searching for danger in each and every corner of the frame, knowing full well that the threat just might be lurking in the distance with the surreal, occasionally dizzying camerawork and blasting electronic score aiding the proceedings every step of the way.

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The performances are a solid cut above what you’d expect in a movie like this, subdued and authentic while still portraying the raw terror this situation would entail. Monroe in particular is not only stunning to look at, but has a deeply relatable presence that makes us intuitively care about her. It helps that she has a very solid group of young actors to play off of, and the film wisely avoids the trite family/friend tension that plagues so many cheep slasher films. Sure, these guys will bicker from time to time, but it occurs naturally in the scene, and not because of some forced reason in the script to add false drama. The only weak link is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a longtime friend of Jay and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) who’s constant yearning for Jay’s attention even at the most inopportune times grows tiresome.

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The only major issue comes in the film’s setting, which is some oddly ambiguous rung between yesteryear and today. Vintage TVs, movies, and cars run amuck, but so do cell phones and strange make-up mirrors that serve as mini Kindles for some reason. The older ascetics certainly aren’t a problem, but it would have been nice if the film had just committed to one time period, preferably around the 80s, as the heavily synth based score meshes beautifully there.

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Coming out of It Follows, I had it’s creepy imagery and deeply unsettling music running though my mind for hours on end. I was disturbed, but I also knew that I had just had a great time. It’s a film that is constantly keeping it’s audience guessing, disturbing them one minute, and then making them laugh the next, leading to a wonderfully entertaining experience at the movies. It’s one of the best, most original horror films that has come out of this decade, and whether you check it out now or use it for some added creeps around Halloween time, you owe it to yourself to see just how much a filmmaker who truly embraces his genre can bring to his material.

Rating: A-

Run All Night Review

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Judging from recent comments from elite level actor turned actor star Liam Neeson, his run as an ass kicker is nearing its end. After all, the man has to watch out for his health and certainly couldn’t be believable pummeling thug’s heads in ten years on. However, I’m starting to believe that he’s also thinking about giving up the way of the gun because quite simply, people are starting to tire of it, as there are only so many Taken 3s we can withstand. So considering that from this moment forward, any Neeson action outing could be his last, it’s about time that he start making them count!

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Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson), a former mob enforcer who has descended into alcoholism in light of his estrangement from his son Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is trying to lay low and live out the rest of his days without any more bloodshed. It seems to be working, even if he has to take the odd job as a Santa Claus for a mob christmas party now and again, until Michael happens upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong at the hand of Jimmy’s boss and best friend Shawn’s (Ed Harris) son Danny (Boyd Holbrook). When Jimmy finds himself having to kill Danny to protect Michael, the two men find themselves having to go on the run from Shawn’s murderous wrath, as well as the ensuing sea of police that start to follow the trail of blood.

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From the moment that Ed Harris barks at a group of drug dealers to leave his quarters because he is a “legitimate businessman” it becomes pretty clear that we’re getting nothing particularly new in Run All Night. It’s not a terrible surprise, since Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have collaborated twice before on Unknown, and Non-Stop, which were both fairly standard as far as plot is concerned. However, as in those two films, this duo understands that if you’re going to do something generic, the least you can do is infuse it with a little energy of some kind. In Unknown and Non-Stop, they weaved winding mysteries for Neeson’s characters to solve, and here, it’s a palpable attention that is paid to character.

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Even when the basic premise here is at it’s most trite, what tends to save this film are the rather interesting dynamics that run though it. Sure, the estranged father and son trope isn’t anything particularly new, the movie isn’t satisfied to leave the conflict at the tired and true “you were never here daddy” cliche. Neeson and Kinnaman portray the rift with a solid amount of grit, and as we find out just how far into depravity Neeson slipped, the tension between the two becomes all the more understandable. It dosen’t just slip into the two of them being best friends when the plot suddenly needs it to, but allows mere begrudging respect guide Michael to see things his father’s way for one night. This is wonderfully paralleled with Harris, who gives a wonderful performance here as he experiences the hurt involved in trying to kill somebody he holds dear, because of what that person happened to do to his own flesh and blood. This constant ray of doubt runs through him more and more as the film goes on, and ensures that he never becomes just another cardboard villain.

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If anything, things just become boring once they do have to go into action. Neeson just seems tired with these types of sequences at this point, infusing almost none of the emotion that he brought to these scenes in earlier films, instead just going through the motions of what he has to do to move things forward. The set-ups aren’t anything to get excited about here either, with the standard close quarters fights, car chases, and shoot outs that we’ve even seen in other Neeson/Serra films. This story really could have benefitted from that extra jump start of style and emotion, and because it’s deprived of that, it little by little falls into the category of generic action film #50067. There’s also some pretty damn lousy editing, to the point where shots will repeat two or three times without any attempt to cover it up, and some choppy cutting in the tighter fights to cover up lousy choreography.

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There is certainly an attempt to bring something to Run All Night that stems beyond the blood and the bullets, and that is very appreciated. However, it all ultimately falls a bit flat due to phoned in execution, that really dosen’t seem to want to elevate the material above what is simply a passible TNT action movie. Neeson certainly is watchable, but I look forward to a long break from seeing him in these types of roles, as they just don’t seem to give him the cathartic rush that they used to, and hopefully, taking something a bit more intimate and character focussed will bring the master in him out once again.

Rating: B-

Chappie Review

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In 2009, at the tail end of a particularly mediocre summer, the world was treated to one of the most innovative films of the decade. This little 30 million dollar sci-fi flick, by the name of District 9, combined some of the richest alien mythology ever put on screen with thoughtful social commentary on the horrors of Apartheid, and it’s director Neill Blomkamp, was lauded as the next Ridley Scott. Six years, and one somewhat disappointing (but still enjoyable) follow up by the name of Elysium later, and we find ourselves at Chappie, Blomkamp’s final training run before he takes 0n something bigger with the iconic Alien franchise.

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Chappie takes place in around 2020 or so in a South Africa (what a surprise…) where some of the police force has been replaced with droids created by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), with a fair amount of success. However, Deon has bigger plans in mind, as he’s created the first fully functioning program for artificial intelligence, but unfortunately, his fickle boss (Sigourney Weaver) won’t give him anything to test it on. Taking matters into his own hands, he steals a partially destroyed droid, but as he’s on his way to test it, he’s kidnapped by three gangsters. These guys (two of which are played by and share the same names as Ninja and Yolandi from the rap duo Die Antwoord) need ten million dollars before an evil mob boss kills them, and they think that the childlike Chappie (Sharlto Copley), the being that Deon ultimately creates, just might be the thing to help them pull of the perfect heist.

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Chappie certainly isn’t breaking any new ground conceptually, as the whole childlike robot growing into itself trope has been mauled over time and time again. However, Blomkamp seems very aware of this, and is determined to take Chappie in thoughtful and original directions throughout. This is his somber, darkly humorous, hard-R version of a fairy tale, and as such it really does work.

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It certainly helps that Chappie is such a fascinating character, a childlike mind constantly being ripped between different ideologies. Deon wants him to engage his creativity, Yolandi wants him to learn slowly, and Ninja wants him to become tough and ruthless. As an impressionable baby he is constantly trying to adapt to each person, regardless of how smart he ends up becoming. Watching this transformation and conflict is all the more interesting due to Copley’s absolutely wonderful performance, where he not only does brilliant work establishing Chappie’s movement, but by melding innocence with intelligence.

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To my utter surprise, the supporting cast is also very strong. I normally find Dev Patel as bland as a bunch of rocks, but here he gives a rich and soulful turn as a man who just wants his creation to be a good man/robot/whatever, and will stop at nothing to engage Chappie’s morality. Also, while there was a great deal of well founded skepticism in casting Die Antwoord, these two actually ended up being up to the challenge. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not Shakespearian level or anything, but they fit the roles they’re given, making the best of it. Ninja provides some of the film’s biggest laughs with his utter hotheadedness, while Yolandi makes for a very atypical mother figure indeed. They actually seem like real south African gangsters, and not hired actors, which aids authenticity. Hugh Jackman also shows up as the film’s villain, who wants to get his own police robot off the ground by any means necessary, and while it’s a bit of a thin character, he infuses it with the same passion one would expect from him. The only one who is wasted is Weaver, who has such a small and ultimately insignificant role it’s a wonder they even cast her in the first place. Whatever gets her back into space i suppose…

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Where Chappie starts to falter a bit is in it’s acton sequences. Typical of Blomkamp, they’re brutal and well staged, but equally typical, they’re also a bit over stylized for the tone this film is going for. This comes out most in his overuse of slow motion shots, which I suppose is there to highlight the brutality of the violence, but because it’s used so often in other places that are just silly. It comes off as though he’s fettishising the violence a little bit, taking us out of the immediacy of everything and reminding us that we are in a movie. It ultimately undercuts the action sequences that do feel quick and powerful, and makes the whole affair feel a bit overcooked in this respect.

Chappie has been met with a brutally negative reception, with people comparing Blomkamp to the likes M. Night Shyamalan and quite frankly that is simply too harsh for what is such a shot of originality, humor, and pathos in the sci fi genre. Sure, he does ape a couple of the aesthetic choices he has made before, but he’s told an entirely different story. Any movie that has the balls to deal with the corruption of innocence in such a visceral and emotional way is pretty damn good in my book, and as far as I’m concerned, Blomkamp and Copley could make fifty more movies together and I would see each and every one of them.

Rating: B+

Focus Review

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A couple years ago, mega-star Will Smith’s clout almost entirely collapsed when his abysmal father-son day turned flop After Earth made next to nothing at the box office. His ego, which had been built entirely on his ability to always be able to open a movie was crushed, and for a while, he all but completely disappeared. However, he seems to have learned something from his time off, opting to take the Matthew Mcconaughey route and only take roles that really interest him and not worry about the box office so much. With that, we have Focus, the first film of Big Willie 2.0.

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Nicky (Will Smith) has been at the center of a successful group of con artists and thieves for quite some time, mostly running small time heists so they don’t leave too much of a trail. He finds himself intrigued when he comes across Jess (Margot Robbie), a feisty and bubbly crook who has major potential, but is a little rough around the edges. After some convincing, he decides to take her under his wing and train her in the art of the con. The film takes place around two major focal cons in their relationship, one that occurs when they’re hot and heavy, and another a few years after they find themselves having drifted apart.

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From the moment this movie starts, it exudes cool, and that is in large part thanks to Smith, who has not been this much fun to watch in almost a decade. Finally not taking himself so damn seriously, he gets back to the wise cracks and charm that made us love him in the first place, while still brining the pathos to Nicky when it’s needed. It’s more below the surface than some of his other more dramatic roles, but there is a clear and deep sadness in this man that lies below his very together exterior, and that often comes out in very destructive ways. It helps that he’s complimented by Margot Robbie, coming off of her white hot breakout role in The Wolf Of Wall Street, who is also wonderful here. Jess may be innocent at first, but she’s far from stupid, and watching her learn by playing with her fantastic chemistry with Smith is a joy to watch.

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This isn’t a film that just coasts off of the chemistry of it’s leads though, as writer/director duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa craft a deliciously twisty story for our characters to navigate. This isn’t their first rodeo with con men (they also made the wonderful I Love You Phillip Morris), and it shows, as the proceedings manage to be both complex and easy to follow, because these characters are so well crafted that we hang on their every punchy and vulgar word. Fittingly enough, the movie is perfectly focussed, keeping the proceedings on Smith and Robbie while not veering off into too many other subliminal characters and their schemes, as many other con movies have done before.

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Ficarra and Requa also have a lot of fun with the ascetics here, shooting everything with a distinct look that makes the film look like it was pulled out of the 70s or 80s. It’s a slightly muggier, darker looking film than we’re used to seeing these days, and that reflects our characters wonderfully. Beyond that, they craft some wonderfully imaginative sequences here, some involving cons, and one in particular involving a car crash that would not feel out of place in a Scorsese movie.

 

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Focus is exactly the film Will Smith needed to make his way back into the limelight, providing him with his best role and film in years. It’s a stylish, arousing, and above all, fun time at the movies bolstered by a sharp script by two filmmakers who just seem to be getting better and better, and an electric dynamic between Smith and Robbie. After this, I’m even more excited about the prospect of these two playing Deadshot and Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, and I get the impression many others will be too.

Rating: A-

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water Review

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If there is one cartoon that next to everyone in my generation feels attached to in some way, it’s Spongebob. The perfect alchemy of absurdity and cleverness, this hyperactive sea sponge and his group of friends kept us laughing all through our formative years, to the point where most of us never really outgrow it so much as don’t obsessively watch the episodes anymore because society told us to grow up. Thankfully, we have a chance to harken back to those days with the long overdue sequel to the original 2004 film. Going in, I was expecting a breezy return to a simpler time, but that’s not exactly what I got. In fact, if there was a more accurate title for this movie, it would be The Spongebob Movie: Decent Into Madness, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

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The most accurate plot summary of this film would simply be me running around a room while breaking things, but since this is the written word, I’ll try my best. We reunite with the people of Bikini Bottom in what seems like a fairly average day, with Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) whipping out the old WW2 artillery to protect the Krusty Krab’s Krabby Patty formula from Plankton (Mr. Lawrence). However, this attempt proves unsuccessful, and Plankton manages to get his hands on it, and in a tussle with Spongebob, somehow manages to phase it out of existence entirely. Now that Krabby Patties can’t be made, society is thrown into anarchy, and Spongebob with Plankton’s help must find a way to track down the formula and restore order.

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Basically, this movie is Spongebob on steroids. Unlike the first movie, which really tried to string things together with something of a story, this is just an hour and a half of utter insanity that just gets crazier, and crazier as it goes on. In the span of about an hour, we cover Time Travel, Interstellar Guardians (yes, space is in the ocean), and because of the leather filled apocalypse, far more BDSM than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. This overwhelming stimulation drew me in like a lightning rod, I couldn’t take my eyes off this thing. Not just because of the crazy visual places it goes, but because of the gorgeous 2D animation used throughout most of the film, such a rarity these days.

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It also helps that most of the jokes really land. Whether it’s because of sheer randomness, a fun meta jab lampooning that this is in fact a movie, or just a well written pun, it’s clear that as scatterbrained as it was, some genuine thought went into this. Sure, it does stoop to some typical bathroom humor every so often, which is purely for the young ones, but it’s not pervasive enough to really be an issue. This movie takes your brain, puts it in a blender, and then turns it upside down, so it could also be that the humor comes from a bit of minor Stockholm syndrome.

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The only time the movie really slows down is the much advertised live action segment. This portion does not take up as much of the film as the trailers would suggest, in fact, it’s only about a third but it just dosen’t work. The lightning fast pace of the jokes really dosen’t translate between mediums, and since the whole thing is basically an extended battle with a pirate named Burgerbeard (played by a beautifully hammy Antonio Banderas), it ultimately ends up being a little boring. It dosen’t help that the CGI renderings of the characters just look ugly, and never feel like they’re really meshing with the world. It looks and feels like a bad TV special.  However by that point, any brain function you have will be melted anyway, so you’ll probably just enjoy it also.

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Sponge Out of Water is essentially a feature length version of a short film made for a motion simulator ride at Universal Studios. It’s relentlessly hyperactive, gloriously trippy, and above all, just plain funny. It may not be quite as clever as the glory days of the show, or the first movie for that matter, but while watching it, none of that will be coming to mind anyway. As far as off switches for the brain go, this is just about the best thing out there right now.

Rating: B+

What We Do In The Shadows Review

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When a genre becomes played out, the only real thing left to do is bust it wide open with an all parody. What We Do In The Shadows finds itself fortunate in this regard, as the vampire movie craze is gasping for air as shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries start fade into their Twilight years, while the found footage genre feels more and more trite with each passing go at it. With all of that, along with cult comedy icon Jermaine Clement and frequent collaborator Taika Waititi behind the camera, all the ingredients for a wonderful comedy are certainly locked and loaded. Does it deliver?

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Vampires Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) live together in a small flat in Wellington. Presumably having spent enough time anguishing over the horrors of living forever, they’ve decided to just have a good time together instead (presuming Deacon has finally gotten around to washing the blood stained dishes) , and have hired a documentary crew to film them as they go about their nights. Their lives do become a touch more complicated when they accidentally turn Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a bro-y dolt they try to kill one evening into a vampire, and have to teach him the responsibilities that come with his affliction.

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What We Do In The Shadows does get some major points for originality. While Vampires have certainly been lampooned before, never has there been such a naturalistic approach to it. If these guys weren’t mutilating unsuspecting victims, or making servants mow their lawn with the promise of eternal life, one might even forget they are creatures of the night at all. This stems a great deal from the warm chemistry of the three leads, who all dive deeply into their roles and clearly have a whole ton of fun (Clement in particular). We get the sense that these guys love each other in their own morbid way, and we get to know quite a bit about how their past tragedy has shaped them, even if they’ve had plenty of time to get over it.

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Unfortunately, as this is a comedy, I have to judge it on how funny I found it, and most of the jokes in this simply didn’t hit for me. It’s certainly not completely unfunny, with some of the character dynamics working, and a particularly unique take on werwolves nearly always scoring, but for the most part, this thing is swinging and missing. A lot of it just feels like extended sketch comedy, with these guys throwing every idea for a joke they have at the screen without much holding it together. It comes off as mugging a lot of the time, and that kind of thing just rarely appeals to me.

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Ultimately this fairly weak structure comes from the need to make this a found footage film, and if Clement and Waititi had dropped that idea, they really could have something here. This needed a real story driving this world forward, to really highlight these character interactions and flesh out the universe. That way, even in the scenes where the jokes aren’t quite hitting, the film could ride higher off of it’s originality. As it is, it just feels like a bunch of friends got together and made a really expensive home movie.

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This certainly isn’t a film that made me mad. The company is clearly trying here, and I can say that for the majority of the people I saw this film with, it was firing on all cylinders. It just didn’t quite gel for me, which is a shame, because I certainly wanted to have fun with this. With that said, I would certainly recommend checking it out and making a decision for yourself, while I go and find a different comedy that will hopefully work for me more.

Right now the only option seems to be Hot Tub Time Machine 2…this is looking grim.

Rating: C+

Fifty Shades Of Grey Review

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In the midst of the Twilight phenomenon, presumably in a deep, dark hole somewhere, EL James wrote a fan fiction that ended up spouting into three of the most notoriously awful, and yet inexplicably popular book trilogies the world has ever seen. Milking out cash from the utter of bored housewives across America, these novels have managed to transcend endless parody, ridicule, and protest from just about every demographic that it represents, and now they’ve finally got themselves a movie to go along with it, and a fairly stylish looking one at that. Leave it to one brilliant remix of a Beyonce classic to make just about anything look sexy, especially when that anything happens to be this garbage…

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Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a repressed twenty-something journalist living in a small apartment with her best friend Kate (Eloise Mumford). One day, she comes into the interview of her life when she finds herself in the office of billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who seems to take an interest in her. In fact, he takes a bit too much of an interest in her, almost immediately wanting to be everywhere she is, and know everything she does. You see, Christian is a bit of a kinky boy, and he wants Ana to sign a contract that will make her into his own personal submissive sex toy that he’ll then get to experiment on in a place he ever so charmingly refers to as his “playroom.” Yes my friends, Hollywood has heard you loud and clear. Finally, we get a movie where a rich and powerful white man gets to assert dominance over a woman.

Oh wait…

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Believe me, I’m about to take a dump on this movie big enough to give Christian Grey a hard on, but first, let’s give credit where it’s due. For as bad as this movie stays through it’s entirety, the first half manages to transcend this somewhat, with a solid sense of humor making the painful story a little more bearable. Much of this humor comes from Johnson’s performance, who gives Anastasia an understated charm and sly sense of humor that leads to some fun reactionary moments, especially when Christian starts to really get creepy. There’s a couple scenes in here that genuinely work, and it’s when Johnson is allowed to let Anastasia transcend the role the story so desperately wants to force her into, and starts manipulating Christian’s sex drive to a place where it makes her comfortable.  It’s nothing special, and the character will be quick to contradict what she says with what she ends up doing, but at least there is something of a pulse in this thing for a while. Also, while the ending of this film isn’t conclusive (there are two more of these things coming), it sure as hell should be, a gutsy and powerful final note to go out on that sends the right message to it’s target audience.

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What consistently stops up any momentum this has going is not only just how psychotic and creepy Christian Grey is a character, but just how badly Jamie Dornan plays him. Unlike Johnson, he buckles under the terrible material, with not a moment of charm or nuance making his behavior seem even slightly approachable. Grey is marred by a tragic backstory, but he’s such a monster that ultimately, I found myself hoping that even worse had happened to him so he would not be standing in front of me now. He’s flat out creep straight out a horror movie, stalking and inhibiting Anastasia far before the contract is ever even mentioned, and as such, there’s never a moment where we root for these two. It dosen’t help that Johnson and Dornan don’t have a lick of chemistry, with any sexual interplay between the two coming off as completely forced.

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Speaking of that sexual interplay, this movie is about as arousing as an Alabama yard sale. Johnson and Dornan clearly can’t stand each other, and watching them desperately try to force themselves to act horny around each other would be hysterical if it wasn’t so damn boring. Anybody who’s going into this to see some crazy BDSM stuff, look elsewhere, as these scenes barely scratch the surface of what you’re expecting to see. Director Sam Taylor Johnson seems embarrassed that she even has to include these scenes at all, montaging through most of them seemingly trying to get them over with. In fact, it will just make casual viewers wonder why anybody takes part in this, as it makes the act look boring at best, and flat out depressing at worst.

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Fifty Shades of Grey is a repulsive experience at the movies, delivering none of the shock value or intrigue one may expect from something so famous for being erotic.  Beyond that, it’s just a terrible story, with trite character types we’ve all seen before just pacing through the motions, with a particularly reprehensible lead character in Christian Grey. There are so many interesting directions that this could have taken, particularly since our society is more accepting of sexuality than it’s ever been, but we go in none of them here. It dosen’t even work as trashy fun after the first half, ultimately becoming so grim and boring that it’s almost impossible to walk out feeling anything but dirty and sad. If this is what we consider the love story for this day and age, then we as a society have some serious work to do.

Rating: D-

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review

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Normally, I find myself in agreement when a large group of movie fans gravitate towards the work of certain author or artist, but as the years go on I find myself continuously baffled by the fascination with the works of comic writer Mark Millar, author of Kick Ass and Wanted. I won’t deny that there certainly is style to his work, but it continuously comes off as being needlessly mean spirited without anything particularly clever to justify just how extreme his characters, and the action sequences they find themselves in go. As such, I was deeply skeptical and a little annoyed going into Kingsman: The Secret Service. After all, it seemed to basically have the same premise as Wanted, sans assassins with added spies.

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This time, that premise centers on Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a troublemaking street rat with next to nothing to lose despite his impressive intellect and strong acrobatic skill set, that is until he discovers that his birth father is a deceased member of an elite agency of dapper and ruthless spies called The Kingsman. Arriving to tell him all this as well as mentor him is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a man as put together as a world class skyscraper, and as dangerous as a nuclear bomb. With Hart’s recommendation, Eggsy joins a rigorous training program, while vocally challenged billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) plans to wipe out a large portion of the population with mind control SIM cards that make the users violent.

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At the outset, Kingsman seems like yet another over-stylized excuse to blow up heads while dropping F-Bombs. There’s no easing into the movie’s ridiculous world, so the action starts out straight out goofy instantly, and at first, it’s just flat out off-putting Beyond that, the set up for Eggsy’s struggles is beyond cliched, with the whole reckless delinquent with a heart of gold act being beyond played out at this point, but then, Colin Firth shows up…

I’ve been down on Colin Firth for many years, finding him to be a stiff and boring screen presence who just sleepwalks through the same dry British drama over and over again. However, he is an absolute lightning rod here, taking the most endearing parts of his subdued persona, turns them up to eleven, and still appears more relaxed in front of the camera than ever before. Embodying the classic Roger Moore style spy to the best possible degree, while still giving him an edge that those types of characters tend to lack, Firth is the first step in establishing what this movie ends up becoming, a surprisingly clever subversion of typical spy tropes, especially those found in the more classic ones.

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Little by little, the movie’s charm starts to reveal itself, and while there are a couple moments that divert into the typical Millar stupidity, the movie will often wisely sidestep that at just the right moment and do something clever instead. Not only does the story start to take some really nice turns, but the other characters really start to open up too. Egerton proves to be a charming and slyly funny leading man with great star potential here, giving Eggsy just enough humanity to make us identify with him, while also letting him retain a certain hardness somebody of his background would have. Meanwhile, Samuel L Jackson steals every scene he’s in as Valentine, affecting a strange lisp that makes any of his evil monologging flat out hilarious to listen to, even when he actually proves to be a fairly menacing foe. The only one who’s a little wasted here is Michael Caine, who’s given a very stock role as the leader of the Kingsman, with really only one scene to really shine.

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It also helps that comic book movie veteran Matthew Vaughn’s direction here is as slick as it’s ever been. He finds the perfect moments to inject something creative or absurd into the mix (believe me, this film feels like a Zucker brothers parody at times, and a good one at that) while absolutely excelling in the action department.  While all the action sequences here are impressive, with dynamic camerawork  and just the right amount of exaggerated slow motion, special mention must be given to a sequence midway through that involves Colin Firth, a large conjuration of racists, and a classic rock and roll standard. With spot on stunt work (most of it by Firth, which deeply impresses me) and some of the most dynamic fight choreography I’ve seen in years, Vaughn crafts a sequence that puts nearly all of his contemporaries to shame, and makes the price of admission worth it on it’s own.

There are moments where the self awareness does shoot the movie in the foot though. Every so often, characters will speak of other spy movies in a way that just comes off as self congratulatory, like the movie is reviewing itself. It’s a move straight out of the Quentin Tarantino handbook, and it just does not work as well as Vaughn seems to think it does.  Movie, don’t review yourself, that’s my job, just do you.  Thankfully, it’s not too abrasive as to distract from the fun.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service is far from anything we haven’t seen before, but it knows that, and just decides to have fun instead. It starts off very rocky, and sometimes gets a little too in love with itself for it’s own good, but in exchange for something that becomes this funny, and so full of velocity, that is more than forgivable. If anything, it’s made me majorly rethink my opinion on Colin Firth, and hate Mark Millar a little less, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a victory in and of itself.

Rating: B

The Voices Review

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Despite having all the makings of a classical leading man, Ryan Reynolds just cannot seem to find his place in mainstream Hollywood. Especially after the failure of Green Lantern, there seems to be this odd stigma against him that prevents people from even looking forward to his movies, let alone seeing them. The good news is that he seems to have been absorbing that feedback, heading back into the smaller films that impressed people enough to get him blockbuster parts in the first place, and if there’s anything The Voices proves almost right off the bat, this is undoubtably most at home.

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Working in a cheerful little factory in a sleepy small town, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a socially awkward but cheerful man doing his best to fit in. Generally people seem to like him, but Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the woman he’s interested in, senses something a little off about him and is reluctant to pursue him back. Little does she know how off he truly is though, as every night Jerry goes home and begins chatting it up with his docile if dim witted dog Bosco, and his sociopathic cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds) who debate with him about his innermost desires for sex, power, and perhaps above all, murder.

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There are a whole lot of things firing on all cylinders in this crazy little film, but what holds it all together is Reynolds, who turns in what might be the best performance of his career here as Jerry. Shedding the typical wry smart-ass routine he’s made audiences used to over the year, he creates an awkwardness in Jerry that manages to jump from sweet to terrifying with an instants notice. No matter what he’s doing, he’s doing it because he feels like he has to suit his sick fantasies of a perfect world, which becomes quite the predicament when he starts stabbing people to death while profusely apologizing. His voice work is also spot on. Mr Whiskers and Bosco both feel different enough from Jerry to come across as separate characters, while still remaining similar enough to make it continuously clear that they are pieces of his subconscious. It also just so happens that this is a perfect practice run before the takes on the equally deluded Deadpool next year, showing definitively that he has both the timing and the chops to make that character work.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast which includes Arterton, along with Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver definitely takes a backseat here for the most part, but each wring everything they can out of their roles. Arterton in particular goes into some very interesting directions as she becomes more a part of Jerry (in a way I really don’t want to spoil) that let her show off some nice comedic chops. Kendrick is handed a bit of a dull, silly character, but she gives it a sweetness that it would not have had otherwise, while Weaver sobers up the proceedings as Jerry’s therapist.

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The direction here by Marjane Strapi is nothing short of spectacular. By allowing us to both live in the world the way that Jerry sees it when he’s alone, and then breaking away from that delusion when other people enter the fray, she creates a delicate type-rope of degraded comedy as well as genuine emotion. It both perfectly portrays the affliction of schizophrenia, while also poking just enough fun at it to still make things enjoyable. In fact, there really is only one false note struck here at the very end. The horror elements also really work here, with extremely graphic violence at just the right time to allow us to see just how much pain Jerry’s insanity causes. She brings the story to it’s absolutely perfect resolution, and then takes things one step further into absurdity that undercuts things a bit, and even with that being the case, it’s still funny as hell to watch unfold.

A look into the world of mental illness that is both funny and frightening, The Voices is one of the most original movies to come around in ages. It does everything it sets out to do, while proving that Ryan Reynolds is far from an exhausted talent to say the least. It’s not playing in very many theaters at all, but is available on VOD and is well worth the money, as long as you’re willing to gasp in disbelief…a lot.

Rating: A

Jupiter Ascending Review

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If there’s anything that nobody can fault the Wachowski siblings for, it’s a lack of ambition. They’re gone from breaking the bounds of what we perceive to be reality in The Matrix, to smashing together about eight movies in one with Cloud Atlas. Even when they misfire, it’s because they have a genuine appetite for storytelling and ideas. As such, it’s hard to fault them, even as they come off a few misfires, going into this latest space opera offering, because this just might be the one where they finally get it right.

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Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) has been stuck in a rut for her entire life. Her scientist father (James D’Arcy) was murdered before she was born, so she finds herself working day after day as a janitor with her mother. Little does she know, that events are being set in motion that will make her the most important person in the universe, as intergalactic mercenary Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) has been sent by one of the patriarchs of a powerful alien family named Titus (Douglas Booth) to retrieve her, because as fate would have it, Jupiter is the rightful heir to the entire planet Earth. Titus is in competition with his manic brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne), who has even more nefarious intentions in controlling her.

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Story wise, this thing is about as generic as it gets, taking the basic template from pretty much any hero’s journey sci-fi film, and just copy pasting it into it’s world. As such, even though the movie goes to great lengths to really build it’s world, particularly in establishing the apathy and omnipotence of it’s alien races, it ultimately boils down to a generic good vs evil fairy tale. With that said, the attempt to establish a mythos here does not go unappreciated, and trying to figure out exactly what all of these wacky celestials are up to makes for some convoluted fun. It also certainly helps that visually, the worlds in this movie are stunning. Everything from the weapons, to the creatures, to the various environments feel ripped right out of a 70s sci-fi novel, and since we never really get to see these kinds of worlds anymore outside of Star Wars or Star Trek, that is certainly a treat.

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Where the movie really starts to fail is in it’s fairly flat characters. Coming off best by far is Tatum, who’s biggest sin is his fairly stilted line delivery, which seems to be more of a directorial choice to capture his Vulcan like conflict between commitment to his duty, and his growing feelings for Jupiter. However, while he may not always work in the quiet moments, he excels in the action sequences, putting his incredible physical talents on display to give even the most CGI fueled stunts a sense of weight and choreography than another actor might have. Meanwhile Kunis is given an extremely generic character with next to no personality other than to be an audience avatar, and unlike Tatum, she brings none of her own natural talents to the table to compensate. We never really grow to care about Jupiter, as she seems so unimpressed with absolutely every single one of these incredible circumstances around her. Then there’s Eddie Redmayne…oh boy. Plenty of people have gone off on just how awful he is in this role, but really, nobody can do his strange, off-putting impression of Sir Richard Harris as Dumbledore justice, it just has to be seen. Once again, this has to be a matter of direction, as Redmayne has proven that he’s as talented as any actor in the business right now, but he’s going to have a whole lot to prove once again when people see this.

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However, when all else fails the action starts, and these sequences are an absolute shot in the heart. In terms of sheer spectacle, physicality (again, mostly thanks to Tatum), and scale, these are some of the most impressive combat sequences I’ve seen in many months. The Wachowski’s turn into two really imaginative kids playing with their favorite toys here, weaving and bobbing the camera around as we fly and flip along with the action. It’s immersive, exciting, constantly changing, and despite everything wrong with the movie, makes it worth seeing just to take in all the coolness.

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If I had to answer a simple yes or no question of whether or not this film works, I would come to a “no.” However, I can also say that I admire it a great deal more than most seem to, simply based on the ambition that comes so very close to being fully realized here. If Andy and Lana had just paid a little more attention to the people we follow through this world, and aided the performances more, this could have been their next massive smash. As it stands, it’s an enjoyable feast for the eyes, and a guilty pleasure for me if there ever was one.

Rating: B-