Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising Review


When the first Neighbors opened in 2014 and achieved surprise smash hit status, I was a senior in high school. College was just a couple months away, and in many ways, the film confirmed many of the stereotypes that I had held about the life ahead of me. Obviously, my life was about to become a series of wild parties that acted as something of a vacuum until the day that I needed to join society. However, once I actually got on campus, I realized something. The days of the traditional social structure are coming to a close, with social justice (sexism in particular) becoming a major topic of conversation. This brings us to Sorority Rising, a film that has realized how much times have changed even in the short vacuum of 2014 to 2016. If the first installment was a few wistful old men reflecting on their college days, this one is them visiting their campus today.


The story picks up with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) selling their house while also grappling with having another baby on the way. Currently, the house is in escrow, which is all well and good until a new pack of neighbors arrives in the form of a sorority named Kappa Nu. However, Kappa Nu is out for blood as its founder Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is tired of the sexist Greek rule stating that sororities cannot throw parties in their own houses. Unwilling to wait until Mac and Kelly leave to get things rolling, another war breaks out between the two houses. Meanwhile, ex-fraternity top dog Teddy (Zac Efron) finds himself in need of a new purpose in life, which he finds in teaming up with his formal rivals to take down the girls.

Creating a culture clash not only between old and young but between young men and young women is a rich set-up that provides Sorority Rising with a few more toys to play with than the average wheel spinning comedy sequel. In fact, the film’s funniest moments are not from the set-pieces, but from several exchanges that tread on the land mines of feminism and privilege. It certainly helps that Rogen and Efron are such lovable goofballs, with Byrne  giving them a sharp mirror to play off of. However, problems start when we get to Moretz. As a villain in the first film, Efron’s teddy was an absolute force of nature. However, Moretz simply isn’t bringing it here. While the premise behind Shelby is fantastic, her delivery is often rather flat and as such the character never really comes to life. In fact, it’s Moretz’s fellow sisters who often get the biggest laughs out of that camp, particularly Beanie Feldstein, Kiersey Clemons, and Awkwafina. However, since the sorority doesn’t have a terribly strong anchor, a great deal of their jokes and social commentary fall flat.


Returning director Nicholas Stoller is a much sloppier behind the camera, this time around, particularly in the bigger sequences. Neighbors had a palpable sense of scale, particularly in its excellent climax that threw everything at the wall. Here, the set-pieces are choppily edited, particularly a horrifically un-funny chase sequence through a tailgate party that feels thrown together from whatever footage they could get before the extras wanted to go home. Every scene is only as good as the gag, with Stoller really making no attempt to add any flair to the film’s weaker scenes. This is particularly true in the third act, which completely fizzes out to the point where one wonders if there was some kind of budgetary restriction. Stoller’s direction here stinks of contractual obligation and frankly, a more invested director could have made this a film every bit as solid as the first one.

Instead, Sorority Rising settles for being decent. It’s certainly good for a few laughs and the inventive conceit does provide for some fun character moments, but it’s lacking the energy in front of and behind the camera that the original had. It might be the more socially relevant of the two for the moment, but as time wears on it, I suspect that it will be considered more of a B-side in Rogen’s filmography. Come on Seth, let’s get on to the talking sausages.

Green Room Review


Terror comes in many forms, but none is more spine tingling than being a low rent punk band playing in front of neo-nazis for six hundred dollars. At least, that is what Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room hopes to impress on those brave enough to pay the twelve dollar door price. As the film begins it’s a bit hard to gather exactly what kind of show this is going to be. After all, there have been plenty of horror films that have worn the clothes of heavy metal, but have gotten a bit squeamish when it’s characters started brawling in the mosh pit. However, it quickly become clear that this is very much not a family show, and if you don’t watch out for fellow audience members you may not just walk out of the venue with your personal space invaded, but a few broken bones to your name.


It’s been a long, and unprofitable tour for The Ain’t Rights, and it just might be time to pack it in. However, they’ve made so little from their mid afternoon diner gigs that they don’t even have enough cash for gas. Luckily, Tad (David W. Thompson), a host of a rinky dink radio station has a cousin who can get them one last gig. Unfortunately, it’s at a bar populated by white supremacists who are less than pleased with their song choices. On their way out, Sam (Alia Shawkat) leaves her phone in the green room and when Pat (Anton Yelchin) goes in to get it, he comes across the scene of a murder. Determined to eliminate all witnesses, the club calls upon devious owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), to contain the situation and ensure that none of these folks will live to perform a Dead Kennedys cover again.


Saulnier crafts a gritty and remarkably tense environment in what ultimately devolves into the most brutal game of freeze tag ever played. There are certain films that simply have violence in them, and others that make that brutality into an art. Green Room is emphatically the latter. It’s less a shlockly horror flick and more a small scale war film. There are some gut wrenching action sequences here, each just long enough to wring maximum amount of suspense from their contained environments, dark corners, and uncompromising players. Every gunshot, dog bite, and knife slash is shown in graphic detail, but not shot in a glamorous or exploitive way. Every wound looks painful, with the confrontations looking more like authentic battle footage than scenes from a film.


Unfortunately, Saulnier is a great deal weaker behind the pen than the camera. In fact, the first act is fairly weak. We’re not really given a reason to care about or even like these band of punks. Sure, they’re authentic, but almost to a fault. There’s so little to relate to in their interactions that it feels like there might as well be watching this band hang out by their band from afar, and that there might as well not even be dialogue at all. However, this is no fault of the actors, who all do a great job at inhabiting these thin characters. Yelchin in particular proves once that he is a leading man waiting to happen, making his vulnerable yet strong character by far the most likable in the film. The nazis are a bit more well drawn, with a few of them really getting to shine as we soak in their interactions and reactions to this situation. However, those characters are undercut a bit by their fairly un-impressive leader. Stewart is an absolutely wonderful actor, but he’s not so much given a character here so much as an outfit and a funny voice. It feels a bit like stunt casting, having a triple a performer use his god given screen presence to make a weak villain work.


Green Room is an enjoyable gig for gore hounds and genre movie fans. At it’s best, it’s wickedly violent, sharply funny, and deeply entertaining. However, there are a whole lot of directing aerobics holding up a subpar script, which ultimately keep it from being as strong as it could have been. It’s a cheap, bloody hamburger from the kind of restaurant you need to wear a bib for, and if that’s your craving, than look no further.

Miles Ahead Review


Much like its subject, Miles Ahead isn’t particularly interested in giving it’s audience the entire story of “social music” legend Miles Davis. It knows we don’t need to see the painstaking details of little Miles playing his first notes on the trumpet, or the empty bars where people throw beer bottles at a soon to be legend. In fact, this film isn’t so much a ‘rise and fall’ story as it is a ‘fall and fall deeper’ one. Writer, director, and star Don Cheadle is not just trying to make a film about Davis here, but one that lives inside his head. It’s a film that questions if creative forces of nature can truly run out of juice, or if there is further inspiration to be found in desperation.


The film opens in 1980 to the tune of a depressed, strung out Davis (Cheadle) living a hermit-like existence in his big empty house. He hasn’t released an album in five years. Without warning, Rolling Stone reporter Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) shows up at his doorstep, claiming that he’s been assigned by Davis’ record company to write a story about him. Problem is, Davis hasn’t received any cash for his first and only demo recording that he’s made during his hiatus, and as it turns out there are a few parties interested in what that new music could bring for them. Meanwhile, Davis grapples with the mistakes of his earlier career, especially those involving his ex wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).


Cheadle makes his directorial debut here, which makes the way that he weaves this story together all the more impressive. It isn’t a film completely concerned with facts, even to the point where McGregor’s character is a complete work of fiction. However, having that character there is critical, as his fantastic chemistry with Davis fuels the film’s dive to make the icon both charismatically enigmatic, as well as deeply human. In the present day, he’s a force of nature, who seems to live on his own planet where he sees himself as completely in control. However, as the flashbacks become more and more frequent, it becomes apparent just how broken a soul he really is. Even though the film is constantly switching gears from what is essentially a buddy action comedy to a soulful biopic, some very inventive editing makes the whole affair seem like one long stream of consciousness. Perfect for a film who’s subject was known to come up with many of his riffs off the cuff.


In fact, the film is so uniquely structured and entertaining that it throws a veil over it’s somewhat contrived nature. This is most evident in the flashbacks, which despite a very impressive performance from Corinealdi, cover some very standard biopic beats. We get brief glimpses into Davis’ creative process at the height of his fame, but the film could have really benefited from more of these. When music this iconic is involved, personal relationships are essentially coats of varnish. Especially considering that the main story is so creative and fast paced, watching Davis go through these paces can be a bit of a chore, but thankfully there isn’t quite enough time spent on them to bring the film down too much.


While Miles Ahead might ultimately be a little more traditional than it thinks it is, it’s still a highly entertaining tall tale about a 20th century music giant. Cheadle gives one of the best performances of his career here, while also proving himself to be an intriguing director in the process. It will be very interesting to see if he separates himself from his work next time, and perhaps makes a film fully injected with the creative energy that the shining moments of this one has. That said, it’s a passion project where the passion doesn’t get lost in translation to vanity, which is more than can be said for several of it’s contemporaries. Even for those who aren’t fans of Davis, it’s highly worth letting Cheadle get on stage and play his little swan song.

Demolition Review


Movies about disconnected, mentally ill people are nothing new. As a matter of fact, it’s often an obligatory role that actors will often go for to give them some awards attention. However, in those kinds of movies, there is often a sense that the main character is just troubled for now, but will find his way eventually. After all, these awards conscious movies have to have some kind of over arching message after all, and what’s a socially awkward character without redemption. Demolition however, is in many ways a whole other animal. This isn’t a film that’s particularly interested in redeeming it’s deeply grief stricken characters so much as it is an excuse to study them as they carry on. That may be an unsatisfying notion for many, but then there’s me.


The film opens with Davis Mitchel (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, losing his wife in a horrific car accident. However, he frankly seems more disturbed by his peanut M&Ms getting stuck in the hospital vending machine than he is by the loss of his life partner. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care about much of anything, much to the extreme aggravation of Phil (Chris Cooper), his grieving father in law/boss. Davis becomes fascinated by destruction, wanting nothing more than to break apart all of the material possessions he acquired of the course of his marriage. Meanwhile, he befriends Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep at the vending machine company who becomes moved by his detailed complaint letters, and her young son Chris (Judah Lewis).


Demolition paints itself into a deep corner by pinning the story on a character as challenging as Davis. Since we’re essentially centering on a borderline sociopath, who has to force himself to relate to the death of his own wife, the entire narrative could have easily collapsed if the actor didn’t pull it of just right. Fortunately, we have Gyllenhaal, who has become something of a master of these kinds of characters as of late. Essentially dialing down his Nightcrawler persona into somebody who could at least somewhat function in normal society, he masterfully pulls the audience into every word Davis says. He’s an absolutely puzzling individual, but Gyllenhaal finds something about him that is absorbing and completely human. Watts and Cooper play their notes just right, even if their characters are slight cliches, but the real break-out supporting star here is Lewis. Chris is a boy with perhaps as much of a disconnection from society as Davis, and when the movie turns into a bonding story between these two odd-balls, that’s when it really kicks into gear. There’s something very realistic about the way these characters very naturalistically relate, and the film is smart enough to just let them be without forcing them into a trite direction.

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Jean-Marc Valee, who previously directed Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, proves once again that he is very adept at character study. Scenes will occasionally be a bit curt, as if he’s trying to make us as disconnected from our surroundings as Davis is. That said,  his direction here isn’t showy, only occasionally opting to let anything but his characters do the storytelling. He’s here to let his actors act, often exuding a similar vibe that David O Russell did with Silver Linings Playbook. He keeps everything moving at a nimble pace, ensuring that we aren’t stuck focusing on one piece of Davis’ grief for too long. There’s also a really nice conclusion here rising only just to the point it needs to to feel poetic and dramatic, while not shoving the messages down the audience’s throat.


While perhaps not a movie that will be super memorable once the more sizable dramas of the year come into play, Demolition is a solid drama that occasionally has moments as destructive as it’s main character. Gyllenhaal is given yet another showcase for his undeniable talent, while Valee delivers a story that may leave some feeling a little cold if they’re expecting that’s a bit more Hollywood, but may surprise those with an open mind. If you’re trying to dodge all of the superheroes, bullets, and Melissa McCarthys in theaters right now, you may want to grab a bulldozer and crash into this one.

Rating: A- 

Hardcore Henry Review


From the moment Hardcore Henry started, I felt like my whole body had just been crashed into by a giant wave. The effect of witnessing everything from a first person point of view is entirely different from something like found footage. Sure, it’s disorienting, but not simply in the sense that the frame is moving. It made me feel every single hit, and fall, and left me out of breath as “Henry” started chasing his enemies. My brain kicked into survival mode, as I not only felt as though I was the one in the middle of all this chaos, but I was also trying to adsorb the sheer madness of this wildly creative and inventive film.

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After perhaps one of the most creatively gruesome opening credits sequences ever put on film, we find ourselves through the eyes of Henry. He’s a guy who has been resurrected from a deadly accident with a brand new cybernetic body, and no memory of his life before. His wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett, who bears a borderline distracting resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence) is the scientist who has brought him back, although there isn’t a lot of time for re-introductions. Almost instantly, a telekinetic, euro-trash mercenary named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) storms the lab, and sends Henry on a blood fueled chase to rescue his wife. Meanwhile, Henry meets a man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who seems to come in several different versions, all hell bent on helping him for their own personal reasons.

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The big question mark with Hardcore Henry is whether or not a film that is done in the manner of a first person shooter video game can work, and the answer is an emphatic yes. Watching these action sequences unfold from this perspective truly is unlike anything I’ve seen. Not only are there all of the disorienting reactions that we as an audience find ourselves disconnected from when we view action from third person, but the film is so gleefully violent and fast paced that there is constantly something new happening. Even though the film is perhaps ninety percent action, each sequence feels completely different in excitation. What director Ilya Naishuller has achieved is a film that not only captures the spirit of the video games he’s imitating, but also the language of that style of storytelling that makes them so enjoyable. For anyone who spent their childhood behind a controller, this film is a dream come true.


The movie has a carefree, often hilarious tone that keeps things moving along as well. This is mostly due to Copley, a wonderful character actor who has had a bit of trouble finding compelling roles outside of his partnership with Neill Blomkamp. Here, he’s essentially given a big box of wigs, beards, and outfits and is just let free to run amok. The fun he is having in these tiny characters is absolutely infectious, perfectly capturing the classic sidekicks who often steel the show in video games. Kozlovsky is also a blast here, while not given a particularly deep villain to play, he chews every bit of scenery around him and is often given some really punchy lines. There are also just so many sight gags flying by at a mile a minute, that it’s rare to find a moment where you won’t be laughing here.


Unfortunately, the story these action sequences are essentially gift wrapped in doesn’t really hold up. It’s frankly rather thin, and if not for the sheer inventiveness of the execution, would have made for a fairly bland experience. There’s a couple of nifty surprises, but they all feel a bit thrown in just to make things crazier. The film is very self aware though, and spends very little time worrying about the silly little web it’s spun. Perfectly fine for this kind of movie, but the lack of a narrative as inventive as the rest of the film is what keeps it from really shooting for the stars.


While Hardcore Henry may not quite reach the level of delirious bloodshed of something like Crank, it’s a deeply entertaining action film in it’s own right. The point of view technique really does work, engrossing you in this film while also posing great possibilities for future films. It’s also perhaps the best video game movie ever made, even if it’s not based on an actual game. However, if the movies that are adapting video games can take some notes from this, while also incorporating a great story, comic book movies may not be the top dogs for much longer.

Rating: B+

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice Review


There are a lot of things I’ve come to expect from Batman V Superman over the course of the three years it has taken to arrive, but something I never counted on was it keeping me up at night. Describing exactly what Zack Snyder and company have created here has proved elusive since I left the theater. I’m positive that it isn’t the horn blaring, ass kicking redemption film needed after the painfully dry Man of Steel started the DC Universe off with a whimper, but it’s not exactly a failure either. In fact, through sheer crazed ambition that would make Lex Luthor blush, what we have here is actually something of a disturbing art installation that just so happens to have DC characters in it. It’s the Twin Peaks of the superhero genre, and while that turns out to be just as much of a cataclysmic mess as it sounds, there’s a lot of fascination to be found here.


The story finds Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) devastated by the destruction caused by the battle between Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Metropolis. Ever since, Batman has been hunting for a way to combat what he sees as an immanent threat, while the human race struggles to decide if they want to accept this alien warrior into their society. Meanwhile, the devious Lex Luthor Jr. (Jesse Eisenberg) is not only also hell bent on overthrowing this Godlike figure by pitting our two heroes against each other, but is looking for a way to weaponize Kryptonian technology for his own gain.


Even in it’s worst moments, Dawn of Justice really is unlike any superhero movie we’ve seen before. Sure, there are some fairly typical tropes in the plot itself, but the way that Zack Snyder has chosen to execute them ranges from brilliant, to baffling on a moment by moment basis. At it’s best, the film does a fantastic job of examining the psychology of it’s characters and world. There’s a challenging morality play running through this story, as all of the characters cope in different ways with the notion of having a god among them. Some are in awe, some are scared, and some are violent, and we see every single shade. In fact, the film often takes such a grounded and somber tone that some of the violence is genuinely devastating, with hellish imagery that is beautifully captured by Snyder. However, on a dime, things will get really melodramatic and silly, especially in the third act which forgoes all of the interesting content the story has in favor of essentially turning into a trailer for Justice League. These tonal shifts will often occur as quickly as every other scene, with choppy editing sometimes making it feel like a bunch of fan films strung together into a big mess.


This is some dense material, but most of the cast proves to be up for the challenge, even if most of the characters come off fairly uneasy. Ben Affleck finds himself with a great deal of heavy lifting to do here, needing to make us both emphasize with, and fear his world weary, short tempered Bruce Wayne. He pulls it off in spades, giving us both the scariest Batman and smoothest Wayne we’ve seen on screen so far. However, he does this perhaps a little too well. As the film starts to delve into deeper reaches of his tortured mind, we start to see that this is a man who slipped into the void long before the movie started. Since we’re denied both the journey and really any explanation as to what happened to make him this way, he comes off a bit cold and alienating. Superman isn’t really much to root for either. Henry Cavill is still having a hard time bringing us into the soul of Clark Kent, and although all the characters seem to have an emotional connection to Superman, there has yet to be a compelling reason for us to do the same.


However, the piece that keeps every arc moving is Eisenberg’s wickedly gonzo take on Lex Luthor. While it’s easy to see this performance as a bit over the top, what the Social Network star has actually done is create a character that is both a tribute to, and reinvention of the classic villain. Since replacing Lex Luthor is such an impossible task, the film brings us a scared kid who is also desperately trying to live up to that very image (that of his father). While he possesses the cunning intelligence of that man, there is something off kilter about him, and Eisenberg goes all in on giving this strange, confused young man the social ticks and awkwardness that would come with this position. He’s not a villian just yet, he’s an insane child with a lot of money desperately trying to be a villain. Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons shines as a much more sardonic Alfred than we’ve become accustomed to, and Gal Gadot’s brief stint as Wonder Woman exudes pure presence, boding well for her solo act.


While Snyder excels at creating a moody, uncomfortable atmosphere, he falls a bit short in the action department. Sure, there are a couple fun sequences with Batfleck doing his thing, but when it comes time for our main heroes to throw down the ensuing fight is deeply anticlimactic. There’s no sense of weight, or choreography to it. It’s just a slow, short, brawl between two CGI men, that leads to an even bigger mess afterwards. Much has been made of Snyder’s decision to shove Doomsday into this film, and boy howdy, does his appearance lead to one of the most boring and wasteful action sequences in quite some time. At this point, any intrigue built up in the opening acts is over, and it’s time to play with action figures.


Batman V Superman is a film determined to convince you that two of the world’s most popular superheroes are in fact not heroes at all. In attempting that strange mission, it tries to juggle about six movies in one, and only about three of them work. While Snyder and company have absolutely improved on Man of Steel here, they’ve made quite a mess in doing so. At one moment haunting and thought provoking, and the next trite and bombastic, the film is a franchise launcher shows you such great potential before spraying sour juice in your mouth. There are certain decisions made here that are downright narratively wasteful, but if Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman both end up working, and the returning creative team takes a more confident approach next time, perhaps Justice can still dawn after all.

Rating: C+ 

Zootopia Review


If there’s anything that Zootopia proves, it’s that going back to the well is often the key ingredient for true inspiration. As the glut of animated movies piles up by the day, you can throw a rock and hit a talking animal who is trying to follow his or her dream. It seems that these creatures are the simplest characters to animate, as we already relate to them as our pets, passions, and yes, even our food. It’s a troupe that’s been done to death and forced itself into a little box of storytelling that leads to dreck like Norm of the North. Zootopia however, has no interest in the box, and instead intends to act as a Che Guevara figure for the genre, and blow that cardboard abomination up completely. Instead of plopping talking animals into our world, the filmmakers have instead created an entire animal civilization of their own, and in doing so have created a film that is better than I suspect even they realize.


The story centers on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town rabbit who wants to leave her farming focussed neighborhood and become a cop in the big city of Zootopia. The only problem? There has never been a rabbit cop before, and she’s certainly not garnering much encouragement from either her parents or her peers. Regardless, she makes her way through the police academy, and ventures off to prove them all wrong. Much to her aggravation, her new Chief (Idris Elba) is not convinced in the slightest, and puts her on parking duty. As Judy attempts to be the best meter maid in Zootopia, she winds up meeting a sly con-artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Although seemingly happy to carry on his care-free existence, Nick reluctantly ends up helping Judy when a missing otters’ case ends up miraculously falling into her lap.


One thing that Disney has done a spectacular job of in their recent films is world-building. Most notably in Wreck It Ralph, they’re created worlds that are both original and intricate for their characters to inhabit. However, any of their previous effort in that department simply pale in comparison to the visual wonder that is this city of Zootopia. An animator’s, and audience member’s dream from end to end, there is always something to look at in this film. There is a painstaking attention to detail paid to every inch of the screen, as these animals adapt to what is essentially their version of a 2016 city. There is a visual gag of some kind going on every couple of seconds, and when the film kicks into the action, you can practically hear the animators laughing in pure joy. It is seriously doubtful that there will be a more creative chase sequence in a film this year than Judy’s pursuit of a thief through a miniature district of the city built for the rodents, which harkens back to the absurdist style of the classic Warner Bros cartoons to the point where if not for technological advancements, it could be confused for one itself.


It would have been very easy to coast on these incredible visuals, but Zootopia goes the extra mile by giving the characters genuine camaraderie and depth. Every time that these characters seem like they’re going to fall into the typical traps that animated characters so often do, they’ll say something that is so much smarter and more refreshing and keep the fantastic pacing going. Goodwin and Bateman frankly make a better buddy cop duo than most live action fixtures in this genre, and are both delightful in their own right. Goodwin’s Judy is upright and optimistic without falling back on the ditziness that Disney often infuses into such female characters, while Bateman’s Nick is a dryly sarcastic sleezeball who ultimately really sells the tragic story that made him so. The supporting cast is also wonderful, particularly Elba as the temperamental and intimidating Chief Bogo. These characters could have been regular people in a live action version of this story, and not much would really have to change. This is the key to selling this entire world. For all of their exaggerated designs and various shapes and sizes, these animals feel human.


The screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston is also razor sharp, constantly keeping the plot moving while never talking down to kids by shying away from the story’s deeper themes. While the majority of the first two acts is essentially a mystery (and a good one at that), the last act of the film takes a sharp turn into a fascinating place that I would not dare spoil. Make no mistake, while Zootopia is first and foremost a comedy, it’s also a film with a lot on it’s mind. It would have been easy to beat the audience over the head with these themes of diversity and discrimination in a lazy, expository way, but they’re brought across by clever turns in the story instead. It’s a tale that will not only entertain kids, but it will also have them asking their parents some pretty difficult questions that will really root out the worthy advice givers.


Zootopia isn’t just a brilliant animated film, but it’s just an amazing film in any respect. It creates a visually stunning world that will have you begging for an art book on the way out of the theater, while also balancing sharp comedy and social commentary in equal measure.  This is the type of movie that kids need to see at a young age, something that will both challenge and entertain them for years to come. In fact, my only disappointment here is that Southwest does not sell tickets to Zootopia, as I think it is definitely the place I’ll be moving to if Donald Trump becomes president.

Rating: A

The Witch Review


Throughout my entire screening of The Witch, sighs of boredom, hints of awkward laughter, and lit up phones echoed inside the theater. It was an audience who expected a film much like the trailers we saw beforehand (The Conjuring 2, The Darkness). They wanted an amusement park haunted house, something to give them a quick rush to bounce off their sugar high and give them a couple moments of brief excitement. Hell, I’m sure there was some guy in there trying to pull a move on a girl he’s been crushing on for months. However, the fact of the matter is that The Witch simply isn’t that kind of movie. It’s not interested in making it’s audience jump out of their skin so much as it wants to slowly crawl inside of said skin. It certainly cast that spell on me, as there are still images here that are hanging in my head a day later, which to me, is true horror.

We find ourselves in the middle of of the 17th century as a rigorously fundamentalist family is exiled from a local plantation. William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch of the family is intent on making a better life for his family as they live off the land, while his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) anguishes over her lost home of England. Meanwhile, trouble becomes afoot when baby Samuel disappears under the watch of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s oldest daughter. In a moment of frustration, she jokingly claims that she is a witch to her two younger twin siblings in order to scare them, but as further supernatural forces seem to continually damn her family, suspicion and paranoia starts to shift in her direction.

What makes The Witch work so well is first time feature director Robert Eggers’ encompassing commitment to authenticity. Nothing about this is dumbed down. The language and use of heavy old English dialects is dense and occasionally challenging, the lush cinematography paints a gritty beautiful picture of a completely un-idealized version of the period, and the scares are slow to arrive but potent when they do. It’s not a film that spoon-feeds its audience in any way, letting them draw their own conclusions about the horror around them, while providing plenty of nightmare fuel to stimulate that kind of thinking. In fact, it feels more like a mood piece than a movie at times, and while that makes for a pretty slow first act, it provides a hell of a payoff later on.

Often times the greatest weak point of a horror film is in the performances. However, this ensemble of incredible actors both young and old is The Witch’s greatest weapon. So much of this film relies on how the characters interpret very subtle things, and the sheer complexity and terror that each of them bring to their roles is spectacular. Taylor-Joy is particularly impressive, as Thomasin is the character who ultimately grounds the film. She’s a young woman not only dealing with the destruction of her family, but the idea that this very family wants to force her into a marriage she does not want to be in. She brings all of this across so effectively and convincingly, that we hurt almost as much as she does as her life unravels. Harvey Scrimshaw is also fantastic as Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb, particularly in one scene that contains perhaps the best performance by a child actor in a horror film since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Frankly, it’s a shame that the Oscars never recognize horror films, as every one of these actors would be a worthy awards contender.

The only place where The Witch really falters is in it’s conclusion. While the story crescendos nicely into heartbreaking brutality, the note it ultimately chooses to end on is a bit flat and silly. While so much of this film’s power lies in it’s ambiguity, this ending ultimately makes everything feel very objective. It’s something out of a different, less restrained movie, almost as if it was added in later to pad out the run-time. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it leaves things a bit cold.

 The Witch most certainly isn’t for everybody. It’s an obtuse, dense film that can occasionally be a bit hard to grasp. However, for those who are willing to do a little work, and have the patience to wade through the slower parts, there’s a whole lot of depth here. It’s certainly one of the most well directed and acted horror films in recent years, and while it doesn’t quite hit the high notes of something like It Follows, it really isn’t trying to. In a year where we’re going to see a whole lot of the same thing, the fact that such a strange and complex film is being released so wide is a perplexing privilege. While it may not be your cup of potion, it’s certainly worth a shot to encourage more films like it. It certainly cast it’s spell on me.

Rating: A-

Deadpool Review


If there was any movie this year that had the potential to be my Phantom Menace, it was Deadpool. I have been waiting for this film in one form or another for the better part of a decade, that time made especially agonizing by the incredibly talented Ryan Reynolds’ series of flops. It’s been a frustrating experience of studio ignorance and random delays getting to the point where the Van Wilder star can finally bring us his passion project about The Merc With A Mouth, but we made it! The only question now is if Reynolds and first time director Tim Miller managed to actually pull a good film out of this manic, and subversive character.

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After what might be the funniest opening credits sequence ever put in a film, we’re introduced to Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), who is currently knee deep in a mission. As he explains to us himself, he’s tracking down a certain douchebag by the name of Ajax (Ed Skrein) who not only turned him into a mutant, but has kidnapped his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). A few dismembered limbs and brain matter aside, seems like standard superhero stuff right? Well, that’s for us to decide, as Deadpool takes us through the whole haunting story of his deformation and re-birth. These flashbacks run parallel to his pursuit of Ajax, in which he finds reluctant  allies in X-Men members Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

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From the moment this movie starts, a sheer force of electric comedic energy pulses through the audience and never stops surging until the movie literally cannot run any longer. Sure, the basic beats of this story are somewhat normal procedure for a superhero origin story, but they’ve never been executed quite like this. In a way, this is two different movies. One is a zany Warner Brothers cartoon dominated by Reynolds’ utter commitment to giving us the most exact translation of the comic books that he possibly can. The other is both a deeply romantic and often tragic tale of how Wade Wilson was driven to the point of such madness that he’s realized that his own world is just a movie. One might think that these tones clash, and frankly, they do, but that’s kind of the point. It would be immensely difficult to introduce this gonzo character to audiences without something to really ground him, which the flashbacks do in spades. Breaking it up into these segments was perhaps the wisest decision made in this narrative, as it doesn’t exhaust the audience with either side of this wild story.

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It’s a sentiment that is going to be beat into the ground very soon, but it could not be emphasized enough how much Ryan Reynolds utterly embodies this character. It’s a role that not only spotlights the best elements of the silly, snarky side of his personality, but also gives him a lot of moments to show off how dynamic an actor he really is. This particularly comes out in his scenes as the hideously scared Wade, who’s utter shame at his appearance essentially forces him into that mask. He’s a guy who masks his pain and desperation with humor, and that’s the part that a lesser actor would not have brought across. Morena Baccarin is also fantastic, her wonderfully natural chemistry with Reynolds making a love story that could have been a burden both memorable and easy to invest in. Skrein has the perfect amount of punchable arrogance to make the slightly under-written Ajax memorable, while Kapicic and Hildebrand do a wonderful job at keeping one of the film’s toes in the X-Men universe. At worst, some characters seem a bit underused, especially TJ Miller’s Weasel, who is also very charming.

For a directorial debut, visual effects mastermind Tim Miller (who helped create the amazing opening credits for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) does a solid job. It certainly helps that the screenplay but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is so sharp, but he steers the ship well. He does have a slightly Zach Snyder-ish fixation with slow motion though, which takes some of the energy out the beautifully gory action sequences. The only time the storytelling takes a bit of a dip is in the climax. The location and set-up feel generic compared to the rest of the film, and there are some special effects that really start to show off just how low of a budget the film was saddled with.

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While Deadpool certainly does do a little posturing in it’s storytelling to ultimately end up in the same place many superhero films do, it’s also monumentally entertaining. I do not remember the last time I have laughed so hard in a comedy, and been so impressed by the translation of a character from comic to film. It’s a movie that sticks it’s long, red tongue out at other superhero movies exactly at the time when audiences are starting to do the same, and breaks into the upper echelon of the genre as a result. It’s been a long, winding road to get here, but it has created a comedy that I suspect that people will laugh at and be influenced by for much longer. Ryan, you magnificent bastard, you did it.

Rating: A

Zoolander 2 Review


Sometimes, it’s best to simply leave something buried. Sure, Zoolander was a fantastically gonzo little comedy that hit a certain temperature of stupid that hasn’t quite been replicated, but perhaps that’s the point. You can’t replicate it, it was a perfect storm of original ideas and lucky breaks that it just worked. However, sure enough, Ben Stiller has decided to try, since keeping the character limited to one of the most entertaining cult classics of the 2000s just isn’t quite enough for him. This comes at a great detriment to us, because Zoolander 2 (or perhaps Zoolander No. 2) is a particularly special kind of unfunny. It isn’t just a series of swings and misses, but a barrage of wild lunges that end up with the bat in the air and a concussion or two in the crowd.

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We pick up with Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) years after his modeling career has ended. Isolated himself to a small log cabin, he’s called back into action by Billy Zane when the government needs his help. A series of celebrities (most recently Justin Bieber) have been murdered, all dying with Derek’s signature blue steal look on their faces. As such, Derek must team up with Agent Melanie Valentina (Penelope Cruz) and reunite with his old friend Hansel (Owen Wilson) to find the one responsible.

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For a film that spent over a decade in development hell, not one of these actors seem to be remotely enjoying themselves. Stiller and Wilson, who have always had an easy chemistry, essentially spend an entire film taking us through an awkward lunch where two friends realize there’s a reason they haven’t seen each other in a while. There are hardly even any gags for them to react off of, as most of the film coasts off the two of them making faces and pronouncing things wrong. It’s really a bit sad. Meanwhile, Cruz seems even more confused, as Stiller has seemingly made her show up without writing a role for her. As such, all she has to do is either roll her eyes at the stupidity of everything, or re-assure Derek that his dumb ass can in fact solve this mystery. Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is hardly worth mentioning in a role so small and silly you might miss her, and Will Ferrell isn’t even let into the fold until well over an hour in.  Once he shows up, he really has nothing to do but yell a bunch of clearly improvised lines over the action. It’s a film that thinks that the mere presence of these characters will garner laughs, even if they’re not really doing anything.

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There is clearly a higher budget and more toys to work with this time around, and yet there only seems to be a few jokes. Every so often, there is a funny gag, or cameo, but whoever the trailer really utilized everything he had to work with and showed it all to you already. The funniest moment by a landslide comes early on, from a remarkably strange (and already spoiled) cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as a transgender model named All. Sure, some might find it to be a bit over the line, but it’s really the only thing that reaches the absurd heights of the original mostly because of what an incredible sport Cumberbatch is. Beyond that, it’s mostly just pulling out trends and lines that will appeal to the Vine generation, which will be dated by the time the movie ends it’s run, and excruciating on a Blu Ray re-watch. How Stiller, who can be such an intelligent and on the pulse comedic actor/director when he wants to be (Tropic Thunder anyone?) turned out such a lazy product is beyond me.

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The best thing I can say about Zoolander 2 beyond it’s occasionally funny moments, is that it’s never insulting. I was reasonably held over, but as I look back, that was mostly because I was desperately waiting for it to become as good as I so badly wanted it to be. Frankly, it’s one of the lamest comedy sequels I’ve ever seen attempted. It plays more like an over-long fake trailer than an actual movie, and doesn’t nearly justify the amount of time it took to become a reality. So for all of those Zoolander fans who are about to go out and see their long awaited sequel, relax, and don’t do it.

Rating: D