Reel Opinions

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Bad Moms

The trailers for Bad Moms did little to impress me.  It looked like a fairly standard entry into the raunchy comedy genre that Hollywood loves so much lately, where everyday people snap and just decide to indulge in their greatest sinful vices.  Watching the film, however, I discovered that writers and directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (they wrote The Hangover) have a lot more on their minds.  The movie has a lot of real truths into the current struggles of being a mom.  This is a surprisingly smart and insightful film, as well as being probably the funniest movie I've seen so far this year.

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis), like a lot of moms, is overworked as she tries to keep her entire family together.  She got married and had her first kid when she was 20, so she's been at this pretty much her entire adult life.  She lives in a suburb in Chicago with her lazy husband (David Walton), whom she describes as her "third child", and their two tween kids - an overachieving and stressed out daughter (Oona Laurence, who stood out so well last year in Southpaw, and does good work here) and a slacker son (Emjay Anthony) who refuses to live up to his full potential.  Amy is constantly juggling her duties of running a home, keeping up with her kids' sporting events and club activities, and working part time at a coffee company for a jerk of a boss who is much younger than her (Clark Duke), never mind the fact that she is only 32 herself.  Her stress and responsibilities become much greater when she catches her husband having an on line affair, and must now run everything as a single parent.

When she drops the kids at school, Amy frequently has to deal with the "Queen Bee" of the school moms, Gwendolyn (a perfectly icy and hilarious Christina Applegate), who behind her perfect housewife facade lurks the heart of a cruel taskmaster who runs the PTA and the school bake sale like a boot camp.  Given all the pressures that Amy must face regarding all of this, she finally snaps and becomes a "bad mom", devoting her time to herself and what she wants to do.  She is jointed in this total detachment from her duties by two new friends - meek housewife Kiki (Kristen Bell) and drunken and foulmouthed single mom Carla (Kathryn Hahn).  Together, they will not only try to live life together, but also take down the deceptively sunny Gwendolyn, as well as take a stand for overworked moms everywhere.

So much attention was brought to the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters just two weeks ago, which ended up being a total disappointment.  Bad Moms is the female talent-driven comedy that deserves the true accolades.  Not only is it frequently hilarious, but it knows how to use its talented cast to the best of their abilities.  Mila Kunis hasn't been this good in a comedy since 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which coincidentally also featured Kristen Bell as her co-star), and she's actually much better here.  She shows such great timing, and creates Amy into such a sympathetic and relatable character that you wonder why it has taken so long for someone to use her this well.  Kristen Bell does get some big laughs as a housewife who is constantly under the thumb of her domineering husband, especially when she describes their sex life.  But the true stand out here is Kathryn Hahn, who is giving a breakthrough comic performance here.  She's one of those actresses who's been working in the industry for almost 20 years and has been in a lot of films, but seldom has been given the chance to truly be memorable.  This could change that.

Talented as the cast is, the movie would be nothing if the script wasn't funny, and it certainly is.  I haven't laughed this often at a comedy in a while.  But the movie is also insightful.  It balances the bad behavior with a lot of truths.  Behind all the raunchy jokes and bad behavior, the movie does have something to say about what a lot of moms have to deal with everyday in the current academic environment.  Not only that, it knows how to balance some genuinely sweet and somewhat dramatic moments in a way that doesn't feel like the movie is suffering from tonal shifts, or without going into all-out sentimental mode.  One of my recurring criticisms with a lot of recent adult-oriented comedies is how they turn soft and gooey toward the end.  I guess you could say Bad Moms does turn soft toward the end, but it does so in a way that it doesn't feel like a total betrayal of what came before.  These are still the same characters we have come to know, and they get to retain their sense of humor.

This is also not a nasty or mean-spirited movie.  It can often be crude, but it is not gross, nor is it offensive.  It doesn't force its talented cast to lower themselves, or play out scenes that require long, sad talks with their agents afterward.  Most of the humor comes from the dialogue, which is frequently smart and very sharp.  And while obviously not every joke hits big, the energy and enthusiasm of the cast more than makes up for it.  Just about every lead performance here would be one that would steal the show in a different comedy.  But when you put all of them together, you get a movie that nearly constantly fires on all cylinders, and seldom gets bogged down with stuff that doesn't work.  This movie hardly misses a beat during its entire running time.

Bad Moms for me is the biggest surprise of the summer movie season.  It's the kind of movie that makes you laugh early on, and then you're delighted to discover that the laughs continue to build as it goes on.  These days, it's rare for a comedy to make me laugh consistently.  When one comes along, it's something you want to celebrate.

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Nerve is the name of a phone app.  When you sign in, you are given the choice of either being a "Watcher" or a "Player".  Watchers pay a subscription fee to watch the Players participate in a series of dares that are chosen by random Watchers.  If the Player succeeds in a dare, he or she is paid a certain amount of cash.  The crazier or more dangerous the dare, the more money there is at stake.  The Players are ranked on a leadership board by the number of Watchers they have following them.  If a Player does not succeed at their given stunt or task, or bails out before it is finished, they are eliminated from the game and cannot continue with further tasks.  The final two Players with the highest amount of Watchers get to compete against each other in a final dare.

This is the set up for a movie that starts out intriguing, quickly turns ludicrous, and ends up going off the deep end in its final 20 minutes.  However, it does have a lot of energy behind it and is never boring.  Even if the movie is ultimately more silly than thrilling, it kind of works.  The best moments in the film belong to the first half, when we are introduced to Vee (Emma Roberts), a timid Staten Island high school student still reeling from the death of her brother a couple years ago.  She wants to go off to college and pursue her dreams, but is afraid of hurting her mother (Juliette Lewis) and leaving her alone.  It is Vee's outgoing best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), who introduces her to Nerve.  Sydney is already playing the game, and when Vee is egged on to participate, she signs on to the game as a Player herself.

Vee's first dare is to walk into a restaurant and kiss a random guy.  The guy she picks happens to be another Player named Ian (Dave Franco), who quickly takes a liking to her, and the two decide to become a team.  They head into Manhattan to perform a series of dares together, which range from getting a tattoo, to riding a motorcycle down the streets of New York blindfolded until they hit 60 mph.  Most of the dares, however, are simply fun, and Vee and Ian find themselves getting closer together as they spend the night playing.  At this point, the movie almost resembles a romantic comedy of sorts, as Vee starts to come out of her shell and live for the first time.  But then, the shadier aspects of the game itself start to show, and Vee's life is put into danger.  Not only that, we begin to question if Ian is really who he says he is when it seems like he may have been planted to meet up with her, and that he may have some kind of history with the game.

Nerve gets a lot of mileage out of its likable cast, especially Roberts and Franco, who show instant chemistry here.  It also has been energetically directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who never fail to keep things moving and fast-paced.  They use just about every camera trick in the book to grab our attention, from quick cuts to graphical maps of the city that show the status of different Players, and it's all highly effective and well done.  Sure, all of this is probably so we don't think too much about the plot.  If the movie had given us time to think, we'd be shaking our heads.  Not that I wasn't.  As the movie gradually changes gears from a fun lark to a serious-minded techno thriller, the movie became harder to swallow.  Oh, it was still mostly effective and well made.  It just starts to get a bit preachy when it starts hitting on themes of people on social media being detached from reality or even their own emotions.

Maybe I wouldn't have minded the commentary so much if the movie were more grounded in reality, but as the plot plays out, Nerve starts to resemble pure fantasy.  It becomes more silly and over the top as it goes along, and by the time the climax comes, it's amazing that the movie is still standing with how loopy its plot has become.  And yet, I am recommending the film, because I would be lying if I didn't say the silliness entertained me.  This is effective light late summer entertainment, as long as you don't put too much thought toward it.  In fact, people who like to point out technical errors should probably avoid this movie all together, as they won't be able to keep up with all the craziness that will be thrown at them.  As out there as the movie ultimately gets, Vee remains a heroine that we can like and attach ourselves to, and that's a big part of its success.  She keeps the movie grounded as much as possible when it flies off the rails.

I'm actually surprised that I liked the movie as much as I did, given how it kind of just showed up on the release schedule without much warning or hype - never a good sign for a summer release.  I'm not saying this is art or even a great movie, but it's a lot of fun if you're in the mood for a thriller that's more style than brains, but still knows how to hold your interest.

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne, the fifth film in the Bourne franchise, is a very good action thriller.  It probably would have been a great one if director Paul Greengrass didn't decide to shoot almost all the action sequences and flashbacks in a film style that I can only describe as "Shaky and Blurry Vision".  I understand that the filmmaker enjoys employing handheld cameras in his films, and while it can be effective, there are moments in the heat of action when the film just becomes a wobbly mess.  It's a good thing Matt Damon is back (after sitting out of 2012's The Bourne Legacy), as he continues to make for a strong and silent protagonist.  His Jason Bourne is not the deepest of action heroes, but he is still thrilling to watch.

Since these movies kicked off, Bourne has always stood out from most Hollywood action heroes in that he is continually haunted by his own past, as well as by many of the people he has hurt or killed.  Whereas most heroes would likely spray a room full of thugs with bullets without so much as a second thought, Jason Bourne at least has always seemed conflicted about the damage and the pain he inflects in order to learn the truth about his past.  It's been a strong enough concept to drive almost the entire series, and as this film opens, we find Jason at possibly his lowest point.  He has been living off the grid for the past couple years, hanging out in dingy rooms, and mostly making money by participating in illegal fights.  He's not exactly happy with where he is in his life, but at least he's not being chased by government agents who want to silence him.

But then, his old friend and former CIA contact Nicky (Julia Stiles) tracks him down with some troubling news.  It seems like the government is starting up the program that created Jason Bourne in the first place, and the project is going to be even stronger and deadlier.  Not only that, but thanks to some clever computer hacking, she's uncovered a few personal family secrets of Jason's that he never knew, and that the government would do anything to keep quiet.  Sure enough, those pesky and relentless agents and assassins have learned about not only Jason discovering this news, but also his current location, and start setting out to make his life miserable.  This time, the shadowy government agent behind all of this trouble is played by Tommy Lee Jones, effectively scowling and with an untrustworthy and leathery face.  He does have a new secret ally within the agency, thanks to a young agent named Heather Lane (the always reliable Alicia Vikander), who has her own reasons for not trusting the higher ups.  She seems to be set up for some big things should there be another sequel, but she's a bit underused here.

The mystery behind Jason Bourne's past still drives the main storyline, but there are also some nods to other themes, like privacy in our digital age.  This is introduced by an internet mogul character (played by Riz Ahmed) who has been helping the government keep taps on people, but now that he's starting to have second thoughts, he may not live very long.  There's also a shadowy assassin known as "The Asset" (Vincent Cassel), who is hunting Bourne down, and may have some kind of personal score to settle.  Seriously, though, the movie doesn't delve too deep into its own ideas, opting instead to be a suspense-packed thrill ride.  And unlike last weekend's Star Trek: Beyond, the characters do not seem shortchanged by the action-heavy approach.  Damon makes for a sympathetic and conflicted hero, Jones is a villain who is easy to hate, and there are enough plot threads left dangling at the end that we want to know what will happen next, but also feel satisfied.  Should the franchise not continue past this, it wouldn't feel like we were left completely hanging. 

As far as action thrillers that have hit over the summer, Jason Bourne is probably right at the top, but I can't help but imagine how I would have enjoyed it even more if the cameras were steadier when the cars are chasing each other over the streets of Vegas, or when Bourne is on the run from various assassins in London.  The shaky camera movements and blurry images really got on my nerves sometimes.  You can still make out what's going on, but there are a few moments that definitely lack detail, and make you wish you could get a better look at things.  To be fair, it never bothered me as much as it probably would have in a lesser movie, because I was at least engaged in the story and the characters, and cared about what was going on.  I just can't help but feel that this could have been a truly great summer movie with a different directing style.

Still, a lot of the movie does work, and it is often exhilarating to watch as only the best action films are.  Going back to the series' roots may have seemed like an act of desperation after the last film (a spin off that was supposed to lead into its own franchise) didn't go over as well as hoped, but in this case, the talented cast and crew have pulled together not just a strong thriller, but a strong reason for this franchise to continue.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

If Ice Age: Collision Course proves anything, it's that the series should start heading to straight to DVD fairly soon if this is the best they come up with.  Here is a plain-as-vanilla animated feature that has been watered down to the point that not even the talented voice cast can generate much enthusiasm.  It doesn't help that there's virtually no plot, and that after five movies, these characters just don't hold the appeal that they did when this franchise started way back in 2002.

The plot, as if it matters, kicks off when sabre-tooth squirrel, Scrat, finds himself on board a spaceship that he uncovers during one of his acorn hunts that traditionally open these movies.  Due to his Wile E. Coyote-inspired antics in space, an asteroid comes hurtling toward Earth, ready to destroy all mammal life.  This comes right at the time when our heroes, including woolly mammoth Manny (voice by Ray Romano), sabre-tooth tiger Diego (Dennis Leary) and Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), are busy getting ready for the wedding of Manny's daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer).  She's setting up to marry a goofy mammoth named Julian (Adam Devine), as well as leave the herd so that she can create her own life, which does not sit well with Manny or his wife, Ellie (Queen Latifah).  Led by the thrill seeking weasel, Buck (Simon Pegg), the animals must find a way to stop the asteroid.  Good thing for them they seem to have all the time in the world, so they can frequently stop for forgettable comic gags, or maybe play a hockey game or two.  Oh, and there are some ominous prehistoric dino birds following them in the sky.  But nothing really adds up to much.

Here is a movie that gives us nothing to care about.  It's a total cash grab on the part of Blue Sky Animation Studios, which is especially sad when their last film was the excellent and warmhearted The Peanuts Movie.   The difference between their last film and this is like night and day.  Peanuts felt like a labor of love created with genuine interest.  This feels like a con job designed to rob bored kids and their parents, who will be bored while sitting through this. There is no source of soul, wit or the sense that anyone involved actually wanted to make it.  The movie isn't even all that interesting in a visual sense, save for one scene concerning an electrical storm.  As for the dialogue, it's really nothing more than a string of pop culture gags, and unless you really have a desire for prehistoric animals talking about hashtags and profile pictures, you're not going to find much here.

How much does this movie not care?  It can't even be bothered to finish the subplots it sets up.  Early on, Ellie is angry at Manny for the fact that he forgot their anniversary.  Never brought up much if at all after a short fight.  Diego and his mate, Shira (Jennifer Lopez) want to have kids.  Again, nothing is really settled.  The movie just keeps on trotting out ideas and characters from past movies, and then forgets about them almost as soon as they're introduced.  It gets to the point where it feels like Collision Course is as bored with itself as I was.  I kept on searching for maybe a small source of inspiration, or maybe something that showed the filmmakers weren't completely on autopilot here.  But, aside from some amusing facial expressions from Scrat during his adventures, I found nothing.

With Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets in theaters, there's no need for this.  The Ice Age movies have always felt a little behind the times.  In the current animated market, this particular entry feels downright archaic. 

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Lights Out

Lights Out started out as a three minute film made for a short horror film competition that won a lot of acclaim, and eventually went viral on line.  When Hollywood bought the rights for a feature film adaptation, they fortunately brought along producer James Wan, the current master of mainstream suspense.  He has brought his skill and knowledge to assemble a strong creative team, as well as better acting talent than you would expect in a low budget summer thriller such as this.  And while it's not quite as effective as Wan's own The Conjuring 2 from just last month, it still has enough thrills to satisfy.

In most movies of this type, it's usually a child who makes first contact with the malevolent spirit, and initially sees it as some kind of secret friend, until the entity starts to show its true intentions.  In a unique twist, this film has the child's mother being the one with the closely guarded supernatural secret, and her young son fearing for his life as well as for mom's sanity.  Early in the movie, little Martin (Gabriel Bateman) catches his mother Sophie (Maria Bello) talking to someone or something that lurks in the dark secluded shadows, and can't seem to approach the light.  This leads to Martin sleeping with the lights on, with whatever his mom has brought into their house scratching and banging just on the outside of his bedroom door.  The kid obviously has trouble sleeping, and when it affects his performance at school, a concerned school nurse calls on Martin's 20-something half-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer).

Turns out Rebecca knows something about mom's secret, as it impacted her childhood as well.  With the dark spirit starting to grow deadly (it knocks off Martin's father in the film's effective opening), she tries to take the boy away and have him live with her.  Unfortunately, child protective services comes and brings Martin right back to his mother, since Rebecca can't legally take him away without proof of wrongdoing.  Digging into Sophie's past for proof, Rebecca and her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) uncover the tragic history behind a strange childhood friend of her mother's known only as Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey).  Supposedly, Diana had a skin condition that made her extremely sensitive to the light.  Rebecca makes the connection that her mom is somehow keeping the spirit of her former friend in her home, and that spirit is now killing anyone who threatens to separate them.

Zooming by at a very brief 81 minutes, Lights Out certainly could have done a better job at explaining itself at times (I'm still a bit confused as to what led to the death of Diana as a child), but it also makes for a very tight and mostly effective thrill ride.  The tension doesn't really shoot up until the film's final 15 minutes, but even before then, we're invested in what's going on because director David F. Sandberg knows how to make the most of his brief running time.  He also wisely mostly avoids jump scares and easy jolts, and lets the suspense build during crucial scenes.  He also gives his actors some quiet character building moments, which not only make us more sympathetic toward them, but shows that he is able to get some strong performances out of his cast from the most minimalist of materials.  Let's face it, the movie is essentially built around a single scare - that of being alone in the dark, and having something you can't quite see watching you from the shadows.  But, Sandberg finds ways to keep it effective for the whole running time, and seldom repeats himself.

In another smart move, the film avoids cheap CG effects for the most part, and instead depends on an effective physical performance for its monster.  This makes whatever is creeping about in the shadows all the more effective, because it is physically in the same space as the actors, creating a definite air of tension.  In fact, during the instances it does rely on effects for the creature, it takes you out of the film, since they're never as convincing.  As for the actors themselves, everyone gives a better performance than you would expect from a movie like this.  Even the always reliable Maria Bello, who wouldn't be blamed if she treated this project as a paycheck, creates a certain amount of sympathy as the mother torn between the love of her family, and the supernatural entity she finds herself drawn to.  The movie could have definitely used her more and created even more genuine drama, but what's here is effective.

Lights Out works because it sticks to its main idea, and knows how to exploit it to the fullest.  It's not the deepest or most thrilling horror movie to come along, but for one that's mainly targeting teens on a summer weekend, it's a lot better than it probably deserves.  I just hope it's not cheapened with a string of unnecessary sequels, as the film works just fine as a standalone story.  However, this is Hollywood we're talking about here, and I'm sure this isn't the last time we'll see Diana creeping about in the shadows.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond

I am of two minds when it comes to Star Trek: Beyond.  As a summer movie, it's fitfully diverting and amusing.  But as a Star Trek film, it feels a bit limited.  Really, just a little.  There's something very standard about this latest adventure.  Not much is learned or discovered, because the movie puts emphasis on special effects and action (both of which are handled very well).  And while the cast is as likable as ever, they seem to be given a little less to do this time around.

Maybe it's the influence of last year's The Force Awakens, leaving audiences wanting more grand space battles and duels instead of exploring worlds.  Or maybe it's the influence of the new director, Justin Lin, who got his start with indie dramas but quickly moved on to the Fast and Furious franchise.  All I can say is audiences looking for a thrill ride that is done well but doesn't really do anything spectacular will most likely be satisfied, while the fans who have followed this franchise might see it as overkill.  Place my opinion at the halfway point.  I enjoyed it, even though I was never really wowed by it.  It does come across as sensory overload from time to time, but it at least knows how to keep a sense of humor to itself.  There is a lot more comedy here than in the past two rebooted Trek films, and that is no doubt inspired by British comic Simon Pegg (who returns as Scotty in this film) having the lead screenplay credit.

If the screenplay has kicked the laughs and action up to the next level, than the narrative has more or less been left by the wayside.  Set three years into the Starship Enterprise's five year mission, we find Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) at a crossroads in his life, debating whether he should take a different job within the Federation.  Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is having similar thoughts of his own.  But then, on what seems to be a routine distress call, the Enterprise is attacked by our alien villain for this installment - a slimy being named Krall (Idris Elba, buried underneath heavy make up), who makes a declaration of war against the Federation by taking out the Enterprise itself with his fleet of ships.  With Kirk and his crew separated and stranded on Krall's hostile planet, they must not only reunite with each other, but also find a new ship so that they can prevent future attacks from Krall's forces.

That's about as deep as Beyond's plot goes, which is a bit disappointing, considering the franchise is known for its themes of strong characters and exploration.  But honestly, the movie blows by so fast, you don't have time to think about how simple and straight forward it is until you're out of the theater.  The first 15 minutes or so are devoted to catching up with the main characters and where they're standing at this point in the story.  After that, the movie pretty much goes into all-out action mode, and never lets up.  There are a couple subplots here and there, such as Scotty befriending an alien warrior woman named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who seems to be set up as being a regular character in future movies, but doesn't get to contribute much here, save for one fight scene with a forgettable villain.  But honestly, once the crew of the Enterprise is separated and stranded, character development is the last thing on this movie's mind.

I can say the movie works as in-one-ear-out-the-other entertainment.  I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but felt a little empty afterward.  My memories of the film are fading fast even as I write this.  Beyond doesn't really want to go much further than necessary.  It gives us what we expect, along with some very nice visuals, and that's about as far as it goes.  What it lacks is an interesting villain.  Yes, we are again, faced with another summer blockbuster where the villain is the least interesting part of the film.  I didn't think it was possible for Idris Elba to be forgettable, but here it is.  He's not bad in any way, and he's obviously trying to get a performance out from underneath all those prosthetics, but the script just does not give him a real character to play, and his motivations are not that interesting.  He doesn't get any moment where we truly get to know him or hate him.  He's simply your generic intergalactic bad guy, and for an actor with Elba's expertise, that's a shame.

However, I must admit that if you are looking for simple summer movie thrills, and don't care about a plot or characters, this is not the worst choice out there.  It's certainly better than some of the recent recycled trash we've had lately, like Independence Day: Resurgence.  I just simply am torn on this direction the franchise seems to be taking.  What has always set Star Trek apart is that aside from the space battles and phaser guns, it's always been about discovery and exploring the universe.  I didn't get that sense here.  It's a well done space action movie, but it doesn't have what I usually expect in a film from this series.  I'm all for change, and I understand the need to update and advance with the changing trends and to also bring in younger audiences.  But I also don't want to see this join the countless other special effects spectacles that have nothing to differentiate themselves. 

Movies like this make me glad I don't use a rating system for my reviews, as I wouldn't know how to rate it.  Given the kind of movie the filmmakers have given us, it works, but it also doesn't quite sit right with me fully.  Call me on the fence, or call me conflicted.  All I know is that while I was admiring the movie while I was watching it, I also found myself wishing it would slow down a little.

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Friday, July 15, 2016


Let's just get rid of all of it.  Let's just throw away all the hype, the controversy, the comments, the Internet flame wars, the division, the diehard fans saying how this one movie has somehow destroyed their childhood, the people who have had some kind of bizarre personal vendetta against this film, and the creeps who have made discouraging and downright misogynist statements about the people involved.  Let's all be adults, and take a look at what this remake of Ghostbusters really is - A mediocre movie that, were it not for all this overly inflated attention, would hardly be a blip on anyone's radar.

I tried to be supportive of this movie, I really did.  The director is Paul Feig, who has done a lot of comedies I've admired, including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy.  The movie stars bright talents like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom I admire, as well as Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, both from Saturday Night Live.  With this kind of talent, you would expect a movie that would know how to set itself apart from the 1984 original, and create a new comedic vision.  However, like a lot of spectacle-based films, the actors find themselves constantly drowned out by the special effects.  Wiig and McCarthy look uncomfortable and downright unhappy in some scenes, while McKinnon's "oddball" character performance rubbed me the wrong way, and Jones seems to be playing a walking stereotype who adds little the film.  As for the effects themselves, they are nowhere near special enough to deserve drowning out these talented women.  A lot of them look as realistic as a Saturday Morning Cartoon, and many of the ghosts themselves seem like they would be right at home in 2002's forgettable live action Scooby-Doo movie.

What happened here?  The behind the scenes stories seem to suggest that there was quite a lot of turmoil on the set, as the actors and director could not get a handle on the material.  It shows in every way.  Here is a movie that is never confident, and seldom funny.  The four leading women stepping into the shoes of the paranormal exterminators don't have the easy chemistry that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, the late Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson had back in the day.  Yes, 1989's Ghostbusters II is probably just as disappointing as this film is, but the actors were trying their hardest to breathe life into the material they were given.  We don't get that sense here.  The women at the center of the film seem like they barely know each other, let alone their own characters, since they are given little material that allows them to play off each other.  Wiig's Erin is the "straight woman" of the group, McCarthy's Abby is lead ghost specialist who does all the research into the paranormal, McKinnon's Jillian handles the tech and generally acts like a weirdo just so the character can have something to do, and Jones' Patty feels the need to scream most of her lines for some reason.  There is something simply off here.  You don't put a cast like this together, and then give them the most basic of characteristics and interaction.  You let them loose, improvise, and sell this stuff as hard as they can.  Instead, they seem bound and strangled by the script co-written by Feig, along with Kate Dippold.

The plot of the film is at least new and not borrowed from the original film, but it's hard to get excited when you realize how slapdash and lazy it is.  Basically, there's been a spike in ghost sightings in New York City, and it's all the work of Rowan (Neil Casey), an angry and reclusive man who has been bullied all his life, and finds a way to retaliate by building a device that can bridge the gap between the world of the dead and the world of the living.  Why is he doing this?  The movie never gives us any information other than he's angry at the world for teasing him.  How did he learn to bridge the gap between the two worlds?  Supposedly he got the knowledge from a book on ghosts that Wiig and McCarthy wrote a long time ago.  How did he get the material to build his doomsday machine?  No idea.  Why does no one at the hotel he works at as a janitor notice that he's building the device in the basement of the hotel itself, when the device itself seems to take up the space of an entire room?  Also not explained.  You know, it's become a common trend in summer blockbusters that the villain is often the weakest aspect of the film, but this takes it to new levels of just plain laziness. 

So, the four women who make up the new Ghostbuster team up to stop him, but are not successful, and soon the entire city is overrun by those cartoony ghosts.  Certain people also start getting possessed, such as Chris Hemsworth, who plays the secretary to the women.  His sole character trait is that he is very handsome, but incredibly stupid.  How stupid is he?  He doesn't know how to do his main job, which is to answer the phone.  For most of the movie, he exists for cheap laughs at the character's expense over how dense and idiotic he is.  In the third act, he suddenly gets to be the villain for a while when he becomes possessed by the lead spirit.  Why is he targeted by the ghosts?  Well, Hemsworth is an expensive actor, and you're not just going to hire him simply so he can blunder and fumble around like a doofus.  Not that it matters anyway.  When he does finally get to play some part in the plot, he is immediately ignored for an overblown and unimpressive action climax where the Ghostbusters are attacked by killer parade balloons and uninspired ghosts.  The final 20 minutes or so of the film is not exciting, thrilling or funny in any way.  It simply feels like you're watching hundreds of millions of dollars get burned right before your eyes.

There is something so cynical about this attempt to revamp the long-dormant franchise for new fans.  It's a nearly two hour corporate product devoid of imagination, true humor, and purpose.  There's not a single frame that feels inspired, or like it needed to be made outside of the fact that it was a filmed deal.  The movie is never more desperate than when it trots out the stars of the original film for very brief cameos that not only are not funny, but seem lazy.  I guess our mouths are supposed to drop in shock when a taxi cab pulls up, and the driver is played by Dan Aykroyd.  I guess we're also supposed to guffaw when he speaks the earlier film's signature catchphrase, "I ain't afraid of no ghost".  It would be one thing if the original cast were brought back to maybe put a fun spin on their original characters.  Here, it feels like the movie is saying, "Okay, we gave you the original cast, now leave us alone!"

The whole point of a reboot is obviously to put a fresh spin on a previously established franchise.  It allows a new generation of viewers to create their own fandom, just like when viewers back in the day such as myself discovered the original back in 1984.  When done right, a reboot can breathe new life and reinvigorate a series.  Ghostbusters simply wants to take our money, show us an idea that was done better 32 years ago, and send us on our way.  When you have the kind of talent this kind of movie has both on and behind the camera, that's the last thing you expect, but it's what we got.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Infiltrator

There's nothing in The Infiltrator that we haven't seen before, but it's done so well, we don't mind seeing them again.  As directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), this is a compelling and slow burning thriller about a topic (namely infiltrating drug cartels in Miami in the 1980s) that is normally handled with gritty action and tension.  But this doesn't make the film any less fascinating.  In fact, it feels all the more interesting, because the movie allows us access into its world with a palpable intensity. 

The film is based on the true story of Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a federal agent who took on the identity of a money launderer in order to get close ties to highly placed people in the drug cartel scene in Miami.  With his weathered and cracked face, Robert does not exactly fit the image of an undercover agent.  The movie is also somewhat unconventional, as instead of hitting the streets to take out the drug problem, Robert suggests to his boss (Amy Ryan) that they stall Pablo Escobar's flow of money, so that the drugs can't reach the street.  So, he takes on the guise of a money launderer, and with the help of his partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), he starts making contacts within Escobar's personal inner circle.  This eventually leads up to Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), one of the drug kingpin's top underlings, whom Robert builds a trusting relationship with.

Even if The Infiltrator is not exactly filled with gunfights and action sequences, the movie is never short on tension.  There is a sense that at any minute, Robert's cover could be blown, and a few moments where he is forced to lie or cover up in order to survive.  In one of the film's more memorable moments, Robert is out with his wife for an anniversary dinner, when one of his contacts from within the drug world spots him, and he must pretend that his wife is his secretary for her own safety.  There are plenty of moments where his double life can come crashing down at an moment, and the consequences could not only be deadly to him, but also to his family.  There's hardly a scene where we don't feel like Robert is constantly on the move mentally to make sure he is not found out, and that creates a constant sense within the film that anything could go wrong.

This non-stop sense of tension, combined with the strong performances, are what make it work so well.  Now that his obligations to Breaking Bad are over, Cranston can finally become the film star that he is destined to be, and that is no more apparent than here.  He has to pull off a wide range of emotions as he is dragged deeper into the world of the drug kingpins, all the while not displaying his fears or genuine distrust of the people he is forced to surround himself.  It's an stirring performance, one of the better of the summer movie season.  Equally strong is John Leguizamo as his partner, who doesn't get as many straight dramatic roles as he should.  And although she is somewhat underused, Diane Kruger as a fellow undercover agent who must pose as Robert's fiance is also excellent.  Rounding out the lead cast is Benjamin Bratt, who gives a very smooth and low key, but no less intimidating performance.

It's actually amazing that the film works as well as it does, as it feels like The Infiltrator got hacked up quite a bit during its time in the editing room before it hit the big screen.  There are some moments that are not explained very well, such as when Robert receives a threatening package in the mail at his house, even though there's no way the drug dealers could have known his real home address.  There are also a number of characters who seem to kind of fade in and out of the narrative at will, and never quite get a chance to stand out, or it feels like a majority of their scenes were cut.  You have to wonder what the film could have been if it had been left alone.  As good as it is now, you can't help but feel that there is a great movie waiting to come out, and hopefully there will be some restored scenes when the film hits home on DVD.

Regardless, this is still strong adult summer entertainment, and the inherent tension that the film creates as well as the performances makes it worth watching, despite some flaws when it comes to the storytelling.  If anything, it makes the viewer excited for any future performances Cranston may have lined up. 

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