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Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)
Undistinguished entry in the vampire vs. werewolf sweepstakes
"Underworld: Blood Wars" is the fifth installment in a franchise that began way back in 2003. Nearly 15 years in, the series has devolved into little more than a rote, by-the-book enactment of all the vampire vs. werewolf silliness that has permeated pop culture in the period since. The only point of interest, while watching the endless battles that flesh out the script, is trying to figure out why a bunch of vampires and werewolves need to rely so heavily on high-tech weaponry and advanced firepower. Kinda defeats the purpose of being a supernatural being, doesn't it?
Kate Beckinsale, Theo James and Lara Pulver take center stage in the drama, while Charles Dance and James Faulkner, two seasoned actors who look and sound as if they should be performing Shakespeare on some London or Broadway stage, really seem to be slumming it here. Hard to resist the pull of an easy paycheck, I guess.
"Inferno" is the third - and least - of the movies derived from Dan Brown's bestselling pseudo-historical puzzle books.
Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon who, in this installment, is frantically searching for a deadly man-made virus that some apocalyptic nutcase, even in death, is threatening to unleash upon an unsuspecting world. This Hanks hopes to accomplish by piecing together a less-than- mind-boggling assortment of clues gleaned from Dante's "Inferno."
Despite a screenplay by David Koepp and direction by Ron Howard, this is a depressingly dull and unimaginative mystery tale, stocked with paper-thin characters and paint-by-numbers plot twists.
The movie's single redeeming feature is the location shooting in Florence and Istanbul. Think of it as a colorful travelogue and you'll have a much better ride.
Cinematically charged social drama
Whether it's the limitless expanse of the Desert Southwest or the danger-filled streets of Ciudad Juarez as captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, "Sicario" is a film utterly attuned to the drama of its spaces - especially when, within those spaces, there is occurring an intractable drug war that threatens to lay waste to the land and the people on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
Directed with brio and style and an unerring instinct for visual impact by Denis Villeneuve, "Sicario" stars Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya as two FBI agents brought in to lend "legitimacy" to a shady CIA operation headed by Josh Brolin. The ostensible goal is to bring the head of a Mexican drug cartel to justice, but could there be another, more personal reason for the mission - and exactly how far should two federal officers, sworn to uphold the law, be willing to go in overlooking some of the questionable means being used to achieve that end?
The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan takes us to a dimly-lit world of bloody cartels and government malfeasance where morality is murky and all sorts of ethical lines are crossed in pursuit of some larger goal - be it "justice" in a cosmic sense or just plain revenge for a wrong done and a personal loss suffered. Sheridan keeps not only Blunt and Kaluuya's characters in the dark much of the time but the audience as well, generating and sustaining an air of mystery and heightening the suspense.
"Sicario" features excellent performances from its cast, with a special shout-out to Benicio del Toro as an enigmatic, shadowy figure whose role in the proceedings is initially unclear but who steps forward, in sometimes shocking ways, as a major player in the series of events as they play themselves out.
"Sicario" is rare among American movies in that it refuses to provide the kind of neatly packaged conclusion we've come to expect from commercial enterprises, choosing instead to show that there are no easy solutions to complex problems and no happy endings for anyone involved in the messy, violent business we euphemistically call "the war on drugs."
45 Years (2015)
Bracingly honest look at a marriage gone bad
How would you feel if you suddenly discovered that your life partner of close to half a century had been secretly harboring a passion for someone else? That's the dilemma facing the elderly couple at the heart of "45 Years," a moody, low-keyed British drama (based on the novel by "In Another Country" by David Constantine) that focuses on a marriage that seems destined for anything but a happily-ever-after ending.
With the physical fragility and lived-in faces that come with age, two icons of British cinema, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney, portray Kate and Geoff Mercer, a seemingly contented couple on the verge of celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. A few days before the elaborately planned event, however, Geoff confesses to Kate that he was once seriously involved with a woman who died tragically in a mountain- climbing accident before he and Kate met. Despite the roughly 50 years that have elapsed since the woman's death, Kate finds herself unable to come to terms with the feeling of deceit and betrayal that gnaws at her day and night over the "infidelity" of the man she thought she knew and to whom she had fully given over her heart. Yet, Kate, perhaps cognizant of how petty she might appear making too much of something that happened so long ago, chooses to seethe pretty much in silence, venting her hurt and anger in nonverbal and largely passive aggressive ways. But for Kate, this revelation has "tainted" everything that has come before in the relationship - a strikingly sad prospect when there is so little time left to rectify the mistake or to recover what the couple once had between them.
Ascetic direction by writer Andrew Haigh - austere close-ups of the characters alternating with stark images of the largely sunless rural countryside - perfectly captures the internal drama taking place within this suddenly altered marriage. The bitterness of the tale is encapsulated most effectively in the uncompromising final shot, a brief but lucid moment that shows how the most brutal of messages can often be conveyed through the tiniest of gestures.
The 5th Wave (2016)
Fails to stand out in an already over-crowded field
"The 5th Wave" is the umpteenth version of a post-apocalyptic scenario that has all but taken over pop-culture since the turn-of-the-century (or, more specifically, the attacks on 9/11). In this case, it's a race of mysterious aliens who, in an effort to take over the planet, are eliminating humans one "wave" at a time (destroying the power grid, creating massive earthquakes and tsunamis, spreading fatal epidemics, etc.). The screenplay focuses primarily on one Ohio family, and, specifically, their teenage daughter, Cassie (Chloe Grace Moretz), who suddenly has to find ways of surviving in this new and dangerous world where everyone is out for him- or herself and, thus, no one can be trusted.
As they pass through desolate, auto-strewn landscapes that look like they came straight out of "The Walking Dead," Cassie and a caring (and dreamy) stranger (Alex Roe) - who saves her life at one point and rehabilitates her to full health - go in search of her missing little brother. And, speaking of TWD, since the movie can't fit any ACTUAL zombies into its narrative, it partially compensates by at least having a character NAMED "Zombie" (Nick Robinsons).
Ah well, after a few moments of fleeting interest in the early stages, the movie quickly settles into a predictable and boring series of teen drama, alien invasion and end-of-the-world tropes.
And with its open-ended conclusion, we're left wondering (or is it dreading?) if there will be a 6th wave in our movie-going future.
The Forest (2016)
Banal thriller with zero thrills
In "The Forest," Natalie Dormer, of "The Tudors," and "Game of Thrones" fame, finally gets a chance to doff her period garb (and dye her hair brown), playing a modern American woman who travels to Japan in search of her missing twin who was last seen entering a forest near Mount Fugi, a place, we are told, where people often go to take their own lives. Taylor Kinney ("Chicago Fire") is an American-accented Australian journalist she meets there who joins her in her endeavor. The problem is that this particular woods is rumored to have mystical powers and legend has it that anything one sees there may simply be a figment of one's overactive imagination.
It's hard to believe, but it actually took three (count, 'em, three!) writers - Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai - to come up with this undercooked and incoherent mash-up of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Carnival of Souls" (two certifiable classics that deserve far better respect from their imitators). Whole plot lines are left hanging at the end, while the audience scratches its collective head in bewilderment and confusion. If we're being generous in our assessment, there is one fleeting moment that might possibly qualify as "scary." The rest is just ninety minutes of atmosphere and suggestion leading to nothing even remotely resembling an explanation or payoff at the end - the unforgivable sin of any wannabe horror film.
At least there are some nice shots of the woods to help wile away the time while we're awaiting the thrills that never actually show up.
Its eclecticism ultimately becomes its downfall
The second collaborative effort for writers Neill Blomkamp (who also directed the film) and his wife, Terri Tatchell, "Chappie" draws heavily for its inspiration from such previous works as "E.T" and "Short Circuit," though it is far less playful and hopeful than either of those two films (though it also channels "RoboCop," which is a little closer in tone).
The setting is South Africa in the not-too-distant future where crime has reached epidemic proportions. The cops are currently being assisted by a fleet of mindless robots and androids in an effort to maintain law and order in the country. Deon (Dev Patel) is an inventor working for a major weapons-developer who's come up with what he thinks is the prototype of a droid with an actual consciousness, one that, for the first time in human and scientific history, can be classified as genuine "artificial intelligence." The trouble is that, before Deon can inculcate him with a strong moral code and, thus, make a model citizen of him, Chappie (voiced by Sharito Cooley) is kidnapped by a trio of street thugs who want to train him to fight against the droids the government is using against them. Soon, a struggle develops between Deon and the bad guys over what kind of moral being Chappie will turn out to be.
"Chappie" is filled with moments of dark humor, but those in search of a sophisticated, timely comedy should be forewarned that the humor in the film consists almost entirely of the naive, innocent Chappie talking and dressing like a streetwise "gangsta'."
Because it's pulling from so many disparate sources, the screenplay never establishes anything close to a consistent tone. Part kid-oriented fantasy, part urban jungle melodrama, part technology-run-amok cautionary tale, and part moral fable about what it means to be human, the film is too childish for adults and too dark and violent for children to leave it with much of an audience.
But if you feel you can somehow bridge that gap between conventions and styles, then "Chappie" just might be the movie for you.
Jurassic World (2015)
Basically a technically accomplished rehash of the original film
The characters in "Jurassic World" - which should be titled "Will Humans Never Learn?" - keep telling one another that the paying public needs ever more elaborate sensations to keep them coming back for more. Yet, it's hard at times to tell whether they're talking about the audiences at the park or the audiences for the movie.
This little bit of self-reflective self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers is one of the few interesting things about this fourth entry in a tetralogy that began with the groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" in 1993. The problem is that it's hard to break ground more than once in the same soil, and "Jurassic World" finds no real way to bring anything new to the project.
The movie just keeps playing different variations on the same theme. Thus, instead of "mere" (and, now, apparently passé) full-sized dinosaurs being regenerated out of ancient samples of preserved DNA, we've graduated to "super dinosaurs" being genetically-engineered out of a mixture of all sorts of dino types. All this gene- and species-tampering is taking place at a decade-old amusement park, an improvement, we are told, over the ill-fated one that never quite got off the ground in the 1990s. But humans are humans and playing God, especially for sensation and profit, never ends very well in these sorts of scenarios, so we're primed to buckle our seats and hang on for the ride. We aren't disappointed.
Once we get past that one slight deviation, the plot of "Jurassic World" pretty much replicates the 1993 original, right down to the "unlikely" (though, actually, quite predictable) system malfunction and two lost and imperiled kids having to be saved from becoming Dino-food by an intrepid adult at the park (Chris Pratt plays the role of trainer and dinosaur- whisperer here). In fact, virtually every scene in "Jurassic World" has a corresponding counterpart in "Jurassic Park," only what was once innovative and fresh has now become derivative and stale (apparently, none of the characters here ever seen the original "Jurassic Park" or they wouldn't keep making the exact same mistakes as the previous group).
Pratt has an easygoing, good-ole-boy charm that serves him well in his role as makeshift hero, but Bryce Dallas Howard is given the thankless task of playing a rather insultingly sexist caricature as the manager of the park who's in way over her head when it comes to running the joint, not to mention coping with a crisis of this magnitude (think Kate Capshaw in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and is, thus, in constant need of rescuing by the stalwart Pratt.
Under the directorial aegis of Colin Trevorrow, the action scenes and special effects are predictably eye-popping and state-of-the-art - helping to generate the "wow factor" one minimally expects from this series - but the overall air of deja vu that permeates the film keeps this latest dino-blockbuster from being much more than an afterthought in the Jurassic universe.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Doesn't just settle for a rehash
At the beginning of "Terminator Genisys," you might be forgiven for thinking that you've somehow stumbled into a remake of the original 1980s sci-fi classic rather than a sequel to it, mainly because the set-ups to both films are virtually identical to one another.
As with the original, we have a character (Jai Courtney) from the 21st Century traveling back to the year 1984 in order to try and alter the outcome in the future. Only here, the mission is to SAVE Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) - mother of future freedom fighter John Connor (Jason Clarke) - NOT to destroy her. Further complicating matters - as much for the audience as for the characters - is that, once Courtney arrives at his destination in 1984, he finds that the mission itself has greatly changed due to the fact that he has somehow entered into some kind of alternate timeline where Sarah is no longer a helpless victim but a kick-ass fighter who's been raised by a friendly Terminator guardian played by an Arnold Schwarzenegger who gets a second chance at youth courtesy of the magic of CGI (at least for part of the film). Then it's off to 2017, when the alternate-reality rise of the machines and the destruction of mankind is now set to take place (in the original tale, this epochal event occurred in 1997).
If all this sounds super confusing, don't let it get you too frustrated, for that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to these head- scratching, time-bending scenarios - though I do think the screenplay may have bitten off a bit more than it can chew here, piling up irony upon irony to the point where even die-hard "Terminator" fans may begin to feel a mite affronted and manipulated by it all (and non-fans may just throw up their hands in confusion and give up on the whole thing entirely).
All that being said, "Terminator Genisys" turns out to be a considerably better action film than the majority of critics have given it credit for. The storyline, though confusing at times, is, at least, clever and imaginative; the adventure is fast-paced and the special effects reliably state-of-the-art.
But the real reason for watching "Terminator Genisys" is that it affords us the opportunity of once again watching Arnold engaging in the kind of deadpan comic shtick he perfected in this series before he ran off to serve as governor of California for a couple of terms. It's nice to have him - and his poker-faced quips - back where they belong.
San Andreas (2015)
Eye-popping spectacle, silly drama
In "San Andreas," the world's most famous fault ruptures in so spectacular (and unlikely) a fashion that virtually the entire state of California is reduced to one heaping pile of ashes and rubble. And as dams burst and skyscrapers crumble, we're treated to a series of rescue stories involving characters that, quite frankly, we couldn't care less about.
But then, again, no one really goes to a movie like "San Andreas" for thoughtful drama or incisive characterization. It's all about the destruction and carnage, and, in that respect, at least, it delivers the goods - with hyperkinetic action scenes and impressive special effects to compensate for some of the corny dialogue, tedious plot lines and scientific illiteracy that pockmark the picture. And don't think there isn't at least a little time carved out for a burgeoning romance and a few stolen kisses amidst all the death and devastation.
Surrounded by thousands of fleeing, panic-stricken extras, the main actors, led by superhero Dwayne Johnson, include Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, Ioan Gruffudd, Kylie Minogue, etc., all playing characters straight out of Stereotypes "R" US (there's even an old couple to share one last embrace before they perish together in an epic tidal wave that all but decimates San Francisco).
My favorite moment comes when a seemingly well-versed, well- travelled character describes San Francisco's landmark Coit Tower as "that tall cement nozzle thing on the hill." A few more choice lines like that one, and "San Andreas" might have been a whole lot more fun.
Inside Out (2015)
Imaginative and insightful
I may be going out on a limb here, but it's probably safe to say that "Inside Out" is the first mainstream animated feature film to be entirely centered around a seriously depressed child.
The reason Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is so depressed is that the personified emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) - that are responsible for keeping her psyche running smoothly have been seriously flubbing up of late. So much so that Riley runs the risk of experiencing a full mental breakdown if the emotional team can't retrieve all the core happy memories from Riley's childhood that are rapidly slipping away.
Imaginatively conceived by Pete Docter, Meg Lefauve, Josh Cooley and director Ronnie del Carmen, "Inside Out" takes place in two entirely distinct realms: first, in the "real" world, where a young girl has been dragged by her well-meaning but oblivious parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane) from Minnesota to their new home in San Francisco; and, second, in the complex inner workings of said child's brain - a place filled with personality islands and memory balls all operated by the aforementioned Emotions from a giant console.
Rare for a movie aimed primarily at children, "Inside Out" is psychologically astute in its observations about human nature while remaining fanciful and childlike in tone and attitude. It explores the things that really matter to a youngster who's suddenly been yanked from a world where everything is comfortable and familiar to one where everything is unsettling and strange. The movie also points out how even the most well-intentioned of adults often fail to take into account children's very real feelings at crucial moments in their lives.
On a technical level, "Inside Out" comes replete with all the visually stunning graphics, fast-paced storytelling, and outstanding voice work that we've long associated with any computer-animated feature produced by Pixar Studios. But it's the less tangible elements of heart and imagination that truly count in this work.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
"Pitch Perfect 2" is an extraordinarily lame female-empowerment comedy that suffers greatly in comparison to the genuinely hilarious "Spy" that was released at roughly the same time as this wholly unnecessary sequel to the 2012 original.
The screenplay by Kay Cannon features one thudding line and one misguided concept after another as the girls gear up to compete in an international contest of a cappella singers.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks, this embarrassing misfire wastes the acting talents of Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Katey Sagal and Anna Camp (and that's just the women in the cast).
To all those responsible for this unfunny fiasco, hang your heads in shame.
Wobbly plotting diminishes some of the movie's undeniable virtues
Fans of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin will undoubtedly find much to celebrate in "Max," an old-fashioned a-boy-and-his-dog story updated to reflect our post-9/11 age.
The boy in this instance is Justin (Josh Wiggins), a disgruntled teen whose older brother, Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine who trains dogs to sniff out weapon caches on the field of battle, is killed in Afghanistan. After Kyle's dog, Max, develops a sort of canine version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the dead man's family dutifully rescues him, assigning Justin the unenviable task of rehabilitating him back to the point where he can interact with humans again without instinctively wanting to rip their throats out. This Justin does with the help of his new friend, Carmen (the charming Mia Xitlali), who knows a thing or two about training challenging dogs.
In addition to his canine-raising duties, Justin has to contend with his tough-as-nails military dad (Thomas Haden Church) and his own innate laziness and cynicism. But with the help of Max, a devoted and kindly mother (Lauren Graham), and the love of a new girlfriend, Justin eventually grows into his manhood, demonstrating that rehabilitation is often a two-way street.
There are any number of touching moments in the screenplay by Sheldon Lettich and co-writer/director Boaz Yakin, which, happily, manages to keep the unavoidable suds down to a minimum. However, even the fine performances (especially by Wiggins) can't overcome an utterly preposterous subplot involving Justin's entanglement with a local gun-running cartel, a storyline that not only comes to dominate the second half of the movie but may make the movie itself somewhat less than appropriate for the youngest members of its intended audience.
Ah well, at least the canine stunt work - kudos to both Max and his trainer on that score - is super impressive throughout.
Admirable attempt falls flat
Cameron Crowe's "Aloha" is at its most interesting when it's focusing on Hawaiian folklore and legends and the perpetual conflict between the natives and an American government that is viewed as little more than an interloper by the islanders. Unfortunately, in the screenplay by Crowe, this intriguing aspect is largely relegated to the background while a comparatively banal love triangle takes center stage.
The male point of that triangle is a cynical, morally compromised military contractor played by Bradley Cooper whose return to Hawaii complicates the lives of his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and the female Air Force captain (Emma Stone) assigned to be his liaison between the military and the natives on the islands.
While Cooper is trendily worldweary and vulnerable, Stone is upbeat, cutesy and perky to the point of distraction.
Despite an amiable cast that includes Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin in supporting roles, there are not a whole lot of buy-in points for the viewer, thanks to insufficiently developed characters and a lack of focus in the storytelling.
Even a nicely executed final scene isn't enough to redeem most of what's come before.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Action done right
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" raises the age-old question of just how much freedom we should be willing to sacrifice in order to ensure a lasting peace. And, as a corollary, how much power should humans be willing to cede to technology, particularly in the form of artificial intelligence, to achieve that goal? It's a theme that more than a few works of science fiction have dealt with over the years.
In this sequel to the box office smash of 2012, Ray Stark, aka Iron Man, has invented a program called Ultron whose purpose is to eliminate the need for war and global conflict altogether. To no one's surprise but Stark's, when the program is prematurely activated, it turns out to have less than noble intentions as it sets about creating a race of cyborg warriors to completely eradicate humans from the face of the planet and to repopulate it with others like himself.
Only the Avengers (embodied by Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Don Cheadle, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Remmer, et. al.) can save the day. And save it they do, amidst supercharged action sequences and jaw-dropping special effects.
Stark certainly means well as he sets about essentially eliminating the need for the Avengers at all, but we in the audience know this is a fool's errand from the start for, if successful, there would be no more entries in this highly lucrative franchise. And we certainly couldn't have that, now, could we?
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
High-class soap opera
It's been several decades since I last read Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" and even longer since I watched the 1967 movie version thereof, so it's virtually impossible for me to evaluate just how faithful this latest edition is to either the original source material or that earlier adaptation (which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terrance Stamp in key roles). It should, however, be noted that this version runs about an hour less than the one from the '60s. Take that for what it's worth.
The story revolves around Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a strong-willed 19th Century woman who inherits her uncle's farm on the moors of England, and her complex relationships with three potential suitors: the rugged shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); the wealthy, middle aged bachelor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); and the dashing but callow army officer, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). All are in love with her to one degree or another and all present various challenges to her future success and happiness.
As adapted by David Nicholls, a lot of this "Crowd" plays like standard soap opera fare, as Bathsheba flits from one potential beau to another while still trying to maintain at least some semblance of independence in a world that is not exactly supportive of the concept of an independent woman. At times, despite the excellent performances, the character motivations seem strangely lacking, the possible result of trying to cram too much plot into so short a timespan. The result is a story that often feels rushed and disjointed, lacking the smooth transitions one traditionally finds in long-form narratives.
Nevertheless, under Thomas Vinterberg's direction, the bucolic setting, the roiling human passions and the exploration of Victorian Era strictures and morality keep us involved and interested for the duration.
5 Flights Up (2014)
Minor but pleasant adult comedy
Written and directed by Charlie Peters and Richard Loncraine, respectively, "Five Flights Up" is an amiable and low-keyed urban comedy about an aging couple reluctantly selling the New York apartment they've lived in for forty years. Though Ruth sees this as an opportunity to start a new chapter in their lives, Alex, a seemingly only moderately successful painter, fights to hold onto the place, making subtle little efforts to sabotage the sale.
Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman make for very pleasant company indeed, and, while the movie's insights into aging, relationships and end-of-life downsizing aren't exactly earth-shattering, they are certainly more than we customarily get from romantic comedies set at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Yet, while it acknowledges the troubles that come with aging, the film happily doesn't fixate on them to the exclusion of all else.
Above all, the movie shows how hard it can be to leave a home and a neighborhood after a lifetime spent setting down roots there.
And anyone who's ever endured the bureaucratic nightmare involved in buying and selling a home will find much to relate to in the movie.
Something different at least
"Unfriended" is a low-budget horror movie uniquely tailored to the early 21st Century (it certainly couldn't have been made, say, twenty years ago).
The film takes place entirely on a teenage girl 's computer screen, as she (Heather Sossaman) and four of her cyber-linked friends (Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz) are terrorized by a mysterious sixth presence that has mysteriously joined them in their cyber chat and who may well be the avenging spirit of a classmate who recently committed suicide as a result of cyber bullying.
Since the camera never once wavers from the computer screen, the possibilities for storytelling become a bit limited, and there are probably audience members who will become restless and claustrophobic over the course of the movie's ninety-minute running time. But I found the style not only novel and intriguing, but pretty darn mesmerizing at times. And let's face it: the teen-horror genre has become so repetitive and predictable of late that any attempt at doing something different comes as a welcome relief (and at least it's not another one of those damn "found-footage" films).
Partly due to the self-imposed restrictions of the format itself, "Unfriended" isn't quite as scary as it might have been were it given a freer, more conventional treatment. But the gimmick is more than just a gimmick, and the movie earns points not only for boldness and originality but for fashioning a clever nightmare scenario around a technology that has become all but ubiquitous in modern life.
All in all, "Unfriended" is a high wire act that mostly succeeds in avoiding a fall.
Monkey Kingdom (2015)
Amazing visuals marred by childish commentary
"Monkey Kingdom" is a wildlife documentary done in the trademarked Disney style - that is, to say, with lots of family-friendly positiveness and unyielding good cheer.
The movie takes us deep into the jungles of Sri Lanka, where a hierarchical society of toque macaque monkeys make their home in the shadow of a long-abandoned ancient city. The main focus is on one female monkey "named" Maya, a low-born member of the community who is consigned to a lifetime of serving those born into the higher strata (the caste system here makes India look like a model of egalitarianism and social mobility in comparison).
"Monkey Kingdom" is obviously aimed at a younger audience, which explains, but doesn't quite excuse, its tendency to talk down to its audience, speaking of the animals' thoughts and feelings in the most blatantly anthropomorphic of terms. It's probably not helped by the jejune Mark Linfield narration (spoken by Tina Fey), which can't resist interjecting corny asides at every opportunity. And a lot of it sure feels staged, especially a trip to a local city and a carefully choreographed raid on a birthday party (how DO they get their cameras in all those different places? Stick around for the closing credits to get an inkling of how it's done).
On the plus side, the high-definition photography is drop-dead gorgeous, and the glimpses the movie provides into monkey sociology - not too far removed from human sociology, I must confess - is often fascinating to observe. Though, I must admit, I frequently found myself wishing the cameras would turn away from the monkeys to explore the nearby ruins - and the history behind them - instead.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)
Leaden piece of fluff
High on any list of "movies for which no one was demanding a sequel" would be "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," an unfunny flick that inexplicably went on to be a major box office hit in 2009. Yet, here, by unpopular demand, comes "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" - a movie that takes place at a mall in only the most tangential sense, it should be pointed out - and it makes the original look like "Airplane" in comparison.
The script by James and Nick Bakay feels as if it were written on the set in between takes. The joke or sight-gag that works seems like nothing more than a lucky spin on a roulette wheel, so infrequent is the occurrence.
The follow-up pretty much replicates the plot of the first movie, as the segway-riding Bart bungles his way into foiling an art heist at a Las Vegas hotel/casino, where Blart is attending a security officers convention with his daughter, Maya.
Indeed, the sole bright spot is Raini Rodriguez as Blart's carbon- copy but levelheaded daughter, an actress with charm and likability to spare (David Henrie also isn't bad as her youthful love interest). The same cannot be said for Neal McDonough, Daniella Alonso and Nicholas Turturro, fine performers all who, I'm sure, would appreciate having this cinematic turkey expunged from their resumes.
The Longest Ride (2015)
For those who just can't get enough of "The Notebook," "The Longest Ride," written by Craig Bolotin and directed by George Tillman, Jr., is guaranteed to stir up all those feelings from the earlier film - not a surprise, given that they're both derived from novels by Nicholas Sparks, that modern-day purveyor of romantic schmaltz. Plus, the plots are practically the same. Can one be accused of plagiarizing oneself?
Once again we find ourselves in the land of parallel romances, with one set in the present and the other set in the past - and both are equally insufferable.
The one in the present involves Sophia (Britt Robertson) and Luke (Scott Eastwood), who seem to be vying for the Most Beautiful Couple in the World Award. Luke is a champion bull rider with courtly country ways who's still recovering from a nasty spill he took a year earlier. Sophia is a citified art student with no interest in cowboys until she hooks up with this dashing young bronco-buster straight out of Hollywood Casting. One night, on the way home from their first date, Luke and Sophia rescue a crusty old man (Alan Alda) from a burning car and take him to the hospital. At his request, Sophia salvages a box of old letters chronicling the sappy romance between him and his late wife back in 1940s North Carolina (Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin play the couple in their youth).
The romance between Luke and Sophia is all coy looks and twinkling eyes, filled with opposite-world troubles and manufactured obstacles. They do, however, learn valuable relationship lessons from the correspondence of the older couple, a narrative contrivance that was irksome enough in "The Notebook" and is doubly so here.
And the "happy ending" needs to be seen to be believed (and, even then, there's no guarantee you will).
Fast & Furious 7 (2015)
One of the series' better outings
Written by Chris Morgan and expertly directed by James Wan, "Furious 7" will, of course, be forever remembered as the valedictory film for beloved star Paul Walker, who died tragically in a car crash in 2013. But this seventh in a series that began in 2001 is notable for other things as well.
The movie picks up where the previous one left off, with the team back home after having just brought down a notorious baddie, Owen Shaw, and received a pardon for all their previous legal infractions as a reward. Trouble is Shaw's older brother is out for revenge so he heads to the States to pick off the team one-by-one.
Under normal circumstances, Vin Diesel's wretched acting would be like a black hole in the center of the movie, sucking everything of quality into the void (and Michelle Rodriguez isn't much better). However, in the case of "Furious 7" - as it was NOT in many of the previous outings - the other elements are so good that they can withstand the gravitational pressure and keep the movie from collapsing into itself.
The challenge for a decade-and-a-half long series is to keep coming up with new and exciting stunts to maintain the freshness - and "Furious 7" meets that challenge head-on. After all, they've done just about everything they possibly could with these cars on terra firma, so why not just drop them out of an airplane as prelude to one of the most spectacular and thrilling automotive chase sequences in movie history? Why not indeed?
In terms of action scenes, that is certainly the high point. The second big set-piece - a chase through the streets of Los Angeles involving some sort of mega-drone or mini-spaceship and exploding skyscrapers (we're practically in "Avengers" territory at this point) - is so high-tech and over-the-top that it makes us a little nostalgic for the series that began as a simple tale of a bunch of guys drag-racing just for the sheer hell of it. The "Fast" franchise has always operated, to some extent, in the realm of fantasy, but, even in this CGI-crazed era in which we now live, movies can sometimes go just too far. And "Furious 7" does at times.
As usual, the action scenes are supplemented by smart-alecky dialogue (some of it quite funny, actually), gooey sentiment and endless corny homilies about the value of camaraderie and family. And, of course, the human body is forced to not only endure more punishment than a human body should but to then bounce back unscathed for yet another go- round.
I must confess that I haven't always been the biggest fan of the "F&F" movies, but "Furious 7" strikes me as a fitting sendoff for the late Mr. Walker.
And that pitch-perfect coda will have you weeping like a baby.
Beyond the Mask (2015)
Dopey revisionist history
Sort of like a comic book superhero version of How America Won Its Independence, "Beyond the Mask" features Andrew Cheney as a British assassin named William Reynolds who goes to the colonies to help wage war against the Empire, as a means of demonstrating to his true love (Kara Killmer) that, despite his checkered past, he's really just a decent guy under it all. While in the new world, he becomes a masked figure known as The Highwayman, who rides around at night securing victories for the fledgling rebels while hiding his identity behind a black mask. And, yes, it's every bit as dopey as it sounds. (William Reynolds was, apparently, an actual person but little in his biography matches anything that happens on screen).
A monument to inanity, "Beyond the Mask" lacks even the polish and professionalism of a junior high school civics project. Its portrayal of the personalities and events of the time is laughable at best, with a plot to blow up Philadelphia using Benjamin Franklin's own idea for electricity against him serving as the climactic stupidity. Luckily, Mr. Reynolds, scoundrel that he is, is on hand to thwart the dastardly deed with his heroism and his purity of heart.
And that, dear children, is how the Americans came to win their independence from England.
In more gifted hands, "Beyond the Mask" might have been a fun, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of lark, a harmless little bit of absurd revisionism designed to make history entertaining for the masses. But, sad to say, everything about the movie - from the script to the directing to the acting - is so terrible that there's actually precious little fun to be had.
Get Hard (2015)
Typically overwrought Hollywood comedy
The crudely titled "Get Hard" is a version of "Pygmalion" the likes of which George Bernard Shaw could never possibly have imagined.
Here the roles have been reversed, with the learned professor transmogrified into a streetwise working-class regular guy (Kevin Hart), while the lower-class flower girl has become a highly successful hedge fund manager (Will Ferrell). When the latter is unjustly convicted of embezzling funds and sentenced to ten years in prison, the desperate man turns to Hart to instruct him in the fine art of staying alive behind bars.
Hart and Ferrell do yeoman work with some pretty shoddy material, which boils down, essentially, to a 100-minute-long prison-rape joke, with homophobic attitudes that are, quite frankly, shocking to behold in the second decade of the 21st Century.
There are a few funny moments when Ferrell spends an afternoon with Hart's relatives in the 'hood, but the movie is clearly more concerned with indulging in crude slapstick than in delivering anything even remotely resembling biting social satire.
Danny Collins (2015)
Engaging despite its clichés
Based on an unlikely but true story, Dan Fogelman's "Danny Collins" explores the paradox of the aging rock star. When rock'n'roll began in the mid 1950s, it was, in large part, a reaction against not just old people and all they stood for but the very concept of growing old itself. Rock was consciously and specifically an art form by and for the young - indeed, a celebration of youth itself. But as the rock stars themselves began to fall victim to the inexorable march of time, they found themselves looking more and more ridiculous, desperately trying to stay relevant in a youth-obsessed culture that had already moved on without them (the expression, "Never trust anyone over thirty," popularized in the hippie era, quickly fell out of fashion once the people uttering it began to hit their 40s and 50s).
Danny Collins is the prototypical has-been rock star, still clinging to the accoutrements of the roadie lifestyle despite his advanced age. He performs retrospective concerts to an audience of basically ex- groupie "golden girls" who only want to hear his old stuff, lives with a woman half his age, and spends most of his days and nights liquored up and high on cocaine. But one day, when he is informed that none other than the legendary John Lennon wrote him a personalized letter back in 1971 (one Danny never received), Collins decides to take stock of his life, putting an end to all his self- destructive behavior and making amends for relationships lost and opportunities missed. The latter include traveling to New Jersey to finally connect with the grown son he has never met, naively hoping that the embittered young man will welcome his absent father into his life after all these years, no hard feelings and no questions asked.
Despite a rather trite and predictable narrative arc, "Danny Collins" rises above its clichés thanks to incisive writing by Fogelman and superb performances by Al Pacino, Annette Benning, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner and a young actress named Giselle Eisenberg. Pacino, in particular, imbues a potentially stock character with so much subtle layering that he single-handedly makes the movie worth watching.
And, oh, by the way, it goes without saying that the Lennon-laden soundtrack is a real treat - no matter one's generation or age.